I sit in different places at church, so I don’t have to look at the same stained-glass window every week. It’s hard for me to pay attention to the pastor, and I don’t follow along in my Bible because I can’t read very well, so the windows are a nice distraction. There are twelve in all, each with a different scene from Jesus’ life. In one, He’s having the last supper with His disciples. In another, He’s nailed to the cross under a sad, purple sky. Today, the closest window, the last in the series, shows Him knocking on a big, wooden door. I wish there was one more window to show what happens when the door opens.
When I’m tired of the windows, I look at the wood-panelled walls. Most of the rings in the wood’s grain are light yellow, but some are darker and more orange. The colors swirl in patterns and, if I look hard, I can pick out eyes, faces, deer, trees, and rippling ponds. At last Wednesday night’s prayer meeting, I found a spot that looked like my friend Charlie Howard, but this morning it looks more like a bobcat. I’m good at finding pictures on the walls or in the clouds, but that doesn’t count toward being smart. Smart people read long books and talk about what the president should do.
Even though no one’s around to make me, I still go to church every Sunday morning and Wednesday night. My dad died when I was still a boy and Mom passed away when I was twenty, which was fifteen years ago. My family never had much money, and even though Dad wasn’t a deacon and Mom didn’t help with Vacation Bible School, communion, or the nursery, we only missed a service if someone was sick — throwing up, a fever, or at least diarrhea.
The truth is, I don’t mind going to church. I live alone in the trailer where I grew up; I work alone in my garden, and even when I work at other places there isn’t much conversation. In the fall, when I help Mr. John with his crop, I sit upon a big machine by myself and press the levers that squish the soft cotton into giant blocks. Cal will be in the picker and Ray will be on the tractor mowing down the bare stalks. Even though we’re all in the same field at the same time, there’s not much talking. This time of year, summertime, I help Mr. Baxter and Leroy cut the grass around town, but the riding mower and two weed-eaters are loud, so no one bothers to say anything unnecessary. But at church lots of people talk before and after the service, and everyone is always nicer than when I pass them in the grocery store or at the post office. Today, after the preaching and singing are done, at least four or five people will say, “How are you doing, Stevie? It’s nice to see you. Did you have a good week?” The preacher must feel like the most important man in the world because he talks for half an hour straight and the whole congregation just sits quietly and listens, even when he’s boring.
On Wednesday nights, the church hosts a covered-dish supper before the prayer meeting starts. The best cooks in the congregation bring in all kinds of food, and I think of when my mom used to make dinner. She never taught me to cook, so Wednesday nights are the only time I eat a meal that didn’t come from Burger King or McDonald’s. Everyone at the supper grins and laughs, even the old men who are usually too tired and serious to smile. I watch them from my seat, their white hair pulled back by pomade and thick-toothed combs, their ears and noses too big for their heads. They only admit something is funny to each other. One day, when I’m old, I hope they let me sit with them.
It’s Monday, so I get up early to weed my garden before work. The minute the sun is over the horizon, the air heats up and the sweat starts rolling, but if I don’t chop the weeds, they’ll choke out my vegetables. All the jobs I’m qualified to do — helping Mr. John on his farm, cutting grass for Mr. Baxter, and growing crops to sell at the farmer’s market — are in the spring, summer, and fall. I have to save all the money I can to get through the cold months.
Even though it’s a hot summer, my garden looks fine. I never learned how to brag without being obvious, so I’ll just say it’s the best crop I’ve ever had. The cucumbers, string beans, and corn are something special.
When I get to work, Mr. Baxter and Leroy don’t say much, they just fire up the machines and start cutting the grass. They are both retired from their jobs at the paper mill, and I can tell the heat has been rough on them. This morning we’re in the cemetery at the church, which means a lot of weed-eating around the headstones. Some of the oldest ones are marble and used to be white, but now they’re dull orange and shrinking, and the names are almost erased. If every person who ever lives and dies gets a piece of the earth forever, will we run out of room for the living? The newer stones, the shiny granite ones, mark the resting places of people who are still missed. One of these is over my mom and dad. The first time I helped cut the grass in the cemetery, Leroy said he’d trim around their grave so I didn’t have to, but I told him I didn’t mind. While I trim, I talk to them.
At lunch, Mr. Baxter pays for my double cheeseburger, French fries, and apple pie, which means I did a good job today. He asks if I’m going to be at the farmer’s market on Saturday because he wants to buy some string beans.
