Charity

Janice felt lovely with social responsibility. She was a more giving and carefree person than Richard, her husband, she thought gratefully, and that’s why she could move so freely through the world

A Short Story

by Joy Williams

IT ALL BEGAN WITH THE ENTHUSIASM OF A POlice officer, no less, who was eating a tamaleand-egg burrito at a cafe near the Arizona-New Mexico border. “I just went out there in all that white sand and got me a dune and went up on it and looked and looked and just let it sink in, and I never saw anything like it, never felt anything like it. I think 1 could stay out there in that white sand for a real long time, and I don’t know exactly why.”

“It doesn’t sound like something you’d want to do too often,” Richard said. He smiled, but the policeman looked at him and frowned. Then he ignored them.

Back in the car, Janice wanted to go to the white sand immediately. They were having a look at the Southwest, on their way to Santa Fe. They were both wearing khaki suits, and Richard had around his neck a hand-painted tie for which he had paid a great deal of money in Tucson.

They drove to the White Sands National Monument, paid the admission, and went in. The park ranger said, “We invite you to get out of your car and explore a bit, climb a dune for a better view of the endless sea of sand all around you.”

They drove slowly along a loop road. Everything was white and orderly. It was as if the dunes had a sense of mission. Here and there people were fervently throwing themselves down them and laughing.

“Do you want to get out?” Richard said. “I’ll wait in the car.”

Janice felt that she was still capable of awe and transfiguration and was uncomfortable when, together with Richard, she didn’t feel much of anything. She was too aware of the fact that they were on a loop road. She studied the dunes without hope. As they were leaving, they saw something small and translucent, like a lizard, stagger beneath their wheels, and they both remarked on that.

They began quarreling, without much vigor, almost immediately.

“I don’t know what that policeman was talking about,” Richard said.

“He was trying to express something spiritual,” Janice said.

“Don’t you get tired of that out here? Everything’s sacred and mysterious. Even the cops are after illumination. It wears me out, to tell you the truth.”

She wished she had gotten out of the car. She hadn’t even gotten out of the car. She was wearing high heels. “Let’s go back,” she said. “Let’s try it again.”

“Janice,” Richard said.

After some miles he said, “I forgot to take a leak back there.”

“Really!” she exclaimed.

“I’m going to pull into this rest stop.”

“To take a leak! That’s fascinating!” She fixed an enthralled expression upon him.

Outside, the heat was breathtaking and the desert had a slightly lavender cast. Some people sat at a picnic table under a ramada speaking happily about family members who smoked like chimneys and lived into their nineties. Farther away someone was calling to a small white dog. “Peaches,” she called, “you come here this instant!” The dog seemed sincerely unfamiliar with the name Peaches. Peaches was clearly a name that the dog felt did not indicate its true nature, and it was not going to respond.

The rest-stop road led past the toilets, through a portion of landscape where every form of plant life was explained with signs, and then back onto the highway. Janice walked toward a group of vending machines. She loved vending-machine coffee. She felt it had a very unusual taste and wasn’t for everyone.

While she waited for the cardboard cup to sling itself down and fill with the uncanny liquid, she noticed a chalky purple van parked nearby. Two beautiful children stood beside it with their arms folded, looking around them as though they had a certain amount of authority. They were rather dirty-looking and thin and blond and striking. The boy was around seven, Janice thought, the girl maybe eleven. Or eight and twelve? She didn’t know much about children. A man and a woman were rummaging around inside the open van. both the man and the boy were barefoot and shirtless. The woman, who had long, graying, careless hair, said something to the girl, who climbed inside just as the man triumphantly produced what appeared to be an empty pizza box. Janice watched them; she could hardly take her eyes off them. She finished the coffee, which had cooled quickly and was even more peculiar than usual, and walked back to the car, where Richard was standing. It was a rental with a scratch along one side, something she had taken great pains to point out to the agency so that she and Richard would not be held responsible for it. The grille had collected a number of butterflies. Without speaking she got in and shut the door. She would like to tell Richard how much she refrained from saying to him, but actually there was very little she refrained from saying. Nevertheless, she distrusted speech as a way of expressing thoughts.

They had become involved with a flurry of activity at the rest stop and found themselves in a line of cars winding slowly toward the exit. As they passed the van, the man raised the scrap of box, on which was now printed, in crayon, PLEASE: NEED GAS MONEY. The colon in the plea touched Janice deeply.

