Them Who Should
The man people of the village call Mister and who when in town is called by customers Mr. Brown, sat ragged on his porch as though if he were a drinking man, emptied bottles would now lie scattered at his feet and swarming in his eyes, that glazed look of one whose mind and spirit is far away and he thought
“I should have known that day at the church picnic when I saw him leaning against the oak tree, old like it was planted at the church’s founding, cast down-turned eyes in my daughter’s direction. And not just because of the eyes but should have known because it was after we set out the food and ate. After he and his family laid out in clean canisters and baskets with napkins to cover the top those things which the land gave as reward for their toil over it: boiled snap peas, kale greens in molasses, corn roasted with the husks still on, cranberry jam and so on.
“But the people must have been hungry that day in front of God’s place because what they wanted was meat. Which was why they crowded around our table like cold hands crowd around a fire. From my store I offered pigs feet with lemon wedges on the side, sweet ribs and fried chicken, also roasted chicken. You could hear satisfaction in the smacking of lips, see it in the way heads slowly shook in disbelief with every bite chewed.
“I imagine Keegan, being the first born and rightly concerned with his family’s business remaining not only a service people needed, but one they wanted, was already by that time tallying up his grievances against me, against Bel. I imagine by then he just about had enough of feeling slighted, of feeling like work just would not let up or for all its trouble take them someplace better. Which is not to give him cause for what he done but is just to say – Here is a man’s life, Here is a woman’s, Them who should reach like brothers reach and get reached for like animals.”
Mister thinks this with a soft mind, a mind like a worn shirt fraying at the edges where remembering has taken hold. Even though it is he who has prospered since the time when, on a Saturday say, people would go to the Charleys for their vegetables then walk down the road to the Brown’s place for the meat they had not slaughtered themselves. They would talk to the Charleys, avoiding in their eyes the dark spots like bits of coffee grinds, praising Keegan for his performance in that week’s ball game, praising his father Sam Charley for his various pies and breads
whose father Smith Charley started the small business when he came north after learning that a white man named Brown (coincidentally so) along with other white men, was looking to free slaves not through newspapers and petitions but violence. Believing the world had lost its mind, believing Heaven itself was about to crumble and under the pretense that he too might as well act as though he had lost his mind, he moved north and never left.
He moved up when nearly everyone needed to farm, he threw seeds in the soil the way he spit tobacco on the ground and pulled what they grew with the same insensitivity. Farming, he believed, was like a toothache – something everyone got and endured. And as the years passed and the south fell and its way began to disintegrate, Smith Charley grew even more apathetic toward the land because it was northern land. But it continued, as if to show he who worked it stubborn just how stubborn a living thing could be, to grow and bear forth to him fruits and vegetables. On that land he even received the bounty of a family: took a wife who then bore upon it a child, and later on that child a child and that one too would bear a son of his own. Northerners every one of them who would in turn labor their own way with the land. Smith Charley took it all like it was his from the onset of time to take, and treated it like it were not worth the wait he waited to take it. So he did not care at all when his lettuce wilted, his peppers wrinkled and sagged, and his eggplant browned and bruised on the bumpy long ride down into the city. He found the poor immigrant neighborhoods and peddled his goods to those farmers who no longer had a land, let alone land to farm and grow what they might have in the Old Country. He rode right into their streets, bow-legged when he stood, packed like a bundle of newspapers with just enough muscle to be left alone and not chased out until, after knocking his prices down slightly to outbid local merchants, he sold enough to make his trip worthwhile. He knew the people were poor and the families to feed large, which meant rot at the right price and discoloration could be overlooked, even if with disgust.
Although Sam Charley was a decent businessman, he was not as shrewd nor as resourceful as his father; he did not view his livelihood as something that should grow, but only as something that should sustain. To sell the vegetables most people could grow themselves and the pies most baked at home was enough for him. It was Keegan’s idea to hitch the wagon three times weekly, take it to town to sell to those who did not farm and barely gardened. Sam Charley possessed that which Smith Charley lacked, a success due to the fact that he did what he did well – that his tomatoes were round as snow globes, his watermelons heavy and full as the summers that bore them. So that a person would get a craving, even if his own cooler were stocked full with tomatoes, for a Charley tomato, and one would have to sneak the Charley pie into the house and hide it from whomever may have baked one that very morning.
