Jesus Met The Woman At The Well
by:Tom Darin Liskey
Dottie pinched, poked and pulled at her big sister Sally’s hair. She was trying to wake the girl up. Dottie’s stomach was tightening with hunger. She needed cereal.
With a new rumbling in her belly, Dottie grabbed the tip of Sally’s nose between her thumb and forefinger and gave it a sharp turn. But the sleeping girl only grunted and flung her hand out in front of her face, swiping at the cold air as if she was trying to shoo away gnats. Sally hissed a complaint and rolled over to face the wall. She drew her knees up into a tight coil.
Dottie stepped back. She wanted Sally out of bed, but she knew there would be hell to pay if she was too loud and woke their step-father up this early in the morning. The sun was barely above the hills beyond the river and Double R was still sleeping off the liquor from last night.
So she stood there, shivering in the cold air, not sure what to do next. Her arms tight around the growling below her ribs. Naked except for the rubber underwear she wasn’t supposed to be wearing anymore.
Dottie was too scared to go into the kitchen alone. Double R slept in a room just off it. The last time she went rattling into the kitchen without Sally over a month ago looking for breakfast she had awakened the man.
Double R got pissed off and shot out of his room with a belt in his hands.
Dottie carried gray-green welts on the back of her legs for over a week from the whipping. Sally made her promise to stay away from Double R’s room after that. That was one thing Dottie didn’t have to be reminded of. She remembered how the belt felt on her skin and him calling her a retard.
But she was getting hungrier as the morning drug on.
She gripped her stomach and stepped over piles of dirty clothes on the wood plank floor to the window next to Sally’s bed.
She yanked down the old flower-print sheet the girls had hung as a curtain and then jerked back the cord to the roller blind. The yellowed manilla shot up with a clang, startling Sally awake.
Dottie froze. She didn’t know if Double R had heard the racket too. But the noise at least had startled Sally awake. The girl sat bolt-straight in the rumpled bed trying to figure out what had happened.
Other than that, the house remained quiet, with only the old wood of the cold building creaking in the early morning sunlight.
Dottie breathed easier when she didn’t hear Double R storming out of his bedroom with the belt in his hand.
Sally rubbed her eyes and swung her feet across the edge of the bed. She coughed into her fist and cursed the cold room. She wore yesterday’s clothes. An oversized sweatshirt with University of Missouri printed on it and patched over jeans. The sock on her left foot was barely hanging on.
She rubbed her arms and spit out a couple of foul words Dottie didn’t understand.
“Is the heater acting up or did Double R turn down the thermostat again?”
But Dollie didn’t answer.
“Baby girl what is up with you?” Sally whispered, now seeing her sister in the rubber underwear and nothing else.
She pulled the girl into bed with her and grabbed a mildewy quilt from the corner of the bed and wrapped it around them both.
Her little sister’s skin had goose-pimpled from the cold. She was chattering too. So Sally began rubbing Dottie’s bare arms and thighs beneath the blanket. When the girl’s flesh began to warm a little beneath her hands, she rubbed more.
“You’re gonna catch your death with this silliness.”
Dottie blushed and dropped her head.
“Don’t be mad.”
Sally shook her head, grabbed Dottie’s blue hued feet and toes and began kneading the flesh under the quilt.
“Why didn’t you get dressed?”
“I was hungrier than I was cold.”
“This cold will kill you before hunger you silly goose.”
Dottie snuggled her head against Sally’s shoulder.
If she was naked, it was probably because she had soiled herself in the night. Dottie was only three years younger than her older sister. But she was born with Down syndrome. Dottie sometimes forgot how she was supposed to do things, like how to hold her bladder in bed or clean herself after using the toilet.
The rubber underwear was supposed to be a back up, especially since Dottie was getting so much better about going to the toilet alone.
She glanced at the shivering girl in her arms. Sally didn't know if she should yell at her sister or cry. She had told Dottie over and over to wake her up the moment something like this happened.
She ran the palm of her hand down the girl’s thin brown hair. Double R had threatened to put Dottie in a state home for kids like her if she kept on hiding her dirty clothes from the incontinences. Sally couldn't let that happen.
