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A Painted House(7)
Author: John Grisham

I knew from experience that within a short time we would know more than we wanted about the Spruills. They would share our land, our water, our outhouse. We would take them vegetables from the garden, milk from Isabel, eggs from the coop. We would invite them to town on Saturday and to church on Sunday. We would work beside them in the fields from sunrise until almost dark. And when the picking was over, they would leave and return to the hills. The trees would turn, winter would come, and we would spend many cold nights huddled around the fire telling stories about the Spruills.

Dinner was potatoes, sliced thin and fried, boiled okra, corn on the cob, and hot corn bread-but no meats because it was almost fall, and because we'd had a roast the day before. Gran fried chicken twice a week, but never on Wednesdays. My mother's garden was producing enough tomatoes and onions to feed all of Black Oak, so she sliced a platter of them for every meal.

The kitchen was small and hot. A round oscillating fan rattled away on top of the refrigerator and tried to keep the air circulating as my mother and grandmother prepared dinner. Their movements were slow but steady. They were tired, and it was too hot to hurry up.

They were not particularly fond of each other, but both were determined to exist in peace. I never heard them argue, never heard my mother say anything bad about her mother-in-law. They lived in the same house, cooked the same meals, did the same laundry, picked the same cotton. With so much work to do, who had time to bicker?

But Gran had been born and bred deep in the cotton patch. She knew she would be buried in the soil she worked. My mother longed for an escape.

Through daily ritual, they had silently negotiated a method to their kitchen work. Gran hovered near the stove, checking the corn bread, stirring the potatoes, okra, and corn. My mother kept to the sink, where she peeled tomatoes and stacked the dirty dishes. I studied this from the kitchen table, where I sat every night and peeled cucumbers with a paring knife. They both loved music, and occasionally one would hum while the other sang softly. The music kept the tension buried.

But not tonight. They were too preoccupied to sing and hum. My mother was stewing over the fact that the Mexicans had been hauled in like cattle. My grandmother was pouting because the Spruills had invaded our front yard.

At exactly six o'clock, Gran removed her apron and sat across from me. The end of the table was flush against the wall and served as a large shelf that accumulated things. In the center was an RCA radio in a walnut casing. She turned on the switch and smiled at me.

The CBS news was delivered to us by Edward R. Murrow, live from New York. For a week there'd been heavy fighting in Pyongyang, near the Sea of Japan, and from an old map that Gran kept on her night table, we knew that Ricky's infantry division was in the area. His last letter had arrived two weeks earlier. It was a quickly written note, but between the lines it gave the impression that he was in the thick of things.

When Mr. Murrow got past his lead story about a spat with the Russians, he started on Korea, and Gran closed her eyes. She folded her hands together, put both index fingers to her lips, and waited.

I wasn't sure what she was waiting for. Mr. Murrow was not going lo announce to the nation that Ricky Chandler was dead or alive.

My mother listened, too. She stood with her back to the sink, wiping her hands with a towel, staring blankly at the table. This happened almost every night in the summer and fall of 1952.

Peace efforts had been started, then abandoned. The Chinese withdrew, then attacked again. Through Mr. Murrow's reports and Ricky's letters, we lived the war.

Pappy and my father would not listen to the news. They busied themselves outside, at the tool shed or the water pump, doing small chores that could've waited, talking about the crops, searching for something to worry about besides Ricky. Both had fought in wars. They didn't need Mr. Murrow in New York to read some correspondent's cable from Korea and tell the nation what was occurring in one battle or the next. They knew.

"A Painted House"

In any case, it was a short report that night about Korea, and this was taken in our little farmhouse as something good. Mr. Murrow moved along to other matters, and Gran finally smiled at me. "Ricky's okay," she said, rubbing my hand. "He'll be home before you know it."

She'd earned the right to believe this. She had waited for Pappy during the First War, and she had prayed long distance for my father and his wounds during the Second. Her boys always came home, and Ricky would not let us down.

She turned the radio off. The potatoes and okra needed her attention. She and my mother returned to cooking, and we waited for Pappy to walk through the back screen door.

I think Pappy expected the worst from the war. The Chandlers had been lucky so far in the century. He wouldn't listen to the news, but he wanted to know if things looked good or bad. When he heard the radio go off, he usually made his way into the kitchen. That evening he stopped at the table and tousled my hair. Gran looked at him. She smiled and said, "No bad news."

My mother told me that Gran and Pappy often slept less than an hour or two before waking and worrying about their younger son. Gran was convinced Ricky was coming home. Pappy was not.

At six-thirty, we sat around the table, held hands, and gave thanks for all the food and all the blessings. Pappy led the praying, at least over dinner. He thanked God for the Mexicans and for the Spruills, and for the fine crops around us. I prayed quietly, and only for Ricky. I was grateful for the food, but it didn't seem nearly as important as he did.

The adults ate slowly and talked about nothing but cotton. I was not expected to add much to the conversation. Gran in particular was of the opinion that children should be seen and not heard.

I wanted to go to the barn and check out the Mexicans. And I wanted to sneak around front and maybe catch a glimpse of Tally. My mother suspected something, and when we finished eating, she told me to help her with the dishes. I would've preferred a whipping, but I had no choice.

We drifted to the front porch for our nightly sitting. It seemed like a simple enough ritual, but it wasn't. First we would let the meal settle, then we'd tend to baseball. We would turn on the radio and Harry Caray at KMOX in St. Louis would deliver the play-by-play of our beloved Cardinals. My mother and grandmother would shell peas or butter beans. Any loose ends of dinner gossip would be wrapped up. Of course, the crops were fretted over.

But that night it was raining two hundred miles away in St. Louis, and the game had been canceled. I sat on the steps, holding my Rawlings glove, squeezing my baseball inside it, watching the shadows of the Spruills in the distance and wondering how anyone could be so thoughtless as to build a fire on home plate.

The outside radio was a small General Electric that my father had bought in Boston when he left the hospital during the war. Its sole purpose was to bring the Cardinals into our lives. We seldom missed a game. It sat on a wooden crate near the creaking swing where the men rested. My mother and grandmother sat in padded wooden chairs not far away, on the other side of the porch, shelling peas. I was in the middle, on the front steps.

Before the Mexicans arrived, we'd had a portable fan we put near the screen door. Each night it would hum away quietly and manage to push the heavy air around just enough to make things bearable. But, thanks to my mother, it was now in the loft of our barn. This had caused friction, though most of it had been kept away from me.

And so the night was very quiet-no ball game, no fan-just the slow talk of weary farm people waiting for the temperature to drop a few more degrees.

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