A Painted House - Page 35

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Chapter 35

Having a barn full of Latchers was an event that we certainly had not planned on. And while we were at first comforted by our own Christian charity and neighborliness, we were soon interested in how long they might be with us. I broached the subject first over supper when, after a long discussion about the day's events, I said, "Reckon how long they'll stay?"


Pappy had the opinion that they would be gone as soon as the floodwaters receded. Living in another farmer's barn was tolerable under the most urgent of circumstances, but no one with an ounce of self-respect would stay a day longer than necessary.


"What are they gonna eat when they go back?" Gran asked. "There's not a crumb of food left in that house." She went on to predict that they'd be with us until springtime.


My father speculated that their dilapidated house couldn't withstand the flood, and that there'd be no place for them to return to. Plus, they had no truck, no means of transportation. They'd been starving on their land for the last ten years. Where else would they go? Pappy seemed a little depressed by this view.


My mother mainly listened, but at one point she did say that the Latchers were not the type of people who'd be embarrassed by living in someone else's barn. And she worried about the children, not only the obvious problems of health and nutrition, but also their education and spiritual growth.


Pappy's prediction of a swift departure was batted around the table and eventually voted down. Three against one. Four, if you counted my vote.


"We'll survive," Gran said. "We have enough food to feed us and them all winter. They're here, they have no place else to go, and we'll take care of them." No one was about to argue with her.


"God gave us a bountiful garden for a reason," she added, nodding at my mother. "In Luke, Jesus said, 'Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. '"


"We'll kill two hogs instead of one," Pappy said. "We'll have plenty of meat for the winter."


The hog-killing would come in early December, when the air was cold and the bacteria dead. Every year a hog was shot in the head, dipped in boiling water, and hung from a tree next to the tool shed, then gutted and butchered into a thousand pieces. From it we got bacon, ham, loin, sausage, and ribs. Everything was used-tongue, brains, feet. "Everything but the squeal" was a line I'd heard all my life. Mr. Jeter from across the road was a fair butcher. He would supervise the gutting, then perform the delicate removals. For his time he took a fourth of the best cuts.


My first memory of a hog-killing was that I ran behind the house and puked. With time, though, I'd come to look forward to it. If you wanted ham and bacon, you had to kill a hog. But it would take more than two hogs to feed the Latchers until spring. There were eleven of them, including the baby, who at the moment was living off vanilla ice cream.


As we talked about them, I began to dream of heading North.


The trip now seemed more appealing. I had sympathy for the Latchers, and I was proud that we'd rescued them. I knew that as Christians we were expected to help the poor. I understood all that, but I could not imagine living through the winter with all those little kids running around our farm. I'd start back to school very soon. Would the Latchers go with me? Since they would be new students, would I be expected to show them around? What would my friends think? I saw nothing but humiliation.


And now that they lived with us, it was just a matter of time before the big secret got out. Ricky would be fingered as the father. Pearl would figure out where all the vanilla ice cream was going. Something would leak somehow, and we'd be ruined.


"Luke, are you finished?" my father asked, jolting me from my thoughts.


My plate was clean. Everyone looked at it. They had adult matters to discuss. It was my cue to go find something to do.


"Supper was good. May I be excused?" I said, reciting my standard lines.


Gran nodded and I went to the back porch and pushed the screen door so that it would slam. Then I slid back into the darkness to a bench by the kitchen door. From there I could hear everything. They were worried about money. The crop loan would be "rolled over" until next spring, and they would deal with it then. The other farming bills could be delayed, too, though Pappy hated the thought of riding his creditors.


Surviving the winter was much more urgent. Food was not a concern. We had to have money for such necessities as electricity, gas and oil for the truck, and staples like coffee, flour, and sugar. What if someone got sick and needed a doctor or medicine? What if the truck broke down and needed parts?


"We haven't given anything to the church this year," Gran said.


Pappy estimated that as much as thirty percent of the crop was still out there, standing in water. If the weather broke and things got dry, we might be able to salvage a small portion of it. That would provide some income, but the gin would keep most of it. Neither he nor my father was optimistic about picking any more cotton in 1952.


The problem was cash. They were almost out of it, and there was no hope of any coming in. They barely had enough to pay for electricity and gasoline until Christmas.


"Jimmy Dale's holdin' a job for me at the Buick plant," my father said. "But he can't wait long. The jobs are tight right now. We need to get on up there."


According to Jimmy Dale, the current wage was three dollars an hour, for forty hours a week, but overtime was available, too. "He says I can earn close to two hundred dollars a week," my father said.


"We'll send home as much as we can," my mother added.


