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Twenty-nine

August 1952

I had pretty much decided that I hated the heat in Arkansas in August. I was nineteen and had lived every August of my life in that that heat, but I’d read enough to know that it wasn’t like that everywhere, and I dreamed of someday living some place that didn’t feel like this. Some place where the midnight cool-down dips below eighty degrees, some place where the humidity is not ninety-five percent for the whole summer. Some place where my shirt wasn’t sticking to my skin twenty minutes after I put it on, where mosquitoes didn’t lurk in legions waiting to attack.

Inside the store wasn’t quite so miserable. When I turned sixteen, Mama dropped some serious hints that it was time for me to look for a job. She’d heard they were hiring at Fred’s Dime Store. Turns out by the time I finally dragged myself down there, they had all the help they needed. I went up and down Front Street making shy inquiries, sure that no one was going to hire me. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of Mr. Spooner sooner than I did. Well, actually he thought of me. I was in the music store one day moping around about not being able to find a job and he asked why I hadn’t just asked him for a job. I could give lessons in his back room, if I wanted to, and in between students do a little cleaning up. Not that many kids in Morrowville were looking for trumpet lessons, so I had to expand to some other instruments, which turned out to be pretty easy. I didn’t have to be an expert to teach ten year olds, after all.

If you’re determined to play, you’ll find places to play, even in Morrowville. I was in a jazz band and a brass ensemble and a county concert band. But I wanted more.

When I graduated high school, everyone just assumed I would keep working for Mr. Spooner. He was getting on, after all. It was true that I had learned a lot about running the store. Mr. Spooner left me there on my own sometimes—quite a bit actually, now that I was a high school graduate. He called me the assistant manager, but even I knew that was a fancy title for general helper. It just wasn’t that complicated.

In the summers, Mr. Spooner stood a tall oscillating fan in the corner of the store and aimed it at the counter where he spent most of his time. We had a smaller fan in the back room, where we gave the lessons, but most kids took the summer off anyway. As long as we kept the lights low and the fan running, inside the store was almost tolerable.

Outside was a different story. I could have packed a lunch and stayed at the store all day, avoiding the worst of the heat, but the problem was the mail. The mailman operated like clockwork, and he always brought the mail to the house at 12:30. And Mama was usually home. A couple of months ago, Amy had moved over to Batesville to work the front desk at a doctor’s office. It was just me at home now. Mama seemed to assume I would just keep living there and keep working for Mr. Spooner. She wanted me to move into the bedroom that the girls used to have, but I hadn’t. I was afraid what that might mean about my future. That’s why I worried about the mail.

The Army recruiter had come to the school in March. A few kids in my class were going to college, but a lot of us weren’t. I wanted to—sorely, desperately. Maybe I could play in a real orchestra, and study music in a proper way. But I knew Mama and Daddy didn’t have a spare penny. None of my sisters had gone to college, and Charlie, of course, had gone straight into the Navy before he even finished high school. I’d given my name and address to the recruiter that day—and then panicked in my bed that night. I couldn’t have Mama seeing mail come from the Army.

The way I figured, I was going to end up in the Army anyway. The war in Korea wasn’t slowing down; if anything, it was intensifying. If the government was going to come after me and draft me, I’d be better off to be one step ahead and maybe have some control over what happened. Maybe I had a shot at getting into an Army band. And maybe serving in the Army would be my ticket to college later.

So I’d given the recruiter my address, and then panicked because Mama might see a letter. My lunch hour was not long enough to run two miles home, especially in the heat, to get there before 12:30. But on a bicycle, I could make it. I could get there right on time, or even casually intercept the mailman with some chitchat and make sure I was the first one to see the mail every day. And I was expecting mail any day now.

Mr. Spooner stepped out one Thursday morning and was late getting back to the store. I couldn’t leave. I watched the clock, and I could picture the mailman’s car making its way down our street, and I was stuck there in the store. We hadn’t had a customer all morning. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to lock up. I could hang an out-to-lunch sign. I could say, “Be right back.” I could apologize to Mr. Spooner later, but I had to go home.

Finally Mr. Spooner came back. Without listening to his explanation for why he was late, I jumped on my bike and pedaled faster than I thought possible. By the time I got home, my shirt was plastered to my back and I thought my face was going to slide off my skull.

And I was too late.

Mama was sitting at the kitchen table, and she had the mail. She had pushed the letter, my letter, to one side.

“Billy Byler, what have ya’ll done?” she said, not very loud.

I sighed. “Mama, let me explain.”

“How long have ya’ll been getting mail from the Army.”

“For a little while now.” It was time for the truth. It was time to get this over with.

“Have you signed anything?”

