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Shrine
Judy Wilson

Traffic in a small Mississippi town like this is lazy. There are only six or seven traffic lights along the main strip, but it takes forever to get from one end of town to the other. Everyone’s so polite—you go, no, you go, no, after you—let’s just stop the whole show and let everyone out of the elementary school, all the school buses, all the nice parents picking up, and make sure you let all the walkers cross, for God’s sake wait for that little one there, the little one who must’ve been waited on all his little life because he sure is taking his time now. Christ, how are you supposed to sell houses in a place like this to a lady with no kids, a lady who looks like she’s above all this?

I check my lipstick in the mirror on the back of the visor. We’re waiting for the straggler to cross. Three cars in front of us, more than a dozen behind, and look at this kid, taking his time. I want to get out of the car, snatch him across the road, and say look—when people are backed up across town waiting on you, you step-to like you got some sense.

“People round here really look out for one another,” I say. “Almost no crime.” I’ve been saying dumb things all day. When you’re trying to make a sale, you find yourself saying all kinds of insignificant stuff.

“Well. That’s something. I suppose that is something,” she says, uneasy like, her eyes following the slow kid. She’s fighting the process—not wanting to like the place at all—resistant as a dead bolt. She can’t afford the kind of house she wants, but she can afford a lot better than I’ll ever have. It’s like she expects someone to chop fifty thousand off the right place, like she’s used to people looking at her and saying, okay, then, whatever. She and the straggler there—one and the same—no question. They both feel entitled, both assume allowances to be made on their behalf.

No more worries with her for today, though—back to the Holiday Inn Express we go. We’ll have another round tomorrow. Nine houses today, and nothing. Not even interested in the A-frame with the primo landscaping around the in-ground pool. Best thing I’ve got to show. I’d die for that house.

“You been down to the coast yet?” I ask, dragging along behind a school bus that’s feeding diesel fumes into the car.

“Last night,” she says.

“Do the casinos?” I ask, because everyone does the casinos.

“It’s not Vegas, is it?” she says, and smiles, shaking her head slowly.

I’ve been showing real estate for five months now and I can’t get used to dealing with these people. What do I know about these people? Who am I fooling thinking I can get on with this bunch? How do I know what they want from a house? Give me welders. I know welders. Give me iron workers. I know iron workers. I could find the perfect house for an iron worker. I’ll take a construction worker any day of the week. These others—I got no use for them.

About six blocks from the hotel, I pull into the Wal-Mart parking lot. “Not in a hurry are you?” I ask.

“Well—”

“Just need to get a key made,” I say, pulling into a parking spot. “Besides, you can tell a lot about a place from its Wal-Mart.”

She unfolds herself from the Civic, giving her slacks a little tug, adjusting her blouse, and I beep it locked with the fob. She sighs.

“Where’d you say you’re moving from?” I ask as we start across the parking lot.

“Culpepper, Virginia.” She’s smoothing back her clipped red-blond-brown hair, a chemical blend. Looks decent actually. Got a kind of stock investor look about her.

“Don’t know it—is it near Chesapeake Bay? I used to spend summers with a friend in Chesapeake. Her father managed a string of 7-11's there, lived in a little bitty apartment—snuck out a lot at night. Lots of cute sailors in Chesapeake.”

“It’s pretty far—”

Something catches my eye and I place my arm across her path and say, “Wait.” I study the pavement in front of my feet. “God, look. Look right there. You see that?”

She’s straining her head toward a garnet-colored stain I’m rubbing my boot across on the pavement.

“What?” she says, and it’s the first time I’ve seen her look alive. “What is it?”

But we’re standing in the passer-by lane and a truck is coming, so we move along. “I wonder if—Christ, that would be awful,” I say, and then she follows me to the sidewalk, glancing over her shoulder. Then I’m studying the red columns that support the overhang and stretch all the way to the connecting grocery store. “Those three there,” I nod toward the first three columns to the right. “Freshly painted. Can’t miss that new red.”

“Why? What is it? What happened?” She scans the columns from bottom to top.

I really look at her face then. She’s pretty somehow, everything I wish I had been at her age, late twenties, tanned, nice hair, tips and overlay on the nails, slacks and blouse she’s worn maybe twice in her whole life.

“It was sad around here couple days ago,” I say. “Did you hear about it? The old man here?” I nod at the store.

