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Twenty-Seven

March 1943

 

Daddy went to see the preacher and the funeral director the next day and they decided to have the funeral on Tuesday morning. The Navy said Charlie could have a full military funeral, but Mama just wanted a graveside service with the family all there and Charlie’s friends from school if they wanted to come. Charlie would be buried across from Grandpa Goodman. I hadn’t known Grandpa Goodman much, but I knew Charlie admired him, so I thought it was a good idea to bury him there. So it was all set.

On the Sunday before the funeral, Mama and Daddy got up early to get ready for church. I could hear the girls moving around, too. I was lying in my bed trying to ignore the noise and the daylight. School had been hard enough; church would be unbearable. There already had been people at our house telling Mama it was God’s will and she should accept it. I just didn’t believe that. God didn’t want Charlie to die. I didn’t think God wanted anyone to die, but I was still mad that he was letting it happen—that he had let it happen to Charlie. I couldn’t go to church. I didn’t see how Mama and Daddy could even think about it.

“Billy, time to get up,” Mama called down the hall. “It’s getting late. Get up and go wash your face.” She turned back to the kitchen.

“No, ma’am.” I whispered, trying it on for size.

Mama hears everything. She wheeled around and looked at me sharply. “What did you say?”

“I said no, ma’am. I cain’t go to church today, Mama.”

“Ya’ll feel sick?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Then what’s this nonsense about not goin’ to church? Get up and get dressed.” She turned and walked away again.

I swung my feet over the side of the bed and sat up. I thought about my blue trousers and white shirt that I always wore to church, but it was as if I couldn’t move. Margaret whizzed by and said, “Get moving, you lazy bum.” Elizabeth was arguing with Virginia about some stupid blue hair ribbon. Amy walked up to my bed, stopped to look at me, and then moved on without speaking to me. She went into the girls’ room and said she needed a blue ribbon, too. My chest was about to burst open. Charlie was dead, and my sisters were fighting over hair ribbons. Charlie was dead, and my mother wanted to go to church. Charlie was dead, and my father had not missed a single day of work. I knew they loved Charlie. Until last summer they had all loved him more than I had. So how could they keep going?

“Billy Byler, you get dressed this minute!” Mama hollered at me. “I mean it!”

Slowly I lowered myself to the floor and pulled out bottom drawer of my dresser to find my clothes. I heard Daddy go out the back to start the truck and I knew I really had to hurry. Somehow I managed to get dressed and out to the truck before Mama scolded me any more.

Daddy parked across from the church and everyone got out and straggled across the street. We were nearly up to the door when I had the urge to bolt—and I did.

“No!” I screamed, and ran up the block.

“Billy Byler, ya’ll come back here!” Mama had said just what I thought she would say, but I kept going. I heard Daddy saying something to her and turned my head just long enough to see him urging her to go on into the church. Mama went in, but Daddy didn’t. When I stopped to catch my breath at the end of the third block, I saw Daddy following me. He would catch me eventually, so I gave up and sat down on the curb. When he got there, I had my head down on my knees. I felt him sit beside me and waited for him to say something—but he didn’t.

We sat like that for a long time. After a while I figured out that Daddy was not there to scold me.

“I just cain’t go to church today, Daddy.”

“Ya’ll don’t have to,” he said, to my relief. “We’ll sit here as long as you like.”

“I ain’t been goin’ to school, either, Daddy,” I confessed.

“I know. Your teacher stopped by to see me about that at the shop.”

I looked up at him for the first time. “She did? At the shop?”

“Yep. I told her it was best to jes’ leave you be for the time bein’.”

“Does Mama know?”

“She ain’t said. I think she suspects.”

We sat in silence a while longer. The faint sounds of the opening hymn at the church drifted toward us.

Then Daddy said, “Ya’ll ain’t never been to a funeral, have ya, Billy?”

“No, sir.”

“Your mama thinks yer too young, but I think you should come to Charlie’s funeral.”

