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Shouldn’t she be dead or something?
She was old back then. At least that’s what he’d thought forty years ago—if this was really her, and he was pretty sure it was.
The spindly woman behind the desk moved efficiently as she took his credit card and set it in the little gadget that would take an imprint of the magic numbers. With a swift shove, she made the impression, then slid the tri-part form across the desk for him to sign. He supposed that she was pushing seventy, but that would mean she had been less than thirty all those years ago. He had been sure she was old then, but she can’t have been, because here she was across the desk from him in 1981 and nowhere near dead. Her hair wasn’t even gray. But maybe that was because of a bottle—or lack of one. A whiff of beauty salon chemicals wafted through his memory as he remembered her brown hair had been tinged with more red.
He had never great at math in school, but the gap for what constitutes old closes considerably when you’re almost fifty yourself rather than nine. Or perhaps he had been nineteen the last time he saw her.
He signed the form and she squinted to inspect his illegible signature. The most he could vouch for was that both names started with B. As long as the squiggles were the same every time, that’s all that mattered. That’s what he told his kids when they wondered how he ever got passing grades in penmanship.
“Bill Byler,” she mused, reading the imprint more than the signature. Now she squinted at him. Here it came. “You’re Billy Byler? Who used to live on Agnes Court?”
“Guilty as charged.” He took the carbon copy of the form that she offered.
He thought she might smile, but she didn’t. So much for the dreaded warm welcome back to town. She turned to fish a key out of a cubby. “Haven’t heard any news on ya’ll for a long time. Not since your folks passed.”
“Not much news to tell, I’m afraid.”
He was not anxious to have this conversation. What brings you to town? She would ask, and he had no answer. He was just here. Maybe he would be gone after breakfast. The ladies at the Baptist church always used to say, Why, Billy Byler, you look more like your daddy every time I see you. He hated that, when he visited and went to church with his aging parents. It was like being nine again and having everyone gasp in shock that you were bigger than you were at eight or seven.
And then they would say, Your brother always looked like your daddy, too. Now they hadn’t seen his brother in forty years. No one had. Who could know what his brother would look like in his early sixties?
Generations ago these cabins housed small families, or at least young couples. His own grandparents had lived in one of them when they first married, which Bill reckoned must have been eighty years ago. It was amazing the cabins were still standing—that they hadn’t been razed in favor of a strip mall. Bill wasn’t sure which one Edwin and Eliza Goodman had lived in. In those days the cabins were fairly remote to the main action of Morrowville. Then the highway went through, and they didn’t seem so far out, just something that you went past without really looking. After years of deterioration, he’d heard from one of his sisters, someone had bought the rickety structures and added the necessary improvements to transform them into a motel. Why hadn’t his sister mentioned that Mrs. Runyan was the one who bought the place? Her first name escaped him. After all, it was really her mother-in-law whom he had known on the old street.
He scanned the sparse room he was in: the desk and cubbies for efficient business transactions, a small table and chairs in a feeble attempt to make the place feel homey, a faded amateur painting of the White River that ran through the little towns in northeast Arkansas. A mirror caught Bill looking at himself, a middle-aged stranger in his own hometown, and confirmed that he was more recognizable than he’d hoped. His hair was still mostly brown, and his face was rounder than when he was a boy, but he still looked like Billy Byler.
“This place yours now?” Bill asked tentatively. Part of him preferred the anonymity he had until ten minutes ago. Part of him couldn’t resist being sucked in. Of all the people to run into.
She shook her head. “Just workin’ part time.”
His sister was off the hook.
“My boys think I should retire,” Mrs. Runyan said, “whatever that means. I can’t sit still that long. So I don’t tell them I’m doing this and make sure I’m home when they call every Sunday afternoon.”
“Bobby and Jerry,” he muttered involuntarily.
“I thought you might remember them.”
“Of course. They left Morrowville, I take it.”
“Years ago. I thought you knew.”
“I don’t really hear much news from this neck of the woods.”
“I s’pose not. Your kin scattered long ago, too.”
He had no response.
She held up the key. “Number 4. Local calls are free, long-distance will show up on your bill when you check out.”
He took the key and smiled politely. He really didn’t know how long he was staying. “If I don’t see you again, it was nice to run into you. Say hello to your boys.”
Her widowed mother-in-law had lived next door to the Byler family on Agnes Court. He wondered what had become of Miz Clara. She’d have to be ninety-five by now. But she came from long-living stock, Bill remembered. Did Morrowville have a nursing home these days?
