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Eleven

August 1942

 

“I don’t believe ’em!” Randy sputtered to the surface. “Dey falls for it ever’ time.”

“I think Margaret really believes in that ol’ River Monster stuff,” I said. “I ain’t seen her really swimmin’ in the river comin’ on two years.”

“Mebbe she jes’ too growed up,” Randy suggested.

“Mebbe. Or mebbe she’s jes’ too scared. And Elizabeth, she’s jes’—“ Suddenly I had a mouth full of river water as something grabbed me around the knees and pulled me under against my will. I got to the top again just long enough to grab some air so I could wrestle whatever it was. All the thrashing around stirred up the bottom of the river bed and the water was too murky to see anything. So I just kept fighting. I could hear Randy yelling my name and calling for help.

I panicked. Who would believe him now? Had we cried wolf just one time too many? My lungs were about to split open, I needed air so bad. Finally I got loose and pushed to the surface. Gasping for air, I turned around and saw it.

Charlie. It was Charlie that had grabbed me and scared the living daylights out of me.

“Charlie!” I screamed. “Whatcha doin’?”

He just laughed. “Same thing ya’ll are doin’ to the girls. Just stirring up a little harmless fear.”

“Well, cut it out!” That was the best I could come up with, because of course he was right. He hadn’t done anything I wouldn’t do if I had a half a chance, especially to my sisters.

“Aw, come on, Billy Byler. Don’t act like one of them girls.”

That was too much. I took a sharp dive directly at him and tried to ram my head into his stomach. He caught me by the shoulders and pushed me off without much effort.

“Come on, Randy,” I called. “Don’t just stand there.”

My loyal friend came to my aid and we attacked together. The three of us were a tangled tussle of arms and legs splashing around in the river. Anyone looking on might have thought we’d all been attacked by the River Monster. Or that we were the River Monster.

When we finally broke apart and came up sputtering and laughing, Margaret was standing at the edge of the dock with her back to us. We looked at each other and instantly knew what we had to do. Charlie and I reached up and each grabbed an ankle. With a scream, Margaret toppled backward and hit the water with a smack.

Elizabeth and Virginia grabbed their stuff and ran off, leaving Margaret to flounder on her own. Only Amy kneeled down and offered a hand to the furious Margaret, all the while throwing us venomous looks. Of course, Charlie and Randy and I had long since swum out of reach, knowing that Margaret would never come after us if it meant going past the end of the pier. Amy caught my eye and stuck out her tongue, which only sent us into even more hysterics. She put a towel around Margaret’s shoulders and the two of them walked back up to the house seething. Charlie gave us a wink, and we were all pretty pleased with the way things turned out.

It wasn’t long before Grandma came out and called us up to the house for dinner. Mama insisted Charlie and I put on dry clothes and read us the riot act for what we had done to the girls. We didn’t care.

Randy was going to have to wait outside while we ate, so I wished that we could hurry up and get dinner over with. The food was great, though. I ate four pieces of fried chicken and a huge bowl of baked beans. As soon as I could, I went back outside to find Randy. I handed him a couple of wings no one would miss. Grandma’s chicken was too good not to share with my best friend.

“Hey, Charlie’s okay,” he said.

“Not too bad,” I agreed.

“I don’t really ‘member him from befoe.”

“Me neither. I remember he was always picking on Elizabeth, that’s all.”

“Well, she deserve it.” Randy was loyal to the end.

I was too stuffed to run or swim, so we just wandered around looking at the chickens that had survived the lunch selection and went down to see the one horse Grandma still kept.

Randy’s mama called him home to their cottage for their supper, and I figured he wouldn’t be able to come back to Grandma’s for the rest of the evening. His mama would have a long list of chores for him to do before it got dark.

Reluctantly I went back to the house. Daddy was cranking the ice cream out on the front porch, and when he got tired, Charlie took over. He turned the handle so fast you would think there was just water inside. But it was getting thicker and thicker. There were lots of Sundays when I helped Daddy crank the ice cream, and I felt a twinge of jealousy when I saw Charlie doing it. I knew it had to be pretty hard to turn the crank by now, and I probably wouldn’t be able to do it anyway, but I didn’t like how he made it look so easy. Just like carrying the water bucket. I tried to be mad at Charlie about it, but after teasing the girls in the water, I just couldn’t not like him anymore. So I went and sat beside him as he pushed harder and harder.

