Read A Painted House Page 3

Chapter 3

  We Chandlers rented our land from Mr. Vogel of Jonesboro, a man I'd never seen. His name was rarely mentioned, but when it did slip into a conversation, it was uttered with respect and awe. I thought he was the richest man in the world.

  Pappy and Gran had been renting the land since before the Great Depression, which arrived early and stayed late in rural Arkansas. After thirty years of backbreaking labor, they had managed to purchase

  "A Painted House"

  from Mr. Vogel the house and the three acres around it. They also owned the John Deere tractor, two disks, a seed planter, a cotton trailer, a flatbed trailer, two mules, a wagon, and the truck. My father had a vague agreement that gave him an ownership interest in some "I these assets. The land deed was in the names of Eli and Ruth Chandler.

  The only farmers who made money were those who owned their land. The renters, like us, tried to break even. The sharecroppers had i he worst and were doomed to eternal poverty. My father's goal was to own forty acres of land, free and clear. My other's dreams were tucked away, only to be shared with me as I grew older. But I already knew she longed to leave the rural life and is determined that I would not farm. By the time I was seven, she had made a believer out of me.

  When she was satisfied that the Mexicans were being properly situated, she sent me to find my father. It was late, the sun was falling beyond the trees that lined the St. Francis River, and it was time for in to weigh his cotton sack for the final time and call it a day. I walked barefoot along a dirt path between two fields, looking for him. The soil was dark and rich, good Delta farmland that produced enough to keep you tied to it. Ahead, I saw the cotton trailer, and I knew he was working his way toward it.

  Jesse Chandler was the elder son of Pappy and Gran. His younger brother, Ricky, was nineteen and fighting somewhere in Korea. There were two sisters who'd fled the farm as soon as they'd finished high school.

  My father didn't flee. He was determined to be a farmer like his father and grandfather, except he'd be the first Chandler to own his land. I didn't know if he had dreams of a life away from the fields. Like my grandfather, he had been an excellent baseball player, and I'm sure at one point he'd dreamed of major league glory. But he took a German bullet through his thigh in Anzio in 1944, and his baseball career came to an end.

  He walked with a very slight limp, but then so did most people who toiled in the cotton patch.

  I stopped at the trailer, which was almost empty. It sat on a narrow cotton road, waiting to be filled. I climbed up on it. Around me, on all sides, neat rows of green and brown stalks stretched to the tree lines that bordered our land. At the top of the stalks, puffy bolls of cotton were popping forth. The cotton was coming to life by the minute, so when I stepped on the back of the trailer and surveyed the fields, I saw an ocean of white. The fields were silent-no voices, no tractor engines, no cars on the road. For a moment, hanging on to the trailer, I could almost understand why my father wanted to be a farmer.

  I could barely see his old straw hat in the distance as he moved between rows. I jumped down and hurried to meet him. With dusk approaching, the gaps between the rows were even darker. Because the sun and rain had cooperated, the leaves were full and thick and weaving together so that they brushed against me as I walked quickly toward my father.

  "Is that you, Luke?" he called, knowing full well that no one else would be coming to find him.

  "Yes sir!" I answered, moving to the voice. "Mom says it's time to quit!"

  "Oh she does?"

  "Yes sir. " I missed him by one row. I cut through the stalks, and there he was, bent at the waist, both hands moving through the leaves, adroitly plucking the cotton and stuffing it into the nearly full sack draped over his shoulder. He'd been in the fields since sunrise, breaking only for lunch.

  "Did y'all find some help?" he asked without looking at me.

  "Yes sir," I said proudly. "Mexicans and hill people. "

  "How many Mexicans?"

  "Ten," I said, as if I'd personally rounded them up.

  "That's good. Who are the hill people?"

  "The Spruills. I forgot where they're from. "

  "How many?" He finished a stalk and crept forward, with his heavy sack inching along behind him.

  "A whole truckload. It's hard to tell. Gran's mad because they've set up camp in the front yard, even got a fire goin' where home plate is. Pappy told 'em to set up by the silo. I heard him. I don't think they're real smart. "

  "Don't be sayin' that. "

  "Yes sir. Anyway, Gran's not too pleased. "

  "She'll be all right. We need the hill people. "

  "Yes sir. That's what Pappy said. But I hate they've messed up home plate. "

  "Pickin' is more important than baseball these days. "

  "I guess. " Maybe in his opinion.

