"Eli worries about everything," she said.
"He's a farmer."
"Are you going to be a farmer?"
"No ma'am. A baseball player."
"For the Cardinals?"
Pearl hummed for a bit while I waited for the Mexican. I had some more Spanish I was anxious to try.
The old wooden shelves were bursting with fresh groceries. I loved the store during picking season because Pop filled it from floor to ceiling. The crops were coming in, and money was changing hands.
Pappy opened the door just wide enough to stick his head in. "Let's go," he said; then, "Howdy, Pearl."
"Howdy, Eli," she said as she patted my head and sent me away.
"Where are the Mexicans?" I asked Pappy when we were outside.
"Should be in later this afternoon."
We got back in the truck and left town in the direction of Jonesboro, where my grandfather always found the hill people.
We parked on the shoulder of the highway, near the intersection of a gravel road. In Pappy's opinion, it was the best spot in the county to catch the hill people. I wasn't so sure. He'd been trying to hire some for a week with no results. We sat on the tailgate in the scorching sun in complete silence for half an hour before the first truck stopped. It was clean and had good tires. If we were lucky enough to find hill people, they would live with us for the next two months. We wanted folks who were neat, and the fact that this truck was much nicer than Pappy's was a good sign.
"Afternoon," Pappy said when the engine was turned off.
"Howdy," said the driver.
"Where y'all from?" asked Pappy.
"Up north of Hardy."
With no traffic around, my grandfather stood on the pavement, a pleasant expression on his face, taking in the truck and its contents. The driver and his wife sat in the cab with a small girl between them. Three large teenaged boys were napping in the back. Everyone appeared to be healthy and well dressed. I could tell Pappy wanted these people.
"Y'all lookin' for work?" he asked.
"A Painted House"
"Yep. Lookin' for Lloyd Crenshaw, somewhere west of Black Oak." My grandfather pointed this way and that, and they drove off. We watched them until they were out of sight.
He could've offered them more than Mr. Crenshaw was promising. Hill people were notorious for negotiating their labor. Last year, in the middle of the first picking on our place, the Fulbrights from Calico Rock disappeared one Sunday night and went to work for a farmer ten miles away.
But Pappy was not dishonest, nor did he want to start a bidding war.
We tossed a baseball along the edge of a cotton field, stopping whenever a truck approached.
My glove was a Rawlings that Santa had delivered the Christmas before. I slept with it nightly and oiled it weekly, and nothing was as dear to my soul.
My grandfather, who had taught me how to throw and catch and hit, didn't need a glove. His large, callused hands absorbed my throws without the slightest sting.
Though he was a quiet man who never bragged, Eli Chandler had been a legendary baseball player. At the age of seventeen, he had signed a contract with the Cardinals to play professional baseball. But the First War called him, and not long after he came home, his father died. Pappy had no choice but to become a farmer.
Pop Watson loved to tell me stories of how great Eli Chandler had been-how far he could hit a baseball, how hard he could throw one. "Probably the greatest ever from Arkansas," was Pop's assessment.
"Better than Dizzy Dean?" I would ask.
"Not even close," Pop would say, sighing.
When I relayed these stories to my mother, she always smiled and said, "Be careful. Pop tells tales."
Pappy, who was rubbing the baseball in his mammoth hands, cocked his head at the sound of a vehicle. Coming from the west was a truck with a trailer behind it. From a quarter of a mile away we could tell they were hill people. We walked to the shoulder of the road and waited as the driver downshifted, gears crunching and whining as he brought the truck to a stop.
I counted seven heads, five in the truck, two in the trailer.
"Howdy," the driver said slowly, sizing up my grandfather as we in turn quickly scrutinized them.
"Good afternoon," Pappy said, taking a step closer but still keeping his distance.
Tobacco juice lined the lower lip of the driver. This was an ominous sign. My mother thought most hill people were prone to bad hygiene and bad habits. Tobacco and alcohol were forbidden in our home. We were Baptists.
"Name's Spruill," he said.
"Eli Chandler. Nice to meet you. Y'all lookin' for work?"
"Where you from?"
The truck was almost as old as Pappy's, with slick tires and a cracked windshield and rusted fenders and what looked like faded blue paint under a layer of dust. A tier had been constructed above the bed, and it was crammed with cardboard boxes and burlap bags filled with supplies. Under it, on the floor of the bed, a mattress was wedged next to the cab. Two large boys stood on it, both staring blankly at me. Sitting on the tailgate, barefoot and shirtless, was a heavy young man with massive shoulders and a neck as thick as a stump. He spat tobacco juice between the truck and the trailer and seemed oblivious to Pappy and me. He swung his feet slowly, then spat again, never looking away from the asphalt beneath him.
"I'm lookin' for field hands," Pappy said.
"How much you payin'?" Mr. Spruill asked.
"One-sixty a hundred," Pappy said.
Mr. Spruill frowned and looked at the woman beside him. They mumbled something.
It was at this point in the ritual that quick decisions had to be made. We had to decide whether we wanted these people living with us. And they had to accept or reject our price.
"What kinda cotton?" Mr. Spruill asked.
"Stoneville," my grandfather said. "The bolls are ready. It'll be easy to pick." Mr. Spruill could look around him and see the bolls bursting. The sun and soil and rains had cooperated so far. Pappy, of course, had been fretting over some dire rainfall prediction in the Farmers' Almanac.
"We got one-sixty last year," Mr. Spruill said.
I didn't care for money talk, so I ambled along the center line to inspect the trailer. The tires on the trailer were even balder than those on the truck. One was half flat from the load. It was a good thing that their journey was almost over.
Rising in one corner of the trailer, with her elbows resting on the plank siding, was a very pretty girl. She had dark hair pulled tightly behind her head and big brown eyes. She was younger than my mother, but certainly a lot older than I was, and I couldn't help but stare.
"What's your name?" she said.
"Luke," I said, kicking a rock. My cheeks were immediately warm. "What's yours?"
"Tally. How old are you?"
"Seven. How old are you?"
"How long you been ridin' in that trailer?"
"Day and a half."
She was barefoot, and her dress was dirty and very tight-tight all the way to her knees. This was the first time I remember really examining a girl. She watched me with a knowing smile. A kid sat on a crate next to her with his back to me, and he slowly turned around and looked at me as if I weren't there. He had green eyes and a long forehead covered with sticky black hair. His left arm appeared to be useless.
"A Painted House"
"This is Trot," she said. "He ain't right."