I had been thinking about this for days. I wasn’t sure I could stand to go.  I wasn’t sure I could stand it if I didn’t go. It wasn’t school that bothered me, or even church; it was the funeral and knowing that Charlie would never be back.

“It’s a sad time,” Daddy was saying. “Mama and the girls are going to be crying.”

“Aw, Daddy, they’ll just fight about hair ribbons or who gets to sit in the front of the truck.”

Daddy smiled. “I heard that bickering today, too, Billy. I’m pretty sure the girls have plenty of ribbons to go around. They was jes’ lookin’ for somethin’ to holler about, same as you.”

He was right.

“Daddy, I ain’t never told anybody, but I didn’t even want Charlie to come home last summer. I was used to things the way they was, and he was like a stranger.”

My father nodded his understanding, so I kept talking.

“I loved him, Daddy. He wasn’t home long, but he changed me. He understood me.”

“I imagine that’s why he bought that trumpet.” Daddy paused. “I ain’t heard ya blowing it much the last few days.”

“I cain’t, Daddy. I ain’t never gonna play that horn again.”

“’Cause of Charlie?”

I nodded. “I’ll think of him every time I touch it.”

Now Daddy nodded. “Yes, I expect so.”
“I hardly even got to know him, Daddy. I don’t even remember much before last summer, and he was gone again so fast.” I was starting to sob now, but I didn’t care.

Daddy put his arm around me. “He knew, Billy.”

“I never told him.”

“Charlie knew you loved him.”

We had been sitting there on the curb for almost an hour, talking sometimes, just sitting the rest of the time. In the silence we could hear whispers of the progress of the church service. The organ was playing the last hymn, so I knew we were going to have to go back pretty soon.

“I expect Mama will be lookin’ for us,” I said without enthusiasm.

Daddy just nodded; he didn’t make a move to get up.

“Billy, I think ya’ll should play your trumpet at Charlie’s funeral.”

I turned and looked at my daddy straight in the face. “You want me to play at the funeral?” I was shocked at the suggestion. I just told Daddy I never wanted to play again; how could he ask me to play at the funeral?

“Ya’ll need to say goodbye, Billy. Ya got a lot of livin’ ahead of you still, and you cain’t go your whole life never thinking about Charlie.”

I didn’t know what to say. “I don’t know, Daddy … .”

He patted me on the back and squeezed my shoulder. “If that trumpet makes you think of Charlie, mebbe that’s a good thing. Think about it. No need to decide right now.” Daddy stood up. People were starting to come out of the church now. “Come on. You’re mama’s gonna scold us enough as it is.”

He was right about that, of course. But as soon as she started in on me, Daddy said quietly and firmly, “Louisa, leave the boy be,” and she didn’t say another word all the way home.

We ate one of the church Ladies Aide casseroles for Sunday dinner. After dinner, I went to the hall closet and slowly opened the door. The trumpet case was there in the corner right where I had put it. If Mama had even noticed it there beside her linens, she never said anything. I knelt in the hall and stroked the frayed edge of the case, and then I opened it and looked at the shiny silver instrument. It looked lonely and abandoned, as if it were grieving for Charlie, too. I knew it would come to life for me as soon as I took it in my hands and put it to my lips. But I just couldn’t touch it. I tried, but I couldn’t do it.

Tuesday morning was a bright, crisp late March day. Somehow I thought it should be gray and drizzling for a funeral, but the sun was strong and the sky cloudless. I’d hardly slept at all on Monday night. Two days had passed since Daddy and I sat on the curb, and I still had not decided what to do. Daddy had convinced Mama that I should go to the funeral if I wanted to. On Monday she washed and ironed my church clothes so they would be fresh for Tuesday. They were neatly laid out on the end of my bed. She had gotten out my blue sweater, too, the one I had hidden the stolen glass statue under. Exhausted from being awake all night, I got out of bed and put on my clothes.