Pappy and Gran went through the motions of protesting, but everyone knew the decision had been made. I heard a noise in the distance, a vaguely familiar sound. As it drew closer, I cringed and wished I'd hidden on the front porch.


The baby was back, upset again and no doubt craving vanilla ice cream. I sneaked off the porch and walked a few steps toward the barn. In the shadows I saw Libby and Mrs. Latcher approaching the house. I ducked beside the chicken coop and listened as they went by. The constant wailing echoed around our farm.


Gran and my mother met them at the back porch. A light was switched on, and I watched as they huddled around the little monster then carried him inside. Through the window I could see my father and Pappy scramble for the front porch.


With four women working on him, it took only a few minutes to stop the crying. Once things were quiet Libby left the kitchen and went outside. She sat on the edge of the porch in the same place Cowboy had occupied the day he had shown me his switchblade. I walked to the house and said, "Hi, Libby," when I was a few feet away.


She jumped, then caught herself. Poor girl's nerves were rattled by her baby's colic. "Luke," she said. "What're you doin'?"


"Nothin'."


"Come sit here," she said, patting the spot next to her. I did as I was told.


"Does that baby cry all the time?" I asked.


"Seems like it. I don't mind, though."


"You don't?"


"No. He reminds me of Ricky."


"He does?"


"Yes, he does. When's he comin' home? Do you know, Luke?"


"No. His last letter said he might be home by Christmas."


"That's two months away."


"Yeah, but I ain't so sure about it. Gran says every soldier says he's comin' home by Christmas."


"I just can't wait," she said, visibly excited by the prospect.


"What's gonna happen when he gets home?" I asked, not sure if I wanted to hear her answer.


"We're gonna get married," she said with a big, pretty smile. Her eyes were filled with wonder and anticipation.


"You are?"


"Yes, he promised."


I certainly didn't want Ricky to get married. He belonged to me. We would fish and play baseball, and he'd tell war stories. He'd be my big brother, not somebody's husband.


"He's the sweetest thang," she said, gazing up at the sky.


Ricky was a lot of things, but I'd never call him sweet. Then again, there was no telling what he'd done to impress her.


"You can't tell anybody, Luke," she said, suddenly serious. "It's our secret."


That's my specialty, I felt like saying. "Don't worry," I said, "I can keep one."


"Can you read and write, Luke?"


"Sure can. Can you?"


"Pretty good."


"But you don't go to school."


"I went through the fourth grade, then my mother kept havin' all them babies, so I had to quit. I've written Ricky a letter, tellin' him all about the baby. Do you have his address?"


I wasn't sure Ricky wanted to receive her letter, and for a second I thought about playing dumb. But I couldn't help but like Libby. She was so crazy about Ricky that it seemed wrong not to give her the address.


"Yeah, I got it."


"Do you have an envelope?"


"Sure."


"Could you mail my letter for me? Please, Luke. I don't think Ricky knows about our baby."


Something told me to butt out. This was between them. "I guess I can mail it," I said.


"Oh, thank you, Luke," she said, almost squealing. She hugged my neck hard. "I'll give you the letter tomorrow," she said. "And you promise you'll mail it for me?"


"I promise." I thought about Mr. Thornton at the post office and how curious he'd be if he saw a letter from Libby Latcher to Ricky in Korea. I'd figure it out somehow. Perhaps I should ask my mother about it.


The women brought baby Latcher to the back porch, where Gran rocked it while it slept. My mother and Mrs. Latcher talked about how tired the little fellow was-all that nonstop crying had worn it out-so that when it did fall off, it slept hard. I was soon bored with all the talk about the baby.


My mother woke me just after sunrise, and instead of scolding me out of bed to face another day on the farm, she sat next to my pillow and talked. "We're leavin' tomorrow mornin', Luke. I'm going to pack today. Your father will help you paint the front of the house, so you'd better get started."


"Is it rainin'?" I asked, sitting up.


"No. It's cloudy, but you can paint."


"Why are we leavin' tomorrow?"


"It's time to go."


"When're we comin' back?"


"I don't know. Go eat your breakfast. We have a busy day."


I started painting before seven, with the sun barely above the tree line in the east. The grass was wet and so was the house, but I had no choice. Before long, though, the boards dried, and my work went smoothly. My father joined me, and together we moved the scaffold so he could reach the high places. Then Mr. Latcher found us, and after watching the painting for a few minutes he said, "I'd like to help."


"You don't have to," my father said from eight feet up.


"I'd like to earn my keep," he said. He had nothing else to do.


"All right. Luke, go fetch that other brush."


I ran to the tool shed, delighted that I'd once again attracted some free labor. Mr. Latcher began painting with a fury, as if to prove his worth.


