The buckets of paint were lined along the back porch, like soldiers poised for an ambush. Under my mother's supervision, the scaffolding was moved by my father and rigged at the northeast corner of the house, enabling me to paint from the bottom almost to the roofline. I had turned the first corner. Trot would've been proud.
Another gallon was opened. I removed the wrapper from one of the new brushes and worked the bristles back and forth. It was five inches wide and much heavier than the one Trot had given me.
"We're gonna work in the garden," my mother said. "We'll be back directly." And with that she left with my father in tow, carrying three of the largest baskets on the farm. Gran was in the kitchen making strawberry preserves. Pappy was off worrying somewhere. I was left alone.
The investment by my parents in this project added weight to my mission. The house would now be painted in its entirety, whether Pappy liked it or not. And the bulk of the labor would be supplied by me. There was, however, no hurry. If the floods came, I would paint when it wasn't raining. If we finished the crop, I'd have all winter to complete my masterpiece. The house had never been painted in its fifty years. Where was the urgency?
After thirty minutes I was tired. I could hear my parents talking in the garden. There were two more brushes-another new one and the one Trot had given me-just lying there on the porch beside the buckets of paint. Why couldn't my parents pick up the brushes and get to work? Surely they planned to help.
The paintbrush was really heavy. I kept my strokes short and slow and very neat. My mother had cautioned me against trying to apply too much at once. "Don't let it drip." "Don't let it run."
After an hour I needed a break. Lost in my own world, facing such a mammoth project, I began to think ill of Trot for dumping it on me. He'd painted about a third of one side of the house then fled. I was beginning to think that perhaps Pappy was right after all. The house didn't need painting.
Hank was the reason. Hank had laughed at me and insulted my family because our house was unpainted. Trot had risen to my defense. He and Tally had conspired to start this project, not knowing that the bulk of it would fall on my shoulders.
I heard voices close behind me. Miguel, Luis, and Rico had walked up and were eyeing me with curiosity. I smiled and we exchanged buenas tardes. They moved in closer, obviously puzzled as to why the smallest Chandler had been given such a large task. For a few minutes, I concentrated on my work and inched my way along. Miguel was at the porch inspecting the unopened gallons and the other brushes. "Can we play?" he asked.
What an absolutely wonderful idea!
Two more gallons were opened. I gave Miguel my brush, and within seconds, Luis and Rico were sitting on the scaffold, their bare feet hanging down, painting as if they'd been doing it all their lives. Miguel started on the back porch. Before long the other six Mexicans were sitting on the grass in the shade watching us.
Gran heard the noise, and she stepped outside, wiping her hands with a dish towel. She looked at me and laughed, then went back to her strawberry preserves.
The Mexicans were delighted to have something to do. The rains had forced them to kill long hours in and around the barn. They had no truck to take them to town, no radio to listen to, no books to read. (We weren't even sure if they knew how to read.) They rolled dice occasionally, but they would stop the moment one of us drew near.
They attacked the unpainted house with a vengeance. The six non-painters offered endless advice and opinions to those with the brushes. Evidently some of their suggestions were hilarious because at times the painters laughed so hard they couldn't work. The Spanish grew faster and louder, all nine laughing and talking. The challenge was to convince one with a brush to relinquish it for a spell and allow the next one to improve on the work. Roberto emerged as the expert. With a dramatic flair, he instructed the novices, Pablo and Pepe especially, on proper technique. He walked behind the others as they worked, quick with advice or a joke or a rebuke. The brushes changed hands, and through the ridicule and abuse, a system of teamwork emerged.
I sat under the tree with the other Mexicans, watching the transformation of the back porch. Pappy returned on the tractor. He parked it by the tool shed and, from a distance, he watched for a moment. Then he circled wide to the front of the house. I couldn't tell if he approved or not, and I'm not sure that it mattered anymore. There was no spring in his step, no purpose to his movement. Pappy was just another beaten farmer in the midst of losing yet another cotton crop.
My parents returned from the garden with the baskets laden with produce. "Well, if it isn't Tom Sawyer," my mother said to me.
"Who's he?" I asked.
"I'll tell you the story tonight."
They placed the baskets on the porch, careful to avoid the painting area, and went inside. All the adults were gathered in the kitchen, and I wondered if they were talking about me and the Mexicans. Gran appeared with a pitcher of iced tea and a tray of glasses. That was a good sign. The Mexicans took a break and enjoyed their tea. They thanked Gran, then immediately started bickering over who got the brushes.
