Lucy Jane Bledsoe
Blair saw Charles most days on her walk home from school. He lived a block and a half away from her family, apparently by himself, and was usually watering his roses when she went by. He always looked at her. You might even say, studied her. As if he were—and this was a phrase she learned from her mother—undressing her with his eyes.
At his age, too. It made it dirtier. He was probably someone’s grandpa.
At his age, too. It made it dirtier. He was probably someone’s grandpa.
Blair was proud of her solution to the problem. After a few weeks of this ogling, she started fetching her Bible from her backpack as soon as she got off the school bus. She carried it prominently against her chest, like a shield, as she passed Charles’s house.
The first time she did this, he smiled. It occurred to her then that she had been all wrong. Maybe he was a Christian, too. Maybe he knew her family and was only showing an interest. Blair was
embarrassed that she’d thought the words undressing and ogling. She entertained the possibility that she, not he, had been the one having dirty thoughts. The truth was important to Blair, even if it made her uncomfortable.
That night at the dinner table she asked her parents if they knew the man who lived with all the roses in front of his house. They looked at her blankly, and then her father put down his knife and fork and asked, “Why?”
“His roses are such a beautiful example of God’s presence,” she said. “That’s all.”
Everyone nodded—her parents and her little sister Ruthie and big brother Joshua—and that was the end of it. She didn’t mention Charles to her family again.
But she kept clutching her Bible as she passed by, and Charles kept looking. After that first time, though, he didn’t smile anymore. Blair wondered if the word sinister would describe his interest in her. She couldn’t help noticing that her walk loosened under his gaze.
On the Monday of the last week of school, he finally spoke to her.
“Do you read that?” he asked, gesturing with the running hose. The water came dangerously close to Blair’s feet and she jumped back. Charles laughed. “Sorry!”
“If you mean the Bible, yes I do.”
“What does it tell you?”
“You haven’t read it?”
Charles glanced down and then up again, meeting her purposefully challenging stare. “I have. Parts, anyway. It was a long time ago. Do you recommend it?”
Her father said to never let anyone mock the Bible or their faith. Smile, he said, and speak the words of the Savior. It didn’t matter which words. Just be sure to always answer a disbeliever. Always defend
“I do recommend it.”
“And it teaches you what?”
“To live chastely. To love Jesus.”
Charles nodded. “Thanks.”
Blair stood still for a moment, watching him water his roses. Then she realized that she was pausing inappropriately, and so she walked on home.
The following day, Blair slowed her pace as she neared Charles’s house. She’d thought about him a lot since their conversation, and it occurred to her that this was one of her responsibilities as a Christian. She wanted another opportunity to talk to him. Today she held her Bible loosely in her hand, the one on his side of the street, and checked her outfit before coming into view. She wore tight jeans, like any 15-year-old, and two camisoles, a white one under a lace-trimmed, hot pink one. She tugged at the neckline of both, making sure too much breast didn’t show. She wanted to be very clear.
She wore tight jeans, like any 15-year-old, and two camisoles, a white one under a lace-trimmed, hot pink one. She tugged at the neckline of both, making sure too much breast didn’t show. She wanted to be very clear.
Blair stopped in front of his house, surprised to see that Charles wasn’t watering his roses today. When a moment later he stepped out the front door, she was embarrassed to be caught standing still, as if she were waiting for him.
“It’s the young evangelist,” Charles said and smiled more broadly than ever before.
“I take it,” she said carefully, “you don’t believe.”
“Oh, I believe,” he said. His sincerity confused her. He believed in what?
He asked, “What’s your favorite verse?”
Blair knew so many verses by heart, but her mind went blank.
Or not so much blank, as it filled with curiosity about this rose-tending man rather than with Bible verses. He was handsome, she realized, even if about three times her age. He was thin with gaunt cheeks and tousled brown hair, only a few strands of gray. His old skin looked pleasant, the way it rested softly against the muscles in his arms. He wore a faded dark green T-shirt and worn Levis, a pair of sneakers on his feet. He looked so comfortable. What she had told her family was true, his roses were a testament to God’s presence. The thorny bush he watered now, holding the hose end almost tenderly, letting the water gurgle onto the roots, had tight golden buds with orangey-red edges. She wanted to see them in full bloom.