Everyone moved around the house quietly that morning. Mama clanked around the kitchen like she always did fixing breakfast for the family, but no one really felt like eating. No one talked or moved more than they had to. Mama had on a black skirt and a gray blouse. Like me, the girls did not really have any black clothes, so they were wearing dark calico print dresses. Daddy only had the one suit, and it was blue, but he wore a black tie. I don’t know where he got it from; I had never seen it before. We all sat at the table pushing food around on our plates, until Mama finally realized no one was going to eat and started to clear the table.

“I’ll get some water, Mama,” I said, and started to push my chair back.

“Never mind, Billy,” Mama said. “The dishes can wait.”

In all my years, I had never known Mama to leave dirty dishes in the sink.

Daddy cleared his throat and said, “I guess it’s time we were going. The preacher will be waiting.”

Mama and the girls went out the back door. As she went down the porch steps, Amy started to cry. She had been walking around with her eyes red and watering for three days. Now her shoulders were jerking as she sobbed. Margaret put her arm around Amy, and they went out to the truck together.

Daddy was moving toward the door. “Ya’ll comin’, Billy?” he asked. But he didn’t wait for an answer.

Daddy turned and followed the others out. The house was empty and quiet just for a moment, and in that moment I had to decide whether to go to my brother’s funeral. In that moment I had to decide whether to get my trumpet out of the closest. In that moment I had to decide whether it was okay to think about Charlie.

Daddy started the engine. I heard Mama slam the door on her side of the truck.

I decided to go. I decided to take the horn. Maybe I would play it. The horn would be there if I wanted it. I walked with uncertainty to the closest, grabbed the case by the handle and went outside to climb into the back of the truck.

The ride to the cemetery was a short one. Before I got out of the truck, I took the trumpet from its case and tucked it under my arm. Daddy saw me and nodded, but he didn’t say anything. We all knew where Grandpa Goodman was buried, so no one had to point the way. Grandma Goodman and Aunt Lennie and Uncle Chet were already there. They sat in a row of funeral home chairs next to a gaping hole in the ground. No one had told me it would look like that—a hole in the ground with the casket over it, waiting to put Charlie in the ground.

I wanted to run, but I didn’t.

The preacher stood solemnly in his black suit with his black Bible in one hand. Two large arrangements of white flowers stood on either side of the casket, which was proudly draped by an American flag. A couple of Charlie’s buddies from high school were there. Standing off to one side, I saw one of the men from the Navy who had come to the house that day. Mama had told me later that he was a chaplain, so now I understood why he wore a silver cross on his collar.

The preacher asked us to gather in a circle around the casket. I had never been so close to a casket before, and it seemed impossible to me that my brother was in that big box and couldn’t just sit up and climb out. The flag seemed enormous, not at all like the little one that flew on the pole in the schoolyard. Mama and my sisters all started to cry. Daddy had said they would.

Opening his Bible, the preacher started reading some verses. I knew I ought to recognize the words from Sunday school, but I was having too much trouble concentrating. Everything blurred together. After a while I realized he was talking about Charlie now, recalling what Charlie had been like as a little boy, the mischief he got into in high school, how much he liked to go fishing. And how proud he was to serve his country. And how much he had come to love God and to stand up for God’s justice for the oppressed of the world. And how proud we should all be of Charlie. Then the preacher closed his eyes and started to pray.

I looked around at the small circle of people who loved Charlie. Mama had wanted it this way, and I was glad for the closeness we all felt right then. The preacher finished praying and said, “Amen.” No one moved. The moment had come to go back to the truck, go back home, and leave Charlie behind. And no one wanted to do that.

In the silence I founded myself lifting my trumpet to my lips. I remembered when I told Daddy I wanted to play “Amazing Grace” for Charlie when he came home. Well, he was home now. I started to play, slowly, quietly, clearly. I played through one stanza and then started again. This time Daddy started to sing, and after a few bars, everyone joined in.

