The next few days fell into a sort of pattern for Mike. He got up early. After a lifetime in the Marines, it seemed impossible for him to sleep in. He would pittle around the farm a bit, doing repairs that were needed. It was probably in vain. The house and few remaining acres were likely to become further urban sprawl along with the rest of the land they had sold a couple of years before.
When he thought about the old farmhouse being demolished to make way for cookie-cutter, shoddily built modern monstrosity, some part of him ached for things that could never be. Mike questioned again the ways of the universe that had taken his best friend, who so obviously was needed here, and left him, whom no one had wanted, loved, or needed in a very, very long time.
When that was done, he would bathe and dress. Eat breakfast at the restaurant. Though they still refused his money at the till, he always left an ample tip at the table, especially since he learned that the young Latina who served him almost every morning was Isabel, Billy’s fiancé. Little Billy as he thought of him now.
He always engaged her in conversation as much as her work would allow. He came to know the woman quite well and through her his best friend’s son. He was pleased to discover that the young man was everything that his father would have wanted him to be. The only cloud for Mike in all of it was knowing that Mister Clyde and Missus Lula had never gotten the chance to know their grandson and now never would.
After breakfast, Mike headed straight to the nursing home, fancy politically correct words aside, that was what it was. It was far from a perfect solution for the patients. There was never enough staff to go around. Still, Mike trusted that Maude Landon was a woman on a mission, doing her best for people that society and sometimes even their own families forgot.
That was the other cloud on Mike’s world at the moment. He had taken the initiative and called Becca Hall-Okadigbo. That conversation had been far, far less than what he had hoped for. It seemed that school was just starting back, both for her children and the university where she and her husband taught. So, she simply ‘could’ not take the time to come down to Oklahoma.
Mike had shaken his head as he hung up, not understanding the woman at all. Chicago was only an hour or two flight from Tulsa, which was less than an hour’s drive from Honour. How could the woman not be bothered to come down? Even for the weekend? When her own father was dying?
But that was beside the point. Mike continued to do all that he could, standing in for the best friend, who could not. In addition to helping out with Mister Clyde’s care and feeding, he had taken to volunteering of sorts.
In particular, he would often spend an hour or so playing board games, reading, or simply walking in the gardens with Mary Majors, pretending for a while to be her Joe. As Frank had said, offering her what comfort and solace her memories could provide. He had come to know the couple and their youngest daughter, who still lived nearby, reasonably well.
He had also come to know a great deal about another long-dead Marine, 1st Lieutenant Joseph Battaglia, whom he learned had also been from Boston. His accent had been another reason that Mary had come to associate him with her long-lost first love. Of course, he always felt a bit uncomfortable with the deception. Especially in terms of the pain, it undoubtedly caused Frank, but the man was stalwart in his support of whatever it took to make his wife happy.
That kind of love was not something that Mike could even fathom at times, but something that brought an ache and longing deep in his chest at odds moments as he watched the man care for the woman, who did not remember, let alone return that love.
After visiting hours ended at three, he would head back to the old farmhouse and spend his evenings doing more meaningless repairs to the old place. Though the staff at Prairie View increasingly fudged such things for him.
Most evenings, he would finish up just in time to be the very last customer at the restaurant, happy to accept whatever culinary delights were ‘leftovers’ as Brenda and Josh called them. Usually, it was one of them who served him dinner. Isabel only worked breakfast and lunch duty to spend time with her son, little Josh, and ‘little’ Billy, at least until his leave ended.
There was one night that Mike could never forget. He had been there for a little more than a week. Mister Clyde was having what Maude called an ‘especially bad day,’ meaning that the man was combative. Actually, he was quite violent. It was not just screaming and yelling, cursing too, something that Mike had never heard the man do. Hell, he was not even aware the man knew some of the words he used that day. The man also spit, hit, kicked, and even bit. In some ways, it reminded Mike of the temper tantrums that he had seen a few of his friends’ children have over the years.
In the end, the only alternative had been to restrain the man for his safety as well as the staffs’. While that had been hard on Mike, he had insisted on helping the mostly female staff to do what was necessary. Then he had sat by the man’s side just talking in low tones, trying to calm and soothe Mister Clyde as best he could.
It was well past the usual three o’clock visiting hours when the man finally fell into a restless slumber, and Mike sneaked from the room with instructions to the night staff to call him should they need him at all. By the time all of that was done, Mike was exhausted, not just physically but also emotionally. But as he went to exit the building, a jubilant Frank grabbed him by the arm and dragged him into the day room.
