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Twenty-Three

January 1943

 

“Hey! Billy Byler! Whatcha got in the black box?”

It was the first day of school in January. Bobby and Jerry Runyan looked well scrubbed and friendly in their new clothes, and they were very curious about what I was carrying as they followed me up the front steps of the school building. I had been so wrapped up in my trumpet the last couple of weeks that I had not even noticed that the brothers had not been to see Miz Clara recently. So they hadn’t seen me walking around the backyard working on blowing a clear, even tone.

“Come on, Billy,” Bobby said as he made a grab for the case. “Show us whatcha got.”

Protectively, I clutched the case with both hands.

“Ain’t none o’ yer bidness,” I said with contempt. I hadn’t forgotten about that day in the theater. While they didn’t join the fight against me and Randy, they didn’t defend us either.

“Aw, come on, Billy, just let us see.” Jerry was calmer than his older brother and knew better than to grab stuff that didn’t belong to him, especially from me. I looked him straight in the eyes and decided to trust him.

We were inside the building by this time. The two hundred or so kids that went to our grammar school swarmed around the hallways. I motioned for Bobby and Jerry to follow me off to a quiet spot, and there I opened the tattered black case and revealed the treasure that lay inside. I had borrowed Mama’s silver polish and rubbed the horn several times. The dent in the bell was still there, and the trumpet certainly did not look new, but it was shinier and cleaner than it had been during the long months it sat in the store window, and I was plenty proud of it.

To my satisfaction, Jerry and Bobby were impressed.

“You know how to blow that thing?” one of them asked.

“Yep,” I said smugly. The fact that I didn’t actually blow it very well did not seem important at the moment.

“Yer daddy buy that for you?”

“Nope.”

“Well, you sure didn’t by it yerself. You ain’t got a nickel to your name.”

“Charlie gave it to me.”

“Charlie? How come?

“’Cause he knew I wanted it.”

“That’s all? He bought you a trumpet jes ‘cause you wanted it?” Clearly they were amazed. I basked in the moment.

“So why did ya’ll bring it to school?”

“I aim to join the school band,” I said confidently.

The Runyan boys had never shown any interest or ability in music, so I felt safe in using a superior tone. But I could just hear Mama scolding me for being such a show-off, so I decided it was time to be on my own. I closed up the case and started down the hall to Miss Albright’s fourth grade class. Bobby came with me, but Jerry, two years younger, turned off at the hallway that led to Mrs. McCauley’s second grade room.

I held my trumpet case tightly between my feet under my desk as Miss Albright took roll and made the usual explanations that teachers make about classroom rules and schedules. Finally she got around to explaining that as second semester fourth graders we were now eligible to join the school band. The band teacher, Mr. Erwin, would be in the hallway after school if we wanted to sign up and choose an instrument.

Normally it didn’t bother me very much to be in school, but that day seemed to drag on forever. Finally the three o’clock bell rang and Miss Albright dismissed us. I was the first one to bolt out the door into the hall, and Mr. Erwin smiled at me when he saw what I was carrying.

“I guess I don’t need to ask you what instrument you want to play,” he said.

“No, sir.”

“Will your mama and daddy give permission for you to stay after school every day to learn how to play?”

“Yes, sir.”

He handed me a piece of paper. “Get your mama’s signature on this permission slip and bring that horn back with you day after tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir!”

I was in the band! I was going to learn to play my trumpet!

It was sort of a lopsided band. A lot of girls wanted to play flutes and clarinets, and Mr. Erwin worked hard at persuading some kids to try the trombone or French horn. No one wanted to try the oboe. There were six trumpet players. Two of them were sixth graders who had started learning two years before, but right from the start I was determined that I was going to be the best.

The band practiced after school, so it was harder to keep up with my afternoon visits to the music store, but Mr. Spooner didn’t mind staying a little late with me. As long as the weather stayed nice, Mama let me go. Sometimes Daddy would come by for me when he finished at the shop and we would walk home together. Margaret never walked with him any more. Speedy always came for her.  If I didn’t go to see Mr. Spooner, I raced straight home after band let out so I could practice some more. Amy sometimes would sit and listen to me, but Virginia and Elizabeth were always hollering at me to quit—which only made me determined to practice longer. I don’t know why they never figured that out. The scales got smoother, and the simple melody lines from my band music started to feel easy. I still didn’t have the tone quite right, not like I wanted it to sound, not like the trumpet player at the Christmas Eve service, but the notes were coming along.

