After such an early breakfast, the day yawned ahead of Bill. He had two days and two nights before he had to drive back to Memphis, turn in the car at the airport and catch his flight to Cleveland to try to sell band instruments. Or he could go back to Memphis early and see Margaret.
Until five years ago, his semi-regular phone calls to his mother kept him abreast of the news on his four sisters. Margaret had raised her three girls in Memphis. Her husband worked too much. In the early years his ambition had seemed a virtue destined to give them a bright future. Later it became a sore point between them, and even later still Margaret finally made her peace with it. But by then Speedy was sick and soon couldn’t work at all. Now almost sixty and widowed, Margaret was plunged deeply and happily into the grandmother years.
Elizabeth was in North Carolina where she taught English at a community college, her own kids out of the house and on their own. Decades ago, she had been married briefly—long enough to produce four children in rapid succession—before she decided she preferred the struggle of independent, single parent living to the struggle of living with a husband who habitually managed to spend his paycheck on the way to the bank and rarely had an encouraging word to say to her or the kids. Never one to put up with nonsense, Elizabeth had worked two jobs, put herself through college a class at a time and become a teacher, all the while raising four children on her own. Court-ordered child support never seemed to materialize, but not having the money was worth not having him around either, so she didn’t complain. Eventually she earned a masters degree and graduated from teaching junior high school to junior college.
Virginia had gone to a business college in Little Rock right out of high school, then was recruited by the civil service to work as a secretary in an embassy in Washington, D.C., where she met a dazzling Brazilian. They married and moved to Rio, and she only came to the States every few years. She hadn’t come for the funerals of their parents, though, nor since. Her children barely spoke English, as if learning the language of their mother was beneath them.
Amy lived in Kansas, in fact only a few hours drive from Bill’s home, but he hadn’t seen her in years either. She was the one who never returned to Morrowville for Thanksgiving and stayed at a hotel rather than at the house when Jesse and Louisa Byler died. She was the one who didn’t send Christmas cards or pictures of her kids, and no one else knew why—what had gone wrong and when.
Without the Mama-central information line, Bill knew little about what went on in the lives of his siblings these days. Growing up in that little house where they were virtually tripping over each other day in and day out, it was hard to imagine the time would come when they might not even know what to say to each other. But the time had come, and perhaps that’s what kept him from calling Margaret to arrange dinner—that and the fact that no one, even his sisters, really knew what it was like to dream of skeletons and see your son’s face on them.
Once again Bill left the rental car parked on Front Street and opted to walk. The morning was hazy, but not prohibitively cold and walking was a sure way to physically suspend the undercurrent of anxiety he lived with. Morrowville was laid out in a fairly predictable grid, two-thirds of the town on the east side of the White River and the remaining portion a stone’s throw away. Memories began to churn as Bill picked up speed and marked off the short blocks. Daddy used to walk to work, because Agnes Court was less than two miles from Front Street, where his barber shop was, and walking was free while gasoline cost money. Besides, Daddy always said, he liked his thinking time. Bill hadn’t really understood that until he had children of his own and knew what there was to think about.
Perhaps out of subconscious intent, perhaps out of long-ago habit, Bill’s feet turned in the direction of Agnes Court. The streets had sidewalks that they didn’t have when he was a boy, but not a lot else had changed. He went past the elementary school, past the houses where classmates had lived, and wondered for a fleeting moment how many of their parents might still be in town. Despite the persistence of classmates in tracking him down at regular intervals, Bill had never attended a reunion of his class from Morrowville High. While he fleetingly wondered about certain kids, for the most part he just wasn’t that curious. Besides, what would he really say? He imagined the conversations.
I sell stocks and bonds at the New York Stock Exchange. What do you do, Billy?
—I worry about my son every minute of the day.
I enjoy hitting the golf course as often as I can. I try to get down to Florida to play once a year.
—I hope my son will live another year.
My son is headed to law school in a couple of years.
—My son is going to die in a couple of years.
