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A Painted House(13)
Author: John Grisham

Chapter 6

Shortly after breakfast, I followed Gran down the front steps and through the middle of the front yard. She was a woman on a mission: Dr. Gran making her early morning rounds, thrilled that a bona-fide sick person was present within her jurisdiction.

The Spruills were hunched over their makeshift table, eating quickly. Trot's lazy eyes came to life when Gran said, "Good mornin'," and went straight toward him.

"How's Trot?" she said.

"Much better," said Mrs. Spruill.

"He's fine," said Mr. Spruill.

Gran touched the boy's forehead. "Any fever?" she demanded. Trot shook his head with a vengeance. There'd been no fever the day before. Why would there be one this morning?

"Are you light-headed?"

Trot wasn't sure what that meant, nor were the rest of the Spruills. I figured the boy went through life in a perpetual state of light-headedness.

Mr. Spruill took charge, wiping a drip of sorghum from the corner of his mouth with a forearm. "We figure we'll take him to the fields and let him sit under the trailer, out of the sun."

"If a cloud comes up, then he can pick," added Mrs. Spruill. It was evident the Spruills had already made plans for Trot.

Dammit, I thought.

Ricky had taught me a few cuss words. I usually practiced them in I he woods by the river, then prayed for forgiveness as soon as I was alone.

I had envisioned another lazy day under the shade trees in the Front yard, guarding Trot while playing baseball and taking it easy.

"I suppose," said Gran as she took her thumb and index finger and pried one of his eyes wide open. Trot shot a frightened look with his other eye.

"I'll stay close by," Gran said, clearly disappointed. Over breakfast I'd heard her tell my mother that she'd decided the proper remedy would be a strong dose of castor oil, lemon, and some black herb she grew in a window box. I'd stopped eating when I heard this. It was her old standby, one she'd used on me several times. It was more powerful than surgery. My ailments were instantly cured as the dosage burned from my tongue to my toes, and kept burning.

She once mixed a surefire remedy for Pappy because he was constipated. He'd spent two days in the outhouse, unable to farm, begging for water, which I hauled back and forth in a milk jug. I thought she'd killed him. When he emerged-pale, gaunt, somewhat thinner-he walked with a purpose to the house, angrier than anyone had ever seen him. My parents threw me in the pickup, and we went for a long drive.

Gran again promised Trot she'd watch him during the day. He said nothing. He'd stopped eating and was staring blankly across the table, in the general direction of Tally, who was pretending I didn't exist.

We left and returned to the house. I sat on the front steps, waiting for a glimpse of Tally, silently cussing Trot for being so stupid. Maybe he'd collapse again. Surely when the sun was overhead he'd succumb, and they'd need me to watch him on the mattress.

"A Painted House"

When we gathered at the trailer, I greeted Miguel as his gang emerged from the barn and took their places on one side of the trailer. The Spruills took the other side. My father sat in the middle, crowded between the two groups. Pappy drove the tractor, and I observed them from my prized perch next to his seat. Of particular interest this morning was any activity between the loathsome Cowboy and my beloved Tally. I didn't notice any. Everyone was in a daze, eyes half-open and downcast, dreading another day of sun and drudgery.

The trailer rocked and swayed as we slowly made our way into the white fields. As I gazed at the fields of cotton, I couldn't think of my shiny red Cardinals baseball jacket. I tried mightily to pull up images of the great Musial and his muscled teammates running across the manicured green grass of Sportsman's Park. I tried to imagine all of them clad in their red and white uniforms with some no doubt wearing baseball jackets just like the one in the Sears, Roebuck catalog. I tried to picture these scenes because they never failed to inspire me, but the tractor stopped, and all I could see was the looming cotton, just standing there, row after row, waiting.

Last year, Juan had revealed to me the pleasures of Mexican food, especially tortillas. The workers ate them three times a day, so I figured they must be good. I'd eaten lunch one day with Juan and his group, after I'd eaten in our house. He'd fixed me two tortillas, and I'd devoured them. Three hours later I was on hands and knees under the cotton trailer, as sick as a dog. I was scolded by every Chandler present, my mother leading the pack.

"You can't eat their food!" she said with as much scorn as I'd ever heard.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because it's not clean."

I was expressly forbidden to eat anything cooked by the Mexicans. And this, of course, made the tortillas taste even better. I got caught again when Pappy made a surprise appearance at the barn to check on Isabel. My father took me behind the tool shed and whipped me with his belt. I laid off the tortillas for as long as I could.

But a new chef was with us, and I was eager to measure Miguel's food against Juan's. After lunch, when I was certain everyone was asleep, I sneaked out the kitchen door and walked nonchalantly toward the barn. It was a dangerous little excursion because Pappy and Gran did not nap well, even when they were exhausted from the fields.

The Mexicans were sprawled in the shade of the north end of the barn, most of them sleeping on the grass. Miguel knew I was coming because we'd talked for a moment earlier in the morning when we met to get our cotton weighed. His haul was seventy pounds, mine was fifteen.

He knelt over the coals of a small fire and warmed a tortilla in a skillet. He flipped it, and when it was brown on one side, he added a thin layer of salsa-finely chopped tomatoes and onions and peppers, all from our garden. It also contained jalapenos and chopped red peppers that had never been grown in the state of Arkansas. These the Mexicans imported themselves in their little bags.

A couple of the Mexicans were interested in the fact that I wanted a tortilla. The rest of them were working hard at their siestas. Cowboy was nowhere to be seen. Standing at the corner of the barn, with a full view of the house and any Chandler who might come looking, I ate a tortilla. It was hot and spicy and messy. I couldn't tell any difference between Juan's and Miguel's. They were both delicious. Miguel asked if I wanted another, and I could easily have eaten one. But I didn't want to take their food. They were all small and skinny and dirt-poor, and last year when I got caught and the adults took turns scolding me and heaping untold measures of shame upon me, Gran had been creative enough to invent the sin of taking food from the less fortunate. As Baptists, we were never short on sins to haunt us.

I thanked him and crept back to the house and onto the front porch without waking a single Spruill. I curled into the swing as if I'd been napping all along. No one was stirring, but I couldn't sleep. A breeze came from nowhere, and I daydreamed of a lazy afternoon on the porch, no cotton to be picked, nothing to do but maybe fish in the St. Francis and catch pop flies in the front yard.

The work almost killed me during the afternoon. Late in the day, I limped toward the cotton trailer, lugging my harvest behind me, hot and thirsty, soaked with sweat, my fingers swollen from the tiny shallow punctures inflicted by the burrs. I already had forty-one pounds for the day. My quota was still fifty, and I was certain I had at least ten pounds in my sack. I was hoping my mother would be somewhere near the scales because she would insist that I be allowed to quit and go to the house. Both Pappy and my father would send me back for more, quota or not.

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