:: Article

Charlie Elliot

By Ashleigh Bryant Phillips.

You don’t know if you were born wrong or if it’s because on the way home from the hospital there was a big storm and your daddy wrecked the car and your mama dropped you in the floorboard. Y’all all survive but you aren’t right. You are the oldest son. You grow up to be the tallest of your brothers and sisters.

You learn everything late. Start walking when you’re four. Your legs look like toothpicks. You aren’t able to help on the farm. But you know how big it feels, especially when you look at it from your upstairs bedroom window. It stretches back far behind the house and you watch the tops of your daddy and brothers and sisters heads in the rows suckering tobacco. You can always tell which one is which. You sit at home with your mama and watch her iron and play the piano. You are decent at shucking corn but feel you could be better if you didn’t shake so bad. Your daddy doesn’t understand. He thinks you can control it. He yells at you and tells you to control it. You sit angry.

When you get nervous it’s hard to keep your hands steady. Since you’re the oldest your mama wants you to sit next to your daddy at the table but sometimes you spill the peas from your spoon so your daddy makes you wear a bib and sit far away from him. It’s hard for you to write and you never learn cursive because of it. You don’t finish school because you don’t see the need to. You don’t drive the tractor. You don’t learn to drive a car. Your mama wants you to always stay where she can see you.

You have to wear glasses. You can’t play sports. When your younger brothers are playing their basketball and baseball and football games you think about them having a good time and scoring for the home team and getting high-fives. So you wait for them on the front porch thinking about this and you want to hit them real hard right in the face. When they come home sometimes you hurt them so bad that your mama calls the doctor in town to come out to the house. The doctor tells you you don’t know how strong you are and while your brothers are saying you’re crazy, while they’re covering their faces in the corner and blood’s running from their mouths, while your sisters are hiding in the closet, your mama begs the doctor not to say nothing to people in town. The doctor promises he’ll never say a word every time he gives you a shot to knock you out.

You go into town with your family to the bank and feel that everyone there knows how you are and you feel them looking at you and your stick-stiff legs and shaky head. You want to leave them all, leave everything and go somewhere.

At the family reunion when you’re seventeen, you want to bury all your daddy’s new baby chicks in the soft dirt in the path next to the old family homeplace. You want to bury them in that soft dirt with their heads sticking out. And you want to call all your family outside and you want them to stand on the porch while you lawnmower all the baby chicks heads off— in a nice little row. You want all of your kin to see you do something real terrible like that and then you want to run and cut across the fields and the swamp until you can catch a train and go far, far away. You think about this plan over and over. And then you get too scared in the chicken coop trying to get the bitties because the mama hens peck at your hands so bad you can’t stand it. You know that means you’re sensitive. You’re a wuss.  And for the rest of the afternoon you sit alone under a gum tree looking at your pecked hands, while your brothers and sisters and cousins race around and around you. You stay there in the middle of it all and watch everything and don’t talk to anyone until you decide to go and wash your hands in the sink. And when you come up you see your head is still shaking in the mirror. And your glasses are filthy too.

Your mama prays with you every night. Prays with you longer than she does with your brothers or sisters. You think it’s because she’s afraid of you. She tells you to listen for God’s still, quiet voice.

Your daddy tells you that no woman will ever love you. You believe him. All your younger brothers are away at war repairing bombers on Air Force bases. Their girlfriends with curled hair come up on the porch on late Saturday afternoons and ask if y’all have heard any news lately. You sit on the bottom step and stretch out your big toe and try to make circles with it in the dirt, but they come out rectangles. You hear how sad these girls are asking. And you wonder if your brothers will ever know how sad they sound.

And your mama listens to the radio at night. You hear a story on there about a door-to-door salesman who becomes the hero of the town by keeping the citizens from brawling each other at a town meeting. He’s a friend to everyone and when he stands up at the meeting everyone looks up to him. They think he’s so great that they want to make him mayor but he humbly declines. You decide then you want to be a door-to-door salesman.

