Mike had been right. Dressed in his uniform, he felt conspicuous, to say the least. He knew no one that came to the funeral home that evening. A few faces looked familiar, mostly from those Sunday church services.
The only exception had been Maude Landon and a couple of nurses, who had taken the time to stop by. Unlike all the others, who viewed the stranger that hung out in the corner of the room with veiled curiosity, they had sought him out. They had spent more time consoling him, if that was the word, than they had the ‘prodigal’ daughter, who held court beside her father’s casket with her husband and two young daughters.
Of course, Mike soon came to understand at least some of this woman’s reticence in coming back to this place. Having traveled and been stationed in more places than he wanted to remember, he had long since learned to put any prejudice he might have once had aside.
Not so with small Honour, Oklahoma, where the people openly gawked at the dark-skinned African man by little Becca Hall’s side. Mike hoped that the little girls, who stood next to their mother were too young to understand some of the looks from the people of this town.
Throughout the night, Mike found himself feeling more and more protective of the woman and her family, just as he once had of that little girl. Even that was overridden when all the noise and the crush of people, who filled and overflowed that small room, got to be too much. Mike had to step outside for some fresh air.
What was it about funerals that made him want to smoke anyway? He approached a group of older men who had assembled in the parking lot to enjoy their cigarettes. He would bum one off them, perhaps. But that outing brought him too close to a small klatch of blue-haired women, just outside the double door of the funeral home.
“How dare that woman? Who does she think she is, bringing him and those… Those ‘children’ here? Lula Mae must be spinning in her grave right now. You’d think the woman would have the decency to at least respect her Mama’s wishes more than that. Well, I never…” declared one of them dressed pristinely in a black polyester dress.
If she had been a man, Mike would have throat punched him. But since she was not, he did the best he could. “Those ‘children’ as you call them are the man’s granddaughters. And the man is her husband. Don’t you think Becca might want and need her family’s support after just losing her father?”
The woman lifted her nose and half turned her back to him. Though her cheap polyester dress was anything but the couture that his grandmother might have worn, Mike knew a snub when he saw it. Though this one rolled off him in a way that other one never could.
“That woman made her choices long ago. She knew how her parents felt about them too. I know for a fact that Lula Mae told her what a sin she was committing, that it was an abomination against god the mixing of…” Mike felt his hands fist at his side as he blocked out her next words.
How was it possible that such idiotic stupidity and racist drivel still existed in this country in the twenty-first century? The fact that men like Tommy with his mixed-race heritage and Manny with his proud Latino one had bled and died so this woman could keep spouting such asinine bullshit caused his stomach to tighten into a knot that bordered on physical pain.
The fact that he knew this woman and others like her would look down upon the one woman he had ever loved in the same way filled him with a blinding rage that he had not felt since he was seven years old.
He was not sure what he would have done at that moment if it had not been for the gentle hand on his upper arm and the larger, firmer one that gripped his other shoulder, restraining him just enough to allow him to tamp down that anger for the moment.
Brenda smiled at the woman, “Good evening, Missus Martha, Miss Mildred, Jolene, Beth. I see ya’ll have met Mike. I don’t know if ya’ll remember, but he was Billy’s friend from the Marines. He used to come home with him when they got leave.” She took a step closer to him, almost protectively.
“He’s the one that’s been looking after Mister Clyde these last couple of months,” she paused with a too-sweet smile.“I’m sorry I shoulda known. You, ladies, must have run into him when ya’ll visited the nursing home. Forgive my bad manners, that city living all these years, makes a girl forget herself.”
Mike would have sworn that the woman’s nose went another inch higher as if she were smelling fresh ‘cow pies’ as Billy had told him. He had to give Brenda her due. It seemed she had managed to do with her words what no fists could – put them in their place. Or so he thought until the woman opened her mouth, “Yes, well, I am certain that you did not visit the man either.”
