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Twenty-Five

March 1943

One day in the middle of March, Mr. Spooner was too busy to give me a lesson. Besides, he kept saying that I’d been such a fast learner that he didn’t have much more to teach me. I didn’t believe that. Anyway, since it was early and Daddy wasn’t finished at the shop yet, I was walking home alone with my trumpet. I didn’t think much of it when a car passed me on the way home—until I saw it stop in front of my house. Two men in Navy uniforms got out and walked to the front door. I raced toward the house as fast as I could, the trumpet case slapping against my thigh. I wasn’t sure what this meant, but I knew it meant something about Charlie. I got there just as Amy opened the front door to see what they wanted.

“Is your mama home, miss?” one of the men asked quietly.

“Yes, sir. I’ll go tell her ya’ll are here.” Amy left the door slightly ajar as she went to find Mama.

“Ya’ll from the Navy?” I asked abruptly from behind them.

One of them turned with a gentle look. I saw a small silver cross pinned to his collar. “Yes, we are, son,” he said.

“Ya’ll here ‘cause of my brother?”

They looked at each other. “Why don’t we wait until your sister comes back with your mama?”

“Something’s wrong with Charlie. Tell me!” I demanded.

“Your mama can tell you about it later, son.”

“No! You tell me now!”

“Billy Byler, mind your manners!” Mama appeared in the doorway and spoke sharply. “You go inside the house and wait in the kitchen.”

I studied her face; it was tense and strained. Something was wrong. She knew it. I knew it.

“Go on, Billy—all of you, wait in the kitchen.” Mama shooed us off with her hands. Elizabeth, Virginia, Any and I slowly moved through the house to the kitchen. I was the last to go in and I made sure to prop the door open wide.

We couldn’t hear everything, but we saw Mama slump her shoulders and bury her face in her hands. I looked at each of my sisters. Their faces were white, and I’m sure mine was, too.

“They should have come when Daddy was here.” It was Virginia, being sensible as always. I had to admit she was right.

“I’ll get him,” I said. “Miz Clara can call the shop on her telephone.” I was out the back door before anyone could protest.

“Miz Clara, Miz Clara,” I called, pounding on her back door. “I need to use your telephone!”

She opened the door as quickly as she could. “Billy Byler! What on earth!”

“Please, Miz Clara, call my daddy and tell him to come home. And Margaret. Something’s happened to Charlie!”

Miz Clara pulled me into her kitchen. “Are you sure, Billy?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I insisted urgently.  “Two officers from the Navy are talking to Mama and she’s crying. Please, call my daddy.”

In a moment, Miz Clara had the operator on the phone and asked for the barber shop. “Jesse, you’d better come home. … No, right now. Let someone else finish that haircut. … Billy says there are two men from the Navy talking to Louisa right now.”

She turned back to me. “You go on home, Billy. Your daddy’s on his way home. You tell your mama that. I’m going to call Speedy and tell him to go get Margaret in his car. He can pick up your daddy on the way home. And then I’ll be right over to see what I can do. Now git!”

When I got home, the men were gone. Mama was sitting in the parlor with her head down on her knees. The girls hovered around her without a clue what to do. Even Elizabeth looked helpless.

“Mama,” I murmured. “Miz Clara called Daddy and he’s on his way home.” She didn’t move. She wasn’t crying, but it was if she didn’t even hear me. “Mama?” She did not answer.

It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes before Daddy and Margaret and Speedy were home, but it seemed like an eternity. When he came through the door, Daddy looked first at Elizabeth, and she somehow knew exactly what he wanted. She led us all out into the kitchen where we sat without speaking, even Margaret and Speedy.

Finally Daddy came in. He stood behind me with his hands on my shoulders and looked around at us.

“Charlie was killed,” he said quietly.

It was what we all had been thinking, but still it was a shock to hear the words. Amy started crying right away and Margaret squeezed Speedy’s arm so hard I thought the blood would stop flowing.

Virginia was the first to speak. “What happened, Daddy?” she asked hoarsely.

Daddy’s answer was barely above a whisper. “Charlie’s convoy was attacked by German U-boats in the North Atlantic. They sank five ships, including Charlie’s destroyer.”

Daddy’s grip on my shoulders was so tight that it hurt, but I didn’t care. It was the only thing keeping me from jumping up and running out of the house.

We heard the back door open and Miz Clara came in to sit with Mama. Daddy finally released his grip on me and went in the kitchen. He came right back and told me, “I’m going to drive out to the Island for yer Grandma Goodman. Ya’ll do whatever Miz Clara says, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

The next few days were a blur. I never did see Mama cry. But she didn’t talk much either. She just clanked around the kitchen finding corners to scrub and cooked a lot, even though the neighbors and the church ladies were bringing enormous casseroles every day. She insisted that the rest of us go to school and work, but I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I didn’t stay after school for band practice. In fact, I didn’t touch my trumpet at all. On the day we got the news about Charlie, I put it away in its case and stood the case on end in the hall closet. As far as I was concerned, my horn playing days were over. I knew I would think of Charlie every time I touched that instrument, and I just couldn’t stand it.

