For the second Sunday in a row, death dominated our worship. Mrs. Letha Haley Dockery was a large, loud woman whose husband had left her many years earlier and fled to California. Not surprisingly, there were a few rumors of what he did once he arrived there, and the favorite, which I'd heard a few times, was that he had taken up with a younger woman of another race-possibly Chinese, though, like a lot of gossip around Black Oak, it couldn't be confirmed. Who'd ever been to California?
Mrs. Dockery had raised two sons, neither of whom had received much distinction but who had the good sense to leave the cotton patch. One was in Memphis; the other out West, wherever, exactly, that was.
She had other family scattered around northeastern Arkansas, and in particular there was a distant cousin who lived in Paragould, twenty miles away. Very distant, according to Pappy, who didn't like Mrs. Dockery at all. This cousin in Paragould had a son who was also fighting in Korea.
When Ricky was mentioned in prayer in our church, an uncomfortable event that happened all the time, Mrs. Dockery was quick to jump forward and remind the congregation that she, too, had family in the war. She'd corner Gran and would whisper gravely about the burden of waiting for news from the front. Pappy talked to no one about the war, and he had rebuked Mrs. Dockery after one of her early attempts to commiserate with him. As a family, we simply tried to ignore what was happening in Korea, at least in public.
Months earlier, during one of her frequent plays for sympathy, someone had asked Mrs. Dockery if she had a photo of her nephew.
As a church, we'd been praying for him so much, somebody wanted to see him. She'd been humiliated when she couldn't produce one.
When he was first shipped off, his name had been Jimmy Nance, and he was a nephew of her fourth cousin-her "very close cousin." As the war progressed, he became Timmy Nance, and he also became not just a nephew, but a genuine cousin himself, something of the second or third degree. We couldn't keep it straight. Though she preferred the name Timmy, occasionally Jimmy would sneak back into the conversation.
"A Painted House"
Whatever his real name, he'd been killed. We heard the news in church that Sunday before we could get out of the truck.
They had her in the fellowship hall, surrounded by ladies from her Sunday school class, all of them bawling and carrying on. I watched from a distance while Gran and my mother waited in line to comfort her, and I truly felt sorry for Mrs. Dockery. However thick or thin the kinship, the woman was in great agony.
Details were discussed in whispers: He'd been driving a jeep for his commander when they hit a land mine. The body wouldn't be home for two months, or maybe never. He was twenty years old and had a young wife at home, up in Kennett, Missouri.
While all this conversation was going on, the Reverend Akers entered the room and sat beside Mrs. Dockery. He held her hand, and they prayed long and hard and silently. The entire church was there, watching her, waiting to offer sympathies.
After a few minutes, I saw Pappy ease out of the door.
So this is what it will look like, I thought, if our worst fears come true: From the other side of the world, they will send the news that he's dead. Then friends will gather around us, and everybody will cry.
My throat suddenly ached and my eyes were beginning to moisten. I said to myself, "This cannot happen to us. Ricky doesn't drive a jeep over there, and if he did, he'd have better sense than to run over a \ land mine. Surely, he's coming home."
I wasn't about to get caught crying, so I sneaked out of the building just in time to see Pappy get in his truck, where I joined him. We sat and stared through the windshield for a long time; then without a word, he started the engine, and we left.
We drove past the gin. Though it was silent on Sunday mornings, every farmer secretly wanted it roaring at full throttle. It operated for only three months out of the year.
We left town with no particular destination in mind, at least I couldn't determine one. We stayed on the back roads, graveled and dusty with the rows of cotton just a few feet off the shoulders.
His first words were, "That's where the Siscos live." He nodded to his left, unwilling to take a hand off the wheel. In the distance, just barely visible over the acres of cotton stalks, was a typical sharecropper's house. The rusted tin roof sagged, the porch sloped, the yard was dirt, and the cotton grew almost to the clothesline. I didn't see anyone moving around, and that was a relief. Knowing Pappy, he might get the sudden urge to pull up in the front yard and start a brawl.
We kept going slowly through the endlessly flat cotton fields. I was skipping Sunday school, an almost unbelievable treat. My mother wouldn't like it, but she wouldn't argue with Pappy. It was my mother who had told me that he and Gran reached out for me when they were most worried about Ricky.