At last he opened up the top and stuck his finger in. “It’s done!” he declared.

Mama came out of the house with a stack of bowls and a handful of spoons. Charlie started dishing up. The corner of his mouth turned up ever so slightly as he heaped an extra spoonful in my bowl. I smiled and quickly moved away before any of the girls could see how much I had. Daddy was sitting over in the corner of the porch, quietly waiting his turn. I went and sat next to him and started eating. The smooth, cool, deliciously sweet ice cream oozed down my throat one bite at a time. There were so many things I liked about coming to the Island—Grandma’s fried chicken, Randy, swimming and ice cream.

Everyone sat contentedly for a while till the ice cream was gone. Without being asked, Amy went around and collected the bowls and spoons and took them into the house to wash. No one else seemed to want to move as dusk settled and we knew the delightful day was coming to an end.

“Daddy, where’s your guitar?” It was Charlie who wanted to know.

“In the truck.”

“I’ll fetch it. I ain’t heard you strum in a long time. It’ll do my heart good to hear your music.”Daddy nodded with satisfaction and Charlie went around to the back to find the guitar. When he got back, Daddy cocked his head to listen to the strings while he tuned up. Then he gently started strumming and humming. At first it was no song at all, just soothing sounds that made you want to sit perfectly still and listen to every note. I didn’t know anyone else who could do that with a guitar. I didn’t care if Daddy ever played a real song all the way through.It was so like Daddy to play that way. He didn’t talk an awful lot. But just being around him made you feel pretty good, like maybe things were not as bad as you thought they were. With Mama you had to listen and do. With Daddy it was okay just to be. His music was the same way.

Gradually he started picking out some tunes, church songs mostly. Mama and Grandma started humming along, and every now and then someone would sing a few words as they came to mind. I didn’t much like sitting still in the same room with my four sisters, but I liked sitting on the porch hearing Daddy play. Even Virginia and Elizabeth were quiet tonight, and Margaret had not said a word about Speedy Hanley for hours.

“’Amazing Grace,’ Daddy,” Charlie said into the darkness.

Daddy responded right away with the familiar chords of the old hymn and soon began picking out the melody on the strings. We all sat still, completely absorbed in the simple beauty of the song.

“I’ve learned me a lot the last few years,” Charlie said. “Don’t know how many times I thought of them words to that song and wished I could be here on Grandma’s porch with ya’ll listening to Daddy play.”

He started singing. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

I don’t think I’d ever heard Charlie sing before. In fact, I don’t remember that he cared much for church songs in the first place, not like Mama and the girls. His asking for that song reminded me how little I knew my own brother. But now he was singing in a beautiful tenor tone that surprised everyone. He even sounded like he really meant those words. Mama and Margaret joined in, and I could hear Daddy humming along.

“’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”

By now everyone was singing, Daddy’s soft bass voice at the bottom of the chord, with harmony all the way up to Virginia’s high clear soprano.

“Thru many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

We sat for a long time when that song was done. Daddy didn’t play another one. He just laid his guitar on the bench beside him and put his arm around my shoulder. He hardly ever did that. I sat there looking at everybody, though it had gotten too dark to see their faces clearly. Grandma Goodman was wiping her eyes and Amy was holding her hand and patting it softly. Virginia and Elizabeth and Margaret were sitting closer together than they usually did. Mama was next to Charlie. It seemed like she wanted to look at him but didn’t want him to see her looking. The moonlight caught the side of his face. I wasn’t sure what he was feeling, but I could tell he was feeling something awful strong.

After probably twenty minutes, Charlie said, “Thank you, Daddy. Thank you, everyone.”

“I ’spect we’d better be getting’ back to town,” Daddy answered.

“Yes, it’s late.” Mama agreed and immediately stood up and started gathering up things to take home. The girls followed her lead and filed into the house for their stuff. I didn’t have anything to collect, except damp shorts off the porch rail so I didn’t get up right away. In a minute or so, Charlie and I were the only ones left on the porch. I crossed over and sat down next to him, but I didn’t say anything right away. I didn’t even understand why I wanted to sit there, but I did.