The smile on the younger woman’s face was not one of gloating triumph but genuine peace when she responded. “Actually, I am glad I did. Mister Clyde might not have remembered me or known what I was saying, but it was nice just talking with him about old times…about…”
The bear of a man, who was her husband, released Mike’s shoulder and stepped behind her, wrapping his saplings about her shoulders that were beginning to shake just a bit with unshed tears. “We should be getting inside, baby girl. If you, ladies, will excuse us.” The man said simply as he guided them both away from the group.
They could hear the woman, Missus Martha, Brenda had called her, in that high whiny voice, “Well, I never.”
Mike could not stifle the chuckle when Brenda wiped the moisture from her eyes with the back of her hand and whispered to them. “I bet she ain’t either. I feel real sorry for Mister Roy.”
Josh bent low, “Don’t you worry about Mister Roy, suga. Word around the feed and seed is that he has been ‘visitin’ Tessa Lee’s for close to twenty years now.”
Mike shook his head at the small town gossip that seemed as bad as, or worse than, all the ridiculousness that littered his friends’ feed. Seemed that celebrities were not the only ones that made fools of themselves. Or had deep secrets to hide. Then he saw a newer pickup truck turn into the parking lot.
“His deployment was delayed. So, he flew back just for a couple of days on a special pass to see Isabel. She’s pregnant again and having it pretty rough this time.” Brenda explained as they watched Billy, his wife, and their little boy, whom Mike had never actually seen file out of the vehicle.
It seemed the Hall genes were strong ones since the boy too was the spitting image of his father, though his hair was darker, and his eyes looked to be the warm brown of his mother’s Latina heritage. Mike smiled and nodded as they waited for the young family to join them.
That smile widened when he saw those women’s mouths drop open as Billy walked past them with his son in one arm and the other wrapped around Isabel, “Evening, ladies.”
Brenda too laughed, “Well, between my family and what little I heard as we were coming up the walk about Becca’s, I figure there’s plenty of gossip to keep Patsy Jo’s beauty salon in business for another year or two at least.”
Josh shook his head at his wife, and jokingly scolded her. “Be good woman,” he swatted her bottom playfully before reaching out and drawing his son, grandson, and daughter-in-law into an embrace that made Mike so uncomfortable he had to look away.
He would have excused himself then, perhaps even tried to slip away back to the farm early, had it not been for Billy’s next words. “So, will you introduce me to my aunt, Master Sergeant?” Mike looked from the Marine to his parents.
Brenda shrugged, “We had a good heart to heart on their wedding day. It’s not like secrets keep around Honour anyway, which is probably why Josh and I stayed away so long.” She wiped tears from her eyes, “Probably too long. For Mister Clyde and Missus Lula anyway.”
“Mama, no more. We talked about this. You and Daddy did what you thought was right. And as a parent, god knows, I’m learning that’s about all anyone can. So, wipe them tears, hold that head up high, and let’s go do what we came to do.” Billy absolved his mother.
His father beamed proudly at him as he released them from the hug and laced his wife’s hand through his arm. “Damn straight, son. As a family.”
Mike nodded and would have taken a step back himself, fallen in line behind them, except that Brenda reached out and laced her other hand through his arm. “That includes you too, Mike. Billy would not have had it any other way, if he were here now.”
He fought back that tight knot that seemed to live perpetually in his throat these days and the blurred vision as his eyes watered. It appeared he was developing some sort of allergy, perhaps. “Yes, Ma’am.”
The rest of the night had seemed almost anti-climactic. If Becca Hall-Okadigbo was shocked when the young man, who looked so much like her brother, made his way through the ‘receiving line,’ as Mike learned it was called, she had more class than to show it, unlike the ‘church ladies’ out front. She had merely smiled, shook his hand, and thanked him for coming just as she had the hundred or so others that she had greeted that night.
After that, Mike had managed to sneak away as the crowd continued to grow with people, who had never had time for Mister Clyde when he was alive, but suddenly felt the overwhelming need to ‘pay their respects’ now that the man was gone, dead and cold in that box.
