Mike’s stomach growled just as he put the final nail in the new board on the front porch. He realized that he had been so busy throwing himself into hard work around the farm in a vain attempt to block out most of this day that he had forgotten to eat anything since breakfast that morning.
Looking up, he noticed that the sun was already setting, which this time of year meant it would be close to eight or nine o’clock. Josh and Brenda’s café would probably be closed by now. Besides, he was not sure that he was ready to face all the complexities of that situation – not just yet.
He sighed as he sat back on his heels and wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. He had spent most of the day just sitting with Mister Clyde. At first, he had tried talking with the old man, reminding him of Billy and sharing stories of Parris Island with him.
But by the time his lunch tray arrived, Mike had learned that he was talking more to himself than the shell of the man he had once seen as a surrogate father. Instead, he had focused upon getting even a few bites of the decidedly bland and unappealing food into the man. That, too, had proven futile.
Maude had stopped by to pick up the lunch tray herself. She explained that loss of motor function, which accompanied the disease and also accounted for the incontinence, made it impossible for most of their patients to chew ‘real’ food. By necessity, the diet consisted of thin soups that were more water than soup, jello, and soft foods like mashed potatoes.
She had sighed heavily and shaken her head as she lifted the lid and saw that most of Mister Hall’s food remained untouched. She alleviated some of Mike’s guilt when she informed him that towards the end, even those proved virtually impossible to get into their patients. He had smiled at her in gratitude, fearing that he had somehow failed in this simple mission too.
He spent the rest of the afternoon on his phone checking emails and social media. He had even gotten so damned desperate that he had played a war game he had downloaded onto his phone. He had, though, insisted on helping the nurse to shower and shave Mister Clyde before he left.
That at least made him feel useful, like he had contributed something to the man’s care by his presence. He knew enough about death and dying to know that sometimes just being there was all you could do.
He had run into a short and balding older man in the parking lot on the way out. He was only a bit surprised when the man approached him as he got onto his motorcycle. Mike had long ago learned that social rules were decidedly different in small-town America than they had been growing up in Boston. Around here, people still smiled and said ‘hello,’ even to strangers.
This man went further, holding out his hand and introducing himself as Frank Majors. At the mention of his name, Mike quickly put the pieces together. He was more than a bit embarrassed at first, considering the ‘advances’ this man’s wife had made on him. That was until the man thanked him for the compassion he had shown his wife.
Frank explained that Mary had lost her first husband, a Marine, during the Vietnam War. With his ‘high and tight’ haircut, Mike had simply reminded her of Joe. Mike was not sure how to take that or especially how it must feel to be this man. He wondered again how it must feel. This man was so devoted to a woman who no longer remembered him and pined for another man. A man, for whom she had mistaken Mike.
But his partings words spoke powerfully to Mike, “Our fortieth anniversary is next week. All the kids and grandkids are coming in to celebrate with us.”
The man’s voice choked over the next words. “I’m hoping for one of her good days then. It ain’t easy living in a dead man’s shadow, but how can I begrudge her whatever comfort her memories offer?”
That thought – living in a dead man’s shadows – had repeatedly arisen as he painted the old swing and replaced the rotting boards on the front porch.
When he had first run into Billy’s old girlfriend that morning, he had to admit that like Missus Lula, he had been more than a bit resentful of her for marrying another man and seemingly living happily ever after when Billy had died in his arms. Especially knowing that the man, who had become her husband and shared her bed for almost a quarter of a century, had been Billy’s best friend and cousin.
But meeting her son had changed that.
Mike was still reeling from the shock of learning that his friend had fathered a child, probably while they were home on Christmas leave. Just before the Gulf War, as civilians called it, broke out. He knew that Billy had bought the girl a special present, a ring, an engagement ring, not that they were telling her strict Southern Baptist parents that. Not until she graduated in June anyway.
Of course, by the time June rolled around, Billy had been dead for months. He could still see the man’s face laughing and joking sometimes. Other times it was that thin line of blood that ran from the corner of his blue-grey lips as his lungs filled with blood until it overflowed.
