Our new ritual was repeated the next day after a late breakfast. We walked across the rain-soaked grass between our house and our barn, and we stood at the edge of the cotton field and saw water, not rainfall that had collected during the night, but the same thick floodwater from the creek. It stood three inches deep, and seemed ready to swell beyond the field and begin its slow march toward the barn, the tool shed, the chicken coops, and, eventually, the house.
The stalks were slanted to the east, permanently bent by the wind that had laid siege to our farm last night. The bolls were sagging under the weight of the water.
"Will it flood our house, Pappy?" I asked.
He shook his head and put his arm around my shoulders. "No, Luke, it's never got to the house. Come close a time or two, but the house is a good three feet above where we're standin' right now. Don't you worry about the house."
"It got in the barn once," my father said. "The year after Luke was born, wasn't it?"
"Forty-six," Gran said. She never missed a date. "But it was in May," she added. "Two weeks after we'd planted."
The morning was cool and windy with high, thin clouds and little chance of rain. A perfect day for painting, assuming, of course, that I could find some help. The Mexicans drifted close, but not close enough to speak.
They would be leaving soon, perhaps within hours. We'd haul them to the Co-op and wait for them to be picked up by a farmer with drier land. I heard the adults discussing this over coffee before sunrise, and I almost panicked. Nine Mexicans could paint the west side of our house in less than a day. It would take me a month. There was no time to be timid.
As we retreated, I headed for the Mexicans. "Buenos dias," I said to the group. "Como estd?"
All nine answered in some fashion. They were going back to the barn after another wasted day. I walked along with them until I was far enough away that my parents couldn't hear. "Y'all want to paint some?" I asked.
Miguel rattled the translation, and the entire group seemed to smile.
Ten minutes later three of the six paint buckets were open and there were Mexicans hanging all over the west side of our house. They fought over the three brushes. Another crew was rigging a scaffold. I was pointing here and there, giving instructions that no one seemed to hear. Miguel and Roberto were spitting forth their own commands and opinions in Spanish. Both languages were being ignored in equal measure.
My mother and Gran peeked at us through the kitchen window as they washed the breakfast dishes. Pappy went to the tool shed to fiddle with the tractor. My father was off on a long walk, probably surveying the crop damage and wondering what to do next.
There was an urgency to the painting. The Mexicans joked and laughed and badgered one another, but they worked twice as fast as two days earlier. Not a second was wasted. The brushes changed hands every half hour or so. The reinforcements were kept fresh. By mid-morning they were halfway to the front porch. It was not a large house.
I was happy to retreat and stay out of the way. The Mexicans worked so fast it seemed downright inefficient for me to take up a brush and stall the momentum. Besides, the free labor was temporary. The hour was soon approaching when I'd be left alone to finish the job.
My mother brought iced tea and cookies, but the painting did not stop. Those under the shade tree with me ate first, then three of them changed places with the painters.
"Do you have enough paint?" my mother whispered to me.
She returned to the kitchen.
Before lunch, the west side was finished, a thick, shiny coat sparkling in the intermittent sun. There was a gallon left. I took Miguel to the east side, where Trot had begun a month earlier, and pointed up to an unpainted strip that I'd been unable to reach. He barked some orders, and the crew moved to the opposite side of the house.
A new method was employed. Instead of makeshift scaffolding, Pepe and Luis, two of the smaller ones, balanced themselves on the shoulders of Pablo and Roberto, the two heaviest ones, and began painting just below the roofline. This, of course, drew an endless stream of comments and jokes from the others.
When the paint was gone, it was time to eat. I shook hands with all of them and thanked them profusely. They laughed and chattered all the way back to the barn. It was midday, the sun was out, and the temperature was rising. As I watched them walk away, I looked at the field beside the barn. The floodwaters were in sight. It seemed odd that the flood could advance when the sun was shining.
I turned and inspected the work. The back and both sides of our house looked almost new. Only the front remained unpainted, and since by now I was a veteran, I knew that I could complete the job without the Mexicans.
