The Lesson

Best of the Boards
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

Careful Wishes

Best of the Boards
Alan Walkington


Like all Monday mornings in my classroom, this one brought with it a small measure of insanity. It was the first week in October, and here in the mountains the mornings were starting to get chilly. I was standing at the cloakroom door answering “Good Morning, Miss Johnson” from twenty-three first-graders and trying to straighten out the noisy traffic jam as they crowded in to hang up jackets and put lunch sacks on the shelf.

Quiet little Martha Durbin rushed through, knocking Jimmy Reston flat on his bottom as she went past. Jimmy, face scrunched up, sat there on the floor trying to decide if he was hurt and how offended he should be. This kind of interaction with Martha was outside his experience. It was outside all of our experiences.

Breathing hard, her face red and tear-tracked, Martha threw her jacket at a hook and slammed her lunch box onto the shelf. She pushed her way out of the cloakroom, stomped over to her chair, and sat down, her little hands fisted and her jaw clenched tight.

Martha wasn’t what you would call pretty, but she was cute enough in a tomboyish way. Auburn braids tied off in red ribbons. Bangs cut short. Long dark lashes surrounding big shy hazel eyes. Front teeth missing. Freckles everywhere. She often had scabs on her knees and scratches on her arms and legs. Her clothes were old, clean, and carefully mended hand-me-downs, but there was nothing unusual about that around here. She was always quiet and reserved.

I threaded my way through the clots of noisy children over to Martha’s table. I looked around the classroom. Time to exert control. “Okay class! Good morning and let’s get started. Everyone to their seats!”

I ignored the scrambling and not very quiet whispering and got down on one knee at face level with Martha. “Are you all right?”

Martha knuckled her eyes, and wiped her nose on her arm. I searched the many pockets of my teacher’s smock until I found a tissue. Martha’s eyes, lashes still shining with tears, slowly left the table in front of her and lifted to meet mine. One at a time, she unfisted her hands. I reached over and wiped her face. “Here.”

She took the tissue from me.

“Blow!”

Martha blew and then finished cleaning her face. She began twisting the tissue between both hands. Sighing, I reached over and retrieved the damp wad.

“I’m sorry, Miss Johnson,” she said. “I didn’t mean to hurt Jimmy.”

“Oh, I don’t think you hurt anything but his dignity,” I replied. “But what do we do when we accidentally bump into someone?”

“Apologize,” she whispered. “Do I have to? Now?”

“If you think you should,” I said, “then it’s probably best to get it over with.”

Martha looked over at Jimmy, who was now standing and rubbing his bottom with both hands. “I’m sorry, Jimmy.”

Jimmy looked at me and frowned, his lower lip jutting out as he considered possible courses of action. I nodded encouragingly.

“All right,” he said, “but don’t do it again.”

“And you, sweetheart.” I turned my attention back to Martha. “What on earth happened to you?”

“Nothing, Miss Johnson. Anyway, it ain’t nothing you can fix.”

The ‘ain’t’ got ignored. “Are you sure?” I asked. “I’m pretty good at fixing things.”

Martha just shook her head. That would have to do for now, I thought. But I’d look into things later.

I didn’t want to continue the morning with anything that required much in the way of concentration, so I passed out the Shapes and Colors worksheets. My next twenty minutes were spent helping hot little hands keep their crayons mostly inside the lines. Martha only finished half the assignment and the colors she used were dark blue, brown, and black.

Calmed somewhat after the frenetic start, the class moved on to the arithmetic lesson. Arithmetic was still tedious and confusing for many, but things kept getting better. It thrilled me to see a face suddenly brighten as they realized for the first time ‘that’s what she meant!’

Martha chewed the point off her pencil, and had to use the sharpener on the back wall. I saw her peeking inside the cloakroom as she ground away at the pencil. When she finally came back to her seat, she sat there doodling and glancing over her shoulder occasionally.

The morning progressed from arithmetic to penmanship, through milk and graham crackers, and then morning recess. Finally story time came around and I finished the last chapter of our current, remarkably silly, book just before lunch.

I was considering ignoring the state-recommended list and introducing the children to The Little Prince next. There was certainly room for some taming here.

