In the spring and winter, Sunday afternoons were often used as a time for visiting. We'd finish lunch and take our naps, then load into the pickup and drive to Lake City or Paragould and drop in completely unannounced on some relatives or old friends, who'd always be delighted to see us. Or perhaps they'd drop in on us. "Y'all come see us" was the common phrase, and folks took it literally. No arrangements or forewarnings were necessary, or even possible. We didn't have a telephone and neither did our relatives or friends.
But visiting was not a priority in the late summer and fall because the work was heavier and the afternoons were so hot. We forgot about aunts and uncles for a time, but we knew we'd catch up later.
I was sitting on the front porch, listening to the Cardinals and watching my mother and Gran shell peas and butter beans, when I saw a cloud of dust coming from the bridge. "Car's comin'," I said, and they looked in that direction.
Traffic on our road was rare. It was almost always one of the Jeters from across the way or one of the Tollivers east of us. Occasionally a strange car or truck would pass, and we'd watch it without a word until the dust had settled, then we'd talk about it over dinner and speculate as to who it was and what they were doing in our part of Craighead County. Pappy and my father would mention it at the Co-op, and my mother and Gran would tell all the ladies before Sunday school, and sooner or later they'd find someone else who'd seen the strange vehicle. Usually the mystery was solved, but occasionally one passed through and we never found out where it came from.
This car moved slowly. I saw a hint of red that grew bigger and brighter, and before too long a shiny two-door sedan was turning into our driveway. The three of us were now standing on the porch, too surprised to move. The driver parked behind our pickup. From the front yard the Spruills were gawking, too.
The driver opened his door and got out. Gran said, "Well, it's Jimmy Dale."
"It certainly is," my mother said, losing some of her anticipation.
"Luke, run and get Pappy and your father," Gran said. I sprinted through the house yelling for the men, but they'd heard the door slam and were coming from the backyard.
We all met in front of the car, which was new and clean and undoubtedly the most beautiful vehicle I'd ever seen. Everybody hugged and shook hands and exchanged greetings, then Jimmy Dale introduced his new wife, a thin little thing who looked younger than Tally. Her name was Stacy. She was from Michigan, and when she spoke her words came through her nose. She clipped them quickly and efficiently, and within seconds she made my skin crawl.
"Why does she talk like that?" I whispered to my mother as the group moved to the porch.
"She's a Yankee" was the simple explanation.
Jimmy Dale's father was Ernest Chandler, Pappy's older brother. Ernest had farmed in Leachville until a heart attack killed him a few years earlier. I did not personally remember Ernest, or Jimmy Dale, though I'd heard plenty of stories about them. I knew that Jimmy Dale had fled the farm and migrated to Michigan, where he found a job in a Buick factory making three dollars an hour, an unbelievable wage by Black Oak standards. He'd helped other local boys get good jobs up there. Two years earlier, after another bad crop, my father had spent a miserable winter in Flint, putting windshields into new Buicks. He'd brought home a thousand dollars and had spent it all on outstanding farm debts.
"That's some car," my father said as they sat on the front steps. Gran was in the kitchen making iced tea. My mother had the unpleasant task of chatting up Stacy, a misfit from the moment she stepped out of the car.
"Brand new," Jimmy Dale said proudly. "Got it last week, just in time to drive home. Me and Stacy here got married a month ago, and that's our wedding present."
"Stacy and I got married, not me and Stacy," said the new wife, cutting in from across the porch. There was a slight pause in the conversation as the rest of us absorbed the fact that Stacy had just corrected her husband's grammar in the presence of others. I'd never heard this before in my life.
"Is it a fifty-two?" Pappy asked.
"No, it's a fifty-three, newest thing on the road. Built it myself."
"You don't say."
"Yep. Buick lets us custom order our own cars, then we get to watch when they come down the line. I put the dashboard in that one."
"How much did it cost?" I asked, and I thought my mother would come for my throat.
"Luke!" she shouted. My father and Pappy cast hard looks at me, and I was about to say something when Jimmy Dale blurted out, "Twenty-seven hundred dollars. It's no secret. Every dealer in the country knows how much they cost."
