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A Painted House(8)
Author: John Grisham

The rain in St. Louis inspired the men to worry about the weather. The rivers and creeks in the Arkansas Delta flooded with frustrating regularity. Every four or five years they left their banks and washed away the crops. I couldn't remember a flood, but I'd heard so much about them I felt like a veteran. We would pray for weeks for a good rain. One would come, and as soon as the ground was soaked, Pappy and my father would start watching the clouds and telling flood stories.

The Spruills were winding down. Their voices were fading. I could see their shadows moving around the tents. Their fire flickered low, then died.

All was quiet on the Chandler farm. We had hill people. We had Mexicans. The cotton was waiting.

Chapter 4

At some point in the vast darkness of the night, Pappy, our human alarm clock, awoke, put on his boots, and began stomping around the kitchen making the first pot of coffee. The house was not largethree bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room-and it was so old the plank floors sagged in places. If one person chose to wake up the rest, he or she could certainly do so.

I was allowed to stay in bed until my father came after me. It was difficult to sleep, though, with all those people on the farm and all that cotton to pick. I was already awake when he shook me and said it was time to go. I dressed quickly and met him on the back porch.

"A Painted House"

There was no hint of sunrise as we walked across the backyard, the dew soaking our boots. We stopped at the chicken coop, where he bent low and slipped inside. I was told to wait in front of it, since last month while gathering eggs in the darkness, I'd stepped on a huge rat snake and cried for two days. At first my father had not been sympathetic; rat snakes are harmless and just a part of life on the farm. My mother, however, intervened with a fury, and for the time being, I was not permitted to collect eggs alone.

My father filled a straw bowl with a dozen eggs and handed it to me. We headed to the barn, where Isabel was waiting. Now that we'd roused the chickens, the roosters began crowing.

The only light came from a pale bulb hanging from the hayloft. The Mexicans were awake. A fire had been lit behind the barn, and they were huddled near it as if they were cold. I was already warm from the humidity.

I could milk the cow, and on most mornings that chore belonged to me. But the rat snake still had me frightened, plus we were in a hurry because we had to be in the fields by sunrise. My father rapidly milked two gallons, which would've taken me half the morning. We delivered the food to the kitchen, where the women were in charge. The ham was already in the skillet, its rich aroma thick in the air.

Breakfast was fresh eggs, milk, salt-cured ham, and hot biscuits, with sorghum optional. As they cooked, I settled into my chair, ran my fingers across the damp, checkered oilcloth, and waited for my cup of coffee. It was the one vice my mother allowed me.

Gran placed the cup and saucer before me, then the sugar bowl and the fresh cream. I doctored the coffee until it was as sweet as a malt, then sipped it slowly.

At breakfast, conversation in the kitchen was held to a minimum. It was exciting to have so many strangers on our farm for the harvest, hut the enthusiasm was dampened by the reality that we would spend most of the next twelve hours unshielded in the sun, bent over, picking until our fingers bled.

We ate quickly, the roosters making a ruckus in the side yard. My grandmother's biscuits were heavy and perfectly round, and so warm that when I carefully placed a slice of butter in the center of one, it melted instantly. I watched the yellow cream soak into the biscuit, then took a bite. My mother conceded that Ruth Chandler made the best biscuits she'd ever tasted. I wanted so badly to eat two or three, like my father, but I simply couldn't hold them. My mother ate one, same as Gran. Pappy had two, my father three. Several hours later, in the middle of the morning, we would stop for a moment under the shade of a tree or beside the cotton trailer to eat the leftover biscuits.

Breakfast was slow in the winter because there was little else to do. The pace was somewhat faster in the spring when we were planting, and in the summer when we were chopping. But during the fall harvest, with the sun about to catch us, we ate with a purpose.

There was some chatter about the weather. The rain in St. Louis that had canceled last night's Cardinals game was weighing on Pappy's mind. St. Louis was so far away that no one at the table, except for Pappy, had ever been there, yet the city's weather was now a crucial element in the harvest of our crops. My mother listened patiently. I didn't say a word.

My father had been reading the almanac and offered the opinion that the weather would cooperate throughout the month of September. But mid-October looked ominous. Bad weather was on the way. It was imperative that for the next six weeks we work until we dropped. The harder we worked, the harder the Mexicans and the Spruills would work. This was my father's version of a pep talk.

The subject of day laborers came up. These were locals who went from farm to farm looking for the best deal. Most were town people we knew. During the previous fall, Miss Sophie Turner, who taught fifth and sixth grades, had bestowed a great honor on us when she had chosen our fields to pick in.

We needed all the day laborers we could get, but they generally picked wherever they wanted.

When Pappy finished his last bite, he thanked his wife and my mother for the good food and left them to clean up the mess. I strutted onto the back porch with the men.

Our house faced south, the barn and crops were to the north and west, and to the east I saw the first hint of orange peeking over the flat farmland of the Arkansas Delta. The sun was coming, undaunted by clouds. My shirt was already sticking to my back.

A flatbed trailer was hitched to the John Deere, and the Mexicans had already gotten on. My dad went up to speak to Miguel. "Good morning. How did you sleep? Are you ready to work?" Pappy went to fetch the Spruills.

I had a spot, a nook between the fender and the seat of the John Deere, and I had spent hours there firmly grasping the metal pole holding the umbrella that would cover the driver, either Pappy or my father, when we chugged through the fields plowing or planting or spreading fertilizer. I took my place and looked down at the crowded trailer, Mexicans on one side, Spruills on the other. At that moment I felt very privileged because I got to ride on the tractor, and the tractor belonged to us. My haughtiness, however, would vanish shortly, because all things were level among the cotton stalks.

"A Painted House"

I'd been curious as to whether poor Trot would go to the fields. Picking required two good arms. Trot had only one, as far as I'd been able to determine. But there he was, sitting at the edge of the trailer, his back to everyone else, feet hanging over the side, alone in his own world. And there was Tally, who didn't acknowledge me, but just looked into the distance.

Without a word, Pappy popped the clutch, and the tractor and trailer lurched forward. I checked to make sure no one fell off. Through the kitchen window I could see my mother's face, watching us as she cleaned the dishes. She would finish her chores, spend an hour in her garden, then join us for a hard day in the fields. Same for Gran. No one rested when the cotton was ready.

We puttered past the barn, the diesel thumping, the trailer creaking, and turned south toward the lower forty, a tract next to Siler's Creek. We always picked the lower forty first because the floods would start there.

We had the lower forty and the back forty. Eighty acres was no small farming operation.

In a few minutes we arrived at the cotton trailer, and Pappy stopped the tractor. Before I jumped down, I looked to the east and saw the lights of our house, less than a mile away. Behind it, the sky was coming to life with streaks of orange and yellow. There wasn't a cloud to be seen, and this meant no floods in the near future. It also meant no shelter from the scorching sun.

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