Shortly after breakfast, I followed Gran down the front steps and through the middle of the front yard. She was a woman on a mission: Dr. Gran making her early morning rounds, thrilled that a bona-fide sick person was present within her jurisdiction.
The Spruills were hunched over their makeshift table, eating quickly. Trot's lazy eyes came to life when Gran said, "Good mornin'," and went straight toward him.
"How's Trot?" she said.
"Much better," said Mrs. Spruill.
"He's fine," said Mr. Spruill.
Gran touched the boy's forehead. "Any fever?" she demanded. Trot shook his head with a vengeance. There'd been no fever the day before. Why would there be one this morning?
"Are you light-headed?"
Trot wasn't sure what that meant, nor were the rest of the Spruills. I figured the boy went through life in a perpetual state of light-headedness.
Mr. Spruill took charge, wiping a drip of sorghum from the corner of his mouth with a forearm. "We figure we'll take him to the fields and let him sit under the trailer, out of the sun."
"If a cloud comes up, then he can pick," added Mrs. Spruill. It was evident the Spruills had already made plans for Trot.
Dammit, I thought.
Ricky had taught me a few cuss words. I usually practiced them in I he woods by the river, then prayed for forgiveness as soon as I was alone.
I had envisioned another lazy day under the shade trees in the Front yard, guarding Trot while playing baseball and taking it easy.
"I suppose," said Gran as she took her thumb and index finger and pried one of his eyes wide open. Trot shot a frightened look with his other eye.
"I'll stay close by," Gran said, clearly disappointed. Over breakfast I'd heard her tell my mother that she'd decided the proper remedy would be a strong dose of castor oil, lemon, and some black herb she grew in a window box. I'd stopped eating when I heard this. It was her old standby, one she'd used on me several times. It was more powerful than surgery. My ailments were instantly cured as the dosage burned from my tongue to my toes, and kept burning.
She once mixed a surefire remedy for Pappy because he was constipated. He'd spent two days in the outhouse, unable to farm, begging for water, which I hauled back and forth in a milk jug. I thought she'd killed him. When he emerged-pale, gaunt, somewhat thinner-he walked with a purpose to the house, angrier than anyone had ever seen him. My parents threw me in the pickup, and we went for a long drive.
Gran again promised Trot she'd watch him during the day. He said nothing. He'd stopped eating and was staring blankly across the table, in the general direction of Tally, who was pretending I didn't exist.
We left and returned to the house. I sat on the front steps, waiting for a glimpse of Tally, silently cussing Trot for being so stupid. Maybe he'd collapse again. Surely when the sun was overhead he'd succumb, and they'd need me to watch him on the mattress.
"A Painted House"
When we gathered at the trailer, I greeted Miguel as his gang emerged from the barn and took their places on one side of the trailer. The Spruills took the other side. My father sat in the middle, crowded between the two groups. Pappy drove the tractor, and I observed them from my prized perch next to his seat. Of particular interest this morning was any activity between the loathsome Cowboy and my beloved Tally. I didn't notice any. Everyone was in a daze, eyes half-open and downcast, dreading another day of sun and drudgery.
The trailer rocked and swayed as we slowly made our way into the white fields. As I gazed at the fields of cotton, I couldn't think of my shiny red Cardinals baseball jacket. I tried mightily to pull up images of the great Musial and his muscled teammates running across the manicured green grass of Sportsman's Park. I tried to imagine all of them clad in their red and white uniforms with some no doubt wearing baseball jackets just like the one in the Sears, Roebuck catalog. I tried to picture these scenes because they never failed to inspire me, but the tractor stopped, and all I could see was the looming cotton, just standing there, row after row, waiting.
Last year, Juan had revealed to me the pleasures of Mexican food, especially tortillas. The workers ate them three times a day, so I figured they must be good. I'd eaten lunch one day with Juan and his group, after I'd eaten in our house. He'd fixed me two tortillas, and I'd devoured them. Three hours later I was on hands and knees under the cotton trailer, as sick as a dog. I was scolded by every Chandler present, my mother leading the pack.
"You can't eat their food!" she said with as much scorn as I'd ever heard.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because it's not clean."