The thing was that when he had run into the young man this morning, it indeed was like stepping back in time. Sure, the younger man’s hair was more strawberry blonde than carrot top as Billy’s had been. The kid was a bit taller too, perhaps even an inch taller than Mike. He was not as lanky as the man who had sired him either. Perhaps his stepfather’s cooking accounted for that. Mike supposed ‘his father’ would be more accurate,
Other than those small differences, this Billy looked way too much like his friend to be a cousin once removed, or was it second cousins? Mike neither knew nor cared. The fact was that the young man was his friend’s flesh and blood. But what was he going to do about it?
He was so distracted with those thoughts that he nearly missed the rattle of the old pickup truck until it stopped right in front of the house. Mike was not sure who it could be. Wouldn’t Miss Landon have called rather than coming all the way here if something had happened to Mister Clyde? When the door opened, those fears were allayed, and another set came to the forefront. It was the very woman whom he had been thinking of for most of this day, Brenda Jo Sanders Hall.
She smiled wanly as she pushed open the gate that had long since lost its latch. Mike added another item to his growing list of repairs around the old farm, though he was not sure why he was doing any of it. Other than the fact that it gave him something to do instead of thinking about his ghosts and hopefully tired him out enough that he could sleep without nightmares, at least some of the time.
“What are you doing here?” He hated how it came out and opened his mouth to apologize as the woman climbed the steps.
Before he could, she held up a plastic bag. “We don’t usually do deliveries this far out. Honour, Oklahoma ain’t no big city after all.” He could tell how nervous she was by how she just kept talking ‘a mile a minute.’ He thought he remembered Missus Lula saying that about the girl, though she was far from the teenager, she had been back then.
“But I figured since you didn’t make it in tonight, I’d swing by and see if I could bring you a peace offering.” She inhaled and dropped her eyes to the wooden boards at their feet, which Mike had just repaired. “Have a bit of a talk, maybe.”
Mike wiped his hands on the front of his jeans, “Thank you. That was thoughtful.” It seemed the woman was not the only one that was nervous. “Care to come in? I would offer you something to drink, but I’m afraid water and beer are about all I have.” He held open the door.
“That’s okay; I brought along a couple of cans of coke just in case.” She walked through the front door and stopped dead cold only a couple of feet inside. “Oh my god,” her hand covered her mouth. After a moment, she recovered enough to explain, “It’s just that I have not been back in this house since…”
She stopped and swallowed. Mike thought perhaps he saw moisture collect in her eyes. They were both silent for a long moment before she spoke again, “Not since Billy’s funeral.”
He nodded because he did not know what more to say. “We can talk in the kitchen if you like,” was the best he could come up with.
She followed him. He pulled out a worn chair with its faded yellow plastic seat and back. There were four of them around the Formica table in the center of the room. She took the seat as he opened the fridge and grabbed a beer. He held it out for her.
“No, thanks. I’m driving.” He opened it and took a seat across from her. She rummaged in the bag, pulling out Styrofoam containers, plastic ware, and napkins, passing them across the table to him.
Mike opened the lid and was delighted with the Southern-fried steak, mashed potatoes, gravy, and green beans that filled the compartments to overflowing. “Wow, it looks as delicious as breakfast.” He dug in without thinking.
“Like I said, Josh could always cook better than most people. It was a damned good thing he was a lineman on the football team back in high school, or he would have never survived the teasing that he got from all the guys.” When she smiled, it was genuine, but then Mike noticed her eyes were getting misty again after a moment.
She swiped at them with the back of her hand until Mike passed a napkin across the table to her. “Sorry, I didn’t make it to the store in town today. Only made it as far as the feed and seed for a bit of lumber and paint. They ain’t all that big on things like tissue.” He tried to make light of it all. “And the general store for the beer, a man has to have some comforts after all.”
She shook her head and laughed as she blew her nose. Mike set one aside and pushed the rest of them across the table towards her. If she insisted on this conversation, and perhaps it was for the best, then he had a feeling she would need them more than he would.
After a long moment, she exhaled heavily and looked back up at him. “I hear you met Billy today?”
He nodded slowly. He would leave the rest up to her. However much she was comfortable revealing. It was not like he had any right to demand an explanation. Even if he desperately longed for one. To know the truth of why the Halls had never known the existence of their grandson.
