The Lesson

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Alan Walkington


I’d always wished I was smarter, then maybe Papa Jed wouldn’t have whupped me so often. It’s not like I didn’t try. I really did it’s just that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Like when Papa Jed was teaching Ma some manners and I should of just minded my own damn business like Papa Jed told me. But my mouth come open all by itself and I said please don’t you hit her no more please don’t. Mama told me hush child I got it comin’ but it was too late cause Papa Jed was already pulling his belt out of his britches and it had that big old brass buckle on it which hurt something fierce. It didn’t do no good anyway cause when he was done with me he went back to giving Mama the rest of her lesson. Mama said it was her fault anyway she should of knowed to have dinner hot for him even if he did come home so late.

Papa Jed was big on giving lessons. He always said he gave his best lessons when he’d got some good liquor inside of him and I guess it was true but he did a pretty fair job of it just about any old time.

I remember once when I was squatted down besides him while he was changing the tire on our old Chevy truck and I handed him the tire iron when what he wanted was the lug wrench. He said Jolene, if’n you was a boy like you shoulda been you’d have knowed proper what to hand me. Instead now I gotta teach you. He gave me a real good lesson right then and he wasn’t liquored up a bit. If’n I’d had shoes on it prob’ly wouldn’t have hurt so much. Mama said my toes wasn’t broke or nothing but I remember I sure did hobble round for a week or so.

Papa Jed’s lessons wasn’t all bad. He taught me to take quail and dove with the twenty gauge and rabbits with the twenty-two. You know when a rabbit is running out of a field sometimes it stops just at the edge of the bushes and looks back? That’s when you want to shoot it. Bang. One shot in the head so you don’t spoil the meat and Papa Jed got rabbit stew for dinner.

Usually I can get two of them so Mama and me can have some too. Mostly he don’t whup me for using the extra shell as long as I don’t miss. He taught me about missing real early on in the lessons telling me kid you better bring something back for each one of them shells I give you cause I’m sure as hell gonna count ’em when I get home.

Mama and me was hanging out the wash one day and she was looking at the sky and sayin’ Lord I hope it don’t come up a storm this afternoon. I said maybe we should wait to hang it out but she says no child this is wash day and Papa Jed expects to see the wash on the line when he comes in for supper and if that was what Papa Jed wanted then that was what we’d better give him. That afternoon it blackened up good and we got thunder and lightning and it blew like it weren’t never gonna stop and for a few minutes the rain come down like to choke a frog. We had to chase the wash halfway over the hill in the mud. Mama was sayin’ oh God oh God oh God like it was some kind of prayer but I guess God wasn’t listening cause Papa Jed come back while we was still trying to get the wash hung back up. He gave us both a good lesson on how important it was to watch the weather and all that and especially how important it was to have his supper on the table when he come home. It did hurt some but I guess I’m getting used to it cause I didn’t cry much at all. Mama didn’t look so good though and Papa Jed said don’t you croak on me woman till that bitch pup of yours is big enough to take your place.

Papa Jed had took to being around when I had my Saturday bath. He’d just sit back in his chair rockin’ and spittin’ in an old paper cup and watching me in that big copper tub by the wood stove. He’d say to Mama growin’ up some ain’t she and Mama’d clamp her lips tight together and not say nothing at all. Then Papa Jed would laugh and say you want me to dry you off sweety? I didn’t see what there was about me to give him any interest. I mean I got nothing nowhere no tits no hips no butt nothing I’m straighter and skinnier than a stick of kindling. Mama whispered to me don’t you let him near you child but what am I supposed to do? Anyways he ain’t never done nothing but look.

Sometimes I’d ask Mama about my own sweet pa who didn’t come back from the fighting. I wished I could remember him better. Mama says I don’t remember him at all I just remember what she’s told me cause I was too little when he went away but I don’t think that’s right. I remember a man holding me who didn’t smell like liquor and I remember being held in strong arms that tossed me way up in the air while I laughed. I think I do anyway. I want to. I don’t ask too often cause it makes Mama cry. Once she told me child I’m so sorry it shouldn’t be like this for you and I said Mama how else could it be I’m just a natural bad seed like Papa Jed says but she just cried harder so I didn’t say nothin’ more.

I found out a while back that my real pa was Papa Jed’s baby brother so when he got killed over there it was just natural for Papa Jed to take over. He’d been in prison so they hadn’t took him for a soldier like they did my real pa. Papa Jed said that even if Mama was spoiled rotten it wasn’t no hardship on him to take her on cause he figured he could straighten her out pretty quick and anyway his own woman had got sick the lazy bitch and went and died on him. And then he’d say that back then Mama was a real pretty little thing just barely fifteen even if she’d already whelped once and shit just look at her now.

It must of been harder for him to teach Mama the proper ways of things then he figured on cause he kept on having to give her lessons. He gives them to both of us, now, cause I’m a natural bad seed he says. I ain’t sure I know what he means cause if I’m just naturally bad how is he going to teach me any different? Sometimes he says it seems like he’s trying to teach a pig to whistle.

