In the first installment, set in 1971, Bill Byler returned to the small town of his childhood in northeastern Arkansas in search of the answer to unfinished business. This installment begins with a flashback to Bill at age nine. We hear the segments from the 1940s in Bill’s first person childhood voice. (Two chapters a week go out through an email newsletter, then appear here on the blog after a delay. You can still sign up for my e-newsletter to get chapters delivered straight to your email with no delay.)
I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
Mama shooed me out of the kitchen before I finished swallowing my toast and looked at me with that mad look in her eye if I even pushed one toe up against the kitchen door. So I stayed on the back screen porch, trying to duck out of her sight, but at the same time sneaking a peek once in a while and trying to figure why everyone was in such a dither.
Mama was flying around the kitchen with her pots and pans banging against each other and a trail of spoons clattering to the floor. I think maybe she had stayed up all night cooking. She didn’t offer me anything for breakfast except toast, but the counters were heaped with food: sweet potatoes, fresh corn bread, rice pudding, fried chicken, and the hundreds of green beans she made me pick out of the garden the day before. Now she was working on a chocolate cake. I couldn’t remember the last time she made a chocolate cake, and my mouth watered for a lick of the spoon she was mixing with. I wondered if there was some way I could sneak in and snatch it before she shoved it into the pile in the sink.
I nearly jumped out of my skin. Mama’s back was to me, so how could she know I had my face pressed against the screen?
“Billy, I need you!”
“Yes, Mama.” I meekly opened the door and stood just inside and waited.
“I need some more water. Get the bucket and fetch some.”
Mama never even turned around to look at me, and my heart sank as I saw her reach over and slip the spoon dripping with chocolate into the gray dishwater. I just said, “Yes, Mama,” and took the bucket and went outside.
The pump was only a few feet off the porch, but I still dreaded this chore, which I had to do several times each day. I was nine years old and pretty scrawny for my age. I could manage the pump all right, but lugging the heavy bucket back into the kitchen was what I hated. If I didn’t bring it in full enough Mama scolded me and I had to go back for more. But if it was too full, it sloshed all over me, and it was always frigid. Besides, it was 1942, and I knew plenty of people who had running water right in their kitchens, so why was I still hauling it from the backyard?
My oldest sister, Margaret, liked to stick her nose in the air and remind me that I also knew plenty of people who pumped their water, too. After all, we didn’t live in the big city with water piped everywhere. A little hard work wouldn’t hurt me, she said too many times for my liking. Margaret was eighteen and trying to be a grown up. She refused to put her thick brown hair in braids like the other girls and went around threatening to cut it off. Graduating high school in the spring and getting a job selling tickets at the movie theater made her think she was so important. She didn’t know I knew, but I’d seen her kissing Speedy Hanley more than once. Margaret never hauled water; she just hollered for me, same as Mama.
I took the water back to the kitchen and set it in front of the tub that Mama used for a sink. It was hot, even for August in Arkansas, and I could tell Mama was ready to wilt. But she never stopped moving. She heaved the bucket up and poured the water out into the tub, added some hot water from the kettle on the stove, and plunged in up to her elbows, furiously scrubbing chocolate spotted pots. It occurred to me that if I was very quiet maybe I could sneak through the house instead of staying penned up on the back porch for the rest of the day.
There really wasn’t much house to sneak through. Mama never let us sit in the parlor, and I had enough sense not to even think about that, today of all days. The glass in the French doors had been cleaned, and Mama would clobber anyone who put fingerprints on them. I didn’t have a bedroom to go to. There were only two. Mama and Daddy had one, and my four sisters slept in the other, in two double beds with hardly a foot of space between them. I had a small alcove at the end of the hall where a bed folded down next to a shaky dresser with three drawers that didn’t slide in very well. No one ever really was alone at our house, but sometimes I sure wished I could be.
“Virginia, you’re not doing your share of the work!”
“I’m doing exactly half, Elizabeth,” Virginia growled back. “I got ears. I heard Mama say what needs doin’ just the same as you. Besides, who put you in charge?”
Actually it was a good question. My sister Elizabeth, who was sixteen, was always trying to be the boss. I was sure she was going to end up being a school teacher; she always double-checked everything you did and corrected you till it drove you crazy.