So Sam Charley, lacking his father’s cunning mind and drive, let his son take the wagon full of goods into town and stayed behind himself satisfied with the decent amount he had. It was his son who wanted more.
Back in those times that are no longer people would stop at the Charleys’ on a Saturday but they would walk the road down and stay and sit with the Browns. Then Mrs. Brown was still around and well; a good-natured woman, short but slender with never-fading rosy cheeks. The entire family was a pleasure to visit with; they thankfully lacked the cold vein that ran askew amongst the Charleys so people felt comfortable enough to stay awhile when picking up meat. Even the little girl – who as a result of these times etched in their minds would remain in their favors even when later she grew to be what they saw as uppity and distant – was pleasant to regard as she quietly fetched coffee. It was the Browns then, who advanced rapidly, nailing up most of the barn in the yard and selling off the cows and the meat chickens; the meat now delivered already dead to the shop they worked out of in town. Riding in the morning past the neighbors to go unlock the shop’s door and in the evening locked it up and rode back in having to pass by the same neighbors once more. Who were proud of the Browns’ success, which they saw as proof amongst them that the ever-present abstraction called Progress, did indeed now and then manifest itself in people. They did not mind the shut-up barn which was space they could have used themselves. They took pride in the way the light gleamed off the new paint of the Browns’ front porch and they smiled at the automobile and waved when it passed, even though there were things about Bel, they believed, who held her head high in a manner strange, who wore those fancy hats that nearly blew off in the wind and heeled shoes, Lord, they thought, if she weren’t so beautiful it would have been easy to dislike her.
“And if I should have known at the picnic,” Mister continues on with his thinking, except by now the sunshine is sinking, grass flutters in the late breeze. In the distance smoke rises from chimneys of homes where supper is being put on, “I should have known some nights later when the mosquitoes were out and their bites cut like shards of glass. Because when Bel did get home she said she was spooked; that it seemed more than the breeze was following beside her in the fields. And right before she walked up, right before she stepped out from the dark like a star from behind a dark cloud passing, I had been thinking about the Charleys, about how this year’s good harvest might bring in some extra money and then maybe Mrs. Charley could afford to wear those dresses like my Bel. I would have known, would have naturally put it all together – what I had been thinking of my little girl felt and what my little girl felt I began to think of – but I was so angered by her, so consumed with fears of what could happen to her simply because she insisted on going and coming as she pleased, where she pleased, said, ‘I work hard just like anybody,’ that I did not see coming what any man, and certainly any father should have seen.”
If the families no longer enjoyed the same quality of living then the children, even more so, certainly did not. For Bel and Keegan had gone through school with one another, had both been held in high favor among their peers: the boys courted Bel just as the girls doted on Keegan. Having grown up with these things as they were, they never imagined there was another way things could be. So that it was hard learning, for Keegan especially, that things had changed because it was his family that appeared the ones left behind. Hard for him to finally realize that accolades no longer came; that gone were the days of afternoons topped with blue skies and slow moving clouds, with him pitching in the bottom of the ninth inning and the people of the countryside gathered knowing they had the game in the bag, Keegan Charley was on the mound for God’s sake.
Making it even more difficult and delusional, Keegan still secretly maintained the notion that he and Bel would be married as a matter of course. That like noble families in the days of old, the two of them would marry dutifully, forming a kind of alliance between the two wealthiest (used her in the mildest of terms) families outside of town. The other boys who took pains to ride to the shop on a weekday afternoon, the other boys who slowly, first removing their hands from their pockets, second removing their hats, stepped up to the Browns’ front door, their wild flower bouquets waiting behind the trunk of a pine just in case Bel said yes to a walk and just in case Mister was out on the porch as often he was, meant nothing – let alone a challenge – to the Keegan Keegan saw in his mind. To him Bel was just biding time and humoring their propositions in order to coax him into jealousy.
It worked. He wanted her the way one wants something they have already decided is their own: with a carnivorous eye, set amongst a self-assurance that is both fragile and reckless. It would take a trip to the butcher to knock Keegan out of his delusion and into the reality even Mister wondered who exactly had created
for many weeks afterward Mister would weigh, like the fruit tree weighs its fruit, the circumstances leading up to that night; he too would try to discern amongst those thoughts that grew from him, which were good and which were rot.
