When Randy returned from the Gulf, on leave, Charlie wasn’t with him.
He’d promised to visit her personally, Charlie’s ma. It was Charlie’s last coherent request, before the fever and delirium swallowed him up. Randy made it his first stop, before even his own ma, or changing out of his fatigues. It was how he was.
Charlie’s house. Or just his ma’s house, now. Their little Carolina hometown wasn’t too much to start with, and the property was a good few miles outside of it, off a nameless dirt road that went to hell in heavy rains. Still, the house wasn’t so bad, tall and brick, a kind of poor-man’s Georgian, incongruous to the woods. Randy had liked it as a child, the backwater property and its big funny house, had always invited himself over come Friday night; it was where Sherlock Holmes would live, he’d thought. His rental car spit gravel all up the driveway.
He parked beside a pragmatic coupe that could belong to an old woman, and camped the driveway for a time. The house had changed since his last visit, not so much a physical thing as perceptual, a pall drawn by his upcoming task. Unshuttered windows stared out, lifeless. It was summer and the lawn was healthy and cared for – Billy, the woman he’d come to see, had two green thumbs – but the landscaping was somehow wrong, contrasting, the property’s vacancy. It might’ve sensed Charlie’s end.
Randy made a false start. Billy. This was impossible. It caught up to him all at once. He lifted his camo hat and brushed away sweat, breathing deep. It had been easier fighting in the desert.
Another few minutes, and he at last left the safety of the car, a flagstone walk to the door. He caught muffled noises from inside, and his guts sunk; a part of him had been hoping she wasn’t home, or was in bed or the shower – anything for a reprieve. He sucked another breath and thumbed the buzzer.
The door swung open at once, perhaps on a switch, and there she was, the bereaved. For a dilate moment, the two kept to their respective sides of the door, long enough for him to see lazy jeans and an around-house tee-shirt, a face that had aged more than it should’ve. Then she was in his arms and sobbing, neither saying a word, Randy in a consoling mode learned in the army. The two swayed like tired dancers.
After some time on the stoop, she said his name twice and led him out of the heat. The living room was wholly unchanged from the old days, Randy saw, dark and windowless in the home’s center, twin recliners and a big friendly couch. Along one wall was the heinous Panasonic console TV they’d had forever, Charlie’s old movies and video games. Randy went sick with grief, suddenly, but he choked it back, for her.
Billy was a mess. Slumped shoulders, a tremor to her. Gone was the graceful strut she’d always shown, full of womanly confidence; she walked the way dogs pant, seeming to follow Randy despite going first. She set him down on the couch and filed beside, intimately close. She smelled vaguely of cinnamon.
“The funeral was nice,” she said afterward, in the even, unaccented voice he knew her by.
Randy nodded. What to say. He realized she was still holding his hand, and let her.
“Just tell me,” she asked. “Was it quick? Just… was it?”
A roadside bomb, shrapnel in the gut and leg and face. Three days’ waiting. “It was quick,” Randy said.
A shadow fell over her. “Don’t lie.” Her hand pulled away some, as animals do before taking off.
She searched him, those deep Spanish eyes, then said “Okay.” The hand eased and she sucked into her lap, kind of, tears bombing down.
Randy said nothing more. Consolation mode. She stayed in her lap, and he studied her. Olive skin. Browny-colored hair in a perm that needed refreshing, just showing white in places. Textbook Mediterranean. She hadn’t changed much from the woman of memory; there were some crow’s-feet and laugh lines, and some deckle-edge wrinkles around her lips, but she was the same old Billy. It was odd, seeing her this way, her shiny side covered over with pain. Loneliness shone through her like a bulb, and he supposed that the worst; Charlie had been an only child, and his dad had been dead before Randy came into the picture, in third grade. Billy had never remarried.
She looked up, wearing a strained grin that was for Randy’s benefit. “Your mom came by last week. Brought a pie. Peach.”
Randy returned a perfunctory smile of his own. “She bakes a helluva pie.”