The place had been transformed with red balloons and streamers into party central. Their daughter smiled as she pressed an equally red plastic plate into his hand and began filling it with an assortment of delicious smelling barbeque and all the ‘fixins’ as she called them. She droned on and on about the significance of red. Apparently, the fortieth anniversary was traditionally the ruby.
None of that mattered to a tired and stressed out Mike. Then he heard the crack in her voice and saw the tears in her eyes. “I know all this may seem such a ridiculous fuss since Mama won’t even remember it tomorrow. But I know my parents will never have a fiftieth. At least Mama won’t be here to see it anyway. So I guess…”
She had shrugged her shoulders and handed the heavily laden plate to Mike before wiping her eyes with the back of her hand and making a lame excuse for a hasty retreat. Mike had done his best to eat at least some of the food, but nothing tasted right when his mind got this crowded. Not just with his ghosts but with the overwhelming realities of all that had happened the past few days.
He had forced himself to stay long enough not to appear rude. Then he sought out Frank, finding him as he expected next to his wife, who had her hair fixed rather nicely in that old Southern lady curly style for the occasion. She was dressed for the event in a striking red dress that appeared straight out of a 1950s sitcom.
He held out his hand to Frank as he made his excuses without burdening the man with all the details of what ‘a bad day’ meant, though he was sure the man could imagine. What surprised Mike was when Mary placed her small, bruised hand over her husband’s and said, “Frank, dear, won’t you introduce me to your young friend?”
Turned out that while Mister Clyde might have been having a bad day, Frank’s prayers for his wife to have a ‘good’ one had been answered. He smiled as the man did just that. For the moment, at least, he enjoyed the pleasure of being Frank’s friend Mike and not the woman’s dead Marine husband, Joe.
He had smiled as he left their party though he could never imagine such a thing as a ruby anniversary. Hell, he was not even sure that he had ever had anything even approaching a ‘real relationship’ though he had had a couple of girlfriends back in his lost twenties when he spent more time in bars and bottles than he wanted to remember. He could not imagine being with any woman for that long. Well, not really…because impossible dreams did not count.
But he took consolation in knowing that once more, the wheels of Fate were balanced. If only for this one moment, good things had happened for good people. And that was all that mattered. Of course, Fate was not done with him for that night as it turned out.
When he pulled into the old farm’s driveway, he noticed a newer model truck than the one that Brenda usually drove. On those nights when he had gotten so caught up in what he was doing that he had forgotten his standing ‘dinner date’ at the restaurant, the woman insisted on bringing it to him instead. She never stayed, not after that first night anyway.
But this time, it was not the woman’s petite form sitting in the freshly painted porch swing and rocking slowly back and forth. Instead, it was him – Little Billy.
Mike was not sure what to say to the man. He had not run into him since that first morning in the restaurant, but “Hey, have you been waiting long? I’m sorry I was not expecting anyone,” seemed as good as he could manage given the circumstances.
The young Marine stood up and held out a bag that Mike knew contained even more food that he could not possibly make himself eat this night. “No problem, Sir. I ain’t been waiting that long, half an hour, maybe.” Waiting half an hour to deliver food that he could have easily left on the porch seemed a bit odd to Mike. But he would not pass up the chance to get to know more about this young man.
“One of the reasons I’m late is that some friends at the nursing home were having an anniversary celebration, so I’ve eaten already.” Mike shrugged, trying to keep things casual as he continued, “But if you care to come in, we could have a beer.”
The man smiled. That smile which always did funny things to Mike’s tummy, the one that sent him back over the years. “I’d like that, Sir. I was hoping we could talk for a bit, actually.”
Mike flipped on a lamp in the living room and ushered Billy into the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator as he motioned with his other hand towards the table and chairs, “Take a seat.” He opened two bottles of beer and took his place across from the young man as he held out a bottle.
They both took a long swig, emptying half of the bottle before setting it back on the table. Mike was beginning to think he had made a mistake inviting Billy in. The silence stretched on uncomfortably long. Both men took turns looking at the Formica tabletop just to avoid talking.
“Tell me about him. About my father.”
Mike was glad that the bottle of beer was only halfway to his mouth. He was so shocked by the man’s words that he knew he would have spewed it all over the place otherwise. “You know?”
“Since I was about twelve or thirteen, I guess. We studied genes and shit in biology. I spent almost a whole Saturday looking at this chart of white and red flowers in the textbook. Then looking at this faded picture that Mama kept hidden in the drawer on her side of the bed – her junior prom with him in full Marine uniform at her side. My little brain spent the whole damned time trying to figure out how come I was such a white flower. How could I look so damned much like a man that was only a distant relation? Then I put the pieces together.”
“Did you ask her about it?”