He spotted something, and we slowed almost to a stop. "That's the Embry place," he said, nodding again. "You see them Mexicans?" I stretched and strained and finally saw them, four or five straw hats deep in the sea of white, bending low as if they had heard us and were hiding.
"They're pickin' on Sunday?" I said.
We gained speed, and finally, they were out of sight. "What're you gonna do?" I asked, as if the law were being broken.
"Nothin'. That's Embry's business."
Mr. Embry was a member of our church. I couldn't imagine him allowing his fields to be worked on the Sabbath. "Reckon he knows about it?" I asked.
"Maybe he doesn't. I guess it'd be easy for the Mexicans to sneak out there after he left for church." Pappy said this without much conviction.
"But they can't weigh their own cotton," I said, and Pappy actually smiled.
"No, I guess not," he said. So it was determined that Mr. Embry allowed his Mexicans to pick on Sunday. There were rumors of this every fall, but I couldn't imagine a fine deacon like Mr. Embry taking part in such a low sin. I was shocked; Pappy was not.
Those poor Mexicans. Haul 'em like cattle, work 'em like dogs, and their one day of rest was taken away while the owner hid in church.
"Let's keep quiet about this," Pappy said, smug that he'd confirmed a rumor.
We heard the congregation singing as we walked toward the church. I'd never been on the outside when I wasn't supposed to be. "Ten minutes late," Pappy mumbled to himself as he opened the door. They were standing and singing, and we were able to slide into our seats without much commotion. I glanced at my parents, but they were ignoring me. When the song was over, we sat down, and I found myself sitting snugly between my grandparents. Ricky might be in danger, but I would certainly be protected.
The Reverend Akers knew better than to touch on the subjects of war and death. He began by delivering the solemn news about Timmy Nance, news everyone had already heard. Mrs. Dockery had been taken home to recover. Meals were being planned by her Sunday school class. It was time, he said, for the church to close ranks and comfort one of its own.
"A Painted House"
It would be Mrs. Dockery's finest hour, and we all knew it.
If he dwelt on war, he'd have to deal with Pappy when the service was over, so he stuck to his prepared message. We Baptists took great pride in sending missionaries all over the world, and the entire denomination was in the middle of a great campaign to raise money for their support. That's what Brother Akers talked about-giving more money so we could send more of our people to places like India, Korea, Africa, and China. Jesus taught that we should love all people, regardless of their differences. And it was up to us as Baptists to convert the rest of the world.
I decided I wouldn't give an extra dime.
I'd been taught to tithe one tenth of my earnings, and I did so grudgingly. It was there in the Scriptures, though, and hard to argue with. But Brother Akers was asking for something above and beyond, something optional, and he was flat out of luck as far as I was concerned. None of my money was going to Korea. I'm sure the rest of the Chandlers felt the same way. Probably the entire church.
He was subdued that morning. He was preaching on love and charity, not sin and death, and I don't think his heart was in it. With things quieter than usual, I began to nod off.
After the service, we were in no mood for small talk. The adults went straight to the truck, and we left in a hurry. On the edge of town, my father asked, "Where did you and Pappy go?"
"Just drivin' around," I said.
I pointed to the east and said, "Over there. Nowhere, really. I think he just wanted to get away from church." He nodded as if he wished he'd gone with us.
As we were finishing Sunday dinner, there was a slight knock at the back door. My father was the closest to it, so he stepped onto the back porch and found Miguel and Cowboy.
"Mother, you're needed," he said, and Gran hurried out of the kitchen. The rest of us followed.
Cowboy's shirt was off; the left side of his chest was swollen and looked awful. He could barely raise his left arm, and when Gran made him do it, he grimaced. I felt sorry for him. There was a small flesh wound where the baseball had struck. "I can count the seams," Gran said.
My mother brought a pan of water and a cloth. After a few minutes, Pappy and my father grew bored and left. I'm sure they were worrying about how an injured Mexican might affect production.
Gran was happiest when she was playing doctor, and Cowboy got the full treatment. After she dressed the wound, she made him lie on the back porch, his head on a pillow from our sofa.