“Dottie, did you do number one or two?”
Dottie raised her index finger.
“Where did you put your PJs? Were they dirty too?”
Dottie smiled at her. The coke bottle-bottom glasses, crooked on the bridge of her nose.
“In the tub. I put them there. Just like you taught me.”
Sally had a different father. She knew nothing about the man. But Dottie was Double R’s own flesh and blood. He was ashamed of the girl’s defect. He’d probably never see how sweet and generous his daughter was, Sally thought. She kissed Dottie’s forehead.
“Good girl,” she said. “Your just my little baby doll.”
Sally dressed Dottie from a pile of clothes on the floor and then led her to the living room.
Foghorn Leghorn was strutting across screen of the black & white TV set they had bought at a flea market stall last summer. But the volume was turned down. Dottie pointed to the empty bowl and spoon laying on the floor in front of the TV.
“See, I was hungry. Real hungry. But we ain’t got no cereal. Nothing.”
Sally looked over her shoulder to the kitchen and the back room where Double R slept.
“You know you’re not supposed to go back there without me. Did he hear you?”
Dottie shook her head.
“No sissy. I snuck them from the sink. I been waiting for you to get me the cereal but you never woke up.”
Sally picked the bowl and spoon up off the floor encrusted with bits of old food. She sat them atop the TV.
“Okay, sit down and watch that bird real close. And not a sound. If you get hungry, make believe you are eating a big piece of cake.”
“A birthday cake?”
“Yes baby girl. A birthday cake. With all the all the ice cream you want.”
“Any you chose. Just remember to eat it slow and nice.”
Sally stepped away from her sister, and then added: “Just wait here until I’m back. Then we'll go down the hill to get us some breakfast. Maybe a do-nut if you’re super good.”
Dottie dropped down and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV. She giggled at the cartoon with the palm of her hand pressed hard against her mouth.
Yesterday Double R had received his disability check from the railroad for his mangled hip.
Sally had seen him leave the house around noon after the postman came to stuff the blue envelope in the mailbox. Double R snatched it out so quick from the mail-box that it almost looked like he was stealing it.
He wobbled down the hill on his crutch to cash it at the corner grocery store before heading straight over to the Wagon Wheel, the money folded neatly in his front pocket to drink it away.
The girls were alone for most of the the night after that. Eating crackers with ketchup and slices of government cheese that were hard and cracked around the edges. They drank two jugs of kool aid and watched an Abbot & Costello movie on Channel 11 before Dottie got scared of the wolf man. Sally laughed at the jokes. Then she acted like a wolf man and chased a laughing Dottie around the room in the blinking light of the TV.
They switched off the TV and ran into their room when they heard Double R fumble at the front door with his keys. It was past midnight and the drunk man banged into furniture and slammed doors throughout the house, mumbling complaints about someone from the bar.
But Sally knew Double R still had a little cash around for them to eat.
He might have drunk his disability check away last night, but the doctor the railroad hired for his check ups started prescribing pain pills for his hip last year.
He’d pop a pill or two with a whisky chaser when he complained about the cold. But most times Double R sold the pills to bikers and high school kids when he needed money. Sally had seen him take a pill bottle into the tavern earlier in the week to sell some to a biker Double R called Woodrow.
Sally tiptoed into the kitchen, the linoleum cold beneath her thin socks. With all he drunk last night, Sally knew he’d still be in a deep sleep. Sally had learned how to open Double R’s door just far enough before the hinges started squeaking. She turned the knob and eased it open.
Double R kept the room dark as tomb with heavy blankets thrown across the windows.
There was some light from the kitchen forming a tiny illuminated cone in the room, but she had to wait until her eyes got accustomed to the dark.
She lowered herself to her knees. Sally was careful of where to place her hands and knees on the floor. The wood of the old house groaned easily beneath her weight. She crawled slowly to the side-table next to the bed.
Double R lay sprawled out across it - his crutch on the floor and the bedcover reeking of piss and sweat. Sally held her breath and raised up, scooting on her knees closer to the side-table. Double R had emptied his pockets before he tumbled into the bed. Quarters, dimes, nickels, pennies and crumpled up dollar bills of different denominations lay scattered atop the table. A lot more than she thought. But she had to be careful not to take too much. Double R would notice it and whip them both for being thieves.