I flunked two spelling tests and a math quiz. My teacher knew about what happened and tried to be patient, but I didn’t see the point in going to school when I felt this way. So I stopped going. For three days I left the house in the morning with my sisters and stayed gone all day, but I didn’t go to school. One day when it rained I huddled in Amy’s playhouse for four hours. I spent a whole afternoon with Miz Clara. She didn’t make me say or do anything I didn’t want to do. She never even asked why I wasn’t at school. But I knew if I went back there again Miz Clara would feel like she had to tell Mama. I couldn’t just roam around Front Street and have people wondering why I wasn’t in school, and I was running out of places to hide.

I was silently pondering this dilemma at the supper table one night when Mama announced that the Navy had sent notification that Charlie’s body was being shipped home for burial. We could have the funeral the next week.

 

Twenty-Six

Denver was snowed in.

What were the odds, Bill wondered, of one person getting stranded by thunderstorms in Memphis and a snowstorm in Denver, all in the course of two days?

“This is unreal,” he had said to Margaret over and over during the evening.

Bill hadn’t been to Margaret’s house in years, since before Speedy died. It was a rambling place where her three girls had once had their own rooms. Growing up sleeping in a room with three sisters, Margaret had always wanted her own room and never had it. She had to suffer widowhood to finally have her own bedroom. But her girls had ruled in their own domains. With the girls grown and married, the rooms had various purposes—a sewing room, a guest room, a TV room with a pull-out bed in the couch. Bill and Margaret had sat in the TV room for much of the evening looking for news of the weather in Denver. The brief images they saw showed sliding cars on Denver streets and an empty, shut-down Interstate. More than two feet of snow had fallen in twelve hours, and wind-blown snow pulled visibility down to near zero.

Patsy came by, as planned, and Bill was glad to see her. She hadn’t known Bill would be there when she stopped to pick up some food for her mother, and now she fussed apologetically about stretching it to feed another person. Bill kept telling her not to worry about him. Margaret kept saying Patsy had brought food for an army. Tim, Patsy’s husband, didn’t do much, Bill was sorry to see. Tim sat sullenly in the chair nearest to the front door, ready to go the minute they walked in. Bill saw the tremor in Patsy’s right hand as she scooped food onto plates, even though he could tell she was trying to hide it. Before too long, Margaret insisted that Patsy and Tim should be on their way; she had Billy there to do her bidding, she’d said, so they should go on home. After they were gone, Margaret admitted to Bill that she had her doubts about Tim’s ability to deal with Patsy’s illness. She’d always liked Tim well enough, and he made Patsy happy, but now, with the symptoms of Huntington’s progressing visibly, Margaret had a bad feeling about him. She did not know if he was going to be able to adapt his own life in the necessary ways to do what Patsy needed when things got worse. Margaret wondered if she would end up taking care of her daughter after her husband broke her heart.

Bill did not know what to say to that. Leaving because someone you loved was ill was not something he could fathom. Not being willing to change your life—he couldn’t imagine it. If something Bill could do would prolong Nate’s life for one day, or bring him joy one more hour … .

He watched the clock as the hours passed when he should have been boarding the airplane, watching out the window as he flew over Missouri and Kansas and finally the eastern plains of Colorado would have come into view. Now he would have been landing. Now he would have been on his way to the hospital. Now he would have seen Nate.

After Patsy left, Margaret pointed to a bookcase next to the television and directed Bill to retrieve a couple of photo albums.

“The blue one,” she said, “is everybody’s kids. There’s a Nate section and an Alex section.”

“Wow, you’re organized.” Bill opened the album and turned the plastic-covered pages till he found his kids. He stared at Nate’s hospital picture, at birth. He was a long and skinny baby, just as he’d grown into a long and skinny teenager. He looked like such a serious little creature, indignant at having been disturbed for the birth event. Nate’s first Thanksgiving, Nate’s first Christmas, Nate’s first Easter. Nate at one year old, two years, three years. Mindy was fanatic about getting pictures of the kids precisely on their birthdays. Then the school years started. Nate in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, all the way through tenth grade.

“I guess it’s about time for school pictures again,” Bill said.

“Mindy usually sends one in your Christmas card.”

“I didn’t know that,” Bill admitted. He left a lot of things to his wife. I should appreciate her more, he reminded himself. Bill turned the pages to find Alex’s familiar grin. She’d been a ham for the camera right from the start, and he couldn’t help laughing out loud at her photos. In the last couple of school photos, assorted teeth were missing, but that didn’t stop her from beaming at the photographer, her face split with zeal. The unsinkable Alex Byler.

“Now the other one,” Margaret directed.

Bill gasped when he opened the album. “I wondered what became of these. I didn’t know who ended up with the family photos after Mama died.”

“Actually she gave them to me a long time before that,” Margaret said. “I sat down with her one time and made her tell me what she could remember about the pictures.”