But now that the sunlight is gone, now that night covers where the would-be-bottles lie at Mister’s feet, covers even the great expanse of maple trees that surround mister and Mister’s property – their branches reaching out so that the leaves of one slide beneath those of another, letting pass between them either shadow or light; their roots plunging into one another underground and encouraging, along with the right weather, the growth of thin brown mushrooms that come spread open out of the ground like a lady’s fan. There was a time when he and Bel used to go out and pick them, with she always starting out in field boots but ending inevitably barefoot. She could cross over broke glass barefooted, her mother liked to say, which was true; Bel would climb over exposed roots and rocks with ease as if the earth’s floor was just an endless field of feathers. She would reach down with the same natural grace and pull out from the soil in one smooth motion those weightless bundles of mushrooms.
Now that daylight has eased and passed away, Mister allows himself to think of what he feels he failed to see and so failed as a father; half of him thinking what he sees now so clear is enough to answer his question of Why? Now he allows himself full indulgence in worry over where – as he searches, flips through the sights in his mind like his mind was a photo album of them – he might find cause, might find a reason, a blame. Slowly he rocks his chair and wrings his hands, runs them through his quickly graying hair, brushes them down his thighs. They are two restless children thrown into his arms, looking white washed in the glow of the naked bulb that hangs above the door as insects like pilgrims flock to its light and warmth. He is worried his heart has blinded him and indeed the words she is my heart continuously wrap round his mind like around a spool.
He tries to unravel the words and the thoughts they commission to get them straighter than a spool, more like a thread unwound from that spool. A slow thread he can study as he pulls it out but what comes is
“My heart ran
around alone in the evenings
like a shadow; out
later than the men
gone out to work for
a day’s pay. My
goes to the church-
yard to visit
her mother in the
grave, to pull up
weeds and sweep away
leaves from that grave
like one’s child should.
“What that must have
looked like. And then
to see me
walking home alone,
the knees of my Sunday trousers stained
green by grass
I knelt up-
on to do the work
I imagine she
should have done
and inside church
never sang a
note but stood,
silent as a
tree trunk in her
hats and pocket
books she insisted
on wearing. Tell-
ing me, ‘It’s not putting on airs Daddy, it’s being a lady, and there’s nothing to apologize for that.’
What it must
have looked like.
pie in front
of a hungry child.”
As though that was it. As if there could be no other side to one story. As though his gray hair could now stop growing and the darkness cease spreading. As though day were only light and night only black, as though there were no blue dawn and lavender evening. He thinks that and wishes the story to close up like a fine suitcase.
He gets up to move inside, feeling suddenly warm and flushed, his temples beating and his mind swarming caught up in the flood just unleashed. Moving slowly into his home, first unscrewing the bulb just enough so that light burns out, he thinks, “and the Bel they did not see?”
In the kitchen he pours himself a glass of water, drinks it down in two or three gulps, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and refills it once more. He moves carefully like a man old and with cane into the living room. It is still decorated according to his wife’s sensibilities: porcelain lamps with blue petunias painted on them, white couches draped over with tan doilies she crocheted, small white pillows propped up in a line. He takes one up into his hands and thinks, “If I could have overlooked all those faults in her that those outside of this home might have seen, then there must be qualities I have seen that others have not
“yes, I would go to the churchyard and walk home from it all biting down on my tongue for fear they would see the shivers upon me. The moment I stepped through that doorway I would unclench and shake right down to the bone, every bit of me rattling like a sac of skeleton keys. How I would lay in bed like a child too senseless to even cry, staring out the window, as empty inside as the bed beside me. How my Bel,” and then recalling the words, the spool unwinding into the straight line of thread remembering now pulls at
“My heart tended to
me with no questions
with no reservations. Fluffing
pillows, fetching mugs of sweet tea,
opening or closing the windows depending
on the air and my temperament. Washing my trousers by
hand right away so that there would be no stain, no mark upon them
to recall what always happened. She would not go to the churchyard,
true, but she would see and aid me when I went.
“And now I see, the church picnic was not the first time Keegan Charley set his eyes on a Brown like he was more than looking, like he was wanting to burn through to some place inside. In one afternoon I should have seen (but did see, I suspect) he was no longer the dark haired boy with clean teeth who came bearing a handful of blueberries for me to taste.”
Because on that day Mister did still see the youthful almost-son in Keegan, who leaned against the counter and ran his hard bitten thumb, chapped, split and scarred over, down the grain of the wood surface. Mister had even teased him
“A young boy like you should be looking to settle down.” Keegan caught a chipped groove in the wood and, smirking, began to work his thumbnail under it as if trying to split the slab in two.
