Home > A Painted House(12)

A Painted House(12)
Author: John Grisham

"Yes ma'am," I said. She pretended to take an interest in baseball because she knew nothing about it. And if she acted interested in Stan Musial, then she could survive any conversation on the subject around Black Oak.

The soft snap and crunch of the butter beans and peas stopped. The swing was still. I squeezed my baseball glove. My father held the opinion that Harry Caray's voice took on an edge when Musial stepped in, but Pappy was not convinced.

The first pitch by the Pirates pitcher was a fastball low and away. Few pitchers challenged Musial with fastballs on the first pitch. The year before, he'd led the National League with a. 355 batting average, and in 1952, he was running neck and neck with the Cubs' Frankie Baumholtz for the lead. He had power and speed, a great glove, and he played hard every day.

"A Painted House"

I had a Stan Musial baseball card hidden in a cigar box in my drawer, and if the house ever caught on fire, I would grab it before I grabbed anything else.

The second pitch was a high curveball, and with the count of two balls, you could almost hear the fans get out of their seats. A baseball was about to get ripped into some remote section of Sportsman's Park. No pitcher fell behind Stan Musial and survived the moment. The third pitch was a fastball, and Harry Caray hesitated just long enough for us to hear the crack of the bat. The crowd exploded. I held my breath, waiting in that split second for old Harry to tell us where the ball was going. It bounced off the wall in right field, and the crowd roared even louder. The front porch got excited, too. I jumped to my feet, as if by standing I could somehow see St. Louis. Pappy and my father both leaned forward as Harry Caray yelled through the radio. My mother managed some form of exclamation.

Musial was battling his teammate Schoendienst for the National League lead in doubles. The year before, he'd had twelve triples, tops in the majors. As he rounded second, I could barely hear Caray above the crowd. The runner from first scored easily, and Stan slid into third, in the dirt, his feet touching the base, the hapless third baseman taking the late throw and tossing it back to the pitcher. I could see him get to his feet as the crowd went nuts. Then with both hands he slapped the dirt off his white uniform with the bright red trim.

The game had to go on, but for us Chandlers, at least the men, the day was now complete. Musial had hit a bomb, and because we had little hope that the Cardinals would win the pennant, we gladly took our victories where we could get them. The crowd settled down, Harry's voice lowered, and I sank back onto the porch, still watching Stan at third.

If those damned Spruills hadn't been out there, I would've eased into the darkness and taken my position at home plate. I would wait for the fastball, hit it just like my hero, then race around the bases and slide majestically into third base, over by the shadows where the monster Hank was loitering.

"Who's winnin'?" Mr. Spruill asked from somewhere in the darkness.

"Cardinals. One to nothin'. Bottom of the second. Musial just hit a triple," Hank answered. If they were such baseball fans, why had they built their fire on home plate and pitched their ragged tents around my infield? Any fool could look at our front yard, the trees notwithstanding, and see that it was meant for baseball.

If not for Tally, I would have dismissed the entire bunch. And Trot. I did feel sympathy for the poor kid.

I had decided not to bring up the issue of Hank and the cold water. I knew that if I reported it to my father, or to Pappy, then a serious discussion would take place with Mr. Spruill. The Mexicans knew their place, and the hill people were expected to know theirs. They did not ask for things from our house, and they did not give orders to me or anyone else.

Hank had a neck thicker than any I'd ever seen. His arms and hands were also massive, but what scared me were his eyes. I thought they were blank and stupid most of the time, but when he barked at me to fetch him the cold water, they narrowed and glowed with evil.

I didn't want Hank mad at me, nor did I want my father to confront him. My father could whip anybody, except for maybe Pappy, who was older but, when necessary, much meaner. I decided to set aside the incident for the time being. If it happened again, then I would have no choice but to tell my mother.

The Pirates scored two in the fourth, primarily because, according to Pappy, Eddie Stanky didn't change pitchers when he should have. Then they scored three in the fifth, and Pappy got so mad he went to bed.

In the seventh inning, the heat broke just enough to convince us we could get some sleep. The peas and butter beans had been shelled. The Spruills were all tucked away. We were exhausted, and the Cardinals were going nowhere. It wasn't difficult to leave the game.

After my mother tucked me in and we said our prayers, I kicked I he sheets off so I could breathe. I listened to the crickets sing their screeching chorus, calling to each other across the fields. They serenaded us every night in the summer, unless it was raining. I heard a voice in the distance-a Spruill was rambling about, probably Hank rummaging for one last biscuit.

In the living room we had a box fan, a large window unit, which in theory was supposed to suck the hot air through the house and blow it out across the barnyard. It worked about half the time. One door inadvertently closed or blown shut would disrupt the movements of. nr, and you'd lie in your own sweat until you fell asleep. Wind from I he outside would somehow confuse the box fan, and the hot air would gather in the living room, then creep through the house, smothering us. The fan broke down often-but it was one of Pappy's proudest possessions, and we knew of only two other farm families at church who owned such a luxury.

"A Painted House"

That night it happened to be working.

Lying in Ricky's bed, listening to the crickets, enjoying the slight draft over my body as the sticky summer air was pulled toward the living room, I let my thoughts drift to Korea, a place I never wanted to see. My father would tell me nothing about war. Not a hint. There were a few glorious adventures of Pappy's father and his victories in the Civil War, but when it came to the wars of this century, he offered little. I wanted to know how many people he'd shot. How many battles he'd won. I wanted to see his scars. There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask him.

"Don't talk about war," my mother had cautioned me many times. "It's too awful."

And now Ricky was in Korea. It had been snowing when he left us in February, three days after his nineteenth birthday. It was cold in Korea, too. I knew that much from a story on the radio. I was safe and warm in his bed while he was lying in a trench shooting and getting shot at.

What if he didn't come home?

It was a question I tortured myself with every night. I thought about him dying until I cried. I didn't want his bed. I didn't want his room. I wanted Ricky home, so we could run the bases in the front yard and throw baseballs against the barn and fish in the St. Francis. He was really more of a big brother than an uncle.

Boys were getting killed over there, lots of them. We prayed for them at church. We talked about the war at school. At the moment, Ricky was the only boy from Black Oak in Korea, which bestowed upon us Chandlers some odd distinction I cared nothing about.

"Have you heard from Ricky?" was the great question that confronted us every time we went to town.

Yes or no, it didn't matter. Our neighbors were just trying to be thoughtful. Pappy wouldn't answer them. My father would give a polite response. Gran and my mother would chat quietly for a few minutes about his last letter.

I always said, "Yeah. He's coming home soon."

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