“I’ll save you some,” I say. It’s hard not to mention how good they look.
When I get home, I water my garden and pull a few stray weeds that popped up during the day. There’s nothing on TV except court shows and the news, so I put my tape of Old Yeller in the VCR. It’s my favorite movie and, since I live alone, no one minds if I don’t watch the ending. We all end up in cemeteries one day, but I don’t like to watch that boy shoot his dog.
The vegetables in my garden are even bigger Tuesday morning. I can hardly wait to show them to Charlie Howard, Mr. Baxter, and the rest of the people at the farmer’s market. I decide not to charge extra, even though everything is so big and pretty.
I don’t have to work for Mr. Baxter today, so after the watering and weeding, I get my fishing rod and drive to the Blackwater River. I bring along a Dr. Pepper, a can of potted meat, and a pack of cheese crackers from the gas station, so lunch will be like a picnic. After I put a cricket on the hook and toss it in the water, I sit still and think about fish. For them, it doesn’t matter how high the temperature gets because they spend all day in the river. They never have to go to school or work. They don’t have to save money. They don’t get lonely. As far as I can tell, fish have a nice life.
A dark brown water moccasin swims near the shore. The short, thick body moves like a wave, cutting through the water. Some snakebites are just a pinch, but a moccasin will make you sick. Charlie Howard once told me a story about a farmer who found a moccasin. It was wintertime and all the snakes should have been curled up in their dens, but this one lay almost frozen in the grass. The farmer saw how skinny and pitiful and weak the snake was and he brought it inside.
The farmer’s wife said, “Why are you bringing that evil thing in here? Don’t you know it’ll bite you?”
But the farmer said, “I couldn’t stand to watch it suffer. It’s one of God’s creatures, and I have to kill it or I have to save it.”
“Then get a garden hoe and chop its head off,” his wife replied.
That old farmer ignored his wife and fed the snake mice he caught in the barn and kept it in the kitchen for warmth. All winter long, the farmer looked after the moccasin, and he grew attached to it. He even talked to the snake in the evenings and, when it was well enough, the snake talked back. When spring came, the farmer said, “It’s time to go, snake. The weather is warm again and there are plenty of mice in my fields for you to eat.” He reached down to pick it up and the snake struck him.
“Why did you do that?” the farmer said. “I saved your life, gave you food and shelter.”
“Don’t blame me,” the moccasin said. “You knew I was a snake when you picked me up.”
The fish aren’t really biting today, but that’s okay. I have my potted meat and crackers and it’s still a good day.
I wake up late and don’t have time to check the garden before work. I meet Mr. Baxter and Leroy at the shopping center in town. The temperature must be a hundred and five, but that doesn’t stop the grass from growing. It stretches up high to meet the sun. I use the weed-eater to knock it down again, but the grass doesn’t give up.
After we finish for the day, I ask Mr. Baxter and Leroy if they would like to stop at the bowling alley for a game, but they say no; their wives are expecting them. It’s Wednesday, so I ask Mr. Baxter if he’s coming to the covered dish supper tonight and he says yes. I don’t ask Leroy because he goes to the black church with Charlie Howard. For some reason, black people and white people go to different churches even though they do almost everything else together.
I decide to bowl a game by myself. Some of the people from the Presbyterian Home are on the first four lanes. People with mental disabilities live at the Presbyterian Home and get a little help from the staff. A lot of the residents have jobs, and they go on trips and do things together, like bowling, shopping, or going to concerts and pro wrestling shows.
I’m only bowling one game, so I take my time. During the eighth frame, a pretty girl walks toward me, and I don’t know what to do because that never happens to me. Should I stop bowling and see what she wants? Should I ignore her until I’m sure it’s me she wants to talk to? I cut the grass all day, and I know I smell bad. My mom used to say that, when I sweated a lot, my armpits could knock a buzzard off a turd wagon.
She smiles and waves to get my attention. She’s young, in her twenties, with a dark ponytail and cut-off shorts that show off her smooth, suntanned legs. In my chest, there’s a tiny hope that she likes chubby, simple men, but I freeze, holding the ball like I’m going to roll it at her.
“How are you?” Her voice is sweet and it feeds the hope.
I try to say, “I’m fine, thank you, and how are you?” but I barely open my mouth before I freeze again. She smells like lavender and that reminds me that I don’t smell nice at all. I don’t know if I should say something about that or not. I don’t want her to think I stink for no reason.
