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 tighttight 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.
"This is Trot," she said. "He ain't right."
"Nice to meet you, Trot," I said, but his eyes looked away. He acted as if he hadn't heard me.
"How old is he?" I asked her.
"Twelve. He's a cripple."
Trot turned abruptly to face a corner, his bad arm flopping lifelessly. My friend Dewayne said that hill people married their cousins and that's why there were so many defects in their families.
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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