“I know you must hate me. Missus Lula always did. Right up until the day she died, that woman never forgave me for marrying Josh. At least that is what my mother-in-law tells me.”
Mike could no longer hold back the only thing that mattered to him. “Why? Why did you never tell them?”
Brenda closed her eyes and dropped her head, “I know you can never understand this, but things are different around here. Even these days. People talk. And they judge you. Hold things against you for a lifetime even. Not just your lifetime either, but your children’s too. The word ‘bastard’ is still more than just a curse word around these parts.”
“And my parents,” she shook her head as she looked back up. Her eyes were glistening with more unshed tears. “They would have never let me keep the baby. It just wasn’t done in their book.”
“I don’t understand. They would have forced you to have an abortion?”
“Oh, hell, no. That is one thing they did not believe in. But they would have made me give the baby up for adoption. And even as a screwed up seventeen-year-old kid that had no job and knew nothing about raising kids, I knew one thing…that baby was all I had left of Billy. And I could not stand the thought that they would take that away from me.”
He nodded though he still could not see why she would not have turned to the Halls. Surely they would have taken her and the child in? But for now, he focused on eating the food she had brought and just listening as the rest of the story unfolded.
“I still don’t know how I managed it. To hide my pregnancy for so long. I suppose folks just thought that I was eating too much, comfort food sort of thing. That I was putting on weight and letting myself go after Billy’s death. But somehow I managed to do it with baggy sweat pants and over-sized t-shirts. I made it to graduation without anyone finding out. Or so I thought.”
“You see, I had it all figured out. I would graduate and then run away. I had been saving my babysitting money up for two years anyway to buy me a real store-bought wedding dress and not one my Mama made herself. I had close to five-hundred dollars, which seemed like a lot of money to a crazy teen.”
“I’d go away to a big city. Dallas. Houston. Maybe even Los Angeles. Wherever my money would take me on the next bus through town. I got to the station early that Saturday night and was waiting on the bench for them to open up so I could buy a ticket when Josh drove up in his old beat-up truck.”
Her eyes stared off, looking at something on the wall behind Mike, but he got the feeling she did not see any of it. “First thing he says to me was ‘how far along are you.’ I was floored. I honestly thought I had everyone fooled. Turns out half the kids at school had been talking for months, but no one had the guts to tell me.”
“I broke down crying. Told him the whole damned thing. About sneaking out to meet Billy on Christmas Eve while Mama and Daddy wrapped presents for the little ones.”
She reached inside her t-shirt and pulled something out. It took a moment for Mike to recognize what dangled at the end of a thin gold chain, but it should not have. He had been with Billy when he picked it out. Hell, he had even loaned him an extra twenty dollars when it was more than he had managed to save up.
The tiny diamond ring in the plain gold band looked smaller somehow than it had all those years ago. Knowing that she kept it all these years and still wore it around her neck said a lot about her. And about the man who had become her husband.
“You know, no matter what…I never have regretted the Christmas present I gave Billy that night.” Tears were flowing unchecked down her cheeks then, “Or especially the unplanned one that he gave me.”
Mike nodded, trying to imagine how difficult it all must have been for the young woman. Her fiancé killed, pregnant, unable to turn to her family, frightened and alone. Though he still wondered why she had not turned to the Halls for help, he could at least empathize with her plight.
“Josh knew my folks. Knew what they were like. So he understood why I felt I had to get away. But he had a better plan, he said. He couldn’t let me go off on my own, pregnant and all. Not with his best friend’s baby. He’d been working in the oil fields with his daddy. Had a bit of money saved up. He knew about some jobs down in Beaumont. Offshore stuff where he could make good money, he said.”
“We’d get married. Get away from Honour for a while. Just until folks stopped talking, he promised. We’d have the baby together and raise it ourselves.” She shook her head, “It all seemed so simple back then. Like an answer to my prayers.”
“Don’t get me wrong, that man was and still is an answer to any woman’s prayers. Not only has he always provided for me and the kids, but he has never raised a hand, won’t even spank them when they need it. Don’t even raise his voice. And love that boy? Josh has always loved him just as much, sometimes I’d swear more than his own young’uns.”
