See What All You Can Learn
“I didn’t do it,” Charlene whisper-hissed to the woman in the red pantsuit about to enter the restroom. The woman seemed confused, until she stuck her head in, “Oh dear.”
“I know. Hold your breath.”
“Don’t worry about me. I always keep some citrus freshener in here,” the woman lifted her purse even as she pointed to it. “Just in case.”
“Good idea,” Charlene nodded as she headed back to her table. She really ought to say something to the management about the facility. A plastic spray of Dogwood someone had stuck in a vase then put on the toilet back wore a thick coat of dust and an old sketch of some ducks wearing blue bows that had been there forever now had dark speckles of mold growing on the matting. Despite the restroom’s slow decline, Charlene doubted she and Walter would stop eating there anytime soon. The Wild Azalea was located in a quaint yellow Victorian right off the downtown square. The food was decent for the price and though most of the servers were teenagers, they were unfailingly polite. Almost certainly homeschoolers, and at least half of them related, with wispy caramel colored hair and extra rosy cheeks. They all wore clean black aprons and almost ma’amed and sirr’ed you to death. Walter sometimes complained about it, but she didn’t mind. Children going too far the other way hadn’t brought any good, as far as she could tell.
“Did you make some room for dessert?” Walter asked as he scraped the dressing he still had left on his plate into another small pile.
“Walter! Really. Keep your voice down.”
“No one can hear me.”
He always seemed to think that, regardless of where they were.
“Oh, look at that. He’s going back again,” Charlene breathed after taking a sip of ice tea. There was a portly man with a grease slicked mustache and a local softball T-shirt with an outdated schedule on the back. It must have been his third trip to the meat station.
“They ain’t making any money off of him, I guess,” Walter said.
“No indeed,” Charlene agreed, getting up for a piece of marble cake she’d seen earlier. She found a smaller piece, probably one they’d cut off the corner, and felt somewhat self-justified shooting the man in the softball shirt a pointed glance as he continued piling his plate with ham slabs. She could have taken a bigger piece. But she didn’t have to. Charlene was dabbing regretfully at the crumbs, waiting for Walter to return from the register when she realized a woman was standing right in front of her.
“Yes ma’am?” Charlene asked politely putting a wide smile on her face. Maybe the woman wanted to borrow the Tabasco sauce.
“Hello there. I’m on my way out the door but I just thought I’d give you this because I….I like to encourage people, that’s my ministry, well, one of them, anyway,” the woman announced, taking a folded paper out of a tan fringed purse. She wore a baggy denim skirt and her breasts were so big it just seemed like her blouse was covering one gigantic maternal curve. Her hair, white til it yellowed at the tips, hung in a long, loose braid.
“Well, thank you. That’s just fine,” Charlene smiled, taking the brochure. It must have been for some fundraiser or Scentsy or Tupperware.
“You read that and see what all you can learn. Pray about your heart,” the woman said, tapping confusingly at her sternum.
After the woman had left, Charlene studied the front of the brochure. Jesus perched on a rock at the edge of the Sea of Galilee in his obligatory blue sash, preaching to a rapt crowd of bathrobes.
“What have you got there?” Walter asked as he tucked their receipt into his wallet then stuffed his wallet in his back pocket.
“Some woman handed me…this,” Charlene thrust the paper at him, “Like I needed to be saved.”
“Well, do you?” Walter said, only quickly glancing before he returned it.
“Walter! How long have we been at First Baptist?”
“Remember what Billy Huff said the other week in Sunday School? Going to church don’t make you a Christian anymore than sitting in the garage makes you a Ford.”
“Maybe it’s from some other church than ours, honey. She doesn’t know anything about you.”
Charlene knew that was true. But what bothered her was that the woman had singled her out. There were plenty of other folks in there, weren’t there? Like those four men at the corner table all in hunting gear, in ridiculous orange knit caps like bank robbers might wear. Once they were in the car, she stared glancing at the brochure again.
