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Seventeen

August 1942

 Charlie’s time at home was almost up. In less than a week he’d be gone, and we didn’t know when we would see him again. Nobody seemed to talk about it much, but I saw Mama sitting on the porch a lot, praying, with her Bible open in her lap. I suppose she was disappointed God had not answered her prayers for Charlie to have a safe desk job in the States. So she just prayed that much harder that he would be safe in Europe.

Mama made sure we all went to Sunday school every week, and when we went out to the Island, Grandma Goodman always had a way of making Bible stories really exciting. But I was most impressed by the way Mama kept praying, no matter what happened to anyone in the family. Normally Daddy was the gentle one, but when she prayed Mama got that way, too.

One day Grandma Goodman had sent my friend Randy’s daddy into town with a long list of stuff to get, so Randy stopped by to pass the time with me. We hadn’t seen each other since that day on the Island when we discovered that Charlie was all right after all, and we had big plans for how we would spend the day. Even though it wasn’t Saturday, Mama gave me permission to go the movies. I had already seen the picture with Aunt Lennie and the girls, but that didn’t matter. I only cared that Randy and I were going to be together.

We walked into town and went up and down Front Street at least half a dozen times. I didn’t quite have the nerve to go into the drug store, but we spent a lot of time in Ted’s Dime Store looking at things my sisters would never let me go near, much less touch. When we got hungry we went down to the bakery and ate chocolate chip cookies. I had to buy them, because colored folks weren’t allowed in that bakery, and we ate them on the sidewalk with the sun melting the chips faster than we could get them in our mouths. Hopefully Mama would not ask me about what I ate all day. After that it was almost time for the matinee to start, so we wandered down toward the theater. There was only one store window that I loved to look in, but nobody knew except Randy. It was a small shop, and the building needed some repairs, but the front window was what I was interested in. It was the music store, the only one we had in our little town, and in the window was a collection of used instruments for sale. Whenever Randy and I were in town together, we would stand and look at the trumpet in the left corner.

I don’t know how long it had been there, probably almost a year. The silver bell had a dent in it, and the finish was tarnished in places, but it looked to me like it had once been a fine horn. When the sun caught it just right, it glimmered like an angel should play it. I loved to stand there and imagine what it would be like to play an instrument. I guess if I had asked Daddy, he gladly would have taught me to play the guitar, but somehow that wasn’t the same as learning to play the trumpet.

Eventually the shop owner came out and scowled at us. We stood there so long that it must have looked suspicious. Maybe he’d heard what I done at the drug store. Or else he got tired of us always looking and never buying. Anyway, we left and went on down to the theater and bought tickets from Margaret. Because he was colored, Randy had to go around to the door off the alley and go into the theater the back way. Normally he only would be allowed to sit up in the balcony, but one time when only a few other people were there, the owner let us sit together in the back row of the main floor, over in the corner. We were going to try that again. I bought popcorn for the both of us and we settled into our seats in a dark corner.

“Whatsa matter, Billy Byler? Cain’t ya’ll find no real people to sit with?”

I turned my head and saw Jerry and Bobby Runyan and some other boys standing in the center aisle. Bobby and Jerry knew from experience not to say anything about my friendship with Randy, but these other kids didn’t. I recognized them from school, but they were two grades ahead of me and I didn’t really know them too well.

“Ya’ll jes’ shut up,” I snapped, and turned back to the screen, hoping the movie would start right that minute.

“Must be nice to have yo’ own personal slave,” said the kid in the aisle. “But why does ya’ll take him to the picture show?”

I glared at him and he leered at me.

“We’s just here to see the picture, same as ya’ll,” I said. “Leave us alone.”

“I ain’t too sure I wanna stay if he’s gonna be here.”

“Suit yerself.” I wished he would leave.

“On second thought, mebbe ya’ll better get rid of him if ya wanna see the show.”

“He paid for his ticket, and we aim to see the show.”

The bully had moved to the row right ahead of me, and now he slid over one seat at a time until he was directly in front of Randy right up against the wall.

“It ain’t no matter to me if he paid for his ticket. I don’t want him in here.” He stuck his face right up against mine and dared me to say anything else.

