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A Painted House(15)
Author: John Grisham

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.

Chapter 7

Saturday morning. At sunrise, with Mexicans on one side and the Spruills on the other, we were in the trailer moving toward the fields. I kept close to my father, for fear that the monster Hank might come after me again. I hated all the Spruills that morning, perhaps with the exception of Trot, my lone defender. They ignored me. I hoped they were ashamed of themselves.

I tried not to think about the Spruills as we moved through the fields. It was Saturday. A magical day for all the poor souls who toiled the land. On the Chandler farm, we'd work half a day, then head for town to join all the other farmers and their families who went there.! to buy food and supplies, to mix and mingle along Main Street, to catch the gossip, to escape for a few hours the drudgery of the cotton patch. The Mexicans and the hill people went, too. The men would gather in groups in front of the Tea Shoppe and the Co-op and compare crops and tell stories about floods. The women would pack into Pop and Pearl's and take forever buying a few groceries. The kids were allowed to roam the sidewalks on Main Street and its neighboring alleys until four o'clock, that wonderful hour when the Dixie opened for the matinee.

When the trailer stopped, we hopped off and found our cotton sacks. I was half asleep, not paying attention to anything in particular, when the sweetest voice said, "Good mornin', Luke." It was Tally, just standing there smiling at me. It was her way of saying she was sorry for yesterday.

Because I was a Chandler, I was capable of deep stubbornness. I turned my back to her and walked away. I told myself I hated all Spruills. I attacked the first row of cotton as if I might just wipe out forty acres before lunch. After a few minutes, though, I was tired. I was lost in the stalks, in the dark, and I could still hear her voice and see her smile.

She was only ten years older than I was.

The Saturday bath was a ritual I hated more than all others. It took place after lunch, under the stern supervision of my mother. The tub, hardly big enough for me, was used later in the day by each member of the family. It was kept in a remote corner of the back porch, shielded from view by an old bedsheets.

First, I had to haul the water from the pump to the back porch, where I filled the tub about a third full. This took eight trips with a bucket, and I was exhausted before the bath began. Then I pulled the bedsheets across the porch and stripped naked with remarkable speed. The water was very cold.

With a bar of store-bought soap and a washcloth, I worked furiously to remove dirt and make bubbles and otherwise cloud the water so my mother couldn't see my privates when she came to direct matters. She appeared first to collect my dirty clothes, then to bring me a clean change. Then she went straight for the ears and neck. In her hands the washcloth became a weapon. She scraped my tender skin as if the soil I collected working in the fields offended her. Throughout the process, she continued to marvel at how dirty I could get.

When my neck was raw, she attacked my hair as if it were filled with lice and gnats. She poured cold water from the bucket over my head to rinse off the soap. My humiliation was complete when she finished scouring my arms and feet-mercifully, she left the midsection for me.

The water was muddy when I hopped out-a week's worth of dirt collected from the Arkansas Delta. I pulled the plug and watched it seep through the cracks of the porch as I toweled off and stepped into my clean overalls. I felt fresh and clean and five pounds lighter, and I was ready for town.

Pappy decided that his truck would make only one run to Black ()ak. That meant that Gran and my mother would ride in the front with him and my father and I would ride in the back with all ten Mexicans. Getting packed into a box didn't bother the Mexicans at all, but it sure irritated me.

As we drove away, I watched the Spruills as they knocked down poles and unhitched ropes and hurried about the business of freeing their old truck so they could get to town. Everyone was busy but Hank, who was eating something in the shade.

To prevent the dust from boiling over the fenders and choking us in the back, Pappy drove less than five miles per hour down our road. While it was thoughtful of him, it didn't help matters much. We were hot and suffocating. The Saturday bath was a ritual in rural Arkansas. In Mexico, apparently, it was not.

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