I used to wish I had me a little sister to play with. I almost had one called Bitsy but the poor little thing never got a chance to grow up. Mama says she was a colicky baby and she just cried and cried. Papa Jed told Mama woman you better make that little shit shut her damn noise hole before I do. Mama tried but Bitsy just kept on crying. I said to Mama that I didn’t think you could die of colic and Mama said that wasn’t what she died of and hush child don’t talk about it. Every now and again Mama has me put on a dress and we walk down the dirt road to the gravel one and up over the hill to the old church graveyard and visit her plot and get rid of the weeds and stuff and put some wild flowers on it if there’s any around. It was most of seven miles there so we didn’t go all that often. When we did, Papa Jed’d just laugh and say whyn’t you grab some of them fake things from some other grave they wouldn’t miss them then you wouldn’t have to go back so often. Mama usually just cries and hugs me tight. Like I said I’d have liked a sister but It’s probably best Bitsy passed over when she did.

At least I’ve got a dog. Had me one I mean. Brownie is his name was his name since he’s in that hole over there. He used to be Papa Jed’s dog but even though he wasn’t a pointer Papa Jed kept trying to get him to hold point. He just couldn’t and he kept breaking and flushing the birds before Papa John was ready. Mama said Jed that poor dog don’t have the slightest idea what it is you want from him but Papa Jed said women you better keep your damn mouth shut unless you want to get out here and point birds your own damn self so she shut up. He finally had to give up after he dusted off Brownie with birdshot for flushing a covey too quick.

Brownie was gun-shy after that and anyway couldn’t see all that good with just the one eye. Whenever Papa Jed was around he’d crawl under the porch and stay there. I used to sneak under there with him all warm and cozy and he’d roll over and let me rub his belly. Sometimes I’d take a nap there with my head on him for a pillow so that made him my dog I guess.

Yesterday after supper the bitch from the Cullen’s place come over the hill all in heat and sure enough Brownie was having at her right out front when Papa Jed came home all liquored up. He’s yelling you son-of-a-bitch which I guess was true in Brownie’s case anyways and he grabbed a stick of firewood and started beating them two dogs with it. They finally broke loose from each other and the bitch takes off back over the hill but Brownie twisted the wrong way and got hit up alongside the head. He run off under the porch yelping and shaking his head with blood flinging off all over the place.

Brownie kept crying during supper and Papa Jed said that he’d better stop making that damn noise or by God he’d go out there and stop it permanent. I wanted to go out there and get under the porch with Brownie but Papa Jed said hell no you stay right here I don’t want you bring all them fleas back inside and Mama said hush child don’t make it worse. I was really scared for Brownie until he finally shut up. I guess I was still scared even after.

Next morning after Papa Jed left I crawled under the porch with Brownie. At first I thought maybe he was all right but when he turned his head and licked my face I saw there wasn’t nothing but dried blood and pus where his good eye ought to be. I might have screamed I don’t really remember. I do remember Mama putting her arms around me and saying good sweet Jesus why have you let this happen to me and we both cried. I cried for Brownie and I guess Mama cried for everything.

Papa Jed come home for supper and said Jolene he’s your damn worthless dog He’s gonna die anyway you get rid of him or I’ll just cut his damn throat and let him bleed out right there. Mama said God’s pity on you, you cursed miserable man how did you live this long you worthless excuse for a human being and he punched her in the stomach and I screamed I’ll do it Papa Jed I’ll do it but he kept hitting her anyway. Mama served him supper all hunched over. I tried to help her but she just said oh child go outside with your dog now please now. So I did. I wasn’t hungry anyway.

Papa Jed give me one shell for the twenty-two and went back to the fields saying listen good brat you’d best have got rid of that damn dog when I get back for dinner. I went back in the house as soon as his boots left the porch and saw mama sit right down in the middle of the floor with bright red bubbles coming from her mouth. Her eyes are closed and I take her head in my lap and she whispers oh God sweety you gotta leave right now there’s some money I hide in the bottom of the flour bin oh it hurts so much go go please don’t let him do it to you too please God help her like you never helped me oh God oh and she stops talking for a moment and then she opens her eyes and says in almost her normal voice I saw it back during the mine accidents Jolene there are ribs stuck right through my lungs and I’m dead already I just ain’t stopped breathing yet take the money and leave anything is better than this I’m so so sorry child I love you so much.

Then she closes her eyes and in a minute she does stop breathing. I drag her over to the bed and manage to lift her up. I’m only eleven but I think I weigh more than she does. Did. I don’t know why I ain’t crying.

I go outside and do what I have to do with Brownie and he takes forever to die. His legs keep scrabbling in the dust and he keeps trying to lick my hand so I keep it where he can reach it till he stops moving. I’m finally crying as I dig the hole for him and it takes me all afternoon cause the tears keep getting in my way.

I’ve wiped the snot off my face and I’m sitting on the porch steps with the twenty-two acrost my lap when Papa Jed comes home for dinner. Papa Jed looks at the doggie-grave and at me and at the twenty-two and says well it looks like you finally did something like I told you to do and I said yes Papa Jed except I used the knife like you were going to. He stops and looks at me funny and says where’s your mama, girl? But I’m not paying him no mind anymore.

I let him see me break the rifle open, slide that shell into the breach and click it back closed. I say to him you taught me good Papa Jed I’m only gonna need me the one shell. Papa Jed takes a couple of steps back real slow and then he turns and runs for the bushes but right beside the outhouse he stops and looks back. Like I said, he’s taught me good, Papa Jed has.
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“I am a retired software engineer who was born and raised in Santa Clara Valley, but lived for years in Tennessee and Idaho. I am now fulfilling my dream of being a full-time RVer. Or was that a nightmare? The jury is still out.” E-mail: ursus[at]walkington.org

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