Read A Painted House Page 2

Chapter 2

  With the cotton waiting, my grandfather was not a patient man. Though he still drove the truck at its requisite speed, he was restless because the other fields along the road were getting picked, and ours were not. Our Mexicans were two days late. We parked again near Pop and Pearl's, and I followed him to the Tea Shoppe, where he argued with the man in charge of farm labor.

  "Relax, Eli," the man said. "They'll be here any minute. "

  He couldn't relax. We walked to the Black Oak gin on the edge of town, a long walk-but Pappy did not believe in wasting gasoline. Between six and eleven that morning, he'd picked two hundred pounds of cotton, yet he still walked so fast I had to jog to keep up.

  The gravel lot of the gin was crowded with cotton trailers, some empty, others waiting for their harvest to be ginned. I waved again at the Montgomery twins as they were leaving, their trailer empty, headed home for another load.

  The gin roared with the chorus of heavy machines at work. They were incredibly loud and dangerous. During each picking season, at least one worker would fall victim to some gruesome injury inside the cotton gin. I was scared of the machines, and when Pappy told me to wait outside, I was happy to do so. He walked by a group of field hands waiting for their trailers without so much as a nod. He had things on his mind.

  I found a safe spot near the dock, where they wheeled out the finished bales and loaded them onto trailers headed for the Carolinas. At one end of the gin the freshly picked cotton was sucked from the trailers through a long pipe, twelve inches around; then it disappeared into the building where the machines worked on it. It emerged at the other end in neat square bales covered in burlap and strapped tightly with one-inch steel bands. A good gin produced perfect bales, ones that could be stacked like bricks.

  A bale of cotton was worth a hundred and seventy-five dollars, give or take, depending on the markets. A good crop could produce a bale an acre. We rented eighty acres. Most farm kids could do the math.

  In fact, the math was so easy you wondered why anyone would want to be a farmer. My mother made sure I understood the numbers. The two of us had already made a secret pact that I would never, under any circumstances, stay on the farm. I would finish all twelve grades and go play for the Cardinals.

  Pappy and my father had borrowed fourteen thousand dollars in March from the owner of the gin. That was their crop loan, and the money was spent on seed, fertilizer, labor, and other expenses. So far we'd been lucky-the weather had been nearly perfect, and the crops looked good. If our luck continued through the picking, and the fields yielded a bale an acre, then the Chandler farming operation would break even. That was our goal.

  "A Painted House"

  But, like most farmers, Pappy and my father carried debt from the previous year. They owed the owner of the gin two thousand dollars from 1951, which had seen an average crop. They also owed money to the John Deere dealer in Jonesboro for parts, to Lance Brothers for fuel, to the Co-op for seed and supplies, and to Pop and Pearl Watson for groceries.

  I certainly wasn't supposed to know about their crop loans and debts. But in the summertime my parents often sat on the front steps late into the night, waiting for the air to cool so they could sleep without sweating, and they talked. My bed was near a window by the porch. They thought I was sleeping, but I heard more than I should have.

  Though I wasn't sure, I strongly suspected Pappy needed to borrow more money to pay the Mexicans and the hill people. I couldn't tell if he got the money or not. He was frowning when we walked to the gin, and he was frowning when we left it.

  The hill people had been migrating from the Ozarks for decades to pick cotton. Many of them owned their own homes and land, and quite often they had nicer vehicles than the farmers who hired them for the harvest. They worked very hard, saved their money, and appeared to be as poor as we were.

  By 1950 the migration had slowed. The postwar boom had finally trickled down to Arkansas, at least to some portions of the state, and the younger hill people didn't need the extra money as badly as their parents. They simply stayed at home. Picking cotton was not something anyone would volunteer to do. The farmers faced a labor shortage that gradually grew worse; then somebody discovered the Mexicans.

  The first truckload arrived in Black Oak in 1951. We got six of them, including Juan, my buddy, who gave me my first tortilla. Juan and forty others had traveled three days in the back of a long trailer, packed in tightly together, with little food, no shade from the sun or shelter from the rain. They were weary and disoriented when they hit Main Street. Pappy said the trailer smelled worse than a cattle truck. Those who saw it told others, and before long the ladies at the Baptist and Methodist churches were openly complaining about the primitive manner in which the Mexicans had been transported.

  My mother had been vocal, at least to my father. I heard them discuss it many times after the crops were in and the Mexicans had been shipped back. She wanted my father to talk to the other farmers and receive assurances from the man in charge of labor that those who collected the Mexicans and sent them to us would treat them better. She felt it was our duty as farmers to protect the laborers, a notion my father shared somewhat, though he seemed unenthusiastic about leading the charge. Pappy didn't give a damn. Nor did the Mexicans; They just wanted to work.

  The Mexicans finally arrived just after four o'clock. There had been rumors that they would be riding in a bus, and I certainly hoped this was true. I didn't want my parents straining at the issue for another winter. Nor did I want the Mexicans to be treated so poorly.