“I didn’t know you liked that song,” I finally said.

“I never thought much about it till I left home,” he answered. “Did you know that was Grandpa Goodman’s favorite?”

How could I know that? I had barely even known my grandfather.

“No, I don’t guess you would know,” Charlie murmured. “Grandpa Goodman was a man of faith if ever there was one. I guess there’s a lot of things you don’t think about till you don’t have ’em around you no more.”

I wasn’t at all sure I understood what he meant by that, but I nodded anyway. I heard Daddy start the truck, and Mama and the girls were ready to go, so we picked up our wet shorts and went around the house and got in the back of the truck.

I remember thinking what a strange day it had turned out to be. And Charlie, well, I was almost tempted to offer him my bed back.

 

Twelve

Well over an hour passed, and Margaret still hadn’t returned. For a while, Bill speculated that his sister was simply waiting for a place to open up, fire up the grill and make breakfast. At this hour of the morning, that could take a while.

He decided to take a quick shower and get dressed. Afterward, he looked out the cabin window and saw the dawn breaking. But no sign of Margaret’s car.

Bill rummaged in his briefcase for some phone numbers and left a couple of messages for people in Cleveland, canceling meetings. Still no Margaret.

He turned on the television again and flipped through the channels. The Saturday morning cartoons, already underway, made him miss Alex. She liked it when he was up early to watch with her. Bill promised himself he would make a special point to call her later today.

Where was Margaret? Bill was starting to think she had driven to Memphis to buy breakfast.

Without meaning to, he dozed. Alex never let that happen at home, but without her supervision, he had given in to the drone of cartoon characters surviving unlikely mishaps. When he woke, he started to feel truly worried about his sister. She’d been gone over two hours now. Having decided a search party was warranted, he was sitting on the side of the bed putting his shoes on when the phone rang.

“Hello.”

“Billy, it’s your silly sister.”

“I have four who fit that description,” he said dryly.

“I’m the silliest, I’m sure,” Margaret said. “You’ll have to come fetch me, I’m afraid.”

“Do I need to bring bail money?”

“Since the only nitwit involved is me, I don’t suppose you do.”

“Where are you?”

She gave him directions to Morrowville’s only urgent care facility, which functioned much like a low-level emergency room, since the town had no hospital. He found her in the waiting room, with one ankle wrapped tightly and a square bandage on her forehead. Wordlessly, he sat down next to her.

“So how are you?” Bill asked.

Margaret sighed. “My pride is injured more than anything else.”

“And your actual injuries?”

“Minor at best,” she answered. “I suppose you want to know what happened.”

“That strikes me as a reasonable expectation under the circumstances. At the very least, you own my grumbling stomach an explanation.”

“Breakfast is in my car.”

“And your car is … ?”

“Towed.”

“Did you get yourself a ticket, Margaret?”

She shook her head. “If only it were a speeding ticket because I was rushing to take my little brother his breakfast.” She sighed. “No, nothing so noble. I drove through a spot of road that was slick, then downright muddy. Got my back tire stuck.”

“So you’re a stick-in-the-mud!”

“Billy Byler!”

“Sorry. Can’t help myself sometimes. How did you get hurt?”

“I got out and tried to push.”

“By yourself?”

“I do a lot of things by myself, you know.”

“But pushing a car out of the mud?”

“Well, it was practically the middle of the night still and I was nowhere near a phone.”

“Then how did you call a tow truck?”

“Did I say I called a tow truck?”

“You said your car was towed.”

“And it was. A tall, dark and handsome younger man came to my rescue, and it so happens his carriage was a tow truck. He pulled my car out of the mud, but the damage was already done to my ankle.”

“From pushing your car?”

“From losing my footing in the mud while I was pushing my car.”

“Ah.” Bill looked from Margaret’s foot to her head.

“And the head?”

“Knocked it on the bumper on my way down.”

“Okay. So the tall, dark and handsome stranger brought you here?”

“Did I say it was a stranger?”