He shook his head, “Nah, I was afraid that it might cause her too much pain. I’d always catch her looking at me strange sometimes. All sad like, and I could never figure it out. Until then.”
The young man lifted the bottle of beer and drained it. “I thought about asking Daddy about it once, right before I left for Parris Island. We were going on a final fishing trip before Boot Camp. I figured then would be as good a time as any. I even practiced everything I’d say.”
Billy sighed as he toyed with the bottle, rocking it back and forth on the table. “But then when the time came, I just couldn’t. I don’t know; it just seemed like I’d be disrespecting him. All he had done for me and Mama. I just couldn’t. It wasn’t worth it just to settle that little bit of doubt that was still in my mind.”
He met Mike’s gaze boldly. “But even that little bit disappeared that morning when I met you. Between the way you acted when we shook hands and especially how nervous Daddy was, I knew. I just knew I was right. So, I figured you were the one person I could ask. The one that would tell me the truth. Am I right? Is Billy my real father?”
Mike emptied his bottle of beer and, without speaking, went back to the fridge for two more. He took his time opening them as he tried to figure out what to say to the young man. Some part of him felt that he owed loyalty to the couple that had done so much, sacrificed even more to protect this young man. A couple that had been nothing but kind to him too. But another part of him remained true to his dead friend. Didn’t the young man have the right to know the truth?
Well, as much as Mike knew himself anyway. He placed the fresh beer in front of the man as he nodded, “Yes, yes, you’re Billy’s flesh and blood, but whether that makes him your father or not, hell, even I ain’t figured that one out yet.”
Mike emptied almost his whole bottle of beer before sitting back down at the table across from the ‘kid.’ Over the next couple of hours, the men talked. Mike told him what little he knew of the tangled web of lies and half-truths around his birth.
He told him stories of the other Billy too. Stories that he knew the young man could appreciate even more because of their shared bond as brothers, Marines. It grew late, too late, but it seemed both were reluctant to break the spell of time that seemed suspended between past, present, and future around that old worn-out kitchen table.
Billy finally did, though, as he held out his hand across the table. “Thank you, thank you, Sir, for giving me the answers I needed. It means a lot.”
Mike stood as they prepared to say their good-byes. Though he was not the touchy-feely kind of guy, something made Mike pull the young man closer, give him one of those shoulder-to-shoulder embraces that was as close to a hug as some men could get.
“He’d be damned proud of the man and the Marine you have become, son.” Mike blamed the water that blurred his vision on the exhaustion. It was once more batting at his head like the sound of cannons on a tank.
The young man beamed as he pulled back from the embrace, “Thank you, thank you for that too, Sir.”
“No more damned Sir. Those days are over. It’s just Mike now.”
“Alright, Sir…Mike.” He looked nervously at the floor for a moment before once more meeting Mike’s stare. “There’s just one more thing. I’m not sure if I should ask. It is just that I go back to Twenty-Nine Palms the day after tomorrow, then we deploy after that for almost a year. I know…”
Mike watched as the younger man once more stared at the worn linoleum as he shifted nervously from foot to foot. “Don’t worry about it, son. You can ask me anything. If I can do it, I will. You have my word on that.”
Billy nodded as he looked back up and spoke, “It’s just that I know I won’t get another chance, and I was wondering…if I can manage to sneak away for a while tomorrow, could I visit Mister Clyde? I mean, my grandfather, I suppose, in the nursing home.”
Mike sighed heavily. He did not know what to say. After a day like this, he would hate for that to be all this young man remembered of the man that Mike had once known, a good and loving father, a hard-working farmer, a devoted husband, and family man. With a heart big enough to take in even a lost and angry young man that Mike had once been. Hell, probably still was in some ways.
On the other hand, though he knew Mister Clyde would never remember meeting this grandson that he never knew he had, Mike liked to think that somehow or the other, that family reunion would balance out karma. Bring some peace to the old man as well as the ghost of his friend that visited him most nights. And like the boy said, this would be the only chance. One he had to take. “Sure, son, you do that. I’ll make sure the staff knows you are coming.”
Mike walked the young man to the door and watched as he climbed into the truck and drove away. The red tail lights had no sooner disappeared down the road than the weight of this day hit him full force. This night he could not even find the strength to drag his butt up the stairs. Instead, he barely made it to the couch before collapsing there. He did not even bother pulling the crocheted multi-color afghan off the back of it. This early in the autumn, the weather was still warm enough that he would not need it.
But as he feared this night, there was little rest to be had as he fought the demons in his dreams. They all blended one into another. Over the years, faces and voices became confused and out-of-sync. It was not even dawn when Mike gave up trying to sleep and got up to begin the barren routine over again.