Everyone started to look glazed over, the aftermath of too much good food and too much time in the sun. Reverend Altamont Smith made comments wishing the Hawk family well on their move to the Big City, with particular blessings bestowed upon Bill, that he may excel in his studies at college. And folks clapped and cheered. All that was over with and not a minute too soon as far as Bill was concerned. He slumped cross-armed in the shadows under the large tree while his mother and brother mingled with others. He wanted nothing more than to slink away, sling his stuff into boxes, and slip out of town quietly and unnoticed. Hugging the tree trunk near an emptying table of food with relatively few people around seemed the next best thing to invisibility at that moment. And then Anthony appeared. Escape was impossible, because they made eye contact. Bill had hoped that the man just wouldn’t show up. Seeing as he hadn’t spoken to him in a year, he thought the message was clear enough. But no, there he was with a wrapped present in his hands, and a smile on his face. Bill grit his teeth.
“Bill Hawk! And Suzy Patterson! Well, hello, hello!”
“Hi Anthony,” Suzy said.
“Hi Anthony,” Bill said.
“What brings you both to town?”
“Well, I’m here for the summer,” Suzy said.
“Yeah. Just finished my first year at dental school.”
“Oh really? I had no idea. That’s marvelous.”
His voice still lilted, light as a feather.
“And what about you, Bill? Just visiting?”
“Yeah, Suzy and her family invited me to stay with them for a bit. I couldn’t make the service last month, ‘cause of my schoolwork. But I’m here for the Juneteenth celebration.”
“Oh, good, good. That’s wonderful, Bill. It’s been so many years. Are you still playing?”
“Yeah, I am. I just bought a Yamaha electric keyboard.”
“How does it play?”
“Pretty nice. I like it. You know, it’s not a grand, but it gets it done. I’m able to keep it up.”
“I’m so glad that you’re still playing. You always had such a wonderful touch. But you’re not a music student, right?”
“So,” trying to dispel yet another awkward silence, “are you planning to major in music?”
“No, I got my degree in history and now I’m in the master’s program in history. But, you know, I still play. That and working out keep me sane.”
“Very good, very good. So you’re here through the weekend.”
“You should come over, if you have time. I’d love to hear you play.”
“If you visit us here in town, please come by and say hi. You know where to find me.”
Bill thought of all sorts of rude things to say, like yeah, I won’t have to worry about interrupting a date, cause you’re an old maid. Or yeah, you’ll be hiding in your closet too afraid to speak out. But instead, he gave the man a handshake and left it at that. The awkward moment ended.
“Yeah, that would be cool, Anthony. Are you still in the same house?”
“Maybe tomorrow sometime?”
“Yes, that would be good. Does two o’clock work?”
“Yeah, that’s cool. I’ll see you then, alright?”
“Excellent! Good to see you Bill.” He gave him a hug. “And you, too, Suzy.” He gave her a hug, too. “Bye, now.” He dashed into the church.
Suzy gave Bill a look.
“What?” he said.
“You’re slipping. You’re remembering to forgive.”
He sucked his teeth. “It’s been five years. Gotta give the man a break.”
They started to walk, the sun and humidity slowing their steps.
“He seems kinda lost or something,” Bill said. “Did you notice that?”
“I noticed one thing,” Suzy said. “He’s being visited by the Lady.”
“Lady Clairol, fool!”
“You know were thinking the same thing, William J.”
“You know you need to stop!”
The first knock yielded results. A distant “just a minute” touched both of their ears, though the follow through took a while longer. They were in no hurry. Eventually the door opened and an elf of a woman stood before them wearing a pink dress and squinting behind her thick glasses.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Hello, Mrs. Wright. I’m Bill Hawk.”
“Of course you are, Bill. Come on in. You, too, Suzy.”
They looked at each other then followed her inside. Mrs. Wright walked through to the kitchen. “Sit anywhere,” her thin voice called out to them. They took the sofa.
“This is freaking me out,” Bill muttered.
“I don’t know. This room looks exactly like it did 6 years ago. Oh God!” He saw Gabe’s picture on the mantel where it always sat, a face shot with all his teeth showing. Somehow he hadn’t reckoned on seeing something like that in the house. He took Suzy’s hand.
“It’s OK, baby,” she said.
Mrs. Wright came out with a tray of lemonade. Bill stood up to take it for her, a perfect way to distract his mind.
“Thank you Bill. Just set it on the table there. Don’t worry about the magazines. Just set it down right there. I got my drink over here, so just help yourselves.” She took an easy chair just next to the mantel cattycorner from the sofa. “I don’t seem to get many visitors these days, but I always have something for people if they come by.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Wright,” Suzy said.
