A Painted House - Page 5

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Chapter 5

According to Gran and my mother, conspiring together, the early afternoon nap was crucial to the proper growth of a child. I believed this only when we were picking cotton. For the rest of the year, I fought a nap with as much vigor as I put into planning my baseball career.


But during the harvest, everybody rested after lunch. The Mexicans ate quickly and sprawled under a maple tree near the barn. The Spruills ate leftover ham and biscuits and likewise found shade.


I wasn't allowed to use my bed because I was dirty from the fields, so I slept on the floor in my bedroom. I was tired and stiff from my labors. I dreaded the afternoon session because it always seemed longer, and it was certainly hotter. I drifted away immediately and was even stiffer when I awoke a half hour later.


Trot was causing concern in the front yard. Gran, who fancied herself as some sort of country medicine woman, had gone to check on him, no doubt with the intention of whipping up one of her dreadful concoctions to force down his throat. They had him on an old mattress under a tree with a wet cloth on his forehead. It was obvious he couldn't go back to the fields, and Mr. and Mrs. Spruill were reluctant to leave him alone.


They, of course, had to pick cotton to earn money to live on. I did not. A plan had been devised in my absence to require me to sit with Trot while everybody else worked in the heat for the rest of the afternoon. If Trot somehow took a turn for the worse, I was supposed to sprint to the lower forty and fetch the nearest Spruill. I tried to appear unhappy with this arrangement when my mother explained it to me.


"What about my Cardinals jacket?" I asked her with as much concern as I could muster.


"There's plenty of cotton left for you," she said. "Just sit with him this afternoon. He should be better tomorrow."


There were, of course, eighty acres of cotton, all of which had to be picked twice during the next two months or so. If I lost my Cardinals jacket, it wouldn't be because of Trot.


I watched the trailer leave again, this time with my mother and Gran sitting with the field hands. It squeaked and rattled away from the house, past the barn, down the field road, and was finally lost among the rows of cotton. I couldn't help but wonder whether Tally and Cowboy were making eyes at each other. If I found the courage, I would ask my mother about this.


When I walked to the mattress, Trot was lying perfectly still with his eyes closed. He didn't appear to be breathing.


"Trot," I said loudly, suddenly terrified that he had died on my watch.


He opened his eyes, and very slowly sat up and looked at me. Then he glanced around, as if to make certain we were alone. His withered left arm wasn't much thicker than a broom handle, and it hung from his shoulder without moving much. His black hair shot out in all directions.


"Are you okay?" I asked. I'd yet to hear him speak, and I was curious to know if he could do so.


"I guess," he grunted, his voice thick and his words blurred. I couldn't tell if he had a speech impediment or if he was just tired and dazed. He kept looking around to make sure everyone else was gone, and it occurred to me that perhaps Trot had been faking a bit. I began to admire him.


"Does Tally like baseball?" I asked, one of a hundred questions I wanted to drill him with. I thought it was a simple question, but he was overcome by it and immediately closed his eyes and rolled to one side, then curled his knees to his chest and began another nap.


A breeze rustled the top of the pin oak. I found a thick, grassy spot in the shade near his mattress, and stretched out. Watching the leaves and branches high above, I considered my good fortune. The rest of them were sweating in the sun as time crept along. For a moment I tried to feel guilty, but it didn't work. My luck was only temporary, so I decided to enjoy it.


"A Painted House"


As did Trot. While he slept like a baby, I watched the sky. Soon, though, boredom hit. I went to the house to get a ball and my base-hall glove. I threw myself pop flies near the front porch, something I could do for hours. At one point I caught seventeen in a row.


Throughout the afternoon, Trot never left the mattress. He would sleep, then sit up and look around, then watch me for a moment. If I tried to strike up a conversation, he usually rolled over and continued his nap. At least he wasn't dying.


The next casualty from the cotton patch was Hank. He ambled in late in the day, walking slowly and complaining about the heat. Said he needed to check on Trot.


"I picked three hundred pounds," he said, as if this would impress me. "Then the heat got me." His face was red with sunburn. He wore no hat, which said a lot about his intelligence. Every head was covered in the fields.


He looked Trot over for a second, then went to the back of the truck and began rummaging through their boxes and sacks like a starving bear. He crammed a cold biscuit into his huge mouth, then stretched out under the tree.


"Fetch me some water, boy," he growled abruptly in my direction.


I was too surprised to move. I'd never heard a hill person give an order to one of us. I wasn't sure what to do. But he was grown, and I was just a kid.


