A Painted House - Page 34

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Chapter 34

The first frost would kill what was left of our garden. It usually came in the middle of October, though the almanac that my father read as devoutly as he read the Bible had already missed its predicted date twice. Undaunted, he kept checking the almanac every morning with his first cup of coffee. It provided endless opportunities for worry.


Since we couldn't pick cotton, the garden got our attention. All five of us marched to it just after breakfast. My mother was certain that the frost was coming that very night and, if not, then for sure the next night. And so on.


For a miserable hour I pulled black-eyed peas off vines. Pappy, who hated garden work more than I did, was nearby picking butter beans and doing so with commendable effort. Gran was helping my mother pick the last of the tomatoes. My father hauled baskets back and forth, under the supervision of my mother. When he walked by me, I said, "I really want to go paint."


"Ask your mother," he said.


I did, and she said I could after I picked one more basket of peas. The garden was getting harvested like never before. By noon there wouldn't be a stray bean anywhere.


I soon returned to the solitude of house painting. With the clear exception of operating a road grader, it was a job I preferred over all others. The difference between the two was that I couldn't actually operate a road grader, and it would be years before I'd be able to. But I could certainly paint. After watching the Mexicans, I'd learned even more and improved my technique. I applied the paint as thinly as possible, trying my best to stretch the two gallons.


By mid-morning one bucket was empty. My mother and Gran were now in the kitchen, washing and canning the vegetables.


I didn't hear the man walk up behind me. But when he coughed to get my attention, I jerked around and dropped my paintbrush.


It was Mr. Latcher, wet and muddy from the waist down. He was barefoot, and his shirt was torn. He'd obviously walked from their place to ours.


"Where's Mr. Chandler?" he asked.


I wasn't sure which Mr. Chandler he wanted. I picked up my brush and ran to the east side of the house. I yelled for my father, who poked his head through some vines. When he saw Mr. Latcher beside me, he stood up quickly. "What is it?" he asked as he hurried toward us.


Gran heard voices and was suddenly on the front porch, my mother right behind her. A glance at Mr. Latcher told us something was very wrong.


"The water's up in the house," he said, unable to look my father in the eye. "We gotta get out."


My father looked at me, then at the women on the porch. Their wheels were already spinning.


"Can you help us?" Mr. Latcher said. "We ain't got no place to go."


I thought he was going to cry, and I felt like it myself.


"Of course we'll help," Gran said, instantly taking charge of the situation. From that point on, my father would do precisely what his mother told him. So would the rest of us.


She sent me to find Pappy. He was in the tool shed, trying to stay busy puttering with an old tractor battery. Everyone gathered by the truck to formulate a plan.


"Can we drive up to the house?" Pappy asked.


"No sir," Mr. Latcher said. "Water's waist-deep down our road. It's up on the porch now, six inches in the house."


I couldn't imagine all those Latcher kids in a house with half a foot of floodwater.


"How's Libby and the baby?" Gran asked, unable to contain herself.


"Libby's fine. The baby's sick."


"We'll need a boat," my father said. "Jeter keeps one up at the Cockleburr Slough."


"He won't mind if we borrow it," Pappy said.


For a few minutes the men discussed the rescue-how to get the boat, how far down the road the truck could go, how many trips it would take. What was not mentioned was just exactly where the Latchers would go once they had been rescued from their house.


Again Gran was very much in charge. "You folks can stay here," she said to Mr. Latcher. "Our loft is clean-the Mexicans just left. You'll have a warm bed and plenty of food."


I looked at her. Pappy looked at her. My father glanced over, then studied his feet. A horde of hungry Latchers living in our barn! A sick baby crying at all hours of the night. Our food being given away. I was horrified at the thought, and I was furious with Gran for making such an offer without first discussing it with the rest of us.


Then I looked at Mr. Latcher. His lips were trembling, and his eyes were wet. He clutched his old straw hat with both hands at his waist, and he was so ashamed that he just looked at the ground. I'd never seen a poorer, dirtier, or more broken man.


I looked at my mother. She, too, had wet eyes. I glanced at my father. I'd never seen him cry, and he wasn't about to at that moment, but he was clearly touched by Mr. Latcher's suffering. My hard heart melted in a flash.


