As soon as Pappy took his last bite of scrambled eggs, he wiped his mouth and looked through the window over the sink. There was enough light to see what we wanted. "Let's take a look," he said, and the rest of us followed him out of the kitchen, off the back porch, and across the rear yard in the direction of the barn. I was huddled under a sweater, trying to keep up with my father. The grass was wet, and after a few steps so were my boots. We stopped at the nearest field and stared at the dark tree line in the distance, at the edge of Siler's Creek, almost a mile away. There were forty acres of cotton in front of us, half our land. There were also floodwaters; we just didn't know how much.
Pappy began walking between two rows of cotton, and soon we could only see his shoulders and straw hat. He would stop when he found the creek's advance. If he walked for a while, then the creek had not done the damage we feared. Perhaps it was retreating, and maybe the sun would come out. Maybe we could salvage something.
At about sixty feet, the distance from the mound to home plate, he stopped and looked down. We couldn't see the ground or what was covering it, but we knew. The creek was still moving toward us.
"It's already here," he said over his shoulder. "Two inches of it."
The field was flooding faster than the men had predicted. And given their talent for pessimism, this was no small feat.
"This has never happened in October," Gran said, wringing her hands on her apron.
Pappy watched the action around his feet. We kept our eyes on him. The sun was rising, but it was cloudy, and the shadows came and went. I heard a voice and looked to the right. The Mexicans had assembled in a quiet group, watching us. A funeral couldn't have been more somber.
We were all curious about the water. I'd personally witnessed it the day before, but I was anxious to see it creeping through our fields, inching its way toward our house, like some giant snake that couldn't be stopped. My father stepped forward and walked between two rows of cotton. He stopped near Pappy and put his hands on his hips, just like his father. Gran and my mother were next. I followed, and not far away, the Mexicans joined in as we fanned out through the field in search of the floodwaters. We stopped in a neat line, all of us staring at the thick, brown overflow from Siler's Creek.
I broke off a piece of stalk and stuck it in the ground at the edge of the advancing water. Within a minute, the stick was engulfed by the current.
We retreated slowly. My father and Pappy talked to Miguel and the Mexicans. They were ready to leave, either to go home or to another farm where the cotton could be picked. Who could blame them? I hung around, just close enough to listen. It was decided that Pappy would go with them to the back forty, where the ground was slightly higher, and there they would try to pick for a while. The cotton was wet, but if the sun broke through, then maybe they could get a hundred pounds each.
My father would go to town, for the second day in a row, and check with the Co-op to see if there was another farm where our Mexicans might work. There was much better land in the northeastern part of the county, higher fields away from creeks and away from the St. Francis. And there had been rumors that the folks up near Monette had not received as much rain as those of us in the southern end of the county.
I was in the kitchen with the women when my father relayed the new plans for the day.
"That cotton's soakin' wet," Gran said with disapproval. "They won't pick fifty pounds. It's a waste of time."
Pappy was still outside and didn't hear these comments. My father did, but he was in no mood to argue with his mother. "We'll try and move them to another farm," he said.
"Can I go to town?" I asked both parents. I was quite anxious to leave because the alternative might be a forced march with the Mexicans to the back forty, where I'd be expected to drag a picking sack through mud and water while trying to pluck off soaked cotton bolls.
My mother smiled and said, "Yes, we need some paint."
Gran gave another look of disapproval. Why were we spending money we didn't have on house paint when we were losing another crop? However, the house was about half and half-a striking contrast between new white and old pale brown. The project had to be finished.
Even my father seemed uneasy about the idea of parting with more cash, but he said to me, "You can go."
"I'll stay here," my mother said. "We need to put up some okra."
Another trip to town. I was a happy boy. No pressure to pick cotton, nothing to do but ride down the highway and dream of somehow obtaining candy or ice cream once I arrived in Black Oak. I had to be careful, though, because I was the only happy Chandler.
The St. Francis seemed ready to burst when we stopped at the bridge. "Reckon it's safe?" I asked my father.
"Sure hope so." He shifted into first, and we crept over the river, both of us too afraid to look down. With the weight of our truck and the force of the river, the bridge shook when we reached the middle. We picked up speed and were soon on the other side. We both exhaled.
Losing the bridge would be a disaster. We'd be isolated. The waters would rise around our house, and we would have no place to go. Even the Latchers would be better off. They lived on the other side of the bridge, the same side as Black Oak and civilization.
