Home > A Painted House(10)

A Painted House(10)
Author: John Grisham

I was in the middle of an endless row of cotton, sweating, boiling in the sun, bending at the shoulders, trying to be fast with my hands, and stopping occasionally to monitor the movements of Pappy and my father so that maybe I could arrange another nap. But there was never an opportunity to drop my sack. Instead, I plowed ahead, working hard, waiting for the sack to get heavy, and wondering for the first time if I really needed the Cardinals jacket.

After an eternity alone in the fields, I heard the John Deere fire up, and I knew it was time for lunch. Though I had not completed my first row, I didn't really care about my lack of progress. We met at the tractor, and I saw Trot curled in a knot on the flat deck trailer. Mrs. Spruill and Tally were patting him. At first I thought he might be dead, then he moved a little. "The heat got him," my father whispered to me, as he took my sack and whirled it around over his shoulder as if it were empty.

"A Painted House"

I followed him to the scales, where Pappy quickly weighed it. All that back-numbing labor for thirty-one pounds of cotton.

When the Mexicans and Spruills were accounted for, we all headed for the house. Lunch was at noon sharp. My mother and Gran had left the fields an hour earlier to prepare it.

From my perch on the John Deere, I clutched the umbrella stand with my scratched and sore left hand and watched the field workers bounce along. Mr. and Mrs. Spruill were holding Trot, who was still lifeless and pale. Tally sat nearby, her long legs stretched across the deck of the trailer. Bo, Dale, and Hank seemed unconcerned about poor Trot. Like everyone else, they were hot and tired and ready for a break.

On the other side, the Mexicans sat in a row, shoulder to shoulder, feet hanging off the side and almost dragging the ground. A couple of them wore no shoes or boots.

When we were nearly at the barn, I saw something that at first I couldn't believe. Cowboy, sitting at the very end of the short trailer, turned quickly, and glanced at Tally. She seemed to have been waiting for him to look, because she gave him one of her pretty little smiles, similar to the ones I'd been getting. Though he didn't return the smile, it was obvious he was pleased.

It happened in a flash, and nobody saw it but me.

Chapter 5

According to Gran and my mother, conspiring together, the early afternoon nap was crucial to the proper growth of a child. I believed this only when we were picking cotton. For the rest of the year, I fought a nap with as much vigor as I put into planning my baseball career.

But during the harvest, everybody rested after lunch. The Mexicans ate quickly and sprawled under a maple tree near the barn. The Spruills ate leftover ham and biscuits and likewise found shade.

I wasn't allowed to use my bed because I was dirty from the fields, so I slept on the floor in my bedroom. I was tired and stiff from my labors. I dreaded the afternoon session because it always seemed longer, and it was certainly hotter. I drifted away immediately and was even stiffer when I awoke a half hour later.

Trot was causing concern in the front yard. Gran, who fancied herself as some sort of country medicine woman, had gone to check on him, no doubt with the intention of whipping up one of her dreadful concoctions to force down his throat. They had him on an old mattress under a tree with a wet cloth on his forehead. It was obvious he couldn't go back to the fields, and Mr. and Mrs. Spruill were reluctant to leave him alone.

They, of course, had to pick cotton to earn money to live on. I did not. A plan had been devised in my absence to require me to sit with Trot while everybody else worked in the heat for the rest of the afternoon. If Trot somehow took a turn for the worse, I was supposed to sprint to the lower forty and fetch the nearest Spruill. I tried to appear unhappy with this arrangement when my mother explained it to me.

"What about my Cardinals jacket?" I asked her with as much concern as I could muster.

"There's plenty of cotton left for you," she said. "Just sit with him this afternoon. He should be better tomorrow."

There were, of course, eighty acres of cotton, all of which had to be picked twice during the next two months or so. If I lost my Cardinals jacket, it wouldn't be because of Trot.

I watched the trailer leave again, this time with my mother and Gran sitting with the field hands. It squeaked and rattled away from the house, past the barn, down the field road, and was finally lost among the rows of cotton. I couldn't help but wonder whether Tally and Cowboy were making eyes at each other. If I found the courage, I would ask my mother about this.

When I walked to the mattress, Trot was lying perfectly still with his eyes closed. He didn't appear to be breathing.

"Trot," I said loudly, suddenly terrified that he had died on my watch.

He opened his eyes, and very slowly sat up and looked at me. Then he glanced around, as if to make certain we were alone. His withered left arm wasn't much thicker than a broom handle, and it hung from his shoulder without moving much. His black hair shot out in all directions.

"Are you okay?" I asked. I'd yet to hear him speak, and I was curious to know if he could do so.

"I guess," he grunted, his voice thick and his words blurred. I couldn't tell if he had a speech impediment or if he was just tired and dazed. He kept looking around to make sure everyone else was gone, and it occurred to me that perhaps Trot had been faking a bit. I began to admire him.

"Does Tally like baseball?" I asked, one of a hundred questions I wanted to drill him with. I thought it was a simple question, but he was overcome by it and immediately closed his eyes and rolled to one side, then curled his knees to his chest and began another nap.

A breeze rustled the top of the pin oak. I found a thick, grassy spot in the shade near his mattress, and stretched out. Watching the leaves and branches high above, I considered my good fortune. The rest of them were sweating in the sun as time crept along. For a moment I tried to feel guilty, but it didn't work. My luck was only temporary, so I decided to enjoy it.

"A Painted House"

As did Trot. While he slept like a baby, I watched the sky. Soon, though, boredom hit. I went to the house to get a ball and my base-hall glove. I threw myself pop flies near the front porch, something I could do for hours. At one point I caught seventeen in a row.

Throughout the afternoon, Trot never left the mattress. He would sleep, then sit up and look around, then watch me for a moment. If I tried to strike up a conversation, he usually rolled over and continued his nap. At least he wasn't dying.

The next casualty from the cotton patch was Hank. He ambled in late in the day, walking slowly and complaining about the heat. Said he needed to check on Trot.

"I picked three hundred pounds," he said, as if this would impress me. "Then the heat got me." His face was red with sunburn. He wore no hat, which said a lot about his intelligence. Every head was covered in the fields.

He looked Trot over for a second, then went to the back of the truck and began rummaging through their boxes and sacks like a starving bear. He crammed a cold biscuit into his huge mouth, then stretched out under the tree.

"Fetch me some water, boy," he growled abruptly in my direction.

I was too surprised to move. I'd never heard a hill person give an order to one of us. I wasn't sure what to do. But he was grown, and I was just a kid.

"Sir?" I said.

"Fetch me some water!" he repeated, his voice rising.

I was certain they had water stored somewhere among their things. I took a very awkward step toward their truck. This upset him.

"Cold water, boy! From the house. And hurry! I been workin' all day. You ain't."

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