"Let's get a move on," Gran said with authority. "We'll get the barn ready."


We sprang into action, the men loading into the truck, the women heading for the barn. Just as she was walking away, Gran pulled Pappy by the elbow and whispered, "You bring Libby and that baby first." It was a direct order, and Pappy nodded.


I hopped into the back of the truck with Mr. Latcher, who squatted on his skinny legs and said nothing to me. We stopped at the bridge, where my father got out and began walking along the edge of the river. His job was to find Mr. Jeter's boat at the Cockleburr Slough, then float it downstream to where we'd be waiting at the bridge. We crossed over, turned onto the Latchers' road, and went less than a hundred feet before we came to a quagmire. Ahead of us was nothing but water.


"I'll tell 'em you're comin'," Mr. Latcher said, and with that he was off through the mud, then the water. Before long it was up to his knees. "Watch out for snakes!" he yelled over his shoulder. "They're everywhere." He was trudging through a lake of water, with flooded fields on both sides.


We watched him until he disappeared, then we returned to the river and waited for my father.


We sat on a log near the bridge, the rushing water below us. Since we had nothing to say, I decided it was time to tell Pappy a story. First, I swore him to secrecy.


I began where it started, with voices in our front yard late at night. The Spruills were arguing, Hank was leaving. I followed in the shadows, and before I knew what was happening, I was trailing not only Hank but Cowboy as well. "They fought right up there," I said, pointing to the center of the bridge.


Pappy's mind was no longer on floods or farming or even rescuing the Latchers. He glared at me, believing every word but quite astonished. I recounted the fight in vivid detail, then pointed again. "Hank landed over there, right in the middle of the river. Never came up."


Pappy grunted but did not speak. I was on my feet in front of him, nervous and talking rapidly. When I described my encounter with Cowboy minutes later on the road near our house, Pappy cursed under his breath. "You should've told me then," he said.


"I just couldn't. I was too scared."


He got to his feet and walked around the log a few times. "He murdered their son and stole their daughter," he said to himself. "My oh my."


"What're we gonna do, Pappy?"


"Let me think about it."


"Do you think Hank'll float to the top somewhere?"


"Nope. That Mexican gutted him. His body sank straight to the bottom, probably got eaten by those channel cats down there. There's nothin' left to find."


As sickening as this was, I was somewhat relieved to hear it. I never wanted to see Hank again. I'd thought about him every time I crossed the bridge. I'd dreamed of his bloated corpse popping up from the depths of the river and scaring the daylights out of me.


"Did I do anything wrong?" I asked.


"No."


"Are you gonna tell anybody?"


"Nope, I don't think so. Let's keep it quiet. We'll talk about it later."


We took our positions on the log and studied the water. Pappy was deep in thought. I tried to convince myself that I should feel better now that I'd finally told one of the adults about Hank's death.


After a spell Pappy said, "Hank got what was comin' to him. We ain't tellin' nobody. You're the only witness, and there's no sense in you worryin' about it. It'll be our secret, one we'll take to our graves."


"What about Mr. and Mrs. Spruill?"


"What they don't know won't hurt 'em."


"You gonna tell Gran?"


"Nope. Nobody. Just me and you."


It was a partnership I could trust. I did indeed feel better. I'd shared my secret with a friend who could certainly carry his portion of it. And we had decided that Hank and Cowboy would be put behind us forever.


My father finally arrived in Mr. Jeter's flat-bottomed johnboat. The outboard was missing, but navigation was easy because of the strong current. He used a paddle as a rudder and came ashore under the bridge, right below us. He and Pappy then lifted the boat from the river and manhandled it up the bank to the truck. Then we drove back to the Latchers' road, where we unloaded the boat and shoved it to the edge of the floodwaters. All three of us hopped in, our feet covered with mud. The adults paddled as we moved along the narrow road, two feet above the ground, rows of ruined cotton passing by.


The farther we went, the deeper the water became. The wind picked up and blew us into the cotton. Both Pappy and my father looked at the sky and shook their heads.


Every Latcher was on the front porch, waiting in fear, watching every move we made as the boat cut through the lake that surrounded their house. The front steps were submerged. At least a foot of water covered the porch. We maneuvered the boat up to the front of the house, where Mr. Latcher took it and pulled it in. He was chest-deep in the water.