“I can have eternal life and happiness if I follow these simple steps,” she said in a falsely inflated voice to Walter.
“Well, sounds easy as an oil change. Just get topped off some with Holy Spirit and come back in three months or two thousand miles,” Walter said, turning onto Main and Pulaski. He could be cheerful. He hadn’t been handed the thing.
“It’s Jehovah’s Witness,” she pointed to the address stamped in blue at the bottom on the back of the brochure.
“Not even Christian, huh?”
“Not near enough,” Charlene agreed, looking out at the Shell station and the Bright Beginnings preschool with its rainbow mural and broken jungle gym that signaled the turn off to their road. On the property that bordered them to the west, all Mr. Thompson’s cows were lying down on the dead brown grass, dull brown leeches who couldn’t even be bothered to stand and chew their cud. When they got home, she dropped the brochure in the recycling bin they kept out in the garage by the rakes and shovels. Once they were inside, Walter found an SEC football game that was already 3-14 and promptly fell asleep. Charlene put her purse away and looked at herself in the mirror adhered to the back of their bathroom door, smoothing down her skirt. Didn’t she dress nice enough this morning it was obvious she’d gone to church? She’d had this wool jacket for two years now but it was quality, from Belk’s annual spring sale, and it was holding up beautifully as far as she could tell.
She’d just sat down with a Good Housekeeping, half-heartedly reading tips for getting currant stains out of cloth napkins when the phone rang. It was her sister Donna who’d moved down to Tifton after marrying a copy machine seller. Donna usually called every other weekend to catch up with Charlene. They saw each other about six times a year, and had always been close though Donna was younger than Charlene by nine years. Lately, she and her sister’s weekend phone calls centered around Donna’s youngest who still lived at home: Randall. Randall didn’t seem to have the drive that his two older brothers did. He just sat in his room with his computer games, except when Donna chased him out to vacuum and get the sheets and any errant plates. Randall was not a bad looking boy, but he didn’t take care of himself—scruffy hair, black T-shirts with big dripping lizards clutching glass balls and lightning bolts, and so pale from all that screen time. He also watched some show that was for small girls, with ponies. He said he wasn’t the only one, that there were others, but Donna was still worried: “I mean, why does he want to watch pink and yellow horses sing and dance?” Today Donna was thrilled because he’d recently gone with one of his friends to sign up for classes at the community college.
“He’s pretty excited about orientation. There’s gonna be free root beer floats apparently made by the honor society. I took him to Wal-mart and bought him some notebooks. And a folder with a race car on it. I felt like it was fourth grade all over again, instead of him being twenty-two. I almost bought him a glue stick just because it was only thirty-five cents but I didn’t. I just hope he keeps with it.”
“Don’t forget you have to be firm,” Charlene instructed her. “Kids don’t know what they want but deep down they know what they need. They need you to provide regularity. Rules that stay the same and don’t change just cause they raise their voice or whine.” In her mind, the copy machine salesman didn’t have enough backbone, leaving Donna to do most of the discipline.
“He wants to get into the auto mechanic program, but he has to take a lot of other core courses first. Math and English.”
“Well, that will give him a goal to work at.”
She and Walter had already raised their children, a boy and then a girl who had both found nice folks to marry and were living in Florida and Alabama, respectively. Charlene loved them of course, but she didn’t mind being done with the diapers and homework and all that driving to and fro. She wasn’t even sure she’d loved them the same way Walter had. Yes, she cared about them and did all she could for them, but Walter’s eyes were always shining when one of them just made a simple crayon mark on a paper, something a monkey could have done. Eventually, Charlene felt the need to tell Donna about the tract she’d received earlier that afternoon.
“Now where were you again?” Donna asked.
“At the Azalea.”
“Oh, I miss that place most of all I think since I moved here. Did you have their collards? I love their fresh squash casserole too. You know I’ve tried to recreate it, but I can’t get the seasoning right. I just know there’s some paprika in there, but it’s the what else that I can’t figure out.”
