I glanced at the clock above the stove as we ate. It was ten minutes after four, the earliest breakfast I could remember. My father spoke only long enough to give his weather forecast-cool, clear, not a cloud anywhere, with the ground soft but firm enough to pick cotton.
The adults were anxious. Much of our crop was still unharvested, and if it remained so, our little farming operation would fall farther into debt. My mother and Gran finished the dishes in record time, and we left the house in a pack. The Mexicans rode with us to the fields. They huddled together on one side of the trailer and tried to stay warm.
Clear, dry days had become rare, and we attacked this one as if it might be the last. I was exhausted by sunrise, but complaining would only get me a harsh lecture. Another crop disaster was looming, and we needed to work until we dropped. The desire for a brief nap arose, but I knew my father would whip me with his belt if he caught me sleeping.
Lunch was cold biscuits and ham, eaten hurriedly in the shade of the cotton trailer. It was warm by midday, and a siesta would have been appropriate. Instead, we sat on our picking sacks, nibbled our biscuits, and watched the sky. Even when we talked, our eyes were looking up.
And, of course, a clear day meant that the storms were on the way, so after twenty minutes of lunch, my father and Pappy declared the break to be over. The women jumped up as quickly as the men, anxious to prove they could work just as hard. I was the only reluctant one.
It could've been worse: The Mexicans didn't even stop to eat.
I spent the tedious afternoon thinking about Tally, then Hank, then back to Tally. I also thought about the Spruills and envied them for escaping. I tried to imagine what they would do when they arrived home and Hank wasn't there waiting for them. I tried to tell myself that I didn't really care.
We had not received a letter from Ricky in several weeks. I had heard the adults whisper about this around the house. I had not yet sent my long narrative to him, primarily because I wasn't sure how to mail it without getting caught. And I was having second thoughts about burdening him with the Latcher news. He had enough on his mind. If Ricky were home, we'd go fishing and I'd tell him everything. I'd begin with the Sisco killing and spare no details-the Latcher baby, Hank and Cowboy, everything. Ricky would know what to do. I longed for him to come home.
I don't know how much cotton I picked that day, but I'm sure it was a world record for a seven-year-old. When the sun fell behind the trees along the river, my mother found me, and we walked to the house. Gran stayed behind, picking as fast as the men.
"How long they gonna work?" I asked my mother. We were so tired that walking was a challenge.
"Till dark, I guess."
It was almost dark when we got to the house. I wanted to collapse on the sofa and sleep for a week, but my mother asked me to wash my hands and help with supper. She made corn bread and warmed up leftovers while I peeled and sliced tomatoes. We listened to the radio-not a word about Korea.
In spite of a brutal day in the fields, Pappy and my father were in good spirits when we sat down to eat. Between them, they had picked eleven hundred pounds. The recent rains had driven up the price of cotton in the Memphis market, and if we could just get a few more days of dry weather, then we might survive another year. Gran listened from a distance. She listened but did not hear, and I knew she was off in Korea again. My mother was too tired to talk.
Pappy hated leftovers, but he still thanked the Lord for them. He also gave thanks for the dry weather and asked for more of it. We ate slowly; the day's exhaustion finally settled in. Conversation was soft and short.
I heard the thunder first. It was a low rumble, far away, and I glanced around the table to see if the adults had heard it, too. Pappy was talking about the cotton markets. A few minutes later the rumbling was much closer, and when lightning cracked in the distance, we stopped eating. The winds picked up, and the tin roof on the back porch began to gently rattle. We avoided eye contact.
Pappy folded his hands together and rested his elbows on the table as if he might pray again. He had just asked God for more good weather. Now we were about to get another drenching.
My father's shoulders dropped a few inches. He rubbed his forehead and gazed at a wall. The rain began pecking the roof, a little too loudly, and Gran said, "It's hail."
Hail meant high winds and fierce rain, and sure enough a storm roared across our farm. We sat at the table for a long time listening to the thunder and rain, ignoring the half-eaten supper before us, wondering how many inches would fall and how long it would be before we could pick again. The St. Francis couldn't hold much more, and when it spilled out, the crops would be finished.
The storm passed, but the rain continued, heavy at times. We finally left the kitchen. I walked to the front porch with Pappy and saw nothing but a pool of water between our house and the road. I felt sorry for him as he sat in the swing and gazed in disbelief at the waves of water God was sending us.