“Ate the whole damn thing.” Back to her lap. “Comfort food, I guess. But.”
“It’ll do that to ya’. Loss, I mean.” And it did; Charlie wasn’t the only of Randy’s missing friends.
“Yeah. Last thing I need is pie, though.”
Randy appraised her without meaning to do so. She was alright for a woman looking at fifty, could probably get by with a pie or two. He thought of telling her so, but it seemed wrong. “Said he loved you,” Randy said instead. “Charlie.”
She raised up again, the face already crumbling. Her eyes misted and she melted into him as she had outside, really bawling now. Her hand squeezed his as if shocked. He wrapped his free hand around her shoulder, bedding her in his clavicle.
Ironic: It was like his knee, almost exactly.
Randy had been eleven or close, over at Charlie’s for another Friday night, the two up to no good out in the woods, when he’d hurt his knee. They’d been playing army, with orange-capped versions of the M16s they would be issued not ten years later, and Randy had slipped on a mossy shelf of rock, his left knee meeting the rock’s sharp. Randy had freaked, not from the pain but the sheer disaster of it, all the blood. Charlie had walked him back, their arms tangled over each other’s necks, and Randy hadn’t been able to hold back, him wailing in full audience of Charlie and, later, Billy, who’d had the mense to send Charlie off. Randy had been unable to stop, now from embarrassment and his inability to stop, perversely, and she’d set him on this very couch and held him to her chest, soothing him quiet just like he was, currently, her. Life is a circle, another army-lesson.
She cried no less than twenty minutes, soaking a lapel. When she at last quieted and came up, she looked a little better – puffy and dopey, as if roused from sleep, but better, the way we do after a good cry. “Oh, Randy,” she sighed, blushing.
“No, it’s fine,” he said, reading some embarrassment.
She still had his hand, and gave it another squeeze, with what tried to be a smile. Her eyes sharpened behind their glaze of tears, as if just recognizing him. “Do you remember when- ?”
“I skinned up my knee?”
She smiled, now genuine, showing teeth. “Yeah! Funny, huh?”
“Yeah.” Her brightness faded as fast as it had arrived, perhaps on a dial.
A silence then, this one uncomfortable, tensioned. Their eyes found each other and locked, and something passed between them, too big for words. Her mouth slit a little, as if she had something to say but couldn’t quite get it out. In a movie, it would’ve preceded a swooning kiss.
But they didn’t kiss. She gave his hand a quick pat, sandwiching his between her own, and then let it go and hunted up some Kleenex. Several boxes cluttered the coffee table, some empty. She blew her nose and dabbed her eyes, then quit the couch, forcing him to follow.
“Thank you, Randy,” she said, with a tender clap on the shoulder, the kind older women give young men. “You don’t know.”
“I told him I would. Was nothin’.”
She leaned in for an asexual peck on the cheek. “No no, it is. Your mom was here, and Pierce’s folks and the others and, but it wasn’t the same.” Pierce was her late husband. “Thank you,” she repeated, firmly. Randy could remember her real smile, from Before, and saw it now, in her eyes.
And again, that creeping tension, like they were on a date. Randy indicated the door. “I’m gonna… My folks’re… “
“Yeah. Come on,” she said, and walked him out.
She never asked about his time in the Gulf, and that was fine.
# # #
When Randy’s mother requested he take a second pie over to Billy Wilcox’s, Randy was more than happy to, and not because he wanted to cheer Billy up. He needed out of the house.
Life back home was just short of a nightmare. Mom, Dad, Randy’s kid brother Jake: they all wanted to know. The temperatures, the people, his routine there, how was the food and… ? Jake, at twelve, had even asked if Randy had “bagged any rag-heads.” His parents had sent the boy disapproving looks, but Randy had seen the interest in their eyes, no less than their tactless son’s but worse because they would deny it. They had a God-given right to these facts, apparently, maybe in the Bible somewhere. Too much cable news, Randy thought.
