(This is a story I wrote a few years ago, published in The Southern Reader, whose editor is a college friend of mine, David Skinner. I have full rights. Enjoy.) NOTE: Paragraphing doesn’t seem to transfer to the blog. Sorry.)
THE WAY ‘TWAS
I sat on the stoop of the old front porch of a dying house, sifting through a shoebox of old photographs. My Great-Uncle Jake sat in the rocking chair behind me, eyes gazing off into a far distance.
I’d come here this weekend just to clear up some final business after my father’s death, and ran into Uncle Jake at the church on Sunday. He’d talked me into coming over to the old home place, so that he could tell me about my daddy as a boy, and a special story he’d been saving just for me.
The dark clouds hanging over the soybean fields held a promise of a typical Carolina downpour. I looked up from the pictures, holding the one I’d found in the bottom of the box. “Uncle Jake? When did you take this picture?”
I handed it up to him, and as I’d hoped, the picture opened the floodgates. He told me the following story in his rambling way, jumping around from person to person, remembering bits and pieces of that long ago day, and of one not so long ago.
Sitting on the front porch stoop, Jake reached into the past and began talking.
I didn’t take that picture, child. But I do remember that the smoke of the cookfire lingered in the waning evening light, coloring the swamp river bank with the aroma of the frying catfish. Your Uncle Ike sat staring off into distance, attention drawn by the scream of a gator somewhere out there on the river. But then Ike was always staring off into some far distance. His eyes sometimes didn’t seem to see you, just looked right through you, like something more important drew his interest.
Then Ben put the spatula under one of the fish and turned it slowly in the old cast-iron frying pan they’d borrowed from Aunt Edna. Young Lloyd sat gazing at the camera his cousin Billy held, some new-fangled gadget he’d never seen before.
Billy held the camera just so, and snapped the picture, capturing the bemused look of Andy, who didn’t really want his picture taken, not ever.
I recall that even at the school when he’d been a little boy, Andy’d turned his head quick when the picture taker called out, “Quiet! Don’t move!” so that there was a blur where his head ought to have been. You could still see the small tie tight around his neck, the one Mabel had insisted he wear, even though he’d taken it off right after the picture and thrown it down in the dirt by 3rd base after school. He’d hit a homer, too. That what he said anyway.
Billy’d be leaving soon. This was his last chance at a normal Saturday afternoon fishing with his kin. Fishing for the fattest catfish, the biggest bream he’d ever seen in his life. Black River Swamp loomed around him, the moss hanging from the trees like the scraggly beard on his old great-grandpa James, in the picture hanging by his father’s roll top desk in the parlor. James, who’d fought in the Civil War, stared down at him, frowning as if to say, Go fight, boy, and make us proud. Billy shook off the morbid thoughts and looked at the boy sitting by the fire.
Eleven-year-old Lloyd looked back, his eyes older than his years, knowing this might be the last time he’d see Billy for a while, maybe forever. Billy crooked his finger at the boy and took him over out of sight of the others, on the other side of the old Packard. The boy squatted beside Billy and accepted the gift of the forbidden cigarette from his cousin.
No words passed between them; didn’t need any. It had always been like this. The boy was only a little bit younger than Billy, but you’d swear he was older. Maybe being the only baby that lived made him grow up quicker than the other boys his age. His mama, Billy’s Aunt Edna Earle, kept the boy close as long as she could, but when he was about 7, he’d stood up to her. “Gotta be a man, momma. Can’t keep hanging around you women folk. I’m going off to school tomorrow and I’m gonna be a man soon. Gotta be a man, momma. Gotta try.”
Billy’d heard it from the boy’s father the next morning, after the old rickety school bus had swallowed him up and headed off for town and the new school. He stood with Lucius in the cotton field, checking the bolls for weevils, praying there wouldn’t be any, knowing there would be.