“Richard,” she said, “we must give that family some money.”

The line of cars pushed past the man, who now held the sign close to his chest, just above an appendectomy scar. The children looked stonily into space.

“Richard!” she said.

“Oh, please, Janice,” he said. “Honestly.”

“Go back,” she said.

They had reached the highway. Richard lurched around the other cars and accelerated. “Why do you always want to go back? We’re not going back. Why don’t you do things the first time?”

She protested the unfairness of this with a short scream. She wanted to hammer out the windshield with her highheeled shoes. “I want to turn back and give that poor family some gas money,” she said.

“Someone will give them money,” he said.

“But I want it to be us!” She wanted to be generous. She felt something like fear, she thought. She was afraid. Being generous would make her less afraid. But that would be selfish, she thought.

Richard drove faster.

“Look,” she said reasonably, “you drink a lot, Richard, you know you do, and what if you were in the hospital and you needed a new liver and the doctor finally came in and said, ‘I have good news: the hospital has found a liver for you’? Wouldn’t you be grateful?”

“I would,” Richard said, thoughtfully.

“Someone would have given you a second chance.”

“It would be a dead person,” Richard said, still thoughtful. “It would have to have been.”

“I wish I were driving,” she said.

“Well, you’re not.”

Janice moaned. “I hate you,” she said.

“Let’s just get to Santa Fe,” Richard said. “It’s a civilized town. It will have a civilizing effect on us.”

“That tie makes you look stupid,” she said.

“I know,” he said. He wrenched the knot free, rolled down the window, and threw the tie out.

“What are you doing?” Janice cried. The tie was of genuine cellulose acetate and had been painted in the forties. It depicted a Plains Indian brave standing before a pueblo. That the scene was incorrect, that it had been conceived in utter ignorance, made it more expensive and, they were told, more valuable in the long run. But now there was no long run. It was gone. She looked behind her and then turned in her seat and stared breathlessly into the distance ahead. She thought of the little family gravely, with compassion.

“I’m afraid I have to stop again. For gas,” he said.

He was pitiless, she thought. A moral aborigine. She hugged herself.

They rolled off an exit into a town that stretched a single block deep for miles beside the highway, and pulled into a gas station that was mocked up to look like a trading post, with a corral beside it filled with old, big-finned cars. Richard got out and pumped gas. Then he cleaned the windshield, grinning in at her.

She did not know him, she thought. She was really no more acquainted with who he was than she was familiar with, say, the cold dark matter theory of the origin of the universe.

He tapped on the glass. “Want to go inside?” he said. “Shot glasses, velvet paintings, lacquered scorpions?”

He was a snob, she thought.

He sighed and walked away, patting the breast pocket of his jacket for his wallet. Janice moved across the seat quickly, grasped the wheel, started the engine, and drove off in a great rattle and shriek of sand. She was back at the rest stop in fifteen minutes. The children had climbed the van’s ladder and were lying on the roof, as still as corpses. The woman was nowhere visible. The man was still holding the sign. Janice pulled up beside him.

“How you doing?” he said. He had very bright, pale eyes.

“I want to give you twenty dollars,” Janice said. She opened her purse and was disturbed to find she had a ten and three fifties.

“Rose!” the man yelled, lowering the sign. He had a long, very smooth torso except for the appendectomy scar. The woman emerged from the van and regarded Janice coolly.

“Yes?” she said.

“I saw your sign,” Janice said, confused.

The children rose languidly from the roof and looked down at her.

“We have to travel seventy miles to our home and get these children in school tomorrow,” Rose said, formally. “What we do, what our policy is, is we drive to the nearest gas station and at that point you give us the amount you’ve decided upon. That way you’ll be assured that we’re using it for gas and gas only.”

Janice was grateful for the rules they had worked out. She would be able to change a fifty-dollar bill.

“People will give you money at a rest stop, whereas they wouldn’t at a gas station,” the man said. “It’s just human nature. They’re more at peace with themselves in rest stops.”

Introductions were made. The man’s name was Leo. The children were Zorro and Zoebella. Janice identified herself too.

“Skinny Puppy’s my gang name,” Zorro said, “but use it at your peril.”