Later my mother read Bible stories to me, her voice barely audible above the rain on the roof. The tale of Noah and the flood was off-limits. I fell asleep before young David slew Goliath.
The next day my parents announced that they were driving into town. I was invited-it would've been too cruel to deny me the tripbut Pappy and Gran were not included. It was a little family outing. Ice cream was mentioned as a possibility. Thanks to Cowboy and Tally, we had some free gasoline, and there was nothing to do around the farm. Water was standing between the rows of cotton.
I sat in the front with them and paid close attention to the speedometer. Once we turned onto the main highway and headed north toward Black Oak, my father finished shifting and sped up to forty-five miles an hour. As far as I could tell, the truck ran the same as it did at thirty-seven, but I wasn't about to mention this to Pappy.
It was oddly comforting to see the other farms idled by the rain. No one was trudging through the fields, trying to pick. Not a single Mexican could be seen.
Our land was low, prone to early flooding, and we'd lost crops before when other farmers had not. Now it appeared as if everybody was getting soaked in equal measure.
It was midday with nothing to do but wait, and so families were gathered on porches, watching the traffic. The women were shelling peas. The men were talking and worrying. The children were either sitting on the steps or playing in the mud. We knew them all, every house. We waved, they waved back, and we could almost hear them say, "Reckon why the Chandlers are headin' to town?"
Main Street was quiet. We parked in front of the hardware store. Three doors down at the Co-op, a group of farmers in overalls was engaged in serious conversation. My father felt obliged to report there first, or at least to listen to their thoughts and opinions on when the rain might end. I followed my mother to the drugstore, where they sold ice cream at a soda fountain in the rear. A pretty town girl named Cindy had worked there for as long as I could remember. Cindy had no other customers at the moment, and I received an especially generous helping of vanilla ice cream covered with cherries. It cost my mother a nickel. I perched myself on a stool. When it was clear that I had found my spot for the next thirty minutes, my mother left to buy a few things.
Cindy had an older brother who'd been killed in a gruesome car wreck, and every time I saw her I thought about the stories I'd heard. There'd been a fire, and they couldn't get her brother out of the wreckage. And there'd been a crowd, which, of course, meant there were many versions of just how awful it really was. She was pretty, but she had sad eyes, and I knew this was because of the tragedy. She didn't want to talk, and that was fine with me. I ate slowly, determined to make the ice cream last a long time, and watched her move around behind the counter.
I'd heard enough whispers between my parents to know that they were planning to make some sort of telephone call. Since we didn't own a phone, we'd have to borrow one. I was guessing it would be the phone at Pop and Pearl's store.
Most of the homes in town had phones, as did all the businesses. And the farmers who lived two or three miles from town had phones, too, since the lines ran that far. My mother once told me it would be years before they strung phone lines out to our place. Pappy didn't want one anyway. He said that if you had a phone then you had to talk to folks whenever it was convenient for them, not you. A television might be interesting, but forget a phone.
Jackie Moon came through the door and made his way back to the soda counter. "Hey, little Chandler," he said, then tousled my hair and sat down beside me. "What brings you here?" he asked.
"Ice cream," I said, and he laughed.
Cindy stepped in front of us and said, "The usual?"
"Yes ma'am," he said. "And how are you?"
"I'm fine, Jackie," she cooed. They studied each other carefully, and I got the impression that something was going on. She turned to prepare the usual, and Jackie examined her from head to toe.
"Y'all heard from Ricky?" he asked me, his eyes still on Cindy.
"Not lately," I said, staring too.
"Ricky's a tough guy. He'll be all right."
"I know," I said.
He lit a cigarette and puffed on it for a moment. "Y'all wet out there?" he asked.
Cindy placed a bowl of chocolate ice cream and a cup of black coffee in front of Jackie.
"They say it's supposed to rain for the next two weeks," he said. "I don't doubt it."
"Rain, rain, rain," Cindy said. "That's all people talk about these days. Don't you get tired of talkin' about the weather?"
"Ain't nothin' else to talk about," Jackie said. "Not if you're farmin'."
"Only a fool would farm," she said, then tossed her hand towel on the counter and walked to the front register.
Jackie finished a bite of ice cream. "She's probably right about that, you know."