I nodded. The truth was I had signed enlistment papers a month ago. I’d had a complicated conversation with the recruiter about how my name really was Billy. It wasn’t a nickname. That’s what was on my birth certificate, Billy Goodman Byler. He kept wanting to write William on all the forms. We had to start over three times, but we finally got them done, and I’d signed something saying it was my intent to enlist. Now I was waiting for information on auditions for one of the Army bands, and I was waiting for information on the physical I had to pass before I could officially say I was in the Army.

“Have ya’ll signed anything that cain’t be changed?” Mama asked. I could hardly hear her.

“Mama,” I said, sitting down at the table across from her, “I’ve given this a lot of thought. I want to join the Army. I have a real shot at playing in an Army band.”

“And what if ya’ll don’t make the band?” Mama asked me. “Thousands of kids must want to do the same thing. Then what?”

I shrugged. “Then I’ll serve where I’m assigned, and the Army will help me go to college afterward. I’ll find a way to play.”

“Billy Byler, there’s a war going on, and you know it.”

“Yes, Mama, I know that. But I could end up in the war anyway. What if I get drafted? The Army band would be one of the safest places I could be.”

“Not if you don’t make the band.”

“I’ll make it, Mama.”

“You don’t know that.”

“You don’t know I won’t. Why can’t you believe in me?”

“Billy Byler, don’t use that tone with me.”

“Sorry.” And I was. But I had to make Mama understand.

She stood up and slammed over to the sink. I knew she would take this hard, but frankly, I hadn’t seen her care this much about anything in a long time.

“How could ya’ll do this, Billy?” She was throwing dishes in the sink so hard I thought she’d break them. “After what this family has been through, how could ya’ll do this?”

“Lots of families have been through the same thing,” I said. “They get past it. They keep going.”

“What are ya sayin’, Billy?”

“I’m saying, I was sorry to lose Charlie, too. I am sorry, still. But I cain’t live in a cage afraid of making ya’ll sad. It’s been ten years. I have to keep going, and ya’ll do, too.”

“I cain’t lose another boy to another war,” Mama said emphatically as she turned the water on to a vicious flow.

“Mama, I don’t want that to happen, either. But I gotta have a plan. I gotta decide something about my life, same as Charlie did.”

Mama turned the faucet off and plunged her hands into the water and started scrubbing furiously. I knew then that the conversation was over, whether she understood or not. And I knew that I had hurt her.

“Billy, I think ya’ll should take your letter and go back to work,” Mama said. “Stop by the shop and talk to your daddy before you come home tonight.”

“Yes, Mama.”

I was pretty sure Daddy would understand what I was trying to do, but he would never understand why I’d had to hurt Mama like this in order to do it.  He would say there had to be a better way. But right then, I sure didn’t know what it was, or how I was ever going to fix this. I crammed the letter, unopened, in my back pocket went out through the back porch.

 

Thirty

Bill pulled on his last clean shirt. An airline agent had confirmed that the Denver airport was up and running, though some flights were still delayed. Every indication pointed toward Bill finally getting home before the day was over. He’d called Mindy to verify that Denver was adequately recovering from the surprise blizzard. The sand trucks had been out all night, and traffic was starting to move. Alex had a two-hour delay to the start of her school day, but after that everything should go back to normal. The meteorologists predicted fifty-degree weather and a quick thaw.

When they spoke, Mindy was getting ready to leave for the hospital, and while she was allowing extra time, she wasn’t expecting difficulty driving. Nate, reportedly, had had a quiet night and had reached the point of complaining about hospital food. At least once during every hospital stay he wondered why the hospital kitchen couldn’t make a decent cheeseburger. Bill and Mindy inevitably began bringing in select food that wouldn’t compromise what the dietician was trying to accomplish in Nate’s body but that would give their son a moment of pleasure.

So Bill would soon be on his way. But first lunch; he still had time to eat with Margaret before heading to the airport. She was making noises about cooking for him, and he had adamantly refused. Instead, he took her a fresh ice pack and rearranged the pillows supporting her foot.

“I’m going to have to get out and about, you know,” Margaret insisted. “I do still have a job, and they’re expecting me there tomorrow morning.”

“That gives you today to pamper yourself. Keep your foot up, and maybe tomorrow you’ll be able to drive. Do you need anything before I go get us some grub? More sweet tea?”

“Stop bothering me, Billy Byler.”

He grinned. “Fine. I won’t even ask you what kind of food you want.”

Bill returned thirty minutes later with a sack of catfish, fries and coleslaw.

“How did you know where to find that?” Margaret asked.

“I paid attention when we drove into town.” Bill cleared space on the coffee table and began to unpack the food.