Following along barely a year behind, Virginia was always the first to let Elizabeth know she was not impressed with her schoolmarm airs. Elizabeth and Virginia always acted like they couldn’t stand being together, but they always were. They brushed and braided each other’s hair, slipped each other notes during school, traded clothes—and then argued about everything.
As usual, Elizabeth would not give up. “Mama wants everything to be perfect for Charlie, and I just want to be sure it is.”
Virginia was the more practical one. “Charlie don’t care which way I turn the brushes on my dresser. He won’t have no reason to come in our room.”
“He just might like to look around,” Elizabeth argued. “After all, he’s our brother, and he ain’t been home for near four years.”
Elizabeth and Virginia acted like they knew Charlie, which was more than I could say. I was five years old when he left home to join the Navy, and he was eighteen. We’d never had too much in common up to that point, and I didn’t see any reason to think it would be different now. I knew that he was going to get my alcove bed and I would end up on a mat in the corner of the kitchen for three weeks while he was home on leave. If he was such a rough and tough Navy man, why didn’t he sleep on the floor in the kitchen? That question had been fuming inside me for days, but I knew what kind of trouble I’d be in if I spoke it out loud. So I didn’t.
“Elizabeth! Virginia! Mama wants everyone in the kitchen.” My last sister, Amy, had appeared in the hall.
Virginia groaned. “She probably has more stuff she wants us to do.”
“Virginia!” Elizabeth spoke sharply. “Remember, it’s for Charlie. It ain’t so much to ask.”
“I wish I had a job like Margaret,” Virginia grumbled. “I don’t see her chained to the house straightenin’ every little thing and scrubbin’ floors we ain’t allowed to walk on in the first place.”
“We’d better hurry and see what Mama wants.” Eleven-year-old Amy urged us on. Amy and I had an unwritten understanding. Neither of us really belonged to the tight group that Margaret, Elizabeth and Virginia formed, so we understood what it felt like to be on the outside. However, that’s where the understanding stopped. Amy was, after all, a girl and I was a boy. She at least had the potential to be part of the group when she got a little older; there was no hope for me. I spent a lot of time just trying to stay out of everyone’s way.
Amy turned to me with that look that told me she thought I was little better than a worm. “Maybe you’d better come, too, Billy. We might need more water or something.”
I stuck out my tongue, and like a reflex hers shot out of her mouth as well. Try as she might to act mature, I always knew how to remind her that she was only eleven, and eleven was not so much older than nine.
“Stop it, you two,” Elizabeth said sharply. She gave a definite huff that almost made me laugh. “I don’t understand what is so difficult about making things nice for Charlie.”
“Just because he ran away to join the Navy instead of getting a real job, you act like he’s some kind of hero!” I couldn’t help egging her on.
“The Navy is a real job, you dimwit, and ya’ll should be proud of the way he’s serving our country. After all, we’re at war.”
Now I just really couldn’t let that go. I burst out laughing at her haughtiness. I mean, who did she think she was? “Aw, come on, Elizabeth, he’s just Charlie,” I said, and thought to myself, And he’s going to sleep in my bed.
We filed down the hall, through the dining room and into the spacious kitchen where the most of the activity in our house happened. Mama had most of the mess cleaned up by now, and the cake smelled like it was just about ready to come out of the oven. I hesitated for just a second at the swinging door between the dining room and kitchen. Maybe Mama only wanted the girls. But Amy reached back and yanked hard on my sleeve. I was lucky not to fall flat on my face on Mama’s spotless linoleum.
Mama licked two fingers on her right hand and pressed a stray hair back into place. I sure hoped she was not planning to try that on me. I really hated when she did things like that. To my relief, she merely wiped her hands on her apron and began the speech she had apparently called us in to hear.
“Children, your brother will be here in about two hours,” she began. Now that her work was behind her, her eyes twinkled with excitement at the prospect of seeing her oldest child. “Daddy will come home early from the barber shop, and Margaret will get here as soon the matinee is over.” Mama looked at each of us earnestly. “I want ya’ll to promise me to behave!”
I glanced sideways at my sisters, then had to look away to keep from breaking up. The girls were all trying to impress Mama will how mature they were. They acted like they were offended that she would even have to say something like that. It turned out Mama wasn’t fooled any more than I was.
