Slowly and quietly, Charlie was gathering his few things and getting ready to leave us. He had come home with only a duffel bag and his uniform, and he would probably leave with just the same stuff. Mama had washed and starched his sailor uniform and it hung, looking bright and proud, in the small closest next to the front door. Charlie had not worn much besides dungarees and tee shirts while he was home, and I had already forgotten the image of him striding across the neighbor’s yard when he first came home. I opened the closet door a couple of times and stared at that uniform, trying to imagine what it would look like on my brother and wondering what it would really mean when it came time for him to put it on again. Somehow, it still made no sense to me.
Mama made a big dinner for Charlie’s last night home. Aunt Lennie and Uncle Chet came in and brought Grandma Goodman with them. Lennie had been baking rolls, and Grandma brought three pies. The girls kept coming into the dining room with platters heaped with steaming food and rearranging the table to make room for just one more dish. When we sat down to eat, Charlie and I looked at each other across the table and rolled our eyes at the mounds of food before us.
“Don’t know when I’ll have a home cooked meal again,” he said between bites. “Guess I better stock up while I can.”
That was the signal for Grandma and Mama to start passing dishes down to Charlie one more time. After his second piece of pie, he finally put his hand up and said he couldn’t eat another bite.
As the girls cleared the table and took the dishes to the kitchen, Charlie said, “I believe I’ll get some fresh air.”
“I’ll go with you,” I said, getting up out of my chair.
“Not this time, Billy.” To Mama he said, “I won’t be long. I jes’ need to walk off some of your great cookin’.”
Mama smiled, pleased with the flattery, and Charlie left. Grandma had gone to the parlor, so I followed her. I knew that after Charlie left tomorrow, the French doors would once again be closed and the room off limits like it had been my whole life. But it was really the only comfortable place to sit in the whole house, except maybe the back porch when the weather was nice, so I didn’t mind going in there to sit with Grandma.
By the time the dishes were done, Charlie was back. With so many people in the house, it was getting stuffy, so we all moved outside, some of us in the backyard and some of us upon the porch. Daddy got out his guitar and strummed quietly in one corner. We all knew Charlie was leaving in the morning, but no one talked about it. Instead, they talked about vegetable gardens and mosquitoes, what could be done to make Front Street more attractive and what the church ladies could do to raise some money for their missionary project in Africa. It was all ordinary stuff. I kept waiting for someone to start talking about the war in Europe, but no one did. But when Grandma and Lennie and Chet were ready to leave, they hugged Charlie for an awfully long time.
After they had gone, the rest of us gradually went in the house to get ready for bed. When the house was quiet and dark, I left my bed in the alcove and slipped in next to Charlie out on the porch. I don’t think he was really asleep, but he wanted me to think he was, so I didn’t let on I knew. I just wanted to be there next to him one last night.
Charlie’s bus was leaving at nine in the morning, so everyone was up and scrambling around early. Mama wanted us all to pile into the back of Daddy’s truck and go down to the bus depot, but Charlie wouldn’t let her do that. He had arrived quietly and wanted to go quietly. So he kissed Mama and the girls and shook my hand like I was a grown up man. Then he shook Daddy’s hand and left. We all stood up out in the backyard and watched him go out of sight when he got pass Miz Clara’s house. Mama had her handkerchief wadded up in her hand, but she didn’t cry.
Margaret announced that it was time for her to go to work, and Daddy said he would walk with her. Amy wandered off to her playhouse. I thought about going with her, but she was acting like she wanted to be alone. Elizabeth and Virginia followed Mama back into the house, arguing about something or other. I stood there in the backyard feeling Charlie’s presence and aching to run after him and beg him not to go to Europe.
I wasn’t ready for school to start up again. But it did, just like every year. I was in the fourth grade now. It was too hot to be cooped up in a building with a bunch of other kids who didn’t want to be there, either. I had Miss Albright again. I guess that was okay. She had been my teacher for the second half of third grade, after Miss Chase got married and became Mrs. Gates and decided not to be a teacher anymore. At least I already knew what Miss Albright was like and what she would do if she caught you with a spitball.