Sally picked through the strewn about money and gingerly peeled bills apart. She took only enough for them to eat over the weekend until their food stamps came on Monday, or one of the churches dropped off a cardboard box of day-old bakery goods and bruised bananas and grapes.
She took a five-dollar bill, some ones and then some quarters and dimes. Sally slid the money into her pocket and then tapped out three Lucky Strikes from the pack next to the money before she backed away from the side-table.
She kept the cigarettes in the palms of her hand and crawled out of the room - just as slow and cautious as she had entered.
Sally eased the door shut behind her, stood up and grabbed some stick matches from the shelf above the stove. She gathered up shoes and coats for her and Dottie in the next room and bundled her sister up.
Dollie whined when Sally tried to comb her sister’s hair. But she hushed the girl up by clamping a hand over her mouth.
Sally led Dottie out of the house on the hill to the streets below.
The grocery store was near the Western Auto at the bottom off the hill. There was a strip of stores on either side of it. The road dog-legged and the Wagon Wheel sat at an angle near the train tracks in a gravel lot.
The girls made their way down the hill.
The girls were excited, especially Dottie who wanted her do-nut, once they got out of the house. They were away from Double R and they talked loud and jumped and skipped down the sidewalk. The neighbours probably thought the girls unruly for that. Or even worse. Sally was smoking one of her step daddy’s cigarettes while her Down syndrome sister jabbered to no one in particular.
There was a brisk wind from the north-west. It blew the dry November leaves around their feet. The twirling leaves rattled and scraped on the hard pavement. The girls jumped through the thin shadows of denuded elm and oak limbs falling before them in the morning light. They played hop-scotch, hopping and hollering in the thin shadows.
When they reached the corner market, Sally helped Dottie climb up into a grocery store cart.
Once inside, Sally would pick the food packages from the aisles and refrigerator bin and hand them to Dottie who held them in her lap.
At the cash register, Sally carefully counted out the money for the quart of milk, cereal, hot dogs and loaf of white bread, mouthing the denomination of each bill or coin. Dottie repeated the value of each money.
Sally also bought a box of powered do-nuts for Dottie at the check-out lane next to the candy and gum rack. The grocer knew Sally and always let the girl use the cart to push Dottie and their food home. He knew Sally would bring it back later.
Sally grunted and pushed the cart uphill with Dottie in it. But by the time they reached the half-way point home, Sally was already winded from shouldering the cart up the slope. Her heart was beating fast.
She told Dottie to hold onto the bag of groceries when she turned it left and pushed it over a hump in the buckling sidewalk. She then parked the cart with Dottie in it behind a corner church with a sign that read House of Prayer in large red letters.
The street behind the church sloped down to the river. So Sally nudged it closer to the retaining wall below the church’s back parking lot. She placed a couple of large rocks beneath the wheels of the cart.
Dottie’s mouth was powered in white by then. She had been eating the do-nuts and taking swigs from a carton of milk. Sally sat down on the sidewalk with her back against the wall. It faced east. Despite the cool wind, its surface was warm.
She took one of the cigarettes she had stolen from Double R from her coat pocket and struck a match on the rough concrete. She inhaled deeply. Sally had been bringing Dottie to the church for the past few months. It had a small congregation. Most of the church-goers were elderly. The women wore dark stockings and unadorned dresses with their graying strands hair done up in lacquer shells of hairspray. The men came in gray and brown suits with matching ties held in place against starched white shirts with tie-clips and little patriotic pins in their lapels. They sported fedoras, the kind with tiny feathers in black sweat bands.
Some of the elderly ladies in the church had an out reach programme for local kids.
The church owned a second hand Bluebird bus to bring them in for Sunday school, including a couple of Mexican kids who lived in a flood-prone line of miserable shacks where the town disintegrated into fallow farmland. Sally and Dottie lived close enough to walk.
The women gave the children their instruction in the basement of the tiny church. They’d sing along to songs like God’s Gonna Get You For That. A song that made her think that God was like a night-watch man searching the darkness of her her heart with a flashlight looking for sin. Something to trip her up. But they also sang Jesus Loves Me. Dottie liked that song. And so did she.