“And so Miranda, the good witch, waved her magic wand and turned the big, bad wolf into a little brown toad. Hoppy and Stinky and all their friends lived happily ever after. And they never had to worry about the big bad wolf ever again.”

“That’s not right, Teacher,” Jesse proclaimed. “Nobody could do that!”

“Could so,” Martha said in her soft little voice. “My Granny could. She says you can do anything you want, if you just wish hard enough.”

“It truly is make-believe, Martha,” I said. “There really aren’t any such things as witches.”

“Not witches, maybe,” Martha insisted, her voice more strident with each word. “But that other? About the toad? That could really happen!”

Her comment was punctuated by a tinny crash coming from the cloakroom. As heads turned towards the back of the room, Martha jumped to her feet, both hands at her mouth. A very large mouse ran through the cloakroom door. It sat on its haunches, nose and whiskers twitching and looked around.

It was too large, really, almost as big and fat as George the Hamster, but definitely a mouse. Short sleek gray fur, long naked tail, bright beady black eyes, twitching nose, sharp little teeth. Before more than the first ‘Look out’ could be shouted, or the first scream voiced, it scurried into the classroom.

Tables skidded across the floor. Chairs crashed over. Girls, and not a few boys, screamed. Someone shouted, “Stomp it!” over and over.

Martha paled and shrieked, “Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him!”

I grabbed the wastebasket, upended the contents onto the floor, and trapped the skittering creature beneath it. “Okay, everybody, settle down,” I said. “The excitement’s over.”

Martha was on her knees with an ear pressed to the side of the wastebasket. “I can hear him,” she said. “I think he’s all right.”

I looked over at Our Animal Friends corner. George the Hamster was busy grooming herself. The snake cage was empty, however. Rosie the Boa had escaped his captivity over the summer and was still missing. His home, a dry aquarium with a wire top, was available for temporary use.

“I think this critter might bite,” I said.

Martha nodded vigorous agreement.

“You could throw something over it,” Patrick suggested.

“Good idea,” I replied. “You want to run and get your jacket?”

“Eeww!”

I guess not, I thought. Martha was to the cloakroom and back with hers before I could even ask. “Okay. Martha, when I say ‘now,’ you tip the wastebasket, and I’ll grab it with your jacket. Then we’ll put it in Rosie’s cage.”

Capture accomplished, I carried the wiggling mouse, shrouded in Martha’s jacket, back to the empty cage. I dropped it in and Patrick plopped the screen back on top. The mouse sat on its haunches and chittered angrily at us. I set the Campbell’s tomato soup can full of gravel on the screen to hold it down. I hoped it did a better job than it had with Rosie.

“Lunch time,” I said, quite unnecessarily, as the bell rang. “Grab your lunches and everybody go on outside to eat. Martha, stay and help me clean up, please.”

It took a while to clear everyone out, but eventually I could shut the door of the suddenly quiet classroom. Martha gathered the trash I’d dumped and put it back into the wastebasket while I straightened tables and righted tipped chairs.

“Get your lunch,” I said, “and sit up here at my desk with me. We’ll eat together and have a nice talk.”

Martha put her battered yellow lunch-box on my desk and opened it. Kool-Aid was leaking from the thermos and holes were chewed through the waxed paper of her sandwich. Tiny black pellets covered everything. Martha looked down at the floor, face tight, arms crossed and hands beginning to turn into fists once more.

“My goodness,” I said. “I don’t think you’re going to be eating that. Let’s get it cleaned up.”

Off we went to the sink. Sandwich into the garbage, Kool-Aid drained from the broken thermos. Everything rinsed and dried. Back to my desk.

“I hope you like PB and J,” I said, “cause that’s what we’re having for lunch.” I gave Martha half my sandwich. We ate quietly, washing the peanut butter and jelly down with water.

I ruffled Martha’s hair with my hand and turned her face towards mine. “It’s time for you to tell me what’s going on.”

“I didn’t mean to!” Martha’s face crumpled into tears. “He was taking my cookies, and I got mad!”

“Who was?”