He stepped outside and took a deep breath. Number 4 was quite a ways back, tucked under a tangle of trees that ensured it stayed cool in the summer—and probably never got warm in the winter. Bill decided it was worthwhile to move the rental car closer.
Bill had flown into Memphis for a conference, and on the third day ended up here instead of enduring the closing panel discussions. He’d had enough of an enormous convention center with no view of the outside world. He’d had enough of trying to focus on things that were increasingly less important these days.
When he was a boy, driving to Memphis was a big deal. You had to have a really good reason to use the precious gas the trip required. Bill had only two distinct memories of riding in his father’s truck toward Memphis, but surely his parents had driven the ninety-five miles on plenty of other occasions. Nowadays the stretch of highway was practically commuting distance. It was nothing to leave the conference center and drive to Morrowville. He could have gone back the same night if he’d wanted to. But he didn’t know what he wanted. The next leg of his trip was a sales pitch in Cleveland, but that was not for another three days. Even with the cost of hotels, the distance between Memphis and Cleveland and the price of the plane ticket dictated that it made more sense not to go home to Denver in between trips. So Bill had two empty days on his hands, which he had stretched to three by skipping the panel discussions and driving to Morrowville.
Mindy had pouted only momentarily. Bill suspected that she secretly enjoyed his business travel, as long as there weren’t too many trips too close together. When he came home, the kids would rave about “on your own” suppers, which meant Mindy didn’t cook and the kids didn’t eat vegetables. Mindy was pretty hard-nosed about family meals, but apparently she let her guard down when Bill traveled.
He would call her later. See how they all were doing. See about Nate.
Bill pulled up in front of Number 4 and popped the trunk. His compact bag was packed with experience: polyester slacks and shirts that would not wrinkle, all items in a narrow range of colors so anything would match anything else. He lifted the bag and a briefcase from the trunk and turned toward the cabin’s door, the key in his free hand. It turned easily in the lock. With his fingertips, he pushed the door open and stood in the doorframe, surveying the room before entering.
Despite the remodeling, Bill was staring into a picture of the past, and it unnerved him for a random moment. Perhaps that was intentional, he thought then. Quaint, country cabins hearkening back to a nostalgic area. Something for the tourists who came down the highway, something to show them a kind of life that was beyond their own imaginations. That made sense. The quilt on the bed reminded him of one he had watched his grandmother stitch when he was little, but it was a common enough pattern, not all that complicated actually. The freshly painted table next to the bed probably came from a flea market, maybe over in Jonesboro, but it could just as well have come from his mother’s parlor—without the paint job.
Well, Morrowville was not exactly leading the charge into the next century. Or even into the1980s. It just was not that sort of town. It was the sort of town people were from, the place they left behind. Even Bobby and Jerry Runyan had left, after all.
Bill had been back over the years. His parents had died only about five years earlier, a few months apart. Until then he had reason to come back. His own son was familiar with the highlights of Morrowville, such as they were, from the almost yearly Thanksgiving trips. None of his siblings was there anymore, though. He could probably dig up a couple of second cousins without too much effort, but not anyone he had been close to. So why had he come?
Because of Charlie.
Because of Nate.
Bill was going to need dinner. He doubted any exciting new options had sprung up in Morrowville in the last five years, so he reviewed the possibilities in his head. The Wal-mart, one of the first in the country, featured a sandwich shop in the back, a pizza chain sported a franchise on the main highway, Front Street boasted a couple of diners and a fried chicken place. Wondering if the meatloaf could possibly be as good as it was forty years ago, Bill opted for one of the diners. Even Mama had grudgingly admitted she like their meatloaf better than her own—forty years ago. It couldn’t be the same, but perhaps whoever was running the place now still had meatloaf recipe.
No one spoke to him in the restaurant, which suited him. Everyone working that evening had to have been born after he left town. He slid into a booth casually and resurrected his southern drawl while he ordered, figuring it would make him seem less out of place. The meatloaf was bland, but the mashed potatoes unwrapped a pleasant seasoning surprise. The pages of a sales report consumed his mental energies while he ate. How many flutes and trumpets and clarinets might the music stores of greater Cleveland be persuaded to buy, so they could turn around and sell them to parents of school children? Parents did not want to spend a lot of money on instruments for ten year olds, and Bill could not blame them, but he also knew the lasting value of a good instrument.
The night was mild, and eating dessert had been a mistake after the generous homestyle portions of the main meal, so Bill strolled down Front Street, past the old shoe store, which was now part of a chain; past the drug store window, still a drug store but with a more modern look; past the bakery where Charlie bought him a sticky maple frosted roll once on a hot day. And past the window that had been the music store. It was a bookstore now. Morrowville did not have a bookstore when Bill was a boy. You had to go to Batesville or Jonesboro for that. Bill paused and stared past the window display and into the dark store, looking for another era but hoping not to see it.