"Sir?" I said.


"Fetch me some water!" he repeated, his voice rising.


I was certain they had water stored somewhere among their things. I took a very awkward step toward their truck. This upset him.


"Cold water, boy! From the house. And hurry! I been workin' all day. You ain't."


I rushed into the house, to the kitchen, where Gran kept a gallon jug of water in the refrigerator. My hands shook as I poured the water into a glass. I knew that when I reported this, it would cause trouble. My father would have words with Leon Spruill.


I handed Hank the glass. He drained it quickly, smacked his lips, then said, "Gimme another glass."


Trot was sitting and watching this. I ran back to the house and refilled it. When Hank finished the second, he spat near my feet. "You're a good boy," he said, and tossed me the glass.


"Thanks," I said, catching it.


"Now leave us alone," he said as he lay down on the grass. I retreated to the house and waited for my mother.


You could quit picking at five if you wanted. That was when Pappy pulled the trailer back to the house. Or you could stay in the fields until dark, like the Mexicans. Their stamina was amazing. They would pick until they couldn't see the bolls anymore, then walk a half mile with their heavy sacks to the barn, where they would build a small fire and eat a few tortillas before sleeping hard.


The other Spruills gathered around Trot, who managed to look even sicker for the short minute or so they examined him. Once it was determined that he was alive and somewhat alert, they hurriedly turned their attention to dinner. Mrs. Spruill built a fire.


Next, Gran hovered over Trot. She appeared to be deeply concerned, and I think the Spruills appreciated this. I knew, however, that she merely wanted to conduct experiments on the poor boy with one of her vile remedies. Since I was the smallest victim around, I was usually the guinea pig for any new brew she discovered. I knew from experience that she could whip up a concoction so curative that Trot would bolt from the mattress and run like a scalded dog. After a few minutes, Trot got suspicious and began watching her closely. He now seemed more aware of things, and Gran took this as a sign that he didn't need any medicine, at least not immediately. But she placed him under surveillance, and she'd make her rounds again tomorrow.


My worst chore of the late afternoon was in the garden. I thought it was cruel to force me, or any other seven-year-old kid for that matter, to awake before sunrise, work in the fields all day, and then pull garden duty before supper. But I knew we were lucky to have such a beautiful garden.


At some point before I was born, the women had sectioned off little areas of turf, both inside the house and out, and laid claim to them. I don't know how my mother got the entire garden, but there was no doubt it belonged to her.


It was on the east side of our house, the quiet side, away from the kitchen door and the barnyard and the chicken coop. Away from Pappy's pickup and the small dirt drive where the rare visitor parked. It was enclosed in a wire fence four feet tall, built by my father under my mother's direction, and designed to keep out deer and varmints.


Corn was planted around the fence so that once you closed the rickety gate with the leather latch, you stepped into a secret world hidden by the stalks.


My job was to take a straw basket and follow my mother around as she gathered whatever she deemed ripe. She had a basket, too, and she slowly filled it with tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, onions, and eggplant. She talked quietly, not necessarily to me, but to the garden in general.


"A Painted House"


"Look at the corn, would you? We'll eat those next week."


"Yes ma'am."


"The pumpkins should be just right for Halloween."


"Yes ma'am."


She was constantly searching for weeds, little trespassers that survived only momentarily in our garden. She stopped, pointed, and said, "Pull those weeds there, Luke, by the watermelons."


I set the basket on the dirt trail and pulled with a vengeance.


The garden work was not as rough in the late summer as it was in the spring, when the ground had to be tilled and the weeds grew faster than the vegetables.


A long green snake froze us for a second, then it disappeared into the butter bean vines. The garden was full of snakes, all harmless, but snakes nonetheless. My mother was not deathly afraid of them, but we gave them plenty of room. I lived in fear of reaching for a cucumber and feeling fangs sink into the back of my hand.


My mother loved this little plot of soil because it was hers-no one else really wanted it. She treated it like a sanctuary. When the house got crowded, I could always find her in the garden, talking to her vegetables. Harsh words were rare in our family. When they happened, I knew my mother would disappear into her refuge.


I could hardly carry my basket by the time she'd finished her selections.


The rain had stopped in St. Louis. At exactly eight o'clock, Pappy turned on the radio, fiddled with the knobs and the antenna, and there was colorful Harry Caray, the raspy voice of the Cardinals. There were about twenty games remaining in the season. The Dodgers were in front, and the Giants were in second place. The Cards were in third. It was more than we could stand. Cardinal fans naturally hated the Yankees, and trailing behind two other New York teams in our own league was unbearable.


