Mike sat on the back steps and watched as the children took turns on that old tire swing. It had been a joint operation between him, Billy, and Josh, to safety test the damned thing before letting them have at it. It had taken all of Brenda Jo’s skills and Josh’s fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies to distract the three children long enough to get the job done. But since, to their knowledge, no one had played on the damned thing in close to a quarter of a century, they felt it ought to be inspected first.
He shook his head at how this day had gone. Although why that should surprise him at this point was beyond him. Would he ever learn that life and the universe were a tangled, twisting road that cut back on itself more often than not? It certainly had this day.
When they arrived at the small wooden church that her parents had attended all their lives, Becca had shocked him by asking Mike, Josh, and Billy to fill in as pallbearers for a couple of the older gentlemen, who were not up to the task or had died since her dad made the arrangements. Though he was sure that group of ‘church ladies’ as Brenda called them would have plenty to say about this latest scandal, he didn’t give a damn. He was honored and touched by her request.
This church service had tried Mike’s patience more than Manny’s had. If that priest had ground his ax about the strange ways of god, this preacher saw it as an opportunity to preach damnation and eternal salvation.
Not that Mike was buying it. He had long since given up any hope of being ‘saved’ by anyone or anything. And the idea of heaven and eternity was definitely beyond him. This life was long enough. He sure did not want eternity.
Besides, what he had witnessed of those ‘church ladies’ had given him more than a belly full of these Baptists, even more than his Catholic upbringing. It took everything inside him not to stand up and walk out in the middle of it all.
Instead, he had retreated into his mind and thoughts, which was never a good thing. The self-recriminations of that morning came back to haunt him. As well as the ghost of that first of his too many battles.
At moments, he could almost feel Billy standing in the back of that church, listening, and watching them all. The little sister who was so bitter that she could not forgive her father before his death. The girlfriend who had no one to turn to except his best friend and cousin. And most especially, the son that had never known his ‘real’ father or even been told of him until he was a man himself.
Mike had never been all that interested in school, especially the difficult to understand and sometimes hard to decipher English literature shit. Still, he did remember one quote that seemed to apply, something about the webs we weave when we deceive. This place and this family were full of those.
Worse than any spider’s he had ever seen. At least with a spider’s web, you could stand back and admire the intricate beauty of the design, assuming you could ignore the things, dead or helplessly trapped in it. Deceit had no such pulchritude. It was nothing but the stink of those decaying flies caught in its powerful hold.
He berated himself for his part in all of that. Ignoring the signs of trouble with Becca. Just accepting Missus Lula’s bitter explanation of things with Brenda Jo and Josh. The fact that he had come back a fucked-up kid was no excuse for letting Billy down the way he had.
Between those thoughts and the occasional loud shout or pounding of the bible on the pulpit, which startled Mike so much that he almost dove under the seat in front of him, his nerves were frayed. His head pounded by the time the man called for them all to rise for the final prayer.
That was about the only thing about these Baptists that was better than the Catholics – no kneeling. But his relief was short-lived as that prayer stretched on for close to fifteen minutes as the preacher begged and pleaded with the sinners to come forward and accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. Then it was back into another of those black limousines for the ride back to the farm. Once more, they were subjected to an overly long sermon on their supposed sin and another endless prayer pleading for them to be ‘saved.’
Mike had stood stiffly at the back this time. He had looked around at the crowd, which had followed them back from the church. The weathered leather faces of the old farmers and their perfectly coiffed for the day wives. He noticed a decided absence of children and young people. Only Becca’s daughters and little Josh fidgeted in their seats. Billy and Isabel were the most youthful adults there. Mike knew that this family farming lifestyle was dying, but that brought it starkly home to him.
He had stared across at the abandoned construction site, a field of dead and dying dreams. Not only was it no longer a field of ripe wheat, corn, or freshly tilled dirt lying fallow for the coming winter, it had not even become the family homes that they had been assured would bring fresh blood and young families back to this dying town. It was as empty and falling apart as he felt.
The hardest part was still to come as those strangers, who had not had the time to visit Mister Clyde while he lived, seemed determined to hang about eating, gossiping, and making a mess until it was almost dusk. Mike had escaped to this corner of the small plot of land that remained in the family’s hands – for now anyway. He had watched as the workers began the task of filling that hole in with the dry, red dirt.
Was this all it came to? A lifetime of laboring in that marginally fertile ground, struggling to keep the American dream alive, only to end up in a box beneath it. For a moment, Mike even wondered if Billy’s premature death might not have been a blessing in some fucked up way. He would never face years of being abandoned by his own family, left to rot in a nursing home that, despite how valiantly Maude tried to care for its patients, was only barely acceptable. Supposed friends who could not be bothered to visit. Withering away to nothing in those god damned adult diapers. Maybe it was also a blessing that Mister Clyde had not been able to remember anything after all.