“Elizabeth and Virginia, keep your bickering to yourselves. And Amy, ya’ll keep your mind on the things I ask you to do.”
At last she turned to me looking grieved like someone had died. “Billy, get your clothes changed and then, for goodness sake, don’t get wet again, and stay out of the dirt. I want you to pay special attention to Charlie while he’s here. You can learn a lot from him.”
She spoke with great pride. Just not for me. I think all of us realized at that moment what Charlie’s homecoming meant to Mama. He had left a boy going against his mama’s wishes. That was part of the reason he hadn’t been home in so long, I guessed. I didn’t remember much about his departure except how unhappy Mama had been. Lately Mama seemed to accept that Charlie was in the Navy. She didn’t like it, but she accepted it. Since Pearl Harbor happened last year and the United States entered the war in Europe and Asia, she had made no secret of how scared she was for Charlie and how bad she wanted to see him. She had been getting ready for this visit for weeks, maybe even years on the inside. So far Charlie had not been overseas, but we all knew that could change in an instant. Pearl Harbor had made being in the Navy a lot more dangerous than it used to be.
I no longer wanted to snicker under my breath. For all my complaints about doing chores and being ignored, I loved Mama. I was at an age where I was beginning to understand that she was Louisa Byler, a woman with a heart and mind, and not just Mama. If it would make her happy, I would tolerate having Charlie around for a few weeks.
She would never have to know that I still did not like the idea.
Nate haunted his dreams, Picasso-style distortions that focused on the boy’s brown eyes, or only one of them, or three of them in strange places. Even in his dream, even in an undiscovered Picasso painting, Bill knew they were Nate’s eyes. He recognized the cool anger, the orange flares of resistance, the sharp angles of refusal. As the dream morphed, skin faded and bones erupted until a skeleton hung in the fog.
That was the image that always made Bill burst to consciousness—his son as a skeleton. Sixteen years of skeletons. They had gone to the hospital with a healthy pregnancy and taken home a baby with cystic fibrosis. Only then did the stories emerge—his father’s sickly little sister whom Bill had heard very little of when he was a boy, but who had died of respiratory failure before she was five; Mindy’s uncle who lived with a chronic cough and died before he was finished being a teenager; his grandmother’s brother, whose early death broke the heart of the family. They all lived in a different era, an era of children who simply didn’t thrive and no one knew why.
Bill knew why. They had carried they gene. And unknown until he was thirty-three, he carried it. And Mindy carried it. No one really knew what the gene was, but both parents had to have it, and he and Mindy did. And their son had cystic fibrosis.
The dreams didn’t let go even in the daytime. Baby Nate in the hospital, and the look on the doctor’s face when he told the glowing parents that something was not right, that they needed further testing, something about meconium and other medical words that erupted into Bill’s vocabulary that night. Toddler Nate lying face down across his mother’s knees as she thumped the mucous loose in his lungs, humming to herself to distract her mind from the sound of his screaming protest. Nate insisting he was going to play Little League, ignoring Bill’s simplified explanation about why playing baseball on a hot day could be dangerous for him. Nate in junior high school telling his mother he was too big for her to be thumping his chest any more. Nate eating them out of house and home and hardly putting on an ounce as his gangly frame stretched toward six feet. He was so thin, and in his father’s dreams thinner still, hardly more than a skeleton.
When Nate was born, the doctors said his life expectancy was fourteen years. Fourteen. And now he was sixteen. Nate was already on borrowed time, but he was a teenager who wasn’t interested in categorizing his life that way. He was sixteen. He wanted to drive. He wanted to take a girl on a date, maybe kiss her, maybe more. He wanted to get a job bagging groceries so he could afford the date. He wanted to eat whatever he wanted and not count vitamins and fats. He didn’t want to be in the hospital while medical staff who couldn’t make his cough stop felt sorry for him. He didn’t want to carry notes to school explaining his long absences. He didn’t want to sit in study hall while his friends went to gym.
He wanted to be sixteen.
His parents wanted him to be seventeen, then eighteen, twenty, perhaps even twenty-five before they had to bury him. A coughing skeleton.