"He's got to be still," she said to Miguel.
"How much pain?" she asked.
"Not much," Cowboy said, shaking his head. His English surprised us.
"I wonder if I should give him a painkiller," she mused in the direction of my mother.
Gran's painkillers were worse than any broken bone, and I gave Cowboy a horrified look. He read me perfectly and said, "No, no medicine." She put ice from the kitchen into a small burlap bag and gently placed it on his swollen ribs. "Hold it there," she said, putting his left arm over the bag. When the ice touched him, his entire body went rigid, but he relaxed as the numbness set in. Within seconds, water was running down his skin and dripping onto the porch. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
"Thank you," Miguel said.
"Gracias," I said, and Miguel smiled at me.
We left them there, and gathered on the front porch for a glass of iced tea.
"His ribs are broken," Gran said to Pappy, who was on the porch swing, digesting his dinner. He really didn't want to say anything, but after a few seconds of silence he grunted and said, "That's too bad."
"He needs to see a doctor."
"What's a doctor gonna do?"
"Maybe there's internal bleeding."
"Maybe there ain't."
"It could be dangerous."
"If he was bleedin' inside, he'd be dead by now, wouldn't he?"
"Sure he would," my father added.
Two things were happening here. First and foremost, the men were terrified of having to pay a doctor. Second, and almost as significant, both had fought in the trenches. They had seen stray body parts, mangled corpses, men with limbs missing, and they had no patience with the small stuff. Routine cuts and breaks were hazards of life. Tough it out.
Gran knew she would not prevail. "If he dies, it'll be our fault."
"He ain't gonna die, Ruth," Pappy said. "And even if he does, it won't be our fault. Hank's the one who broke his ribs."
My mother left and went inside. She was not feeling well again, and I was beginning to worry about her. Talk shifted to the cotton, and I left the porch.
I crept around back, where Miguel was sitting not far from Cowboy. Both appeared to be sleeping. I sneaked into the house and went to check on my mother. She was lying on her bed, her eyes open. "Are you okay, Mom?" I asked.
"Yes, of course, Luke. Don't worry about me."
She would've said that no matter how bad she felt. I leaned on the edge of her bed for a few moments, and when I was ready to leave, I said, "You're sure you're okay?"
"A Painted House"
She patted my arm and said, "I'm fine, Luke."
I went to Ricky's room to get my glove and baseball. Miguel was gone when I walked quietly out of the kitchen. Cowboy was sitting on the edge of the porch, his feet hanging off the boards, his left arm pressing the ice to his wounds. He still scared me, but in his present condition I doubted if he would do any harm.
I swallowed hard and held out my baseball, the same one that had broken his ribs. "How do you throw that curve?" I asked him. His unkind face relaxed, then he almost smiled. "Here," he said, and pointed to the grass next to the porch. I hopped down, and stood next to his knees.
Cowboy gripped the baseball with his first two fingers directly on the seams. "Like this," he said. It was the same way Pappy had taught me.
"And then you snap," he said, twisting his wrist so that his fingers were under the ball when it was released. It was nothing new. I took the ball and did exactly as he said.
He watched me without a word. That hint of a smile was gone, and I got the impression he was in a lot of pain.
"Thanks," I said. He barely nodded.
Then my eyes caught the tip of his switchblade protruding from a hole in the right front pocket of his work pants. I couldn't help but stare at it. I looked at him, and then we both looked down at the weapon. Slowly, he removed it. The handle was dark green and smooth, with carvings on it. He held it up for me to see, then he pressed the switch, and the blade sprang forth. It snapped, and I jerked back.
"Where'd you get that?" I asked. A dumb question, to which he offered no answer.
"Do it again," I said.
In a flash, he pressed the blade against his leg, folding it back into the handle, then waved it near my face as he snapped the blade out again.
"Can I do it?" I asked.
No, he shook his head firmly.
"You ever stuck anybody with it?"
He drew it closer to himself and gave me a nasty look. "Many men," he said.
I'd seen enough. I backed away, then trotted past the silo, where I could be alone. I threw pop flies to myself for an hour, hoping desperately that Tally would happen by on her way to the creek again.