“Thing was that coming back weren’t so easy. Missus Lula had never been my biggest fan. I suppose she didn’t think I was good enough for Billy. I don’t know. When I showed up for his funeral, the woman never spoke a word to me. Never hugged me or tried to comfort me when I was hurting too. And when Josh and I ran off… Well, let’s just say that the beauty parlor had a new favorite topic of conversation for months.”
“Of course, my parents disowned me. Said they never wanted to speak to me or see me again. Hell, Mama still lives in the same run-down trailer just a couple of miles from the restaurant. We been back in town almost a year now, and she ain’t set foot in the place, called me, or nothing. Even my sisters won’t say nothing when we see one another in town. Hell, my niece goes to high school with my youngest daughter, and she won’t talk to her either.”
“That’s what this place can be like sometimes. Friendly on the outside and bitter to the core. So, we just kept away. Josh’s folks would come to visit us in Texas once or twice a year, and we’d hear news of what was happening.”
“Then last year, his daddy had a small stroke. He decided then it was high time he gave up the restaurant and retired. They bought an RV and go all over the place now. He begged and pleaded with us to come home. Said the oil fields were too much work for a man Josh’s age.” She fiddled with the napkins on the table.
“I suppose we knew then we were opening a whole can of worms, but we didn’t want to let his folks down. They had been the only ones to stand by us. Then too, his daddy was right. Work in the fields was not always reliable, and these days the only way to make any real money at it… Well, after losing Billy over there, I was not letting Josh work there.”
Mike took a final bite of the steak. He knew it was much tastier than it seemed at the moment, but he could not seem to focus on food.
“Billy joined the Marines right out of high school. We never told him the truth about his father, just that he was named after Josh’s cousin that had died in the Gulf War. Honest, we did not mean in the beginning to keep the truth from him. We always thought we would tell him one day…when he was old enough to understand.”
“It was just that the moment I heard him call Josh da-da, something happened inside me. A part of me screamed ‘no’ it ain’t right, but how can you tell a baby that his daddy is dead. Over the years, they were just so close. Always hunting together on weekends. Josh coaching his Little League teams. It just never seemed the right time somehow. And years just rolled on.”
“Then when he met Isabel and they had a baby straight off. I don’t know, it just seemed like history repeating itself, even though we all love little Josh to pieces.” She looked down at her hands, crossed neatly in front of her on the table now.
“But when they came into town last week, I could hear it. The silence every time I entered a room. And I knew the rumors were back. At least the older folks, the ones that remember Billy. How can you look at my son and not know? I mean, I know you did the moment you saw him?” She sighed, “So what are you going to do about it?”
“What do you mean, ‘what am I going to do about it’? What is there to do about anything? All of that is ancient history. You and Josh seemed to have raised a fine man. Mister Clyde would not even know his grandson now after all these years, even if we told him. So what is the point?”
She nodded and smiled, “Thank you. I know it isn’t fair, bringing you into this big family secret and all, but like you said, what is the point? And I am sorry. It was rude of me not to ask earlier. How is Mister Clyde?”
Mike shook his head as he closed the lid on the Styrofoam container. “Not good. I did not expect him to recognize me, of course. But I was not prepared for how just plain wasted away the man has become. All he did all day was sit in a chair and stare out the window.”
“I’m sorry, really, I am. I liked Mister Clyde. He was always kind to me. If there is anything else we can do, please let us know. And we mean it, we expect you to take your meals with us.” She smiled as she stood up. “Well, breakfast and dinner. I know you’ll probably spend most lunchtimes at the nursing home with Mister Clyde. So what you say, friends?” She asked as she held her hand across the table.
Mike did not hesitate to take the woman’s hand. As far as he was concerned, she had done the best she could with a less than ideal situation. And from what little he had seen, in the end, the boy had turned out fine.
They chatted for a few more moments about dumb things like the weather and the local football team that both Billy and Josh had once played for. Then Mike saw the woman to the door and watched as she drove away before climbing the stairs for a quick bath and another long night haunted by dreams of soft skin and nightmares of guns and bombs, blood, pain, and death.