“Ya’ll don’t own the theater.”

He dived over the seat so fast I couldn’t prepare. His head made a direct hit on my belly, knocking the air out of me. Randy started banging on his shoulder, but it was no use. Two other kids jumped Randy from behind and knocked him to the cement floor between the rows of seats. One of them sat on his chest, while the other helped to wrestle me down. My arms were swinging at whatever was in the way, but unfortunately that was not much. My face got hit several times. I was sure to have a shiner, and my nose was starting to bleed. Still, I flailed my arms around until I was pinned down completely—it took two of them to keep me down.

“You boys cut that out!” The manager of the theater was there now, pulling us apart. There weren’t many people in the place for a weekday matinee, but still, it was hard to miss the ruckus. And I guess Jerry and Bobby had the good sense to go get help before things got worse, the one decent think I ever remember them doing.

The manager turned to me. “Billy Byler, ya’ll are in here every week. Ain’tcha know better than to get into a scrap in here?”

“It ain’t my fault!” I defended myself loudly. “Randy and me—we jes’ came to see the show. These guys started throwing punches.”

“I don’t care who started it, I want the bunch of ya’ outa here right now.” He gave me a good shove up the aisle, and did the same to Randy. “Now git goin’. I’m gonna give ya’ll a head start, so ya’ll better git on home real fast.”

The older kids didn’t seem to have a mark on them and had not said a word. I didn’t know for sure if the manager was really going to kick them out, too, or not. Maybe he was just as happy to have my colored friend out of his theater. Margaret thought he was a nice man, but I never trusted him much.

I was really gonna be in hot water with Mama now. Charlie was not there with me to soften her up. But first I had to get past Margaret at the ticket window. She saw me and nearly screamed. Her handkerchief waving, she came running out of her little booth. My nose was really bleeding now, and I’d have to get it to stop before I could go home. Margaret made me lie down on the lobby floor and put my head back, and finally the bleeding slowed and then stopped.

“I know ya was jes’ stickin’ up for Randy, but Mama is gonna be mad as a hornet that ya’ll been fightin’.”

Leave it to Margaret to tell me what I already knew.

She wiped off the area around my right eye and I winced. “Ya’ll think ya can make it home now?”

To my surprise, she seemed genuinely concerned. As much as I teased her, I half expected Margaret to figure I got what I had coming.

“I’ll be fine. I’ll go slow.”

Margaret quickly looked around the lobby, which was empty. “Randy, your daddy is down the street,” she said. “I jes’ saw him go into the hardware store a minute ago. Ya’ll go find him. There’ll be a mess of trouble if they catch you in the lobby.”

Randy gave me a farewell look and did as Margaret instructed, being careful that no one saw him leaving by the side door. In another minute I was on my feet and headed for home myself. Walking slowly only postponed the inevitable. When Mama saw my face she nearly dropped the stack of plates she had in her hand. Charlie, who was sitting at the kitchen table, was quick to grab the dishes and set them down safely.

“What happened, Billy?” he asked, while Mama went to the sink for a cold cloth.

“Aw, there was some kids who didn’t like Randy. But I didn’t start it, honest. We jes’ wanted to see the movie.”

Mama had started dabbing at my eye. “You have enough chances to see Randy on the Island or here at home. Why did you have to go into town with him?”

“Why shouldn’t they go into town, Mama?” Charlie said sharply. “He just said they only wanted to see the picture.”

“If they stayed near the house, ain’t no trouble to get into around here.”

“Mama!” Charlie snatched the rag right out of her hand and made her look at him straight on. “You mean, because Randy is a Negro, Billy should only play with him on the Island or around here?”

Mama was getting defensive, and I didn’t know what to say. I had not expected Charlie to get involved, and I had no idea he would say what he said.

“I only mean to say I don’t like my boy gettin’ hurt” Mama said. “Around here he’d be okay.”

“Ain’t no picture showing around here, Mama,” Charlie said, with a definite bite in his voice. “Randy’s got a right to see the picture.”

“’Course he does,” Mama agreed. “I jes’ don’t like Billy gettin’ involved.”