  "How are the Mexicans?"

  "Not too good. They stuffed 'em in a trailer again, and Mom's not too happy about it. "

  His hands stopped for a second as he considered another winter of squabbles. "They're just happy to be here," he said, his hands moving again.

  I took a few steps toward the trailer in the distance, then turned to watch him again. "Tell that to Mom. "

  He gave me a look before saying, "Did Juan make it?"

  "No sir. "

  "Sorry to hear that. "

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  I'd talked about Juan for a year. He had promised me last fall that he'd be back. "That's okay," I said. "The new guy is Miguel. He's real nice. "

  I told him about the trip to town, how we found the Spruills, about Tally and Trot and the large young man on the tailgate, then back to i own where Pappy argued with the man in charge of labor, then the nip to the gin, then about the Mexicans. I did all the talking because my day had certainly been more eventful than his.

  At the trailer, he lifted the straps of his cotton sack and hung them over the hook at the bottom of the scales. The needle settled on fifty-eight pounds. He scribbled this in a ragged old ledger wired to the trailer.

  "How much?" I asked when he closed the book.

  "Four-seventy. "

  "A triple," I said.

  He shrugged and said, "Not bad. "

  Five hundred pounds equaled a home run, something he accomplished every other day. He squatted and said, "Hop on. "

  I jumped on his back, and we started for the house. His shirt and overalls were soaked with sweat, and had been all day, but his arms were like steel. Pop Watson told me that Jesse Chandler once hit a baseball that landed in the center of Main Street. Pop and Mr. Snake Wilcox, the barber, measured it the next day and began telling people that it had traveled, on the fly, 440 feet. But a hostile opinion quickly emerged from the Tea Shoppe, where Mr. Junior Barnhart claimed, rather loudly, that the ball had bounced at least once before hitting Main Street.

  Pop and Junior went weeks without speaking to each other. My mother verified the argument, but not the home run.

  She was waiting for us by the water pump. My father sat on a bench and removed his boots and socks. Then he unsnapped his overalls and took off his shirt.

  One of my chores at dawn was to fill a washtub with water and leave it in the sun all day so there'd be warm water for my father every afternoon. My mother dipped a hand towel in the tub and gently rubbed his neck with it.

  She had grown up in a house full of girls, and had been raised in part by a couple of prissy old aunts. I think they bathed more than farm people, and her passion for cleanliness had rubbed off on my father. I got a complete scrubbing every Saturday afternoon, whether I needed it or not.

  When he was washed up and dried off, she handed him a fresh shirt. It was time to welcome our guests. In a large basket, my mother had assembled a collection of her finest vegetables, all handpicked, of course, and washed within the past two hours. Indian tomatoes, Vidalia onions, red-skin potatoes, green and red bell peppers, ears of corn.
We carried it to the back of the barn, where the Mexicans were resting and talking and waiting for their small fire to burn low so they could make their tortillas. I introduced my father to Miguel, who in turn presented some of his gang.

  Cowboy sat alone, his back to the barn, making no move to acknowledge us. I could see him watching my mother from under the brim of his hat. It frightened me for a second; then I realized Jesse Chandler would snap Cowboy's skinny little neck if he made one wrong move.

  We had learned a lot from the Mexicans the year before. They did not eat butter beans, snap beans, squash, eggplant, or turnips, but preferred tomatoes, onions, potatoes, peppers, and corn. And they would never ask for food from our garden. It had to be offered.

  My mother explained to Miguel and the other men that our garden was full and that she would bring them vegetables every other day. They were not expected to pay for the food. It was part of the package.

  We took another basket to the front of the house, where Camp Spruill seemed to be expanding by the hour. They had crept even farther across the yard, and there were more cardboard boxes and burlap sacks strewn about. They'd laid three planks across a box on one end and a barrel on the other to make a table, and they were crowded around it eating dinner when we approached them. Mr. Spruill got to his feet and shook my father's hand.

  "Leon Spruill," he said with food on his lip. "Nice to meet you. "

  "Happy to have you folks here," my father said pleasantly.

  "Thank you," Mr. Spruill said, pulling up his pants. "This here is my wife, Lucy. " She smiled and kept chewing slowly.

  "This is my daughter, Tally," he said, pointing. When she looked at me, I could feel my cheeks burning.