Your mama says no, she does not want you leaving the house with strangers like they are. But you know she really means she does not want you leaving the house with YOU like you are. You tell your daddy it’s what you want to do and he says it ain’t right either. Your baby sisters believe you the most and help you shine your shoes and clean your glasses.

You order pens and pencils and office supplies with money you’ve been stealing from the offering plate all these years to get out of this place. You put on your nice clean button-up your mama ironed. You buy a cheap briefcase from the dime store and know that you’re the first person in your family to have a briefcase. You ask your daddy to drop you off in town and he doesn’t say a word the whole ride. And you go door to door starting on Main Street and then working your way back into the neighborhoods; all the streets are named after trees in town. People open their doors because they know who you are, or they’ve heard of you. They don’t seem to be afraid of you cleaned up with a briefcase.

A nice lady opens the door on Peachtree Street and she’s got one of those faces that feels familiar like you’ve known her all her life. She buys a bunch of colored paper for her daughter who likes to draw. You ask how old her daughter is and she is four years younger than you. You ask what school she went to and she says that she kept her at home. You see her daughter peek at you from the hall and you think that maybe she was born wrong too. You figure she has never left this house. And you want to get her out of it.

The next week you ask the woman if you can visit with her daughter. She brings you down the hall and into the sun room where her daughter is drawing. She’s quiet for a while and then she looks up and tells you she likes to sit in here and watch the birds outside. The light falls in on her hair like beach sunshine in the movies. There’s plants growing all around her. It’s like a jungle and you sit in the wicker chair across from her and wait for her to talk to you, like she’s a magical animal behind all the vines and leaves.  All you can figure is that she’s just very, very shy. You think maybe you would have been this way too if you didn’t grow up in such a loud family.

Her mother takes you two to the movies to see “South Pacific” and everything is going really nice until you get to the part when they’re jumping in the waterfall and swimming and you wish you could jump in the water. You think of your brothers and sisters swimming in the creek on the farm, laughing and swimming. You wish you could swim.  How the cool water would feel like, moving so freely in it. You feel yourself getting upset, the popcorn starts to tremble in your hands and you’re afraid you’re going to spill it. But then the girl holds her hand out in front of you, like she’s asking you to hold it. You hold her hand, she calms you.

You start saving money really hard. You start working really hard. Start selling paper and pens all over. You start thumbing rides to Virginia. People in Conway who pass you say that you can get to Norfolk quicker than they can just driving. It’s this myth that starts about you. And people still talk about it to this day.

Everyone in town knows you by now, they say, “Hey! It’s Charlie!” when you walk into the bank or the grocery or the café. They all know you and they’ve all talked to you and you feel important.

You get written up in the paper. The paper says real good things. You look like a real professional in the picture with your briefcase and nice hat on. You’re standing beside the road, squinting at the camera. It says: Here Comes Charlie! April, 1960.

The next time you see the girl on Peachtree Street you show her the article. And she giggles and says that she’s already seen it. That she’s cut it out and hung it up in her room above her desk. You dream of her room and what she has on her desk. Colored paper and charcoal and colored pens and watercolors, nothing too harsh, only graceful colors. She goes to her room and comes back with drawings of birds.

You haven’t told anyone this but you feel like you need to tell her about what you wanted to do to those baby chicks that time at the family reunion. And she listens without being afraid. She says it’s okay, we all get angry sometimes, we all want to run away sometimes.

She points to the bird feeder outside the sunroom window where she sees her birds. Y’all wait and watch a bluebird come to the feeder. You’re afraid of hurting others but you feel it in your heart you can never hurt her. You know this more than anything. Before the bluebird flies away you ask her to marry you and she says yes.

Your daddy says that no two people like to two of you should be together in marriage. You tell him you have your own money and punch him in the face in front of your mama. When your daddy falls back, the look on his face is both surprised and proud. He does not hit you back.

Your mama plays the piano at your wedding and your sisters make cakes. It’s so hot in the church that June that your new wife swears she saw sweat roll off your nose. She’ll always love to remind you of this, and you’ll deny it every time just to see her laugh. Your mama and sister help your new wife hang up her bird drawings in the house. They put them in the places that look the best. Your new wife insists that the bluebird must be hung over the bed.