“Well, no,” Bill conceded.

“It was Randy.”

“Randy?”

“Randy! You know, your best friend in boyhood, Randy.”

“Let me get this straight,” Bill said. “My sister falls down in the mud in the middle of a thunderstorm, and the person who just happens to come to her rescue is my old friend Randy?”

“Glad to see you’ve been listening. Now help me out to your car and let us undertake once again to get some breakfast.”

Bill raised an eyebrow. “Can you walk?”

“I can limp.”

“I don’t suppose they said anything about crutches.”

“Of course they did, but that’s nonsense. I’m too old for crutches. Besides, I have you.”

“I’ll pull the car up,” Bill said.

Later, in one of the diners on Front Street, Bill asked, “So what do we do about your car?”

“We’ll have to go get it at Randy’s garage. But you may have noticed my driving foot is the one I banged up.”

“Randy has a garage to go with that tow truck?”

“It would seem so. He thought he was stopping to help an old lady. He had himself a good laugh when he saw it was me.”

Bill laughed. “I’ll bet he did. After all the things we did to aggravate you.”

“And I haven’t forgotten a single one of them, Billy Byler.”

“I’ll try to atone for my sins.” Bill pushed the last of his eggs around on his plate.

“Let me call Patsy for you. Maybe she’d like to look after you properly.” Bill hadn’t seen his niece in years; Patsy was the only one of Margaret’s daughters still living in Memphis.

“No, don’t call Patsy,” Margaret said sharply.

Bill snapped his head up to look at her. “Something wrong between you and Patsy?”

Margaret sighed. “No, we’re fine. But Patsy isn’t … well these days.”

“Margaret, what are you not telling me?”

Margaret raised her eyes to meet Bill’s. “You know Speedy had Huntington’s.”

Bill groaned. “Oh, no. Patsy?”

“The doctors are pretty sure. It’s still early, but given the genetics involved, it’s the most likely explanation of her troubles.”

“Margaret, I’m so sorry. But why didn’t you say anything?”

She shrugged. “When? To whom?”

Bill was silent, stunned.

“I was going to tell you,” Margaret said, “but I came here to be with you because of Nate, not to dump my problems in your lap.”

“I’m glad you came, Margaret, but burden-bearing works both ways. I, of all people, know what it’s like to see your child suffering.”

“But Nate is still a child. Patsy is more than twice his age, and we don’t know how fast the disease will progress. It could be twenty years.”

“She’s still your child, Margaret,” Bill said quietly. “Age has nothing to do with it.”

They sat in silence as the waitress refilled their coffee mugs and cleared away dishes.

“Mama used to tell me what everyone was up to,” Bill finally said. “If she’d known about Patsy, she would have told me. Instead, I don’t find out because I don’t talk to my own sister.”

“That’s just the way things are, Billy. We grew up. We had families of our own.”

“I was a rotten little brother, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t care about you—or Elizabeth or Virginia or Amy. Does anyone ever hear from Virginia at all?”

Margaret shook her head. “Not too much. A card every now and then.”

“And Amy?” Bill asked. “I know I live closer to her than the rest of you, but you girls were always a tight bunch.”

“I suppose we were,” Margaret admitted. “Your only shot at a brother was Charlie, and he was so much older than you, with the four of us in between.”

“I understand Mama a lot better now,” Bill said. “I wish I could tell her.”

The waitress drifted toward their booth again and glanced at their untouched coffee mugs. “Ya’ll need anything else?”

Bill and Margaret shook their heads. “Just the check, please,” Bill said. He took a deep breath and let it out. “So what exactly did they say about your foot?”

“It’s sprained, that’s all. Driving will hurt some if I extend my ankle.”

“So you can’t drive to Memphis,” Bill said decidedly. “I have to get the rental back to the airport, but we’ll figure out a way to get both cars back to Memphis.”

“Any word on your flight?”

Bill shook his head. “Sunday looks like a lost cause. Still hoping for Monday, but I don’t have confirmation.”

“So we have a couple days. I suppose I can prop my foot up in Morrowville just as well as I can in Memphis.”

“So you want to stay here?”