He’d answered the questions, curtly, but he’d answered – except for Jake’s. Miraculously, the phone had rung just after, providing an out. What he would’ve said, he didn’t know. Yes, he’d shot people, bombed people, reduced them to ugly lumps of meat like Charlie’d ended up, and it was nobody’s damn business but his own. He tried to give his parents as much of their son as possible, but there was a division there, and not a small one. The contrast between Here and Over There… it was light and shadow. He’d been warned, by leave-veterans, about feeling “removed” upon coming home, but there was no preparing for this. When he’d entered the house he grew up in, the distance had been nothing short of leprous. After three days, he felt more kinship with Rodney, the family labrador, than these strangers.
So Charlie’s was fine. Randy had expected his votive visit with Billy to be the worst of his leave, but after his experiencing home and all it entailed, she was actually preferable. A solidarity there. His family was still living The American Dream, what he’d risked his life to defend and was no longer a part of, whereas Billy shared his grim reality, his secret partner in this tragedy. On the other hand, Randy couldn’t blame them, his family, and refused to let their ignorance bitter him; not their fault, after all. He’d once been like them – been them – and now, he just wasn’t. But there was that gap, all the same, and it was ocean sized.
He called Billy first, this time, and her voice changed upon hearing his, became younger. It reminded him of calling his last girlfriend, before she’d heard he’d enlisted and found reasons to dump him. Yes, Billy would be home all day, and Randy could only bring the pie if he promised to eat some. He agreed; Mom did, in fact, know how to bake a pie. He got the pie from Mom, threw out some goodbyes, and went out to his truck, in the carport it had occupied for the past year.
The pickup had been his baby before shipping off, a rebuilt ‘70s Ford jacked up on candy-colored shocks, mud tires up to his hip, tread deep enough to hide in. He hadn’t been so vain as to take real pride in the thing, not like some men, but it had been something to sink spare time and money into. Charlie had been the truck’s real fan, and, really, it had been mostly for him. They would swan off in it on weekends, to the movies or the taverns in the next town over, with whatever insignificant others they were seeing at the time. Randy could’ve done with a cheap beat-around pickup, truth be known, but with Charlie such a car freak and never able to afford his own, it had gone from there, Randy an enthusiast by proxy. But now, even with Charlie in the ground, it was still a blast to drive, especially after Randy’s year of being driven.
He keyed the ignition, loving the whipcrack roar. After recalling the basics of operating a motor vehicle, he backed the behemoth down the driveway and into the suburban street — if anything here could be remotely urban. He and Dad had returned the rental days ago, but this was the first he’d been out in the truck. He gunned the engine and tore down the road, and it was orgasmic, as much from blowing off his folks as seeing the street go in fast-forward. This brought a zing of guilt, but the rush dissolved it. He drove the hilly country roads, to Charlie’s.
Billy’s economy Geo remained in the driveway, looking unmoved from three days ago. The day was clear and overwhelmingly pleasant, but the house still stared with those dead windows, evocative of Charlie just before he went. Randy again traversed the flagstones, now in mufti. The door opened before he’d let off the doorbell.
“Hey,” Billy said, smiling warmly, like those Fridays a million years ago. “Hey.”
Randy said “Howdy,” and froze a moment, the pie in both hands: Billy was different. She was made up, for one, her face powdered, earth-tone lipstick. She still wore jeans and a tee-shirt, but these were tucked in, flattering to her figure. A cloud still hung over her, yes, but it wasn’t so overbearing, perhaps a silver lining now. And there was more, too, in her body language. Anticipation? He couldn’t tell.
He extended the pie. “Blueberry. And Mom said this’un’s low-fat.”
She relieved him of it. “That’s fine, but you’re eating most of it.” She nodded him inside and closed the door. She had on perfume, he noticed.
