A Painted House - Page 26

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Chapter 26

I clung to my mother throughout the day, after the storm passed, after lunch, after the rest of them went to the fields and we stayed around the house. There were whispers between my parents and a frown from my father, but she was adamant. There were times when little boys just needed to be with their mothers. I was afraid to let her out of my sight.


The very thought of telling what I saw on the bridge made me weak. I tried not to think about either the killing or the telling of it, but it was impossible to think of anything else.


We gathered vegetables from the garden. I followed her with the straw basket, my eyes cutting in all directions, ready for Cowboy to leap from nowhere and slaughter both of us. I could smell him, feel him, hear him. I could see his nasty liquid eyes watching every move we made. The weight of his switchblade on my forehead grew heavier.


I thought of nothing but him, and I stayed close to my mother.


"What's the matter, Luke?" she asked more than once. I was aware that I wasn't talking, but I couldn't force words out. There was a faint ringing in my ears. The world was moving slower. I just wanted a place to hide.


"Nothin'," I said. Even my voice was different-low and scratchy.


"You still tired?"


"Yes ma'am."


And I'd be tired for a month if it kept me out of the fields and away from Cowboy.


We stopped to examine Trot's house painting. Since we were there and not picking cotton, Trot was nowhere to be seen. If we left the house, then he would return to his project. The east wall now had a white strip about three feet high, running from the front almost to the rear. It was clean and neat, obviously the work of someone who wasn't burdened with time.


At his current pace there was no way Trot would finish the house before the Spruills left. What would happen after they left? We couldn't live in a house with a two-toned east wall.


I had more important things to worry about.


My mother decided she would "put up," or can, some tomatoes. She and Gran spent hours during the summer and early fall putting up vegetables from our garden-tomatoes, peas, beans, okra, mustard greens, and corn. By the first of November the pantry shelves would be packed four-deep with quart jars of food, enough to get us through the winter and early spring. And, of course, they also put up enough for anyone who might need a little help. I was certain that we'd be hauling food to the Latchers in the months to come, now that we were kinfolk.


The very thought made me furious, but again, I wasn't worried about the Latchers anymore.


My job was to peel tomatoes. Once peeled they would be chopped and placed into large pots and cooked just enough to soften them, then packed into Kerr quart jars, with a tablespoon of salt, and secured with new lids. We used the same jars from year to year, but we always bought new lids. A slight leak around the seal and a jar would spoil, and it was always a bad moment during the winter when Gran or my mother opened ajar and its contents couldn't be eaten. It didn't happen often.


Once properly packed and sealed, the jars were placed in a row inside a large pressure cooker half-filled with water. There they would boil for half an hour, under pressure, to remove any remaining air and to further seal the lid. Gran and my mother were very fussy about their canning. It was a source of pride among the women, and I often heard the ladies around the church boast of putting up so many jars of butter beans or of this and that.


The canning began as soon as the garden started producing. I was forced to help with it occasionally and always hated it. Today was different. Today I was quite happy to be in the kitchen with my mother, with Cowboy out in the fields far away.


I stood at the kitchen sink with a sharp paring knife, and when I cut the first tomato I thought of Hank on the bridge. The blood, the switchblade, the painful cry with the first cut, then the silent look of horror as other cuts followed. In that first instant, I think Hank knew he was about to be carved up by someone who'd done it before. He knew he was dead.


My head hit the leg of a kitchen chair. When I awoke on the sofa, my mother was holding ice on a knot above my right ear. She smiled and said, "You fainted, Luke."


I tried to say something but my mouth was too dry. She gave me a sip of water and told me I wasn't going anywhere for a while. "Are you tired?" she asked.


I nodded and closed my eyes.


Twice a year the county sent a few loads of gravel to our road. The trucks dumped it, and right behind them a road grader came along and leveled things out. The grader was operated by an old man who lived near Caraway. He had a black patch over one eye, and the left side of his face was scarred and disfigured to the point of making me cringe when I saw it. He'd been injured in the First War, according to Pappy, who claimed to know more about the old man than he was willing to tell. Otis was his name.


Otis had two monkeys that helped him grade the roads around Black Oak. They were little black things with long tails, and they ran along the frame of the grader, sometimes hopping down on the blade itself, just inches above the dirt and gravel. Sometimes they sat on his shoulder, or on the back of his seat, or on the long rod that ran from the steering wheel to the front end. As Otis motored up and down the road, working the levers, changing the angle and pitch of the blade, spitting tobacco juice, the monkeys jumped and swung without fear and seemed to have a delightful time.


If, for some dreadful reason, we kids didn't make it to the Cardinals, many of us wanted to be road grader operators. It was a big, powerful machine under the control of one man, and all those levers had to be worked with such precision-hands and feet moving with great coordination. Plus, level roads were crucial to the farmers of rural Arkansas. Few jobs were more important, at least in our opinion.


