The Water in Brenham

It was skin-burning hot, and Ann Charlotte could hear cicadas in the dry brush. She knew it must have been at least ninety-nine degrees, because her thighs and her shoulders and the whole length of her right arm and leg were stuck with perspiration to the wood of the porch. Even with a buffer of sweat, her skin stung in the summer heat.

Her left leg, swinging slowly, dangled off the porch’s edge. It helped in extreme heat, she thought, to embody something cool; today, she was the rotating fan that stood in the window of her mother’s room. She turned her head so that her line of vision was a panorama arcing from the burnt yellow fields over her left shoulder, up to the sliver of dusty pale sky, then to the shaded relief of the porch ceiling, and down again to the bottoms of the rocking chairs on her right.

The view did not change much at this time of day.

Rotating left and right and left and right, Ann Charlotte’s mind drifted to the place it always returned: with a steep, regretful little jolt, her stomach did a somersault as she thought about her mother, lying in a bedroom just feet away, and about the afternoon not long ago when Papa had taken Mama to Houston to see the doctors. She thought about the first time she had seen her mother’s eternal shakiness for what it was, rather than an odd, nervous mannerism. There was that, and then there were the mood swings and the seizures that had become more frequent, and the terrifying way in which, recently, the bones in Mama’s hands and arms and legs had seemed to press more desperately against her tight, translucent skin. Mama, fragile, elegant, birdlike Mama now more closely resembled a scarecrow than a swan. It was clear to everyone what was happening.

Last week, Julie stood up suddenly under the yellow light of the dining room table, her head nearly knocking into the glass fixture hanging above them.

“Papa, I’ve decided there’s something Ann Charlotte and I can do to help Mama.”

Ann Charlotte had looked to Papa, whose forkful of meatloaf hung suspended above his plate. He seemed stunned into stillness by Julie’s sudden forthrightness. Ann Charlotte thought, for a brief moment, that Papa might tell Julie to sit down—wished he would—but instead he waited for her to spill whatever grand idea she had so clearly formulated. “We’re going to get baptized. I think it’ll be good for Mama to see.”

Papa looked down at his fork, brought it to his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. After he took a sip from his glass, two words came, heavy and slow: “Ann Charlotte?”

Ann Charlotte was not sure how long this idea had been brewing in her sister’s mind, but if Perfect Julie said it was necessary, and had said so in front of Papa, then there was nothing she could do to stop it. She looked at Papa and at Julie, who still stood over the table, looking somehow larger, exhilarated, and filled with sudden, stupid purpose.

“Sure.”

If Mama was going to see her daughters saved, it had to happen soon. Dread had been growing in Ann Charlotte, bubbling and pooling in her gut ever since.

A ragged rattle interrupted Ann Charlotte’s roaming thoughts as Papa opened the screen door and stepped onto the porch. She paused her propelling eyes to watch him. He pulled on his work boots, stooping down to tug at the laces of each. As he did so, Ann Charlotte saw that his hands were clean only up to his wrists, where the dirt still stuck to his arm hairs like a light dusting of cocoa. He had his work pants on, and just an undershirt, a blue towel draped over his shoulders to catch sweat. He did not notice her, or if he did, did not say anything.

Instead, he continued on to the toolshed, and then out to lug another load of brush to the burn pile. Ann Charlotte only caught glimpses of his back as he receded, smaller and more swallowed by the grasses with each rotation of her head. She tired of pretending to be a fan; at this point, not even that was enough to escape the heat.

Julie was pulling Mama’s covers back over her legs when Ann Charlotte reached the door. It was open just enough for her to see the foot of the bed and the fan in the window, blowing on its highest setting and making the gauzy white curtains dance like marionettes.

“Come in already.”

It was Julie, standing tall and clean and polished and cool, not a drop of sweat on her.

“Dump this for me?” She handed Ann Charlotte a metal bowl filled with clouded water. A yellow sponge floated on the surface. Ann Charlotte recoiled.

“Oh come on. It’s not like you ever wash her. Just dump it out and bring the bowl back.”

