The next few days were pretty quiet. Folks still came by to see Charlie, but it seemed like all the fussing was over with and I was free to go back to enjoying my summer. Charlie would sit out on the porch or out in the yard and talk to people if they came by. That didn’t bother me; I wandered around the neighborhood or walked into town, minding my own business and seeing my own friends. I hadn’t had to get water since Charlie came home. Charlie just got up every morning and went out and got water. If he was going out fishing or into town, he made sure Mama had what she needed before he left. Every now and then she would look at me funny, like she didn’t approve of my letting Charlie do my chores. But I figured, since he volunteered, why should I argue with him? I had plenty of things to do that were a lot more interesting than hauling water from the pump to the kitchen six thousand times a day.
One morning some of Charlie’s buddies from high school came by and picked him up to go fishing. I could tell from the look on Mama’s face that she wasn’t crazy about these guys. Maybe she never had been.
“Why aren’t those boys working?” she asked sharply one morning. But she couldn’t exactly tell Charlie he wasn’t allowed to go out. I mean, how could you tell a guy who had been in the Navy for four years that he can’t go fishing with his friends? They stayed gone all day.
I spent most of that day playing with Bobby and Jerry Runyan. Well, mostly we were fighting, but I didn’t have anyone else to play with. Actually, they were both acting funny all day, like they had some secret that I didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine that it could be very important, so I refused to let it bother me. So what if they were up to their dumb tricks again? I was just looking for someone to play ball with.
Miz Clara made us some lemonade in the afternoon, which sure slid down nice on a hot day. We were sitting on the grass in her backyard drinking it as fast as she could pour it when Amy came tearing over from our yard mad as a bee in a bonnet. Her face was bright red, and I could tell she wanted to cry, but instead she was yelling.
“Jerry Runyan, you absolute brat!” she screamed.
All of a sudden Bobby and Jerry burst out laughing. Amy glared at me.
“I suppose ya’ll knew all about this, too! Billy Byler, I’m going to beat you up so bad—“ She came at me like she really meant it. I was completely lost. Obviously whatever secret Jerry and Bobby had been keeping from me all day was about to be found out. But first I had to get Amy to tell me what was going on. She was still bigger than I was, but not much. I ducked and then grabbed her wrists from underneath and held on tight.
“I don’t know what ya’ll is talkin’ about,” I said, trying to keep my shins out of range of her kicking. “Whatever it is, I ain’t done it.”
She stopped moving and stared at me. Fiercely she shook herself loose from my hold and turned on the real enemies, who were still snickering.
“Then they done it,” Amy said. “They went into my playhouse and tore up everthin’ in there.”
“You mean that chicken coop behind the garage?”
“It ain’t a chicken coop. Not no more!” Nobody messed with Amy’s playhouse. She was the only one of the girls who played out there anymore, but they’d all had a part in fixing it up. They had scraps of wallpaper on the walls, and bits of fabric, and some small stools. I never knew what they did out there. I never cared.
“Jes’ clean up the mess and fergit it, Amy,” was my advice.
“It won’t never be the same. They wrecked everythin’. Everythin’!”
Just about then Jerry and Bobby’s mother pulled into Miz Clara’s driveway in her big black Ford. Amy could not let this opportunity pass. She stomped over to Mrs. Runyan before she could even get out of the car. I stayed out of it, but I could see Amy gesturing and pointing; her voice was nearly screeching, she was so mad. Amy could be sassy when she wanted to be, but I don’t think I’d ever seen her so mad in my whole life as she was that day. I was sure glad I could honestly say I didn’t have anything to do with the destruction of her playhouse.
Out of curiosity, I inched my way over to Mrs. Runyan, just to hear what she might say. Bobby and Jerry had stopped whispering, but they didn’t look too scared. Their mother looked over at them a few times while Amy talked, but she didn’t look too mad to me. My mama would have been pulling me by the hair if I’d done what they did.
All she said was, “Amy, dear, the boys was just havin’ fun. I’m sure there ain’t no real harm. Come on, boys, let’s go home. Say goodbye to your grandma.”
Amy stood there with her mouth open and stared as the boys pushed past her to get in the car. They were both grinning from ear to ear. I felt sorry for Amy, but it was always this way with Mrs. Runyan, so I don’t know why Amy thought it would be any different. Their mama thought Jerry and Bobby could do no wrong. Miz Clara knew better, of course, but she wasn’t their mama, so there was not much she could do either.