“Gang name my ass,” Leo said. “He doesn’t know anything about gangs. He signed a low rider last week, practically got us killed.”

“I didn’t know I was signing,” Zorro said. “I just had my hand out the window.”

“The bastard about ran us off the highway,” Leo said indignantly.

Janice found that she was gazing at them openly, a little stupidly. She suggested that they drive to the gas station so that they could all be on their way.

“Can I ride with you?" Rose asked. “I would like to feel like a human being, if only for a few miles.”

“Lemme too!” Zorro cried. He opened the back door of Janice’s car, tumbled over the front seat, and snuggled against her. “Mmmm, you smell fine,”he said.

“I don’t know where he picks that shit up from,” Rose muttered. “Certainly not from his father. Get out of that vehicle now!” she screamed.

The child flipped backward over the seat and out the door. He jumped into the van. Zoebella, who had not uttered a word, climbed in beside him.

AGREEABLY, JANICE INVITED ROSE TO RIDE her to the gas station. She felt lovely with social responsibility. She was doing well, it would be over soon, and she would be able to look back on this in the future. She was a more giving and carefree person than Richard, she thought gratefully, and that’s why she could move so freely through the world.

Leo started the van with difficulty. Blue smoke poured from the tailpipe.

“That doesn’t look good,” Janice said.

“Rings, seals, valves, you name it,” Rose said.

The van gained the highway and wobbled off ahead of them. Smoke appeared to be rising from its wheels as well. The sky was cloudless and sharply blue and the smoke floundered upward into it.

“Some people like the sky out here,” Rose said, “but I prefer the sky over New York City. Now, that’s sky. The big buildings push it back so it’s way, way overhead. It looks wilder that way.”

Janice nodded, thinking that this was a highly original remark. She felt splendid about herself. She looked at Rose warmly.

“That Zorro smudged your seat,” Rose said, looking at a small dusty footprint on the car’s upholstery.

Janice waved such a concern away. “Such beautiful children,” she said. “And such unusual names.”

“God knows I didn’t want to call him Zorro, but his father insisted. Those two aren’t from the same stock. Zoebella’s dad was a blind fellow named Wilbur. I hope that you aren’t, like many others, under the misperception that blind people are good people. It just isn’t so. Blind people don’t feel that they have to interact with others at all. They contribute nothing to a conversation. We had a wonderful dog, though, named Mountain. Mountain came to Lamaze class with us. Lamaze encourages you to focus on something other than birth, and I focused on Mountain week after week, but when it was finally time to have Zoebella, they wouldn’t let Mountain into the delivery room. A violation of infection-control procedures, they said. Well, I freaked, and I think the whole thing messed Zoebella up too. Here I went the whole pregnancy with no cigarettes, no liquor, and then they won’t let me have the dog in the delivery room! It was a very, very difficult birth, and Wilbur was no help at all, but we sued the hospital for not letting us have Mountain in there and they settled out of court. Wilbur was long gone by then, but that money did us for four years, Leo and Zorro too. What an inspiration that was. I wish I could come up with another one that good. Have you ever had sex with a blind man?”

“Why, no,” Janice said. “No, I haven’t.”

“Do it before you die, girl,” Rose said. “There’s nothing like it.”

Janice nodded. She felt a little nervous.

“But don’t stick around afterward. Get your cookies out of there,” Rose advised.

Janice nodded again. She was beginning to worry about Richard’s mood when she retrieved him. The van weaved, smoldering, before them. Janice felt a little queasy watching it. By the time they reached the exit, Janice was gripping the steering wheel tightly. It was actually damp. The van turned, not into the gas station where Janice had left Richard but into one across the street, where it clattered to a stop.

“Makes you want a cocktail just looking at that heap, doesn’t it?” Rose said.

“I’d like to give you fifty dollars, if you don’t mind,” Janice said. “I think you probably need some oil, too. Wouldn’t you like some oil?”

“Oh, you could drop a bundle into that thing,” Rose said. “It’s a suckhole.” She accepted the bill slowly from Janice’s fingers. “Thank you,” she said. She seemed absorbed in some involuted ritual. She didn’t respect the money, but she respected the person who gave her the money, Janice thought. Was that it? Why was she giving Rose so much money anyway? Her own behavior was becoming somewhat suspect, she thought.