A crowd gathered to watch. I counted seven Latchers on the ground behind us, all of the kids except Libby and the baby, just sitting there studying us with blank looks on their faces.


I figured they were waiting for breakfast. I ignored them and went about my work.


Work, however, would prove difficult. Pappy came for me first. He said he wanted to ride down to the creek to inspect the flood. I said I really needed to paint. My father said, "Go ahead, Luke," and that settled my protest.


We rode the tractor away from the house, through the flooded fields until the water was almost over the front wheels. When we could go no farther, Pappy turned off the engine. We sat for a long time on the tractor, surrounded by the wet cotton we'd worked so hard to grow.


"You'll be leavin' tomorrow," he finally said.


"Yes sir."


"But you'll be comin' back soon."


"Yes sir." My mother, not Pappy, would determine when we came back. And if Pappy thought we'd one day return to our little places on the family farm and start another crop, he was mistaken. I felt sorry for him, and I missed him already.


"Been thinkin' more 'bout Hank and Cowboy," he said, his eyes never moving from the water in front of the tractor. "Let's leave it be, like we agreed. Can't nothin' good come from tellin' anybody. It's a secret we'll take to our graves." He offered his right hand for me to shake. "Deal?" he said.


"Deal," I repeated, squeezing his thick, callused hand.


"Don't forget about your pappy up there, you hear?"


"I won't."


He started the tractor, shifted into reverse, and backed through the floodwaters.


When I returned to the front of the house, Percy Latcher had taken control of my brush and was hard at work. Without a word, he handed it to me and went to sit under a tree. I painted for maybe ten minutes, then Gran walked onto the porch and said, "Luke, come here. I need to show you somethin'."


She led me around back, in the direction of the silo. Mud puddles were everywhere, and the flood had crept to within thirty feet of the barn. She wanted to take a stroll and have a chat, but there was mud and water in every direction. We sat on the edge of the flatbed trailer.


"What're you gonna show me?" I said after a long silence.


"Oh, nothin'. I just wanted to spend a few minutes alone. You're leavin' tomorrow. I was tryin' to remember if you'd ever spent a night away from here."


"I can't remember one," I said. I knew that I'd been born in the bedroom where my parents now slept. I knew Gran's hands had touched me first, she'd birthed me and taken care of my mother. No, I had never left our house, not even for one night.


"You'll do just fine up North," she said, but with little conviction. "Lots of folks from here go up there to find work. They always do just fine, and they always come home. You'll be home before you know it."


I loved my Gran as fiercely as any kid could love his grandmother, yet somehow I knew I'd never again live in her house and work in her fields.


We talked about Ricky for a while, then about the Latchers. She put her arm around my shoulders and held me close, and she made me promise more than once that I'd write letters to her. I also had to promise to study hard, obey my parents, go to church and learn my Scriptures, and to be diligent in my speech so I wouldn't sound like a Yankee.


When she was finished extracting all the promises, I was exhausted. We walked back to the house, dodging puddles.


The morning dragged on. The Latcher horde dispersed after breakfast, but they were back in time for lunch. They watched as my father and their father tried to out paint each other across the front of our house.


We fed them on the back porch. After they ate, Libby pulled me aside and handed over her letter to Ricky. I had managed to sneak a plain white envelope from the supply we kept at the end of the kitchen table. I'd addressed it to Ricky, via the army mail route in San Diego, and I'd put a stamp on it. She was quite impressed. She carefully placed her letter inside, then licked the envelope twice.


"Thank you, Luke," she said and kissed me on the forehead.


I put the envelope under my shirt so no one could see it. I had decided to mention it to my mother but hadn't found the opportunity.


Events were moving quickly. My mother and Gran spent the afternoon washing and pressing the clothes we would take with us. My father and Mr. Latcher painted until the buckets were empty. I wanted time to slow down, but for some reason the day became hurried.


We endured another quiet supper, each of us worried about the trip North, but for different reasons. I was sad enough to have no appetite.


"This'll be your last supper here for a spell, Luke," Pappy said. I don't know why he said that, because it sure didn't help matters.


"They say the food up North is pretty bad," Gran said, trying to lighten things up. That, too, fell flat.


It was too chilly to sit on the porch. We gathered in the living room and tried to chat as if things were the same. But no topic seemed appropriate. Church matters were dull. Baseball was over. No one wanted to mention Ricky. Not even the weather could hold our attention.


We finally gave up and went to bed. My mother tucked me in and kissed me good night. Then Gran did the same. Pappy stopped for a few words, something he'd never done before.


When I was finally alone, I said my prayers. Then I stared at the dark ceiling and tried to believe that this was my last night on the farm.


***



Tags: John Grisham Mystery
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