“Mama, I know ya’ll don’t like it that I’m going to Europe, but you believe in the president, I know you do. And he says that what the Nazis are doing to the Jews ain’t right, and we gotta stand up to them. What the Germans are doing to the world ain’t right. That’s why I’m going to Europe. And that’s why Billy wants to go to the picture show with Randy.”

“It ain’t the same, Charlie,” Mama argued.

“It ain’t no different, Mama,” Charlie countered. “It’s different folks and a different place, but it’s the same war.”

Charlie put the rag down on the table and walked out of the kitchen. I wasn’t sure I understood everything he’d said, but I did know that he understood about Randy. I stood still, not knowing what to do next.

“Ya’ll go get washed up for supper, Billy,” Mama told me. She turned back to what was on the stove.

“Yes, ma’am.” I walked through the porch and out to the pump to splash water on my face and hands. Charlie was out there, sitting in a chair in the grass and staring out at nothing.

I dawdled in the water, trying to think what to say.

“Charlie?”
He didn’t answer, so I tried again.

“Charlie?”

“Yes, Billy?” He didn’t turn to look at me, so I went over and sat in the grass next to his chair.

“If what the Nazis is doin’ is wrong, why don’t God just make the war end? He could do that, couldn’t he?”

“I don’t doubt it, Billy. But I ain’t got no answer to your question.”

We sat together without talking until Mama called us to supper.

 

Eighteen

 

“The ice is melted,” Margaret said over the phone line.

“I’ll go out and get some more.”

“Thanks, but never mind. My foot is so cold, it’s about to turn blue.”

“Later, then.”

“We’ll get some while we’re out.”

“What?”

“Have you noticed it stopped raining?”

Bill glanced out the window. In fact he had noticed that the day was getting sunnier by the moment.

“This conversation is a little hard to follow,” he said.

“Let’s go to the cemetery.”

“Oh, come on, Margaret. Isn’t it enough we went to church? Haven’t we been down memory lane enough for one day?”

“This is the last day we have. You know you have to do this, Billy Byler.”

“I know no such thing.”

“It’s why you came.”

“I wish you would quit saying that.”

“I will when you admit it’s true.”

“Well, I am getting a little stir crazy, but I’m not sure the cemetery is the answer.”

“Trust me.”

“Why should I?”

“When you were little, you gave me plenty of reason not to trust you, Billy Byler. But I never gave you any reason not to trust me.”

“That was all in fun, and you know it. Besides it’s ancient history.”

“Not so ancient if it’s pulling you back to Morrowville.”

“You’re not going to let go of this, are you?” he asked, the first step in surrender.

“So you’ll pull your car over around to my cabin in about ten minutes?” Margaret made little effort to hide her victory.

Bill sighed. He hung up the phone and picked up his jacket.

In the aftermath of yesterday’s protracted thunderstorm, the October day now seemed excessively bright. Once Bill pulled away from the shaded cabins, he wished he had thought to grab sunglasses. In Denver with its chronic brightness, he wore them year round.

“I talked to Nate,” he told his sister.

“How’s he doing?”

“He seemed a little annoyed that I’d called.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

“You haven’t seen Nate since he became a teenager. It’s true. I’m not sure he even wants me to come.”

“Sounds like a normal teenager, then. When my girls were teenagers, I wasn’t allowed within thirty yards of them.”

But what if they’d had a life-threatening illness? He wanted to ask. Would you have stayed thirty yards out in that case?

“I’m sure when you get there tomorrow,” Margaret was saying, “he’ll be glad you’re there.”

“Even if he’s not, I will be.” And that was the simple truth of it.

Morrowville had three cemeteries, which had always seemed like a lot to Bill for such a small town. Years ago, burials had been divided racially—and perhaps they still were—and then, secondarily, by financial status. Most of the Bylers were buried in one cemetery, in scattered plots over the decades, but Jesse and Louisa Byler were buried with the Goodmans. Years and years ago, Grandpa Goodman had purchased six plots. They were unused for decades, until Grandpa himself died, and the family laid him to rest in the first grave. No one talked about it all those years ago, but everyone assumed Grandma would be next, so they reserved the second grave for her.

The shock was that Charlie, not Grandma, was next. No one had planned on that.

Three more decades passed before Jesse and Louisa claimed their spots. One remained, undesignated. Next to Charlie.