Rose got out of the car, stretched, and ambled toward her family. Janice drove across the street. The trading post was locked tight. Four spotted dogs with heads the size of buckets regarded her avidly from the car corral.

“Richard,” she called. The dogs went into high uproar, mad with joy. They raced around the enclosure, baying with the thrill of duty and upsetting their water dishes. Janice drove slowly in circles in the area of the trading post, and then pulled out into the street and drove slowly to the end of town. The town simply stopped at an enormous statue of a road runner, beyond which was thousands of acres of grazing land with nothing grazing on it. Richard was a wily and annoying adversary, Janice thought. She drove back through the town, honking her horn frequently. Not only was Richard wily and annoying but he could be actually hazardous. His behavior was hazardous, she thought. She circled the pumps of the deserted trading post again. The big-headed dogs were lying on their stomachs, sharing what appeared to be a large, eviscerated jackrabbit. She drove across the street. She needed an aspirin. Rose and the children were sitting on the ground on a single fitted bedsheet. The van was on a lift inside the garage.

“Are you looking for someone?” Rose asked.

“No,” Janice said. “I don’t look as though I am, do I?”

“You look hungry, then, or something,” Rose said.

“I’m hungry,” Zorro said. “Jesus, I am.”

“Are those horse?” Zoebella said, pointing at Janice’s shoes.

Janice was startled to hear Zoebella’s voice. It was soft and solemn. “What?” she said.

“Your shoes, are they horse?”

“I don’t know. They’re leather of some sort. That would be awful, I guess, if they were, wouldn’t it?”

“You seem uncertain,” Zoebella said quietly.

Leo came up to them, wiping his greasy hands on his pants. Stripes of grease ran dow n his chest and he had oil in his hair. “We got a little problem here, but it can be fixed,” he said. “Man here’s going to let me use his tools.” He looked at Janice. “Why don’t you women and children get something to eat,” he said expansively. “Sit in a nice air-conditioned restaurant and get something nice to eat.”

Rose was particular about the restaurant. She wanted it dark, with booths, no salad bar, no view of the outside. They got into Janice’s car and drove up the street again. Zorro was sent into several establishments to determine their suitability. He had put on a T-shirt that said HAN LEG-HOLD TRAPS and showed a number of birds and animals, crippled and quite conceivably dead, colorfully arranged around a frightful black iron trap.

“He loves that shirt, but I don’t think he gets it,” Rose confided to Janice.

“You should bury that shirt, with Zorro in it,” Zoebella said quietly.

Janice continued to scan the street for Richard. She saw no one who even remotely resembled him—not that she would have settled for that, she realized.

“You sure you’re not looking for someone?” Rose asked.

“Not at all,” Janice said. “I’m just trying to be aware— you know, aware of my surroundings?”

“You can’t be too careful,” Rose agreed. “Tell me, it you were attacked, which would you feel more comfortable doing, shooting the individual or gouging out his eyes with the car keys?”

Zoebella leaned over the front seat and said softly, “I think that policeman behind us wants you to pull over.”

“Yes!” Zorro said. “There go the misery lights!”

Janice was told by the officer that she had drifted through a STOP sign. He looked remarkably like the same man Richard had offended at breakfast. While he was writing out the ticket, Rose asked him which eating establishment he would recommend, and he recommended the one they were parked in front of.

The traffic ticket was for a hundred dollars, which Janice considered high. However, if she paid him fifty dollars then and there, he said, he would consider the matter closed.

“If you got money, you save money,” Rose said.

Janice gave the policeman fifty dollars and received his signature on a piece of paper, as though she had asked him for his autograph. After he left, Rose urged her to come into the restaurant.

“This kind of event calls for a cocktail,” Rose said. “It always does.”

Inside, Janice felt disoriented. The interior of the restaurant was dark and very cold. The cold smelled somewhat like meat. Zoebella placed her small hand in Janice’s and led her to a booth. They sat holding hands opposite Zorro, whose T-shirt glowed prominently in the darkness. Janice ordered a double gin with ice and Rose specified a bottled beer; then she ordered the turkey plate for everyone.

“Turkey plate’s always the best,” she said.

Zoebella did not release Janice’s hand even after the food arrived. The children ate as though starved. Their plates were emptied in no time.