We looked at the Latchers' land as we drove past. "Their house is flooded," my father said, though we couldn't see that far. Their crops were certainly gone.
Closer to town, there were Mexicans in the fields, though not as many as before. We parked by the Co-op and went inside. Some grim-faced farmers were sitting in the back, sipping coffee and talking about their problems. My father gave me a nickel for a Coca-Cola, then he joined the farmers.
"Y'all pickin' out there?" one asked him.
"Maybe a little."
"How's that creek?"
"She came over last night. Moved more than half a mile before sunrise. The lower forty's gone."
They observed a moment of silence for this terrible news, each of them staring at the floor and feeling pity for us Chandlers. I hated farming even more.
"I guess the river's holdin'," another man said.
"It is out our way," my father said. "But it won't be long."
They all nodded and seemed to share this prediction. "Anybody else got water over the banks?" my father asked.
"I hear the Tripletts lost twenty acres to Deer Creek, but I ain't seen it myself," said one farmer.
"All the creeks are backin' up," another said. "Puttin' a lot of pressure on the St. Francis."
More silence as they contemplated the creeks and the pressure.
"Anybody need some Mexicans?" my father finally asked. "I got nine of 'em with nothin' to do. They're ready to head home."
"Any word from number ten?"
"Nope. He's long gone, and we ain't had time to worry about him."
"Riggs knows some farmers up north of Blytheville who'll take the Mexicans."
"Where's Riggs?" my father asked.
"He'll be back directly."
Hill people were leaving in droves, and the conversation settled on them and the Mexicans. The exodus of labor was further evidence that the crops were finished. The dreary mood in the rear of the Co-op grew even darker, so I left to check on Pearl and perhaps cajole a Tootsie Roll out of her.
Pop and Pearl's grocery store was closed, a first for me. A small sign gave its hours as nine to six, Monday through Friday, and nine to nine on Saturday. Closed on Sundays, but that went without saying. Mr. Sparky Dillon, the mechanic down at the Texaco place, came up behind me and said, "Ain't open till nine, son."
"What time is it?" I asked.
I'd never been in Black Oak at such an early hour. I looked up and down Main Street, uncertain as to where I should shop next. I settled on the drugstore, with the soda fountain in the rear, and I was walking toward it when I heard traffic. Two trucks were approaching from the south, from our end of the county. They were obviously hill people, going home, with their belongings stacked high and strapped to the frames of the trucks. The family in the first truck could have passed for the Spruills, with teenagers squatting on an old mattress and gazing sadly at the stores as they passed. The second truck was much nicer and cleaner. It, too, was loaded with wooden boxes and burlap bags, but they were packed neatly together. The husband drove, and the wife sat in the passenger's seat. From the woman's lap a small child waved at me as they passed. I waved back.
Gran always said that some of the hill people had nicer homes than we did. I could never understand why they packed up and came down from the Ozarks to pick cotton.
I saw my father go into the hardware store, so I followed him. He was in the back, near the paint, talking with the clerk. Four gallons of white Pittsburgh Paint were on the counter. I thought about the Pittsburgh Pirates. They had finished last again in the National League. Their only great player was Ralph Kiner, who'd hit thirty-seven home runs.
Someday I would play in Pittsburgh. I would proudly wear my Cardinal red and crush the lowly Pirates.
It had taken all the paint we had left to finish the rear of the house the day before. The Mexicans were about to leave. To me it made sense to buy more paint and take advantage of the free labor present on our farm. Otherwise they'd be gone, and I'd once again get stuck with the entire project.
"That's not enough paint," I whispered to my father as the clerk added the bill.
"It'll do for now," he said with a frown. The issue was money.
"Ten dollars plus tax of thirty-six cents," the clerk said. My father reached into his pocket and pulled out a thin roll of bills. He slowly counted them out, as if he didn't want to let go.
He stopped at ten-ten one-dollar bills. When it was painfully clear he didn't have enough, he faked a laugh and said, "Looks like I just brought ten bucks. I'll pay you the tax next time I'm in."
"Sure, Mr. Chandler," the clerk said.
They carried two gallons each and loaded the paint into the back of our truck. Mr. Riggs was back at the Co-op, so my father went to have their talk about our Mexicans. I returned to the hardware store and went straight to the clerk.
"How much is two gallons?" I asked.
"Two-fifty a gallon, total of five dollars."
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my money. "Here's five," I said as I handed him the bills. At first he didn't want to take it.