He had been just about to find some way to sneak away, look for a bar, and, as he had with his motley band of brothers in the OC, drown all of it in alcohol. Though he should have learned by now, that too was futile. It always came back. Then he had been accosted by Josh and his son, enlisted in their efforts to ensure the safety of the next generation of Halls. The two men had even managed to hide away a few beers in their truck. They shared with him as they worked on testing the strength of that rope.
It was a job that had fallen, of course, to the younger man. Josh and Mike had stood back as Billy squeezed himself into the old tractor tire that had most definitely seen better days. He had jumped up and down in it a few times to test the weathered rope’s ability to hold his weight. Then among the friendly jeers of his father, he had put the thing through its paces.
Mike had battled those damned allergies again as his throat tightened and his eyes watered at the sight of his best friend’s son swinging from the tree that he knew his father had fallen from and broken a leg. For a second, he could almost see the man pushing that swing higher and higher, laughing with the little boy, the way it should have been. If not for that damned thing called war and death that had cut all that short, robbed this young man of his father, and fractured this family to pieces that had scattered about the country.
He brought the almost empty bottle of beer to his mouth and drained it, promising himself not to fall back into those old patterns, not to take the easy road as he had after his friend’s death. He reminded himself of all the reasons. He knew that with his family history, alcoholism and violence led to some very nasty places. Besides, those ghosts never went away when you drank. Sometimes they got more vivid.
No, the path he had chosen was the right one. The only question now was where would be his next stop. He had spent almost two months here. Those first unbearably hot days of Southern California had turned into crisp Oklahoma fall nights.
But he had kept another promise, or he hoped like hell he had. He still was at a loss as to how to bring this family back together, the way his dead friend would have wanted. Maybe some things were just impossible dreams.
Her face flashed through his mind. No, some things were most definitely impossible dreams.
Josh came up to him with another open bottle of beer in his beefy hand. Mike shook his head, “No, thanks.” The man nodded and brought it to his own lips before laughing at the antics of his oldest son as he tried to extricate himself from the tire.
“Thank you, man. Thanks for doing what he could not be here to do. For taking care of her and him like he would have if…” Mike knew he had to say the words that no one else ever would, but that did not make them any more comfortable.
Josh shook his head and wrapped one of those too large arms about his shoulders so that no matter how uncomfortable Mike was, he simply could not escape the manly embrace. “It’s been my pleasure.” Mike saw tears emerge from the lined corners of the man’s eyes.
“Sometimes that’s the problem. Sometimes I lay in bed watching her sleep and feel like I betrayed him. Like I took what was his.”
Josh shook his head, “Watching that boy grow, feeling his first kick, right up to watching him march across that parade deck in San Diego, being there when Isabel gave birth, hell, having that baby named after my sorry ass. All of that, it should have been him. And I’m nothing more than a poor substitute.”
“Never let me hear you say that again, Joshua,” said the feminine voice behind them.
They turned to see the small cadre of women. Brenda Jo, Becca, and Isabel had all found Missus Lula’s collection of aprons in the kitchen drawer. Each had a different brightly colored floral or gingham print wrapped about their waist.
It was Becca, who spoke then, “No, Cousin Josh. Don’t ever let my Mama’s bitterness or those nasty old biddies from that church make you think that again. Mike’s right. I know my brother, and he would have been damned glad that you stepped up like you did.”
She wrapped her arm about Brenda Jo, and her face lightened. Some of the pain and bitterness that always lurked around her eyes and the corners of her mouth melted away. “And from what brief time I have spent with my nephew, it seems to me Billy would have nothing to complain about the way you raised him.”
Brenda Jo returned the woman’s embrace, drawing her tighter against her. “I’m sorry, suga. I should have been there for you. I should have seen how much his death hurt you too. I shouldn’t have let Missus Lula’s attitude keep me away from you.”
Becca smiled as tears ran down her cheeks. “No one else could ever braid my hair the way you could.”
They both laughed and hugged as the three little ones assailed Billy demanding to be first on that old swing. The man was overwhelmed, and only his father’s intervention saved the day. It was decided that ladies went first and age before beauty, so the youngest of Becca’s daughters climbed into the tire first. Little Josh was consoled with being allowed to push his ‘cousin.’ Mike smiled, wondering if politicians and officers should not be forced to attend a training on simple common sense with the man.
“Let us help you clean up before we go,” offered Brenda Jo when the men finally had that situation under control and were once more digging in the cooler for more beers.
Becca nodded, “Thank you. I’d appreciate it. And the chance to catch up without all those damned blue-haired betties hanging around trying to eavesdrop on every word we say and spreading more rumors at Patsy Sue’s. Is that place still around even? The woman must be seventy by now.”