“Donna, I don’t know what I ate; I can’t remember anymore. I’m telling you, this woman didn’t ask word one about me before she just got in my face with that brochure. Then she left before I could say anything else.”
“Would you have wanted her to hover around and try to preach?”
“No, I guess not,” Charlene had to admit, which annoyed her.
“Well where was she from again? What church?”
“Oh them. They don’t even go to church on the right day,” Donna assured her. “The one new building they just built here, doesn’t even have windows. Now why is that. What are they hiding?”
“I don’t know.”
“I remember learning some about them in the world cults unit Pastor Jade taught us last year. That was a real interesting class. I’m pretty sure it’s them that only believes a certain number is getting into heaven at least at a certain level. Something like that,” Donna said.
“Well then why would they want to witness at all? If they are only going to be adding to their competition,” Charlene mused.
“Couldn’t tell you that. It’s probably something they are told they have to do,” Donna said. “Who knows, she continued. “I remember pastor Jade saying the worst religions have the appearance of truth. They have Jesus in there and some good stuff but then they throw in all these other things too. Fine sounding doctrines pleasing to the itching ears.”
“Hey…do you remember that girl in my fourth grade class, Jill, who was a Mormon. Blonde long hair. Had a windbreaker with a jumping frog stitched on the pocket she always wore?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, she was a real good speller. Always one of the last ones standing in any of our bees. Her family lived on Springdale. In a big grey house. They moved back west, I think.”
“To be closer to that big tabernacle building maybe,” Charlene said.
“Well, there are definitely more Mormons out there. Maybe they wanted to be with more of their own kind. I guess it’s good we do have freedom of religion here,” she continued musing. “But as for me, I don’t want to hop just because the pope sitting in Rome or some other big-wig wants me to hop.”
“I know what you mean.”
“So,” Donna added, changing the subject yet again, “Have you seen your fisherman lately?”
“Yes. Six days out of seven last week. I counted. Walter says I ought to let it go but it still drives me nuts.”
Donna was referring to a man who lived down her and Walter’s street, in a trailer just past Mr. Thompson’s cow pasture. He and his young son traipsed regularly through their backyard to reach the dock behind their house. The way Charlene heard her neighbor Mr. Frick talk, the family had always been there and they just got lucky that the rest of the road was developed into nicer residences than they themselves had. They never put their sticks in neat piles, just threw them in haphazard arcs near the road and they let their moldy mouthed pumpkins cave in and collapse instead of carting them away.
“I was hoping they’d give you a break,” Donna said.
“No such luck.”
The dock wasn’t fenced in, of course, but it was still on their property. The papers at the house sale had said so, loud and clear. She and Walter owned it as well as the seven foot wide strip of land going down to it. The first time the man and his son had shown up, Charlene had made Walter go down there and say something. The man didn’t ask permission or say hello or thank you when Walter talked to him. All he apparently said was, ‘We’ve always fished here’—in an indignant tone, no less, as if they were the ones bothering him. That had been two years ago. Sometimes he and his wife, another large bodied one, came and fished with the boy. The boy was opposite of them, a stick and he had blonde hair that was almost white even whiter than her nephew Randall. It was odd. He wasn’t an albino but he put you in mind of one, one right on the verge and stopping just short of sliding over. The three always wore old beat up T-shirts and sandals, regardless of how hot or cold it was as if they didn’t care who saw their dirty toes or their cracked heels. Walter had found out the man was on disability, some kind of spine problem, and that was why he had so much fishing time on his hands. He did walk a bit slowly, carrying his rod and usually a big white plastic bucket but he looked just fine to Charlene. Fit enough to work somewhere, at least a desk job where he could sit down and get up as he needed.
“Six out of seven days still?”
“That’s just taking it too far.”
“Oh I know,” Charlene agreed, sighing, “I almost sent a card the day he didn’t show up because I thought maybe he was dead.”