“I don’t suppose it’s because you remembered how much I like it.”

“That, and the fact that we don’t get a lot of catfish in Colorado.”

“Maybe you oughta move back here where you belong.”

He smiled slightly. “Where I belong?”

“You can take the boy out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the boy.”

“Maybe not. But the South has been mixed up with a few other things along the way.”

“How many states have you lived in, Billy?”

He cocked his head to count. “Well, twenty years in the Army had me in North Carolina and Texas and California and Illinois. Everywhere I went, I heard from guys who wanted to be stationed in Colorado Springs. Kinda funny that I ended up in Denver after I got out of the Army.”

“That’s a lot of places.”

“Don’t forget Germany and Korea.”

Margaret lifted her eyes over her fish and looked at Bill. “When you went to Korea … “

Bill put his fish down. “You don’t have to say it, Margaret. That about killed Mama. But I was never in real danger.”

“It was a war zone.”

“I was in an Army band. We were touring to play for the troops, not to do combat.”

“You were trained for combat.”

“Everybody is. That’s the point of the Army. But I was never sent into combat. Mama never quite understood that.”

“You could have been. You might not have made the band. You never quite understood that.”

“But I did make the band. I put in my time, and then I went to college.”

“So it all worked out.”

“From where I sit, yes.”

“Daddy was sure Mama was going to have heart failure when she found out you were going there.”

Bill pulled a French fry through a streak of ketchup. “Margaret, what are you really getting at? I can’t go back and change anything that happened.”

“But would you? If you could?”

“What do you mean? Would I not join the Army? Would I stay in Morrowville if I could do it all again?”

“Something like that.” She stopped for a swig of sweet tea. “Speedy used to tell me that I should never have married him, that if he had known he was going to have Huntington’s, he wouldn’t have married me and put me through all that. He said it would be better to break my heart all those years ago than to make me watch him go the way he did.”

“But he didn’t know.”

“No, he didn’t. Even his father was not sick yet when we got married, so Speedy wasn’t wondering if he was going to get it himself. It wasn’t really on our radar screen when we got married and had the girls.”

“And now Patsy …” Bill said softly.

“Yes, and now Patsy,” Margaret murmured. “And who knows about Sue Ellen and Linda?”

“What about you?” Bill asked. “If you had known?”

Margaret shrugged. “I can’t imagine having been married to anyone else, and I can’t imagine my life without the girls.”

“Me neither,” Bill agreed. “Nate, I mean. Or any of it, really.”

“So you would still join the Army the way you did, knowing what it did to Mama?”

“I didn’t set out to hurt Mama,” Bill said, feeling defensive. “She was already a wreck because of Charlie. She never stopped wearing her loss on her sleeve.”

“Can you blame her?”

“I’m not blaming anyone,” Bill said quickly. “What’s the point of blame?” He sighed. “When Nate was born and we found out he had CF, all Mindy and I could do was look at each other and say ‘fifty-fifty.’ No blame.”

“Oh, I never blamed Speedy for anything, either,” Margaret said. “But he blamed himself. If he weren’t already dead, it would kill him to see what’s happening to Patsy, knowing it was because of a gene that he passed on, like it was something he did on purpose.”

Bill blew out his breath. “Margaret, what do you think would have happened if Charlie had come home alive from the North Atlantic?”

Margaret swallowed a mouthful of fish so she could talk. “Well, I have to admit I’ve thought about that. Quite a lot, actually.”

“And what did you decide?”

“Mama … Mama might not have lost her light. Daddy might not have been at such a loss to know what to do about it. Charlie might have convinced Elizabeth to find a way to go to college right off, instead of running away with Robert and doing college the hard way. Virginia and Amy might have had more of their mama’s attention when they needed it. And you? Well, Billy, I don’t know. She might not have been so afraid to let you dream.”

“Is that what it was?”

“I think so. You were dreaming bigger dreams than the rest of us. She knew it would take you away from her.”

“So all her fuss about the Army and the war …”

“A really good façade to hide behind.”

“You’re deep, Margaret, you know that?”

“It’s called getting old, Billy.”

“You’re not old.” After all, she was only nine years older than he was.

“Old enough to understand different.”

They didn’t speak for a few minutes, then Bill said, “I had to go. You know that, don’t you?”

Margaret nodded.

“I had to,” he repeated, for his own sake.
Margaret started scrunching up trash. “Don’t you have a plane to catch?”

 

Thirty-One

The parking spot was snug, but Bill eased the car in, shifted the gear to “P,” and turned off the ignition. His bag and briefcase were in the back seat this time, easy to grab before walking into the rental office to drop off the keys. He settled up with the clerk, made sure he had a receipt, and turned to look for the shuttle to the concourse.

