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.
"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 beenhow 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.
Excerpted from A Painted House by John Grisham Copyright 2/6/01 by Belfry Holdings, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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