Sally didn’t want Double R to know about them attending the Sunday school. He’d say it was all hogwash. But she took Dottie to the Sunday service for kids because she thought that if their mother were alive, that’s what the woman would have done.
The woman had died years ago from breast cancer, but Sally remembered them walking to this church Sunday mornings with baby Dottie in her stroller despite Double R’s protesting. Sally remember how their mother smelled so nice in the church. The scent of her freshly shampooed hair and even the cream she used to moisten her hands when the winter winds were dry and chapping. But Dottie barely remembered their mother anymore. Just the woman’s smile.
Sally liked the church because she was growing fond of their Sunday School teacher, a lady the kids called Sister Fisher. She gave the kids snacks before their Bible lesson. Orange juice in small Dixie cups, homemade cookies and slices of cakes on paper plates.
When Sally and Dottie showed up early, Sister Fisher would take the girls to the basement by the hand where she taught and comb out the tangles in their hair. Sally liked how the woman’s fingers felt in her hair. How sometimes the woman’s fingertips would brush up against the skin on the nape of her neck, making her flesh tingle. She liked when Sister Fisher bunched up the strands of her hair to braid them and she felt the woman’s peppermint-scented breath pass gently across her flesh.
Sister Fisher would talk sweet to them. And she always had something nice to say about Dottie. She never treated the girl different because of her condition.
Sister Fisher’s husband was a deacon in the church. But there was something different about Sister Fisher. Sally could see there was a certain sadness to the woman’s sun-wrinkled eyes. Sally had heard that their son was a paratrooper killed in Korea long ago.
Sitting there against the wall smoking, Sally knew it would be best to shake the thought of Sister Fisher from her mind. Sally would turn fourteen next month and she wouldn’t be able to attend the woman’s class anymore. She’d have to go to the room with older kids from the church. These were the kids who wore clean and hot ironed clothes. They all knew how to comb their hair and brush their teeth. Sally didn’t want to be around them.
Sally had smoked the cigarette down to its filter and stubbed it out on the sidewalk. Dottie was rattling around the cart. The girl was getting anxious and cold.
“Baby girl stay in there. Keep those groceries safe," she said.
Barges were moving along the river below. Sally pointed them out to the girl.
“We’ll go in a minute,” she told her sister.
Sally pulled out another of the smokes and lit it. She took a deep drag on the cigarette and followed Dottie’s gaze away to the figure lugging a heavy bag uphill. Sally squinted.
It was young man in a gray suit. Even in the distance, Sally could see him breathing hard with the heavy suitcase in his hand. The man’s eyes were on the road. She imagined that the way his lips moved he was cursing under his breath.
But the young man did not take notice of the girls until he got to the top of the hill where Sally and Dottie were behind the House of Prayer.
He raised his head and smiled surprisedly at the two girls. Sally thought he couldn’t have been no older than eight-teen. There was a sharp chill in the wind - like a knife edge - but opaque drops of perspiration ran down the man’s man’s pimply brow.
“Praise be to Jesus,” he said with a grin exposing broken, yellow teeth. “Lo, two little cherubim before me.”
The man’s brown hair was cropped short, but he had long unruly sideburns running down to his jaw-line.
His brown striped tie had water stains. It flapped in the wind. His gray suit was too big for him. It hung on him like old cardboard and billowed in the wind also. Sally wished a big enough gust would come and blow him away like that witch from the Wizard of Oz.
He sat the heavy suit case down and hiked his leg up on it. It read Sanctum Bible Sales. And then in small print below it, And Other Religious Literature. His white gym socks rode low down around his ankles.
The young man threw his right arm across his leg hiked on the case and took two or three short breaths, all the while smiling at Sally with a weird smile. That’s when Sally saw a poorly drawn tattoo on his hand.
He raised an eyebrow when Sally took a drag from the cigarette.
“Why girl, you’re liable to get the good Lord mad for disrespecting his property with that cancer stick.”
“I’m smoking on the sidewalk,” she said, her head still turned away. “I ain’t in his tabernacle.”
He let out a force laugh.