“Young boy like you should find himself a wife,” Mister said.
“Maybe I’ll marry your daughter,” said in all earnestness, said after believing for many years that it would happen.
As though the boy were funnier than a court jester. His white apron shifting as his body shook with laughter so that he resembled a saltshaker in motion. And there was no – “I’m sorry, I did not realize you were serious” or “It’s fine, I see now you thought I was joking.” There is only the misunderstanding, folded and slid into the back pocket as remembrance. As if that were not enough, as if Mister had not already demonstrated he’d dropped all his sense, he said
“I heard business isn’t what it was, folks say the family could use some extra work and well, I sure could use a strong boy around here. Bel’s a charm with the customers but she isn’t much help when it comes to lugging pails of pigs’ blood out back for the dumping.”
Keegan’s head snapped up, away from the wood he’d been gazing down upon. The rubbing thumb stopped, its tip set just beneath the groove going white as the bone within it. Those eyes stared out like stones set into clay, those Charley eyes, with the dark bits speckled across the blue irises. For a moment Mister grew startled, but then to regain composure thought to himself, He’s just a boy, and when he felt the balance of power reconstituted said
“So what do you say?”
But Keegan did not say anything. The wood felt smooth and moist beneath his palm. He ran his whole hand across it, then adjusted his hat with that hand. He turned toward the storefront window and between the bodies of two small lambs hung for display, watched several people pass bye.
“Well,” Keegan began slowly, “I’ll be seeing you Mr. Brown.” His heavy boots falling like hollow stones on the floor panels and he thanking God he’d hitched that wagon before going into the store because even if the mule had been a horse or a shotgun, it couldn’t have moved him fast enough away.
And so it came to pass one night, that while Bel was out on one of her walks the wind held a high pitch that sounded to Mister like her voice calling out from the distance. It was cold for late summer, windy enough to remind you time was close to early autumn, and it was difficult not to take notice of the wind devilishly screeching through tree limbs. He stayed inside, put a pot of water on the stove for the lemon and honey tonic he hoped would ease him. Across the windowpane wind scurried fast as fire and although he knew he would not see anything but darkness, he felt compelled to stare out while the water boiled, trying to see if the wind had downed any limbs, which trunks it may have cracked.
Suddenly, as if stung by some other power with fear, as if glimpses of all he would ponder over later when alone coalesced and he finally heard Bel saying, Something other than the breeze was following…and he finally saw quick as a flash of heat lightning the bowl of untouched kale greens gathering flies at the church picnic, he turned off the stove flame and rushed out to his automobile, leaving behind steam still rising into the empty kitchen.
He drove with a speed that forced the gravel of the road to shift and spit out beneath his tires. The surrounding countryside seemed to close around the road like a cave which he raced through. Feeling he would know what he was driving toward when he found it, when he slammed into it or ran over it, pulled up beside it; when the thump of his already pounding heart accelerated; that slamming in his chest which began when he saw nothing out of his kitchen window but in his mind saw fractured images: the wind racing…and Bel walking…and the dark like molasses…
All around night hung like a heavy wool in front of where come morning, trees and silos, fences and houses will line the rolling countryside as if they had never gone out of sight. His headlights beamed on highlighting only the dust swirling ahead like a fog. He followed a bend in the road which could not be seen until the last second when headlights illuminated it, but Mister knew it to be there since he had driven round it countless times. The stars like millions of nail heads pinning electric parcels of light up against the sky, and Mister not even noticing, driving down that road as if it were indeed a cave complete with a rooftop of rock and slate, closed in on all sides but for the side he raced to come out of. Wind ripped open to let the automobile pass, gravel shot up from the tires mercilessly spinning.
In the headlights a man appeared.
A sunken faced shard of a man but a man nonetheless whose figure looked quick-bleached in the lights. His face peered out gaunt, his shoulders sagged and his arms hung like those of some pre-prehensile mammal.
Mister swerved to miss him.
The automobile jerked so fast the lights could not catch up with its movements and so it landed, right side propped up on a dirt mound, tires still spinning; the rear one against nothing. Mister hurried out leaving the door ajar, leaving the headlights to beam on into the roadside and in their wake glowed not only dust but also the trunks of several trees, and the silent, moss-covered floor of summer.