He waited and so she blurted, “I like first Corinthians 13:13.”
When he raised an eyebrow, she recited, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Then she felt the hot flush of blood in her face. This is the one Henry had quoted her just yesterday, but for the wrong reason. It was also the wrong version—his church used the King James.
Charles nodded and said, “Yes.” As if he knew the verse. He moved the stream of water to the next rose bush. “Nice one.”
“What’s your favorite?” she asked back.
“Mainly I remember the not-so-nice ones.”
Disbelievers loved doing this. They thought they could trip you up by quoting stuff out of context. This would be a good time for her to walk away. Her dad said to not listen to blasphemy. Even letting it enter your ears can taint you. But she waited.
Charles said, “How about this: ‘For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death.’ Leviticus 20:9.”
The hose hung loosely in his hand, soaking the roots of yet another bush, as he quoted. Now he lifted it and sprayed the bush’s leaves, almost as if he were angry.
Blair had never cursed her parents, and she never would.
“Put to death,” he repeated, holding his thumb over the end of the hose to make the water squirt hard.
As Blair tried to think of the right thing to say, he continued.
“Then there’s this: ‘But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die.’ Deuteronomy 22:20-1.”
Shame pooled in the base of her belly. It was as if he knew. He was, after all, a man of her city. She imagined Charles, along with other neighbors, stoning her. But he only squinted at her, giving her one of those looks again, as if he were undressing her.
She left without saying goodbye or commenting on his verses. Tomorrow she would tell Henry it was over. Better, she would leave the room right after band practice and not talk to him at all. She hadn’t done anything irreversible yet. No one could stone her. She was a virgin. And not one of the reclaimed ones. She was a real virgin. No one could stone her, she repeated to herself, and as she did, a confusing rock pile of anger replaced the pool of shame in her belly.
That night when Blair said her prayers, she thanked God for introducing her to Charles. She realized He’d done so on purpose. Her neighbor was a test. And a reminder. She’d done nothing terrible yet. Not too terrible, anyway. She prayed for guidance and forgiveness and for pure thoughts. Then she prayed for her mother and father, for Ruthie and for Joshua. She climbed into bed and thought not about Charles, but about his roses. They were lovely. He had deep red ones. And yellow ones that glowed. There were pale lavender ones too, dusty and strangely sad. Her favorites, though, were the yellow ones with orange edging on every petal.
Over the next couple of days, Blair tried to think of ways to reengage Charles in conversation about the Bible, but two things stopped her. One, he didn’t speak first when she passed, and she didn’t want to be bold. And two, she knew her intentions were not entirely spiritual.
Blair was only 15 years old, but she knew a lie when she saw one, even when it was a lie she told only herself. She’d made a personal vow, not only to Jesus but to herself, to be rigorous about the truth. And the truth was: something about Charles attracted her. It’s not like it was a sexual attraction. God no, he was at least 40, probably older. But her heart did that flutter thing, and she felt hot in the face, and her bowels got all icy when she walked by him. It was different, totally different, from how she felt with Henry. Still. Whatever the feeling was, it didn’t seem right, and until she understood what was going on, she thought she best ignore him.
She’d made a personal vow, not only to Jesus but to herself, to be rigorous about the truth. And the truth was: something about Charles attracted her.
But he kept looking, and with exaggerated daring. As if as long as she didn’t stop him, or take a different route home, he would filch everything he could get. Taking a different route home was exactly what she ought to do. Her continuing to let him look was, in a sense, agreeing to his nasty old man voyeurism, right?
Then, on the last day of school, Charles called out, “Hey.”