"A Painted House"
By now the Spruills had drifted over and were inspecting the carevery Spruill but Tally, who was nowhere to be seen. It was Sunday afternoon and time, in my way of thinking, for a cool bath at Siler's Creek. I had been hanging around the porch waiting for her to appear.
Trot waddled around the car while Bo and Dale circled it, too. Hank was peering inside, probably looking for the keys. Mr. and Mrs. Spruill were admiring it from a distance.
Jimmy Dale watched them carefully. "Hill people?"
"Yeah, they're from Eureka Springs."
"For the most part," Pappy said.
"What's that big one doin'?"
"You never know."
We'd heard at church that morning that Samson had eventually gotten to his feet and walked from the ring, so Hank had not added another casualty to his list. Brother Akers had preached for an hour on the sinfulness of the carnival-wagering, fighting, lewdness, vulgar costumes, mingling with gypsies, all sorts of filth. Dewayne and I listened to every word, but our names were never mentioned.
"Why do they live like that?" Stacy asked, looking at Camp Spruill. Her crisp words knifed through the air.
"How else could they live?" Pappy asked. He, too, had already made the decision that he did not like the new Mrs. Jimmy Dale Chandler. She sat perched like a little bird on the edge of a rocker, looking down on everything around her.
"Can't you provide housing for them?" she asked.
I could tell that Pappy was starting to burn.
"Anyway, Buick'll let us finance the cars for twenty-four months," Jimmy Dale said.
"Is that so?" said my father, still staring at it. "I think that's 'bout the finest car I've ever seen."
Gran brought a tray to the porch and served tall glasses of iced tea with sugar. Stacy declined. "Tea with ice," she said. "Not for me. Do you have any hot tea?"
Hot tea? Who'd ever heard of such foolishness?
"No, we don't drink hot tea around here," Pappy said from his swing as he glared at Stacy.
"Well, up in Michigan we don't drink it with ice," she said.
"This ain't Michigan," Pappy shot back.
"Would you like to see my garden?" my mother said abruptly.
"Yeah, that's a great idea," Jimmy Dale said. "Go on, sweetheart, Kathleen has the prettiest garden in Arkansas."
"I'll go with you," Gran said in an effort to shove the girl off the porch and away from controversy. The three women disappeared, and Pappy waited just long enough to say, "Where in God's name did you find her, Jimmy Dale?"
"She's a sweet girl, Uncle Eli," he answered without much conviction.
"She's a damned Yankee."
"Yankees ain't so bad. They were smart enough to avoid cotton. They live in nice houses with indoor plumbing and telephones and televisions. They make good money and they build good schools. Stacy's had two years of college. Her family's had a television for three years. Just last week I watched the Indians and Tigers on it. Can you believe that, Luke? Watching baseball on television."
"Well, I did. Bob Lemon pitched for the Indians. Tigers ain't much; they're in last place again."
"I don't much care for the American League," I said, repeating words I'd heard my father and grandfather say since the day I started remembering.
"What a surprise," Jimmy Dale said with a laugh. "Spoken like a true Cardinal fan. I was the same way till I went up North. I've been to eleven games this year in Tiger Stadium, and the American League kinda grows on you. Yankees were in town two weeks ago; place was sold out. They got this new guy, Mickey Mantle, 'bout as smooth as I've seen. Good power, great speed, strikes out a lot, but when he hits it, it's gone. He'll be a great one. And they got Berra and Rizzuto."
"I still hate 'em," I said, and Jimmy Dale laughed again.
"You still gonna play for the Cardinals?" he asked.
"You ain't gonna farm?"
I'd heard the grown-ups talk about Jimmy Dale. He was quite smug that he'd managed to flee the cotton patch and make a better living up North. He liked to talk about his money. He'd found the better life and was quick with his advice to other farm boys around the county.
Pappy thought that farming was the only honorable way a man should work, with the possible exception of playing professional baseball.
We sipped our tea for a while, then Jimmy Dale said, "So how's the cotton?"
"So far so good," Pappy said. "The first pickin' went well."
"Now we'll go through it again," my father added. "Probably be done in a month or so."