The house assumed a different aspect on Randy’s second visit, divorced from the burden he’d been under – not necessarily happier, but better, like a scabbed-up wound. Charlie was everywhere. The living room, them up all night watching Schwarzenegger videos. The hallway in which Randy had broken a lamp during some mischief. Gilded pictures of relatives he’d never met. The place was one big memory. It choked him up again, but it was okay now, healthy. Part of letting go, he supposed.
The kitchen was no different. Charlie, a big boy, had been fond of the kitchen, so Randy had seen a lot of it. It was littered with Billy’s knickknacks: samplers, carved wood miniatures, a circus of refrigerator magnets. Randy picked out a couple magnets from years ago, one of which he remembered Charlie getting in school. There were some framed pictures in the mix: high-school graduation, basic-training graduation, Halloween as a kid. One showed Charlie, Randy, and a wrench named Will Moody at a desert airstrip, taken a month before the bomb.
“We can eat somewhere else,” Billy said, from far away.
Randy snapped to. He’d been staring. “No, this is fine.”
Billy gave him a look, then set the pie on the counter and got out the milk.
Randy found his eyes migrating to her, perhaps to avoid the memories waving from every inch of the room. Today’s outfit hugged her body, showing off the matronly curves she hadn’t lost. The jeans did her ass justice; jeans are unkind to some women, but she wasn’t one of them. When she started from the fridge, he looked guiltily away, unsure why.
Plates clinked, and she dealt out two cuneiform slices of pie, a super-big and a super-small. She passed him the big one and a glass of milk. “Hope you’re hungry.”
They ate, mmm’ing and slurping milk, the silence not awkward. They finished about the same time, and Billy said, “I want to show you something.”
Randy was down for “something,” as long as it kept him from home.
Billy led him upstairs through the dark house, her blue-jean ass inches away as they mounted the risers. It detailed when she took a step. Randy studied the risers. They stopped in Charlie’s bedroom.
Strangely, there weren’t many memories here, not what you would expect from Charlie’s ground zero. During Randy’s visits, they’d devoted most of their time to the woods or the kitchen or living room, his bedroom memories consisting of sleep and not much else. It had never been too decorated, and now was almost entirely bare, just a bed, an empty bookshelf, and a desk wearing some years-old Car and Drivers, as it had been from adolescence on. Charlie had never liked to be alone, and the room reflected that.
Leaving the light off, Billy went to the desk and scratched open a drawer, a large binder inside, its cover was untitled. He’d never seen the binder before. She creaked the bed and patted beside her. Randy sat.
“A scrapbook,” she explained. “Charlie’s.” The cover opened with a breath of old paper. The matte leaf read CHARLIES SCRAP BOOK in marker, hard to read; the room faced east and it was afternoon, the light low and uncertain.
The book was in her lap; looking there necessitated a view of her breasts. Randy sort of forced them out, selective perception. “I never knew he kept a scrapbook,” he said.
“Me either. Found it last month. After.”
The next leaf was lousy with sequins and rhinestones, the cheap stuff a kid would use in a scrapbook. Amidst the storm of decoration, a faded Polaroid depicted a young Charlie and a frosted cake, MY BIRTHDAY in more marker.
“His seventh,” Billy said, a fondness in her voice. She ran a finger down the photo.
Randy focused on the picture. “Think I was there for the eighth.”
She flipped forward several leafs, flashing similar art, then stopped. This one read EIGHTH BIRTHDAY and wasn’t quite as gaudy, the picture showing Charlie and another cake, and a gap-toothed Randy.
“So I was right,” Randy said, for something to say.
Billy looked at him with a lipless grin, tearing up like a child. He put a preemptive arm around her and she answered at once, burrowing into him. Her chest hitched as to quake her breasts, but she abstained from a full-out cry. She thumbed through the scrapbook.