  But they were in a trailer again, an old one with planks for sides and nothing over the top to protect them. It was true that cattle had it better.

  They carefully hopped down out of the trailer bed and onto the street, three or four at a time, in one wave after another. They spilled forth, emptying in front of the Co-op, and gathered on the sidewalk in small bewildered groups. They stretched and bent and looked around as if they had landed on another planet. I counted sixty-two of them. To my great disappointment, Juan was not there.

  They were several inches shorter than Pappy, very thin, and they all had black hair and brown skin. Each carried a little bag of clothing and supplies.

  Pearl Watson stood on the sidewalk in front of her store, hands on hips, glaring. They were her customers, and she certainly didn't want them mistreated. I knew that before church on Sunday the ladies would be in an uproar again. And I knew my mother would quiz me as soon as we arrived home with our gang.

  Harsh words erupted between the man in charge of labor and the driver of the truck. Somebody down in Texas had, in fact, promised that the Mexicans would be shipped in a bus. This was the second load to arrive in a dirty trailer. Pappy never shied away from a fight, and I could tell he wanted to jump into the fray and finish off the truck driver. But he was also angry with the labor man, and I guess he saw no point in whipping both of them. We sat on the tailgate of our truck and waited for the dust to clear.

  When the yelling stopped, the paperwork began. The Mexicans clung together on the sidewalk in front of the Co-op. Occasionally, they would glance at us and the other farmers who were gathering along Main Street. Word was out-the new batch had arrived.

  Pappy got the first ten. The leader was Miguel. He appeared to be the oldest and, as I noticed from my initial inspection, he had the only cloth bag. The rest of them carried their belongings in paper sacks.

  "A Painted House"

  Miguel's English was passable, but not nearly as good as Juan's had been. I chatted him up while Pappy finished the paperwork. Miguel introduced me to the group. There was a Rico, a Roberto, a Jose, a Luis, a Pablo, and several I couldn't understand. I remembered from a year earlier that it would take a week to distinguish among them.

  Although they were clearly exhausted, each of them seemed to make some effort to smile-except for one who sneered at me when I looked at him. He wore a western-style hat, which Miguel
pointed to and said, "He thinks he's a cowboy. So that's what we call him. " Cowboy was very young, and tall for a Mexican. His eyes were narrow and mean. He had a thin mustache that only added to the fierceness. He frightened me so badly that I gave a passing thought to telling Pappy. I certainly didn't want the man living on our farm for the weeks to come. But instead I just backed away.

  Our group of Mexicans followed Pappy down the sidewalk to Pop and Pearl's. I trailed along, careful not to step close to Cowboy. Inside the store, I assumed my position near the cash register, where Pearl was waiting for someone to whisper to.

  "They treat them like animals," she said.

  "Eli says they're just happy to be here," I whispered back. My grandfather was waiting by the door, arms folded across his chest, watching the Mexicans gather what few items they needed. Miguel was rattling instructions to the rest of them.

  Pearl was not about to criticize Eli Chandler. But she shot him a dirty look, though he didn't see it. Pappy wasn't concerned with cither me or Pearl. He was fretting because the cotton wasn't getting (licked.

  "It's just awful," she said. I could tell Pearl couldn't wait for us to clear out so she could find her church friends and again stir up the issue. Pearl was a Methodist.

  As the Mexicans, holding their goods, drifted to the cash register, Miguel gave each name to Pearl, who in turn opened a charge account. She rang up the total, entered the amount in a ledger by the worker's name, then showed the entry to both Miguel and the customer. Instant credit, American style.

  They bought flour and shortening to make tortillas, lots of beans in both cans and bags, and rice. Nothing extra-no sugar or sweets, no vegetables. They ate as little as possible, because food cost money. Their goal was to save every cent they could and take it back home.

  Of course, these poor fellas had no idea where they were going. They did not know that my mother was a devoted gardener who spent more time tending her vegetables than she did the cotton. They were quite lucky, because my mother believed that no one living within walking distance of our farm would ever go without food.

  Cowboy was last in line, and when Pearl smiled at him, I thought he was going to spit on her. Miguel stayed close. He'd just spent three days in the back of a trailer with the boy and probably knew all about him.

  I said good-bye to Pearl for the second time that day, which was odd because I usually saw her only once a week.

  Pappy led the Mexicans to the truck. They got into the bed and sat shoulder-to-shoulder, feet and legs intertwined. They were silent and stared blankly ahead as if they had no idea where their journey would end.

  The old truck strained with the load but eventually leveled out at thirty-seven, and Pappy almost smiled. It was late in the afternoon, and the weather was hot and dry, perfect for picking. Between the Sp mills and the Mexicans we finally had enough hands to harvest our crop. I reached into my pocket, and pulled out the other half of my Tootsie Roll.

  Long before we arrived at our house, we saw smoke and then a tent. We lived on a dirt road that was very dusty for most of the year, and Pappy was just puttering along so the Mexicans wouldn't get choked.

  "What's that?" I asked.