Tally emerged from the depths of Camp Spruill, holding a towel or some type of cloth. She circled wide around the red car, where her family still stood entranced; they didn't notice her. She looked at me from the distance but made no sign. I was suddenly bored with baseball and cotton and cars and such, but I couldn't just race off. It would be rude to leave company in such a manner, and my father would suspect something. So I sat there and watched Tally disappear past the house.
"A Painted House"
"How's Luther?" my father asked.
"Doin' well," Jimmy Dale said. "I got 'im on at the plant. He's makin' three dollars an hour, forty hours a week. Luther ain't never seen so much money."
Luther was another cousin, another Chandler from a distant strain. I'd met him once, at a funeral.
"So he ain't comin' home?" Pappy said.
"I doubt it."
"Is he gonna marry a Yankee?"
"I ain't asked him. I reckon he'll do whatever he wants to do."
There was a pause, and the tension seemed to fade for a moment. Then Jimmy Dale said, "You can't blame him for stayin' up there. I mean, hell, they lost their farm. He was pickin' cotton around here for other people, makin' a thousand bucks a year, didn't have two dimes to rub together. Now he'll make more than six thousand a year, plus a bonus and retirement."
"Did he join the union?" my father asked.
"Damned right he did. I got all the boys from here in the union."
"What's a union?" I asked.
"Luke, go check on your mother," Pappy said. "Go on."
Once again I had asked an innocent question, and because of it, I was banished from the conversation. I left the porch, then raced to the back of the house in hopes of seeing Tally. But she was gone, no doubt down at the creek bathing without her faithful lookout.
Gran was at the garden gate, resting on the fence, watching my mother and Stacy go from plant to plant. I stood beside her, and she tousled my hair. "Pappy said she's a damned Yankee," I said softly.
"I'm not swearin'. I'm just repeatin'."
"They're good people, they're just different." Gran's mind was somewhere else. At times that summer she would talk to me without seeing me. Her tired eyes would drift away as her thoughts left our farm.
"Why does she talk like that?" I asked.
"She thinks we talk funny."
I couldn't understand this.
A green snake less than a foot long poked its head from the cucumber patch, then raced down a dirt trail directly at my mother and Stacy. They saw it at about the same instant. My mother pointed and calmly said, "There's a little green snake."
Stacy reacted in a different manner. Her mouth flew open, but she was so horrified that it took a second or two for any sound to come forth. Then she let loose with a scream that the Latchers could've heard, a bloodcurdling shriek that was far more terrifying than even the deadliest of snakes.
"A snake!" she screamed again as she jumped behind my mother. "Jimmy Dale! Jimmy Dale!"
The snake had stopped dead on the trail and appeared to be looking up at her. It was just a harmless little green snake. How could anybody be afraid of it? I darted through the garden and picked him up, thinking I was helping matters. But the sight of a little boy holding such a lethal creature was more than Stacy could stand. She fainted and fell into the butter beans as the men came running from the front porch.
Jimmy Dale scooped her up as we tried to explain what had happened. The poor snake was limp; I thought he'd fainted, too. Pappy could not suppress a grin as we followed Jimmy Dale and his wife to the back porch, where he laid her on a bench while Gran went to get remedies.
Stacy came to eventually, her face pale, her skin clammy. Gran hovered over her with wet cloths and smelling salts.
"Don't they have snakes up in Michigan?" I whispered to my father.
"It was just a little green one," I said.
"Thank God she didn't see a rat snake. She'd be dead," my father said.
My mother boiled water and poured it into a cup with a tea bag. Stacy sat up and drank it, and for the first time in history hot tea was consumed on our farm. She wanted to be alone, so we returned to the front porch while she rested.
Before long, the men were into the Buick. They had the hood up and were poking their heads around the engine. When no one was paying attention to me, I moved away from the porch and headed for the rear of the house, looking for Tally. I hid by the silo, in a favorite spot where I couldn't be seen. I heard an engine start, a smooth powerful sound, and knew it wasn't our old truck. They were going for a ride, and I heard my father call my name. But when I didn't respond, they left.
