By the time Bill got back to Front Street, the hazy sky had deteriorated into a downright gloomy vision. Thunderstorms were on the way, no question about it. Southern storms were a sight to behold. In Colorado, storms would roll in and push out in a matter of minutes. In the summer, they were almost a daily event, but they moved through so fast that if you were inside an office building you barely noticed them. In Arkansas, Bill remembered, thunderstorms could seem to park overhead for hours, ripping the sky open at frequent intervals. Bill decided he’d rather wait out the storm in his cabin than fiddling around Front Street with no real purpose.
He passed several hours with the sales forecasts for eastern Ohio. It was familiar territory; he’d been to Cleveland before to call on a major distributor and try to convince them that Gibbon Winds made the best school band wind instruments for the best price in the business. Trumpets, clarinets, flutes, trombones, saxophones—Gibbon carried them all. Bill knew how to play them all, but that skill was of questionable relevance to the task of selling them to music stores who would rent them to families who weren’t sure of a child’s commitment, or sell them to parents who thought renting was a waste of money. Either way, a child would take a shiny new instrument out of a black case with a plush interior—red for brass, blue for woodwinds—and produce a squawking noise that would make even the most encouraging parent flinch. Eventually some kids would learn to read music and control their embouchures to make recognizable pitches.
Nate had picked up the trumpet like a natural, even before he was old enough to play in a school band. Bill had taught him. But he got winded too easily, and the horn would stay in its case for weeks at a time until finally he said he didn’t want to play anymore, band or no band.
The mound of biscuits and gravy he’d devoured for breakfast made lunch unnecessary, which was fine with Bill. The storm outside rattled the windows, but inside Bill was warm and dry, with his papers spread out on the bed and a yellow legal pad on his lap as he planned his strategy for Cleveland. It was October, so school bands had already started for the year; Bill knew he would encounter resistance to purchasing much new stock at this time of year. But he could offer steep discounts if stores wanted to replenish the stock they’d sold during the fall surge, and attractive pre-order prices for instruments that would arrive in time to sell for next year’s crop of fourth and fifth graders. The pre-Christmas weeks were also a good time to sell upgraded instruments to parents whose kids will still playing in high school and were ready for better horns.
Getting a horn for Christmas could be a great thrill. Bill knew from experience.
Feeling more ready for his presentation, Bill decided to call Mindy. The kids would still be in school, but if he called now, he could catch his wife before the whirlwind of after-school snacks and homework swallowed her up. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he picked up the traditional black desk phone and dialed his home number.
“Hey! How’s Morrowville?”
“A good old Arkansas thunderstorm. Bright and sunny here.”
“Keep it that way till I get home.”
“Do my best.”
“I thought I’d call before the kids got home. Alex can call me later if she wants to.”
“I’ll tell her. Nate is home, actually.”
“He is? Why?” A beat of hesitation answered his question. “He’s sick.”
“He was up a lot of the night coughing,” Mindy admitted. “He’s been a little better today, but I thought he should stay home and rest.”
“Has the coughing stopped?” Bill pressed.
Another beat of hesitation.
“How bad is it?” he demanded.
“He let me do some physical therapy to loosen things up. He has to cough it out, Bill.”
“If he would let you help him with the physical therapy all along, it wouldn’t get to this point.”
“Have you called the doctor?”
“No, not yet. It might not get that bad.”
“You won’t wait too long, will you?”
“Billy Byler, I’ve been doing this for sixteen years, same as you.”
Sigh. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I just hate this.”
“At least he’s old enough to tell us how bad it is and when he needs help,” Mindy said.
“But will he?” Bill retorted. “That’s the question. Will he admit he needs help?”
“I’m not totally ignoring him. I’m still his mother.”
“I should come home.”
“Don’t jump to that conclusion yet. He’ll probably be fine tomorrow. Go to Cleveland and bring home lots of orders.”
Bill didn’t respond.
“I promise to call you if it gets serious. You know I will, don’t you?”
A clap of thunder made him jump.”
“Wow, I heard that!” Mindy exclaimed. “That’s some storm.”
“I should talk to him.”
“He’s asleep right now. Maybe if Alex wants to call you later.”
After that, planning for Cleveland didn’t seem important. Being in Morrowville seemed ridiculous. Memphis would not have been any better. He needed to be in Denver.
Outside the sky shifted through shades of gray. The storm that had been dumping rain for several hours was slowing to a simmer, but dusk had crept in. There would be no more sunshine today. If he wanted to keep working, Bill would have to get up and turn on more lights. Instead, he turned off the light above the phone and slunk down on the bed. Worry was exhausting.
He woke to a stubborn rapping on the cabin door, and he felt the responsive surge of adrenalin. As he snapped on a light, he reminded himself it was just a door knock, not the grim reaper. Must be someone from the motel staff.
“Who is it?” he called.
“It’s your sister. Open the door.”
He was on his feet in an instant. “Margaret?”
“Open the door, Billy Byler.”
He pulled the door open and stood staring at his dripping oldest sister. She was a little more gray than five years ago, perhaps a little more stout, but still Margaret. “How in the world … ?”