Miz Clara had watched everything from her back step, holding a fresh pitcher of lemonade. As soon as the car was out of the driveway, Amy turned and ran to our house crying, and I was left alone with Miz Clara. I sure didn’t know what to say.
“I didn’t know she even played out there anymore,” I finally said. “I thought she was too growed up for the playhouse.”
“I notice her from time to time,” Miz Clara answered. “It’s mighty hard to be a girl goin’ on twelve. Sometimes you just have to take a break from growing up. I expect that’s what Amy wanted to do today.”
She took her lemonade and went back into the house, so I figured I’d better go, too. I heard a car pull into our driveway and realized that Speedy Hanley had brought Margaret home again. When they got out of the car, she pointed toward the chairs on the front porch and reached for his hand.
I couldn’t resist.
I wished Randy was there with me, but it would still be fun by myself. There was an opening in the bushes on the side of the front steps that would allow me to crawl under the porch and wait for them. I got all set so I could see them through the cracks when they sat down. In a minute I heard their footsteps coming up the stairs. But instead of sitting in two chairs, Margaret pulled Speedy toward the swing. It was a really old swing, and Daddy had been meaning to take it down for a long time. But Margaret liked it, and I knew why.
At first they just sat on the swing holding hands and saying dumb things, like, “I sure appreciate the ride home, Speedy. It’s just so hot today.” That was dumb because he gave her a ride home most every day; it didn’t matter whether or not it was hot. What Speedy saw in Margaret, I’ll never know.
I’d been under the porch enough times to know that what Margaret really wanted was for Speedy to kiss her. She’d sit real close to him, and look at him with her eyes wide open. That’s always the way it was, and sure enough, it worked again. He leaned over and kissed her cheek first, but soon he was kissing her lips. I couldn’t imagine what could be more disgusting.
That’s when I started in. At first I just made little sounds that could have been a stray cat hiding under the porch, like scratching the wood with my fingernails and shuffling my feet in the dirt. Margaret and Speedy didn’t pay any notice, so I looked around for something else to do.
I nearly blew it and screamed myself when I felt something pulling my own leg. I jerked my foot back and looked to see what was there. A hand reached for me again and I yanked my knees up against my chest so fast I bumped my own chin and bit my tongue.
Charlie had come home from his fishing trip. He must have seen me crawl under the porch in the first place, or he could not have known I was there. I figured he was going to haul me out and tell me how rude I was. Sure enough, he was shaking his finger at me, just like Mama always did. But then he put his finger to his lips to keep me quiet and silently crawled over to have a look for himself. When he moved, he cracked a twig and I saw Margaret jump a little.
“Whatsa matta?” Speedy asked, trying to pull her back into his arms.
“I heard something,” Margaret said, looking around.
“It’s nothing,” Speedy said and went back to kissing her.
Charlie grinned at me and I grinned back. He puckered up his lips and started making smacking sounds, at first softly, then louder. Charlie kept up with his puckering, and I joined in with a high pitched, dramatic voice. “Oh, Speedy!”
Margaret was furious. “Billy Byler, you stop that this instant! Get out here where I can see you.”
Speedy had inched his way off the swing and was moving down the steps. “I guess I’ll see ya’ll tomorra, Margaret,” he said and walked quickly down the steps to his car.
Margaret pulled open the front door and stomped into the house. Charlie and I about split a gut. When we had crawled out from under the porch, I looked at my brother with new admiration.
“Charlie, I sure thought I was done for when you crawled in after me,” I said, laughing so hard I could hardly talk. “I didn’t think anybody seen me go in there.”
My brother smiled. “Well, I admit, at first I went in there to get ya’ll out. Margaret seems pretty stuck on this guy Speedy, and she’s old enough for it to mean somethin’. But then I get down there myself and it was jes’ too temptin’ to pass up.”
“I know what you mean!”
“In the Navy you don’t get no chance to tease your sisters,” he reflected. “I figure I got a lot of catching up to do.”
At supper that night Charlie and I looked at each other a lot and smiled. Margaret was still furious with me, but I was pretty sure she didn’t know Charlie was in on it. Poor Amy was still sulking abut the playhouse. Elizabeth and Virginia were doing their usual bickering, this time about clothes. The girls didn’t seem to be eating much, but I didn’t let that stop me. Mama was a good cook, and I was a growing boy.
Afterward, Charlie and I both went out for water and carried the bucket back together. Then we sat on the back porch, keeping away from the girls as much as possible. This is what I usually did anyway, but it was nice to have someone to sit with. We didn’t say much, just every now and then we’d laugh a little bit.