She nodded “Might be fun. We can go to church tomorrow.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Bill drew back and put his hands up, palms out.

“Maybe you can catch up with Randy.”

“Well, I might like that,” Bill admitted.

“And we could go out to the cemetery,” Margaret suggested.

“Well, I hadn’t really planned on that.”

“Hadn’t you?” she countered. “I think maybe that’s why you came to Morrowville in the first place.”

Bill had no answer.

“We still have two cars to get to Memphis,” Bill said, changing the subject.

“And thanks to the weather we have two days to figure out how to do it.”

The check appeared, Bill paid it over Margaret’s protests, and they hobbled back to his car.

“Where’s the garage?” Bill asked. “Randy’s, I mean.”

“Out on the highway toward the motel,” Margaret answered. “It’s called Tony’s.”

“It was Tony’s when we were kids,” Bill pointed out.

“Apparently Tony’s son sold it to Randy and he saw no reason to mess with the name.”

“Everyone knows Tony’s,” Bill said. “Why fix something that ain’t broke?”

They pulled up to the garage a few minutes later. Margaret’s car was parked at the side of the lot, out of the way.

“I suppose I should have asked him to pull it all the way to the motel,” Margaret said.

“We’ll figure it out,” Bill said. “I’ll go talk to him. Do you want to come?”

“Nah. Just don’t plan any pranks with Randy.”

Bill smiled at the thought. Had he ever told Nate about the shenanigans he and Randy indulged in? He resolved that he would.

Nate.

The bells tied to the top of the door jangled as Bill entered the small shop. The man behind the counter looked up.

“Well, ain’t it my lucky day. Two Bylers in one day.” Randy grinned at Bill.

Suddenly Bill wanted to grab him and hug him. But Randy stayed behind the counter.

“I’m looking for Tony,” Bill said, grinning as he stepped toward the counter and put his hands on it.

“You found him!”

“Thank you for looking after my sister this morning.”

Randy shrugged. “Figured I owed her.”

“And a debt as old as that one builds a lot of interest,” Bill said.

“Billy Byler, I ain’t seen ya in twenty years, but ya’ll are a sight for sore eyes.”

Bill nodded as his eyes misted over. “I didn’t know you’d bought this place.”

“Worked here half my life. Figured I might as well call it mine.”

Bill laughed. “That’s why you still call it Tony’s.”

This was his oldest friend. Bill couldn’t think of anyone else in his life who had been as close to him as Randy, until their mid-twenties. But they’d always had to stand on opposite sides of the counter in those days, everywhere except the Island.

“Been out to the Island lately?” Bill asked. “Your folks still there?”

Randy shook his head. “That place ain’t the same without you. Rich people took it over. Vacation homes, that sort of thing.” He paused. “My daddy passed last year. Mama lives with me and my wife now.”

“Tell her I said hello.”

“I’ll do that.”

“About Margaret’s car …”

Randy waved him away. “Just leave it there till she needs it.”

“Thanks. That will help. But she has to get it back to Memphis. I’ve got a rental and nowhere around here to turn it in.”

“When?”

“Well, I’m not sure. Monday, maybe.”

“I can drive it over for her. Got a buddy coming back this way Monday night. I can ride back with him.”

“Thanks! That will really help.” I want to tell you about Nate. I want to tell you about my life. I want you to be in my life. “Can we take you to dinner?” Bill sputtered unexpectedly.

Randy raised an eyebrow. “Dinner?”

“I’m sure you’re familiar with the custom. Food. Utensils. Conversation.”

“Well, I don’t know.”

“Bring your wife. I’d love to meet her. And your mother. I’m sure Margaret would like to see her, too.”

Randy laughed. “Now wouldn’t that be a scandalous sight in this town.”

For a moment, Bill didn’t know what Randy meant. Then the awkwardness Randy would feel sprang on him. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I just would love to spend some time with you.” Why haven’t I ever told Nate about you? Why haven’t I seen you in twenty years?

“Well, I don’t think dinner in a restaurant is a great idea, but we’ll figure something out. Margaret said you’re staying out in the cabins?”

“Number 4.”

“I’ll catch you later, Billy Byler.”

 

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