The map of Europe with the pink boundary lines was still up on the wall, with another one that showed Japan and a lot of the islands in the Pacific. Charlie was not the only military man in town. In the last year, since Pearl Harbor, a lot of guys had joined up. I wasn’t the only one who was more interested in geography than I had been in the third grade. I stared at the map a lot, memorizing the shape of the North Atlantic area and trying to picture where Charlie’s ship might go. So far he was still Stateside, but his letters, which had started coming regularly now, said they would certainly ship out before Christmas.
The weeks passed whether I wanted them to or not. On the one hand, I wanted every week of school to be over. On the other hand, every week that passed meant Charlie was one week closer to the war. The days got cooler and some of the nights were downright chilly. Trees began to drop their leaves. Summer eased into fall and fall pushed its way into winter. Mama made me put all my shorts away, which was too bad, because I knew my favorite ones would be too small next summer. Daddy took the screens out of the big windows on the back porch and put in the glass panes that helped to keep out the cooler winter temperatures.
At the middle of November, Daddy started turning the sound up on his radio at home. A convoy of Allied ships had been attacked by German U-boats. The Germans lost only one submarine. Allied losses were a lot bigger. The battle went on for most of a week. The fact that it was in the North Atlantic made us all a little jumpy. In a few weeks that could be Charlie’s ship. Mama did a lot of scrubbing and sat in her chair on the back porch for hours at a stretch.
We all drove out to the Island for Thanksgiving. The barbershop and the movie theater were closed, so even Daddy and Margaret came along with us first thing in the morning. Margaret brought Speedy, too. This was the first family holiday he spent with us. I was beginning to think I was going to be stuck with Speedy for a long, long time. Margaret ignored me most of the day. Randy and I followed her around off and on. Grandma and Mama and Aunt Lennie treated her like one of the grownups now and let her in on their conversations, and that made it hard to get away with doing anything that annoyed her. She really thought she was one of them now. The girls giggled when they were around Margaret and Speedy. They were probably planning Margaret’s wedding between themselves.
By the middle of the afternoon the turkey was done. The long table was laid out with Grandma’s best linen and china and had enough chairs crowded around it so we could all sit together. I was relieved that they had finally decided to quit making Amy and me sit off at the “children’s table” by ourselves. Anyone could tell from the amount of food on the table that Grandma and Mama and Aunt Lennie all loved to cook. Even if we stayed there a week, they wouldn’t have to cook again.
Daddy stood up at the head of the table to say grace. We all sat still and bowed our heads and waited for him to say something. But he didn’t. After a minute or so I tilted my head in his direction and opened one eye just a slit. He was trying to talk, but the words just wouldn’t come. When I saw Mama start to open her eyes I shut mine again. Finally I heard Daddy’s voice.
“Our Mighty God, we are thankful for thy bounty given to us gathered around this table today. Make us truly grateful for the gifts from thy hand that fill our lives every day. Make us thankful for life itself.” He paused, just briefly. “And bring us all back together around this table against next year. Amen.”
Although this was not the first Thanksgiving without Charlie, we were all more keenly away of his absence this time because he was headed for war. We all knew what Daddy meant in his prayer.
While Daddy sliced the turkey, I heard Uncle Chet ask him, “Any word from Charlie this week, Jesse?”
Daddy just shook his head. Everyone was thinking about Charlie, but no one talked about him. I didn’t understand why. Maybe it was because they were all afraid for him as much as I was.
“Why would ya’ll wait for a letter when you can have the real thing?”
All our heads spun around toward that familiar voice. Charlie stood in the doorway!
“Guess I just missed ya’ll this mornin’ before ya’ll left,” he said, grinning. “Had to hitch-hike out.”
Mama and the girls flew out of their chairs and nearly tackled Charlie. Grandma Goodman jumped up to set another place, squeezing Charlie in right next to me. He soft-punched my shoulder when he finally sat down. I never grinned so big in my life.
Charlie had a four-day leave before shipping out on Monday. He had scraped together enough money for a bus ticket home and could only stay two nights before he had to get back on the bus and go back to North Carolina. After seeing him only once in four years, we couldn’t believe he was home again after only four months. Suddenly everyone’s appetite was enormous. The mounds of food began disappearing.