Bill turned the pages, looking at the faces of his ancestors and extended family. Grandpa Goodman as a young man in World War I, Grandma as a young bride, his father in a family photo—the only photo ever taken that included Jesse’s little sister who had died very young. Bill stared at that one, knowing that no one had understood then about the gene that would leave Bill unscathed but someday pass to his own son. Had his grandparents felt what he felt as they watched their little girl get sick repeatedly, struggling to breathe, enduring that painful, racking cough? Had they seen her take her last breath?

He turned the page abruptly.

Jesse Byler with his two brothers, older now, all sitting on a bicycle together, Louisa Free before she married Jesse and became Louisa Byler. And then the pictures of Jesse and Louisa’s children. Bill paused over the picture of Charlie as a small child. He could see a little resemblance to Nate—or perhaps he only wanted to see it. He himself, being the youngest of six, was not in many of the pictures. It had always amused him to look at these pictures of his older siblings. Elizabeth had been fond of saying, “That was before you were born,” as if she took pleasure in pointing out that he had disrupted a peaceful family existence just by being born. He’d been born right at the beginning of the Depression, and she had managed to make him feel there was a connection between his arrival and the hard years the family faced after that.

“Did you know Elizabeth used to blame the Depression on me?” he said to Margaret.

She laughed. “Elizabeth liked for everything to be somebody’s fault, a nice clean-cut explanation. You were handy.”

Bill turned to a photo taken on the steps of the church after Margaret’s wedding. He could almost feel that stupid borrowed suit creep against his skin. He was sort of mashed in between Elizabeth and Virginia and not too pleased with the experience.

“Did Mama like Speedy?” he asked suddenly.

“I think so,” Margaret answered. “She always said she did. Why?”

Bill shrugged. “She doesn’t look very happy at your wedding.”

“She wanted the whole family to be there,” Margaret said quietly. “It was my wedding day, but I know she was thinking about how Charlie wasn’t there.”

Bill was silent as he turned several more pages in the album.

“Was she ever happy again after that?” he finally asked. “She functioned. She cooked and cleaned and took care of the rest of us and did whatever needed doing. But I don’t think she was every happy again after—“ His voice broke before he could finish his sentence.

“After Charlie died,” Margaret supplied. “No, she was never the same.”

“To some degree, none of us was,” Bill finally managed to say. “But Mama took it hardest. I remember how she used to sit on the porch and pray, and then she didn’t any more. She still went to her ladies meetings, and never missed a Sunday at church, but it wasn’t the same.”

“She would have been better off if she’d stood in the parlor and screamed at God,” Margaret observed.

Bill had to agree. He had often thought of doing exactly that.

“It has taken me a lot of years,” Bill said, “but I understand now. I wish she had known before she died that I understand now. Maybe she would have forgiven me.”

“Forgiven you? For what?”

“For the way I left. I was a stupid kid. I should have known better after what she’d been through with one son already.”

“You were a grown man, Billy Byler. You were entitled to make your own decisions. We all were.”

“But did I have to hurt Mama so much in the process?”

He turned another page and saw himself, at age thirteen, grinning in a bathroom.

“Oh my gosh, the bathroom! What a triumph that was when Daddy finally decided to put in indoor plumbing.”

“Oh, I think Daddy would have done it sooner. Mama was the hold out.”

“But why? It had to have made her life easier, especially in the kitchen.”

Margaret stared at her brother. “You don’t know where the money came from, do you?”

“Money?” Bill asked.

“For the bathroom. They didn’t put a bathroom in the house sooner because of what it cost. Charlie made Mama the beneficiary of his death benefit from the Navy.”

Bill’s jawed dropped. “That’s where the money came from?”

Margaret nodded. “She waited almost four years before she would spend any of it, as if not spending the death benefit meant he might still come back. Daddy finally convinced her that Charlie would have wanted her to use the money to make life easier.”

“I never knew.”

“You were young enough that she wanted to protect you. There was a little left over from the bathroom, and she set it aside for your trumpet lessons in high school.”

Bill gasped again. “I remember when she told me I could take private lessons, real lessons.”

“She figured if Charlie gave you the horn, he’d want you to learn to play it.”

Another gift from Charlie, via his mother.

Margaret had gone to bed then. Bill looked at the phone, calculated the time difference, and picked up the handset. The phone rang in Nate’s room.

“Hi, Nate.”

“Hi, Dad.”

“How are you tonight?”

“Okay. The doctors are happy with my progress.”

“Good. I’m sorry I couldn’t get there tonight.”

“The blizzard’s not your fault, Dad.”

“I know. Still, I’m sorry not to be there.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m booked on a flight tomorrow.”

“Yeah.”

Clearly Nate was not inclined to conversation. Bill couldn’t help wonder if it was because of how he felt physically or just his general mindset toward his father.

“Well,” Bill said. “I’ll let you rest, and I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

“Yeah.”

Bill hung up the phone and sat in the dark for a long time.

 

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