We had no idea what it paid, but we were certain it was more profitable than farming.


When I heard the diesel engine, I knew Otis was back. I walked hand in hand with my mother to the edge of the road, and sure enough, between our house and the bridge were three mounds of new gravel. Otis was spreading it, slowly working his way toward us. We stepped back under a tree and waited.


My head was clear, and I felt strong. My mother kept tugging at my shoulder, as if she thought I might faint again. As Otis drew near, I stepped closer to the road. The engine roared; the blade churned up dirt and gravel. We were getting our road fixed, a most important event.


Sometimes Otis waved, sometimes he did not. I saw his scars and his black eye patch. Oh, the questions I had for that man!


And I saw only one monkey. He was sitting on the main frame, just beyond the steering wheel, and he looked very sad. I scanned the grader for his little partner, but there were no other monkeys.


We waved at Otis, who glanced at us but did not wave back. This was a terrible sign of rudeness in our world, but then Otis was different. Because of his war wounds, he had no wife, no children, nothing but isolation.


Suddenly the grader stopped. Otis turned and looked down at me with his good eye, then motioned for me to climb aboard. I instantly moved toward him, and my mother rushed forward to say no. Otis yelled, "It's okay! He'll be fine." It didn't matter: I was already climbing up.


He yanked my hand and pulled me up to the platform where he sat. "Stand here," he said gruffly, pointing to a little spot next to him. "Hold on here," he growled, and I clutched a handle next to an important-looking lever that I was terrified to touch. I looked down at my mother, who had her hands on her hips. She was shaking her head as if she could choke me, but then I saw a hint of a smile.


He hit the throttle, and the engine behind us roared to life. He pushed the clutch with his foot, moved a gearshift, and we were off. I could've walked faster, but with the noise from the diesel it seemed as if we were racing along.


I was on Otis's left side, very close to his face, and I tried not to look at his scars. After a couple of minutes, he seemed oblivious to my presence. The monkey, however, was quite curious. He watched me as if I were an intruder, then he slinked along on all fours, slowly, prepared to lunge at me at any moment. He jumped onto Otis's right shoulder, walked around the back of his neck, and settled onto his left shoulder, staring at me.


I was staring at him. He was no bigger than a baby squirrel, with fine black fur and little black eyes barely separated by the bridge of his nose. His long tail fell down the front of Otis's shirt. Otis was working the levers, moving the gravel, mumbling to himself, seemingly unaware of the monkey on his shoulder.


When it was apparent that the monkey was content just to study me, I turned my attention to the workings of the road grader. Otis had the blade down in the shallow ditch, tilted at a steep angle so that mud and grass and weeds were being dug out and shoved into the road. I knew from previous observations that he would go up and down several times, cleaning the ditches, grading the center, spreading the gravel. Pappy was of the opinion that Otis and the county should fix our road more often, but most farmers felt that way.


He turned the grader around, ran the blade into the other ditch, and headed back toward our house. The monkey hadn't moved.


"Where's the other monkey?" I said loudly, not far from Otis's ear.


He pointed down at the blade and said, "Fell off."


It took a second for this to register, and then I was horrified at the thought of that poor little monkey falling over the blade and meeting such an awful death. It didn't seem to bother Otis, but the surviving monkey was undoubtedly mourning the loss of his buddy. He just sat there, sometimes looking at me, sometimes gazing away, very much alone. And he certainly stayed away from the blade.


My mother hadn't moved. I waved at her, and she waved at me, and again Otis took no part in any of it. He spat every so often, a long stream of brown tobacco juice that hit the ground in front of the rear wheels. He wiped his mouth with a dirty sleeve, both right and left, depending on which hand happened to be engaged with a lever. Pappy said that Otis was very levelheaded-tobacco juice ran out of both corners of his mouth.


Past our house I could see, from my lofty position, the cotton trailer in the middle of a field and a few straw hats scattered about. I searched until I found the Mexicans, in the same general area as usual, and I thought of Cowboy out there, switchblade in his pocket, no doubt quite proud of his latest killing. I wondered if he'd told his pals about it. Probably not.


For a moment I was frightened because my mother was back behind us, alone. This didn't make any sense, and I knew it, but most of my thoughts were irrational.


When I saw the tree line along the river, a new fear gripped me. I was suddenly afraid to see the bridge, the scene of the crime. Surely there were bloodstains, evidence that something awful had happened. Did the rain wash them away? Days often went by without a car or truck passing over the bridge. Had anyone seen Hank's blood? There was a good chance the evidence would be gone.


Had there really been bloodshed? Or was it all a bad dream?