I looked at all of the frightened and sad faces on the porch. Their clothes were even more ragged than the last time I'd been there. They were skinny and gaunt, probably starving. I saw a couple of smiles from the younger ones, and I suddenly felt very important. From out of the crowd stepped Libby Latcher, holding the baby, who was wrapped in an old blanket. I'd never actually seen Libby before, and I couldn't believe how pretty she was. Her light brown hair was long and pulled tightly behind in a ponytail. Her eyes were pale blue and had a glow to them. She was tall and as skinny as the rest. When she stepped into the boat, both Pappy and my father steadied her. She sat beside me with her baby, and suddenly I was face-to-face with my newest cousin.


"I'm Luke," I said, though it was an odd time to make introductions.


"I'm Libby," she said, with a smile that made my heart race. Her baby was asleep. He had not grown much since I'd seen him in the window the night he was born. He was tiny and wrinkled and likely hungry, but Gran was waiting for him.


Rayford Latcher came aboard and sat as far away from me as possible. He was one of the three who'd beaten me the last time I was on their property. Percy, the oldest boy and the ringleader of that assault, was hiding on the porch. Two more children were put into the boat, then Mr. Latcher jumped in. "We'll be back in a few minutes," he said to Mrs. Latcher and the others still on the porch. They looked as if they were being left to die.


The rain hit fast, and the winds shifted. Pappy and my father paddled as hard as they could, but the boat barely moved. Mr. Latcher jumped into the water, and for a second he completely vanished. Then he found his footing and stood up, covered from the chest down in water. He grabbed a rope attached to the bow and began pulling us down the road.


The wind kept blowing us into the cotton, so my father crawled out of the boat and began pushing from the rear. "Watch for snakes," Mr. Latcher warned again. Both men were soaking wet.


"Percy almost got bit by one," Libby said to me. "It floated up on the porch." She was leaning over the baby, trying to keep him dry.


"What's his name?" I asked.


"Don't have one yet."


I'd never heard of such nonsense. A baby without a name. Most of the ones born into the Baptist Church had two or three names before they ever got into the world.


"When's Ricky coming home?" she whispered.


"I don't know."


"Is he okay?"


"Yes."


She seemed anxious for any news about him, and this made me uncomfortable. However, it was not unpleasant sitting next to such a pretty girl who wanted to whisper to me. Her younger siblings were wild-eyed with the adventure.


As we neared the road, the water became shallow and the boat finally hit mud. We all scrambled out, and the Latchers were loaded into our truck. Pappy got behind the wheel.


"Luke, you stay with me," my father said. As the truck backed away, Mr. Latcher and my father turned the boat around and began pushing and pulling it back to the house. The wind was so strong they had to lean into it. I rode alone, with my head bowed, trying to stay dry. The rain came down in cold pellets that grew harder by the minute.


The lake around the house was churning as we drew close. Mr. Latcher pulled the boat in again and began yelling instructions to his wife. A small Latcher was handed down from the porch and almost dropped when a gust of wind hit the boat and knocked it away. Percy thrust forward a broom handle, which I grabbed to help pull the boat back to the porch. My father was yelling this and that, and Mr. Latcher was doing the same. There were four remaining children, and all of them wanted to board at once. I helped them in, one at a time. "Steady, Luke!" my father said a dozen times.


When the children were in the boat, Mrs. Latcher flung over a burlap sack stuffed with what appeared to be clothing. I figured it was a collection of their only possessions. It landed at my feet, and I clutched it as if it had a lot of value. Next to me was a shoeless little Latcher girl-not a one of them had shoes-with no sleeves on her shirt to cover her arms. She was freezing, and she clung to my leg as if she might be taken away by the wind. She had tears in her eyes, but when I looked at her she said, "Thank you." Mrs. Latcher climbed in, stepping among her children, yelling at her husband because he was yelling at her. With the boat fully loaded and all the Latchers accounted for, we turned around and headed back toward the road. Those of us on board cowered low to shield our faces from the rain.


My father and Mr. Latcher labored furiously to push the boat against the wind. In places they were only knee-deep in water, but within a few steps it would be up to their chests, making it hard for them to get any leverage. They fought to keep us in the center of the road and out of the cotton. The return leg of our little voyage was much slower.