Blair had rehearsed this moment many times in her mind. She didn’t stop, or even look in his direction. She kept walking, facing straight ahead. He laughed. It was not a mean laugh, just a short bellow. Like she’d surprised him, shown him something he hadn’t realized. As if her resolve were a joke. Her feet took over and, all on their own, stopped. She tried to order them to go on, but instead they turned to face Charles. Okay, so maybe this was God guiding her feet. She would tell him off. That’s what she should do. Tell him to keep his filthy old eyes off of her body.
The words seemed so mean, though, when she saw his face. He was no longer laughing, but his lips remained parted, as if he wanted to say something but had no idea what. He hadn’t shaved that day, so he had a bit of gray bristle, and the skin under his eyes sagged. She had this strange sense that looking at her sustained him in some way.
That thought was sinful, she knew that. It was the sin of pride to think that she had the power to sustain anyone. Only God could do that. It was also the sin of vanity. What made her think she was attractive enough for anyone to get anything from looking at her? She was fat. Had bad skin. Dull hair. She was duck-footed.
And yet he kept staring, as if she were soaking his roots, nourishing the possibility of bloom.
“How old are you, anyway?” Charles asked. “15.”
He shrugged, as if that answered something, and said, “Okay.”
He didn’t answer for a long time. Blair jutted out one hip, held the Bible against her breasts, pursed her lips. He smiled slowly and said, “You’re very beautiful, do you know that?”
And yet he kept staring, as if she were soaking his roots, nourishing the possibility of bloom.
What happened next was shocking. A wave of tears surged up her throat, filled her eyes. She didn’t know why. Every inch of her skin tingled with a sad ache. Like if she didn’t hold onto this moment, it would never, ever come again.
Charles said, “I’d like to draw you.”
“Draw me?” The tears made her voice scratchy.
He shrugged again. “You’re too young, though.”
Then the moment did leave, as if snatched away by God Himself. In its wake, she thought, this is a ruse. He wants to draw me? Right.
She swallowed back the remaining tears and wished there were an inconspicuous way to pull up the necklines of her two camisoles. They were aqua and black today, and especially low-cut.
“You holding your Bible,” Charles added. He walked over to the spigot and turned off the water, began rolling up the hose.
She couldn’t help asking, “Why with my Bible?”
He thought for a moment and then shook his head. “It doesn’t help to think about it too much. I just like the juxtaposition.”
That meant contrast. Or even clash. This made her mad. Blair wasn’t at odds with the Bible. It was her path and guide. She actually held it in front of her, like a steering wheel, and walked home.
Now that school was out, Blair had no reason to walk by Charles’s house, and that was a relief. She put the man out of her mind. But pieces of him wouldn’t go away, like his faded green T-shirt and the feeling behind his sagging eyes, the words beautiful and juxtaposition. She wanted to see how his roses were coming along.
On Friday night of the second week of summer vacation, Blair saw Henry at the mall. She was with her mom and Ruthie. He was with Chandra, another girl from school. His arm was draped over her
shoulders so that his curled hand grazed her big boob. To make it even worse, Blair’s mother noticed the couple and had to comment on them, saying something about their behavior being inappropriate. They were giggling and bumping hips and pointing in store windows.
Blair couldn’t believe how much it hurt. His grin had seemed so sincere, for her alone. His kisses had seemed like they had love in them, not just lust. He’d quoted Bible verses to her!
His grin had seemed so sincere, for her alone. His kisses had seemed like they had love in them, not just lust. He’d quoted Bible verses to her!
Thinking about Henry kissing Chandra, his hand grazing her breast, made Blair want to throw everything she thought was true in the garbage. And stomp on it. She knew her feelings were extreme, crazy. She also knew—had known all along—that a relationship that takes place in the band room after band practice, and in no other place or time, was a false one.
It still hurt. A lot.
It was hot that second week of June, well into the 90s, so she wore her white shorts and navy blue halter top. The colors were modest, anyway. And of course she carried her Bible. She went barefoot, meaning she had to jump from one patch of weeds to the next, find pockets of shade to avoid the sun-scorched pavement. By the time she got to Charles’s house, she wondered why she hadn’t worn her flipflops. She knocked on his door.