Pappy was of the opinion that the manager, Eddie Stanky, should've been fired months earlier. When the Cardinals won, it was because of Stan Musial. When they lost, with the same players on the field, it was always the fault of the manager.


Pappy and my father sat side by side on the swing, its rusted chains squeaking as they rocked gently. Gran and my mother shelled butter beans and peas on the other side of the small porch. I was lounging on the top step, within earshot of the radio, watching the Spruill show wind down, waiting with the adults for the heat to finally relent. I missed the steady hum of the old fan, but I knew better than to bring up the subject.


Conversation arose softly from the women as they talked about church stuff-the fall revival and the upcoming dinner-on-the-grounds. A Black Oak girl was getting married in Jonesboro, in a big church, supposedly to a boy with money, and this had to be discussed every night in some fashion. I could not imagine why the women were drawn back to the subject, night after night.


The men had virtually nothing to say, at least nothing unrelated to baseball. Pappy was capable of long stretches of silence, and my father wasn't much better. No doubt, they were worrying about the weather or cotton prices, but they were too tired to fret aloud.


I was content simply to listen, to close my eyes and try to picture Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, a magnificent stadium where thirty thousand people could gather to watch Stan Musial and the Cardinals. Pappy had been there, and during the season I made him describe the place to me at least once a week. He said when you saw the field it seemed to expand. There was grass so green and smooth you could roll marbles across it. The dirt on the infield was actually raked until it was perfect. The scoreboard in left-center was bigger than our house. And all those people, those unbelievably lucky people of St. Louis who got to see the Cardinals and didn't have to pick cotton.


Dizzy Dean and Enos "Country" Slaughter and Red Schoendienst, all the great Cardinals, all the fabled Gashouse Gang, had played there. And because my father and grandfather and uncle could play the game, there was not the slightest doubt in my mind that I would one day rule Sportsman's Park. I would glide across the perfect outfield grass in front of thirty thousand fans and personally grind the Yankees into the dirt.


The greatest Cardinal of all time was Stan Musial, and when he came to the plate in the second inning with a runner at first, I saw Hank Spruill ease through the darkness and sit in the shadows, just close enough to hear the radio.


"Is Stan up?" my mother asked.


"Yes ma'am," I said. She pretended to take an interest in baseball because she knew nothing about it. And if she acted interested in Stan Musial, then she could survive any conversation on the subject around Black Oak.


The soft snap and crunch of the butter beans and peas stopped. The swing was still. I squeezed my baseball glove. My father held the opinion that Harry Caray's voice took on an edge when Musial stepped in, but Pappy was not convinced.


The first pitch by the Pirates pitcher was a fastball low and away. Few pitchers challenged Musial with fastballs on the first pitch. The year before, he'd led the National League with a. 355 batting average, and in 1952, he was running neck and neck with the Cubs' Frankie Baumholtz for the lead. He had power and speed, a great glove, and he played hard every day.


"A Painted House"


I had a Stan Musial baseball card hidden in a cigar box in my drawer, and if the house ever caught on fire, I would grab it before I grabbed anything else.


The second pitch was a high curveball, and with the count of two balls, you could almost hear the fans get out of their seats. A baseball was about to get ripped into some remote section of Sportsman's Park. No pitcher fell behind Stan Musial and survived the moment. The third pitch was a fastball, and Harry Caray hesitated just long enough for us to hear the crack of the bat. The crowd exploded. I held my breath, waiting in that split second for old Harry to tell us where the ball was going. It bounced off the wall in right field, and the crowd roared even louder. The front porch got excited, too. I jumped to my feet, as if by standing I could somehow see St. Louis. Pappy and my father both leaned forward as Harry Caray yelled through the radio. My mother managed some form of exclamation.


Musial was battling his teammate Schoendienst for the National League lead in doubles. The year before, he'd had twelve triples, tops in the majors. As he rounded second, I could barely hear Caray above the crowd. The runner from first scored easily, and Stan slid into third, in the dirt, his feet touching the base, the hapless third baseman taking the late throw and tossing it back to the pitcher. I could see him get to his feet as the crowd went nuts. Then with both hands he slapped the dirt off his white uniform with the bright red trim.


The game had to go on, but for us Chandlers, at least the men, the day was now complete. Musial had hit a bomb, and because we had little hope that the Cardinals would win the pennant, we gladly took our victories where we could get them. The crowd settled down, Harry's voice lowered, and I sank back onto the porch, still watching Stan at third.