“Oh yes, the beauty parlor and the barbershop are still going strong. After all, they can’t exactly discuss the tastiest bits of gossip after Sunday school, now can they? Nope, that place will be open as long as there is anyone left in Honour, Oklahoma. But Miss Patsy has hired the Phelps girl to do most of the cutting and styling these days. She’s always there though to pour the coffee, make sure the woman does it all just right, and of course, embellish the truth as only she can.”
Brenda watched the children swing. “I’m afraid we’ve all given them enough to talk about for a while.”
Becca embraced the older woman. “Let’em, I say. Who gives a damn what they think? I have the big sister I missed for so long back.” She watched as her husband shyly approached the men, only to be greeted with a beer, laughter, and a slap on the back that must have rattled the man’s teeth. “My favorite cousin too. And the bonus of a nephew, niece, and grandnephew I never even dreamt of. I say we got the best end of this deal, don’t you?”
Brenda nodded and smiled, “I am really sorry for keeping him from ya’ll all these years. Maybe we shoulda…”
“No, you did what you thought was right. And given the bitter gossip that both our families have been subjected to this past couple of days, who’s to say you weren’t right all along?”
“But Mister Clyde and Missus Lula…” Brenda began through the tears.
“I don’t know. Mama changed so much after Billy died. I’m not sure she would have been much of a grandma to that little boy.”
Mike could hear the bitterness in the woman’s voice as she continued. “She sure wasn’t to her grand-daughters. When I got pregnant the first time, I called, asked if she would come and stay when the baby was born. But all I got was another of her self-righteous sermons on sin and the mixing of the races.”
“Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry.” Another round of feminine hugs and tears followed. Mike was so uncomfortable he sought to escape.
He made his excuses to the ladies and waved to the men. He could at last retreat to the quiet and solitude of the room that had been as close to a home for him as any place since he was seven years old. Though he knew it would be the last time, this the last night he slept in ‘his own bed,’ he tried not to think of such things. Instead, he would busy himself with packing what little stuff he had. Go through that list of people and places on his phone and decide his next stop.
That was what he was pondering when the quiet knock at the door interrupted. “Come in.” Perhaps it was Brenda Jo or Billy come to say their final farewells. He had not thought it would be Becca Hall-Okadigbo.
She looked different, somehow. Though her blues eyes were red and swollen, the hurt and pain in them were gone. She looked so much more like that carefree and innocent little girl that he and Billy had once swung from that same tree.
“I don’t mean to disturb you, Mike, but there are a couple more things we need to talk about.” She sat down on the foot of the bed next to him.
He noticed the yellowed and folded shift of papers in her trembling hands. This was it. The moment he had been dreading most. Though he knew that Mister Clyde had willed the house and remaining land to them both, even given Mike controlling interest, he had decided long ago that he would not argue. He would not fight this woman about selling what little remained of their family dynasty. A dynasty that had died almost a quarter of a century before in his arms.
If the idea of someone demolishing this old house that had been built and re-built over the generations by Hall hands bothered him, well, he would not be around to witness it any more than Mister Clyde or Billy. No, the only thing he wanted was the assurance that the old tree, its swing, and that white picketed fence family burial plot would remain intact. He hoped that Becca would not think that too much to ask.
He steeled himself for that plea as the woman stared at the paper and began to speak. “I hate to ask any more of you, Mike. Honest, I do. But I was only able to get someone to cover my classes for a few days. And honestly, I’ve had about as much small-town ‘hospitality’ as I can handle. I want to get my family back home before my daughters start to ask what ‘monkey people’ are.”
Mike inhaled at not just the bitterness that was lurking just beneath the surface of her new smile but at the term itself. He wondered then, would his friend who had served side by side with men of all races have been able to salve some of this woman’s troubles with her parents over the man she had fallen in love with? It was yet another of those unanswerable what-ifs that Mike was sure would plague him in the remaining weeks and months of his existence. But he did not have time to dwell on it then as she continued talking.
“There are not enough assets left after paying for Daddy’s care all this time. Honestly, James and I have had to dip into our savings this past couple of months, but I figured it was the least we could do.”
Mike frowned at this revelation. That the woman, whom he had judged so harshly, had been paying what he knew was not insubstantial monthly payments out of her pocket made him feel more than a bit guilty.
He nodded as he reached for the paper. “I’ll sign it, of course. I take it you have a buyer in mind? Can recoup some of that money?”
She shook her head and held up a five-dollar bill. “Maybe not the most lucrative business deal I have ever made, but I think it is the best one. Turns out, my nephew and his wife have been looking for someplace to put down roots once his enlistment is up. Especially with the way their family is growing.”
Tears spilled over as she passed the papers to him. “So if you can stick around a few more days, file the paperwork for the expedited probate, and then handle the transfer of the deed into Billy’s name, I’d really appreciate it.”