Memories, but also ghosts.
He brought his gaze back to the window. Instead of the trumpet he had salivated over in the corner of the window, the bookstore displayed the latest Stephen King novels and science fiction offerings, dripping with the promise of mysterious blood and heart-stopping intrigue.
Nate would like that.
A glance at his watch reminded Bill that he really ought to go back to the motel and call Mindy. She did not even know he had left Memphis. At the end of the block, he turned around and headed back to where he’d left the car in front of the drug store.
Bill had just about decided Mindy was not going to answer when he heard the phone pick up.
“Hello?” the tiny voice said.
“Oh, hi, Alex. How are you?”
“Hi, Daddy. We had on your own supper tonight.”
“So what did you have?”
“Ketchup and pickle sandwiches. I ate two.”
“Mmm. Yum.” How could he say anything else to a seven year old? It was her favorite.
“What did you have, Daddy?”
“Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. With broccoli.”
“Yuck. How can you eat that stuff?”
“How was your day?” A change of subject seemed in order. As he listened to his daughter ramble about her teacher and the new girl at school and the big kids on the playground who hogged the balls, Bill could not help but wonder about Nate. A stab of guilt reminded him to focus on Alex, and he was glad she could not see the wandering attention in his face. She could always tell if she could see his face. “Look at me, Daddy,” she would insist. Even with his eyes pointed in the right direction, she could always tell he was seeing something else.
“Do you want to talk to Mommy?” Alex finally asked.
“Yes, sweetie, I do. Is she there?”
“Mo-o-om!” she screeched.
Bill heard footsteps cross the kitchen tile.
“Alex, honey, how many times have I told you not to do that?” Mindy said. “Bill?”
“Hi. How are you?”
Mindy sighed. “Oh, pretty good, I guess. It’s been a long day.”
“How ever did you guess?”
“Do you want me to speak to him?”
“No. I don’t see what good it would do. If he won’t listen to you when you’re here, why should he listen when you’re in Memphis?”
“Oh, about Memphis. I’m not there anymore.”
“Then where are you? I thought you weren’t coming home between stops.”
“I’m in Morrowville.”
“Oh.” He could picture her eyes shifting as she tried to calculate a reason for him to go to Morrowville.
“I know. It’s dumb. I have no reason to be here. I just decided I’d had enough of Memphis.”
“So you went to Morrowville?”
“Yep.” He gave her the phone number of the motel.
“I thought you were going to call Margaret and let her know you were in town.”
“I know. If she finds out I was in Memphis and didn’t come for dinner, she’ll have my hide. I’m living dangerously, I guess.” There was no reason she should find out. He rarely spoke with his eldest sister—or any of his sisters.
“What can you possibly find to do in Morrowville for three days?” Mindy wanted to know. It was a reasonable question. Mindy had been to Morrowville, after all. She was a suburban girl through and through, and Morrowville was not her kind of place. Nevertheless, she had always managed to make herself useful at family holiday dinners and the perfunctory trip to Ted’s Dime Store on Front Street with the kids. But with no family left in town, it would not cross her mind to come back here.
“I’m not sure,” Bill said. “Maybe I’ll just sleep a lot.”
“Will you go to the grave?” She was still fishing for Bill’s motivation. His parents and grandparents were buried in the same cemetery in Morrowville. But none of those was the grave she meant, and he knew it.
“Oh, I don’t know.” It had been forty years. “Maybe I’ll put some flowers on Mama and Daddy’s graves.”
“Billy,” she said softly.
“It’s okay,” he answered. “Maybe I should come home after all. I feel bad about Nate.”
“Nate is Nate,” Mindy said in the matter-of-fact manner that kept the whole family grounded. “Coming home won’t change that. I can handle it.”
“Is he taking any of his vitamins and supplements?”
“Not in the last three days. “
“Doesn’t he understand what can happen?”
“Of course he does. He’s sixteen, Bill. Understanding what might happen is a long way from thinking it’s going to happen to him.”
They had been around this loop more times than either of them wanted to count. The conversation moved on to upcoming parent-teacher conferences for both the kids and the fall festival for the church children’s ministry that would consume Mindy’s energy.
Nate used to love the fall festival. Maybe he still would. He was old enough to help now. But they didn’t talk about things like that.
Bill hated that. He hated not talking. But he didn’t know how. Not with Nate.