A Painted House - Page 4

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Chapter 4

At some point in the vast darkness of the night, Pappy, our human alarm clock, awoke, put on his boots, and began stomping around the kitchen making the first pot of coffee. The house was not largethree bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room-and it was so old the plank floors sagged in places. If one person chose to wake up the rest, he or she could certainly do so.


I was allowed to stay in bed until my father came after me. It was difficult to sleep, though, with all those people on the farm and all that cotton to pick. I was already awake when he shook me and said it was time to go. I dressed quickly and met him on the back porch.


"A Painted House"


There was no hint of sunrise as we walked across the backyard, the dew soaking our boots. We stopped at the chicken coop, where he bent low and slipped inside. I was told to wait in front of it, since last month while gathering eggs in the darkness, I'd stepped on a huge rat snake and cried for two days. At first my father had not been sympathetic; rat snakes are harmless and just a part of life on the farm. My mother, however, intervened with a fury, and for the time being, I was not permitted to collect eggs alone.


My father filled a straw bowl with a dozen eggs and handed it to me. We headed to the barn, where Isabel was waiting. Now that we'd roused the chickens, the roosters began crowing.


The only light came from a pale bulb hanging from the hayloft. The Mexicans were awake. A fire had been lit behind the barn, and they were huddled near it as if they were cold. I was already warm from the humidity.


I could milk the cow, and on most mornings that chore belonged to me. But the rat snake still had me frightened, plus we were in a hurry because we had to be in the fields by sunrise. My father rapidly milked two gallons, which would've taken me half the morning. We delivered the food to the kitchen, where the women were in charge. The ham was already in the skillet, its rich aroma thick in the air.


Breakfast was fresh eggs, milk, salt-cured ham, and hot biscuits, with sorghum optional. As they cooked, I settled into my chair, ran my fingers across the damp, checkered oilcloth, and waited for my cup of coffee. It was the one vice my mother allowed me.


Gran placed the cup and saucer before me, then the sugar bowl and the fresh cream. I doctored the coffee until it was as sweet as a malt, then sipped it slowly.


At breakfast, conversation in the kitchen was held to a minimum. It was exciting to have so many strangers on our farm for the harvest, hut the enthusiasm was dampened by the reality that we would spend most of the next twelve hours unshielded in the sun, bent over, picking until our fingers bled.


We ate quickly, the roosters making a ruckus in the side yard. My grandmother's biscuits were heavy and perfectly round, and so warm that when I carefully placed a slice of butter in the center of one, it melted instantly. I watched the yellow cream soak into the biscuit, then took a bite. My mother conceded that Ruth Chandler made the best biscuits she'd ever tasted. I wanted so badly to eat two or three, like my father, but I simply couldn't hold them. My mother ate one, same as Gran. Pappy had two, my father three. Several hours later, in the middle of the morning, we would stop for a moment under the shade of a tree or beside the cotton trailer to eat the leftover biscuits.


Breakfast was slow in the winter because there was little else to do. The pace was somewhat faster in the spring when we were planting, and in the summer when we were chopping. But during the fall harvest, with the sun about to catch us, we ate with a purpose.


There was some chatter about the weather. The rain in St. Louis that had canceled last night's Cardinals game was weighing on Pappy's mind. St. Louis was so far away that no one at the table, except for Pappy, had ever been there, yet the city's weather was now a crucial element in the harvest of our crops. My mother listened patiently. I didn't say a word.


My father had been reading the almanac and offered the opinion that the weather would cooperate throughout the month of September. But mid-October looked ominous. Bad weather was on the way. It was imperative that for the next six weeks we work until we dropped. The harder we worked, the harder the Mexicans and the Spruills would work. This was my father's version of a pep talk.


The subject of day laborers came up. These were locals who went from farm to farm looking for the best deal. Most were town people we knew. During the previous fall, Miss Sophie Turner, who taught fifth and sixth grades, had bestowed a great honor on us when she had chosen our fields to pick in.


We needed all the day laborers we could get, but they generally picked wherever they wanted.


When Pappy finished his last bite, he thanked his wife and my mother for the good food and left them to clean up the mess. I strutted onto the back porch with the men.


Our house faced south, the barn and crops were to the north and west, and to the east I saw the first hint of orange peeking over the flat farmland of the Arkansas Delta. The sun was coming, undaunted by clouds. My shirt was already sticking to my back.


A flatbed trailer was hitched to the John Deere, and the Mexicans had already gotten on. My dad went up to speak to Miguel. "Good morning. How did you sleep? Are you ready to work?" Pappy went to fetch the Spruills.


I had a spot, a nook between the fender and the seat of the John Deere, and I had spent hours there firmly grasping the metal pole holding the umbrella that would cover the driver, either Pappy or my father, when we chugged through the fields plowing or planting or spreading fertilizer. I took my place and looked down at the crowded trailer, Mexicans on one side, Spruills on the other. At that moment I felt very privileged because I got to ride on the tractor, and the tractor belonged to us. My haughtiness, however, would vanish shortly, because all things were level among the cotton stalks.