"Your daddy goin' up North?" he asked.
"Up North, to Flint. I hear some of the boys are already makin' calls, tryin' to get on at the Buick plant. They say the jobs are tight this year, can't take as many as they used to, so folks are already scramblin' to get on. Cotton's shot to hell again. Another good rain and the river's over the banks. Most farmers'll be lucky to make half a crop. Kind of silly, ain't it? Farm like crazy for six months, lose everything, then run up North to work and bring back enough cash to pay off debts. Then plant another crop."
"You goin' up North?" I asked.
"Thinkin' about it. I'm too young to get stuck on a farm for the rest of my life."
"Yeah, me too."
He sipped his coffee, and for a few moments we silently contemplated the foolishness of farming.
"I hear that big hillbilly took off," Jackie finally said.
Fortunately I had a mouthful of ice cream, so I just nodded.
"I hope they catch him," he said. "I'd like to see him go to trial, get what's comin' to him. I already told Stick Powers that I'd be a witness. I saw the whole thing. Other folks are comin' out now, tellin' Stick what really happened. The hillbilly didn't have to kill that Sisco boy."
I shoveled in another scoop and kept nodding. I had learned to shut up and look stupid when the subject of Hank Spruill came up.
Cindy was back, snuffling behind the counter, wiping this and that and humming all the while. Jackie forgot about Hank. "You 'bout finished?" he said, looking at my ice cream. I guess he and Cindy had something to discuss.
"Just about," I said.
She hummed, and he stared until I finished. When I'd eaten the last bit, I said good-bye and went to Pop and Pearl's, where I hoped to learn more about the telephone call. Pearl was alone by the register, her reading glasses on the tip of her nose, her gaze meeting mine the second I walked in. It was said that she knew the sound of each truck that passed along Main Street and that she could not only identify the farmer driving it but also could tell how long it had been since he'd been to town. She missed nothing.
"Where's Eli?" she asked after we'd exchanged pleasantries.
"He stayed at home," I said, looking at the bin of Tootsie Rolls. She pointed and said, "Have one."
"Thanks. Where's Pop?"
"In the back. Just you and your parents, huh?"
"Yes ma'am. You seen 'em?"
"No, not yet. They buyin' groceries?"
"Yes ma'am. And I think my dad needs to borrow a phone." This stopped her cold as she thought of all the reasons why he needed to call someone. I unwrapped the Tootsie Roll.
"Who's he callin'?" she asked.
"Don't know." Pity the poor soul who borrowed Pearl's phone and wanted to keep the details private. She'd know more than the person on the other end.
"Y'all wet out there?"
"Yes ma'am. Pretty wet."
"That's such bad land anyway. Seems like y'all and the Latchers and the Jeters always get flooded first." Her voice trailed off as she contemplated our misfortune. She glanced out the window, slowly shaking her head at the prospect of another bleak harvest.
I'd yet to see a flood-at least not one that I could remember-so I had nothing to say. The weather had dampened everyone's spirits, including Pearl's. With heavy clouds hanging over our part of the world, it was hard to be optimistic. Another gloomy winter was coming.
"I hear some people are goin' up North," I said. I knew Pearl would have the details if the rumors were indeed true.
"I hear that, too," she said. "They're tryin' to line up jobs just in case the rains stay."
"Hadn't heard," she said, but I could tell from the tone of her voice that she had the latest gossip. The farmers had probably used her phone.
I thanked her for the Tootsie Roll and left the store. The sidewalks were empty. It was nice to have the town to myself. On Saturdays you could hardly walk for all the people. I caught a glimpse of my parents in the hardware store buying something, so I went to investigate.
They were buying paint, lots of it. Lined up perfectly on the counter, along with two brushes still in their plastic wrappers, were five one-gallon buckets of white Pittsburgh Paint. The clerk was totaling the charges when I walked up. My father was fumbling for something in his pocket. My mother stood close to his side, straight and proud. It was obvious to me that she had pushed the buying of the paint. She smiled down at me with great satisfaction.
"That's fourteen dollars and eighty cents," the clerk said.
My father withdrew his cash and began counting bills.
"I can just put it on your account," the clerk said.
"No, this doesn't go there," my mother said. Pappy would have a heart attack if he got a monthly statement showing that much spent for paint.
We hauled it to the truck.