My mother stepped outside and said, "Lunchtime, Luke." I hesitated for a second, still admiring the accomplishment, so she walked to where I was standing, and together we looked at the house. "It's a very good job, Luke," she said.
"How much paint is left?"
"None. It's all gone."
"How much do you need to paint the front?"
The front was not as long as the east or west side, but it had the added challenge of a porch, as did the rear. "I reckon four or five gallons," I said, as if I'd been house painting for decades.
"I don't want you to spend your money on paint," she said.
"It's my money. Y'all said I could spend it on whatever I wanted."
"True, but you shouldn't have to spend it on somethin' like this."
"I don't mind. I want to help."
"What about your jacket?"
I'd lost sleep worrying about my Cardinals jacket, but now it seemed unimportant. Plus, I'd been thinking about another way to get one. "Maybe Santa Claus'll bring one."
She smiled and said, "Maybe so. Let's have lunch."
Just after Pappy thanked the Lord for the food, saying nothing about the weather or the crops, my father grimly announced that the backwaters had begun trickling across the main field road into the back forty acres. This development was absorbed with little comment. We were numb to bad news.
The Mexicans gathered around the truck and waited for Pappy. They each had a small sack with their belongings, the same items they'd arrived with six weeks earlier. I shook hands with each one and said goodbye. As always, I was anxious for another ride to town, even though this little trip was not a pleasant one.
"Luke, go help your mother in the garden," my father said as the Mexicans were loading up. Pappy was starting the engine.
"I thought I was goin' to town," I said.
"Don't make me repeat myself," he said sternly.
I watched them drive away, all nine of the Mexicans waving sadly as they looked at our house and farm for the last time. According to my father, they were headed to a large farm north of Blytheville, two hours away, where they would work for three or four weeks, weather permitting, and then go back to Mexico. My mother had inquired as to how they would be shipped home, by cattle truck or bus, but she did not press the issue. We had no control over those details, and they seemed much less important with floodwaters creeping through our fields.
Food was important, though: food for a long winter, one that would follow a bad crop, one in which everything we ate would come from the garden. There was nothing unusual about this, except that there wouldn't be a spare dime to buy anything but flour, sugar, and coffee. A good crop meant there was a little money tucked away under a mattress, a few bills rolled up and saved and sometimes used for luxuries like Coca-Cola's, ice cream, saltines, and white bread. A bad crop meant that if we didn't grow it, we didn't eat.
In the fall we gathered mustard greens, turnips, and peas, the late-producing vegetables that had been planted in May and June. There were a few tomatoes left, but not many.
The garden changed with each season, except for winter, when it was finally at rest, replenishing itself for the months to come.
Gran was in the kitchen boiling purple hull peas and canning them as fast as she could. My mother was in the garden waiting for me.
"I wanted to go to town," I said.
"Sorry, Luke. We have to hurry. Much more rain and the greens'll rot. And what if the water reaches the garden?"
"They gonna buy some paint?"
"I don't know."
"I wanted to go buy some more paint."
"Maybe tomorrow. Right now we have to get these turnips out of the ground." Her dress was pulled up to her knees.
She was barefoot with mud up to her ankles. I'd never seen my mother so dirty. I fell to the ground and attacked the turnips. Within minutes I was covered in mud from head to foot,
I pulled and picked vegetables for two hours, then cleaned them in the washtub on the back porch. Gran carried them into the kitchen, where they got cooked and packed away in quart jars.
The farm was quiet-no thunder or wind, no Spruills in the front or Mexicans out by the barn. We were alone again, just us Chandlers, left to battle the elements and to try to stay above water. I kept telling myself that life would be better when Ricky came home because I'd have someone to play with and talk to.
My mother hauled another basket of greens to the porch. She was tired and sweating, and she began cleaning herself with a rag and a bucket of water. She couldn't stand to be dirty, a trait she had been trying to pass along to me.