He couldn’t say those things, and he didn’t want to say anything else. So he didn’t go.
Bill reached Agnes Court. There was the house, number 101, right on the corner. After his mother died, they’d sold the house. None of his sisters wanted it any more than he did. It wasn’t worth much, and the county took back property taxes out of the sale (why hadn’t Mama and Daddy told anyone they owed that money?), plus there was still a small mortgage. Daddy must have refinanced more than once to still be paying on that house. The amount that each of the Byler children received from their parents’ estate was hardly life-changing. Bill had put his share in an account where it was still earning modest interest. What do you do with money that you get because your mother died? What do you do when you’d rather have your mother, but what you get is a few thousand dollars? Is that supposed to wipe out your grief, offset your loss, make up for what you never got around to saying? Bill never quite figured that one out, so the money was still sitting in a bank where he didn’t think about it between quarterly statements.
The house had new trim around the windows. It had needed it for years. Bill had even offered to pay for it, but Daddy and Mama rebuffed him, claiming the windows were fine and the trim was just something to look at anyway. But the new trim, Bill decided, gave the house a much tidier look than it had ever had. The paint was a cheerful color, once that said happiness lived in this house. Potted plants on the front steps still carried summer colors in the early fall weeks. Bill smiled as he saw that the opening was still there to allow a persistent child to get under the front porch. Charlie had scared the daylights out of him one time when Billy didn’t think anyone else could get under there.
The front door opened and a woman carrying a rug stepped out to the porch. With practiced motion, she began flapping the rug, and Bill watched the dust rise from it and swirl. He stood with his hands in his pockets contentedly watching this woman do something his own mother had done hundreds, probably thousands, of times on the same front porch. He smiled some more.
Suddenly he realized how silly he must look. Clearly the woman had the same thought.
“Can I help you?” she asked with unabashed suspicion.
He shook his head. “No, not really. I’m just looking at the house.”
“Well, it’s my house, so if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather you didn’t stand there and stare at it.” She was a little older than Bill, perhaps Margaret’s age, and he could tell she meant business.
Bill recovered his senses. “I’m very sorry. I grew up in this house. I don’t mean to be rude, I really was just looking.”
“You grew up in this house?’
“Yes, ma’am.” His southern manners were kicking in.
She folded the rug over one arm. “Folks tell me one family lived here for a long time.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m Billy Byler.” Had he really just said that?
“Well, your mother trained you well, Billy Byler.”
They both started laughing.
“I’m guessing you’d like to come in and have a look around,” the woman said.
“No, ma’am. I wouldn’t think to intrude. I was just walking and ended up here.”
“Your feet brought you here for a reason, Billy Byler, don’tcha think?”
“Yes, ma’am, I suppose so.” Why did people always say both his names like that—even strangers?
“Then you’d better come inside and have a look around and get it out of your system.”
She was leaving him little choice. His southern upbringing demanded he accept her invitation.
“I’ll just let my husband know you’re here. He’s retired. Don’t want him thinking I’m entertaining a strange man in the house.”
“Quit saying that. I am not your mama.”
He stopped himself just in time. Instead he said, “But you could be my big sister, and she was a stickler about politeness, too.”
She held open the front door as she called for her husband. An older man stepped into the room, gave his nod of approval and disappeared. Bill stepped into the front room, the parlor that had been off limits for most of his childhood.
“When were you here last?” the woman asked.
“Five years ago, when my mother died.” He scanned the room. “You’ve done a lot of work.”
“Richard is pretty handy with the odd jobs. It’s a nice little retirement house.
Shouldn’t be too much work to keep up after this.”
He nodded, still taking in the improvements. Fresh paint and wallpaper had made a big difference, but the light fixtures were updated as well, and the owners had added a tasteful crown molding in both the front room and the dining room.
“It’s a small house, you know,” she was saying. “It’s hard to imagine raising a family here. Were there only a couple of children?”
“Six,” he answered.
“Six children in this house? It’s only got two bedrooms and one bathroom.”