After supper, out on the porch, Daddy would help me understand my music and listen patiently as I earnestly tried to make the notes sound like a song that somebody could recognize. To my surprise, Mama would look on and rock or work on her needlepoint.

And then the day came that Daddy said he thought I was ready to learn something that we could play together, me on my horn and him on his guitar.

“What would you like to learn, Billy?” he asked one evening. “If you choose something from the hymnal, you’ll have the notes to follow and I’ll play along with you.”

I didn’t have to think very hard.

“I want to play ‘Amazing Grace.’” My mind was made up. We didn’t get letters from Charlie, and we didn’t really know where he was most of the time. But we all thought about him. Every day. Every time the news came on the radio. Every night out on the porch in the chilly air. And for me, every time I put my horn to my lips.

“When Charlie comes home, I want to play ‘Amazing Grace’ for him.”

Daddy smiled. “That’s a fine idea, Billy.”

So we put on sweaters every evening and turned on the dim yellow electric light that hung in the middle of the porch ceiling. Daddy and I still went out every night after supper even when everyone else thought it was too chilly. At first I hadn’t known what to make of Daddy’s interest in my trumpet playing. I thought maybe he was testing me, to see if I was really going to stick with it or if he should try to get Charlie’s money back. But after a while, I realized that he truly was pleased. Everyone in the family enjoyed singing, and a couple of the girls had really nice voices, but no one had ever asked to play an instrument before. While my sisters and the neighbors thought I was making an annoying racket, Daddy understood that I was learning to make music.

Between Mr. Erwin at school and Mr. Spooner at the music store and Daddy at home, I was almost never not working on learning to play. Horrendous sounds turned into notes, notes turned into scales and tunes. “Amazing Grace” was coming right along. Even Mama smiled at my progress. Once she even asked me to play “Amazing Grace” while she was washing dishes and, I’m sure, thinking about Charlie.

Sundays at the Island continued as winter showed signs of turning into spring. Every week Randy and I acted like we hadn’t seen each other in five years, and every week I sneaked him some of Grandma’s chicken. I knew she knew, and she knew that I knew she knew. But it was still fund to pretend I was sneaking. Speedy started coming with us most weeks. I guess I was going to have to get used to having him around.

One Sunday around noon Margaret broke away from work in the kitchen, and she and Speedy held hands and started walking down to the river. It was pretty chilly to be outside, but I guess they really wanted to be alone. So of course Randy and I took out after them. We were quiet at first, keeping our distance. Once they reached the bank of the river, we started closing in on them. Casually we looked around and chose a spot where we could see them clearly—but not so close that they could really complain we were crowding them—and perched ourselves on a rock. I had my trumpet with me like I always did, and now I brought it to my lips.

At first the notes were low and short, just little toots, every now and then. Gradually I started playing from memory some of the songs we had working on at school or some of the melodies Daddy had been teaching me. It was not long before I was blowing hard and loud. Actually I thought I was sounding pretty good out there. After all, I was the best trumpet player in the school. But it was beginning to get to Margaret. I caught her glancing over her shoulder at me more and more frequently.

“Billy Byler! Will ya’ll get outa here, please?” she shouted at me.

“Daddy says it’s important to practice every day,” I said calm as sunlight.

“Then go practice in Daddy’s ear!” She was mad.

I played another scale, moving quickly up and down the scale several times, then modulating a half step up and playing another.

Margaret left Speedy standing on the bank and furiously marched up toward Randy and me. Before I knew it she had grabbed the trumpet and was trying her best to rip it away from me. I held on for dear life, because she was pulling like she really meant to take it. But my grip was no match for her fury, and she wrestled it away from me faster than I thought she could. I was stunned—and horrified at what she might do now, with the pier out over the water right there.

Now that she had it in her hands and the noise had stopped, Margaret started to settle down. She looked at the trumpet without saying anything, just breathing hard. Speedy still stood by the river and hadn’t said a word. He pretended that he was looking out at the water.

“Billy,” Margaret said through her teeth, “what I really want to do is to throw this thing in the water so I won’t never have to listen to you blowin’ on it again. But Charlie gave it to you, and that means something to me even if it don’t mean anything to you. Some day ya’ll will be a fine horn player, I’m sure, but would you and Randy jes’ get lost?”

Wordless, I reached for the trumpet and carefully took it out of her grip. There wasn’t much Margaret had ever done that really bothered me, but I had to admit, she got to me when she snatched that horn from me and threatened to throw it in the river. Randy followed my cue and we walked back up to the house, the horn securely tucked under my arm the whole way up. I put the horn back in its case and put the case under a blanket in the back of Daddy’s truck. Losing that horn would be like losing Charlie. I wasn’t taking any chances.