Mike nodded his head as he tried to speak past that lump in his throat. “It’d be my pleasure, Ma’am.”
She wrapped him in an embrace, just as that little girl had every time he had come to visit. He thought, as he always had back then, of his baby sister, who had not lived to breathe her first breath. Would she have been like this woman? Would they have been as close as Billy and Becca had once been? His list of those what-ifs seemed to grow by the second.
But one he did not have to add to the long list of his failures was the promise he had made that morning at his friend’s tombstone. The family farm, or what remained of it, would see two more generations of Halls fill this house with laughter and love. He hoped with far, far fewer trials, tribulations, and struggles than the last one had endured.
It had taken almost a week. Damned government paperwork again. But Mike had filled that time with more repairs around the old place. This time he had been joined most evenings by Josh and Brenda Jo. Even Isabel and little Josh, when she was feeling up to it, sometimes came by for a bit before she took the boy back to her in-laws for a bath and bed. They had worked together to repair, paint, and clean the old place.
And though there would be plenty of work in the coming months and years for Billy to do. Once his deployment was over, and he returned to his family. But by the time they had all moved Isabel and little Josh into the place, they were satisfied that it would be safe, comfortable, and habitable for her and the children. Until this Billy made it home to them. Mike had wasted one of his few impotent prayers upon that very thing.
They had taken great pride in repainting the room that had been closed tightly for almost a quarter of a century – for the man’s grandson. It seemed right somehow that the child should have the room that had once been his grandfather’s. The man he would never know other than as a piece of stone under the tree he would play in.
The only thing that was not freshly painted was the door frame with its yellowing and chipped surface upon which were the penciled growth markings of another little boy. Josh had passed Mike the pencil and the honor of adding the first of this little boy’s to them.
This morning had been a tearful round of hugs and reassurances that he was always welcome. That his room would remain there whenever he made it back this way. His stomach had tightened into knots around that final breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and all the ‘fixins’ as even he had taken to calling them.
He knew that it was an offer he would never take. That his work here was done. He had done his best by Billy, both of them. There was no reason to return to Honour, Oklahoma, before making that final, fateful trip to Boston.
He thought of that flag in its thick plastic bag and that newest mission he had acquired. He chuckled as he realized that he had not managed to shorten his list at all on this trip, merely check one off and add another in its place. That was not how this was supposed to work.
He sighed as he approached the fork in the road that would determine his future. Or at least the next few days of it. He had narrowed the list down to two. His buddy, Gary, from Afghanistan, was trying to rebuild some abandoned homes in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans for veterans and their families. Mike knew that since the man had been in a wheelchair for over five years, an extra set of hands would be a big help. But there was another stop. Though Mike wanted nothing more than to avoid the fresh, painful memories and the impossible longings he knew it would bring, it called to him.
It was just four days until Halloween. How many times had he listened as Tommy told them all about her big Halloween that delighted all the children in that small Texas town? Whenever possible, Tommy had tried to plan his leaves to coincide with the holiday, help his mother out with the heavy stuff like the haunted house.
This year, there would be no one to help Esther. He caressed the thrumming red metal between his legs as he sat at that intersection. No one except him. His friend’s dying words echoed in his mind as the shrapnel scar on his shoulder burned as if to remind him of his promise.
“Take care of her.” Those words had been haunting his dreams this past week.
“Damn it.” Did he have any choice? He had made a promise. Just as he had to another best friend all those long years ago. Maybe it was right that he kept those promises before seeing to the rest of his list. So, as hard as he knew this trip and his cock was going to be for the next few days, he turned the motorcycle that he had named after the woman in the direction of Sebida, Texas.
If he rode straight through, he might be able to make it by this evening. It was not very long to steel himself for his first face-to-face meeting with the only woman who had ever captured his imagination and what heart he had left. The truth was that this would be his toughest mission, whether that be now or months from now.
No, best to get it out of the way. Check on the woman, make sure she was doing alright. Or as well as she could be, given that her son had died in his arms only six months ago. Maybe, just maybe, he could quiet one more of his ghosts as he had with Manny and Billy. Even if he feared that this trip would only cause him more pain…
He thought of friend Luke once more and his fateful words. “I could never get her out of my blood. You ever met a woman like that, buddy? Someone you know you’ll never be good enough for, but can’t help loving anyway.”
But he knew that there would be no happily-ever-after for him the way there had been for Luke and his Kim Lee. There had never been, not for that little orphan that was too old and too damaged by all he had seen that night ever to be adopted.
Not for the Marine that knew only duty, blood, and gunpowder. Why should things be any different for the man whose future was measured in days, weeks, and months? Still, he had a promise to keep…even if this one did kill him or more likely broke what little heart he had left.