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Home > A Painted House(3)

A Painted House(3)
Author: John Grisham

"Nice to meet you, Trot," I said, but his eyes looked away. He acted as if he hadn't heard me.

"How old is he?" I asked her.

"Twelve. He's a cripple."

Trot turned abruptly to face a corner, his bad arm flopping lifelessly. My friend Dewayne said that hill people married their cousins and that's why there were so many defects in their families.

Tally appeared to be perfect, though. She gazed thoughtfully across the cotton fields, and I admired her dirty dress once again.

I knew my grandfather and Mr. Spruill had come to terms because Mr. Spruill started his truck. I walked past the trailer, past the man on the tailgate who was briefly awake but still staring at the pavement, and stood beside Pappy. "Nine miles that way, take a left by a burned-out barn, then six more miles to the St. Francis River. We're the first farm past the river on your left."

"Bottomland?" Mr. Spruill asked, as if he were being sent into a swamp.

"Some of it is, but it's good land."

Mr. Spruill glanced at his wife again, then looked back at us. "Where do we set up?"

"You'll see a shady spot in the back, next to the silo. That's the best place."

We watched them drive away, the gears rattling, the tires wobbling, crates and boxes and pots bouncing along.

"You don't like them, do you?" I asked.

"They're good folks. They're just different."

"I guess we're lucky to have them, aren't we?"

"Yes, we are."

More field hands meant less cotton for me to pick. For the next month I would go to the fields at sunrise, drape a nine-foot cotton sack over my shoulder, and stare for a moment at an endless row of cotton, the stalks taller than I was, then plunge into them, lost as far as anyone could tell. And I would pick cotton, tearing the fluffy bolls from the stalks at a steady pace, stuffing them into the heavy sack, afraid to look down the row and be reminded of how endless it was, afraid to slow down because someone would notice. My fingers would bleed, my neck would burn, my back would hurt.

Yes, I wanted lots of help in the fields. Lots of hill people, lots of Mexicans.

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.

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