The wash water in the bathroom sink was cold. Ann Charlotte let it run for a moment, cupping it in her hands for as long as she could before it spilled over. She splashed some on her face. The water in Brenham always smelled a little like sulfur, but she didn’t mind. Besides, she only had the water in Mrs. Belford’s house to compare it to, which was the only house nearby that didn’t use a well. It also happened to be beautiful and new, and ever since Mama had taken them to visit the Belfords, Julie had started to look on their own home’s well-water spigots with disdain; Ann Charlotte thought Mrs. Belford’s place smelled like old people regardless, so the lack of sulfur in the water made no difference to her.

Julie was scraping up a spoonful of mashed potatoes for Mama.

“Set it over there.” She pointed to the windowsill next to the fan.

Ann Charlotte did as she was told.

“Baby girl?” Mama had raised a hand to stop the spoon from reaching her mouth. “You gonna leave before you come give Mama a hug?”

Ann Charlotte tried to look at Mama, but ended up staring at the pillow next to her face instead.

“No, Mama,” she murmured, forcing her eyes an inch closer to her mother’s face, all cheekbone now. She could almost guess how much time she had left based on how much her eyes had sunk, how much more angular she had become in the last week.

“Jules, can you please put the damn spoon down for a minute?” Mama said, slapping Julie’s hand away from her face.

“You need to eat, Ma.”

“You think I don’t know that? Just set it down a minute.” She turned to Ann Charlotte, who, cheeks burning, was now staring at the fringed blanket covering the end of the bed. “Come on over here, baby girl.”

“I’m not a baby, Mama. I’m fourteen.”

“I know, baby. You’ve just always been my little girl. Speaking of, how long’s it been since you brushed your hair?”

Ann Charlotte shrugged.

“Come closer, then. Sit here with me.”

Ann Charlotte perched on the edge of the bed. Julie, who tired of holding the unwanted potatoes, sighed and left, taking the plate of uneaten food with her. Ann Charlotte stared after her, at the empty space in the doorway.

“You gonna let me braid your hair for tomorrow?”

“Mama…”

“What? You should look nice for it. A whole lot of people are gonna be there to see you. I want you to look pretty.”

“I know, but… Your hands are too shaky, Mama.”

Mama was silent enough for Ann Charlotte to hear the whir of the fan. The breeze from it tickled her shoulders, and she could tell the sweat had already dried.

“Maybe Julie could?”

“I suppose you’re right,” Mama said after a while. “She knows how to do it well enough. What about the dress I bought for you? What do you think?”

Ann Charlotte had not tried the dress on. She had let it sit in the bag for a week, then hung it in the closet. She could not bring herself to look at it.

“It’s beautiful, Ma.”

“That’s my girl.”

Ann Charlotte looked at the lamp on the bedside table, and at the picture of resurrected Jesus that hung over Mama’s head. Jesus’ eyes were upturned toward the heavens, two fingers of his left hand touching his heart. Light poured out of his chest from the point of contact. With his right hand, he pointed upward, in the direction of his vision. For all the holiness pouring out of him, Ann Charlotte thought he looked awfully bored. She almost smiled, but Mama began to wrap her shaky, bony arms around her for a hug. Ann Charlotte felt herself stiffen.

***

Brenham was a small and dusty town. In general, cars that came in kept going until they drove right out the other side. And yet, despite its size and its weather (there were two kinds: dry-hot and rainy-hot) the people of Brenham seemed proud; it was an old town, and so it had character. Years before, Ann Charlotte had loved to go out with Mama to run errands. Mama would put on her blue cotton dress and braid Ann Charlotte’s hair, and they would ride to town together in the truck so that there was room for cargo on the return trip. No matter their destination, Mama would always turn the truck up South Austin Street so they could slow to a near halt in front of the big, wood-paneled houses, inching forward almost imperceptibly. Mama, with her long swan neck would crane across the passenger side and squint up at the mansions. She went crazy for the old magnolia trees out front.

“What do you think it would be like to live in that house, baby?” She’d breathe, as if that particular house could bring some kind of newer and better life than one just before it. “Oh, think about how nice it’d be to bring a book and some iced tea to sit out under that tree over there!”