“I don’t know if you noticed,” she says, “but your friends are leaving.” She motions toward the front of the bowling alley where the Presbyterian Home residents wait at the counter. As they turn in their bowling shoes, the lady who drove their van does a headcount. “I don’t want you to get left behind,” she says. She’s trying to help, which is somehow the worst thing she could have done.
“I’m not,” I say before my throat clamps shut. My cheeks burn. Sweat seeps out of my pores. “I’m not, I’m not, I’m not,” I hear myself say the words over and over before the rest of the sentence shakes loose. “I’m not with them.”
I turn away and throw a gutter ball before I walk to the register, pay, and leave without finishing the game. I don’t want to, but I cry a little in the truck on the way home.
I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I’m glad I did. The pretty girl at the bowling alley seems a little further away, and I try to think about the covered-dish supper instead. After I wash up and change clothes, I put on my baseball cap and lock the trailer door. When I start the truck, the orange glow of the radio dial lights up and “Sweet Home Alabama” is just coming on. I’ve never been to Alabama but I like the song, so I turn the knob until the speakers are buzzing. My head bobs, my hand smacks the steering wheel with the beat, and today might be okay after all.
The gravel parking lot is already filling up with cars, even though I’m early. I never lock the doors to the truck because I might lock the keys inside and no one wants to steal my rusted old truck anyway. Every other car in the lot is much newer and nicer.
Even though it’s a country church with less than three hundred members in the pews on Sunday morning, there’s a gym for suppers, basketball games, youth lock-ins, and pinewood derby races. Instead of calling it a gym, some people call it the “Family Life Center,” but that seems like a lot of words to say the same thing. The folding tables are already set up, but I help put out the metal chairs. A familiar bowl or platter appears every two minutes: string beans with pork side meat, fried chicken, and fresh sweet corn that still has a stray wisp of silk in it. Then broccoli casserole, butterbeans, and black-eyed peas. The smells are getting stronger, and my stomach wants a helping of everything, but I tell it to be patient. First, we have the blessing and let the older people go through the line.
When it’s finally my turn, I peel a Styrofoam plate from the stack and add blobs of different colors from the dishes. My plate looks like I’m going to paint a picture of the mountains in the fall. Mr. Baxter walks over and asks if I went bowling after work. For a moment my hunger disappears, but I don’t mention the pretty girl. I just say, “Yes, I enjoyed it.”
“That’s good,” he says. “You work hard and hard work deserves a reward.”
Mrs. Eason stops next to us. She’s a lot older, and she’s been a member of this church her whole life, so she’s allowed to say what she wants even if it isn’t always nice. When I was young, she taught Sunday school and she never had any patience with me. If I got into a fight with another boy, it was always my fault. If I couldn’t recite the Bible verses like everyone else (and I never could), then I couldn’t play outside.
“Hello, Dalton,” she says. “How are you this evening?” Dalton is Mr. Baxter’s first name, but I don’t call him that because it would be disrespectful since I’m younger. Mrs. Eason never says hello to me, not even if I say it first.
“I’m just fine, Mrs. Eason. There are some beautiful dishes on the buffet line this evening.” Even though she isn’t much older than Mr. Baxter, he still calls her Mrs. Eason. I guess he’s being safe because he knows how mean she can be. Most everyone knows.
She has almost as much food as I do, but she looks hard at my plate like I took the last of something, which I never do. “Stevie, what did you bring tonight?” Her eyes are wide with expectation, but she knows the answer. With one question she makes me understand that for years I’ve enjoyed this nice food and never contributed to it. I’m sick with embarrassment. All this time the other people probably thought, “Poor, stupid Stevie doesn’t realize he’s doing this wrong, too.” Or, they might have thought I was trying to get one over on them, to eat their food without sharing anything of mine. I don’t know which one is more shameful.
“You did bring something, didn’t you?” Mrs. Eason knows she’s got me cornered, but she’s not satisfied yet. Not until she hits bone. “You understand how a covered-dish supper works?”
She’s right. Everyone else is always right. I’ve been a freeloader every Wednesday night for all these years. I can see Mr. Baxter wants to stick up for me, but there’s no excuse he can make. I put down my plate. The little piles of vegetables and meat are poisoned now. For the second time today, I run.