You feel it above you when you kiss her in bed. Your bedroom becomes a far, far away jungle. It feels like strange and beautiful branches lean heavy and circle from the ceiling, from the sky. You’re happy when she takes off her nightgown by herself. You’re surprised when she takes your hands and puts them on her body. When she pulls you to her by your belt. When she’s under you she’s soft and warm. You hold her without shaking.

The first time you come inside her, she kisses you all around your face like a rainbow. You think of her watercolors. You think of God.  Maybe it’s His still, quiet voice you’re hearing when she sounds out pleasure.

You start to read the Bible she gave you when y’all got married. You like Colossians 3:12-14.

Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.  And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.

You write it on a piece of the paper and put it on the refrigerator. Your wife helps you pray about all the anger you’ve always had. You start tithing at church. You get baptized. You put on a compassionate heart. And send your mama and brothers and sisters letters apologizing for whatever hurt you caused them.

Your mama passes away from cancer right before Christmas the year y’all got married. And in front of all her unopened presents your daddy looks at you and your wife with her hand on your knee like y’all are dumb. Turns his back to y’all to face the rest of the family. Your brothers and sisters drink whiskey and play cards and laugh loudly. Your wife does not say much to them and she follows you to the kitchen every time you get up to make her more chocolate milk. Your sisters tell her they like her sweater. Your nieces and nephews ask her to draw them giraffes.

She cries to you when you get home because she can only draw birds. You comfort her. You protect her. You tell her that you love her for who she is.

You tell her that riding with your sisters to Belk’s the next afternoon would be good for her. She never gets out of the house. It’ll be good for her to get out. You give her some money to buy her a pretty new dress.

While she’s out you think of what kind of dress she’s gonna get. How she’ll look coming home into the door. If she’ll spin with her new dress on. You’re thinking of this as you sit down for lunch at your dining room table. You look out the dining room window and wonder how your wife’s cactuses are blooming in the winter weather. The blooms are so many, hanging heavy, bursting bright pink. Stars falling together all at once. You think she has made you a better person for being able to notice things like that. You tell yourself not to forget to ask her about the blooms. You die there choking on a peanut butter sandwich.

When your wife comes home she is wearing exactly the pretty new dress you wanted her to get. It’s lilac with small white polka dots and it flows down her like waves. She puts your head in her lap and sits next to you at the table. She traces your ear with the silk hem of her dress until they take you away.

At your funeral the church is packed. People are standing up at the back, people are all in the balcony, people are sitting back in the Sunday school rooms. People from all over North Carolina and Virginia.

Outside the church your daddy tells the funeral director that your wife will sit behind your family. The funeral director says, but she’s Mr. Charlie’s wife. And your daddy says I’m paying for it so you’re gonna do what I want.

At the graveside after it’s all over, the mayor finds your wife crying in the crowd, she’s between your baby sisters. The mayor gives her a key to the town in a cedar box. He says it’s in your honor. He says you’re a hero. The plaque on the box says your name.

Over the next couple of months your sisters come and visit your wife. Try to comfort her. But she only wants to read the Bible in a rocking chair. She takes down the bluebird above y’alls bed and places it in the back of the closet behind your briefcase. She only sleeps on the couch. Her younger brother moves in and lives with her until she dies of old age.

When she dies your daddy is still alive. He’s in a wheelchair and chews on cigars but he does not want your wife buried next to you. He makes sure it doesn’t happen. Everyone in town is upset by it. So when your daddy finally dies at 102, your brothers and sisters raise enough money to move her next to you in the family plot. The brother you used to beat up the most brings flowers for you and your wife when he’s in town. He thinks about you every day, he dreams of you whistling as you walk with your briefcase. You never whistled though, you hummed. Yes, you always hummed.

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips grew up on her family’s farm outside Woodland, North Carolina. She still lives there. Her debut collection of short stories, Sleepovers, is forthcoming in 2020 from Hub City Press. Instagram/twitter: @woodlandraised.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 30th, 2019.