"Did you pick cotton for that money?" he asked.
"Does your daddy know you're buyin' paint?"
"What're y'all paintin' out there?"
"Why you doin' that?"
" 'Cause it ain't never been painted."
He reluctantly took my money. "Plus eighteen cents for tax," he said. I handed him a dollar bill and said, "How much does my daddy owe for the tax?"
"Take it out of this."
"Okay." He gave me the change, then loaded two more gallons into our truck. I stood on the sidewalk watching our paint as if someone might try to steal it.
Next to Pop and Pearl's I saw Mr. Lynch Thornton, the postmaster, unlock the door to the post office and step inside. I walked toward him, keeping a watchful eye on the truck. Mr. Thornton was usually a cranky sort, and many believed that this was because he was married to a woman who had a problem with whiskey. All forms of alcohol were frowned upon by almost everyone in Black Oak. The county was dry. The nearest liquor store was in Blytheville, though there were some bootleggers in the area who did quite well. I knew this because Ricky'd told me. He'd said he didn't like whiskey, but he had a beer every now and then. I'd heard so many sermons on the evils of alcohol that I was worried about Ricky's soul. And while it was sinful enough for men to sneak around and drink, for women to do so was scandalous.
I wanted to ask Mr. Thornton how I could go about mailing my letter to Ricky, and do so in a way that no one would know it. The letter was three pages long, and I was quite proud of my effort. But it had all the Latcher baby details, and I still wasn't sure I should send it to Korea.
"Howdy," I said to Mr. Thornton, who was behind the counter adjusting his visor and settling in for the morning.
"You that Chandler boy?" he said, barely looking up.
"Got somethin' for you." He disappeared for a second, then handed me two letters. One was from Ricky.
"That all?" he said.
"Yes sir. Thank you."
"How's he doin'?"
"He's fine, I guess."
I ran from the post office back to our truck, clutching the letters. The other was from the John Deere place in Jonesboro. I studied the one from Ricky. It was addressed to all of us: Eli Chandler and Family, Route 4, Black Oak, Arkansas. In the upper left corner was the return address, a confusing collection of letters and numbers with San Diego, California, on the last line.
Ricky was alive and writing letters; nothing else really mattered. My father was walking toward me. I ran to meet him with the letter, and we sat in the doorway of the dry goods store and read every word. Ricky was again in a hurry, and his letter was only one page. He wrote us that his unit had seen little action, and though he seemed frustrated by this, it was music to our ears. He also said that rumors of a ceasefire were everywhere, and that there was even talk of being home by Christmas.
The last paragraph was sad and frightening. One of his buddies, a kid from Texas, had been killed by a land mine. They were the same age and had gone through boot camp together. When Ricky got home, he planned to go to Fort Worth to see his friend's mother.
My father folded the letter and stuck it in his overalls. We got in the truck and left town.
Home by Christmas. I couldn't think of a finer gift.
We parked under the pin oak, and my father went to the back of the truck to collect the paint. He stopped, counted, then looked at me.
"How'd we end up with six gallons?"
"I bought two," I said. "And I paid the tax."
He didn't seem sure what to say. "You use your pickin' money?" he finally asked.
"I wish you hadn't done that."
"I want to help."
He scratched his forehead and studied the issue for a minute or so, then said, "I reckon that's fair enough."
We hauled the paint to the back porch, and then he decided he would go to the back forty to check on Pappy and the Mexicans. If the cotton could be picked, then he'd stay there. I was given permission to start painting the west side of the house. I wanted to work alone. I wanted to seem outmatched and undermanned by the enormity of the job before me so that when the Mexicans returned, they'd feel sorry for me.
They arrived at noon, muddy and tired and with little to show for their morning. "Cotton's too wet," I heard Pappy say to Gran. We ate fried okra and biscuits, then I went back to my work.
I kept one eye on the barn, but for an eternity I labored with no relief in sight. What were they doing back there? Lunch was over, the tortillas long since put away. Surely their siestas were also complete. They knew the house was half-painted. Why wouldn't they come help?
The sky darkened in the west, but I didn't notice it until Pappy and Gran stepped onto the back porch. "Might rain, Luke," Pappy said. "Better stop paintin'."
I cleaned my brush and put the paint under a bench on the back porch as if the storm might damage it. I sat above it, with Pappy on one side and Gran on the other, and we once again listened to the low rumblings in the southwest. We waited for more rain.