Margaret stepped into the room and set a bag down. “Marrying that woman is the smartest thing you did in your whole life.”
“Well, I won’t argue with that,” Bill said, “but that still doesn’t explain your presence.”
“Aren’t you glad to see me?”
“Of course I am, but how did you find me?”
“I just told you.”
“Yes, sir. She called me and told me where you were. You didn’t have to go to such dramatic lengths to avoid having dinner with me, Billy Byler.”
“It was a spur of the moment thing.”
“I would have come to Morrowville with you.”
“Well, now it looks like you have!” He grinned at her. “You must have driven through that storm.”
“I did. The least you can do is go up to the front desk and see if they have another room so I don’t have to go back out in the mud.”
“I’m sure they do.”
“Then what are you standing here for?”
“Some things never change,” Bill muttered. But he was glad to see Margaret.
She settled into cabin Number 6, and they went to dinner.
The next day was Saturday, and Daddy went to work at the barber shop just like he did every Saturday. I woke up early and heard Mama scolding him like she sometimes did. I guess she wanted him to take the day off or something. But he figured he had already come home early the day before. And besides, Saturday was a busy day at the shop. So he went to work.
I thought I was going to have to sleep in the kitchen, but since it was summer and the weather was hot, Mama let me sleep on the back porch. By six o’clock in the morning, it was too light to sleep anymore, so I just lay on my mat listening to Daddy and Mama talk while she fixed him breakfast and packed a lunch for him to take to the shop. He winked at me when he walked past on his way out the back door. After a while, I figured I should just get up, too, so I pulled on my shorts and went out in the backyard.
Miz Clara was already up. Sometimes I thought that lady never slept. No matter how early I was out, she was already there. On that day, she was on her knees weeding her flowerbed. She always kept her yard in perfect order, and when Bobby and Jerry came to visit she hollered at them to keep out of her flowers and watch where they stepped. I guess she was trying to get the weeds pulled before it got too hot to work outside. I decided to wander over and say howdy. As much as Bobby and Jerry irritated me, their grandma was a nice lady and I sorta liked talking to her.
“Mornin’, Miz Clara,” I said as I came up behind her. She wore a straw hat with a wide brim, so it took a few seconds for her to turn her head so she could see me.
“Oh, it’s you, Billy Byler. Whatcha’ll doin’ up so early? You folks were up pretty late last night.”
“Yes, ma’am. I hope we didn’t bother you with our noise,” I said with a politeness that would make my Mama proud.
Miz Clara just kept pulling weeds and chuckled. “I can understand your celebratin’, what with Charlie home now.”
I hadn’t planned on talking about Charlie, so I didn’t say anything right off.
“What’s the matter, Billy Byler? Ain’tcha glad to see your own brother?” Miz Clara always got right to the point. “He’s been gone an awful long time.”
“Aw, he’s all right, I guess.” I kicked my toe in the dirt and didn’t look at her.
“You don’t sound too sure, boy.” She tilted her hat back and looked at me again.
“I can remember when Charlie was your age, Billy. You’re a lot like him, you know.”
I didn’t know. I didn’t know what she thought I was like. I sure didn’t know what Charlie was like even before I was born.
“How so, Miz Clara?” I couldn’t help asking.
“Your family lived over on Congress Street in those days. But Charlie used to wander around the neighborhood just the same as you. Always curious, like he was lookin’ for somethin’ no one else knew was there.” She paused to plunge her little shovel deep into the ground. “Nearly drove your Mama crazy. Always had some excuse why his chores wasn’t done.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I had to admit it sounded familiar.
“Is Charlie sleeping in your bed, Billy Byler?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Somehow I knew I didn’t have to explain how I felt about that. Miz Clara understood. She just nodded.
We didn’t say anything for a while. Finally I said, “Well, I guess I best see if Mama needs water or somethin’.”
Miz Clara nodded. “You’re a good boy, Billy Byler. So is Charlie. You’ll see.”
I shuffled back across the yard and up the porch steps. When I pulled the porch door open I could hear Mama talking to someone. It was Charlie. I decided not to go into the kitchen just yet.
“You’re on leave from the Navy, Charlie. No need to be up with the chickens while you’re home,” she chided.
“Mama, I don’t want ya’ll makin’ such a fuss about me,” Charlie said. “I’m still part of the family. Don’t treat me like company.”
“I’m just glad to have you home, Charlie. It’s been a long time.”
Charlie was quiet for a moment, then said, ”I’m sorry, Mama. I’m sorry I run off the way I done, and I’m sorry I ain’t been home.”
Now it was Mama who was quiet. She was beating up a bowl of pancake batter, but she wasn’t saying anything. I just heard the thump, thump, thump of the wooden spoon against the side of the glass bowl.
“Mama?” Charlie said.
“I’m sorry, too, Charlie.”
“What do you mean, Mama? I was the one that run off.”
“I was the one that gave you reason to run off.” She stopped stirring the batter and turned to look at him. “Ya’ll was my first baby, Charlie. A part of me didn’t want ya to grow up. But I know ya had to. Maybe ya wouldn’t have had to run off and join the Navy if I could have said that sooner.”