Ann Charlotte would rest her head on the car’s open window frame and think about what it might actually be like to live among big white columns, to have ceilings three or four times her height. She couldn’t decide whether or not it would be better, but Mama seemed sure. One house in particular had become the object of her dreams: a big Victorian thing, made of stones painted mint green.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Ann Charlotte had said once as they gazed up at its spires and linen-draped windows.

“Doesn’t have to,” Mama chuckled. “That’s old money for you.”

After that, they would head to the grocers or the hardware store or wherever, and on their way home, usually with ice cream in hand, they would ride up South Austin again, licking their cones and clucking back and forth in posh, affected accents.

Sometimes Mama would play both parts: “Gladys, I say, the tea today is just divine.” “Why yes Gertrude, I had my son Reginald bring it in from Dallas!”

More than once, Ann Charlotte laughed so hard she dropped her ice cream, and Mama had to stoop to clean up the mess, laughing to herself as she did: “I bet we’d have someone who could clean this up for us if we lived in that house.”

***

It was cold inside the chapel. Mama wore her lilac cardigan.

“Aren’t you glad I said to bring that?” Julie said, adjusting the way it draped on Mama’s sloped shoulders. She fastened the top button to keep it in place.

“Sure am, honey. Pass a Bible to your sister?”

Pastor Bill, a man in his thirties who looked not far from bald, straightened his tie and took a seat before the congregation, just in front of the choir. His nose shone with oil, and the red of his tie clashed with the darker red of the chapel’s carpet. Ann Charlotte watched him take the pulpit.

“Good morning, everyone.”

Julie and Papa and Mama and the rest of the congregation echoed: Good morning.

Ann Charlotte thumbed the edges of the hymnal in front of her, flipping the pages back and forth to see where they would land: “How Firm A Foundation,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “Be Thou My Vision,” “Amazing Grace.”

“This week, we’ll be continuing our study of the book of Matthew by asking ourselves a question: What exactly is the meaning of fellowship? It’s a word we toss around easily as Christians, and it’s one I found myself considering more deeply than usual in preparation for today’s sermon.”

Ann Charlotte looked blankly up at him, and was startled to find his eyes upon her. She looked away.

“Please, if you are able, turn in your bibles to Matthew, Chapter 12, Verses 48-50.”

Julie turned Mama’s copy to the right page.

But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother,’” Pastor Bill read aloud. “It’s a short passage, isn’t it? But I struggle to find one that rings truer and closer to the meaning of Christian fellowship.”

Ann Charlotte slid down in her seat so that the back of her head rested on the edge of the pew. The church had recently installed air conditioning—a campaign that had brought in more money during the offertory than Ann Charlotte had ever seen the congregants drop before—and so the fans above her, warped by the humidity, sat still for once. She counted them, and then counted their blades, and then counted the slits on the connector of each blade. In the whole chapel, there were nine fans, forty-five fan blades, and one hundred and thirty-five blade-connector slits.

Julie nudged Ann Charlotte to sit straight in the pew. Pastor Bill’s eyes were upon them again. He had moved to the side of the pulpit, which he still grasped with one hand, and was standing with the other splayed earnestly over his heart. He seemed close to the end of his sermon, and Ann Charlotte’s stomach felt leaden.

“As many of you in the congregation are aware, Lowell Tanner’s wife, Mrs. Katherine Tanner, has not been in good health recently. Her two beautiful daughters, Julie and Ann Charlotte Tanner, have asked to be baptized today. Julie, Ann Charlotte—will the two of you come up here?”

Pastor Bill had descended the steps from the pulpit, and extended an arm to them.

“Scoot, scoot,” Julie hissed, nudging Ann Charlotte into the aisle.

Shoes, pew, hem, pew, shoes, pew, shoes, pew, purse, pew… Ann Charlotte looked down, guided only by the red carpeting of the aisle. Pastor Bill pulled both sisters close to him, one on each side. He smelled of aftershave just like Papa, but more pungent. Ann Charlotte’s cheeks were burning, red, hotter and drier than the feeling of her thighs on the porch; more painful than the feeling of her mother’s stare, of Mama’s need for Ann Charlotte to look at her, to still see her.

“Julie and Ann Charlotte have agreed to swear their hearts to Jesus today—”

Agreed?

Ann Charlotte pried her eyes away from the floor. The congregation looked back at her with one, pitiful face.