I slept next to Charlie on the back porch that night, under a couple of heavy quilts. I was cold, but I didn’t care.
The next morning after breakfast, Charlie tossed me a jacket.
“Come on, Billy, let’s go.”
“Go where?” At this point, I would have gone anywhere with him, just to be near him, but still I was curious.
“Front Street, of course,” he answered.
“What’s for?” Despite my questions, I already had my arms in the jacket sleeves.
“Ya’ll need a reason to go to Front Street? Okay, let’s get us some ice cream.”
“Don’t want no ice cream,” I said. I still felt odd about going into the drug store, the only place we ever went for ice cream, even though Mr. Edwards treated me fine.
“Then we’ll get some cookies at the bakery. Jes’ come on, and don’t argue with me no more.”
I hopped up and fell into stride next to him. He seemed strangely relaxed compared to how tense things had been around the house the last few days. He sure didn’t act like a soldier going off to war in a few days.
We took our time and did the usual rock kicking and said howdy to a few folks along the way. When we finally got to the bakery, Charlie shook his head at the cookies and ordered two of the most enormous maple frosted rolls I had ever seen. I could just see Mama scowling at both of us—me for spoiling my appetite for supper and Charlie for spoiling me with something like that. But we just smiled at each other and started in on the rolls.
There were some small tables in the bakery, but we chose to grab a handful of paper napkins and keep walking. Word had gotten around town that Charlie was there, so folks kept stopping us to say something to him, like how they were just sure he would be home again soon, or they would be praying for him, or they’d tell him some joke they heard about the Army and the Navy. Most of the time Charlie just smiled politely and said how nice it was to see folks. Our progress down the street was slow, but it didn’t matter; we weren’t really going anywhere anyway.
By the time we got close to the music store, I was licking the last of the maple frosting off my fingers. I wasn’t expecting to stop; Charlie had never really paid much attention to the instruments in the window before. But this time he stopped and looked through the glass carefully. There was a shiny trombone in the center of the display, with a clarinet and a flute off to one side and a violin on the other side. And of course my trumpet was still standing in the corner.
“I got a buddy on my ship that plays the trombone,” Charlie said.
My ears perked up. “Oh yeah? Does he play for ya’ll much?”
Charlie tilted his head back and laughed. “He drives us crazy playin’ that thing. He really wanted to get into the Navy Band, but he didn’t make it, so he’s stuck with us. He don’t go nowhere without that horn.”
“Is he pretty good?”
“I think he is. He practices every minute he can. Sometimes he just lets loose and plays for fun. That we don’t mind so much as the practicing.”
I eyed my trumped propped up in the corner, gathering dust, and then looked at Charlie out of the side of my eye. I wondered what he would think.
“You ever wish you could play a horn?”
He paused to think. “Every once in a while. My buddy makes it look so easy, but I know it ain’t. I mean, look at Daddy. He didn’t jes’ wake up one day and play the guitar. He’s been playin’ a lot o’ years to get as good as he is.”
“I want to play the trumpet,” I said quietly. I’d said it, but I wasn’t too sure I wanted Charlie to hear me. No one knew of my dream except Randy. But he heard me all right. I felt Charlie’s eyes go from my face to the trumpet in the window.
I nodded. “I walk by here all the time and look at it. It’s been there a long time.”
I was immediately defensive. “Don’t matter. I jes’ know it’s a fine horn. What do ya’ll know about trumpets, anyway?”
“I’m sorry, Billy. I didn’t mean it that way.” He was quiet for a moment. “Ya’ll is serious, ain’tcha?”
Again, I just nodded.
“Does Daddy know?”
I shook my head.
“Nobody knows. ‘Cept Randy.”
“Well, I’m mighty pleased that ya’ll told me. It’s a fine dream, Billy Byler. Someday I aim to hear ya’ll play a fine tune.”
He started moving on down the street, wiping his sticking fingers on a napkin. I gave the trumpet one last look and followed him down the block.