Times were hard in the back fields of Sumter County, but nobody complained. Everybody was in the same fix, even the so-called rich folks, ‘cause they all shared the same passion: the earth, the dark rich grab you by the throat and build up on your bare feet earth. They planted tobacco and cotton and soybeans, and corn, and other things, mostly to sell, some to keep, but they grew lives, and hope and despair, and sometimes Billy thought he would die from the need to get away.
But he was drawn back to this boy squatting beside him, this boy he knew like he knew himself. And he knew he’d might never see the kid again, not like this, not innocent and untouched by the outside world. Because from some place deep inside him, Billy’d told me he knew this boy was special, would turn out something incredible as he grew up, the outside world touching him, affecting him, but never stealing away the sure and certain belief in a God who watched over him and kept him alive, and breathing, when the other two babies before him had breathed their last within hours, too exhausted from the birthing to bother about living another minute.
The scrape of the fish leaving both pans drew Billy and the boy back to the fireside, where they ate in companionable silence, sitting on the crumpled leaves of the late autumn evening. The cold hadn’t quite come yet, but Billy could feel it crimping the back of his neck in the slight breeze that blew in from the river with the scudding clouds in the darkening sky.
All the men stood and stretched when they were done, Ben cleaning out the pans in the murky water of the river, keeping an eagle eye out for the sneaking water moccasins, the ones who’d slide up the river bank and bite into the meat of your finger before you could yelp, and you’d be dead by sunset. Always something hiding in the river, hiding in the world, reaching out to pull you from your quiet, from the family you’d loved all your life.
But it was October 1942, and Billy knew he had to leave on Monday morning, heading for Parris Island, where he’d be training, up to New York and then off to Europe on a troop ship. He’d come home from Basic just long enough to pull in the memories, memories he knew he’d hold close inside wherever he went from now on. The Marines promised him he’d see the world, but he knew his world was really still right here, under the leaves, in the shine of the moon of the black water of the river, in the sounds of a frog leaping to avoid the gaping mouth of a gator, the tickle of the splashing rain drops that fell from the now darkened cloudy sky. He pulled his collar up around his neck and helped his Uncle and cousins pull the boat back up to the back of the old Packard, hooked it up to the trailer hitch, and jumped into the back seat beside the boy. He put his arm across the back of the seat, barely touching the brown hair of the boy’s neck, and tried to hold this moment in his head.
“You going to church in the mornin’, Billy?” came the whisper from the boy under his arm.
“Yea, Lloyd. I’m going. Graham Baptist is giving me a big send off to the war after church, dinner on the grounds, the whole thing. You remember?”
There was a silence then Lloyd said, “Yea, I remember. I know if it was me, I’d wanna be anywhere but there. Even on Sunday.” He looked up at Billy. “I don’t think war is a very good thing, do you?”
Billy tossed his cigarette butt out of the open window onto the side of the old rock gravel road. “No, Lloyd, I don’t think war is a good thing. But this one…this one’s different. We gotta go over there and stop the Japs.” He looked down at Lloyd. “You do know what’s goin on out there, don’tcha?”
“Of course, I know. I just thought…” Lloyd gazed away from his cousin, his best friend, the only one who knew he’d decided to be a preacher, and didn’t say anything.
“I’ll come back, kid. I pro-”
Lloyd shook his head. “Don’t, Billy. Don’t make a promise you can’t keep.”
The roar of the road noise changed as they hit the dirt again, turned into the trail to Lloyd’s house. They’d promised to have him home before dark, for reading up on his Bible before his Sunday school class. When Lloyd stood up out of the car, in the open door, he turned back to Billy. “I know you gotta go, Billy. I just don’t have to like it,” he said. Lloyd turned and ran up the concrete steps into the light of the open front door of the old farmhouse, the wraparound porch echoing to his slamming feet.
Ben pulled the car back out onto the drive trail, dust billowing up behind the car. Billy turned and stared out the back window, as if he could see through the walls of the old house, wanting to see his cousin once more, see him alone, explain to the boy why this was something he had to do.