I was expressly forbidden to eat anything cooked by the Mexicans. And this, of course, made the tortillas taste even better. I got caught again when Pappy made a surprise appearance at the barn to check on Isabel. My father took me behind the tool shed and whipped me with his belt. I laid off the tortillas for as long as I could.
But a new chef was with us, and I was eager to measure Miguel's food against Juan's. After lunch, when I was certain everyone was asleep, I sneaked out the kitchen door and walked nonchalantly toward the barn. It was a dangerous little excursion because Pappy and Gran did not nap well, even when they were exhausted from the fields.
The Mexicans were sprawled in the shade of the north end of the barn, most of them sleeping on the grass. Miguel knew I was coming because we'd talked for a moment earlier in the morning when we met to get our cotton weighed. His haul was seventy pounds, mine was fifteen.
He knelt over the coals of a small fire and warmed a tortilla in a skillet. He flipped it, and when it was brown on one side, he added a thin layer of salsa-finely chopped tomatoes and onions and peppers, all from our garden. It also contained jalapenos and chopped red peppers that had never been grown in the state of Arkansas. These the Mexicans imported themselves in their little bags.
A couple of the Mexicans were interested in the fact that I wanted a tortilla. The rest of them were working hard at their siestas. Cowboy was nowhere to be seen. Standing at the corner of the barn, with a full view of the house and any Chandler who might come looking, I ate a tortilla. It was hot and spicy and messy. I couldn't tell any difference between Juan's and Miguel's. They were both delicious. Miguel asked if I wanted another, and I could easily have eaten one. But I didn't want to take their food. They were all small and skinny and dirt-poor, and last year when I got caught and the adults took turns scolding me and heaping untold measures of shame upon me, Gran had been creative enough to invent the sin of taking food from the less fortunate. As Baptists, we were never short on sins to haunt us.
I thanked him and crept back to the house and onto the front porch without waking a single Spruill. I curled into the swing as if I'd been napping all along. No one was stirring, but I couldn't sleep. A breeze came from nowhere, and I daydreamed of a lazy afternoon on the porch, no cotton to be picked, nothing to do but maybe fish in the St. Francis and catch pop flies in the front yard.
The work almost killed me during the afternoon. Late in the day, I limped toward the cotton trailer, lugging my harvest behind me, hot and thirsty, soaked with sweat, my fingers swollen from the tiny shallow punctures inflicted by the burrs. I already had forty-one pounds for the day. My quota was still fifty, and I was certain I had at least ten pounds in my sack. I was hoping my mother would be somewhere near the scales because she would insist that I be allowed to quit and go to the house. Both Pappy and my father would send me back for more, quota or not.
Only those two were allowed to weigh the cotton, and if they happened to be deep in a row somewhere, then you got a break while they worked their way back to the trailer. I saw neither of them, and the idea of a nap flashed before me.
"A Painted House"
The Spruills had gathered at the east end of the trailer, in the shade. They were sitting on their bulky cotton sacks, resting and looking at Trot, who, as far as I could tell, hadn't moved more than ten feet during the entire day.
I freed myself from the shoulder strap of my cotton sack and walked to the end of the trailer. "Howdy," one of the Spruills said.
"How's Trot?" I asked.
"Reckon he'll be all right," Mr. Spruill said. They were eating crackers and Vienna sausages, a favorite pick-me-up in the fields. Sitting next to Trot was Tally, who completely ignored me.
"You got anything to eat, boy?" Hank suddenly demanded, his liquid eyes flashing at me. For a second I was too surprised to say anything. Mrs. Spruill shook her head and studied the ground.
"Do you?" he demanded, shifting his weight so that he faced me squarely.
"Uh, no," I managed to say.
"You mean 'No sir,' don't you, boy?" he said angrily.
"Come on, Hank," Tally said. The rest of the family seemed to withdraw. All heads were lowered.
"No sir," I said.
"No sir what?" His voice was sharper. It was obvious Hank enjoyed picking fights. They'd probably been through this many times.
"No sir," I said again.
"You farm people are right uppity, you know that? You think you're better than us hill folk 'cause you have this land and 'cause you pay us to work it. Ain't that right, boy?"
