Jim Courter: Charles Wants to Know Why
Not until they saw the diner did they realize that they hadn’t planned what to do for lunch. It was closer to one o’clock than to noon, and all of them were hungry—Pamela, Geoffrey, and their adopted son Charles. It wasn’t clear if it was open, then Pamela saw a middle-aged couple going in, and decided that a stop there would be just the right way to end their Sunday morning excursion.
“Geoffrey, be a dear and stop so we can have a bite to eat at this quaint little place” Pamela said. “I’d forgotten how rigorous those hiking trails were, and I’m absolutely famished.”
Geoffrey peered through the windshield as he slowed. What Pamela called quaint looked ramshackle to him, but he said over his shoulder to Charles, “What say, Chuck, are you up for chowing down at Katy’s Kountry Kitchen?”
Pamela pressed her lips together. “Feel free to stay in the car, Geoffrey,” she said, “while Charles and I have lunch.”
Charles pushed his glasses up his nose. “I am hungry,” he said, “and I confess to being curious about the place.”
“I’d better join you,” Geoffrey said. “Katy’s looks to me like it hasn’t entered the credit card era, and I’m the one carrying cash.”
When Pamela first raised the question of whether they might adopt, Geoffrey could see that she had already decided that they would. He had reservations, some of which concerned her motives. But he wasn’t against it; and although he lacked Pamela’s sense of noblesse oblige, he supposed it might be a decent thing to do. Mostly, though, he knew that, once Pamela had made up her mind, resistance was futile.
Pamela preferred not to adopt an infant or toddler, considering that to be too much of a risk that the child would turn out to be burdened with who knew what kind of unfortunate genetic baggage. What mattered most to her was that their adoptee display intelligence and the potential for serious accomplishment. She envisioned rescuing a child, around “tennish,” from the oppression and squalor of the Third World; she was neutral on the topic of gender. When they learned from some friends about a mission school in Senegal that was actively seeking adoptions for some of its pupils, most of whom had been orphaned by AIDS or ebola or one of the numerous West African military upheavals, they investigated.
Fifteen months and two trips to Senegal later, and tens of thousands of dollars poorer (although by no means poor: Geoffrey was a professor in the Political Science Department; Pamela taught oboe in the Music Department and played in the university symphony), they flew home with eleven-year-old Charles: bright, precocious, curious, seemingly full of the potential that Pamela had hoped to find; fluent in not only his tribal language but also in French and English, thanks to the sisters at the mission school; yet still seemingly enough of a blank slate to allow Pamela to imagine his becoming, with their guidance of course, a seriously accomplished personage in some ennobling field—the arts (preferably music) or sciences or law or medicine. “Who knows,” Pamela enthused over the mid-Atlantic on the way home, “perhaps medicine and music!”
It didn’t take long for them to realize that not all of Charles’s qualities and inclinations had emerged in their pre-adoption contact with him; among the ones they hadn’t anticipated was a sometimes jarring lack of inhibition when it came to verbalizing responses to his new surroundings. After numerous instances in which that, combined with his curiosity, had led to awkward moments in public or among their social set—“Why are so many people so fat?” “Why does that man never finish his sentences?”—Pamela’s glowing enthusiasm over his prospects was tempered with concern for how to teach him (without, of course, dampening his spirit) that unbridled frankness wasn’t always appropriate; Geoffrey had gone from acquiescence to rolling his eyes and wondering, although not aloud, if it might be possible to send Charles back to West Africa without being charged with racism and insensitivity by their politically correct friends and colleagues.
Indeed, Geoffrey had come to suspect that this whole adoption business was the latest of Pamela’s impulses to share herself with the less fortunate and the less enlightened. And he saw that same impulse behind her insistence that they stop in Coalville—so close to the university town in which they lived and taught yet so culturally removed, with a hardscrabble look and a population of barely over a thousand—and have lunch at Katy’s Kountry Kitchen.
“Something tells me,” Geoffrey said as they stood just inside the entrance, “that we won’t find this place featured in Midwest Living.”
The interior of Katy’s Kountry Kitchen had a rough, unadorned look and feel to it, and ten or a dozen customers to match—the kind that turn and stare when you walk in. Which they did, as Pamela, Geoffrey and Charles came through the door then stood for a moment in the dingy light and surveyed the narrow dining area, now uncertain if they wanted to do this. Booths ran along one wall, tables along the other. At the far end was a sit-down counter, behind it the kitchen, from which came the sizzle and smell of grease.
Pamela led the way across the bare plank floor to a booth with orange vinyl backing patched in places with duct tape. Geoffrey sat on one side, Pamela and Charles on the other. A waitress came and dropped menus in plastic binders onto the table, introduced herself as Rose, and promised to return in a couple of minutes. Geoffrey studied his menu with a look of amusement, Charles his with puzzled curiosity, Pamela hers with incipient alarm.