“How are you two getting on? How’s school?”
“We’re doing fine, Mrs. Wright.” Suzy said. “It’s good to see you.”
“I don’t get out much anymore. And folks don’t come by like they used to. Reverend Smith hasn’t been by lately. He usually comes by once a week or so, but he hasn’t been by much.”
They looked at each other.
“We’re alright, Mrs. Wright,” Suzy said.
“Gabriel’s been away so long. I’m sure he’d like to see you, Bill. But you know he went away. Remember how we couldn’t talk him out of it? What a stubborn boy he is!” She chuckled. “He never comes back, but he’s been writing to me and he sends me a little money. He’s always thoughtful that way.”
They sat huddled, not knowing what to say.
“It’s a hot one today, ain’t it.”
“Do you have the AC on, Mrs. Wright?” Suzy said.
“It’s over there somewhere. Let’s see. They gave me this thing so that I don’t have to get up to turn it on. But then I can’t find it so I have to get up anyway. Oh well. You two have some lemonade now. I got some over here already.”
“Mrs. Wright,” Bill mustered, his voice deeper than usual. “Are you doing OK?”
“I’m fine, Bill, just fine, thank you. Just a little slow these days. Sure wish Reverend Smith would come by.”
“You know he passed, Mrs. Wright,” Suzy said.
“He passed last month. You were at his service.”
“Yes, that’s what they told me. That there had to be a service. A man came and told me that.”
“Yes, and you went to it,” Suzy said.
“I asked the man why I wasn’t getting any more letters. I didn’t understand him. But he told me that there has to be a service.”
“Reverend Smith’s service?” Bill said.
“Oh, I haven’t been to the church much, Bill. Too hard to get around anymore, you know. But the Reverend visits me. He always comes by to check in on me.”
“But he’s not coming anymore,” Suzy said.
“I know, honey, I know.” She sat there for a moment. “Things sure have changed around here.” She paused again. “First the letters stopped coming. Then they said that they wouldn’t be coming anymore and they said they would explain why, but I don’t know if they did or not. Then he said there had to be a service, so they took me out and we went to this park. It was a sunny day, real pretty, but not as hot as today is.”
“She ain’t talking about Reverend Smith,” Bill whispered to Suzy.
“Who took you to the park?” Suzy said.
“These two nice young men. Very well dressed. Said they needed to take me to a service, and then they brought me home.”
“Did they tell you anything else, Mrs. Wright?”
“I couldn’t understand them, honey. I’m too tired these days. They had me sign all sorts of papers and things. I don’t know what it all means. Reverend Smith said he’d explain it all to me. But I ain’t seen him for a while.”
“Mrs. Wright,” Bill said, “do you still have those papers?”
“Of course, Bill. The man said that they were important. They’re over there on my study table. Maybe you can explain it to me.”
“May I see them?”
“They’re over there, Bill, if you want to see them.”
Suzy walked with Bill to the little table. Underneath some bills they found Department of Defense papers, stacks and stacks of them, manuals and brochures and forms clipped and stapled together. They thumbed through the pages. Some sections were highlighted.
“How the hell is she supposed to understand any of this crap?” Bill said softly. “Hell, I can’t even understand it.”
Abbreviations littered the pages like a spilled bowl of Campbell’s alphabet soup. AD. LD. EPTS. MTF. AWOL. Bill flipped back and forth between the papers and a glossary in the back of the booklet in search of translations. The heat made it hard the concentrate.
“You alright?” Suzy said softly.
Gabe’s image stuck in his head as he focused on the papers, flipping back and forth. The letters began to dance on the page, scrambling themselves into new abbreviations that required translation. The faster Bill flipped, the faster they changed themselves. His forehead beaded. Faster page flipping did not erase Gabe’s sweet smile or the chaotic clutter of words on the papers. Finally, Suzy put her hand on Bill’s to stop him.
“It’s no good, baby. You know what this means.”
“Yeah. I know what it fucking means.”
He stormed out of the room and out of the house.
“Is Bill leaving?” Mrs. Wright asked. “Tell him Gabriel won’t be coming over, ‘cause he’s still away. Tell him I don’t know when he’s coming back.”
“I’ll tell him, Mrs. Wright. I’ll be right back.”
“God bless, honey. Be good.”
She went outside to Bill who leaned over the windshield. She put her arm around him.
“They were fucking trying to kick his ass to the curb behind some Johnny-come-lately, 11th hour Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell bullshit. Are you fucking kidding me?”
He stood up and faced her, his eyes beet red.
“He killed himself, Suzy! They started fucking with him so he killed himself! And now those fuckers don’t even want to give that poor woman any money!”
To be continued…
© 2011, gar. All rights reserved.