“Aw girl, just joshing you.”
The boy pulled out his own pack of cigarettes from the wind-whipped coat and tapped one out. When he put it between his lips and smiled at her once again.
“I’m a smoker too. I guess we all have our vices. So will you spare me a light?”
She didn’t want him touching her smoke, so she tossed him the matches instead. He caught them before the wind whipped them away.
Then he shrugged with a good-natured indifference at her attitude and lit his cigarette with cupped hands. He took a couple of quick hits and returned the matches to her.
Sally felt uncomfortable the way his eyes followed the outline of her body even in the baggy coat and sweat shirt when she reached out to take the matches back. His eyes looked a little red and haggard. Like he’d been drinking.
Her body had been changing, and she wanted to talk to Sister Fisher about it. Anyone. She didn’t understand some of the changes. But the way this boy’s eyes brightened weirdly looking at her made her feel almost dirty. Like she had done something wrong.
“What you got in there,” Dottie asked him from the shopping cart. He raised his eyebrows surprised, like he had forgotten about her.
“Poor thing,” the boy said in a whisper to Sally, ignoring Dottie’s question. He was trying to sound sincere about Dottie having Down.
But Dolly had heard the man.
“Why am I a poor thing?” Dottie asked Sally.
Sally threw the boy a withering glance. She took a drag from her cigarette but she felt her mouth tighten up in a scowl.
“Nothing baby girl, he’s just talking about how sour the weather’s turning.”
The young man laughed at that.
“That’s right baby girl. I’m just a weatherman.”
“I asked you mister, what you got in that big box?” Dottie asked again.
The young man turned to Dottie in the cart and threw his arms open in presentation.
“What I got here is better than any medicine. More powerful than any bomb. Wiser than any honey-pot of philosophy.”
Dottie clapped and tossed her head back laughing loud at the boy’s enthusiasm. His traveling salesman pitch was honed to perfection.
“Oh whatever it is I wish we had it. What is it?”
The young man turned to Sally and winked.
“What I got here is the Word of God,” he said tapping the worn and cracked case with the palm of his hand, the cigarette clinched tight between his thin lips.
“We got a Bible too, ain’t that right Sally. Ours has got pictures. Like in the funny papers. Does yours?”
“Ah darling child, ours has maps and illustrations. A lot of graphic material about our Holy Savior and his wondrous disciples. Nothing fuddy-duddy about it.”
Dottie looked dispirited at that. She crossed her arms and pouted.
But the young man did not want to lose his audience.
“Yet ours is available to all those who are seeking more information about this Jesus. And in very affordable payments. Weekly or monthly - you decide. You and your sis could probably even buy one with y’alls candy money.”
Dottie clapped again.
“Baby girl don’t get to excited. This man is peddling, that’s all.”
“Why young lady. I’m hurt more than I’m insulted. I am traveling the highways and byways bearing the precious Word of God to a world lost in shadows. You could almost say I’m an apostle of sorts, Yeah, an asphalt apostle.”
“You ain’t nothin’ but a door-to-door drummer man.”
“I’m offering universal wisdom on many a folks' doorstep. That’s all. Our profits cover our operating costs. You know what that is little girl? Operating costs? It’s called doing business. The Lord’s business.”
“Well, since you’re so aquatinted with scripture I guess you never read about when Jesus chased those money-changers from the temple,” Sally said.
The boy raised the palms of his hands with a smile.
“Now hang on. Let’s not fight. I’d rather be your friend than your enemy.”
Sally shrugged her shoulders and tried to look indifferent. But the boy would not take his eyes off her. She pulled her coat closer around her chest.
The young man’s countenance changed. He spit and flicked his cigarette away. He then took a small flask from his back pocket and unscrewed the top, taking a small swig. He offered it to her.
It must have burnt going down his throat because he sounded a bit hoarse when he said: “Come on. Let’s toast to our new friendship.”
Sally shook her head.
He wiggled the flask in front of her. She heard the liquor sloshing in it.
“Come on girl, you’re old enough for just a bit. It’ll ward off the cold.”
She shook her head again.
“Sally said no,” Dottie told the young man. “So I reckon you’d best leave us alone.”