I gave up on Tally and walked back to the house. Stacy was sitting on a stool under a tree, looking forlornly across our fields, arms crossed as if she were very unhappy. The Buick was gone.
"You didn't go for a ride?" she asked me.
"Have you ever ridden in a car?" Her tone was mocking, so I started to lie.
"How old are you?"
"You're seven years old, and you've never ridden in a car?"
"Have you ever seen a television?"
"Have you ever used a telephone?"
"Unbelievable." She shook her head in disgust, and I wished I'd stayed by the silo. "Do you go to school?"
"A Painted House"
"Thank God for that. Can you read?"
"Yes ma'am. I can write, too."
"Are you going to finish high school?"
"Did your father?"
"And your grandfather?"
"I didn't think so. Does anybody go to college around here?"
"What does that mean?"
"My mother says I'm goin' to college."
"I doubt it. How can you afford college?"
"My mother says I'm goin'."
"You'll grow up to be just another poor cotton farmer, like your father and grandfather."
"You don't know that," I said. She shook her head in total frustration.
"I've had two years of college," she said very proudly.
It didn't make you any smarter, I wanted to say. There was a long pause. I wanted to leave but wasn't sure how to properly remove myself from the conversation. She sat perched on the stool, gazing into the distance, gathering more venom.
"I just can't believe how backward you people are," she said.
I studied my feet. With the exception of Hank Spruill, I had never met a person whom I disliked as much as Stacy. What would Ricky do? He'd probably cuss her, and since I couldn't get by with that, I just decided to walk away.
The Buick was returning, with my father at the wheel. He parked it, and all the adults got out. Jimmy Dale yelled for the Spruills to come over. He loaded up Bo, Dale, and Trot in the backseat, Hank in the front, and away they went, flying down our dirt road, headed for the river.
It was late in the afternoon before Jimmy Dale made any mention of leaving. We were ready for them to go, and I was particularly worried that they might hang around long enough for supper. I couldn't imagine sitting around the dinner table trying to eat while Stacy commented on our food and habits. So far she had despised everything else about our lives, why should she relent over supper?
We moved slowly to the Buick, our languid good-byes taking forever, as usual.
No one was ever in a hurry when it was time to go. The announcement was made that the hour was late, then repeated, and then someone made the first move to the car or truck amid the first wave of farewells. Hands were shaken, hugs given, promises exchanged. Progress was made until the group got to the vehicle, at which time the entire procession came to a halt as someone remembered yet another quick story. More hugs, more promises to come back soon. After considerable effort, the departing ones were safely tucked away inside the vehicle, then those sending them off would stick their heads in for another round of good-byes. Maybe another quick story. A few protests would finally get the engine started, and the car or truck would slowly back up, everyone still waving.
When the house was out of sight, someone other than the driver would say, "What was the hurry?"
And someone standing in the front yard, still waving, would say, "Wonder why they had to rush off?"
When we made it to the car, Stacy whispered something to Jimmy Dale. He then turned to my mother and said softly, "She needs to go to the bathroom."
My mother looked worried. We didn't have bathrooms. You relieved yourself in the outhouse, a small wooden closet sitting on a deep hole, hidden out behind the toolshed, halfway between the back porch and the barn.
"Come with me," my mother said to her, and they left. Jimmy Dale suddenly remembered another story, one about a local boy who went to Flint and got arrested for public drunkenness outside a bar. I eased away and walked through the house. Then I sneaked off the back porch and ran between two chicken coops to a point where I could see my mother leading Stacy to the outhouse. She stopped and looked at it and seemed very reluctant to enter. But she had no choice.
My mother left her and retreated to the front yard.
I struck quickly. As soon as my mother was out of range, I knocked on the door of the outhouse. I heard a faint shriek, then a desperate, "Who is it?"
"Miss Stacy, it's me, Luke."
"I'm in here!" she said, her usually clear words now hurried and muffled in the stifling humidity of the outhouse. It was dark in there, the only light coming from the tiny cracks between the planks.
"Don't come out right now!" I said with as much panic as I could fake.
"There's a big black snake out here!"
"Oh my God!" she gasped. She would've fainted again, but she was already sitting down.