It’s Friday. I went to work yesterday with Mr. Baxter and Leeroy, but I felt bad because I couldn’t stop thinking about what Mrs. Eason said. Sometimes I get tired of being a horse’s ass. Mr. Baxter must have known I was feeling down because he bought my lunch even though I didn’t do a great job. Then, he told me to take today off and go fishing. I’d rather stay home and watch Old Yeller or Davy Crockett, but Mr. Baxter said to fish.
At the gas station, I buy one can of Vienna sausages and one of the bloodworms since I haven’t caught anything with crickets lately. If a bait doesn’t work, using it over and over doesn’t make much sense to me, but what do I know?
I park my truck and walk toward the river, paying close attention to where I step. The moccasin I saw Tuesday could bite me, and then I’d have a bunch of hospital bills. This week has been bad enough already.
The bloodworms are huge, and when I grab one out of the moist black dirt, it contracts like a stiff, slimy piece of phone cord. The hook pierces the worm, and it’s weird how much its blood looks like mine. A bug, a spider, or a cricket is full of stuff that looks like puss or bird crap, so why does a worm have real, red blood?
I throw the line in the water and get comfortable on the bank of the river. I don’t expect to catch much, but it’s nice out here with no one to look at me and think, “There’s poor Stevie. He sure is dumb. Somebody ought to help him, but not me.”
The weather is hot, but not as bad as the past few days, and soon I fall asleep. I’m not sure how long I was out, but when I pull in my line the worm is soggy and pale. I have a whole can, so I switch it for a new one. The fresh, bleeding worm drops below the surface of the dark water, and right away there’s a hard strike. My reel starts to sing as the line goes out. I say, “Keep calm, Stevie. Don’t do anything stupid.” I reel in a little line when I can, but after I get it halfway in, the fish takes off again. It must be big to snatch the line out so fast. It could be an alligator gar because they’re big and strong, but nobody wants to catch those. Gars are too bony to eat and too ugly to mount. Not that I’ve ever had a fish mounted. It’s too expensive and the meat goes to waste.
The line keeps going out and the fish swims toward a tangle of roots. I increase the drag on the reel and pull hard even though the line might break. Little by little, I work the fish back toward my side of the river. When it’s ten yards from the bank, it rolls under the water, and a white belly flashes against the sun. It’s the biggest bass I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean the biggest one I’ve caught or seen someone else catch, I mean it’s bigger than the bass on the walls at seafood restaurants or in fishing magazines. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime catch.
As soon as I can reach it, I grab the bass under the gills and drag it from the water. I don’t have a scale, but the fish feels like a sack of potatoes in my hand. My line should have broken, but somehow it held. Bright green scales the size of pennies glitter on its back and belly. The eyes are big and smart-looking, and it must be very old. A lot of hooks and fishermen missed this fish, but, for whatever reason, I caught it.
I look around for someone to show the bass to, and I remember I’m alone. There’s nobody to look stupid in front of, but there’s nobody to see the fish, either. No one can say, “Hold it up, Stevie! I’m going to take a picture for the newspaper.”
I place the fish back into the dark water, and with one swish of its tail, it’s gone. Maybe one day someone else will catch it. A fish that beautiful shouldn’t be wasted on me.
It’s Saturday morning, which means it’s time to take my vegetables to the farmer’s market. I park my truck on the edge of the two-acre field behind my trailer and load bushel baskets of string beans, cucumbers, squash, and corn. The baskets, made of flimsy gray wood and rusted wire, belonged to my father, but after all these years they still do the job. Today, I’ve filled so many that I can only fit half of them in the truck bed. The preacher would say my cup runneth over. Since I only know how to grow vegetables and not how to cook them, this evening I’ll take the rest to the older ladies from church who can’t move around well enough to plant their own gardens anymore. They always look happy when I pull up and say, “Good afternoon, Mrs. So-and-so. I brought these just for you.” I guess I should say most of them look happy. I took a basket to Mrs. Eason’s once, and she said that she wasn’t a charity case, and that if she wanted my vegetables, she’d buy them at the farmer’s market like everyone else. I see her at the market almost every Saturday, but she’s never bought anything from me.
I park at my usual spot beside Charlie Howard. After such a hard week, I’m glad to see him. Charlie always smiles and looks like he’s exactly where he wants to be. When he sees the vegetables in my baskets, his eyes get big. “What on earth did you do, Stevie? Didn’t anybody tell you that vegetables don’t grow like that during a heatwave? If you sell that stuff beside me, I’ll go out of business!” He doesn’t really mean the last part. Charlie’s sold vegetables at the farmer’s market a long time, and his customers buy from him because they like him. I like him, too.