The boy didn’t like that. But he cocked his hip, trying to look cool about it.
“Hush child, I‘m trying to get to know your big sister here.”
Sally stood, brushed her jeans and went to the shopping cart.
“Come on Dottie. We gotta get going anyway.”
She went to grab the handle, but the boy stopped her. He looked over his shoulder to see if anyone on the street behind him was watching them. His grip tightened atop her hands on the cart. He spoke low and hot into her ear.
“Come on girl. We don’t have to play hard to get. There a little copse of the trees by the river we can go to. Got some Baloney and bread for that sister of yours. I’ll make her sandwich.”
Sally tried to pulled the cart away, but his grip grew stronger on her hands and the handle. She could see the tips of her fingers blanche white.
“Just a little of your time. That’s all I’m asking.”
Sally figured she could bite his hand and then push the cart as fast and hard as she could when she heard the voice calling down from the church’s parking lot.
“Sally darling, now there you are.”
Sally’s eyes widened in surprise. It was Sister Fisher.
Sally looked over shoulder and saw the woman standing on some railroad ties that provided a buffer to keep the car tires from going over the edge of the parking lot. She was coatless. Her arms folded tight to her breast in the chilly wind. She smiled down at the girls.
“We been looking for you,” Sister Fisher added, this time looking straight into the boy’s eyes.
Sally didn't know what she was talking about, but nodded nervously as the boy backed away.
The young man smiled embarrassed at Sister Fisher.
“Sorry sister, just showing these fine and upstanding young ladies the Word of God.”
“So that’s what you’re selling in that big cumbersome box? Lord, I almost thought you were peddling vacuum cleaners or the sort.”
The boy, realizing he still had the flask in his hand, slipped it back into his pocket.
“No mam. Bibles.”
Sister Fisher snorted at the boy.
“These two young ladies already got Jesus in the heart and are pretty well versed in scripture.”
“So true sister. No need to preach to the saved,” he said.
“Indeed. Nor kick against the pricks.”
The boy took several step backwards and nodded to Sister Fisher, and then to the girls.
“Well, I best be getting on.”
“Yes young man, I would agree with you there,” Sister Fisher said.
He grabbed the handle of the heavy case of Bibles and heaved it up. He began moving slow and cumbersome up the road.
Sister Fisher had disappeared from the overlook of the parking lot, only to emerge from the sidewalk. She went to where Sally stood trembling at the cart. She hugged the girl and pinched Dottie’s nose.
Sister Fisher’s eyes were red, like she had been crying. She had a handkerchief bunched up in her hand.
“How did you...”
The lady put her finger to Sally’s lips. They smelled of the hand cream here mother used.
“I came in today because Brother Fisher lost his reading glasses in the pew yesterday. You know how forgetful he gets. I was looking for them - and talking a little bit with the Lord when I heard some voices from outside. When I peaked out the altar window I saw you below with that troublesome young man."
“I didn’t know him.”
“I know child,” she said as she went to the cart and put her arms around Dottie to scoop the girl out. Then she picked up the paper bag of groceries, cradling them in her arm.
“Anyway, what’s important is that you two are here. And that is nothing less than an answer to my prayers.”
"Me Dottie can help you find the glasses. Really. Dottie is good at finding that which I'd lost.
“No honey. It’s not that. I have wanted to talk to you, Sally for some time.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
The lady shook her head with a smile.
“The thing is I need a helper to teach the younger children,” Sister Fisher said, pulling the girl’s tangled hair from under coat collar as she led them away from the cart. “I’m sure you’re excited about going to the older kids, but can I convince you help me young Sally? Will you stay in my class?”
Sally wiped her face with her coat sleeve. Her eyes felt red and hot. Sister Fisher smiled at her and pulled her hand down, putting the soft rose print handkerchief to her wet cheeks.
"Now let’s get you two inside for some hot coca so that we can talk about our big plans for this Sunday - and this food in the refrigerator before it all spoils.”
Sally hugged Sister Fisher, her face pressed into the paper grocery bag. It was the first time she had put her arms around a woman since her mother died.
BIO: Tom Darin Liskey is a journalist and spent a decade working in Latin America. He currently lives in Texas.