She shakes her head, impatient like.

“He worked here forever; everybody knew him. He was always around. Talking loud. You could hear him all over the store. No family left, except a granddaughter, I think. One of those happy people, smiling. Never seen anybody so happy to push a bunch of carts into a store. A little, short man. Energetic as hell to be so old. They say he used to be an x-ray technician at the hospital before he retired. Wal-Mart’s real keen about hiring senior citizens. I think it’s because they know they want to keep their hours down. Social security and all that—don’t have to worry about them wanting overtime.” I glimpse the lady out of the corner of my eye while I look out across the parking lot and then again at the three freshly painted columns. She isn’t caring yet. She looks at her watch.

“Yeah, the old man here. See, this guy pulls into the parking lot,” I point to the side entrance of the lot, “and he has a seizure. He’s in this big old LTD, has this seizure, clamps his foot down on the gas, and runs right over the old man.”

“Oh,” she says.

I say, “When I think about somebody getting hit by a car, I always think about them getting thrown through the air, you know? But they say the old man just buckled right under that car. Got all fumbled around underneath. Broke him up bad. Killed instantly.”

She works her brows into a bit of a frown, shifts from one foot to the other. She really is spectacularly pretty, eyes about three shades of brown.

“Then the car wiped out three of these big columns here,” I say. “Ended up pinning a lady against the last one.”

She’s staring at the columns again.

“Course, the guy had a seizure, couldn’t help it. But I heard they’re going to press charges on him. Cops said they had warned him once before not to be driving. You know, you can only have so many seizures before they take your license. What is it, four? five? But then somebody else said his mother told him to go to the store for her and that he had, in fact, argued with her about it—about him going to the store when he wasn’t supposed to be driving.”

She looks at me for a second, then folds her arms across her waist, and nods a bit, looking at her feet. Not exactly indifferent, but close.

“Yeah, sad,” I say and look at my feet, too. “Come on.” I lead the way to the entrance. I want her to see it, right here in the vestibule, this red satin cross, about four feet high, and flowers, all sitting beside this little card table covered with a white linen cloth and on this table there’s a huge, white candle burning beside a picture of the old man and he’s wearing his Wal-Mart vest, and his name is enameled on the frame. I didn’t know his name until I saw it there: Emmett Krill.

Right here between the mechanical eighteen wheeler ride for kids and the bubble gum machines and the pinball machine, this table covered in white with his picture on it, the candle, too, and the big red cross beside it on the floor, and all the flowers. And in front of his picture on the table is this white, leather-bound remembrance book and you sign your name there—to pay your last respects. The signatures in that book—about fifty pages full already—the thing sort of blows you back, the set up here, you’re just not expecting it, you know, this shrine to Emmett, right here in the vestibule. But it’s a good thing, I mean, because something that horrible should leave a mark on the world for a few days at least.

We stand in front of that table, looking at his photograph for a minute, and I’m trying to decide: sign, don’t sign. Because who am I? And who was I to him? I figure he was something to me, you know, must have been because I feel so bad that he’s gone and all. So I sign it, lean way over to sign because it’s a real low table, like a kid’s table, and it isn’t very sturdy, and my heart jumps when I think the frame is going to topple, but I catch it, steady it. Without looking, I hand the pen over to her and when she doesn’t take it right away, I look up and she’s got her hand up to her mouth, biting her thumb nail sort of, and it takes me a couple seconds to realize that what she’s doing is trying to hold back a laugh, her face all flushed. And I must’ve looked miffed as hell because she reaches out with the hand she had just had to her mouth and touches my arm and says, half laughing, “I’m sorry, but it’s just a bit much, all this right here, in here,” and she motions with her hands toward the kiddie ride and the gumball machines and the pinball machine, a regular Vanna White, and out it comes, her pent-up laugh.

I put the pen down. There’s somebody inside the store watching through the glass. It’s a solid stare. It’s the old-woman who works as the greeter, the lady who always smiles and says, “Hi, welcome to Wal-Mart” and offers you a cart, gives the little ones round smiley face stickers. She’s staring at me, with only the glass between us, so close I can see the pink of her scalp showing through her white hair, the softest looking white hair. And her eyes, they’re blue, but the blue is so pale you can barely see it. She’s got one of those faces with a hundred wrinkles, but like her hair—soft looking—not dried out and haggard. I look at her name tag for the first time. Belle.

