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Home > A Painted House(6)

A Painted House(6)
Author: John Grisham

"Did y'all find some help?" he asked without looking at me.

"Yes sir," I said proudly. "Mexicans and hill people."

"How many Mexicans?"

"Ten," I said, as if I'd personally rounded them up.

"That's good. Who are the hill people?"

"The Spruills. I forgot where they're from."

"How many?" He finished a stalk and crept forward, with his heavy sack inching along behind him.

"A whole truckload. It's hard to tell. Gran's mad because they've set up camp in the front yard, even got a fire goin' where home plate is. Pappy told 'em to set up by the silo. I heard him. I don't think they're real smart."

"Don't be sayin' that."

"Yes sir. Anyway, Gran's not too pleased."

"She'll be all right. We need the hill people."

"Yes sir. That's what Pappy said. But I hate they've messed up home plate."

"Pickin' is more important than baseball these days."

"I guess." Maybe in his opinion.

"How are the Mexicans?"

"Not too good. They stuffed 'em in a trailer again, and Mom's not too happy about it."

His hands stopped for a second as he considered another winter of squabbles. "They're just happy to be here," he said, his hands moving again.

I took a few steps toward the trailer in the distance, then turned to watch him again. "Tell that to Mom."

He gave me a look before saying, "Did Juan make it?"

"No sir."

"Sorry to hear that."

"A Painted House"

I'd talked about Juan for a year. He had promised me last fall that he'd be back. "That's okay," I said. "The new guy is Miguel. He's real nice."

I told him about the trip to town, how we found the Spruills, about Tally and Trot and the large young man on the tailgate, then back to i own where Pappy argued with the man in charge of labor, then the nip to the gin, then about the Mexicans. I did all the talking because my day had certainly been more eventful than his.

At the trailer, he lifted the straps of his cotton sack and hung them over the hook at the bottom of the scales. The needle settled on fifty-eight pounds. He scribbled this in a ragged old ledger wired to the trailer.

"How much?" I asked when he closed the book.

"Four-seventy."

"A triple," I said.

He shrugged and said, "Not bad."

Five hundred pounds equaled a home run, something he accomplished every other day. He squatted and said, "Hop on."

I jumped on his back, and we started for the house. His shirt and overalls were soaked with sweat, and had been all day, but his arms were like steel. Pop Watson told me that Jesse Chandler once hit a baseball that landed in the center of Main Street. Pop and Mr. Snake Wilcox, the barber, measured it the next day and began telling people that it had traveled, on the fly, 440 feet. But a hostile opinion quickly emerged from the Tea Shoppe, where Mr. Junior Barnhart claimed, rather loudly, that the ball had bounced at least once before hitting Main Street.

Pop and Junior went weeks without speaking to each other. My mother verified the argument, but not the home run.

She was waiting for us by the water pump. My father sat on a bench and removed his boots and socks. Then he unsnapped his overalls and took off his shirt.

One of my chores at dawn was to fill a washtub with water and leave it in the sun all day so there'd be warm water for my father every afternoon. My mother dipped a hand towel in the tub and gently rubbed his neck with it.

She had grown up in a house full of girls, and had been raised in part by a couple of prissy old aunts. I think they bathed more than farm people, and her passion for cleanliness had rubbed off on my father. I got a complete scrubbing every Saturday afternoon, whether I needed it or not.

When he was washed up and dried off, she handed him a fresh shirt. It was time to welcome our guests. In a large basket, my mother had assembled a collection of her finest vegetables, all handpicked, of course, and washed within the past two hours. Indian tomatoes, Vidalia onions, red-skin potatoes, green and red bell peppers, ears of corn. We carried it to the back of the barn, where the Mexicans were resting and talking and waiting for their small fire to burn low so they could make their tortillas. I introduced my father to Miguel, who in turn presented some of his gang.

Cowboy sat alone, his back to the barn, making no move to acknowledge us. I could see him watching my mother from under the brim of his hat. It frightened me for a second; then I realized Jesse Chandler would snap Cowboy's skinny little neck if he made one wrong move.

We had learned a lot from the Mexicans the year before. They did not eat butter beans, snap beans, squash, eggplant, or turnips, but preferred tomatoes, onions, potatoes, peppers, and corn. And they would never ask for food from our garden. It had to be offered.

My mother explained to Miguel and the other men that our garden was full and that she would bring them vegetables every other day. They were not expected to pay for the food. It was part of the package.

We took another basket to the front of the house, where Camp Spruill seemed to be expanding by the hour. They had crept even farther across the yard, and there were more cardboard boxes and burlap sacks strewn about. They'd laid three planks across a box on one end and a barrel on the other to make a table, and they were crowded around it eating dinner when we approached them. Mr. Spruill got to his feet and shook my father's hand.

"Leon Spruill," he said with food on his lip. "Nice to meet you."

"Happy to have you folks here," my father said pleasantly.

"Thank you," Mr. Spruill said, pulling up his pants. "This here is my wife, Lucy." She smiled and kept chewing slowly.

"This is my daughter, Tally," he said, pointing. When she looked at me, I could feel my cheeks burning.

"And these are my nephews, Bo and Dale," he said, nodding to the two boys who'd been resting on the mattress when they had stopped on the highway. They were teenagers, probably fifteen or so. And sitting next to them was the giant I'd first seen on the tailgate, half-asleep.

"This is my son Hank," Mr. Spruill said. Hank was at least twenty and was certainly old enough to stand up and shake hands. But he kept eating. Both jaws were ballooned with what appeared to be corn bread. "He eats a lot," Mr. Spruill said, and we tried to laugh.

"And this here is Trot," he said. Trot never looked up. His limp left arm hung by his side. He clutched a spoon with his right hand. His standing in the family was left undeclared.

"A Painted House"

My mother presented the large basket of vegetables, and for a second, Hank stopped his chomping and looked up at the fresh supply. Then he returned to his beans. "The tomatoes and corn are especially good this year," my mother was saying. "And there's plenty. Just let me know what you like."

Tally chewed slowly and stared at me. I studied my feet.

"That's mighty nice of you, ma'am," Mr. Spruill said, and Mrs. Spruill added a quick thanks. There was no danger of the Spruills going without food, not that they had missed any meals. Hank was burly with a thick chest that narrowed only slightly where it met his neck. Mr. and Mrs. Spruill were both stocky and appeared strong. Bo and Dale were lean but not thin. Tally, of course, was perfectly proportioned. Only Trot was gaunt and skinny.

"Didn't mean to interrupt dinner," my father said, and we began backing away.

"Thanks again," Mr. Spruill said.

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