If those damned Spruills hadn't been out there, I would've eased into the darkness and taken my position at home plate. I would wait for the fastball, hit it just like my hero, then race around the bases and slide majestically into third base, over by the shadows where the monster Hank was loitering.


"Who's winnin'?" Mr. Spruill asked from somewhere in the darkness.


"Cardinals. One to nothin'. Bottom of the second. Musial just hit a triple," Hank answered. If they were such baseball fans, why had they built their fire on home plate and pitched their ragged tents around my infield? Any fool could look at our front yard, the trees notwithstanding, and see that it was meant for baseball.


If not for Tally, I would have dismissed the entire bunch. And Trot. I did feel sympathy for the poor kid.


I had decided not to bring up the issue of Hank and the cold water. I knew that if I reported it to my father, or to Pappy, then a serious discussion would take place with Mr. Spruill. The Mexicans knew their place, and the hill people were expected to know theirs. They did not ask for things from our house, and they did not give orders to me or anyone else.


Hank had a neck thicker than any I'd ever seen. His arms and hands were also massive, but what scared me were his eyes. I thought they were blank and stupid most of the time, but when he barked at me to fetch him the cold water, they narrowed and glowed with evil.


I didn't want Hank mad at me, nor did I want my father to confront him. My father could whip anybody, except for maybe Pappy, who was older but, when necessary, much meaner. I decided to set aside the incident for the time being. If it happened again, then I would have no choice but to tell my mother.


The Pirates scored two in the fourth, primarily because, according to Pappy, Eddie Stanky didn't change pitchers when he should have. Then they scored three in the fifth, and Pappy got so mad he went to bed.


In the seventh inning, the heat broke just enough to convince us we could get some sleep. The peas and butter beans had been shelled. The Spruills were all tucked away. We were exhausted, and the Cardinals were going nowhere. It wasn't difficult to leave the game.


After my mother tucked me in and we said our prayers, I kicked I he sheets off so I could breathe. I listened to the crickets sing their screeching chorus, calling to each other across the fields. They serenaded us every night in the summer, unless it was raining. I heard a voice in the distance-a Spruill was rambling about, probably Hank rummaging for one last biscuit.


In the living room we had a box fan, a large window unit, which in theory was supposed to suck the hot air through the house and blow it out across the barnyard. It worked about half the time. One door inadvertently closed or blown shut would disrupt the movements of. nr, and you'd lie in your own sweat until you fell asleep. Wind from I he outside would somehow confuse the box fan, and the hot air would gather in the living room, then creep through the house, smothering us. The fan broke down often-but it was one of Pappy's proudest possessions, and we knew of only two other farm families at church who owned such a luxury.


"A Painted House"


That night it happened to be working.


Lying in Ricky's bed, listening to the crickets, enjoying the slight draft over my body as the sticky summer air was pulled toward the living room, I let my thoughts drift to Korea, a place I never wanted to see. My father would tell me nothing about war. Not a hint. There were a few glorious adventures of Pappy's father and his victories in the Civil War, but when it came to the wars of this century, he offered little. I wanted to know how many people he'd shot. How many battles he'd won. I wanted to see his scars. There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask him.


"Don't talk about war," my mother had cautioned me many times. "It's too awful."


And now Ricky was in Korea. It had been snowing when he left us in February, three days after his nineteenth birthday. It was cold in Korea, too. I knew that much from a story on the radio. I was safe and warm in his bed while he was lying in a trench shooting and getting shot at.


What if he didn't come home?


It was a question I tortured myself with every night. I thought about him dying until I cried. I didn't want his bed. I didn't want his room. I wanted Ricky home, so we could run the bases in the front yard and throw baseballs against the barn and fish in the St. Francis. He was really more of a big brother than an uncle.


Boys were getting killed over there, lots of them. We prayed for them at church. We talked about the war at school. At the moment, Ricky was the only boy from Black Oak in Korea, which bestowed upon us Chandlers some odd distinction I cared nothing about.


"Have you heard from Ricky?" was the great question that confronted us every time we went to town.


Yes or no, it didn't matter. Our neighbors were just trying to be thoughtful. Pappy wouldn't answer them. My father would give a polite response. Gran and my mother would chat quietly for a few minutes about his last letter.


I always said, "Yeah. He's coming home soon."

***



Tags: John Grisham Mystery
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