Setting the Record Straight
I’d thought to present a flamboyant character next, but Anne Estes pushed her way forward. Like real people, characters put themselves first.
Anne is nervous because she knows what I’m about to write. If I were in her shoes, I’d be nervous, too. But I decided to let Anne talk because I like her.
Anne has a good heart. She doesn’t have much, but she shares what she can. She bakes coconut cream and lemon meringue pies (the meringue itself is a work of art) and takes them to people who have birthdays in a square, lidded basket. Sometimes, she takes pies to people she hardly knows. The forgotten. The lonely who have no one close by and not much to say that’s agreeable. Anne usually leaves with an earful, but she never tells, another rarity in Harshbarger Mills. That’s not her only sacrifice. The cost of coconut has skyrocketed.
Yes, I’ll listen.
There could be exculpatory evidence, though it’s hard to imagine something I don’t know.
“I want to set the record straight,” she tells me. “My father was a good man, although I don’t understand it. I never have.” She shakes her head, bewildered after all these years.
I motion for her to go on.
“What can I tell you that you don’t already know? The boy’s name was Billy. He sat at our table every evening because his grandmother wouldn’t feed him. She only liked the girl. And her cats. Angoras with long, white hair. She dressed them up like dolls. Put bows in their hair.”
I know the lady with the cats. Her name is LaVada Byrnes, and she was sixty-seven when her son, Walter, sent his children to her home with two five-dollar bills pinned to each coat. Billy was the one who handed her the note. Walter said he’d sent as much as he could, but he’d send more once he got to Pennsylvania and found work. Soft coal. LaVada humphed. The mother had run off with some man the year before, which at the time she thought was good riddance to bad rubbish. Later, she wasn’t sure how she felt.
She read the note again and snorted. Send more money later, my eye. She knew her son would drink it up, and in the meantime, how was she supposed to feed these kids and the cats? Babydoll and Sugarpie liked their milk in the mornings and she could tell by looking at the boy that he’d eat her out of house and home. Boys were like that.
Finally, LaVada let them in the door. And here I stop with LaVada lest she take over the story with her venom.
“His grandmother didn’t feed him,” repeated Anne. “He ate at our table every evening, and the evenings he didn’t show, Pop asked where he was. He sat next to Helen. He was quiet. Too quiet. I never believed that list LaVada wrote.”
I never believed the list, either. Chicken scratch.
- Tracks mud on my clean floor.
- Stays out all night.
- Drinks all the milk.
- Bothers Pop Estes at his shop.
- Left the ax out on the stump.
- Doesn’t answer. I’m too old to be gallivanting after a boy.
“He never bothered Pop. Pop loved that boy. He delivered shoes for Pop all over town, and at the end of the day, Pop gave him a nickel.” Besides the harness work, Pop Estes was a shoe cobbler. When Billy delivered shoes to a door, Pop said, his face lit up like Christmas.”
A Christmas face, bloodied. Teeth knocked out. Eyes swollen shut.
I nod. Nor did he stay out all night. He slept in the smokehouse. The smokehouse is in another story, but with a happy ending. The first floor was for meats and canned goods, the second was a loft where her brothers and their friends hung out. Half the boys in town slept there, having exhausted themselves at the ball field or in the endless game of Civil War they played on the hills. Billy played with them, but because he was the youngest, he went from Confederate to Yankee at will.
“But it was on her list. Number four. A lie!” Anne stops to wipe away tears. “Whoever thought he’d come back?”
She means Walter.
“And whoever thought Walter would read a list!” She takes a deep breath. “I don’t believe he did. I don’t believe he could read.”
Anne has a point. Walter didn’t go past the third grade. But LaVada was smart. She worked crossword puzzles.
Suddenly, I see it all unfolding. LaVada is reading off the list to Walter. She holds it in one hand while she strokes Sugarpie with the other. Babydoll is lying across her feet. The girl sits on a sofa with her legs folded beneath her. Her boney knees stick out, but she’s not underfed. She’s growing.
Walter tells his mother he’ll take care of it. He sees LaVada has aged, that she’s missing more teeth and has a dowager hump that resembles a huge mushroom. He blames the boy for that, too.
“Pop said he was shocked to see Walter standing in his shop door. He’d tried to make conversation. ‘It’s been a while, Walter,’ he said, and Walter said, ‘Been to Allenstown digging soft coal,’ then looked at Billy and added, “‘Come on, boy’”
“Wasn’t that some way to greet a son? “It wasn’t right to greet him that way after a year,’ Pop said. He said Billy stood there, white to the gills, and stared, then followed Walter down the street like a whipped dog.
After they left, Pop smashed his thumb. Said he couldn’t concentrate. So he closed the shop and came home well before supper. When Mom asked him why, he asked if she’d seen Billy. She said no, but Helen had. “He followed his dad to the barn.”
“Pop went out on the porch, but he didn’t see Billy. He didn’t see Walter, either. There weren’t any sounds from the barn. In fact, the whole area seemed encased in silence.
“Pop stayed on the porch all through supper, pacing. Back and forth, back and forth he walked. We couldn’t eat dinner for the sounds of his steps. Helen kept turning to say something to Billy, and finally she began to cry.
“My older brother, Lyle, excused himself early. Later we learned that he and a bunch of his friends had scoured the town for the boy, but he couldn’t be found.
“Billy was in the barn. A mass of broken flesh and teeth.
“Dr. Veach, who was also the town coroner, said Walter had fought him like he was a grown man.
“He died two days later.
“Walter left town before he was horsewhipped, and LaVada died not long after. The girl got married young, too young, and moved out on a ridge. The cats, useless as mousers, became strays with tangled hair and hungry eyes. They turned vicious and finally were shot to death by Woody Garrett, who owned a B.B. gun.
“No one complained.
“Over time, the barn disappeared. Calling it a barn in the first place was a kindness. It was more like a glorified shed. The best wood was stolen for other buildings while the rest was broken up for firewood. One day, I looked and it had vanished.
“I walked over and all I could find was a marble. Was it Billy’s? “
“I think so,” I tell her. “He kept some in his pocket. That could have been one.”
She pauses and now I see the anguish written clearly. “Pop was a good man! Why didn’t he stop it? Why didn’t he walk into that barn?”
I can’t tell Anne the truth. She’d panic, shamed, and try for the rest of her life to atone for a sin that’s not her own.
“Times were different,” I say finally. “People minded their business then.”