“It didn’t have the bathroom till I was thirteen,” Bill said, chuckling.
“No wonder it looked like an afterthought. We gutted it and started over.”
“The best idea, I’m sure,” Bill said agreeably. While he’d been thrilled to finally have indoor plumbing when he was thirteen, by modern standards the bathroom had left a lot to be desired. “I never got to sleep in the bedrooms, but I was born in one of them.” He gestured toward the room his parents had used.
“You were born in this house?”
“Don’t start that.”
He swallowed his response. After clearing his throat, he explained, “Yes, my family moved in right before I was born. I was the only child born in this house. The others were all born in a house on Congress Street.”
They stepped into the bedroom that Bill had indicated. It was the smaller of the two, but his parents had used it so his four sisters could have the larger one—which was still nothing to boast about. Being in that room again was a strange sensation. This is where he had come into the world. The four-poster bed was not so different from the one his parents used to have, the one he had been born onto. They’d had no clue about the genes then. He was just another baby born into an already-crowded house. That was before what happened to Charlie, before his mother was never herself again.
“Six children in this house.” The woman was still shaking her head in disbelief.
“Times have sure changed. If you didn’t sleep in a bedroom, where did you sleep?”
Bill pointed to the end of the hall. “There used to be a bed that came down from the wall over there.” When they’d put the house on the market, the realtor has suggested getting rid of the rickety fold-down bed and replacing it with some built-in storage, which Bill’s sisters had agreed to. “Or sometimes I slept on the back porch with my brother.” Only a few times, really, but at the moment it seemed important.
“Boys always get the short end of the stick, don’t they?”
“When my brother was around, I didn’t mind.” That was true, however briefly.
“I’m glad you had a brother then.”
So was Bill.
“So you’ll want to come through and see what we’ve done with the porch.” She led the way.
They walked through the dining room and into the kitchen, which had new appliances and an immaculate paint job but was otherwise recognizable. The back porch, though, had undergone a radical transformation—all new windows with bamboo shades, a varnished pine floor and furniture Mama would never have let her children sit on. Bill even spied a heat vent.
“We like to use this space year-round,” the woman explained. “Never thought about putting a bed out here, but I suppose it could be done.”
Bill laughed. “No bed. Just a couple of mats. We were fine.”
“Richard and I have girls. They wouldn’t have put up with that!”
“I should be on my way,” Bill said. Suddenly he didn’t want her to ask any more questions about his brother. “I’ve disturbed you enough. Thank you so much for this trip down memory lane.”
“I hope your feet found what they were looking for.”
Bill walked back toward Front Street at a much slower pace.
I knew Mama was serious about staying out of the dirt. She made me put on my long blue pants and the new white shirt that I was only allowed to wear to church. Not that I wanted to wear them anywhere else. So I couldn’t really do much while I waited for Charlie to arrive. My sisters spent all afternoon brushing each other’s hair, as if Charlie really cared if their braids were straight or if there was a loose curl. More and more, Amy was becoming one of them, and I was left to pass the time with my own imagination.
The back porch had screens all the way around to keep the bugs out. On lots of summer nights the whole family would sit out there trying to cool off without getting chewed up. Elizabeth and Virginia would sit in the corner and argue until even Daddy would get tired of it and tell them to stop, and Daddy almost never said anything about what was going on around him. It was not that he didn’t care about us kids; I guess he just figured we would work things out one way or another. I would often go sit next to him on the swinging bench. He nearly always reached for his guitar before the evening was over and started strumming. That always seemed to make my sisters settle down, and he would hum as he played. Sometimes it was old hymns from church. Sometimes it was just tunes he was making up, and they were hardly ever the same. But you could tell he was thinking real hard all the same. I wondered what kind of thoughts he was having that had to come out through his fingers like that.
I decided to wait on the back porch for whatever it was that was going to happen when my brother the hero appeared. The porch looked out on several backyards joined together without a fence. But even without fences, every kid in the neighborhood seemed to know exactly where his yard started and ended, and we all assumed control for our respective territories.