  "And these are my nephews, Bo and Dale," he said, nodding to the two boys who'd been resting on the mattress when they had stopped on the highway. They were teenagers, probably fifteen or so. And sitting next to them was the giant I'd first seen on the tailgate, half-asleep.

  "This is my son Hank," Mr. Spruill said. Hank was at least twenty and was certainly old enough to stand up and shake hands. But he kept eating. Both jaws were ballooned with what appeared to be corn bread. "He eats a lot," Mr. Spruill said, and we tried to laugh.

  "And this here is Trot," he said. Trot never looked up. His limp left arm hung by his side. He clutched a spoon with his right hand. His standing in the family was left undeclared.

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  My mother presented the large basket of vegetables, and for a second, Hank stopped his chomping and looked up at the fresh supply. Then he returned to his beans. "The tomatoes and corn are especially good this year," my mother was saying. "And there's plenty. Just let me know what you like. "

  Tally chewed slowly and stared at me. I studied my feet.

  "That's mighty nice of you, ma'am," Mr. Spruill said, and Mrs. Spruill added a quick thanks. There was no danger of the Spruills going without food, not that they had missed any meals. Hank was burly with a thick chest that narrowed only slightly where it met his neck. Mr. and Mrs. Spruill were both stocky and appeared strong. Bo and Dale were lean but not thin. Tally, of course, was perfectly proportioned. Only Trot was gaunt and skinny.

  "Didn't mean to interrupt dinner," my father said, and we began backing away.

  "Thanks again," Mr. Spruill said.

  I knew from experience that within a short time we would know more than we wanted about the Spruills. They would share our land, our water, our outhouse. We would take them vegetables from the garden, milk from Isabel, eggs from the coop. We would invite them to town on Saturday and to church on Sunday. We would work beside them in the fields from sunrise until almost dark. And when the picking was over, they would leave and return to the hills. The trees would turn, winter would come, and we would spend many cold nights huddled around the fire telling stories about the Spruills.

  Dinner was potatoes, sliced thin and fried, boiled okra, corn on the cob, and hot corn bread-but no meats because it was almost fall, and because we'd had a roast the day before. Gran fried chicken twice a week, but never on Wednesdays. My mother's garden was producing enough tomatoes and onions to feed all of Black Oak, so she sliced a platter of them for every meal.

  The kitchen was small and hot. A round oscillating fan rattled away on top of the refrigerator and tried to keep the air circulating as my mother and grandmother prepared dinner. Their movements were slow but steady. They were tired, and it was too hot to hurry up.

  They were not particularly fond of each other, but both were determined to exist in peace. I never heard them argue, never heard my mother say anything bad about her mother-in-law. They lived in the same house, cooked the same meals, did the same laundry, picked the same cotton. With so much work to do, who had time to bicker?

  But Gran had been born and bred deep in the cotton patch. She knew she would be buried in the soil she worked. My mother longed for an escape.

  Through daily ritual, they had silently negotiated a method to their kitchen work. Gran hovered near the stove, checking the corn bread, stirring the potatoes, okra, and corn. My mother kept to the sink, where she peeled tomatoes and stacked the dirty dishes. I studied this from the kitchen table, where I sat every night and peeled cucumbers with a paring knife. They both loved music, and occasionally one would hum while the other sang softly. The music kept the tension buried.

  But not tonight. They were too preoccupied to sing and hum. My mother was stewing over the fact that the Mexicans had been hauled in like cattle. My grandmother was pouting because the Spruills had invaded our front yard.

  At exactly six o'clock, Gran removed her apron and sat across from me. The end of the table was flush against the wall and served as a large shelf that accumulated things. In the center was an RCA radio in a walnut casing. She turned on the switch and smiled at me.

  The CBS news was delivered to us by Edward R. Murrow, live from New York. For a week there'd been heavy fighting in Pyongyang, near the Sea of Japan, and from an old map that Gran kept on her night table, we knew that Ricky's infantry division was in the area. His last letter had arrived two weeks earlier. It was a quickly written note, but between the lines it gave the impression that he was in the thick of things.

  When Mr. Murrow got past his lead story about a spat with the Russians, he started on Korea, and Gran closed her eyes. She folded her hands together, put both index fingers to her lips, and waited.

  I wasn't sure what she was waiting for. Mr. Murrow was not going lo announce to the nation that Ricky Chandler was dead or alive.