“Well, is he still driving the golf cart over?”
“That beat up old thing? Yes. He isn’t pulling it up on our grass anymore, though, because our neighbor to the left complained. He left marks in both our yards. Plus it leaks oil out on the street in front of our houses.”
“I try not to let it bother me. But what does bother me is that the other week Walter saw that boy out there all by himself. He had driven the golf cart over here.”
“That can’t be legal can it? You live on a county road after all.”
“I know. I know. I made Walter tell the man not to let his boy out there. For insurance purposes and all. It’s our dock and our property. We don’t want to get sued for all we’re worth just because they aren’t good parents. What if he starts bringing his friends?” She had never seen anyone but him, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
“That’s right. You ought to get a sign,” Donna decided.
While making dinner that evening, Charlene realized she was stabbing the potatoes she was going to bake in the oven furiously. Talk of the dock had got her dander up. Right after she had greased the potatoes and put them in the oven, the phone rang again. Donna.
“Sorry, but I just thought of something. About your tract lady.”
“She probably was real scared to give on of those papers away but had to. And she looked around and you looked like the nicest person in there. She knew that you’d probably be decent and not yell or anything.”
“That’s awfully kind of you to say,” Charlene said. She had already thought that very thing, but if that was so, then why did the woman say what she did? “Pray about your heart.” Like there was something she needed to confess.
The next morning Walter went to play bridge at the senior center downtown. After he left, Charlene knew it was time. She got in her car and drove to a local hardware store a few miles away. There was a big new Lowe’s that had opened up across from the Crystal at the intersection recently but she wanted to support local business and Bill Wooten of Bill’s Hardware was one of the head elders at their church.
“What do you need?” a young girl with a hook nose said, smacking her gum loudly. Charlene wondered what flavor it was. It looked disgusting, the color of a cooked canned pea. She also had a piercing in her eyebrow. Charlene wondered if she was related to Bill and Maggie, or if they were trying to reach out to her by hiring her.
“Is Bill here?” she asked the girl.
“I just ask because I know him. From our church.”
“Well anyway, I’m here because I need some ‘no trespassing’ signs,” Charlene told her, holding her empty plastic basket defensively across her chest.
“They’re over by the decals for mailboxes and the house numbers, on aisle two” the gum-smacker pointed in a monotone voice. At least she knew where things were.
“You got trouble?” a more talkative cashier asked when Charlene returned to the counter with her signs. She was an older woman with long purple nails tapping lightning fast on the register keys.
“Let’s just say that some folks don’t respect boundaries.”
“I’ll say. Last winter, some fool shot a deer that was in my cousin’s front yard. My cousin fed them—and word got out I guess. It’s like her hobby, especially cause of her health. She has a bum leg. The birds and animals all know she’s a tender heart. The sheriff eventually came and they took a lot of notes on a big yellow pad but they never found the gunman,” the cashier said as she rang up the signs then began bagging them. The long nails didn’t seem to interfere with her opening the plastic handles. “They could have killed someone. What if my cousin had been at the window at the time and the gunman saw a quick motion when she pulled the curtains aside and got confused?”
“She’d be dead,” Charlene clucked her tongue.
“Bingo,” the cashier cheerfully agreed. “Wouldn’t that be a pretty lawsuit? That’ll be four dollars and sixty two cents.”
“Alright,” Charlene got out a five dollar bill and some coins from her beaded change purse, bought at the mission month fundraiser from a lady with the pointiest teeth she’d ever seen, a single gal serving down in Venezuela. It didn’t seem like the woman would have had too many offers to marry anyway, so it was probably for the best she’d given her life over to ministry.
“Here’s your dollar back,” the woman said, “Hope they all learn to stay out of your business, whoever they are.”