Stop. Stop looking. Stop staring. Stop pitying me with your stupid, sappy eyes.

“—we will act as their Christian family.”

I am going to die standing here. I’m just going to die. This is the worst. The absolute worst.

“That is what we are giving to the Tanner family today: a promise, both of fellowship and of kinship, for as Jesus said to Matthew—”

Ann Charlotte forced herself then to look up at Julie, whose face was calm, solemn, eyes cast piously down at her clasped hands. She looked then to Papa, whose eyes were also cast down, though perhaps more pained than pious, and then to Mama, and for the first time since she had started to get thinner, Ann Charlotte really looked hard at her—at Mama, who was looking directly at her, sunken eyes already welling with tears. Mama, whose cheekbones had never before been that prominent. Mama, who no longer seemed soft.

A thin, sedate smile stretched across Mama’s thin lips, and her lips began to move. Everyone’s lips began to move. The pastor’s lips were moving, too. Ann Charlotte knew this part, despite herself. It was the same refrain they chanted every time Pastor Bill brought someone up here, only now it was hard to understand, like words garbled underwater.

In response to your decision, we pledge to be a family for you in this place. We promise to lead you, learn from you, and love you, by God’s grace.

“Thank you,” Pastor Bill said softly, squeezing both girls’ shoulders. “After this offertory hymn from the choir, you’ll see the three of us up in the baptismal loft, right there.” He let go of Ann Charlotte’s shoulder for a brief moment, and motioned toward the red curtains above the choir. Ann Charlotte had to catch herself from toppling sideways. “And we’ll bring these girls into the family.”

The choir stood, and as the choral director gave pitch, Pastor Bill motioned for the girls to walk towards the side door, where a middle-aged woman stood waiting. Things were moving too quickly, sliding out from underneath her. Julie was walking towards the woman. Ann Charlotte could not move. Would not move. Her legs were gelatin, but her ankles granite.

“Irene will help you two get your baptismal gowns on,” Pastor Bill urged, pressing softly on Ann Charlotte’s back.

Before she could stop herself, Ann Charlotte was running. Feet first, awkwardly, she ran in loping strides past Irene, through the side door, down the hall, out into the buzzing heat. She stumbled, squinting into the bright white ubiquitous sunshine and ran across the parking lot, ran down the drive, hung a hard right. She ran until she reached the pebbled and dusty drive and ran all the way to the house, where she finally paused. She had lost the cool film of the air-conditioned church. All she could feel now was heat and sweat and the sting of the dry air coating her throat.

Limp, damp, pulsing with heat, Ann Charlotte climbed the stairs to the porch and threw her weight into the screen door. In the bathroom, she examined the damage done to her Sunday dress. Her skirt was wrinkled, its white hem turned brown from kicked-up dirt, the bodice soaked with sweat. Her hair, in an even worse state than usual, clung to the back of her neck in tendrils. She combed it down with her hands and thought about what would come next.

She would hear the crunch of the tires on gravel first, when they arrived: Papa would turn off the ignition and get out, passing around the front of the car as he always did to collect Mama.

Julie would emerge, too, her still-wet hair sleeked back.

The three of them, Papa carrying Mama like a bride, Julie trailing behind, would climb the stairs of the porch, enter the house, and move past Ann Charlotte like ghosts—or, rather, like she was the ghost, and they were the lone inhabitants of the house. Like they only had one daughter: Julie The Caretaker. Julie The Believer. Julie The Saved.

She could hear Julie’s reprimand already: That was quite a show you put on in there. How could you do that? How could you be so selfish? Are you so stupid that you can’t see your own mother dying right in front of you?

Hot tears cut through the veneer of dirt on Ann Charlotte’s cheeks.

Did you see her face? The way she was smiling? How could you take that away from her? What kind of a daughter does that to her mother? How? How? How?

Gasping for air, still breathless from her escape, she gripped the edge of the sink and let herself cry.

Then, quietly, she turned on the wash water. She leaned down and let the sulfuric water run over her head.

 

Skyler Inman is originally from Houston, Texas, but now has bits of “home” scattered all across the country, including Denver, Colorado, and Eugene, Oregon. She is a junior English major in Jonathan Edwards College.

 

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