  My mother listened, too. She stood with her back to the sink, wiping her hands with a towel, staring blankly at the table. This happened almost every night in the summer and fall of 1952.

  Peace efforts had been started, then abandoned. The Chinese withdrew, then attacked again. Through Mr. Murrow's reports and Ricky's letters, we lived the war.

  Pappy and my father would not listen to the news. They busied themselves outside, at the tool shed or the water pump, doing small chores that could've waited, talking about the crops, searching for something to worry about besides Ricky. Both had fought in wars. They didn't need Mr. Murrow in New York to read some correspondent's cable from Korea and tell the nation what was occurring in one battle or the next. They knew.

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  In any case, it was a short report that night about Korea, and this was taken in our little farmhouse as something good. Mr. Murrow moved along to other matters, and Gran finally smiled at me. "Ricky's okay," she said, rubbing my hand. "He'll be home before you know it. "

  She'd earned the right to believe this. She had waited for Pappy during the First War, and she had prayed long distance for my father and his wounds during the Second. Her boys always came home, and Ricky would not let us down.

  She turned the radio off. The potatoes and okra needed her attention. She and my mother returned to cooking, and we waited for Pappy to walk through the back sc
reen door.

  I think Pappy expected the worst from the war. The Chandlers had been lucky so far in the century. He wouldn't listen to the news, but he wanted to know if things looked good or bad. When he heard the radio go off, he usually made his way into the kitchen. That evening he stopped at the table and tousled my hair. Gran looked at him. She smiled and said, "No bad news. "

  My mother told me that Gran and Pappy often slept less than an hour or two before waking and worrying about their younger son. Gran was convinced Ricky was coming home. Pappy was not.

  At six-thirty, we sat around the table, held hands, and gave thanks for all the food and all the blessings. Pappy led the praying, at least over dinner. He thanked God for the Mexicans and for the Spruills, and for the fine crops around us. I prayed quietly, and only for Ricky. I was grateful for the food, but it didn't seem nearly as important as he did.

  The adults ate slowly and talked about nothing but cotton. I was not expected to add much to the conversation. Gran in particular was of the opinion that children should be seen and not heard.

  I wanted to go to the barn and check out the Mexicans. And I wanted to sneak around front and maybe catch a glimpse of Tally. My mother suspected something, and when we finished eating, she told me to help her with the dishes. I would've preferred a whipping, but I had no choice.

  We drifted to the front porch for our nightly sitting. It seemed like a simple enough ritual, but it wasn't. First we would let the meal settle, then we'd tend to baseball. We would turn on the radio and Harry Caray at KMOX in St. Louis would deliver the play-by-play of our beloved Cardinals. My mother and grandmother would shell peas or butter beans. Any loose ends of dinner gossip would be wrapped up. Of course, the crops were fretted over.

  But that night it was raining two hundred miles away in St. Louis, and the game had been canceled. I sat on the steps, holding my Rawlings glove, squeezing my baseball inside it, watching the shadows of the Spruills in the distance and wondering how anyone could be so thoughtless as to build a fire on home plate.

  The outside radio was a small General Electric that my father had bought in Boston when he left the hospital during the war. Its sole purpose was to bring the Cardinals into our lives. We seldom missed a game. It sat on a wooden crate near the creaking swing where the men rested. My mother and grandmother sat in padded wooden chairs not far away, on the other side of the porch, shelling peas. I was in the middle, on the front steps.

  Before the Mexicans arrived, we'd had a portable fan we put near the screen door. Each night it would hum away quietly and manage to push the heavy air around just enough to make things bearable. But, thanks to my mother, it was now in the loft of our barn. This had caused friction, though most of it had been kept away from me.

  And so the night was very quiet-no ball game, no fan-just the slow talk of weary farm people waiting for the temperature to drop a few more degrees.

  The rain in St. Louis inspired the men to worry about the weather. The rivers and creeks in the Arkansas Delta flooded with frustrating regularity. Every four or five years they left their banks and washed away the crops. I couldn't remember a flood, but I'd heard so much about them I felt like a veteran. We would pray for weeks for a good rain. One would come, and as soon as the ground was soaked, Pappy and my father would start watching the clouds and telling flood stories.

  The Spruills were winding down. Their voices were fading. I could see their shadows moving around the tents. Their fire flickered low, then died.

  All was quiet on the Chandler farm. We had hill people. We had Mexicans. The cotton was waiting.