“Thank you,” Charlene nodded. She knew Walter would scoff at her purchase, which is why she hadn’t told him about it in the first place. He wasn’t as bothered as she was about these things. When she got back home, she took a fresh sign out of the plastic bag and set it on the kitchen counter. Under the orange ‘no trespassing’ letters lay a dazzling blank space. All that possibility made her dizzy for a moment. In the end she went with “Private Property. Please Ask!” written in tall capital letters with a black permanent marker. Let them see that. She then took the sign to the garage and rustled around in Walter’s toolbox, finding his hammer with little trouble. The nails were different. Charlene had only found some small ones in an old pinto bean can in the garage. She wasn’t sure where bigger ones were, though Walter had his own elaborate system, keeping bolts, screws, and even safety pins in old baby food jars. She thought it was a ridiculous storage system, but everyone at church knew about it and the young mother’s morning out program even washed and saved jars for him they periodically put out in the foyer in a brown grocery bag. Walter just couldn’t throw anything away. Once she’d put some of his oldest underwear in the trash thinking she’d fooled him because he’d never said a word about it going missing. However, one day when she was out moving some things into their small camper, she saw something strange holding sleeping bags together. Upon closer inspection, she realized he had cut off all the elastic bands, shot as they were, and put them to use as makeshift bungee cords.
Once all her materials were gathered, Charlene marched down to the dock where she discovered a scattering of metal weights tied to fishing line, little plastic rubbery orange and purple worms, and the radish half of a red and white bobbin. They didn’t even have the good sense to clean up after themselves. When she bent down and started hammering, she found she couldn’t drive the small nails in at a straight angle. Finally, she gave up, tapping a few of them in, pounding the bent halves she hadn’t been able to drive in back against the sign itself. Walter didn’t notice it until two days later.
“What’s that out there on the dock?”
“A ‘no trespassing’ sign.”
“Who put it out there, do you think?”
“Really. What in heaven’s earth possessed you to go and do that?” he asked, a big grin on his face.
“Donna said it might be a good idea.”
“You even went over to Bill’s place to get them?”
“Yes. I’m tired of it.”
“Tired of what?”
“People taking advantage.”
“You mean the golf cart man with the bad back?”
“Of course that’s who I mean. Next thing you know, he’ll be bringing all his friends. Or that boy of his. He’ll get to be a teenager soon enough and then the hi-jinks will really start. Maybe they’ll do drugs down there or bring girls with them, girls and… sleeping bags”
Walter looked about to say something, but then he didn’t, a bemused smile still on his face. The rest of the day, Charlene found herself looking out the window, just waiting, daring them to come back. Of course her sign didn’t keep golf cart man away for long. He and his son were down there the very next morning, just fishing away. Charlene shut the kitchen window shade so she wouldn’t be tempted to look out at them and seethe. She’d just have to make do without the natural light.
After dinner that evening Walter flipped on the T.V. and ended up watching some show about Henry and all his wives.
“That Anne Boleyn got herself a sword cross the neck because she didn’t produce a kid with dingle balls, poor woman.”
“I didn’t know you cared so much about history.”
“When there’s a lot of sex and murder going on, I do.”
The sign stayed up for three more days. Charlene was the first to notice it gone, the afternoon she came home from Publix. Leaving the sacks with milk and eggs, celery, and cottage cheese in the car, she marched down to the dock, heart racing. Pieces of the sign were left around the twisted nails. Someone had clearly ripped it off. Not knowing what else to do, she stomped her foot, then went back to the car to get her groceries. She felt angry. Violated. To make matters worse, Walter had left the recycling bin out with the trash. Coming back to the car, she noticed an empty two liter Dr. Thunder bottle and a flattened Wheat Thins box on their lawn. Of all things. Picking up garbage in her own yard. She hoped the neighbors wouldn’t see her. After she had retrieved the cracker box and soda bottle, she saw yet another piece of paper, against the far fence. When she got close enough to see what it was she found Jesus, his hand still in the air, gesturing. She picked it up too, then threw the things back in the recycle bin and stomped on everything.