The next afternoon, after a mornin’ of Bible reading, and preachin’, and singin’ like his heart would burst, Billy sat at the picnic table in the church yard, and listened to the sounds of his family, eating, singing, playing catch out behind the church on the old ball field they’d made of the former parsonage back yard. The smells of fried chicken, corn on the cob slathered with butter, and the taste of his Aunt Edna’s homemade jelly stack cake lingered long after the afternoon had ended. The sounds were in his head as he lay on this bed that night, thinking of the long ride in the car in the mornin,the long training at the Island, the train ride of a couple of days up to New York, to the docks, to the troop ship, the ocean voyage to come.
The hoot of an owl stood him up, and he reached for his cigarettes on the dresser top, lighting it with a match from a pack he’d picked up at a club in town, a club he wasn’t really old enough to go into, but as the owner had said, if he was old enough to go fight, he was old enough to have one last good old American beer before he shipped out. He remembered the taste of that beer now. He’d not had enough nerve to tell the old bartender it was his first. Wouldn’t be his last, not if he could help it.
He smoked, and thought of his young cousin, who’d be just young enough to miss this damn war if his luck held. If not…Billy shuddered. A cold wind blew in from the open window, wafting the curtains his mother had made him for Christmas last year.
He told me he knew he was headed for the Pacific Ocean. He’d be fighting some little country called Japan he’d never heard of, never thought he’d ever see short of a newsreel. Then he joined the Marine Corps, and he went ‘cause that’s what you did when your country called, you went, and you served, and you fought, and maybe poured out your life’s blood on some damn tropical island somewhere.
He shook himself, putting out the smoldering cigarette in the ashtray on his dresser. Never smoked in bed, not in his life. ‘Twas a rule, a rule he’d followed ever since his dad had caught him smoking out behind the big tobacco barn, twisting leaves of the cured tobacco into a cigar. All his dad had done was say, “Don’t hide, boy. Just be careful. You could’ve burned the barn down, and then we’d have no way of making a living.” and they went to his store down the road that his Uncle Ed built for him, the one papered in red tarpaper just like the shanty town they’d built for the farm workers, the ones whose black skin glistened in the heat of a summer day and smelled like a hard day’s work to Billy.
Leaning back on his propped up pillows, he picked up his writing pen, and some paper, and finished a letter to his cousin. He put the letter in an envelope, sealed it, and put it inside of his desk Bible, the one he’d be leaving here. He’d take the little Bible they’d be giving him in training, the one that fit in your front pocket, right over your heart. No atheists in foxholes indeed.
Billy dropped to his knees beside his bed like he’d not done since he was a little boy. Hands folded, head bent over them, he spoke to his God about a lot of things, but mostly about that young boy right down the road, the one he hoped would live to not fight in this war or any other, the one all the hopes of his kinfolk rested on.
The one who would be a preacher, and lead a life of love and hope and glory, not of blood and guts and sandy beaches covered with barbed wire, where a man could cut himself to death just trying to crawl.
He stood up, stretching, got his clothes off, hung them on the back of the valet chair, and, in his undershirt and shorts, got into the bed, the cool fall wind blowing in on his suddenly shivering body.
Yes, I’m afraid, God. I don’t want to go. But I have too. If this madness isn’t stopped over there, it will come here. And nobody will be safe, not even Lloyd.
He slept in spurts and fits, and woke from a terrible nightmare of exploding armament and screaming dismembered bodies, and blood, and darkness growing over the earth. He shook himself, got cleaned up, and headed downstairs to the front parlor, where his parents were waiting to say goodbye.
“Twenty -three years later,” said Uncle Jake, “I watched Lloyd stand beside Billy’s weathered gravestone, watching his own father being lowered into the deep dark hole beside his mother’s grave. His hair ruffled in the wind, as he tried to think of something to say, but the tears in his throat stopped up his mouth. Somebody tugged at his jacket, and I saw a small child holding up some flowers.
“Can I give these to Uncle Lucius?” she asked.