“Do you believe in God?” Zoebella murmured.

Janice was trying to locate a hair that had found its w’ay onto her tongue.

Rose said. “When I was Zoebella’s age, every time I thought of God I saw him as something in a skimpy black bathing suit and I saw myself sitting on his lap, but this perception was drummed out of me. Just drummed out. Now whenever the name comes up, I don’t think anything.”

“I think of God as a magician,” Zoebella whispered, looking closely at Janice. “A rich magician who has a great many sheep who he hypnotizes so he won’t have to pay for shepherds or fences to keep them from running away. First he hypnotizes them into thinking that he is their good master who loves them. Then he hypnotizes them into thinking that they’re not sheep at all. After this they never run away but quietly wait until the magician decides he needs them and kills them.”

Zoebella’s skin was very pale, almost a shade of blue, and her eyes were large and blue. “Goodness,” Janice said, perturbed. Only a piece of bread was going to find this hair, she decided. She pushed one into her mouth.

Zorro said, “I think of God . . .” His mother yanked his arm sharply. “We don’t want to hear that again,” she said.

Zorro collected everyone’s forks and put them in the pocket of his shorts. “We always need forks,” Rose explained to Janice. “I don’t know what happens to them at our house.”

The children ordered large butterscotch sundaes and polished them off within a few minutes. Zoebella ate delicately but with lightning speed. She had released Janice’s hand to better wield the long spoon, but when she finished she tucked her hand in Janice’s once again.

“I hope I’m at school tomorrow,” she said in her almost inaudible voice. “If I’m not at school tomorrow, I don’t know what I’ll do.” She arranged her face in an expression of horror.

Janice couldn’t imagine a child like Zoebella thriving at school, but she squeezed the child’s sticky hand. The magician-and-the-sheep business had caused her to feel a little unwell and considerably undirected, but now she knew what she would do. She would take Rose and the children to their home. She was sure that the situation with Leo and the van had not improved, and she was eager to finish what she had begun. Otherwise, in what way would she be able to think about it? She wouldn’t be able to think about it. They lived in a little town called Claunch. It was not exactly on the way to Santa Fe, but she could still make Santa Fe before dark if they left immediately. Richard had made reservations at a hotel there. A message might be waiting, or even Richard himself. If not, if he wasn’t, then when she arrived, she would be the message. One’s life, after all, is the message, isn’t it—the way one lives one’s life, the good one carries out?

“I can see you’re thinking,” Zoebella said in a quiet, disappointed voice.

BACK AT THE GARAGE LEO WAS AGREEABLE TO Janice’s idea. “I believe I’m going to be here for days,” he said. He kissed the children and shook Janice’s hand. In the car again, with directions for Claunch, Janice remarked that Leo seemed like a good man.

Rose looked at her and widened her eyes. “He’s all right,” she said. “Whenever he gets drunk, he threatens to kill the kids’ rabbits, but he hasn’t done it yet.”

They drove in silence for a while. When they got to the family’s home, Janice was not going to go inside. She would be invited, but under no circumstances would she go inside. She didn’t want to go so far as to go into it even in her thoughts. She would leave them at their threshold and be gone.

“What’s your credit card look like?” Zorro asked. “Is it black with a mountain on it and an eagle and a big orange sun?”

“I couldn’t have left it at the restaurant,” Janice said. “I couldn’t have.”

“Right by the cash register. I saw it when I got toothpicks.”

“Zorro sees credit cards everywhere,” Rose said. “I’ve told him never, never pick them up. He’s got a shrewd eye, and I want him to have a shrewd eye, but my feeling is that he could go from shrewd to dishonest real quick.”

After a while Janice said, “I’m not going back.”

No one contested this. They were not on the highway but on a narrow blacktop road, streaking through the desert. Janice had an increasing sense of urgency about reaching Claunch, but she slowed appropriately as they came to the outskirts of a small town. She saw a few scattered adobes, framed by enormous prickly-pear cactus, their red fruits glowing in the late-afternoon light. A man was riding a horse bareback down the road.

“There is a horse,” Zoebella said reverently.

They passed through the town, and Janice was accelerating again when Zorro saw a snake on the rim of the asphalt.

