Home > A Painted House(9)

A Painted House(9)
Author: John Grisham

Tally said, "Good morning, Luke," as she walked by.

I managed to return her greeting. She smiled at me as if she knew some secret that she would never tell.

Pappy didn't give an orientation, and none was needed. Choose a row in either direction, and start picking. No chitchat, no stretching of the muscles, no predictions about the weather. Without a word the Mexicans draped their long cotton sacks over their shoulders, lined up, and went south. The Arkansans went north.

For a second, I stood there in the semidarkness of an already hot September morning, staring down a very long, straight row of cotton, a row that had somehow been assigned to me. I thought, I'll never get to the end of it, and I was suddenly tired.

I had cousins in Memphis, sons and daughters of my father's two sisters, and they had never picked cotton. City kids, in the suburbs, in nice little homes with indoor plumbing. They returned to Arkansas for funerals-sometimes for Thanksgiving. As I stared at my endless row of cotton, I thought of those cousins.

Two things motivated me to work. First, and most important, I had my father on one side and my grandfather on the other. Neither tolerated laziness. They had worked the fields when they were children, and I would certainly do the same. Second, I got paid for picking, same as the other field hands. A dollar sixty for a hundred pounds. And I had big plans for the money.

"Let's go," my father said firmly in my direction. Pappy was already settled among the stalks, ten feet into his row. I could see his outline and his straw hat. I could hear the Spruills a few rows over chatting among themselves. Hill people sang a lot, and it was not uncommon to hear them crooning some low, mournful tune as they picked. Tally laughed about something, her luxurious voice echoing across the fields.

She was only ten years older than I was.

Pappy's father had fought in the Civil War. His name was Jeremiah Chandler, and according to family lore, he'd almost single-handedly won the Battle of Shiloh. When Jeremiah's second wife died, he took a third, a local maiden thirty years his junior. A few years later she gave birth to Pappy.

A thirty-year gap for Jeremiah and his bride. Ten for Tally and me. It could work.

With solemn resolve, I flung my nine-foot cotton sack across my back, the strap over my right shoulder, and attacked the first boll of cotton. It was damp from the dew, and that was one reason we started so early. For the first hour or so, before the sun got too high and baked everything, the cotton was soft and gentle to our hands. Later, after it was dumped into the trailer, it would dry and could be easily ginned. Cotton soaked with rainwater could not be ginned, something every farmer had learned the hard way.

I picked as fast as possible, with both hands, and stuffed the cotton into the sack. I had to be careful, though. Either Pappy or my father, or possibly both of them, would inspect my row at some point during the morning. If I left too much cotton in the bolls, then I would be reprimanded. The severity of the scolding would be determined by how close my mother was to me at that particular moment.

As deftly as I could, I worked my small hands through the maze of stalks, grabbing the bolls, avoiding if possible the burrs because they were pointed and could draw blood. I bobbed and weaved and inched along, falling farther behind my father and Pappy.

Our cotton was so thick that the stalks from each row intertwined. They brushed against my face. After the incident with the rat snake, I watched every step around our farm, especially in the fields, since there were cottonmouths near the river. I'd seen plenty of them from the back of the John Deere when we were plowing and planting.

"A Painted House"

Before long I was all alone, a child left behind by those with quicker hands and stronger backs. The sun was a bright orange ball, rising fast into position to sear the land for another day. When my father and Pappy were out of sight, I decided to take my first break. Tally was the nearest person. She was five rows over and fifty feet in front of me. I could barely see her faded denim bonnet above the cotton.

Under the shade of the stalks, I stretched out on my cotton sack, which after an hour was depressingly flat. There were a few soft lumps, but nothing significant. The year before, I'd been expected to pick fifty pounds a day, and my fear was that this quota was about to be increased.

Lying on my back, I watched through the stalks the perfectly clear sky, hoped for clouds, and dreamed of money. Every August we received by mail the latest edition of the Sears, Roebuck catalog, and few events were more momentous, at least in my life. It came in a brown wrapper, all the way from Chicago, and was required by Gran to be kept at the end of the kitchen table, next to the radio and the family Bible. The women studied the clothes and the home furnishings. The men scrutinized the tools and auto supplies. But I dwelt on the important sections-toys and sporting goods. I made secret Christmas lists in my mind. I was afraid to write down all the things I dreamed of. Someone might find such a list and think I was either hopelessly greedy or mentally ill.

On page 308 of the current catalog was an incredible ad for baseball warm-up jackets. There was one for almost every professional team. What made the ad so amazing was that the young man doing the modeling was wearing a Cardinals jacket, and it was in color. A bright Cardinal red, in some type of shiny fabric, white buttons down the front. Of all the teams, someone with uncanny wisdom at Sears, Roebuck had picked the Cardinals to display.

It cost $7.50, plus shipping. And it came in children's sizes, which presented another quandary because I was bound to grow and I wanted to wear the jacket for the rest of my life.

Ten days of hard labor, and I'd have enough money to purchase the jacket. I was certain nothing like it had ever been seen in Black Oak, Arkansas. My mother said it was a bit gaudy, whatever that meant. My father said I needed boots. Pappy thought it was a waste of money, but I could tell he secretly admired it.

At the first hint of cool weather I would wear the jacket to school every day, and to church on Sundays. I would wear it to town on Saturdays; a bolt of bright red amid the drearily clad throngs loitering on the sidewalks. I would wear it everywhere, and I'd be the envy of every kid in Black Oak (and a lot of adults, too).

They would never have the chance to play for the Cardinals. I, on the other hand, would become famous in St. Louis. It was important to start looking the part.

"Lucas!" a stern voice shot through the stillness of the fields. Stalks were snapping nearby.

"Yes sir," I said, jumping to my feet, keeping low, thrusting my hands at the nearest bolls of cotton.

My father was suddenly standing over me. "What are you doing?" he asked.

"I had to pee," I said, without stopping my hands.

"It took a long time," he said, unconvinced.

"Yes sir. It's all that coffee." I looked up at him. He knew the truth.

"Try to keep up," he said, turning around and walking away.

"Yes sir," I said to his back, knowing I could never keep up with him.

A twelve-foot sack like the adults used held about sixty pounds of cotton, so by eight-thirty or nine o'clock the men were ready to weigh. Pappy and my father were in charge of the scales, which hung from the end of the trailer. The sacks were hoisted upward to one of them. The straps were looped over the hooks at the bottom of the scales. The needle sprang around like the long hand of a large clock. Everyone could see how much each person picked.

Pappy recorded the data in a small book near the scales. Then the cotton sack was shoved even higher and emptied into the trailer. No time for a rest. You caught the empty sack when it was tossed down. You selected another row and disappeared for another two hours.

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