"A Painted House"


I'd been curious as to whether poor Trot would go to the fields. Picking required two good arms. Trot had only one, as far as I'd been able to determine. But there he was, sitting at the edge of the trailer, his back to everyone else, feet hanging over the side, alone in his own world. And there was Tally, who didn't acknowledge me, but just looked into the distance.


Without a word, Pappy popped the clutch, and the tractor and trailer lurched forward. I checked to make sure no one fell off. Through the kitchen window I could see my mother's face, watching us as she cleaned the dishes. She would finish her chores, spend an hour in her garden, then join us for a hard day in the fields. Same for Gran. No one rested when the cotton was ready.


We puttered past the barn, the diesel thumping, the trailer creaking, and turned south toward the lower forty, a tract next to Siler's Creek. We always picked the lower forty first because the floods would start there.


We had the lower forty and the back forty. Eighty acres was no small farming operation.


In a few minutes we arrived at the cotton trailer, and Pappy stopped the tractor. Before I jumped down, I looked to the east and saw the lights of our house, less than a mile away. Behind it, the sky was coming to life with streaks of orange and yellow. There wasn't a cloud to be seen, and this meant no floods in the near future. It also meant no shelter from the scorching sun.


Tally said, "Good morning, Luke," as she walked by.


I managed to return her greeting. She smiled at me as if she knew some secret that she would never tell.


Pappy didn't give an orientation, and none was needed. Choose a row in either direction, and start picking. No chitchat, no stretching of the muscles, no predictions about the weather. Without a word the Mexicans draped their long cotton sacks over their shoulders, lined up, and went south. The Arkansans went north.


For a second, I stood there in the semidarkness of an already hot September morning, staring down a very long, straight row of cotton, a row that had somehow been assigned to me. I thought, I'll never get to the end of it, and I was suddenly tired.


I had cousins in Memphis, sons and daughters of my father's two sisters, and they had never picked cotton. City kids, in the suburbs, in nice little homes with indoor plumbing. They returned to Arkansas for funerals-sometimes for Thanksgiving. As I stared at my endless row of cotton, I thought of those cousins.


Two things motivated me to work. First, and most important, I had my father on one side and my grandfather on the other. Neither tolerated laziness. They had worked the fields when they were children, and I would certainly do the same. Second, I got paid for picking, same as the other field hands. A dollar sixty for a hundred pounds. And I had big plans for the money.


"Let's go," my father said firmly in my direction. Pappy was already settled among the stalks, ten feet into his row. I could see his outline and his straw hat. I could hear the Spruills a few rows over chatting among themselves. Hill people sang a lot, and it was not uncommon to hear them crooning some low, mournful tune as they picked. Tally laughed about something, her luxurious voice echoing across the fields.


She was only ten years older than I was.


Pappy's father had fought in the Civil War. His name was Jeremiah Chandler, and according to family lore, he'd almost single-handedly won the Battle of Shiloh. When Jeremiah's second wife died, he took a third, a local maiden thirty years his junior. A few years later she gave birth to Pappy.


A thirty-year gap for Jeremiah and his bride. Ten for Tally and me. It could work.


With solemn resolve, I flung my nine-foot cotton sack across my back, the strap over my right shoulder, and attacked the first boll of cotton. It was damp from the dew, and that was one reason we started so early. For the first hour or so, before the sun got too high and baked everything, the cotton was soft and gentle to our hands. Later, after it was dumped into the trailer, it would dry and could be easily ginned. Cotton soaked with rainwater could not be ginned, something every farmer had learned the hard way.


I picked as fast as possible, with both hands, and stuffed the cotton into the sack. I had to be careful, though. Either Pappy or my father, or possibly both of them, would inspect my row at some point during the morning. If I left too much cotton in the bolls, then I would be reprimanded. The severity of the scolding would be determined by how close my mother was to me at that particular moment.


As deftly as I could, I worked my small hands through the maze of stalks, grabbing the bolls, avoiding if possible the burrs because they were pointed and could draw blood. I bobbed and weaved and inched along, falling farther behind my father and Pappy.


Our cotton was so thick that the stalks from each row intertwined. They brushed against my face. After the incident with the rat snake, I watched every step around our farm, especially in the fields, since there were cottonmouths near the river. I'd seen plenty of them from the back of the John Deere when we were plowing and planting.


"A Painted House"


Before long I was all alone, a child left behind by those with quicker hands and stronger backs. The sun was a bright orange ball, rising fast into position to sear the land for another day. When my father and Pappy were out of sight, I decided to take my first break. Tally was the nearest person. She was five rows over and fifty feet in front of me. I could barely see her faded denim bonnet above the cotton.


Under the shade of the stalks, I stretched out on my cotton sack, which after an hour was depressingly flat. There were a few soft lumps, but nothing significant. The year before, I'd been expected to pick fifty pounds a day, and my fear was that this quota was about to be increased.