Emmett and Belle. Both of them had outlived their spouses. Belle’s husband died almost twenty years ago, they say. Emmett’s wife died of cancer five years back. They were a twosome, Emmett and Belle, at least at work. He brought the carts in, she offered them out. They were always smiling at each other, sometimes from across the store. You would see Emmett staring at something, grinning, hands behind his back, and you could follow his stare every time to Belle.

They say she saw the whole thing, the accident, Emmett fumbled about under that old LTD. She was always watching out the window, watching him gather the carts in the parking lot.

She’s staring now, at us, and then she looks down at the red cross, looks at the picture that, surely, from that angle, she can’t see, and then she just sort of nods and turns away, her hands clutched behind her back, just the way he used to stand, and her fingertips are almost blue she’s squeezing them so hard.

This woman comes in with her little boy and he’s whining to ride the mechanical frog, but when they step into the vestibule, she freezes and the kid gets quiet. He’s still. He looks from the cross, to Emmett, to his mother, to me, then back to Emmett. I can’t go in the store—the lady had laughed and Belle had seen. I back out of the way, out the door of the vestibule.

“Where you going?” she says.

“Come on,” I say, heading for the car.

“But I thought you needed to get a key—”

“No key,” I shout back at her, because one, she’s lagging behind, and two, because I’m pissed. I slam the car door after I get in and rest my head back on the headrest. The car smells like her, like whatever perfume it is she’s wearing. She gets in and closes her door.

“Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have laughed.”

“I really don’t want to hear your voice,” I say, and reach over her knees to dig through the glove compartment. “You really have an annoying fucking voice. Anybody ever tell you that?” I find my copper cigarette case, flip it open, and pick out one of the three tightly rolled joints. I toss the case back into the glove compartment and slam it shut. I dig through the console for a lighter. I rest my head back again, light the joint, and close my eyes for a second.

“Look, this isn’t working,” she says, her voice carrying a kind of ruffled-feathers edge. “I don’t know what you’re trying to prove. You don’t sit in the parking lot in broad daylight and smoke a joint. And you can’t shock me. Honestly, nothing you could do would shock me.” Her face really does get all red and flushed when she’s bothered. Like a bad sunburn.

“Fuck you,” I say, smiling, and hold the joint out to her. “Toke.”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” She crosses her arms tight and stares out the passenger window.

“Take a hit,” I say, holding the joint toward her. I reach across with my other hand and find a country channel on the radio.

“I don’t want a hit. Put the thing out the window.”

“Take a hit or fucking walk back to your hotel.”

She snaps her head toward me. “This gets you fired, you know,” she says and her lips are quivering. “You are in the process of losing your job. I just want you to realize that tomorrow at this very hour you will not have a job.”

I toke again, close my eyes for a second, and then hand the joint to her. “One little hit for the sake of unemployment.”

She ignores the joint and takes a deep breath. “I’ll stand outside until you’re done making an ass of yourself.” She opens the door.

“Then how about going up there to the drink machine and get us a couple sodas.”

She rolls her eyes and she’s gritting her teeth, the little muscle flexing in her jaw. I watch her walk and then look out across the parking lot in front of me. Carts are scattered everywhere. No one dares to collect them, to take them in to Belle. Of course, it’s just a matter of time. They’ll have to blow out the candle, close the book, take down his shrine. A new man will eventually gather the carts. And we’ll stare at him and watch her stare at him, and, ultimately, we will forgive him for replacing Emmett.

I roll the window down and toss the remains of the joint. The lady opens the passenger door and hands me a generic drink. She lowers her head in, “Are you done?”

“Perfectly,” I say.

She climbs into the Civic and slams the door. I sip on the drink and lean over the console toward her.

“What?” she says.

“I am so fucking high, and then there’s you. You. Well, you smell like gardenias or something, and your lips are like fucking slippery looking and I swear to you, right now, I would love to kiss you.”

She plants her back firmly against the seat, puts a hand between herself and me, and says, “Look, I have to make a life with these people in this town and I sure don’t want to start out by everybody seeing me in this dinky car, in a Wal-Mart parking lot, smoking a joint, kissing another woman. I don’t smoke pot, and I don’t kiss women. And I want you to take me back to the hotel now—can you do that?”