"That's enough, Hank," Mr. Spruill said, but he lacked conviction. I suddenly hoped Pappy or my father would appear. I was ready for these people to leave our farm.
My throat constricted, and my lower lip began to shake. I was hurt and embarrassed and didn't know what to say.
Hank wasn't about to be quiet. He reclined on an elbow, and with a nasty smile said, "We're just one notch above them wetbacks, ain't we, boy? Just hired labor. Just a bunch of hillbillies who drink moonshine and marry our sisters. Ain't that right, boy?"
He paused for a split second as if he really wanted me to respond. I was tempted to run away, but I just stared at my boots. The rest of the Spruills may have felt sorry for me, but none of them came to my rescue.
"We got a house nicer than yours, boy. You believe that? A lot nicer."
"Quiet down, Hank," Mrs. Spruill said.
"It's bigger, got a long front porch, got a tin roof without tar patches, and you know what else it's got? You ain't gonna believe this, boy, but our house's got paint on it. White paint. You ever see paint, boy?"
With that, Bo and Dale, the two teenagers who rarely made a sound, began chuckling to themselves, as if they wanted to appease Hank while not offending Mrs. Spruill.
"Make him stop, Momma," Tally said, and my humiliation was interrupted, if only for a second.
I looked at Trot, and to my surprise he was resting on his elbows, his eyes as wide as I'd ever seen them, absorbing this one-sided little confrontation. He seemed to be enjoying it.
Hank gave a goofy grin to Bo and Dale, and they laughed even louder. Mr. Spruill also looked amused now. Perhaps he'd been called a hillbilly once too often.
"Why don't you sodbusters paint your houses?" Hank boomed in my direction.
The word "sodbusters" hit their nerves. Bo and Dale shook with laughter. Hank bellowed at his own punch line. The entire bunch seemed on the verge of knee-slapping when Trot said, with as much volume as he could muster, "Stop it, Hank!"
His words were slurred slightly so that "Hank" came out "Hane," but he was clearly understood by the rest of them. They were startled, and their little joke came to an abrupt end. Everyone looked at Trot, who was glaring at Hank with as much disgust as possible.
I was on the verge of tears, so I turned and ran past the trailer and along the field road until I was safely out of their sight. Then I ducked into the cotton and waited for friendly voices. I sat on the hot ground, surrounded by stalks four feet tall, and I cried, something I really hated to do.
The trailers from the better farms had tarps to hold the cotton and keep it from blowing onto the roads leading to the gin. Our old tarp was tied firmly in place, securing the fruits of our labor, ninety pounds of which had been picked by me over the past two days. No Chandler had ever taken a load to the gin with bolls flying out like snow and littering the road. Lots of other folks did, though, and part of the picking season was watching the weeds and ditches along Highway 135 slowly grow white as the farmers hurried to the gin with their harvest.
With the loaded cotton trailer dwarfing our pickup, Pappy drove less than twenty miles an hour on the way to town. And he didn't say anything. We were both digesting our dinner. I was thinking about Hank and trying to decide what to do. I'm sure Pappy was worrying about the weather.
If I told him about Hank, I knew exactly what would happen. He'd march me down the front yard to Spruillville, and we'd have an ugly confrontation. Because Hank was younger and bigger, Pappy would have in his hand a stick of some sort, and he'd be very happy to use it. He'd demand that Hank apologize, and when he refused, Pappy would start the threats and insults. Hank would misjudge his opponent, and before long the stick would come into play. Hank wouldn't have a prayer. My father would be forced to cover the Chandler flanks with his twelve-gauge. The women would be safe on the porch, but my mother would once again be humiliated by Pappy's penchant for violence.
"A Painted House"
The Spruills would lick their wounds and pack up their ragged belongings. They'd move down the road to another farm where they were needed and appreciated, and we'd be left short-handed.
I'd be expected to pick even more cotton.
So I didn't say a word.
We drove slowly along Highway 135, stirring up the cotton on the right shoulder of the road, watching the fields where an occasional gang of Mexicans was still working, racing against the dark.