The sun battled the clouds as the afternoon passed. There were moments when its light was clear and unbroken and the air was warm, almost summerlike. Inevitably, we would look up at the sky in hopes that the clouds were finally leaving Arkansas, never to return, or at least not until the spring. Then the earth turned dark again, and cooler.
The clouds were winning, and we all knew it. The Mexicans would soon be leaving our farm, just as the Spruills had. We couldn't expect people to sit around for days, watching the sky, trying to stay dry, and not getting paid.
The paint was gone by late afternoon. The rear of our house, including the porch, was finished, and the difference was astounding. The brilliant, shiny boards contrasted sharply with the unpainted ones at the corner. Tomorrow we would attack the west side, assuming I could somehow negotiate more paint.
I thanked the Mexicans. They laughed all the way back to the barn. They would fix and eat their tortillas, go to bed early, and hope they could pick cotton tomorrow.
I sat in the cool grass, admiring their work, not wanting to go inside because the adults were not in good spirits. They would force a smile at me and try to say something amusing, but they were worried sick.
I wished I had a brother-younger or older, I didn't care. My parents wanted more children, but there were problems of some sort. I needed a friend, another kid to talk with, play with, conspire with. I was tired of being the only little person on the farm.
And I missed Tally. I tried valiantly to hate her, but it simply wasn't working.
Pappy walked around the corner of the house and inspected the new coat of paint. I couldn't tell if he was upset or not.
"Let's ride down to the creek," he said, and without another word we walked to the tractor. He started it, and we followed the ruts in the field road. Water was standing where the tractor and cotton trailer had gone many times. The front tires splashed mud as we chugged along. The rear tires chewed up the ground and made the ruts deeper. We were slogging through a field that was fast becoming a marsh.
The cotton itself looked pitiful. The bolls sagged from the weight of the rainfall. The stalks were bent from the wind. A week of blazing sunshine might dry the ground and the cotton and allow us to finish picking, but such weather was long gone.
We turned north and crept along an even soggier trail, the same one Tally and I had walked a few times. The creek was just ahead.
I stood slightly behind Pappy, clutching the umbrella stand and the brace above the left rear tire, and I watched the side of his face. His jaws were clenched, his eyes were narrowed. Other than the occasional flare of temper, he was not one to show emotion. I'd never seen him cry or even come close. He worried because he was a farmer, but he did not complain. If the rains washed away our crops, then there was a reason for it. God would protect us and provide for us through good years and bad. As Baptists we believed God was in control of everything.
I was certain there was a reason the Cardinals lost the pennant, but I couldn't understand why God was behind it. Why would God allow two teams from New York to play in the World Series? It completely baffled me.
The water was suddenly deeper in front of us, six inches up the front tires. The trail was flooded, and for a moment I was puzzled by this. We were near the creek. Pappy stopped the tractor and pointed. "It's over the banks," he said matter-of-factly, but there was defeat in his voice. The water was coming through a thicket that once sat high above the creek bed. Somewhere down there Tally had bathed in a cool, clear stream that had disappeared.
"It's flooding," he said. He turned off the tractor, and we listened to the sounds of the current as it came over the sides of Siler's Creek and ran onto the bottomland that was our lower forty acres. It got lost between the rows of cotton as it crept down the slight valley. It would stop somewhere in the middle of the field, about halfway to our house, at a point where the land began a gentle slope upward. There it would gather and gain depth before spreading east and west and covering most of our acreage.
I was finally seeing a flood. There had been others but I'd been too young to remember them. All of my young life I'd heard tall tales of rivers out of control and crops submerged, and now I was witnessing it for myself, as if for the first time. It was frightening because once it started no one knew when it would end. Nothing held the water; it ran wherever it wanted. Would it reach our house? Would the St. Francis spill over and wipe out everyone? Would it rain for forty days and forty nights and cause us to perish like the ones who'd laughed at Noah?
Probably not. There was something in that story about the rainbow as God's promise to never again flood the earth.
It was certainly flooding now. The sight of a rainbow was almost a holy event in our lives, but we hadn't seen one in weeks. I didn't understand how God could allow such things to happen.
Pappy had been to the creek at least three times during the day, watching and waiting and probably praying.
"When did it start?" I asked.
"I reckon an hour ago. Don't know for sure."
I wanted to ask when it would stop, but I already knew the answer.
"It's backwater," he said. "The St. Francis is too full, there's no place for it to go."