Pappy wasn't waiting. He had not had enough time to drop off the first load and come back for the second. When we got to the mud, my father tied Mr. Jeter's johnboat to a fence post, then said, "No sense waitin' here." We trudged through more mud and fought the wind and rain until we came to the river. The Latcher children were terrified of the bridge, and I'd never heard such bawling as we crossed over. They clung to their parents. Mr. Latcher was now carrying the burlap sack. Halfway over the St. Francis, I looked down at the planks in front of me and noticed that, like her children, Mrs. Latcher had no shoes.


When we were safe on our side of the river, we saw Pappy coming to get us.


Gran and my mother were waiting on the back porch, where they had set up a makeshift assembly line of sorts. They welcomed the second wave of Latchers and directed them to the far end of the porch, where there was a pile of clothes. The Latchers stripped down, some concerned about privacy, others not, and got dressed in Chandler hand-me-downs that had been in the family for decades. Once outfitted in dry, warm clothing, they were ushered into the kitchen, where there was enough food for several meals. Gran had sausage and country ham. She'd made two pans of homemade biscuits. The table was covered with large bowls rilled with every vegetable my mother, had grown in the last six months.


The Latchers packed around the table, all ten of them-the baby was asleep somewhere. For the most part they were silent, and I couldn't tell if it was because they were ashamed or relieved or just downright hungry. They passed around the bowls and occasionally said thanks to one another. My mother and Gran poured tea and made a fuss over them. I observed them from a doorway. Pappy and my father were on the front porch, sipping coffee and watching the rain dwindle down.


When the meal was well under way, we drifted to the living room, where Gran had built a fire in the fireplace. The five of us sat close to it, and for a long time we listened to the Latchers in the kitchen. Their voices were muted, but their knives and forks rattled away. They were warm and safe and no longer hungry. How could people be so poor?


I found it impossible to dislike the Latchers anymore. They were folks just like us who'd had the misfortune of being born sharecroppers. It was wrong of me to be scornful. Besides, I was quite taken with Libby.


I was already hoping that perhaps she liked me.


As we were basking in the satisfaction of our goodness, the baby erupted from somewhere in the house. Gran jumped to her feet and was gone in a flash. "I'll see about him," I heard her say in the kitchen. "You finish lunch."


I didn't hear a single Latcher move from the table. That baby had been crying since the night he was born, and they were used to it.


We Chandlers, however, were not. It cried all the way through what was left of lunch. Gran walked the floor with it for an hour as my parents and Pappy moved the Latchers into their new accommodations in the loft. Libby returned with them to check on the baby, who was still bawling. The rain had stopped, so my mother took it for a walk around the house, but the outdoors did nothing to satisfy it. I had never heard anything cry so violently without end.


By mid-afternoon we were rattled. Gran had tried several of her home remedies, mild little concoctions that only made matters worse. Libby rocked the baby in the swing, with no success. Gran sang to it as she waltzed around the house; more bawling, even louder, I thought. My mother walked the floor with it. Pappy and my father were long gone. I wanted to run and hide in the silo.


"Worst case of colic I've ever seen," I heard Gran say.


Later, while Libby was again rocking the baby on the front porch, I heard another conversation. Seems that when I was a baby I'd had a rough bout with colic. My mother's mother, my grandmother, who was now dead and who'd lived in town in a painted house, had given me a few bites of vanilla ice cream. I had immediately stopped crying, and within a few days the colic was gone.


At some point later in my babyhood I'd had another bout. Gran did not normally keep store-bought ice cream in her freezer. My parents had loaded me up in the truck and headed for town. Along the way I'd stopped crying and fallen asleep. They figured the motion of the moving vehicle had done the trick.


My mother sent me to find my father. She took the baby from Libby, who was quite anxious to get rid of it, and before long we were heading for the truck.


"Are we goin' to town?" I asked.


"Yes," my mother said.


"What about him?" my father asked, pointing to the baby. "He's supposed to be a secret."


My mother had forgotten about that. If we were spotted in town with a mysterious baby, the gossip would be so thick it would stop traffic.