I decided I would simply avoid Hank and the rest of the Spruills until the picking was over and they went back to the hills, back to their wonderfully painted houses and their moonshine and sister-marrying. And at some point late in the winter when we sat around the fire in the living room and told stories about the harvest, I would finally serve up all of Hank's misdeeds. I'd have plenty of time to work on my stories, and would embellish where I deemed appropriate. It was a Chandler tradition.
I had to be careful, though, when telling the painted house story.
As we neared Black Oak, we passed the Clench farm, home of Foy and Laverl Clench and their eight children, all of whom, I was certain, were still in the fields. No one, not even the Mexicans, worked harder than the Clenches. The parents were notorious slave drivers, but the children seemed to enjoy picking cotton and pursuing even the most mundane chores around the farm. The hedge rows around the front yard were perfectly manicured. Their fences were straight and needed no repair. Their garden was huge and its yield legendary. Even their old truck was clean. One of the kids washed it every Saturday.
And their house was painted, the first one on the highway into town. White was the color, with gray trim around the edges and corners. The porch and front steps were dark green.
Soon all the houses were painted.
Our house had been built before the First War, back when indoor plumbing and electricity were unheard of. Its exterior was one-by-six clapboards made of oak, probably cut from the land we now farmed. With time and weather the boards had faded into a pale brown, pretty much the same color as the other farmhouses around Black Oak. Paint was unnecessary. The boards were kept clean and in good repair, and besides paint cost money.
But shortly after my parents were married, my mother decided the house needed an upgrade. She went to work on my father, who was anxious to please his young wife. His parents, though, were not. Pappy and Gran, with all the stubbornness that came from the soil flatly refused to even consider painting the house. The cost was the official reason. This was relayed to my mother through my father. No fight occurred-no words. Just a tense period one winter when four adults lived in a small unpainted house and tried to be cordial.
My mother vowed to herself that she would not raise her children on a farm. She would one day have a house in a town or in a city, a house with indoor plumbing and shrubs around the porch, and with paint on the boards, maybe even bricks.
"Paint" was a sensitive word around the Chandler farm.
I counted eleven trailers ahead of us when we arrived at the gin. Another twenty or so were empty and parked to one side. Those were owned by farmers with enough money to have two. They could leave one to be ginned at night while the other stayed in the fields. My father desperately wanted a second trailer.
Pappy parked and walked to a group of farmers huddled by a trailer. I could tell by the way they were standing that they were worried about something.
For nine months the gin sat idle. It was a tall, long, box-like structure, the biggest building in the county. In early September it came to life when the harvest began. At the height of the picking season it ran all day and all night, stopping only on Saturday evening and Sunday morning. Its compresses and mills roared with a noisy precision that could be heard throughout Black Oak.
I saw the Montgomery twins throwing rocks at the weeds beside the gin, and I joined them. We compared stories about Mexicans and told lies about how much cotton we'd personally picked. It was dark, and the line of trailers moved slowly.
"My pop says cotton prices are goin' down," Dan Montgomery said as he tossed a rock into the darkness. "Says the cotton traders in Memphis are pushin' down prices 'cause there's so much cotton."
"It's a big crop," I said. The Montgomery twins wanted to be farmers when they grew up. I felt sorry for them.
When the rains flooded the land and wiped out the crops, the prices went up because the traders in Memphis couldn't get enough cotton. But the farmers, of course, had nothing to sell. And when the rains cooperated and the crops were huge, the prices went down because the traders in Memphis had too much cotton. The poor people who labored in the fields didn't make enough to pay their crop loans.
Good crops or bad crops, it didn't make any difference.
We talked baseball for a while. The Montgomerys did not own a radio, so their knowledge of the Cardinals was limited. Again, I felt sorry for them.
"A Painted House"
When we left the gin, Pappy had nothing to say. The wrinkles in his forehead were closer together, and his chin was jutting out a bit, so I knew he'd heard bad news. I assumed it had something to do with the price of cotton.
I said nothing as we left Black Oak. When the lights were behind us, I laid my head on the window opening so the wind would hit my lace. The air was hot and still, and I wanted Pappy to drive faster so we could cool off.
I would listen more closely for the next few days. I'd give the adults time to whisper among themselves, then I'd ask my mother what was going on.
If it involved bad news about farming, she would eventually tell me.
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