I could see Bobby and Jerry Runyan playing in the yard next to ours. They didn’t really live in the neighborhood, but they visited their grandmother a lot, and she had been our neighbor since before I was born. Though I didn’t really like either of them very much, I would still rather have been playing ball with Bobby and Jerry than sitting on the porch keeping clean.
“Hey! Billy Byler, what are you all fixed up for?” Bobby Runyan had crossed the invisible boundary between his grandmother’s yard and ours and stuck his face up against the screen.
“Aw, we’re havin’ a big fancy dinner after awhile,” I answered. “I’m supposed to stay clean.”
“It ain’t Sunday or a holiday,” he said, as if those were the only reasons to put on good clothes.
“Nope.” I agreed.
I knew he was fishing for more, but I enjoyed making him wait. I could see he was figurin’ in his head.
“You got company coming?”
“Yep.” Maybe Charlie was my brother, but since I was going to have to give up my bed, I figured that made him company.
“Your daddy’s boss?”
Bobby was getting frustrated. “Well, I don’t think the mayor would want to see your ugly little face.”
I stuck out my tongue.
“Those are all the important people I know,” Bobby said.
“Just goes to show ya’ll don’t know everything,” I said.
“Ya’ll gonna tell me, or ain’tcha?”
“Nope. Ain’t none o’ your business.”
“Billy Byler, I just came over here to ask a friendly question. Ya’ll make me crazy,
you know that?”
Bobby picked up a handful of dirt and threw it at me through the screen. I laughed as he ran back to his grandmother’s yard and threw his ball down hard in the grass. Making Bobby Runyan mad was something I did quite well and as often as I could.
I could see Daddy and Margaret coming home from work now. Margaret was always fussing because Daddy had a truck but hardly ever used it. Unless the weather was really awful, he made her walk to the theater, just like he walked to the barber shop every morning and home every night. It was barely two miles down to Front Street where they both worked. Margaret stewed a lot about having to walk, but the truth was that most of the time Speedy Hanley brought her home. Nobody listened to all her blathering. She wanted to learn to drive that truck herself, but Daddy wouldn’t let her. He saw no reason for her to start thinking she would be allowed to use the truck when she wouldn’t.
Today, Daddy and Margaret came home together.
“Is he here yet?” Margaret asked, with the same excitement Elizabeth had been showing all morning.
“Who?” I asked. Bobby Runyan wasn’t the only one who got frustrated too easily to pass up.
“You know who! Charlie—is Charlie is here yet?” Margaret gave Daddy one of those looks that said, Do something about this child.
Without speaking to me again, Margaret rushed up the steps and went in the back door. She probably wanted to get in on all the hair brushing the girls were doing. Daddy followed more slowly, a few steps behind.
“Hello, son, how are you?” Daddy was the first person all day who seemed to care how I was. But Charlie was his son, too, his first son, and I knew Daddy was really proud of Charlie, so how could I tell him that I didn’t really care that Charlie was coming home, or that I thought everyone was making too much of a fuss about him?
“I’m fine, Daddy. Just hot.” That’s all I said.
“I see your Mama made you get your good clothes on,” he said softly. “Well, we don’t want to make her unhappy, but I think right after dinner you can put your overalls back on.”
He smiled at me with unspoken understanding, and I couldn’t help but smile back. He moved into the house and I was once again alone on the porch, waiting.
I just wanted to get it over with. Charlie would walk through the front door and Mama and the girls would hug him and probably cry. Daddy would shake his hand and not say much. They would all hang all over him and probably not even notice that I was still out on the porch. As long as my clothes were clean and the water bucket was full, it wouldn’t matter to them where I was.
I’d been thinking so much about what was going to happen at the front door that I almost didn’t see the guy walking across Mrs. Runyan’s backyard and into ours. He was tall and muscular and dressed all in white with a duffle bag slung over his shoulder. While he was still about ten yards away he looked at me and waved. I started to wave back just to be polite and then it dawned on me. This was Charlie.
