My mother was eager to examine the Mexicans and ask me about their traveling conditions. She watched them pile out of the truck as she walked to me and squeezed my shoulder.
"Ten of them," she said. "Yes ma'am."
Gran met Pappy at the front of the truck and said, quietly but sternly, "Why are those people in our front yard?"
"I asked them to set up by the silo," Pappy said, never one to back down, not even from his wife. "I don't know why they picked that spot."
"Can you ask them to move?"
"I cannot. If they pack up, they'll leave. You know how hill people are."
And that was the end of Gran's questions. They were not about to argue in front of me and ten new Mexicans. She walked away, toward the house, shaking her head in disapproval. Pappy honestly didn't care where the hill people camped. They appeared to be able-bodied and willing to work, and nothing else mattered to him.
I suspected Gran was not that concerned either. The picking was so crucial that we would've taken in a chain gang if they could've averaged three hundred pounds of cotton a day.
The Mexicans followed Pappy off to the barn, which was 352 feet from the back porch steps. Past the chicken coop, the water pump, the clotheslines, and the tool shed, past a sugar maple that would turn bright red in October. My father had helped me measure the exact distance one day last January. It seemed like a mile to me. From home plate to the left field wall in Sportsman's Park, where the Cardinals played, was 350 feet, and every time Stan Musial hit a home run I would sit on the steps the next day and marvel at the distance. In mid-July he'd hit a ball 400 feet against the Braves. Pappy had said, "He hit it over the barn, Luke."
For two days afterward, I'd sat on the steps and dreamed of hitting 'cm over the barn.
When the Mexicans were past the tool shed, my mother said, "They look very tired."
"They rode in a trailer, sixty-two of them," I said, eager, for some reason, to help stir things up.
"I was afraid of that."
"An old trailer. Old and dirty. Pearl's already mad about it."
"It won't happen again," she said, and I knew that my father was about to get an earful. "Run along and help your grandfather."
I'd spent most of the previous two weeks in the barn, alone with my mother, sweeping and cleaning the loft, trying to make a home for the Mexicans. Most of the farmers put them in abandoned tenant houses or barns. There'd been a rumor that Ned Shackleford three miles south had made his live with the chickens.
Not so on the Chandler farm. For lack of another shelter, the Mexicans would be forced to live in the loft of our barn, but there wouldn't be a speck of dirt anywhere to be found. And it would have a pleasant smell. For a year my mother had gathered old blankets and quilts for them to sleep on.
I slipped into the barn, but stayed below, next to Isabel's stall. She was our milk cow. Pappy claimed his life had been saved in the First War by a young French girl named Isabel, and to honor the memory, he named our Jersey cow after her. My grandmother never believed that story.
I could hear them up in the loft, moving around, settling in. Pappy was talking to Miguel, who was impressed with how nice and clean the loft was. Pappy took the compliments as if he and he alone had done the scrubbing.
In fact, he and Gran had been skeptical of my mother's efforts to provide a decent place for the laborers to sleep. My mother had been raised on a small farm at the very edge of Black Oak, so she was almost a town girl. She actually grew up with kids who were too good to pick cotton. She never walked to school-her father drove her. She'd been to Memphis three times before she married my father. She'd been raised in a painted house.
We Chandlers rented our land from Mr. Vogel of Jonesboro, a man I'd never seen. His name was rarely mentioned, but when it did slip into a conversation, it was uttered with respect and awe. I thought he was the richest man in the world.
Pappy and Gran had been renting the land since before the Great Depression, which arrived early and stayed late in rural Arkansas. After thirty years of backbreaking labor, they had managed to purchase
"A Painted House"
from Mr. Vogel the house and the three acres around it. They also owned the John Deere tractor, two disks, a seed planter, a cotton trailer, a flatbed trailer, two mules, a wagon, and the truck. My father had a vague agreement that gave him an ownership interest in some "I these assets. The land deed was in the names of Eli and Ruth Chandler.
The only farmers who made money were those who owned their land. The renters, like us, tried to break even. The sharecroppers had i he worst and were doomed to eternal poverty. My father's goal was to own forty acres of land, free and clear. My other's dreams were tucked away, only to be shared with me as I grew older. But I already knew she longed to leave the rural life and is determined that I would not farm. By the time I was seven, she had made a believer out of me.
When she was satisfied that the Mexicans were being properly situated, she sent me to find my father. It was late, the sun was falling beyond the trees that lined the St. Francis River, and it was time for in to weigh his cotton sack for the final time and call it a day. I walked barefoot along a dirt path between two fields, looking for him. The soil was dark and rich, good Delta farmland that produced enough to keep you tied to it. Ahead, I saw the cotton trailer, and I knew he was working his way toward it.
Jesse Chandler was the elder son of Pappy and Gran. His younger brother, Ricky, was nineteen and fighting somewhere in Korea. There were two sisters who'd fled the farm as soon as they'd finished high school.
My father didn't flee. He was determined to be a farmer like his father and grandfather, except he'd be the first Chandler to own his land. I didn't know if he had dreams of a life away from the fields. Like my grandfather, he had been an excellent baseball player, and I'm sure at one point he'd dreamed of major league glory. But he took a German bullet through his thigh in Anzio in 1944, and his baseball career came to an end.
He walked with a very slight limp, but then so did most people who toiled in the cotton patch.
I stopped at the trailer, which was almost empty. It sat on a narrow cotton road, waiting to be filled. I climbed up on it. Around me, on all sides, neat rows of green and brown stalks stretched to the tree lines that bordered our land. At the top of the stalks, puffy bolls of cotton were popping forth. The cotton was coming to life by the minute, so when I stepped on the back of the trailer and surveyed the fields, I saw an ocean of white. The fields were silent-no voices, no tractor engines, no cars on the road. For a moment, hanging on to the trailer, I could almost understand why my father wanted to be a farmer.
I could barely see his old straw hat in the distance as he moved between rows. I jumped down and hurried to meet him. With dusk approaching, the gaps between the rows were even darker. Because the sun and rain had cooperated, the leaves were full and thick and weaving together so that they brushed against me as I walked quickly toward my father.
"Is that you, Luke?" he called, knowing full well that no one else would be coming to find him.
"Yes sir!" I answered, moving to the voice. "Mom says it's time to quit!"
"Oh she does?"
"Yes sir." I missed him by one row. I cut through the stalks, and there he was, bent at the waist, both hands moving through the leaves, adroitly plucking the cotton and stuffing it into the nearly full sack draped over his shoulder. He'd been in the fields since sunrise, breaking only for lunch.