He looked very surprised to see her.
“Hi,” she said. “Do you still want to draw me?”
She walked right by him and into the front room of his house. The place was a wreck, with newspapers and dirty dishes on all the surfaces. A pile of laundry, that may have been clean, filled a big armchair. He too was barefoot. She felt very puppyish in his dark and muddled dwelling. She liked how he seemed to be at a loss in her presence.
To remind him, Blair held the Bible against her breasts, and said, “Do you?”
“Sure. Come on out to my studio.”
She followed him out a sliding glass door. They passed through an overgrown yard and entered the open door of a large one-room cottage. There were half a dozen house plants, and these were thriving, with lots of sunlight pouring in the high windows. A big wet-looking painting sat tilted against the back of an easel, the colors gooey and dark, and the air rich with the smell of oily turpentine. There was also a royal blue settee, exactly as she might have expected, near the middle of the big room. Blair walked right to it and sat down.
“How do you want me?” she asked.
He paused a long time, looking at her, that sadness wilting his eyes. Then he said, “However you’re comfortable.”
Blair stretched out on the settee and crossed her ankles. She shook back her hair so that it draped over the settee top.
Charles laughed and said, “Kind of a cliché, but okay, I like it. Leave the Bible on your belly and let your hands and arms fall off either side of the chaise.”
Blair embraced the new word. Chaise. It comforted her.
Charles moved the big canvas off his easel and propped up a sketch pad. Working with a piece of charcoal, he began at once. Not only the word, but the chaise itself was comfortable, and Blair felt herself slacken. Outside of her own home and all the reminders of who she was, Blair found that her mind tore off in a lot of unexpected directions. Her anger at Henry increased. The pleasure in her anticipation of the warm, expansive summer scared her. She felt pelted by a storm of questions.
“Have you ever been in love?” she asked Charles after several long minutes of silence.
He didn’t answer. He’d entered some kind of zone as he drew. Blair wondered if he might fall in love with her. Or maybe he had already. He glanced at her with crisp little peeks, over and over again,
each time returning to his sketch pad.
“I asked if you’ve ever been in love before.”
“What do you think?” Charles asked.
“Probably. Maybe when you were young.”
He still didn’t answer, and it occurred to Blair that maybe he was a fag. Most male artists were. It would explain the roses and his sensitive hands. He obviously lived alone, too.
But then he wouldn’t be undressing her with his eyes, if he was a fag.
Charles ripped the sheet of paper off the sketch pad and wadded it in both hands. He let the big ball of paper drop to the floor. He started again. Blair tried to keep quiet and still. A few minutes later, he ripped off another sheet, and this time he cursed.
“I guess it’s not working,” he said.
Blair didn’t move. She liked the curve of the chaise against her backside. She liked the way the earthy smell of freshly watered green plants twined with the industrial reek of oil paints. She liked the hushed sound of charcoal on paper, knowing it traced her shape.
“You better go,” Charles said.
The words reminded her of Henry. The ache of being dismissed.
She sat up and put the Bible on the floor at her feet. “I saw my boyfriend at the mall with another girl.”
Charles blinked, and she thought he probably didn’t have a clue what that felt like. He was alone. He was a fag. Maybe he wished he wasn’t, which explained why he looked at her that way. He was trying to go straight. She wondered if she ought to help him. Her church had sent two different boys to a special camp for this. One of her friends said they showed the boys dirty pictures of girls. It occurred to her that Charles’s homosexuality made her safe in his studio.
“Do you think,” she asked, “it’s wrong to kiss before marriage?”
Charles actually laughed, but then his face softened quickly.
“What about more than kissing?”
Charles rubbed his bristly chin. “Look. I don’t know.”
“His name is Henry. He’s a Christian, like me, but his church is so different from ours. Their Jesus says yes all the time. Our Jesus always says no.”
Charles laughed again. He picked up his charcoal. “How do you know Henry?”