He ran toward the man who did not start to run, who maintained the same calculated pace as before, before even Mister came speeding down his way. Mister heads for him, breathing heavy before he has even begun to run, he reaches the man and grabs him and spins him around like a world globe. The man did not resist and the only assault made upon Mister came from his eyes, which were so glazed and stoned they seemed to lack any ending place whatsoever. Blood ran down the man’s right side, the source of which, a gash above his eye, cut so thick the skin not only split but hung like a window shade, nearly covering his entire brow. Between them a sharp and bitter gust blew forcing Mister to wince, but the man did not move, did not blink even.
“Where is she,” Mister finally said, shaking him, worried he would get the same response as the wind as though she like it were a passing matter which he felt did not concern him.
“Keegan,” he said, squeezing his arms so hard Keegan’s skin bulged out between Mister’s fingers; his knuckles and fingertips gripping, going empty of blood.
“Keegan! Where is my little girl!”
Hands trembling, lips quivering and covered with saliva he thought he would kill Keegan right there like he was a chicken whose head only needed to snap. But Keegan, not Mister knew of her whereabouts and dead or injured he would not be able to tell. At that moment everything but Bel dropped away like from a cliff and there were no ideals such as revenge and pride, no notions to defend. There was only the love of the young woman, the consumptive concern of her well-being.
Then Keegan lifted one arm, slow as if it was strapped with seventy pounds of stone. He pointed to no one thing but to a darkness likely filled with a repetition of the same scenery emboldened in the lights of Mister’s automobile. He pointed in the direction of Mister’s place and Mister knew like he knew he’d find what he was looking for when he ran into it, that Keegan meant the side field. He could not see the mostly boarded up two-story barn through the thick darkness, but it roared up in his mind like a sudden blaze, red and hot as if it had in actuality caught fire and now burned in the distance. That space where only swallows reside but where once livestock resided, fed, and one day found themselves, spread open, blood draining; but blood loss not having been the cause of death to them: It not being the knife that came from the hand of the one who walked beside them in pastures, who fed and gave them shelter, who remained beside them through such ordeals as the birthing of young.
Mister weighed the matter out right there in his mind quickly but clearly, and two things were all he could think of: Later on she will either suffer to see him around or if not, suffer to see the stain of him on my hands that made him so mortal eyes could no longer see him. If he killed the boy there would be blood upon him always, if he turned him loose to live life as it had been then the boy himself would be always upon Bel, for the sight of him simply going about his day would affront her regularly. In the distance leaves rustled like the sound of water rushing and he knew the gust was on its way, hurling across the treetops until it reached these treetops and bit at him once again. The solution came like Grace must come to some, like lightning to others – to let him go wander, homeless and peopleless: the worst of all deaths.
“There isn’t anyone for you to see around here anymore,” Mister finally said, “Not even your momma.”
Then the automobile bounced off the mound with a thump to the ground as Mister pulled away, the headlights swinging a wide arc across tree trunks, then momentarily illuminating the road, more trees and then the same road once more, heading in the opposite direction.
The next morning Mister traversed the field beside his house littered with tree limbs and leaves cast down from the night before’s storm, his arm at his side hanging dull as a prosthetic limb, the hand at its end clutching a hammer. When he gets to the barn door he pulls a nail thick as a No.2 pencil and nearly as long out from his trousers, he drives it through the wood plank picked up from the pile leaning against the barn fast and straight as a bullet. Then he pulls out another and shoots it through too. So that it sounds throughout the surrounding area like an ax after swinging a slow wide arc in the air splits down on a log, and not like the steady repetitive sound akin to a Woodpecker’s hammering. Then he nails another plank; until the door is crisscrossed with wood boards and old shingles in a dizzying array of Xs. But since he is in a race with his mind, trying to outrun the sight of Bel and the purity he believes poured out from her, was taken from her, and running also from thinking of the blood that by lying on the hayloft floor solidified the actuality of that loss; so much of it he had to say, I can not clean it.
So she had to, walking out with a tin pail on her still swollen thighs prior to the sun’s peaking over the horizon. By the time she was through it had risen, slung low across the sky like a child at its mother’s bosom. But it seemed it would take Mister even longer; even after the barn’s only remaining entrance had been transformed into a blockade with several blockades superimposed upon it he kept hammering. As if by driving into place he could for the time being anyhow, drive away from himself the thoughts twisting round his mind.