 

 Twenty-Four

They loaded up the car right after breakfast—what little there was to load. Randy brought Margaret’s car over from the garage just to say goodbye; they planned to meet at her house in Memphis in a couple of hours. Bill made Margaret sit in the back seat so she could keep her foot elevated and iced during the journey. He adjusted the rear view mirror so he could see her if he stretched his neck the right way.

Even the landscape was nostalgic. When Bill had first moved to Colorado twelve years earlier, he’d thought the landscape lacking and colorless. Where was the green grass? Where were the fall colors? Where was the water? Though he had come to appreciate the beauty of red rock formations and the shimmering aspens in the fall—and even scrub oak—the ornate, florid vegetation of his home state felt like the real thing. Something about this drive pulled at the deepest part of him.

“So how’s Nate?” Margaret asked as they pulled out onto the highway.

“Holding steady,” Bill answered, heading east. “He’s not in any immediate danger.”

“And Mindy? How she holding up?”

“She slept at home last night. She said she did it for Alex, but I’m sure did her some good to be in her own bed the whole night.”

“Well, in a few more hours, you’ll be there yourself.”

It wouldn’t be soon enough.

They rode in silence for a while. Bill glanced at his sister in the mirror every now and then.

“I remember the first time I went to Memphis with Daddy,” Margaret said after a while. “It was before you were born. I was eight, or maybe only seven.”

“What was the occasion?”

“He was picking up furniture. He worked for the furniture store back then, doing deliveries. I don’t remember why I got to go with him. Usually he took Charlie, if he took any of us. But that day it was just the two of us.”

“I remember going with him once,” Bill said. “I don’t remember furniture, though.”

“No, it wouldn’t have been. That store didn’t last long once the Depression started. He had taken up barbering by the time you were born.”

“So why would he go to Memphis?”

Margaret shrugged. “Friends, maybe. Shopping for a tool. I don’t remember either.”

“I remember when you moved to Memphis,” Bill said, “you and Speedy.”

Margaret laughed. “That was some day, wasn’t it? Get married in the morning, move to Memphis in the afternoon.”

“That was all one day? I’d forgotten.”

“You hated the clothes. Mama borrowed a suit for you from one of Miz Clara’s grandsons. You couldn’t stand the thought of wearing anything those boys had touched.” Margaret laughed.

“Well, if you’d known those boys better, you would have understood. How old was I? Ten? Eleven?”

“Just turned eleven. I was all of twenty when I married Speedy. After Charlie … well, Speedy wanted to join up. But his flat feet kept him out of the army. He decided the next best thing was to work for a manufacturer in Memphis. He had convinced himself he was helping the war effort.”

“Did you ever think you’d stay in Memphis?”

“No, not really. I thought we’d go home after the war. But Speedy had a good job by then, and Sue Ellen was on the way. It didn’t seem like a good time to leave a job and compete with the returning servicemen for another one.”

“The distance is really nothing, now. But I don’t remember you coming home that much.”

“We didn’t. Speedy worked a lot of weekends, and after Sue Ellen was born, and then Patsy … well, it just got complicated. Once I had Linda, it was just too much to manage on my own. I thought Mama and Daddy would come to see me more than they did. I had their only grandchildren, after all.”

“But they didn’t go all that much, did they?”

“Not so much. You know Daddy and Saturdays at the barber shop.”

Bill sighed. “I think it had more to do with Mama. She was never the same … .”

“I know. I felt guilty for leaving Morrowville when she was that way.”

“You had to start your own life, Margaret. You were right to leave.”

They continued without talking for probably twenty minutes. Bill saw in the mirror that Margaret was dozing.

“I talked to Patsy,” she said abruptly, her eyes still closed. “Last night.”
“How is she?”

“She’s okay. She missed a couple of days of work last week, but she’s better. I thought maybe she could meet us for lunch, but she’ll be working.”

“It would have been good to see her, but I’m glad she’s feeling better.”

“I want to go out to lunch, and I want Randy go to with us.”

“I … I’m not sure what his plans are.”

“I know a restaurant we can go to where no one will think twice that he’s with us.”

“In Memphis?” Memphis may not have been the Deep South, but neither was it the enlightened North.

“Yes, in Memphis. We’ve heard of the Civil Rights Movement, you know. Besides, no one will know him there. It won’t matter.”

“We can ask him.”