“Hey, Charlie, how ‘bout if you sleep in my bed tonight?” I said.
“Naw, the porch be jes’ fine for me,” he answered.
“I didn’t mind sleeping out here,” I insisted. “It’s almost like having a real room.”
“There’s room out here for two,” he said.
And that settled it. That night we put our mats side by side on the back porch.
Bill could not believe he was there. How had he let Margaret talk him into this? She could hardly walk herself. If he wasn’t standing right next to her serving as a human crutch, she had to hop on one foot. Yet she insisted they come to church and, further, she insisted it was for his own good. Being in Morrowville together seemed to be bringing out the big sister in her.
He put his foot down about where they would sit. Toward the back, period. That was for her own good, so she wouldn’t have to walk so far. And secretly, for his own good, so perhaps not so many people would notice them.
Saturday had been a long empty day. Margaret couldn’t do much but sit in a cabin with her foot propped up. Besides, the rain persisted all day, punctuated by fits of thunder. So they’d sat and talked a lot. Margaret talked about Patsy. Bill talked about Nate. They both talked about Charlie. And Mama, how she’d never been the same after what happened.
Then Randy called. He said that when he told his mama Margaret and Bill were in town, she started cooking up a storm and he was coming over with dinner. He left them little choice about it, though they did not protest. They needed to eat, after all. And Randy’s mama made fried chicken almost as good as Grandma Goodman’s, even if the chicken did come from a grocery store now instead of the backyard.
In the privacy of Bill’s cabin, with no counter between them, Bill clasped his old friend to his chest. They’d understood each other so well in those long-ago years. Bill hadn’t had another friend like Randy in the intervening time. Anger welled up inside him at what he’d lost because of the color of skin. At what he’d let be taken from him.
They unpacked the food: fried chicken, sliced roast beef, potato salad, cornbread, green beans and a chocolate pie.
“Your mama hasn’t lost her touch,” Margaret said, biting into a chicken leg. “You be sure to let her know I said that.”
“Don’t ma’am me!” Margaret said sharply. “You’re one of the brats who tried to get my goat for ten years running. It’s a little late now to pretend you respect me.”
“Mindy doesn’t fry chicken,” Bill said as he bit into a chicken breast. “She won’t even eat the skin. She’s too much of a California girl.” He rolled his eyes with pleasure. “She just does not understand the beauty of a moment like this.”
“Bring her with you next time,” Randy said, “and we’ll have Mama educate her.”
They laughed again, but Bill was stung with the thought that maybe he wouldn’t come back to Morrowville again. Then he was stung with the thought that perhaps he would.
The three of them reminisced about Sunday afternoons on the Island, the changing stores of Front Street, who was still in town and who had left, and finally their own families. Randy reached out and held Bill’s hand while he talked about Nate. No man had ever done that before.
Before Randy left, they made arrangements for driving to Memphis on Monday. Randy and Bill both served as crutches and fairly carried Margaret to her cabin. Back in his own, Bill called the airline and finally received confirmation that he had a seat on a flight leaving Memphis in the late afternoon on Monday, direct to Denver. Before he went to bed he called Mindy with the information and got an update on Nate, who had stopped deteriorating and was finally beginning to improve. He talked to Alex, too, which cheered his heart.
He slept skeleton-free that night.
And now here he was sitting toward the back of a Baptist church in Morrowville, Arkansas, feeling the uninhibited stares and hearing the not very subtle whispers.
Not much about the morning service had changed since the days of his boyhood. After running into Edith Runyan at the motel (he’d finally thought of her first name), he almost would not have been shocked to see the same ancient organist at the front of the church, but she was gone and someone about Bill’s age was on the bench now. It struck him that the kids in the church now probably labeled this new organist as ancient, though Bill clearly would not want to concede that point. Involuntarily he touched a hand to his own hair, which had begun to gray. Now that he thought about it, the organist he remembered had probably been younger than he was now.
Bill kept his focus forward as the pastor gave announcements and introduced the first hymn, but Margaret was smiling at people, and a few people had even begun to wave at them. He dug an elbow into her ribcage, which she answered with a sharp look.
“We’re not here to socialize,” he whispered as they stood to begin the hymn.
“Just being friendly with God’s people,” she answered.
“Well, don’t,” he said, knowing how ridiculous that sounded.
With the service underway, Margaret seemed to settle in, but Bill dreaded what would come after the benediction. And it came.