Walter wouldn’t understand her fury about the sign. He was more laid back than her, about everything. He always said she was the most high strung person he ever met—just pluck the air near her and there’d be a loud twang. That couldn’t be true. She just cared about things. Doing them right. Properly. That’s all. The morning after she’d found the desecration he went to meet some friends from the auto shop for coffee. She wished he’d think about being a deacon. He had fried sausage links at the men’s breakfast two years ago and helped her type up the new prayer chain but that was about it as far as extra church involvement. It had disappointed her but she didn’t want to pester him. After a certain point it was all between the Lord and him. He had lamb’s blood on him, she was sure, but little else to recommend him at the gates. Frazzled, she sat down in the living room, folded her hands, then took a deep breath. After a moment, she made herself get up to retrieve the laundry basket. She was coming back down the hall with it, when the doorbell rang. When she looked out, she saw the boy with white blonde hair and she almost dropped the basket.
“What do you want?” Charlene mouthed through the pane of glass at the side of the door. She felt scared he might jump her, but didn’t want to appear rude.
“I brought you somethin’.” The boy replied. He didn’t look her in the eye at all. She set down the basket and opened the door.
“I see. Well, go ahead and apologize then and get it over with.”
“I don’t know what you mean, ma’am,” the boy mumbled, still not looking at her.
“You don’t, do you?”
“Are you playing tricks on an old lady?”
He kept looking down.
“Then what do you have for me?”
The boy held up his pointer finger, then stepped off her porch and over by the holly bush where she now saw a bucket. Eventually, he pulled out a medium-sized droopy catfish, brown and rank smelling.
“I finally caught me one. Tried and tried and finally did it.”
“Oh,” Charlene said staring dully at its whiskers.
“I wanted to bring it to you. Dad doesn’t know I’m here though, so I oughta get right back. He gets real mad when he don’t know where I am.” With this, the boy dumped the fish right into her hands.
“Well…thank you,” Charlene managed to say as the boy took the bucket and sped back down the walk.
“No problem, ma’am.”
He finally looked up to smile briefly, and it was then she noticed the purplish bruise under his left eye. Before she could say anything else, the boy had vanished.
Charlene took the fish inside and put it on the counter. It seemed like it had been plucked from the current just a few seconds ago, its pupil was so bright. She sat down for a minute at the kitchen table, then got up and went out to the garage, to the shelf where Walter kept his car cleaning rags in a shoebox. She selected one of the nicer ones that didn’t have much grease on it and got the brochure from out of the recycling bin. Sitting there at the kitchen table, she studied the scene one more time. A bit more rumply and some soda from Walter’s Dr. Thunder splattered in the bottom corner, but the picture was still in decent shape. There was a cluster of trees in the far left background, some Bible land type of tree, olive or fig and scraggly, doing whatever it could do to survive in that hot clime. She thought about the nails that would go in those hands soon enough and wondered if the hammer or mallet was swung the same way she had swung it a few days ago: in blind filthy anger and pure hate. Heart thudding, she rolled the brochure into a tight scroll, slowly inserted it in the fish’s mouth, then carefully wrapped the fish in the car cleaning rag, placing it in the top bureau drawer where she kept the silverware she only used for Christmas, Easter, and birthday dinners, along with the antique silver tongs she liked to pair with the famous red grape and broccoli salad she made for church Homecomings. Next, she sat down in Walter’s chair in the living room, wiping her hands on her pants, mouth dry, armpits starting to sweat. She hoped Walter would find it, right away, when he came home. She wondered if he would call the police.
Jennifer Blair is from Yakima, Washington and lives in Winterville, Georgia where she teaches part-time at the University of Georgia. She has work published or forthcoming in Copper Nickel, New South, the Atticus Review, South Carolina Review, Appalachian Heritage, The Chattahoochee Review, Adirondack Review, Berkley Poetry Review, Cold Mountain Review, and Pembroke magazine, among others. Her poetry book Malcontent is out from Press Americana.