When we were through with the song, Daddy came over to hug me. We stood side by side looking at the box, the box with Charlie inside it, surrounded by family and flowers. I could hardly speak, but I wanted to say one thing.

“I love you, Charlie.”

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

May 1947

 

This was the day. I just knew it. They would be finished today, and they’d clean up everything, and we would have a bathroom—inside the house! The kitchen had been finished a couple of weeks earlier. Mama was still getting used to being able to turn a knob and have water running into the sink—already hot, even. Believe me, I thought it was pretty great, too. We were done with the pump in the backyard. Or at least I was. Mama might still use it to get water for the yard work, but my days of hauling it into the kitchen had ended. And now, in a matter of hours, we would have a bathroom.

I had just turned thirteen. Most days, things were a lot quieter around the house than they had been when I was younger. Margaret had married Speedy Hanley and moved to Memphis, and they didn’t waste much time producing a baby. Sue Ellen was almost two, and Margaret was working on another one. She was coming over from Memphis today with the baby. She didn’t much like going anywhere alone with Sue Ellen—who was a fussy creature if you asked me, which no one did—and Speedy was working today, but she had promised Mama she would come.

Elizabeth and Virginia were gone. Elizabeth had eloped with some guy named Robert, who Mama and Daddy didn’t like. But she was twenty years old, so they couldn’t do much about it. Virginia had graduated high school last spring and was attending a business college in Little Rock, learning to type and do shorthand and other useful skills. Mama had insisted she go. I think she was afraid that with Elizabeth gone, Virginia wouldn’t know what to do with herself, so Mama figured it out for her.

Anyway, Amy and I were the only two still living at home. Now Amy had the big girls’ bedroom all to herself. I still slept in the bed in the alcove where I pretended to have some privacy. A bathroom with a door, now that would be privacy.

I wanted to be the first to flush. I didn’t say that out loud, exactly, because I knew it would sound pretty silly, but Mama knew, and it made her scowl. I didn’t care. I lurked around the work area, watching every move the men were making. Daddy I told me more than once I could go in there if I would make myself useful. Learning something about plumbing might come in handy some day if I ever got tired of blowing that trumpet. I didn’t plan to get tired of blowing that trumpet. I was pretty good at it by now. Next year I would be in high school, and Mama said I could have lessons from the music teacher who came to Mr. Spooner’s store on Tuesday afternoons. He came down from Jonesboro every week to teach all the brass instruments, and his students paid him directly. In a few months, I was going to be one of them.

Despite my intentions, I did learn something about plumbing. The work was slow going, because the guys doing it had regular jobs and they only came over and worked on our house when they had some spare time. Daddy inspected every step, though I’m not sure he knew much more about plumbing than I did. Maybe he read a book, I don’t know. I just know he was being extra careful about everything they did. He’d been the same way in the kitchen and with the workers who busted up the ground to put in sewer lines. He didn’t want them doing the second thing until he was satisfied they’d done the first thing right. So I don’t know who got on their nerves more, me with my lurking or Daddy with his inspecting. But when you lurk as much as I did, you’re bound to learn something.

The sink and the toilet had been sitting in the bathroom, unconnected, for two weeks now, waiting for these guys to have time to come around and install them. Bobby and Jerry Runyan asked me if I wanted to play ball today, but I said no, I had more significant things to do than their child’s play. I really do like to play ball, and maybe they wouldn’t ask me again, at least for a while, but it was worth it to see the looks on their faces. They didn’t ask me what the significant things were, which I was relieved about, because I knew they’d had indoor plumbing their whole lives, and even their grandmother’s house had a bathroom, so they wouldn’t think it was a big deal. I had never invited them inside my house. Playing ball was one thing; you had to have other kids to do it. But having them sit on my bed or do something dumb in Mama’s parlor was not a risk I wanted to take.

I couldn’t wait to invite Randy over, though. He would understand.