Charlie scraped his chair back and got up. He put his arms around Mama. “I love you, Mama.”
I felt like I was spying, but I was afraid to move a muscle. This was not the kind of stuff my family usually talked about at breakfast.
Mama wiped her nose real quick and stepped away from Charlie. “Go see if Billy is up. I’m going to need some water.”
Charlie smiled and said, “Let me get the water, Mama.” He reached for the bucket. “Mama, I think Billy should have his bed back. I’ll sleep on the porch while I’m home.”
Mama started to object, but I was sure glad to hear Charlie say that. He came out the kitchen door and stepped onto the screen porch. I must have looked pretty stupid standing there keeping still with the door propped open, because Charlie looked at me and laughed.
“Mornin’, Billy.” He swung the bucket freely at his side as he pushed past me.
I watched as he quickly pumped the water and easily filled the bucket. When he walked back to the kitchen, he didn’t spill a drop. I tried to picture him thirteen years ago, when he was my age, scrawny and lugging water up those steps, the way Miz Clara remembered him. But I couldn’t. To me, Charlie had always been grown up, even more than Margaret. As I watched him carry water into the kitchen, I tried hard to remember something about Charlie—anything at all.
When I was four and Daddy didn’t have a job for a while, we all got oranges for Christmas. I guess we were lucky to get anything that year. Charlie gave me his, I remembered. I knew he liked oranges a lot, but he gave his to me because he saw how much I enjoyed mine. And right before he left to join the Navy, when I was just past five, he gave me a wooden truck he had made out of pieces of broken crates. I used to play with it a lot, until Jerry Runyan got mad at me one day and gave it a good kick. And I knew Charlie used to tease Elizabeth an awful lot, because Mama was always telling him to leave her alone. But that’s all I could remember about Charlie, who felt more like a stranger than a brother.
Right after breakfast, Aunt Lennie and Uncle Chet drove up in their new Chevy. Most every Saturday Aunt Lennie would come by and pile us into her car and take us downtown to Front Street. We’d rummage through Fred’s Dime Store and mope about the stuff we didn’t have money to buy. Then we’d all go over to the theater and buy tickets—now from Margaret—for the matinee. It never really mattered what was playing. We just stayed there all afternoon watching the double feature even if we’d already seen both movies before.
The way things were going, I figured we wouldn’t get to go to town today. No doubt Lennie was here to see Charlie, not to take the rest of us to the movies. And it started out that way, all right. Mama had a big smile on her face while they all sat around the kitchen table listening to Charlie’s Navy stories. I hated to admit it, but some of them were a little bit interesting. Charlie was a good storyteller.
Then all of a sudden, Charlie stood up and said, “Okay, let’s get goin’.”
“Get goin’ where?” Mama asked.
“To the movies, of course. I can’t believe they let Margaret run that ticket office. I gotta see this for myself.”
So off we went. Elizabeth and Virginia fussed about who would sit next to Charlie in the front seat. I don’t think Virginia really cared about it, except to find something to argue about. It was a stupid argument. I got squished in the middle of the backseat, like always, and tried to ignore them.
They were like that all day, only it got worse. Amy was so determined to be like them that she started bickering about everything, too. Like who was eating too much popcorn or who was whispering too loud during the movie and what flavor of ice cream was really the best. When Margaret finished working, she jumped right in, too. Only she thought that since she was so much more grown up than all the rest of them, she would settle all the arguments. Of course, Elizabeth would never stand for that, and Virginia disagreed with Elizabeth just for the sake of a fight, and Amy kept going back and forth trying to be on everyone’s side.
I got fed up with it. When the movie was over and they headed over to the drug store for ice cream cones, I told Lennie I wanted to walk home. There were a lot of Saturdays I did this, and I guess she knew why.
I’d only gone a few blocks before I heard footsteps behind me, right in rhythm with mine I turned around and saw Charlie.
“Hi.” I kept walking.
“Don’t you want ice cream?” He caught up with me.
“Not that bad, I don’t.”
“I know whatcha mean.”
I wondered if he really meant that, but I didn’t feel like asking.
“I mean, I enjoy a good spat once in a while,” he said. “I even start one every now ‘n‘ then. But those girls jes’ don’t never quit.”
He really did know how I felt.
We walked along without saying much, but I didn’t mind. At first I wished Charlie had left me alone, but after a while I got the idea that he was walking home for the same reason I was.
“Some things never change, I guess,” he said after a bit.
I turned and looked at him. “You mean, they’ve always been this way?”
“Well, it was all right when it was jes’ Margaret, but from the day Elizabeth was born, they’ve been goin’ at it. Virginia and Amy didn’t make things no better.” He chuckled and knocked my shoulder with a soft fist. “I was sure glad you was a boy.”
I didn’t know what to say. It seemed unfair that he could remember the first five years of my life before he went away, but I didn’t remember much about him.
I wasn’t ready to say I could trust Charlie. But he did say I could have my bed back.