“We both play in the band at school. He plays cello. He’s really cute. African-American. Short-short hair. Big brown eyes with long lashes. He doesn’t have any beard at all yet, kind of babyfat all over him, but under that he’s really strong.” Blair tried to keep herself in check, but continued anyway, saying, “He’s a really good kisser.”
“But you don’t think Christian children should kiss.” Charles was drawing quickly now, his hand sweeping across the pad, his eyes backlit by an emotion she couldn’t name.
“We’re not supposed to. Well. Henry says it’s fine. He says even his pastor would say it’s fine.”
Charles nodded and kept drawing, as if he’d stopped listening.
“He has the softest lips imaginable.”
When she didn’t say anything more for a long time, Charles asked, “What do you play?”
“Where do the two of you go on your dates?”
“We don’t. We just made out in the band rehearsal room. After practice. After everyone else had left. I haven’t seen him since school got out for summer vacation.”
Charles watched her face for a long moment, and she felt as if her sadness was naked. His hand holding the charcoal lowered, and he said, “Look, Blair. Whatever you did with Henry was fine. It was good, even. Some people think sex is sacred.”
Charles watched her face for a long moment, and she felt as if her sadness was naked.
Blair stood so quickly she almost lost her balance. She held the top of the chaise until she felt steady again, and then walked over to his easel. The way he’d drawn her sitting on the chaise with the Bible on the floor at her feet made it look as if she’d discarded the Book. As if she were about to kick it aside.
“How would you know?” she asked.
Suddenly she felt furious at everyone. Henry. Charles. Her parents. Maybe even Jesus. She glanced around the studio, as if she were trapped and looking for a way out, though the door was wide open. The walls were covered with charcoal sketches. She walked over to the nearest one, thinking she might rip it down. The woman was naked and so skinny each rib showed. Little sacks of skin hung off her butt. Her shoulder blades jutted like wings. Her head was bald, save a few patches of hair. She looked like someone in a concentration camp.
“Yuck,” Blair said. “She’s ugly.”
She stepped to the next drawing, and saw that it was of the same woman, this time a frontal view. Again, the little sacks of skin, this time her breasts. An open mouth, like pain. The studio, she saw
now, was filled with this skin-and-bones woman. Blair turned and saw Charles watching her, his own mouth set in a firm line.
“Who is it?” she asked.
Blair made herself hold his gaze. She tried to not hate herself.
“She died six months ago.”
Blair nodded. “I’m sorry I called her ugly.”
Charles smiled. “She would have liked that, to hear you call her ugly. She might have even liked the ‘yuck.’”
Blair saw what had attracted her to Charles all along: he liked the truth, too. She felt it in the way he looked at things, including her. She reached up and touched one of the pictures. Just a knee and then her head. The picture wasn’t ugly, after all. It was beautiful. Charles stood behind her.
Blair felt as if she were entering a vortex. Her entire world swirled. A gigantic toilet bowl, she at the center. All the pieces of her life were at odds. Making out with Henry, and letting him touch her
breasts, was a sin. But it had felt sort of sacred, too. That’s what hurt so much about him moving on. Their touching had held so much. . . beauty. But what was beauty? Here was a woman ravaged by illness and she was beautiful.
Blair went to fetch her Bible so she could leave.
“I’d like to draw you without your clothes.” His voice was full, almost liquid.
She’d bent to pick up the Bible, and as she straightened, she kept her back to him. The words contrast and juxtaposition occurred to her. His wife’s wasted body and her plump, pink one. It might be the Christian thing to do. If it was in her power to ease the man’s suffering, then shouldn’t she?
By the time Blair turned to face Charles, she was telling herself the truth. She wanted his charcoal lines on her bare limbs, belly, and breasts. She untied her halter and dropped it on the floor. She pushed her shorts and panties down to her ankles, enduring a moment of shame, but that moment passed with scandalous speed.
The truth was, she didn’t care that he watched her undress. She felt safe, whole, alive. The room filled with the feeling she got kissing Henry. But the feeling looked so much more complicated for Charles. There was—okay, just use the word—plain lust. But there was also something richer, deeper, more interesting. She stood, stark and full and now terribly sad herself, and waited for him to tell her what to do next.