A huge part of Mike wanted to turn Esther in the other direction. Put as much fucking distance between Honour, Oklahoma, and himself as he possibly could. Hadn’t he done his duty here? He had sat beside Mister Clyde’s bedside and fed the man. Hell, he even changed a couple of them damned adult diapers over the weeks when the nursing home was short-staffed and the nurses too busy to get to the man in what Mike considered a reasonable time to sit in one’s own shit.
Instead turned his motorcycle back towards the farm that had been his ‘home,’ if such a thing existed, for almost two months. He was exhausted and over-stimulated from the crowd, noise, and most definitely the emotional drama of this night. He wanted nothing more than to grab a cold beer from the fridge, get out of his uniform, take a bath, and fall asleep before the others even got back. Even if he could not manage to sleep, he intended to pretend. He had had enough of people for one night. Hell, for a lifetime.
Mike had been lucky enough to do just that, though he woke before dawn as usual. This time it was the sound of the backhoe arriving and beginning the task of breaking through the dry clumps of red earth that had sustained this family for over one hundred and fifty years.
A hole had to be dug beneath the old willow tree out back. He had always thought it strange that the white picket fenced burial plot sat under the shade of the same tree that housed a tire swing that had serviced generations of Hall children. Then again, what did orphans know of such things?
He had been surprised when he walked into the kitchen to find a red-eyed Becca sitting alone at that shabby table with her trembling hands wrapped around a cup of coffee. It did not smell as good as what he had come to expect at the café, but it was better than loads he drank over the years, especially that instant shit that was for emergency use only.
She looked up as he walked in and, without preamble, “When were you going to tell me about my nephew?”
Mike supposed he should have expected this. But the way the woman had acted last night, he had thought perhaps she had not even noticed the strong resemblance. She had been so young when her brother died. He thought maybe she had even forgotten what he looked like. Or perhaps she had been gone so long, was so estranged from this place and these people, that she did not give a damn. It had certainly seemed that way over these past few weeks.
He knew one thing, though it was way too fucking early for a beer, he damned well needed the biggest cup of that Joe he could find to face this one. Without answering her question, he had walked over to the counter. Mike took a mug from the cupboard and poured himself the piping hot elixir of the gods before taking a seat across from the woman. Damned, this kitchen table had been the site of more drama these past few weeks than some televisions sets.
He ignored the burn as he swallowed half the contents of that cup and braced himself as he looked up to meet those blue eyes that were so much like her brother’s had been. “I wasn’t sure you would even notice or care.”
“Not notice? Not care?” She shook her head as more tears streamed down her cheeks. “How could I not notice a man that could have been my brother, that has been dead almost twenty-five years?”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. I didn’t know the boy was coming. I thought his unit had already been deployed. I swear if I had known, I would have said something to try and prepare you.”
“How long have you known? Have you been in on this from the beginning? It sure as hell explains why Brenda Jo ran off with Cousin Josh all sudden like.” The woman paused as she closed her eyes. More tears seeped from the corners.
Mike was searching his mind, trying his best to figure out what to say to the woman, rehearsing inadequate words when she opened her eyes and looked up at him with a weak smile. “I’m sorry. I had no right to blame you like that when you have done so much for my father. Like I said the other night, things that I know I should have. I know you probably resent me, but…”
The woman paused and brought the cup to her lips, drinking it as she shook her head. “What’s the use? Over twenty years, a Ph.D. in psychology. Heck, James and I have even written protocols for grief counseling the children of Navy personnel killed in action. And I still cannot heal that hurt and lost little girl inside me. So how can I possibly explain to you or anyone else what it is like?”
She chuckled as another tear trekked down her cheek. “Reminds me of a bible verse from that church where Mama and all those other hypocrites last night went. ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ Funny thing is that when I started studying psychology, that was what I was looking for…to make myself whole again. But knowledge never seems to be enough.”
Mike could certainly empathize with the woman. He knew all too well what it felt like to be empty, angry, and bitter. He had only seen Becca three times since Billy’s death. The first had been a few months after he finally made it back from that first deployment. He had noticed then that the little girl was quieter, less boisterous than she had been, but he was not dealing with his own pain back then, spending more time in the bottle than he wanted to remember. He had just thought Mister Clyde and Missus Lula would handle it.
