Home > A Painted House(11)

A Painted House(11)
Author: John Grisham

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.

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