“However you’re comfortable,” he said.
She thought of retrieving the Bible, for juxtaposition, but her pile of clothing covered it and she was more comfortable without it. Anyway, holding the Bible while naked might be a cliché. She sat in the trough of the chaise, cross-legged.
“That’s good,” Charles said and he went right to work.
He drew for hours. She changed position whenever she felt like it, and he never complained. He simply tore off the paper and began again.
Blair loved how she felt beautiful under his gaze, but confused by a certain detachment he seemed to possess. Occasionally he left his easel and crossed the short distance between them. She would wonder if he was going to kiss her, but he’d only suggest she move a foot or turn a shoulder. When he began asking questions about what it had been like kissing Henry in the band rehearsal room, she thought that talking about it, in this detailed way, was maybe more sinful than actually doing it. And yet, as she talked, he drew with even greater concentration, as if he listened to her only well enough to ask the next question. As if the response he wanted was in her body and not in her words.
And yet, as she talked, he drew with even greater concentration, as if he listened to her only well enough to ask the next question. As if the response he wanted was in her body and not in her words.
The light shifted in the room, casting late afternoon shadows across the drawings of his emaciated wife and raising goose bumps on her own skin. Blair said, “You can touch me, if you want. I mean, just like my arms or something.”
Just saying the words made her feel potent, opulent.
He paused and looked at her, as if tempted. At least she had broken his concentration. But then he returned to drawing with even greater absorption.
“Without faith,” she asked, “how do you not touch someone?”
He smiled but didn’t stop working. “Did your faith stop you?”
“No,” she said. “It didn’t.”
“It doesn’t stop anyone. Look at all those senators and pastors who get caught with their pants down. Sometimes with the wrong sex, too. I can’t abide hypocrisy.”
Neither could Blair. She realized that right then, for the first time. She couldn’t abide hypocrisy.
She said, “I thought maybe you were a fag. I mean, before you told me about your wife.”
Charles put down his charcoal, and a flash of anger crossed his face, like the time he’d sprayed the roses too hard. “Don’t use that word.”
“I thought you didn’t like hypocrisy. I’m just saying—”
“Christians who hate are by definition hypocritical.”
Shame burned from her throat down to the base of her belly, and this time it stayed. Still, she defended herself. “We don’t hate them. We just hate the sin. It says right in Leviticus 20:13, ‘If a man—”
“I know what the Bible says. I’m getting tired. It’s time for you to go.”
Blair tried to think of a way to return to that feeling that had filled the studio just moments earlier. She wanted to talk about kissing Henry again, but Charles was tidying some canvasses on the other side of the room. He really was finished with her this time. She dressed quickly, catching her foot in the crotch of her panties and then a shank of her hair in the tie of her halter top. She picked up her Bible and hugged it to her chest, but didn’t leave the side of the chaise. She was afraid of what she would be walking away from.
Charles turned and faced her. He said, “I was raised in a religious family, too. My brother was gay. My parents kicked him out of the house when he was just your age. I’ve never seen him since. I
assume he’s dead.”
The vortex snatched up her mind again. All her thoughts swirled, making her nearly nauseous. The cancer-riddled body of Charles’s wife. His brother standing in the flames of hell. The idea of losing Joshua, forever. Henry’s fingertips on Chandra’s breast. The word beautiful.
“Let yourself out,” he said.
She stopped in his front yard to look at her favorite roses. They were in full bloom now, each flower a little fire, with yellow centers and orange edges. When her bare feet hit the hot tar on the street, she let them burn. She felt immeasurably sad, as if, like Charles, she’d lost everything.
Lucy Jane Bledsoe is the winner of the 2012 Saturday Evening Post short fiction contest, and a recent winner of the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize, as well as the Sherwood Anderson Prize for Fiction and a California Arts Council Fellowship. Her most recent novel, The Big Bang Symphony, was a finalist for four awards.