  "Looks like a tent of some sort," Pappy said.

  It was situated near the road, at the far end of our front yard, under a pin oak that was a hundred years old, very near the spot where home plate belonged. We slowed even more as we approached our mailbox. The Spruills had taken control of half our front yard. The large tent was dirty white with a pointed roof and was erected with a mismatched collection of hand-whittled sticks and metal poles. Two sides of the tent were open, and I could see boxes and blankets lying on the ground under the roof. I could also see Tally napping inside.

  Their truck was parked beside it, and another canvas of some sort had been rigged over its bed. It was anchored with baling rope staked to the ground so that the truck couldn't move without first getting unhitched. Their old trailer had been partially unloaded, its boxes and burlap bags scattered on the grass as if a storm had hit.

  Mrs. Spruill was tending a fire, hence the smoke. For some reason, she had chosen a slightly bare spot near the end of the yard. It was the exact spot where Pappy or my father squatted almost every afternoon and caught my fastballs and my curves. I wanted to cry. I would never forgive Mrs. Spruill for this.

  "A Painted House"

  "I thought you told them to set up out behind the silo," I said.

  "I did," Pappy answered. He slowed the truck almost to a stop, then turned into our place. The silo was out back, near the barn, a sufficient distance from our house. We'd had hill people camping back there before-never in the front yard.

  He parked under another pin oak that was only seventy years old, according to my grandmother. It was the smallest of the three that shaded our house and yard. We rolled to a stop near the house, in the same dry ruts Pappy'd parked in for decades. Both my mother and grandmother were waiting at the kitchen steps.

  Ruth, my grandmother, did not like the fact that the hill people had laid claim to our front yard. Pappy and I knew this before we got out of the truck. She had her hands on her hips.

  My mother was eager to examine the Mexicans and ask me about their traveling conditions. She watched them pile out of the truck as she walked to me and squeezed my shoulder.

  "Ten of them," she said. "Yes ma'am. "

  Gran met Pappy at the front of the truck and said, quietly but sternly, "Why are those people in our front yard?"

  "I asked them to set up by the silo," Pappy said, never one to back down, not even from his wife. "I don't know why they picked that spot. "

  "Can you ask them to move?"

  "I cannot. If they pack up, they'll leave. You know how hill people are. "

  And that was the end of Gran's questions. They were not about to argue in front of me and ten new Mexicans. She walked away, toward the house, shaking her head in disapproval. Pappy honestly didn't care where the hill people camped. They appeared to be able-bodied and willing to work, and nothing else mattered to him.

  I suspected Gran was not that concerned either. The picking was so crucial that we would've taken in a chain gang if they could've averaged three hundred pounds of cotton a day.

  The Mexicans followed Pappy off to the barn, which was 352 feet from the back porch steps. Past the chicken coop, the water pump, the clotheslines, and the tool shed, past a sugar maple that would turn bright red in October. My father had helped me measure the exact distance one day last January. It seemed like a mile to me. From home plate to the left field wall in Sportsman's Park, where the Cardinals played, was 350 feet, and every time Stan Musial hit a home run I would sit on the steps the next day and marvel at the distance. In mid-July he'd hit a ball 400 feet against the Braves. Pappy had said, "He hit it over the barn, Luke. "

  For two days afterward, I'd sat on the steps and dreamed of hitting 'cm over the barn.

  When the Mexicans were past the tool shed, my mother said, "They look very tired. "

  "They rode in a trailer, sixty-two of them," I said, eager, for some reason, to help stir things up.

  "I was afraid of that. "

  "An old trailer. Old and dirty. Pearl's already mad about it. "

  "It won't happen again," she said, and I knew that my father was about to get an earful. "Run along and help your grandfather. "

  I'd spent most of the previous two weeks in the barn, alone with my mother, sweeping and cleaning the loft, trying to make a home for the Mexicans. Most of the farmers put them in abandoned tenant houses or barns. There'd been a rumor that Ned Shackleford three miles south had made his live with the chickens.

  Not so on the Chandler farm. For lack of another shelter, the Mexicans would be forced to live in the loft of our barn, but there wouldn't be a speck of dirt anywhere to be found. And it would have a pleasant smell. For a year my mother had gathered old blankets and quilts for them to sleep

  I slipped into the barn, but stayed below, next to Isabel's stall. She was our milk cow. Pappy claimed his life had been saved in the First War by a young French girl named Isabel, and to honor the memory, he named our Jersey cow after her. My grandmother never believed that story.

  I could hear them up in the loft, moving around, settling in. Pappy was talking to Miguel, who was impressed with how nice and clean the loft was. Pappy took the compliments as if he and he alone had done the scrubbing.

  In fact, he and Gran had been skeptical of my mother's efforts to provide a decent place for the laborers to sleep. My mother had been raised on a small farm at the very edge of Black Oak, so she was almost a town girl. She actually grew up with kids who were too good to pick cotton. She never walked to school-her father drove her. She'd been to Memphis three times before she married my father. She'd been raised in a painted house.