I rest my forehead against the steering wheel and start the car. “You’ll never have a life with these people. You might move here. You might get a couple of them to kiss your ass from time to time, but I guarantee you will never have a life with them.”

“Whatever.” She’s hooking her seat belt. We’ve ridden all over the country today, and now she wants to hook her seat belt.

“Want to drive?” I ask.

She stares hard at me. “No.”

I look at my watch. Five till five . “Late,” I say, “I’m always fucking late for every fucking thing.”

“Why?” she asks, and when I don’t answer she says, “Take me back to my room.”

I zip through town, taking short cuts, impatient with all the polite folks on the main strip. I’m heading in the opposite direction of the Holiday Inn Express, but she doesn’t seem to notice.

Three miles outside of town is a paper mill where I used to work re-fabbing boilers. When I pull into the parking lot, she’s totally confused. I tear across the gravel lot and spot my guys standing just outside of the security shack. I slow for trucks backing out and pulling off. I sound the horn and pull up in front of my three riders.

“Open your door,” I say to her.

“Hey, babes,” I holler as they walk toward the car. T. J. smiles, but the others just stare like it’s been a hard one.

“Look,” says my ruffled passenger, “we really need to get going.”

“Get out.” I think I’m being damned pleasant about the whole thing. She’s sitting there with the door open, staring at me. “I promised them a ride home. Get out.” I’m keeping my voice level low; I think I’m maintaining. I pop the hatch for the guys to stow their lunch coolers and hard hats and welding shields.

She steps out of the Civic and I pat the seat for T.J. to sit up front with me. The other two squeeze into the back. The car is leaning toward the passenger side. The smell of gardenias is suddenly replaced with iron dust and sweat.

T. J. says, “You’re high, huh, middle of the damn day—what am I going to do with you?”

I look at my dethroned passenger. “Get in.”

“Where?” she says.

I look at T. J. and he slides his feet as far as he can toward the front of the car and pats his leg, “Here you go.”

She hesitates.

I nod toward T.J. “My brother,” I say, introducing him to her. “You staying or going?” I ask and put the car in drive. Now it’s very important to me that she climbs into the car, but she just stands there as if something will change.

T.J. closes his eyes briefly, drums his thighs with his hands, then smiles, saying, “Look, maybe—”

“No, I’ve got it. Really,” she says, her eyebrows compensating as she stoops to squeeze onto T.J.’s lap. Lean as she is, it’s still not an easy fit. Her hand clutches the dashboard, head presses at an angle against the roof of the car.

“If you lean back, you’ll have more room,” says T.J., and when she doesn’t budge, doesn’t respond, he says, “Course, we could switch places if you like.”

This gets chuckles from the back seat, but when I glance over, the lady’s eyes are pooling tears and she’s trying hard not to spill them.

“C’mon,” I say and lean in against my door. The guys don’t get it, don’t notice, but she does. Our eyes meet briefly and hers spill, and I remember the day I accidentally slammed the kitten in the car door. I pull a Dairy Queen napkin out of the door pocket, hand it to her, and say, “There’s a great steakhouse in town. Best ribeye you’ll ever get. If we go now we can beat the dinner crowd. Yeah? What do you think?”

She blows her nose into the napkin, nodding, her head still bent at an awkward angle. “Sure. Sounds nice.”

The guys send up a unified “yes,” but I know—looking at her again, I know—that kitten is dead.


Though originally from Virginia, Judy Wilson is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Southwest Minnesota State University. Her work has taken hold in various literary publications including the Skylark Literary Annual, Antietam Review, The Atlantic Monthly's Atlantic Unbound, Reed Magazine, Oregon Literary Review, Carve Magazine and others. She has received a number of awards for her fiction including the Southern Literary Festival Award for Best Short Fiction, the Joan Johnson Writing Award, the Henfield Foundation's Transatlantic Review Award, and the Truman Capote Fellowship.

"I had a stoop on the front of my house growing up in rural Virginia-peanut country. But one field over sat my great-aunt's house, and there I cooled my hot summer feet on a gigantic concrete porch, complete with old wooden rocking chairs usually occupied by adults whose gossip was never as interesting as my own imaginings. I made up many a wild story for them while they rocked. They must have thought me insane."