“Joe,” she said. “He’s so mean! But I didn’t mean to, really I didn’t. And now I don’t know what to do! Granny’s going to be so mad at me!”

Joe, a fat bully of a fourth-grader, was Martha’s brother. They lived with their maternal grandmother on a small farm up one of the creeks. Among other bits of nastiness, Joe raided the lunchboxes of younger children for their deserts. I suspected it wouldn’t be long before he graduated to more adult misdemeanors.

“Just what is it you didn’t mean to do?”

“I wished he was little, like a mouse,” she whispered, “and then he was!”

This would be a good time not to laugh, I thought. I tried to keep my face neutral.

“Granny says to be careful what I wish for. But I didn’t think this wish would come true. Really, I didn’t! Most of them don’t!”

I opened my mouth to say something and then realized I had no idea what to say. So I just smiled and nodded my head encouragingly.

“And I don’t know how to unwish it! That’s why I put him in my lunch box. I have to take him home and maybe Granny knows how to unwish it for me.”

Martha looked at her hand. “And he bit me,” she said. “Hard!”

I encourage imagination in children, but this was pushing the limits.

“So I have to take him home after school, Miss Johnson. Please!”

“Let me think about it, Martha,” I said. I wasn’t sure about sending a mouse home with anyone without some warning. Although, from the sound of things, Granny would be able to handle most anything that came her way.

I checked with the attendance office. Joe was absent that day. Probably playing hooky, I thought.

The afternoon went much more smoothly then the morning, although during nap time, the mouse kept squeaking and chittering and trying to climb the glass walls of the cage. After that, Martha spent her free time back in Our Animal Friends corner, whispering to it.

After the final bell, as the kids were trooping out the door, I took Martha aside. “I’m sorry, honey, but I can’t let you take that mouse home without your grandmother’s permission. If you could bring a note tomorrow?”

Martha’s expression became even more worried. “But he’ll get hungry! And he’ll be all alone here!”

“Don’t worry. I’ll give him some of George the Hamster’s food. I’m sure she won’t object. And I doubt if he’ll mind being alone for a while.”

Martha shrugged into her coat and started out the door. “Tell him not to worry, all right? Tell him Grandma’ll fix it.” She turned her face towards me. “Please?”

“All right sweetheart.” I supposed I could do that. “Don’t you worry either.”

If someone saw me crouched down in front of an old aquarium, telling a mouse not to worry about being alone at night, it would just confirm what they already figured. Five years of teaching first grade had turned my mind to mush. By myself, finally, I barely suppressed a giggling fit.

Before I went home, though, I made sure that the mouse had water and some hamster food. And as directed, I told him not to worry, that Grandma would take care of everything tomorrow. He made a valiant effort to take a piece of my finger off at every opportunity. I mentioned something about mousetraps and he actually stood on his hind legs and hissed at me.

The next morning Martha was her usual quiet self, although she kept smiling as she worked. When I had the opportunity, I asked her how Granny liked the idea of having a mouse come home in Martha’s lunchbox. She looked at me seriously, and told me again that Granny would fix everything. “She’s coming in at lunchtime,” Martha explained. “She’ll take Joe home then.”

I don’t know how I expected ‘Granny’ to look. A bit witch-like, I suppose. In fact, she was a slender attractive women in her early fifties dressed in faded jeans and a grey sweatshirt decorated with the cartoon characters Sylvester and Tweety Bird. Her short gray hair was caught up in a blue bandanna.

She carried a small wire cage with her into which she loaded the mouse. Joe? Naw. Although it made no attempt to sever any of her fingers. In fact, it seemed quite subdued.

“Uh… what are you going to do with that creature?” I asked.

“Oh, I think I’ll keep it around in the cage a couple of more days then turn it loose,” Granny replied.

I told her how much I admired her granddaughter’s… creative?… imagination.

She just laughed. “Yes,” she replied. “She does get carried away at times.”

And that was that.

Don’t ask me to explain any of this. I’m as certain as I can be that it was all just silliness in a little girl’s head. But Joe missed three days of school, and when he came back he was a very different boy. Better, I guess. He was certainly less of a bully. And he was very, very cautious around his little sister.

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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.