Lying on my back, I watched through the stalks the perfectly clear sky, hoped for clouds, and dreamed of money. Every August we received by mail the latest edition of the Sears, Roebuck catalog, and few events were more momentous, at least in my life. It came in a brown wrapper, all the way from Chicago, and was required by Gran to be kept at the end of the kitchen table, next to the radio and the family Bible. The women studied the clothes and the home furnishings. The men scrutinized the tools and auto supplies. But I dwelt on the important sections-toys and sporting goods. I made secret Christmas lists in my mind. I was afraid to write down all the things I dreamed of. Someone might find such a list and think I was either hopelessly greedy or mentally ill.


On page 308 of the current catalog was an incredible ad for baseball warm-up jackets. There was one for almost every professional team. What made the ad so amazing was that the young man doing the modeling was wearing a Cardinals jacket, and it was in color. A bright Cardinal red, in some type of shiny fabric, white buttons down the front. Of all the teams, someone with uncanny wisdom at Sears, Roebuck had picked the Cardinals to display.


It cost $7.50, plus shipping. And it came in children's sizes, which presented another quandary because I was bound to grow and I wanted to wear the jacket for the rest of my life.


Ten days of hard labor, and I'd have enough money to purchase the jacket. I was certain nothing like it had ever been seen in Black Oak, Arkansas. My mother said it was a bit gaudy, whatever that meant. My father said I needed boots. Pappy thought it was a waste of money, but I could tell he secretly admired it.


At the first hint of cool weather I would wear the jacket to school every day, and to church on Sundays. I would wear it to town on Saturdays; a bolt of bright red amid the drearily clad throngs loitering on the sidewalks. I would wear it everywhere, and I'd be the envy of every kid in Black Oak (and a lot of adults, too).


They would never have the chance to play for the Cardinals. I, on the other hand, would become famous in St. Louis. It was important to start looking the part.


"Lucas!" a stern voice shot through the stillness of the fields. Stalks were snapping nearby.


"Yes sir," I said, jumping to my feet, keeping low, thrusting my hands at the nearest bolls of cotton.


My father was suddenly standing over me. "What are you doing?" he asked.


"I had to pee," I said, without stopping my hands.


"It took a long time," he said, unconvinced.


"Yes sir. It's all that coffee." I looked up at him. He knew the truth.


"Try to keep up," he said, turning around and walking away.


"Yes sir," I said to his back, knowing I could never keep up with him.


A twelve-foot sack like the adults used held about sixty pounds of cotton, so by eight-thirty or nine o'clock the men were ready to weigh. Pappy and my father were in charge of the scales, which hung from the end of the trailer. The sacks were hoisted upward to one of them. The straps were looped over the hooks at the bottom of the scales. The needle sprang around like the long hand of a large clock. Everyone could see how much each person picked.


Pappy recorded the data in a small book near the scales. Then the cotton sack was shoved even higher and emptied into the trailer. No time for a rest. You caught the empty sack when it was tossed down. You selected another row and disappeared for another two hours.


I was in the middle of an endless row of cotton, sweating, boiling in the sun, bending at the shoulders, trying to be fast with my hands, and stopping occasionally to monitor the movements of Pappy and my father so that maybe I could arrange another nap. But there was never an opportunity to drop my sack. Instead, I plowed ahead, working hard, waiting for the sack to get heavy, and wondering for the first time if I really needed the Cardinals jacket.


After an eternity alone in the fields, I heard the John Deere fire up, and I knew it was time for lunch. Though I had not completed my first row, I didn't really care about my lack of progress. We met at the tractor, and I saw Trot curled in a knot on the flat deck trailer. Mrs. Spruill and Tally were patting him. At first I thought he might be dead, then he moved a little. "The heat got him," my father whispered to me, as he took my sack and whirled it around over his shoulder as if it were empty.


"A Painted House"


I followed him to the scales, where Pappy quickly weighed it. All that back-numbing labor for thirty-one pounds of cotton.


When the Mexicans and Spruills were accounted for, we all headed for the house. Lunch was at noon sharp. My mother and Gran had left the fields an hour earlier to prepare it.


From my perch on the John Deere, I clutched the umbrella stand with my scratched and sore left hand and watched the field workers bounce along. Mr. and Mrs. Spruill were holding Trot, who was still lifeless and pale. Tally sat nearby, her long legs stretched across the deck of the trailer. Bo, Dale, and Hank seemed unconcerned about poor Trot. Like everyone else, they were hot and tired and ready for a break.


On the other side, the Mexicans sat in a row, shoulder to shoulder, feet hanging off the side and almost dragging the ground. A couple of them wore no shoes or boots.


When we were nearly at the barn, I saw something that at first I couldn't believe. Cowboy, sitting at the very end of the short trailer, turned quickly, and glanced at Tally. She seemed to have been waiting for him to look, because she gave him one of her pretty little smiles, similar to the ones I'd been getting. Though he didn't return the smile, it was obvious he was pleased.


It happened in a flash, and nobody saw it but me.

***



Tags: John Grisham Mystery
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