He just nodded and the little girl set them on the headstone. A small breeze ruffled her hair as she walked back to her grandparents. Lloyd looked at them, and they at him. Then they all nodded, something unspoken in the air between them.
Lloyd’s wife was walking toward their car, guiding their nearly grown children with her, going to get the air conditioning going so Kathy wouldn’t start coughing and get sick again. He sighed, and turned to the tombstone at his side.
The flag etched into the granite was looking a little worn and dirty. Lloyd took out his handkerchief and wiped the muck off the stone. “I still miss you, Billy. You were right. War is a damned waste.”
Then he looked up quickly to see if anyone heard the preacher cussing, and looked right up into my eyes. “It’s okay, Lloyd. I agree with you. Damned shame that boy going off to fight a war and dying on the shores of some damn island before he even got a chance to live much. See you cleaned off the stone. His momma would’ve been glad for it. She’s been gone from us for a while now, you know,” I said, my gray hair blowing in the breeze, ducking to avoid a flying piece of moss. “Damned shame,” I said again.
Lloyd put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. Some things didn’t need saying, but you said them anyway. It’s the way things were. “I know, Uncle Jake, I know. I miss him every day, even with a house full of kids, and a girl off in college now, I still miss him. Always will, I guess.”
He turned back to his father’s grave. “Tell Billy hello for me, Daddy. And I’ll keep on going, and preaching, and trying to get people to listen to the Lord’s way. “
We walked back to our cars, Lloyd getting in beside his wife with the car full of kids, who were yawning, the boy saying when were they gonna eat next. Our eyes met through the car windows. A nod of the head, a crank of the car, and I drove away.
The drive to the old church took about 10 minutes, by which time the hungry kids had settled down in the back seat, the youngest up front between him and Olga, right in front of the air conditioner, even though her long eleven-year-old legs took up a lot of the front floorboards. When they got out at the church, the boy ran off with his cousins to play ball while Olga and the three girls headed inside the fellowship hall. Lloyd stood and watched the boys playing and a stray memory of Billy and the Saturday afternoon of the fishing trip loomed up in his mind.
And he remembered the conversation on the other side of the old Packard, and the next day, and the ball game where Billy let him make a homer, hitting the ball almost into Old Lady Brogdon’s back porch window next to the church. And the next mornin, as he watched through the back window of the old school bus, headed for the first day of his high school years, seeing Billy through the dust, as if from a distance of many years, knowing he’d never see him again, this side of Heaven.
Shaking himself from the memories, he went inside to the others, where they held his hands, and fed his family, and he let go of the future for a while, remembering the ‘twas of things, things he’d never really forgotten, but hidden away.
He could almost feel Billy watching over his shoulder as he watched his young family, his teenage son especially; could almost hear Billy telling him, “Don’t ever forget to teach your son that killing is wrong, even when the guy on the other end of the gun is a total bad un, even when you know you gotta kill him or be killed, cause he’s in the same boat you’re in. And war is hell, boy, pure t hell. Don’t let anybody tell you different.”
He turned his head to look out the window at the waning afternoon, and could almost see a body standing in a nearly transparent veil of something over by the old oak tree on the church grounds. The figure lifted his hand, saluted, and settling his square cap on his head, walked off into the rising fog of the cold October evening.
Uncle Jake shook himself a little, and I pushed the old quilt up into his lap. He grinned down at me, and said, “Yea, guess I got a little carried away there, didn’t I, child? Lloyd used to come and talk to me a lot after that, you know. I guess we both wanted to remember Billy and Lucius and Edna and all the ones that’re gone now.”
I reached up and touched him on the knee. “I know, Uncle Jake. Daddy talked about Billy a lot, at least to me. He told me and you both about that time at the church when he thought he’d seen Billy.”
Standing to my feet, I leaned over and hugged him. “I’ll see you in a month,” I said.
He smiled, looking off into the distance. “Maybe, maybe not,” he answered.
I turned to look where he was looking and just caught a glimpse of a khaki figure, insubstantial as smoke, walking away in the waning light of the evening.