“Lookitim!” he screamed. “Lookit how big! You just can’t pass him by!” He grabbed the wheel and turned it toward the snake. Janice wrenched it back and slammed on the brakes. The car shot off the road, not quite clearing a stony wash, and with a snapping of axles crumpled against a desert of wildflowers—primrose and sand verbena and, as Zoebella pointed out quietly later, sacred datura, a plant of which every part was poisonous.

“Is everyone all right?” Rose said. “All in one piece? That’s the important thing—nothing else is important.”

“I just wanted that snake so bad,” Zorro said.

“He’s always after his dad to hit things for him,” Rose said. “You’re in somebody else’s vehicle, Zorro! You are a guest in another person’s car!”

They got out of the car slowly and looked at it. It was clearly a total wreck. It would never ride the road again. That they had survived was remarkable.

Zoebella touched Janice’s hand. “I’m glad you didn’t run over the snake,” she whispered.

“I have a terrible headache,” Janice said.

“You bumped your head pretty bad,” Rose agreed. “I saw a motel back there. Why don’t we get a room and declare this day over? You can lie down and rest. Do you have any bath crystals in your luggage? You could take a nice soothing bath.”

“I could use the bubbles after you were finished,” Zoebella said. “Not new bubbles but the same bubbles.”

But they couldn’t get to Janice’s luggage. The luggage was in the trunk and the trunk was crushed. Janice didn’t have bath crystals anyway.

“I don’t have bath crystals,” she said. Her voice was entirely unsteady.

“It’s all right,” Zoebella said. She now had both of Janice’s hands in hers. “You mustn’t regret that.”

They stumbled up the incline to the road. The car, where it lay, was scarcely visible. It appeared merely as a large gum-colored wad of something.

ONLY ONE ROOM WAS AVAILABLE AT THE MOtel. It had a lone large bed that pretty much filled it. The other rooms were unoccupied, but each possessed a unique incapacity that made it unfit for occupancy—a clogged drain, a charred carpet, a cracked toilet, a splintered door. Fleas. The Indian girl in the office was reluctant to give Janice change for the fifty-dollar bill she presented until the morning, when the owner could examine it.

Zorro entered the room first, soared to the bed, and began bouncing on it.

“Skinny Puppy enters the ring!” he shouted. He crouched and weaved, jabbing the air. Rose swatted him away.

“You lie down,” she said to Janice. “I’ll take the kids over to the cafe so you can rest. They’ve got cocktails, I noticed. Do you want me to bring you back a cocktail?”

“I want pie,” Zorro said. “I’m ready for a piece of pie.”

“I think I’ll just lie down,” Janice said.

“Don’t do anything until after you’ve rested a bit,” Rose said.

“Don’t look in the mirror or anything,” Zoebella urged her softly.

“You look white as a sheet,” Rose said. “Maybe we should stay with you just until you get your color back.”

“I don’t feel at all well,” Janice said. She crept across the bed and lay on her back. She didn’t want to close her eyes.

“Scootch over just a little bit,” Rose said. “More to the middle, so we can all fit.”

They all lay on the bed. After a few moments someone began to snore. Janice didn’t think it was she, but she wouldn’t want to bet her life on it. She didn’t know what she was going to do. Nothing came to her. Her mind was utterly blank. Then she began to recall Emily Dickinson’s poems. She had once known a great many of the poems and for some reason had been fond of reciting them. She knew what she liked to think of as Emily Dickinson’s last words: “I must go in, Memory’s fog is rising.” Janice felt it was unlikely, highly unlikely, that these were her actual last words. She felt this for the first time. She pushed Emily Dickinson from her mind. Richard tried to get into her mind, but he just . . . couldn’t. Richard, she thought, without much conviction.

She lay quietly. Finally she imagined herself getting up and leaving. She imagined herself slipping away from Rose and Zorro and Zoebella, silently opening the door.

She would go to the highway and stand beside it with her arm raised. Cars and trucks would come toward her. Some, when they saw her, would put their lights on for the night. It was that moment of the day when people made these adjustments, these decisions. She imagined herself standing there with her arm raised as it got darker, as it became utterly dark. She imagined herself thinking, out there, alone, at the mercy of people who were blind to her, that this wasn’t a good idea. Though it hardly mattered, as she couldn’t imagine someone actually stopping anyway . . . She wouldn’t stop for a person in her situation. People with nothing to lose just had it written all over them.