"Let's go to the barn," she said. I hadn't been in the loft in six weeks, since the Mexicans had arrived.
"Sure," I said, and we headed that way.
We spoke to Isabel, the milk cow, then climbed the ladder to the hayloft. My mother had worked hard to prepare a clean place for the Mexicans to live. She had spent the winter collecting old blankets and pillows for them to sleep on. She had taken a fan, one that for years had found good use on the front porch, and placed it in the loft. She had coerced my father into running an electrical line from the house to the barn.
"They're humans, regardless of what some people around here think," I'd heard her say more than once.
The loft was as clean and neat as the day they'd arrived. The pillows and blankets were stacked near the fan. The floor had been swept. Not a piece of trash or litter could be found. She was quite proud of the Mexicans. She had treated them with respect, and they had returned the favor.
We shoved open the loft door, the same one Luis had stuck his head through when Hank was bombing the Mexicans with rocks and dirt clods, and we sat on the ledge with our feet hanging down. Thirty feet up, we had the best view of any place on our farm. The tree line far to the west was the St. Francis, and straight ahead, across our back field, was the water from Siler's Creek.
In places the water was almost to the tops of the cotton stalks. From this view we could much better appreciate the advancing flood. We could see it between the perfect rows running directly toward the barn, and we could see it over the main field road, seeping into the back forty.
If the St. Francis River left its banks, our house would be in danger.
"I guess we're done pickin'," I said.
"Sure looks like it," she said, just a little sad.
"Why does our land flood so quick?"
"Because it's low and close to the river. It's not very good land, Luke, never will be. That's one reason we're leavin' here. There's not much of a future."
"Where we goin'?"
"North. That's where the jobs are."
"How long - "
"Not long. We'll stay until we can save some money. Your father'll work in the Buick plant with Jimmy Dale. They're payin' three dollars an hour. We'll make do, tough it out, you'll be in a school up there, a good school."
"I don't want to go to a new school."
"It'll be fun, Luke. They have big, nice schools up North."
It didn't sound like fun. My friends were in Black Oak. Other than Jimmy Dale and Stacy, I didn't know a soul up North. My mother put her hand on my knee and rubbed it, as if this would make me feel better.
"Change is always difficult, Luke, but it can also be excitin'. Think of it as an adventure. You wanna play baseball for the Cardinals, don't you?"
"Well, you'll have to leave home and go up North, live in a new house, make new friends, go to a new church. That'll be fun, won't it?"
"I guess so."
Our bare feet were dangling, gently swinging back and forth. The sun was behind a cloud, and a breeze shifted into our faces. The trees along the edge of our field were changing colors to yellow and crimson, and leaves were falling.
"We can't stay here, Luke," she said softly, as if her mind were already up North.
"When we come back what're we gonna do?"
"We're not gonna farm. We'll find a job in Memphis or Little Rock, and we'll buy us a house with a television and a telephone. We'll have a nice car in the driveway, and you can play baseball on a team with real uniforms. How does that sound?"
"Sounds pretty good."
"We'll always come back and visit Pappy and Gran and Ricky. It'll be a new life, Luke, one that's far better than this." She nodded toward the field, toward the ruined cotton out there drowning.
I thought of my Memphis cousins, the children of my father's sisters. They rarely came to Black Oak, only for funerals and maybe for Thanksgiving, and this was fine with me because they were city kids with nicer clothes and quicker tongues. I didn't particularly like them, but I was envious at the same time. They weren't rude or snobbish, they were just different enough to make me ill at ease. I decided then and there that when I lived in Memphis or Little Rock I would not, under any circumstances, act like I was better than anybody else.
"I have a secret, Luke," my mother said.
Not another one. My troubled mind could not hold another secret. "What is it?"
"I'm goin' to have a baby," she said and smiled at me.
I couldn't help but smile, too. I enjoyed being the only child, but, truth was, I wanted somebody to play with.
"Yes. Next summer."
"Can it be a boy?"
"I'll try, but no promises."