“Why, Billy Byler, what a nice surprise to see you here! And Margaret—someone has to look after him, I suppose.”
Bill wanted to get up and walk out, but he smiled at someone whose face was vaguely familiar but whose name completely escaped him.
Margaret spoke. “Well, you know what a handful Billy always was. How are you, Miz Walters?”
Betty Ann Walters, that’s who she was. She had been one of the younger members of the ladies circle Bill’s mother had been in for years.
“I declare, Billy Byler, you are the spitting image of your daddy.”
Bill couldn’t dispute the truth of that statement. Even he could see the resemblance. But he’d grown tired of that observation twenty years ago.
“Hey, Billy!” This was a male voice. Billy looked at the face and indexed his memory.
“Henry Northcutt,” Bill said. “You must be just about running this place by now.”
Henry grinned. “Chairman of the board of deacons.”
Henry and Billy had caused their share of havoc around the church in the old days. Henry was no Randy, but he had been a reasonable facsimile of a friend for Sunday morning purposes. There’d been a gaggle of girls their age when they were little, and Billy and Henry had helped each other stand their ground against the onslaught of feminism in the classroom.
“Why, Margaret Byler Hanley, is that really you?” One of Margaret’s classmates embraced her heartily. They immediately launched into gossip about what they knew about the rest of their girlhood friends.
“Your mama would be proud to see you here,” said a voice behind Billy, and he turned to see another woman whose name he couldn’t remember. “She was always a little worried you’d give up the church.”
While Billy tried to sort out the logic of that pronouncement, he nodded politely at people who spoke to him—and clearly knew who he was. He remembered a few faces from his parents’ funeral services, where he had gone through the same motions of pretending to recognize people, or at least to endure their recognizing him. Two more people told him how much he looked like his daddy and another said he had his daddy’s voice.
At last it was over. As Margaret hobbled out to the car leaning on Bill, he said, “Well, you had yourself a mighty fine time in there.”
“Now don’t you get on your high horse, Billy Byler. You know it was good for you to go. What harm is there if a few folks remember when you was a boy?”
“Margaret, my dear sister, I’m at a loss why you think it was so good for me to go in that church and smile vacuously at people I barely remember.”
“Because you need to remember. That’s why you came to town, isn’t it?”
He had no answer. Instead he sighed. “Where do you want to eat lunch?”
After lunch, they went back to the cabins, stopping on the way there for a supply of ice. Bill could see that Margaret’s foot was hurting more, though she refused to admit it. He insisted she go to her own cabin and prop it up and ice it.
In his cabin, he called his home. No answer. It was possible Mindy had gone to church herself, probably for Alex’s sake. Alex loved her Sunday school class, so, frankly, that’s what pulled the family to church on the Sundays that they did go, which was certainly not every Sunday. Bill wouldn’t say he had given up the church, as his mother allegedly had feared, but it wasn’t his second home the way it had been hers. He believed the same things he’d always believed, the things his parents had taught him to believe. Was that the same as believing?
Maybe Mindy was at the hospital. He dialed the number he knew by memory and asked for the nurses’ station on Nate’s floor. No, they had not seen Mrs. Byler yet today, but did he want to speak with his son?
Nate.Yes, he wanted to speak to Nate.
He didn’t sound too bad. “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to get there.”
“It’s all right. I’m okay.”
You’re in the hospital. That’s not okay. “The storms around here backed up the airport something terrible.”
“That’s what Mom said.”
“I finally got a confirmation for tomorrow night.”
“Yeah, Mom told me.”
“I’m really sorry not to be there.”
“Dad, it’s fine, really. You’re always afraid I won’t take care of myself, but I did. I knew I needed to be here, and I came.”
“I know. Mom says it’s helping.” Still, I want to be there with you.
“I haven’t been able to get hold of Mom today.”
“Alex wanted to go to church, then she had a birthday party.”
“Oh.” That’s why I want to be there. Alex shouldn’t have to give up her party, but you shouldn’t be alone.
“I told her to go, Dad. She wanted to find someone else to take Alex to the party, but I told her I didn’t need her to stay with me every minute.”
“I don’t, Dad. I’m going to be here a couple of weeks. Life goes on.”
But it shouldn’t. “I’ll see you tomorrow night, Nate. I’ll come straight from the airport.”
“I love you.”
“Tell Mom I’ll try to call later.”
Bill hung up the phone and pressed the palms of his hands into his eyes. This was flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone.
One more day.