Bill snapped on the light at the side of the bed and sat up to catch his breath. He was glad Mindy was not there to see this happen to him again. The gasp that shuddered through him inevitably woke her. They no longer spoke during those moments in the night; they’d said everything there was to say years ago. Mindy would squeeze Bill’s hand in the dark, punch her pillow and go back to sleep. Bill’s heart would race for a few minutes more as he fought the stinging panic. Sometimes he would go out to the living room and wait for morning, and Alex would find him there and the sun would shine again.
They had waited a long time before they had Alex. Over the years they debated the wisdom of having another child who might also be afflicted. Twice the loss, twice the grief, twice the wrenching pain. They hadn’t actually decided to have another baby, but Alex came to be. As she swelled inside her mother, who was nearing forty, Mindy resolved to focus on twice the joy, twice the love. Bill was secretly glad their hand had been forced.
But he was afraid. No matter how many people told him, “We’ll be praying,” he was afraid. Hadn’t he and Mindy prayed for a healthy baby the first time? No matter how many doctors told him the odds were three out of four that this baby would be fine. Hadn’t Nate had the same odds and lost? No matter how many times Mindy said she had a good feeling about this baby. Hadn’t she glistened with expectation when she carried Nate?
And then the test said Alex was fine. She was clear of it. She might carry the gene—no one could know that yet—but she didn’t have the disease. She was a squalling, feisty red-headed baby girl who would not haunt his dreams with skeletons.
Ketchup and pickles sandwiches, perhaps.
The bedside lamp cast shadows around the room, but the eeriness of his dream had dissipated. Alex would have begged him to make up a story about the shadows so they wouldn’t be scary. It had to have a happy ending; that was a rule, Alex said. That was a reasonable rule for a little girl, Bill thought, and after a skeleton night, Bill was usually ready for a story with a happy ending. He wondered sometimes how much Alex really understood about her brother’s condition, the danger he faced, the consuming anguish of her parents. Mindy worried that they didn’t pay enough attention to Alex. She was so self-sufficient and undemanding—and had been even as a toddler—that it was easy to leave her be unless she expressed a specific need. Was that her nature or had they made her that way?
Bill pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes and rubbed. The clock told him daylight was perhaps an hour away. He had slept better than he expected to, right up to the end, right up to the dream. Despite all the traveling Bill did for his job, he never quite got used to not being in his own bed and drinking his morning coffee in his own kitchen. He had worried that the strange sensation that propelled him to Morrowville in the first place would keep him up all night, or he would stay up all night wondering why he had been crazy enough to come.
Suddenly he was ravenously hungry for the biscuits and sausage gravy that his grandmother used to make, gravy that boasted just the right creamy thickness, just the right amount of pepper, ladled over baking powder biscuits unparalleled in the outside world.
“Must be the quilt,” he muttered as he pushed it aside.
Eliza Mae Goodman had spent her entire life in Morrowville or on its fringes—perhaps even in this very cabin. Bill didn’t remember much about his grandfather Goodman, but Grandma Goodman stirred vibrant images deep inside him. As far as he could recollect, she’d never had a lazy moment in her life. Something was always simmering on the stove, the broom was always handy behind the kitchen door, laundry cycled across the clotheslines in the backyard with a clockwork rhythm. Even when she sat in the evening with her aching feet propped up on a footstool, listening to the radio, she had mending or needlework or quilt squares in her lap. His sisters had all received double-wedding ring quilts upon their marriages. Bill, the youngest, had waited too long to marry; Grandma had been gone a long time by then. Margaret had made sure Bill got a quilt from Grandma’s own stash. Mindy had been thrilled. The quilt, with some careful repairs, hung in the entryway to their home.
When he was a boy, Bill couldn’t imagine living anywhere but Morrowville. The little town of 2,300 people was his world and anything beyond Jonesboro or Memphis might as well have been outer space. The town was bigger now, more than 7,000. But everything else was bigger, too, so Morrowville remained a small place that didn’t warrant a dot on any but the most tediously meticulous maps. Now Bill could not imagine living in a place like Morrowville his whole life, but he knew that people still did. There were probably people in Morrowville who had never been on an airplane.
Colorado, where Bill lived, was a long way from northeast Arkansas. And Mindy was a California girl. Tofu and veggie burgers were more her speed. It had been a long time since he’d had decent biscuits and gravy. His salivary glands were starting to work overtime. Did Morrowville have an all-night diner? Surely the town had a place that opened with the roosters.
Bill headed for the shower.