"If you gotta have one, I'd like a little brother."
"Are you excited?"
"Yes ma'am. Does Daddy know about it?"
"Oh yes, he's in on the deal."
"Is he happy, too?"
"Very much so."
"That's good." It took some time to digest this, but I knew right away that it was a fine thing. All of my friends had brothers and sisters.
An idea hit, one that I couldn't shake. Since we were on the subject of having babies, I was overcome with an urge to unload one of my secrets. It seemed like a harmless one now, and an old one, too. So much had happened since Tally and I sneaked off to the Latchers' house that the episode was now sort of funny.
"I know all about how babies are born," I said, a little defensively.
"Oh you do?"
"Can you keep a secret, too?"
"I certainly can."
I began the story, laying sufficient blame on Tally for everything that might get me in trouble. She'd planned it. She'd begged me to go. She'd dared me. She'd done this and that. Once my mother realized where the story was leading, her eyes began to dance, and she said every so often, "Luke, you didn't!"
I had her. I embellished here and there, to help move the story and build tension, but for the most part I stuck to the facts. She was hooked.
"You saw me in the window?" she asked in disbelief.
"Yes ma'am. Gran, too, and Mrs. Latcher."
"Did you see Libby?"
"No ma'am, but we sure heard her. Does it always hurt like that?"
"Well, not always. Keep going."
I spared no detail. As Tally and I raced back to the farm, the headlights in pursuit, my mother clutched my elbow almost hard enough to break it. "We had no idea!" she said.
"Of course not. I barely beat y'all in the house. Pappy was still snorin', and I was afraid y'all would come check on me and see that I was covered with sweat and dirt."
"We were too tired."
"It was a good thing. I slept about two hours, then Pappy woke me up to go to the fields. I've never been so sleepy in my life."
"Luke, I can't believe you did that." She wanted to scold, but she was too caught up in the story.
"It was fun."
"You shouldn't have."
"Tally made me do it."
"Don't blame Tally."
"I wouldn't've done it without her."
"I can't believe the two of you did it," she said, but I could tell she was impressed with the story. She grinned and shook her head in amazement. "How often did y'all go roamin' around at night?"
"I think that was it."
"You liked Tally, didn't you?"
"Yes ma'am. She was my friend."
"I hope she's happy."
I missed her, but I hated to admit it to myself. "Mom, do you think we'll see Tally up North?"
She smiled and said, "No, I don't think so. Those cities up thereSt. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati-have millions of people. We'll never see her."
I thought about the Cardinals and the Cubs and the Reds. I thought about Stan Musial racing around the bases in front of thirty thousand fans at Sportsman's Park. Since the teams were up North, then that was where I was headed anyway. Why not leave a few years early?
"I guess I'll go," I said.
"It'll be fun, Luke," she said again.
When Pappy and my father returned from town, they looked as though they'd been whipped. I guess they had. Their labor was gone, their cotton was soaked. If the sun broke through and the floodwaters receded, they didn't have enough hands to work the fields. And they weren't sure if the cotton would dry out. This time, the sun was not to be seen, and the water was still rising.
After Pappy went into the house, my father unloaded two gallons of paint and set them on the front porch. He did this without saying a word, though I was watching his every move. When he was finished, he went to the barn.
Two gallons would not paint the front of the house. I was irritated by this, then I realized why my father had not bought more. He didn't have the money. He and Pappy had paid the Mexicans, and there was nothing left.
I suddenly felt rotten because I had kept the painting alive after Trot had gone. I had pushed the project along, and in doing so had forced my father to spend what little money he had.
I stared at the two buckets set side by side, and tears came to my eyes. I hadn't realized how broke we were.
My father had poured his guts into the soil for six months, and now he had nothing to show for it. When the rains came, I, for some reason, had decided that the house should be painted.
My intentions had been good, I thought. So why did I feel so awful?
I got my brush, opened a can, and began the final phase of the job. As I slowly made the short strokes with my right hand, I wiped tears with my left.