“It’s coming up soon,” Margaret warned Bill as they wove through town.

“I know where it is,” Bill assured her. In another fifty yards, he turned on his left turn signal, then made the turn. He began to circle around to the left, following the road inside the cemetery gates.

“Where are you going?” Margaret demanded.

He looked at her, confused. “To the graves, of course. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“Then you should have turned right.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You’re not remembering right.”

“I think I am. We go this way for a while, then we turn right and then left. You’re just a turn ahead of yourself.”

“You always were a stubborn boy.” Margaret rearranged the bouquets of flowers she held in her lap.

He held his tongue.

Margaret pointed to a statue. “I always use that as a landmark for where to turn. But we’re supposed to come at it from the other direction.”

“Well, we found it, didn’t we?” Bill made the turn he was certain was correct. “It should be along in here somewhere.” He eased the car to a stop and parked at the edge of the road.

“This doesn’t look right,” Margaret insisted.

“It’s right. I’m sure of it.” He pointed passed some columns. “It should be right over there, right past that crooked looking tree, near the bench.”

“I do remember the bench.”

“Are you going to hobble up there with me or not?”

“I don’t hobble. I have a slight limp.”

Bill got out of the car and went around to the other side and opened Margaret’s door. He bore her full weight as she pulled herself upright, then they stood together considering their position.

Bill glanced down at Margaret’s wrapped foot. “We don’t have to do this, you know.”

“Nonsense.”

“The ground is going to be slippery from all the rain.”

“Quit making excuses. You need to do this, and I’m here to make sure you do.”

“If you fall, you’re going to take me with you, and I’m not too keen on that.”

“You got the worry gene from Mama, I think. Only it becomes more serious with each generation.”

That made him smile. “Okay, but let’s take it slow and easy.”

She leaned on him and pointed. “That way.”

At last they agreed on something. Slowly, they tottered up the small rise that took them to the formation of columns that Bill had spotted earlier. The spongy earth made progress challenging, just as he’d feared. With each step, while he waited for Margaret to limp forward, he felt his weight sink and dampness seep into his shoes and the cuffs of his trousers. The sun was still strong, but his feet were getting cold. Their rhythm of movement made it unavoidable to tear up the ground.

Past the columns, off to the side of the tree, they looked down. This section of the cemetery had always used flat gravestones. Nothing protruded from the ground to help you know where you were. From some angles, the land looked more like a park than a cemetery. At the moment, Bill would have appreciated a landmark in the form of a tombstone. There ought to be five family graves right here, but he couldn’t see any of the markers.

“What have they done with Mama and Daddy?” Margaret asked.

“They’re here,” Bill insisted. “We’re probably just a few yards off the mark.”

“Did we go too far past the tree?”

“I didn’t think so.”

“I don’t like this, Billy.”

Neither did he. “Look, Margaret, why don’t you sit down on the bench and I’ll keep looking.”

She complied without argument. While she sat on the cement bench, Bill used the side of his shoe to scrape away vegetative debris redistributed by the storm.

Hansen.

Paulka.

Hayden.

Zoroki.

Goodman.

There it was, Goodman. “I found them,” he called over shoulder. He knelt and used his hands to brush aside the dead grass over his grandparents’ graves.

“Come and get me,” Margaret called to him. Bill retraced his steps to retrieve his sister and led her back to the graves.

“Mama and Daddy must be right over there, then,” Margaret said, gesturing.

It wasn’t much work to clear their markers, their grandparents and their parents all in a row. Bill knelt and pulled up the metal vases built into the markers, and they distributed flowers.

“This is as far as you came the last time,” Margaret said.

“What do you mean?” Bill asked.

“When we buried Mama—or Daddy, for that matter. This is as far as you came. The other one is over there.” She pointed.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Bill said.

“Don’t get stubborn now, Billy,” Margaret said, her tone softening. “The other grave is over there, a little separate, and you didn’t want to take those few steps.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Elizabeth, Amy and I—we wanted to gather around Charlie’s grave after Mama’s funeral. You wouldn’t come with us.”

Bill was silent.