Usually, I keep my feelings to myself because I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me, but I end up telling Charlie all about my week — the bowling alley, Mrs. Eason, and the fish — and for a second I think I might cry because it makes me sad to think about it, but when I finish talking, I feel a little better.
Charlie arranges his baskets in a row. “You said you remembered that story I told you about the moccasin and the farmer. What did the snake say to the farmer after the bite?”
“He said, ‘You knew I was a snake when you picked me up.’ ”
“That story isn’t about snakes, Stevie. It’s about certain people. I’m not saying Mrs. Eason is a snake, but you shouldn’t pick her up. You know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
“With most folks like her, just let them say what they want to, then forget it and go about your business. Takes their power away. But sometimes…”
A hand lands on my shoulder and Mr. Baxter says, “Great day in the morning, Stevie! Why didn’t you tell me you had a bumper crop? I’ll take a bushel of these string beans.” From an overflowing basket, I fill two of the yellow five-gallon buckets in the back of his truck, piling the beans to the top. I never want anyone to say I cheated them.
“Have you set any beans aside for the county fair?” Mr. Baxter asks. “There’s nobody who can beat you if you enter.”
“No, sir,” I say. “I don’t know how to can, but I appreciate you saying so.”
“Do you eat any of what you grow?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know how to cook. I eat at Burger King or McDonald’s.”
A sad look crosses Mr. Baxter’s face. He draws a Pall Mall cigarette from the box in his shirt pocket. “Stevie, I need to talk to you about what happened at the supper the other night.”
“Hello, Dalton.” It’s just like Mrs. Eason to show up at the worst moment. For once, I’m glad she ignores me. She doesn’t greet Charlie either, but she begins to browse and handle his vegetables, seeming dissatisfied with most of what she finds. Charlie sits on his truck’s tailgate, arms folded, his face more serious than usual.
“Mrs. Eason,” Mr. Baxter says, “I was going to talk to Stevie about something, and I think it would be best if you heard it, too.” His tone is pleasant and polite and Mrs. Eason takes two steps over, her shoulders back and her eyebrows raised. Her expression says Mr. Baxter should make it quick because she has a lot to do.
Mr. Baxter turns back to me and says, “Do you remember when Mrs. Eason said you didn’t bring anything to the supper?”
Nervousness twists my stomach. I don’t want to talk about that, not ever, and especially not with Mrs. Eason standing here. I try to give Mr. Baxter a look to tell him this, to plead with him not to bring it up, but he’s made up his mind.
Mr. Baxter takes a drag from his cigarette and exhales. “Well, Mrs. Eason was wrong. Without your garden, Edith Felts wouldn’t have the tomatoes to make her spaghetti sauce, Mildred Sadler wouldn’t have the strawberries for her cake, and Helen Johnson wouldn’t have the cucumbers for the sweet pickles in her chicken salad. You’ve probably contributed more to those suppers than anyone and certainly more than Mrs. Eason.” Mr. Baxter turns to address her. “How much did you spend on that can of baked beans? Two dollars?”
Mrs. Eason’s eyes narrow and the corners of her mouth pull down. “What are you trying to say, Dalton?”
“I think I’ve said it,” Mr. Baxter replied. “Stevie has every right to come to that supper, and if I ever hear you say otherwise, I’ll do my best to embarrass you in front of the whole congregation. Maybe I’ll stand up on Sunday morning and pray out loud for the Lord to forgive you for your hatefulness.”
Mrs. Eason says, “Charlie, get me a small bag of corn and please hurry.”
Charlie spits on the ground. “As far as you’re concerned, this corn isn’t for sale. Maybe if you apologize, Stevie will sell you some of his.”
She leaves in a huff, mumbling to herself about how she doesn’t know what the world is coming to.
“Charlie,” I say, “I thought you said it was easier to let someone like Mrs. Eason say whatever they want and to forget it.”
“I didn’t get to finish my thought. There’s a time for patience, but there’s also a time to stand up to somebody and Mrs. Eason was long overdue.”
Mr. Baxter drops his cigarette on the ground and grinds it out with his heel. “Thanks again for the string beans, Stevie. I’ll see you at work on Monday.”
No matter what else happens, today is a good day.
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