The leaves all followed the same format, random decoration around an object of interest. A third-place ribbon from the school’s science fair. A snakeskin Randy could remember Charlie parading around. Newspaper clippings involving cars or movies about cars. One picture was a magazine cutout of Winona Ryder; Charlie had been known to have a thing for the actress, for reasons he kept to himself. Edward Scissorhands had featured prominently in their VCR. The clipping gave Billy and Randy a laugh. Over the narrative of pages, the decoration went from dime-store ornaments to crude drawings, to half-decent drawings to none at all, the last leg only pictures or clippings. The final leaf contained a single newspaper clipping, that announcing his and Randy’s deployment with several others from the area.
There was a glassy pause, and Billy seemed to stop breathing. Then the scrapbook slid from her lap and she pancaked against Randy, convulsing more than crying. He returned to consolation mode without thinking, petting her complex hair and squeezing her shoulder, letting her hand find his. A receptacle. He almost joined her a couple times, hot warmth threatening behind his eyes, but his tears had been cried.
“Sorry,” she sobbed, into his chest. “Sorry, but. It’s just. It’s different with a man. Things come out.”
He pet her in response, The Consoler.
Then she raised up, suddenly, right in his face, wearing an expression of terror. Time stopped and their eyes fused, her mouth again parted as if heavy with words – a replay of yesterday, another pre-swoon moment. But this time she pistoned forward, their mouths meeting.
It was quick and meaningless, all lips and barely that. She pulled back and neither spoke, the two discussing it via their eyes. Randy felt to be outside his body. The kiss had taken him by surprise… yet hadn’t; he’d expected this, unconsciously, from the moment he heard her voice lift on the phone. It seemed okay, natural as the dessert just eaten.
“Billy,” he said tonelessly, without reply. They held each other’s gaze for a time, and she must’ve read something in his because she came back strong, bringing tongue and hands and the sweet of blueberry pie.
Randy’s heart tripped and he went underwater, she changing position and all over him. The kiss didn’t stop and soon a hand was showing his to round and soft, he again squeezing. “Randy,” and she straddled him, her top off like magic. Great amounts of flesh foisted out, tipped the dark of baker’s chocolate.
“Ain’t right,” he said, not believing it for a second.
Billy didn’t so much as pause. She proffered her breasts with both hands and he accepted, taking sloppy mouthfuls, nipples the velvety of cat’s ears. She was still crying but only bodily, her face that of a criminal child’s. She ground industriously against him, knees flapping.
More kissing as she worked at his pants, mingling shadows in the darkness. The air teased his bare skin and then her hands were on him and busy, him accepting her so easily. “Ain’t right,” he said again, and it was a joke. He pressed into her caress, cupping her and kissing and their foreheads joined. She wasn’t the only one needing release.
Then she was away, Randy left on her dead son’s bed as she stood before him, the dark stealing her age. Her pants fell and the rest too and she stood with an air of question, hands knit at her navel.
“S’okay,” Randy said. He held out a hand. “S’okay, Billy.”
Her face smoothed and she climbed up and it started all over, she against the headboards and opening up butterfly-like, just catching the window’s far ambience. A musk of sweat and woman, traces of perfume. She pulled at herself moaning and soon he was inside, easing then pushing then pushing. Their hands melded and his head found her neck, in the windblown posture of the mating. Her tears warm on his close-cropped head, his collecting in her clavicle. The bed went into uproar, the only sound for miles.
“It’s alright, it’s alright.”
In time, she cried out enormously and he with her, as only the aggrieved can, the tumult stopping and starting and stopping, their hands uncoupling by degrees.
They lay in what might be sleep, after, she at his breast and smiling through tears.
# # #
The shower was big enough for two. They’d gone twice more, exorcising the hurt. A soft afterglow now, dull red like closed eyes. They bathed without bathing, in a swaying embrace, wordless and shameless. Olive skin against desert-tanned-. He consigned his head to her shoulder, bedded in the wealth of hair.
She spoke just by his ear: “Is it really worth it, Randy? Is anything?”
Randy opened his eyes but didn’t lift his head. The question was valid, he just had no answer.
Billy pulled back. “Randy?” She brushed a hand over his cheek.
He looked at her, took away her hand, kissed her slowly. She didn’t ask again.