They were approaching the river now, the mighty Mississippi. Nothing in Colorado compared, in Bill’s opinion. His heart quickened slightly just at the thought of seeing it again; he knew it was irrational, but it was true. His eyes panned from side to side, taking in the breathless view as he drove across the bridge.

“You don’t see this in Colorado,” he said aloud.

“Mmm, I suppose not,” Margaret answered. “But your mountains are a fair bit bigger than ours.”

“True enough. The Rockies trump the Ozarks. Still, the rivers around here—“

“Everything has its own beauty, Billy Byler. You just have to open your eyes and see it.”

“That sounds like something Grandma would have said.”

“She did. When I wasn’t sure I wanted to move to Memphis. I told her I would miss Sundays on the Island.” Margaret paused to point. “Take the first exit after the bridge.”

Bill put on his turn signal and changed lanes.

Randy was waiting for them in Margaret’s driveway. Margaret wouldn’t listen when he tried to beg off lunch, so they soon found themselves in her safe restaurant for an early lunch. Bill noticed Randy looking around with a mixture of nervousness and relief. The waitress took their orders without a flicker of emotion.

Outside, a gaggle of kids marched by carrying band instruments.

“Look, Billy!” Margaret said.

Billy smiled. “Those are Gibbon Winds cases. Where are they going in the middle of the day?”

“I read in the paper last week about some kind of solo and ensemble competition.”

“That must be it. They’re sure to do well with Gibbons.”

“You’re a little biased.”

“Just speaking the truth.”

“You still playing the trumpet, Billy?” Randy asked.

Bill nodded. “Selling them now, too. Clarinets, flutes, saxophones—the whole line.”

“Well, I’ll be! And it all started with that trumpet in the corner of that store that ain’t there anymore.”

Bill smiled and nodded again. “My Christmas trumpet.”

“Oh my goodness, I thought I was going to lose my mind while you were learning to play that thing!” Margaret exclaimed.

“No pain, no gain,” Bill said.

“But did you have to aim that pain at me?” Margaret was laughing.

“That’s what made it fun. Who knows, maybe I wouldn’t have learned to play so well if it hadn’t bothered you so much.”

“The more I hollered at you, the more you played.”

“Charlie gave you that trumpet, didn’t he?” Randy asked.

“That and a lot more.”

“You almost gave it up, as I recall.”

Bill sighed. “But I couldn’t. Charlie went to a lot of trouble to make sure I got it. I couldn’t just quit.”

“So you kept blowin’ in my ear and under my feet and behind my back.”

“The strategy worked, didn’t it? Turned into making a living.”

“Whatever became of that thing?” Margaret wanted to know.

“I still have it,” Billy answered.

“You still play it?” Randy asked in astonishment.

Bill shook his head. “Not really. It would need a lot of work to really be playable. But I still have it. Mindy almost gave it away the last time we moved. It was in a box in the basement, and she thought it was all junk. I rescued it from the Goodwill pile just in time.”

“How many trumpets you got now?” Randy asked.

“Three,” Bill admitted, “and a tenor baritone.”

“How much you play?”

“Community groups, churches, holiday quartets, that sort of thing.”

Randy wagged his head in amazement. “Who would have thought? Old Mr. Spooner would fall over dead if he wasn’t already dead.”

Bill glanced at his watch. “Hey, I hate to break up the party, but I’ve got a plane to catch.”

They settled the check, then Bill dropped Randy at his friend’s garage to catch his ride and took Margaret home. He helped her limp inside and get settled on the sofa.

“You sure you’re going to be all right here alone?” he asked.

“Absolutely. Everything is within hopping distance. Tim will bring Patsy by after work.”

“Mind if I use your phone to call Mindy?” Bill was already reaching for the phone. Mindy answered on the first ring.

“Thank goodness you called,” she said. “I’ve been trying to reach you. Have you checked in with the airline?”

“No, not today. What’s wrong?”

“The weather, Bill. Have you looked at the weather today?”

“No, we drove over from Morrowville, then went out to lunch. I’m just getting ready to leave for the airport now.”

“Denver is slammed, Bill. We were supposed to get our first snow of the season, and it’s turned into a blizzard. You know Colorado weather. The airport is closed.”

“Closed? No, this can’t be happening.”

“They’re saying the storm will blow through pretty quickly, but right now the city is shut down. I can’t even get to the hospital to see Nate. Nobody is flying in or out of Denver.”

Bill groaned. “That means they’ll be backed up all over again.”

“I’m sorry, Bill. I know how much you want to be here. But you’d better call the airline.”

 

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