I almost couldn’t remember what Charlie looked like when he left, but he was sure a lot different now. For some reason I had not thought he would be wearing a uniform, and I sure didn’t think he would be coming in the back way. I laughed to myself as I thought of Mama and the girls, probably waiting in the parlor by now, afraid to move and muss something. And here was Charlie coming up the back steps.
The crooked door squeaked as he swung it open.
I was so tongue-tied that I couldn’t even say hello. Charlie laughed
“I see Mama ain’t changed. Look at you, dressed up like the preacher was comin’ or something’!”
Before I knew it, Charlie had grabbed me around the chest and was spinning me around. The row of gardening pots along one side of the porch whizzed by, my feet barely missing them. I had a vague memory of liking this.
He set me down and grinned at me.
Finally I started to relax. “Welcome home, Charlie.” I couldn’t think what else to say. “They’s waitin’ for ya inside. Ya’ll was supposed to go to the front door.”
Charlie laughed again. “All my life I used the back door. Why should that change now? Come on, let’s surprise ’em.”
He dropped his duffle bag and reached for the door to the kitchen and I followed him through. I still wasn’t wild about giving up my bed, but I was relieved that Charlie was planning to be a regular person, not a Navy hero, at least while he was home.
Mama’s watchful eyes were the first to see us as we moved through the dining room toward the parlor doors. When she jumped up, everyone else did, too, even Daddy, and Charlie was swallowed up in a tangle of arms and rustling dresses. Mama didn’t actually cry, but I know she wanted to. Daddy stood outside the circle, but Charlie looked up and caught his eye and they smiled at each other above the braided heads bobbing around Charlie.
Mama ushered Charlie to the best chair in the room and Margaret hurried off to get him a glass of cold lemonade.
I had been hot and thirsty all day, and no one let me have any lemonade.
“I didn’t know you was using the parlor now, Mama,” Charlie said. “You used to keep it closed off.”
Elizabeth jumped in with her take-charge manner. “Don’t be silly, Charlie. This is a special day, so of course we’ll use the parlor. We’ll keep it open the whole time you’re home.”
“I’m sure you’re hungry after that bus ride,” Mama said. “I’ll get supper on the table. Margaret and Virginia, come and help. Billy, you go—“
I held my breath. If she made me get water now, there was no way I could keep my Sunday clothes dry.
“Never mind. We’ll get water later.”
We all moved to the dining room, another room that we didn’t normally use much except to walk through. Daddy stood at the head of the table and solemnly prayed. Usually he just thanked God for the food and we all got started eating while everything was still hot. But that day he also gave thanks for Charlie’s safe arrival, and this took a little longer. The catch in his soft voice told me that he really meant what he was saying.
I didn’t realize it earlier, but Mama had made all the foods that Charlie liked best, including the chocolate cake. The heaps of food lined up on the kitchen counter slowly disappeared as Mama put serving after serving on Charlie’s plate—until he put his hand up to signal he was full
Charlie had been so busy eating everything Mama set in front of him that he had not said very much. As he pushed his plate away, Margaret jumped in.
“Charlie, tell us what the Navy is really like.”
“Not nearly as nice as being home,” was his answer.
“Come on, Charlie,” Margaret insisted. “I want to know.”
“Why? Are you thinking of joining up?” Charlie teased.
I couldn’t stop the laugh that leaked out of me.
Margaret blushed. “Of course not. But Speedy is.”
“Speedy?” Charlie raised his eyebrows with curiosity
Speedy Hanley was practically all Margaret ever talked about. I sure didn’t want to sit around and listen. But if I went into the kitchen I would probably have to wash dishes, and I didn’t want to do that either. In the end, I stayed put, but I didn’t really listen to what Margaret and Charlie or anybody else had to say. I just sat and watched. Charlie was glad to be home, and the rest of the family was glad to see him.
It looked like I was the only one who was confused. To me he was a stranger, an intruder, and I wasn’t at all sure I could trust him.