Nor did I want to see the river. The water moved slowly this time of the year, and Hank was such a large victim. Could he be ashore by now? Washed up on a gravel bar like a beached whale? I certainly didn't want to be the one to find him.


Hank had been cut to pieces. Cowboy had the nearest switchblade and plenty of motive. It was a crime that even Stick Powers could solve.


I was the only eyewitness, but I'd already decided I would take it to my grave.


Otis shifted gears and turned around, no small feat with a road grader, as I was learning. I caught a glimpse of the bridge, but we were too far away to see much. The monkey grew weary of staring at me and shifted shoulders. He peeked at me around Otis's head for a minute or so, then just sat there, perched like an owl, studying the road.


Oh, if Dewayne could see me now! He'd burn with envy. He'd be humiliated. He'd be so overcome with defeat that he wouldn't speak to me for a long time. I couldn't wait for Saturday. I'd spread the word along Main Street that I'd spent the day with Otis on the road grader-Otis and his monkey. Just one monkey, though, and I'd be forced to tell what happened to the other. And all those levers and controls that, from the ground, looked so thoroughly intimidating but in reality were no problem for me at all. I'd learned how to operate them! It would be one of my finest moments.


Otis stopped in front of our house. I climbed down and yelled, "Thank you!" but he was off without a nod or word of any sort.


I suddenly thought about the dead monkey, and I started crying. I didn't want to cry, and I tried not to, but the tears were pouring out, and I couldn't control myself. My mother came running from the house, asking what was wrong. I didn't know what was wrong; I was just crying. I was scared and tired, almost faint again, and I just wanted everything to be normal, with the Mexicans and the Spruills out of our lives, with Ricky home, with the Latchers gone, with the nightmare of Hank erased from my memory. I was tired of secrets, tired of seeing things I was not supposed to see.


And so I just cried.


My mother held me tightly. When I realized she was frightened, I managed to tell her about the dead monkey.


"Did you see it?" she asked in horror.


I shook my head and kept explaining. We walked back to the porch and sat for a long time.


Hank's departure was confirmed at some point during the day. Over supper my father said that Mr. Spruill had told him that Hank had left during the night. He was hitchhiking back to their home in Eureka Springs.


Hank was floating at the bottom of the St. Francis River, and when I thought about him down there with the channel catfish, I lost my appetite. The adults were watching me closer than usual. During the past twenty-four hours I'd fainted, had nightmares, cried several times, and, as far as they knew, gone for a long walk in my sleep. Something was wrong with me, and they were concerned.


"Wonder if he'll make it home," Gran said. This launched a round of stories about folks who'd disappeared. Pappy had a cousin who had been migrating with his family from Mississippi to Arkansas. They were traveling in two old trucks. They came to a railroad crossing. The first truck, the one driven by the cousin in question, crossed first. A train came roaring by, and the second truck waited for it to pass. It was a long train, and when it finally cleared, there was no sign of the first truck on the other side. The second truck crossed and came to a fork in the road. The cousin was never seen again, and that had been thirty years ago. No sign of him or the truck.


I'd heard this story many times. I knew Gran would go next, and sure enough, she told the tale about her mother's father, a man who'd sired six kids then hopped on a train and fled to Texas. Someone in the family stumbled across him twenty years later. He had another wife and six more kids.


"You okay, Luke?" Pappy said when the eating was over. All of his gruffness was gone. They were telling stories for my benefit, trying to amuse me because I had them worried.


"Just tired, Pappy," I said.


"You want to go to bed early?" my mother asked, and I nodded.


I went to Ricky's room while they washed the dishes. My letter to him was now two pages long, a monumental effort. It was still in my writing tablet, hidden under the mattress, and it covered most of the Latcher conflict. I read it again and was quite pleased with myself. I toyed with the idea of telling Ricky about Cowboy and Hank, but decided to wait until he came home. By then the Mexicans would be gone, things would be safe again, and Ricky would know what to do.


I decided that the letter was ready to be mailed, then started worrying about how I might accomplish mailing it. We always sent our letters at the same time, often in the same large manila envelope. I decided that I'd consult with Mr. Lynch Thornton at the post office on Main Street.


My mother read me the story of Daniel in the lions' den, one of my favorites. Once the weather broke and the nights became cool, we spent less time on the porch and more time reading before bed. My mother and I read, the others did not. She preferred Bible stories, and this suited me fine. She would read awhile, then explain things. Then read some more. There was a lesson in every story, and she made sure I understood each one. Nothing irritated me more than for Brother Akers to screw up the details in one of his long-winded sermons.


When I was ready for bed, I asked her if she would stay there, in Ricky's bed with me, until I fell asleep.


"Of course I will," she said.

***



Tags: John Grisham Mystery
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