We watched it for a long time. It poured forth and came toward us, rising a few inches on the front tires. After a while I was anxious to head back. Pappy, however, was not. His worries and fears were being confirmed, and he was mesmerized by what he was seeing.
In late March, he and my father had begun plowing the fields, turning over the soil, burying the stalks and roots and leaves from the previous crop. They were happy then, pleased to be outdoors after a long hibernation. They watched the weather and studied the almanac, and they had begun hanging around the Co-op to hear what the other farmers were saying. They planted in early May if the weather was right. May 15 was an absolute deadline for putting the cotton seeds in the ground. My contribution to the operation began in early June, when school was out and weeds began sprouting. They gave me a hoe, pointed me in the right direction, and for many hours a day I chopped cotton, a task almost as hard and mind-numbing as picking the stuff. All summer as the cotton and the weeds around it grew, we chopped. If the cotton bloomed by July 4, then it was going to be a bumper crop. By late August we were ready to pick. By early September we were searching for hill people and trying to line up some Mexicans.
And now, in mid-October, we were watching it get swept away. All the labor, the sweat and sore muscles, all the money invested in seed and fertilizer and fuel, all the hopes and plans, everything was now being lost to the backwaters of the St. Francis River.
We waited, but the flood did not stop. In fact the front tires of the tractor were half-covered with water when Pappy at last started the engine. There was barely enough light to see. The trail was covered with water, and at the rate the flood was spreading we'd lose the lower forty by sunrise.
I had never witnessed such silence over supper. Not even Gran could find anything pleasant to say. I played with my butter beans and tried to imagine what my parents were thinking. My father was probably worried about the crop loan, a debt that would now be impossible to repay. My mother was working on her escape from the cotton patch. She was not nearly as disappointed as the other three adults. A disastrous harvest, following such a promising spring and summer, gave her an arsenal of artillery to use against my father.
The flood kept my mind off heavier matters-Hank, Tally, Cowboy-and for this reason it was not an unpleasant subject to think about. But I said nothing.
School would reopen soon, and my mother decided I should begin a nightly routine of reading and writing. I was longing for the classroom, something I would never admit, and so I enjoyed the homework. She commented on how rusty my cursive writing had become and declared that I needed a lot of practice. My reading wasn't too smooth either.
"See what pickin' cotton'll do to you?" I said.
We were alone in Ricky's room, reading to each other before I went to bed. "I have a secret for you," she whispered. "Can you keep a secret?"
If you only knew, I thought. "Sure."
"You can't tell anybody, not even Pappy and Gran."
"Okay, what is it?"
She leaned even closer. "Your father and I are thinkin' about goin' up North."
"What about me?"
"You're goin', too."
That was a relief. "You mean to work like Jimmy Dale?"
"That's right. Your father has talked to Jimmy Dale, and he can get him a job at the Buick plant in Flint, Michigan. There's good money up there. We're not stayin' forever, but your father needs to find somethin' steady."
"What about Pappy and Gran?"
"Oh, they'll never leave here."
"Will they keep farmin'?"
"I suppose. Don't know what else they'd do."
"How can they farm without us?"
"They'll manage. Listen, Luke, we can't sit here year after year losin' money while we borrow more. Your father and I are ready to try somethin' else."
I had mixed emotions about this. I wanted my parents to be happy, and my mother would never be content on a farm, especially when forced to live with her in-laws. I certainly didn't want to be a farmer, but then my future was already secure with the Cardinals. But the thought of leaving the only place I'd ever lived was unsettling. And I couldn't imagine life without Pappy and Gran.
"It'll be excitin', Luke," she said, her voice still a whisper. "Trust me."
"I guess so. Ain't it cold up there?"
"Isn't," she corrected me. "There's a lot of snow in the wintertime, but I think that'll be fun. We'll make a snowman and snow ice cream, and we'll have us a white Christmas."
I remembered Jimmy Dale's stories about watching the Detroit Tigers play and how folks had good jobs and televisions and the schools were better. Then I remembered his wife, the rotten Stacy with her whiny nasal voice, and how I'd scared her in the outhouse.
"Don't they talk funny up there?" I asked.
"Yes, but we'll get used to it. It'll be an adventure, Luke, and if we don't like it, then we'll come home."
"We'll come back here?"
"We'll come back to Arkansas, or somewhere in the South."
"I don't want to see Stacy."
"Neither do I. Look, you go to bed and think about it. Remember, it's our secret."
She tucked me in and turned off the light.
More news to file away.