She had been a teenager about to graduate high school the next time he had seen her. Of course, he could not help but notice the changes then. The young woman wore nothing but black. Even her strawberry blonde hair and nails were dyed and painted to match. He had listened time after time as Missus Lula complained and nagged her about it. But he also knew that she was a straight-A student and finishing school a full year ahead of her classmates. She had been accepted at over half a dozen top universities and had scholarship offers to most of them. So like her parents, he figured it was just a phase she would outgrow.
When he had seen her again a couple of years ago as they prepared to put Mister Clyde in Prairie View, Mike had been a bit reassured. If the woman seemed a bit uptight, he merely assumed it was because she was some high and mighty professor now, sort of like most officers. He had written it off as just one of those things.
Of course, he admitted it. She was right. Over these past few weeks, he had resented her, passed judgment on her. Last night for the first time, he had begun to glimpse just a bit of what had kept the woman away for so long.
Now, this. It seemed he had failed again. Failed Billy in taking care of that little ‘pain’ that always followed them everywhere they went when they were on leave. Failed Mister Clyde and Missus Lula when he might have been able to say or do something for that angry teen girl, a feeling he remembered all too well. And, of course, failed little Becca also.
“I’m sorry, Becca.” He felt another weight heaped upon the ton, which already weighed him down so heavily.
“Sorry? Sorry for what, Mike? You had your life, a career. You only saw me a couple of times. How were you supposed to know? What could you have possibly done or said when my parents could not, did not… I know they did their best. They were just farmers, dealing with the loss of their child the best way they knew how.”
“What did they know of the stages of grief or how to help a child through them? But that’s just it… That little girl cannot forgive them, either of them, for not seeing how badly she was hurting too. They were Mama and Daddy. They should have known, should have seen her pain too.”
Mike tried to understand. Oh, he knew all too well what it was like to lose someone you loved early. The thing was that for him, there was no one to blame for ‘not being there.’ For foster children, survival was not about dealing with the pain of loss. It was about having enough to eat, managing to hide a favorite toy from the others so that it was not stolen or destroyed, trying to avoid another beating or worse, and wondering every single night if you would fall asleep in the same bed the next one.
So, it was a bit of a stretch to try and imagine being angry at your parents for not managing your grief as well as their own, not when your old man…
He shook his head and forced those thoughts back to the issue at hand. “I’m here now, Becca, and if you want or need to talk, I’m more than happy to listen.”
The woman smiled and reached over, taking his mug as well as her own. “We’ll need more coffee if we’re going to tackle this one.”
They talked for close to an hour before her husband and daughters came barreling down the stairs. Mike had sneaked out then, making the excuse of seeing how they were coming along with the digging. The truth was that he just needed some time to think about the things she had said.
Things he had never known. That he was not the only one who had taken to drowning his sorrows in a bottle. Mister Clyde’s battle with alcoholism had remained a deep secret that the man kept hidden from everyone except his wife and daughter. Of course, he had had hints of Missus Lula’s bitterness. Her anger at Brenda and Josh, her nagging at Becca and Mister Clyde, and her renewed almost fanatical faith. Mike supposed he had just chosen to overlook it all.
He had never thought how all of it might be affecting the little sister that Billy had loved so much. Just as he had never thought to check in on Brenda Jo, to see how the woman, who his best friend had loved so dearly, was doing.
If he had, who knows, maybe things could have been different for all of them. Maybe Little Billy could have gotten to know his grandparents. Perhaps as Miguel had, the boy’s presence would have healed some of those deep and festering wounds in this family, offered solace to them all, and brought them back together, the way that Billy would have wanted. Another failure. Another friend that he had let down. Another stone dragging him down.
He stood watching the men finish off that hole with shovels now that the backhoe had done the hardest part of the job. Mike knelt and dusted the red clay from his dead friend’s tombstone. “I’m sorry about this too, Billy. But I give you my word. I’ll do all I can to make it right. For your sister, for Brenda Jo, and most especially for that boy of yours.”