Margaret showed up about then. I saw Sue Ellen standing in the front seat as she pulled up, and Margaret reaching for her so she wouldn’t fall into the dashboard when the car stopped. I wondered if she had stood all the way from Memphis and decidedly she probably had. She was one stubborn child. If she didn’t get what she wanted, she was so unpleasant I wondered how Margaret could stand it. Before she was born, I didn’t know what I expected about being an uncle, but I’m pretty sure feeling annoyed was not on the list. Margaret had told Mama that Sue Ellen was starting to talk, and she hoped that would make things easier because she could just say what she wanted instead of making Margaret guess all the time.

Margaret came up the walk carrying Sue Ellen, and as soon as she saw me, she handed the creature to me. What did I want with her? I stared at her, and she stared at me. When she started to make faces at me, I made faces right back. It was like a dare, and she wilted. But she didn’t want me holding her. She went limp the way little kids do and slid out of my arms and went looking for her mother. Unsure if I was actually responsible for her just because Margaret handed her to me, I followed her. We found both our mamas in the kitchen. Margaret was sitting, with her hand on her swollen belly. I didn’t see how she could get much bigger, but she still had two months to go.

“If it’s a girl,” she was saying, “we’re going to name her Patricia Louisa, after both our mamas. Patsy, that’s what I want to call her.”

“And if it’s a boy?” Mama asked.

“I was thinking Jesse Charles, but Speedy ain’t sure yet.”

“Your daddy would like that,” Mama said.

I would have thought Mama would be pretty pleased herself, but she showed no sign if she was. One way or another, Margaret wanted to name her baby after one of her parents, but Mama didn’t even smile or raise her eyes.

Maybe she didn’t want to have a grandbaby named after Charlie. Maybe she was afraid the baby would even look like Charlie, and that would be too much for her to take. That’s the way she was in those days. Mama was never herself after Charlie’s funeral. She was still Mama, but the spark had gone out. She went to ladies meetings and hollered at me and Amy to keep us in line same as she always had, but she just never seemed happy. But she never seemed sad, either. Margaret married Speedy, who she liked, and Elizabeth ran off with Robert, who she didn’t like, and Mama was exactly the same either way. Margaret didn’t bring Sue Ellen around all that much. I would have thought Mama would be more anxious to hold her grandbaby, but she wasn’t. Sue Ellen was Grandpa’s girl, that’s for sure. Daddy took to having a grandchild like a fish to water, but Mama acted like it didn’t much matter one way or another. Amy, who was fifteen, spent a lot of time by herself. She’d go out to that old playhouse with a book or something and stay for hours. If she didn’t come when Mama called her for supper, Mama served supper anyway and never even asked where she was. And I could pretty much do anything I wanted. I would just wait until Mama was in one of her stare-in-the-distance moods, and that’s when I’d ask permission, and she would always says yes. Sometimes she even gave me money when I didn’t ask for it.

Lately Mama seemed worse to me. When Daddy started making arrangements to get the plumbing done, Mama just seemed to disappear. She didn’t care about any of it. She’d go sit out on the back porch while the men worked. She didn’t care what sink Daddy picked out, or what mirror went over the sink, or any of it. Daddy said Mama was just tired. But I knew it was a lot more than that and Daddy himself was just too tired to talk about it with Amy and me. I think maybe he thought that the indoor plumbing would make Mama’s life easier and she would perk up. But I didn’t think so.

I heard the men moving around, making thudding noises, and I scurried off to the bathroom to check the progress. The toilet and sink were both in place. The men were sweeping up trash and wiping down the counter. I stood in the doorway, my whole face a question.

“Yes, Billy Byler, you can come in and test everything.”

I pushed past the plumber and his helper, and turned the knob in the sink. Water came out. I pulled the chain on the toilet. Flush!

I finally felt like I was living in the twentieth century.

“Smile, Billy Byler!”

I turned around—grinning in glee—as Margaret snapped a picture.

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