Would he ever go back to Morrowville? He didn’t know. Maybe. He would sure love to see Randy again. Maybe they would go out to the old Island and see what had become of their haunts. Maybe they could walk through the front door of the movie theater together. Maybe their kids could be friends.

But probably not.

It was another life, another time.

Bill must have just missed a shuttle, because he had to wait nearly ten minutes for a squat bus to roll to a stop at the curb. He got on, tossed his bag in a seat and sat beside it. The bus made two more laborious stops and finally ambled toward the departure area. He hoped that with all changes in the last couple of days, the check-in agent had information that matched what he’d been told on the phone.

Elizabeth, Virginia and Amy were still out there. For so many years—sixteen—he had huddled under his own pain so that he didn’t know what theirs was. He hadn’t known Margaret’s. And now he did.

Bill checked in without complication, discovered that his plane was reasonably on time despite the weather drama, and decided he had time for coffee and a phone call before striding to the gate. The coffee line seemed interminably slow, but finally, with a tall Styrofoam cup in his hand, he found pay phone and dialed the number that would get him Nate’s room. As he’d hoped, Mindy answered.

“I’m at the airport,” he told her, “all checked in.

“That must be a relief.” It was. He knew it was to her as well. He knew she wanted him there as much as he wanted to be there.

“So only a few hours now,” Bill said.

“Counting down.”

“How’s the patient?”

“Hungry. His lunch is extremely late. But as soon as I decide to go get him something, his tray will show up. That’s how it always is.”

“True enough,” Bill agreed.

“He’s been sleeping most of the morning.”

“That’s good.”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Shall I talk to him?”

Bill heard Mindy shuffling the phone around before coming back on herself.

“Looks like he just dozed off again.”

“Oh. All right. I won’t disturb him then. I’ll be there soon enough now.”

“Yes, after everything, you’ll finally be here.”

“I’m sorry to be gone when this happened.”

“Let’s not go around that loop again, Bill. Tell me about Morrowville. Did you do what you went to do?”

“Well, I’m not sure what that was, but I did go out to the cemetery, if that’s what you mean.”

“Good. I thought you should.”

“You and Margaret conspired.”

“I promise you, we never talked about it.” He could hear the amusement in her voice.

“She wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

“Why should she?” Now that sounded like downright defiance.

Bill chuckled. “It was good to spend some time with her. It’s been too long.”

“I agree.”

“Maybe I’ll call Amy,” Bill said. “We could drive over some weekend. It’s only four hours.”

“That would be good.”

“Well, I guess I’d better get to the gate. Will you be at the hospital when I get there?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll have to see about Alex.”

Alex. It would be past her bedtime when he got to the hospital, and he wanted to spend the night with Nate. He would have to see Alex tomorrow.

“Tell her I’ll take her to school tomorrow.”

“She’s full of stories for you. She’s been saving them up.”

Bill smiled. “I can’t wait.”

He hung up the phone, took a sip of his cooled coffee and looked for a sign to point him to the right gate.

He didn’t know why he’d gone to Morrowville, but he was glad he had. He understood himself better, and he was closer to understanding Nate.

When he got to the gate, he sat down across from a young woman. It took him a moment to realize the three children nearby were all hers. They looked to be the same age, perhaps four, and bore a strong resemblance to each other.

Bill looked from one child to another and blurted out, “Are they triplets?”

The woman smiled a polite but weary smile. How many times had she answered that question?

“They must have been a handful when they were babies.”

She shrugged. “Actually, I think it was easier then. We had them on a schedule, and they stayed where we put them. Now they have minds of their own, and they’re gone if you blink.” As if on cue, she jumped up to chase one of the little girls who was determinedly walking beyond her mother’s comfort zone.

Nate would have done that.

Nate wanted to do that.

Nate had to do that.

Finally the announcement came that boarding would begin. With a seat near the back of the plane, Bill was one of the first to get on. He walked down the empty aisle of the plane, watching as a few others stuffed bags under seats or overhead. He did the same, then sat down in his window seat and clicked his seatbelt. In the next few minutes, the plane would fill up with strangers, with lives tied to times and places he would never know, with stories they were saving up, with losses and triumphs, with pains and joys. With children who had to grow up, and parents who had to let them.

Boarding went swiftly, and soon the flight attendants were standing at their stations moving their arms through well rehearsed routines. And then the plane began to taxi, and the pilot announced they were fourth in line for take-off. The plane crept forward in spurts, until its turn came. Engine noises changed, and passengers subconsciously gripped the armrests.

They were in the air before he knew it.

He was going home.

Nate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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