“What’ll it be,” Geoffrey said, “the country-fried chicken, the tenderloin, or the bar-b-que stack? You might ask if they have items available off-menu, Pam—coq au vin or shrimp étoufée, perhaps a wine list.”
“I’d very much like to make the best of this, Geoffrey, if you don’t mind,” Pamela said.
Charles wrinkled his nose. “What I want,” he said, “is to know why country is spelled with a K.”
Rose reappeared. “Ready to order?”
Seeing that Pamela was still undecided, Geoffrey said, “I’ll have the half tenderloin sandwich, with crinkle fries and coleslaw. And water if it’s drinkable.”
Pamela scanned the menu with a kind of desperation, sighed and said, “A small chef’s salad, I guess, no dressing. Nothing to drink, thank you.”
Rose looked at Charles. Charles turned to Pamela and said in a lowered voice, “Why do they spell country with a K?”
“Huh?” Rose said.
Pamela smiled primly and said, “He wants to know why the country in Katy’s Kountry Kitchen is spelled with a K.”
“Cuz, sweetie,” Rose said, “it matches the K in Katy’s and Kitchen. Now . . .”
“Well. Yes. Obviously,” Charles said. “But what value is there in that?”
Rose looked at Pamela.
With an indulgent smile, first at Charles then at Rose, Pamela said, “Charles has been with us only a couple of months and is curious about simply everything.”
“That’s nice,” Rose said, “but I’m just the waitress. You’ll have to ask Katy.”
She gestured with her order pad to a corner table where a woman sat tallying receipts on an old-fashioned adding machine. At Rose’s gesture and the mention of her name, she looked up. Rose summoned her with a pull of her head. The woman pushed up from the table and came over. However old she was, she looked older, like someone who had smoked since childhood and lived her entire life in a town with lots of iron and sulfur in the water.
“What’s all this?” she said in a raspy voice.
“This young feller wants to know why we spell country with a K,” Rose said.
Katy essentially repeated what Rose had said, her tone and manner suggesting that the reasoning ought to be obvious.
“Tell the lady what you want to eat,” Geoffrey said to Charles, his tone and manner suggesting impatience.
“Geoffrey,” Pamela said, “Charles is only curious. I want us never to discourage that.”
“I find it hard to imagine,” Charles said, looking straight ahead and lecturing the air in front of him, “that someone might stop here who wouldn’t otherwise because country is spelled with a K. It could even be off-putting to people who are fastidious about proper English.”
“Break my heart if that happened,” Katy said. “Look, I just thought it was kinda catchy, okay?”
“Catchy,” Geoffrey said. “Is that with a k?”
A man appeared alongside Katy and the waitress. He was earringed, tattooed, and wore a soiled apron over a wrinkled, sweaty undershirt. His long gray hair was tied into a ponytail that ended at the middle of his back. He held a greasy metal spatula with brown food scrapings congealed along its front edge.
"Is there a problem?” he said.
Charles craned his neck to study the tattoos on the man’s arms. Pamela pulled him back.
Pamela glanced up and at an angle, but not at Katy or the waitress or the man. One might think she was intent on something in an upper corner of the room, but Geoffrey recognized the look she got when searching her capacious mind for the mot juste.
She set her mouth into a purse-lipped smile then said, “Charles is new to the country and preternaturally curious.”
“He’s what?” the man said.
“It means he’s got more brains than common sense,” Geoffrey said.
“Git on back to the kitchen, Rodney,” Katy said. “Ain’t nothin’ here I can’t handle.”
Rodney turned and left, casting a dark glance back over his shoulder.
“Rodney gets riled up kind of easy,” Katy said with more warning than apology.
“We don’t want that,” Geoffrey said.
Katy hacked a cough and shook her head and returned to her table.
“Is the kid ready to order?” Rose asked Pamela.
“Maybe we should just have drinks after all,” Geoffrey said. “Two coffees and a Seven-Up.”
“The coffee we’ll have to brew fresh,” Rose said. “It’ll take a while.” She looked at her watch. “We close at one-thirty and don’t open again ‘til supper.”
Pamela spoke through a strained smile: “In that case, perhaps we’ll just . . .”
“Yeah, maybe you should,” Rose said.
They left the booth and made for the door. The other customers watched them.
Back in the car, Geoffrey said, “We didn’t get lunch, but hey, we’re only ten minutes from home. When we get back I’ll rustle us up some grub and we can be strappin’ on the feed bag in no time.”
He started the car.
Pamela looked out her window. DSS
Jim Courter, of Macomb, IL., is a winner of an Illinois Arts Council award for short fiction and a Pushcart Prize nominee. His stories and essays have appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, Smithsonian, the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous times in Downstate Story. His novel, Rhymes with Fool, is forthcoming next year from Peasantry Press.
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