"We'll worry about that when we get there," she said, then slammed the door. "Let's go."


My father cranked the engine and shifted into reverse. I was in the middle, the baby just inches from my shoulder. After a brief pause, the baby erupted again. By the time we got to the river I was ready to pitch the damned thing out the window.


Once over the bridge, though, a curious thing happened. The baby slowly grew quiet and still. It closed its mouth and eyes and fell sound asleep. My mother smiled at my father as if to say, "See, I told you so."


As we made our way to town, my parents whispered back and forth. They decided that my mother would get out of the truck down by our church, then hurry to Pop and Pearl's to buy the ice cream. They worried that Pearl would be suspicious as to why she was buying ice cream, and only ice cream, since we didn't need anything else at the moment, and why exactly my mother was in town on a Wednesday afternoon. They agreed that Pearl's curiosity could not be satisfied under any circumstances and that it would be somewhat amusing to let her suffer from her own nosiness. As clever as she was, Pearl would never guess that the ice cream was for an illegitimate baby we were hiding in our truck.


We stopped at our church. No one was watching so my mother handed the baby to me with strict instructions on how to properly cradle such a creature. By the time she closed the door, its mouth was wide open, its eyes glowing, its lungs filled with anger. It wailed twice and nearly scared me to death before my father popped the clutch and we were off again, loose on the streets of Black Oak. The baby looked at me and stopped crying.


"Just don't stop," I said to my father.


We drove by the gin, a depressing sight with its lack of activity. We circled behind the Methodist church and the school, then turned south onto Main Street. My mother came out of Pop and Pearl's with a small paper bag, and, not surprisingly, Pearl was right behind her, talking away. They were chatting as we drove past. My father waved as if nothing were out of the ordinary.


I just knew we were about to get caught with the Latcher baby. One loud shriek from its mouth and the whole town would learn our secret.


We looped around the gin again, and when we headed toward the church we saw my mother waiting for us. As we rolled to a stop to get her, the baby's eyes came open. His lower lip trembled. He was ready to scream when I thrust him at her and said, "Here, take him."


I scrambled out of the truck before she could get in. My quickness surprised them. "Where you goin', Luke?" my father demanded.


"Y'all ride around for a minute. I need to buy some paint."


"Get in the truck!" he said.


The baby cried out, and my mother quickly jumped in. I ducked behind the truck and ran as fast as I could toward the street.


Behind me I heard another cry, one not nearly as loud, then the truck started moving.


I ran to the hardware store, back to the paint counter, where I asked the clerk for three gallons of white Pittsburgh Paint.


"Only got two," he said.


I was too surprised to say anything. How could a hardware store run out of paint? "I should have some in by next Monday," he said.


"Gimme two," I said.


I was sure two gallons wouldn't finish the front of the house, but I gave him six one-dollar bills, and he handed me the change. "Let me get these for you," he said.


"No, I can do it," I said, reaching for the two buckets. I strained to lift them, then waddled down the aisle, almost tipping over. I lugged them out of the store and to the sidewalk. I looked both ways for traffic, and I listened for the wail of a sick baby. Thankfully the town was quiet.


Pearl reappeared on the sidewalk in front of her store, eyes darting in all directions. I hid behind a parked car. Then I saw our truck coming south, barely moving, looking very suspicious. My father saw me and rolled to a stop in the middle of the street. I yanked the two buckets up with all the might I could muster and ran to the truck. He jumped out to help me. I leapt into the back of the truck, and he handed me the paint. I preferred to ride back there, away from the littlest Latcher. Just when my father got behind the wheel again, the baby let out a yelp.


The truck lurched forward, and the baby was quiet. I yelled, "Howdy, Pearl!" as we sped past.


Libby was sitting on the front steps with Gran, waiting for us. When the truck stopped, the baby began bawling. The women rushed it to the kitchen, where they began stuffing it with ice cream.


"Ain't enough gasoline in Craighead County to keep that thing quiet," my father said.


Fortunately, the ice cream soothed it. Little Latcher fell asleep in his mother's arms.


Because vanilla ice cream had worked when I'd had colic, this cure was taken as further evidence that the baby was part Chandler. I was not exactly comforted by this.

***



Tags: John Grisham Mystery
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