“It was bad enough that Virginia hadn’t come to Mama’s funeral. We missed her, because she hadn’t been back to the States in several years. We thought we were losing you, too, that day. You wouldn’t walk from here to there to look at your brother’s grave.”

Bill swallowed hard.

“It’s okay, Billy,” Margaret said. “You’re afraid Nate is going to die too soon. It’s okay to say that.”

“He will,” Bill said, hardly above a whisper.

“And Charlie died too soon,” Margaret continued, her voice low. “Even Speedy … .”

Bill looked over toward Charlie’s grave. Leaning now on Margaret as much as she was leaning on him, he began to move toward it.

But he couldn’t find it. Panic welled up in him. Where was Charlie’s grave?

He kicked at the grass. He knelt, with Margaret’s hand on his shoulder to support her, and swiped at twigs. He felt all around the area like a blind man.

“Where is it, Margaret? Are we not in the right spot?”

“I’m sure we are. It has to be right here,” she insisted.

“I can’t find it!”

“Billy, we’ll find it.”

They both looked again at their landmarks—the four columns, the crooked tree, the graves of their parents.

“This has to be it,” Margaret said.

“Well, I can’t find it.”

It was like losing Charlie all over again. It was the fear of losing Nate come true. Bill kicked at the ground, willing the marker to appear.

“Let’s go to the office and get help,” Margaret suggested.

“It’s Sunday. No one will be there.”

“Let’s try.”

They limped back to the car and drove around the circle to the office of the cemetery. Bill rattled the door, and to his surprise a young man in a dark suit answered. He collected himself enough to speak calmly.

“I’m looking for my brother’s grave, but I’m having trouble finding it.”

The young man stepped to the desk. “Name?”

“Charles Nathaniel Byler,” Bill answered.

“Year of death?”
“1943.”

The man sighed slightly. “That was a long time ago.”

“He was still my brother,” Bill said impatiently.

The young man moved to a rank of file cabinets, read the labels carefully and finally pulled a drawer open. After a minute, he pulled out a file and studied it. On a photocopied map of the cemetery grounds, he marked an “x” and wrote “Havenwood D-107.” Then he laid the map before Bill and started to give instructions.

“I was just there,” Bill said. “My sister and I both. We couldn’t find it.”

“Perhaps this map will help.”

“Thanks, but I don’t think it will.” Bill pointed to where his parents were buried on the map. “My grandparents are here, my parents here, and my brother here. But we can’t find his marker. I would like it if someone could help us find it.”

“Of course,” the young man said. “I’ll just pull a car around and meet you up there.”

Bill went back to his car and reported to Margaret. They drove back around the curving road to where they had parked before. The cemetery staff car pulled up behind them.

“My foot is throbbing, Billy,” Margaret said quietly. “I think I’ll stay here this time.”

The young man, map in hand, paced off exactly where the marker should be and looked at the ground. He looked down and saw what Bill had seen—grass, mud, twigs, but no marker. “It should be right here,” the young man said, looking at the map. “It’s right next to this empty plot.”

Yes, I know about the empty plot, the empty plot waiting to be filled with another Byler. Bill looked at the space that would some day be a grave. Whose? With a shudder, he turned back to the grave he could not find, the one he knew was there.

The young man in the black suit knelt. With gloved hands, he began digging deeper, moving dirt, not simply the topical accumulation. Gradually, Charlie’s marker emerged. “There. It’s here, right where it should be.”

“Is it supposed to be so overgrown?” Bill asked sharply.

“I’m sorry for that, sir. I’ll put in a work order immediately to have the grave tended properly.

“Thank you,” Bill managed to say.

“I’ll just leave you then.”

“Yes.”

The man left. Bill glanced over at Margaret in the car, but she was too far away to see her expression. He turned his gaze back to the marker. Charles Nathaniel Byler.

That was Nate’s name, too. When he’d said he wanted to name their son after his brother, Mindy’s only request was to call him Nate instead of Charlie. Charlie was an old man’s name, she said, not the name of a little boy born in 1965. Nate. Bill had liked it immediately.

Nate.

Bill knelt and moved his hands over the raised lettering of the marker. A sob escaped the same time as a laugh, as he realized that Margaret was right about everything after all.

 

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