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Home > A Painted House(4)

A Painted House(4)
Author: John Grisham

But they were in a trailer again, an old one with planks for sides and nothing over the top to protect them. It was true that cattle had it better.

They carefully hopped down out of the trailer bed and onto the street, three or four at a time, in one wave after another. They spilled forth, emptying in front of the Co-op, and gathered on the sidewalk in small bewildered groups. They stretched and bent and looked around as if they had landed on another planet. I counted sixty-two of them. To my great disappointment, Juan was not there.

They were several inches shorter than Pappy, very thin, and they all had black hair and brown skin. Each carried a little bag of clothing and supplies.

Pearl Watson stood on the sidewalk in front of her store, hands on hips, glaring. They were her customers, and she certainly didn't want them mistreated. I knew that before church on Sunday the ladies would be in an uproar again. And I knew my mother would quiz me as soon as we arrived home with our gang.

Harsh words erupted between the man in charge of labor and the driver of the truck. Somebody down in Texas had, in fact, promised that the Mexicans would be shipped in a bus. This was the second load to arrive in a dirty trailer. Pappy never shied away from a fight, and I could tell he wanted to jump into the fray and finish off the truck driver. But he was also angry with the labor man, and I guess he saw no point in whipping both of them. We sat on the tailgate of our truck and waited for the dust to clear.

When the yelling stopped, the paperwork began. The Mexicans clung together on the sidewalk in front of the Co-op. Occasionally, they would glance at us and the other farmers who were gathering along Main Street. Word was out-the new batch had arrived.

Pappy got the first ten. The leader was Miguel. He appeared to be the oldest and, as I noticed from my initial inspection, he had the only cloth bag. The rest of them carried their belongings in paper sacks.

"A Painted House"

Miguel's English was passable, but not nearly as good as Juan's had been. I chatted him up while Pappy finished the paperwork. Miguel introduced me to the group. There was a Rico, a Roberto, a Jose, a Luis, a Pablo, and several I couldn't understand. I remembered from a year earlier that it would take a week to distinguish among them.

Although they were clearly exhausted, each of them seemed to make some effort to smile-except for one who sneered at me when I looked at him. He wore a western-style hat, which Miguel pointed to and said, "He thinks he's a cowboy. So that's what we call him." Cowboy was very young, and tall for a Mexican. His eyes were narrow and mean. He had a thin mustache that only added to the fierceness. He frightened me so badly that I gave a passing thought to telling Pappy. I certainly didn't want the man living on our farm for the weeks to come. But instead I just backed away.

Our group of Mexicans followed Pappy down the sidewalk to Pop and Pearl's. I trailed along, careful not to step close to Cowboy. Inside the store, I assumed my position near the cash register, where Pearl was waiting for someone to whisper to.

"They treat them like animals," she said.

"Eli says they're just happy to be here," I whispered back. My grandfather was waiting by the door, arms folded across his chest, watching the Mexicans gather what few items they needed. Miguel was rattling instructions to the rest of them.

Pearl was not about to criticize Eli Chandler. But she shot him a dirty look, though he didn't see it. Pappy wasn't concerned with cither me or Pearl. He was fretting because the cotton wasn't getting (licked.

"It's just awful," she said. I could tell Pearl couldn't wait for us to clear out so she could find her church friends and again stir up the issue. Pearl was a Methodist.

As the Mexicans, holding their goods, drifted to the cash register, Miguel gave each name to Pearl, who in turn opened a charge account. She rang up the total, entered the amount in a ledger by the worker's name, then showed the entry to both Miguel and the customer. Instant credit, American style.

They bought flour and shortening to make tortillas, lots of beans in both cans and bags, and rice. Nothing extra-no sugar or sweets, no vegetables. They ate as little as possible, because food cost money. Their goal was to save every cent they could and take it back home.

Of course, these poor fellas had no idea where they were going. They did not know that my mother was a devoted gardener who spent more time tending her vegetables than she did the cotton. They were quite lucky, because my mother believed that no one living within walking distance of our farm would ever go without food.

Cowboy was last in line, and when Pearl smiled at him, I thought he was going to spit on her. Miguel stayed close. He'd just spent three days in the back of a trailer with the boy and probably knew all about him.

I said good-bye to Pearl for the second time that day, which was odd because I usually saw her only once a week.

Pappy led the Mexicans to the truck. They got into the bed and sat shoulder-to-shoulder, feet and legs intertwined. They were silent and stared blankly ahead as if they had no idea where their journey would end.

The old truck strained with the load but eventually leveled out at thirty-seven, and Pappy almost smiled. It was late in the afternoon, and the weather was hot and dry, perfect for picking. Between the Sp mills and the Mexicans we finally had enough hands to harvest our crop. I reached into my pocket, and pulled out the other half of my Tootsie Roll.

Long before we arrived at our house, we saw smoke and then a tent. We lived on a dirt road that was very dusty for most of the year, and Pappy was just puttering along so the Mexicans wouldn't get choked.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Looks like a tent of some sort," Pappy said.

It was situated near the road, at the far end of our front yard, under a pin oak that was a hundred years old, very near the spot where home plate belonged. We slowed even more as we approached our mailbox. The Spruills had taken control of half our front yard. The large tent was dirty white with a pointed roof and was erected with a mismatched collection of hand-whittled sticks and metal poles. Two sides of the tent were open, and I could see boxes and blankets lying on the ground under the roof. I could also see Tally napping inside.

Their truck was parked beside it, and another canvas of some sort had been rigged over its bed. It was anchored with baling rope staked to the ground so that the truck couldn't move without first getting unhitched. Their old trailer had been partially unloaded, its boxes and burlap bags scattered on the grass as if a storm had hit.

Mrs. Spruill was tending a fire, hence the smoke. For some reason, she had chosen a slightly bare spot near the end of the yard. It was the exact spot where Pappy or my father squatted almost every afternoon and caught my fastballs and my curves. I wanted to cry. I would never forgive Mrs. Spruill for this.

"A Painted House"

"I thought you told them to set up out behind the silo," I said.

"I did," Pappy answered. He slowed the truck almost to a stop, then turned into our place. The silo was out back, near the barn, a sufficient distance from our house. We'd had hill people camping back there before-never in the front yard.

He parked under another pin oak that was only seventy years old, according to my grandmother. It was the smallest of the three that shaded our house and yard. We rolled to a stop near the house, in the same dry ruts Pappy'd parked in for decades. Both my mother and grandmother were waiting at the kitchen steps.

Ruth, my grandmother, did not like the fact that the hill people had laid claim to our front yard. Pappy and I knew this before we got out of the truck. She had her hands on her hips.

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