"Be quiet!" I said. "Otherwise, he'll know you're in there."
"Holy Jesus!" she said, her voice breaking. "Do something!"
"I can't. He's big, and he bites."
"What does he want?" she begged, as if she were on the verge of tears.
"I don't know. He's a shitsnake, he hangs around here all the time."
"Get Jimmy Dale!"
"Okay, but don't come out. He's right by the door. I think he knows you're in there."
"Oh my God," she said again, and started crying. I ducked back between the chicken coops, then looped around the garden on the east side of the house. I moved slowly and quietly along the hedges that were our property line until I came to a point in a thicket where I could hide and watch the front yard. Jimmy Dale was leaning on his car, telling a story, waiting for his young bride to finish her business.
"A Painted House"
Time dragged on. My parents and Pappy and Gran listened and chuckled as one story led to another. Occasionally one of them would glance toward the backyard.
My mother finally became concerned and left the group to check on Stacy. A minute later there were voices, and Jimmy Dale bolted toward the outhouse. I buried myself deeper in the thicket.
It was almost dark when I entered the house. I'd been watching from a distance, from beyond the silo, and I knew my mother and Gran were preparing supper. I was in enough trouble-being late for a meal would have only compounded the situation.
They were seated, and Pappy was about to bless the food when I walked through the door from the back porch and quietly took my seat. They looked at me, but I chose instead to stare at my plate. Pappy said a quick prayer, and the food was passed around. After a silence sufficiently long enough to build tension, my father said, "Where you been, Luke?"
"Down by the creek," I said.
"Nothin'. Just lookin' around."
This sounded suspicious enough, but they let it pass. When all was quiet, Pappy, with perfect timing and with the devil in his voice, said, "You see any shitsnakes at the creek?"
He barely got the words out before he cracked up.
I looked around the table. Gran's jaws were clenched as if she were determined not to smile. My mother covered her mouth with her napkin, but her eyes betrayed her; she wanted to laugh, too. My father had a large bite of something in his mouth, and he managed to chew it while keeping a straight face.
But Pappy was determined to howl. He roared at the end of the table while the rest of them fought to maintain their composure. "That was a good one, Luke!" he managed to say while catching his breath. "Served her right."
I finally laughed, too, but not at my own actions. The sight of Pappy laughing so hard while the other three so gamely tried not to struck me as funny.
"That's enough, Eli," Gran said, finally moving her jaws.
I took a large bite of peas and stared at my plate. Things grew quiet again, and we ate for a while with nothing said.
After dinner, my father took me for a walk to the tool shed. On its door he kept a wooden hickory stick, one that he'd cut himself and polished to a shine. It was reserved for me.
I'd been taught to take my punishment like a man. Crying was forbidden, at least openly. In these awful moments, Ricky always inspired me. I'd heard horror stories of the beatings Pappy had given him, and never, according to his parents and mine, had he been brought to tears. When Ricky was a kid, a whipping was a challenge.
"That was a mean thing you did to Stacy," my father began. "She was a guest on our farm, and she's married to your cousin."
"Why'd you do it?"
" 'Cause she said we were stupid and backward." A little embellishment here wouldn't hurt.
"Yes sir. I didn't like her, neither did you or anybody else."
"That may be true, but you still have to respect your elders. How many licks you think that's worth?" The crime and the punishment were always discussed beforehand. When I bent over, I knew exactly how many licks I'd receive.
"One," I said. That was my usual assessment.
"I think two," he said. "Now what about the bad language?"
"I don't think it was that bad," I said.
"You used a word that was unacceptable."
"How many licks for that?"
"Can we agree on three, total?" he asked. He never whipped me when he was angry, so there was usually a little room for negotiation. Three sounded fair, but I always pushed a little. After all, I was on the receiving end. Why not haggle?
"Two's more fair," I said.
"It's three. Now bend over."
I swallowed hard, gritted my teeth, turned around, bent over, and grabbed my ankles. He smacked my rear three times with the hickory stick. It stung like hell, but his heart wasn't in it. I'd received far worse.
"Go to bed, right now," he said, and I ran to the house.
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