Home Fires Burning
The black horse was first to know. It came to him across the frost of the open field, the smell of unfamiliar men. The horse nudged the air and the sinews of his neck ridged like steel cables. He snorted almost without sound and twin vapors of breath hung for a moment like ghosts in the sharp air. A tremor rippled down the muscles of his flanks. He took a half-step backward before the gray-clad rider dug his knees into the horse's side and rubbed the long smooth neck with a gloved hand.
The horseman was a powerfully built stump of a man. Though a superb rider, he seemed to sit precariously on the black horse, riding high in the saddle with its stirrups made short for his runty legs. There was nothing of the dandy in Captain Finley Tibbetts. He was simply dressed in light gray britches and tunic, the twin bars of his rank embossed in gold on his shoulders, a brief curt of yellow braid at the cuffs of his sleeves. The plain leather cavalryman's boots came almost to his knees, and he wore a dark gray campaign hat cocked low over his intense bushy eyebrows. The only adornment to his uniform was the great curving saber at his side. It was encased in a plain, issue scabbard, but the blade itself was a marvel of silver radiance, intricately engraved with scrollwork and the name of its maker, E. Duddingham of London. In the hands of Captain Finley Tibbetts, it was an instrument of judgment.
He sat cockily in the saddle, reining in the nervous movement of the horse, head turning this way and that as he listened for a wayward noise from the copse of sycamores across the field. The shredding stump of a cigar was clamped in one comer of his mouth, an exclamation point to his sumptuous, curving-black moustache. To his left, and half a horse-length to the rear, sat his adjutant, the huge red-faced Irishman Muldoon, whose saber stroke could decapitate a man in the flick of a wrist. Muldoon was utterly dedicated, awesomely fearless. Once, in an attack on a Federal position atop a small rise, when Captain Finley had been de-horsed by a ball in his side, Muldoon had leaped from his own mount, grabbed up the fallen captain, and carried him pickaback the rest of the way up the hill with Captain Finley cursing and waving his saber. At the summit, when Muldoon had dumped him atop a pile of bluecoated bodies in the midst of the conquered Federal position, Captain Finley had doffed the battered gray campaign hat and said, "Lieutenant Muldoon, you make an admirable steed!" and fainted. To Captain Finley's right was the boy they called Young Scout, mounted on his own chestnut, thin shoulders hunched against the cold of dawn.
And to their rear, deep in the pine thicket, hidden in the half-light and mist, were the hundred men of Captain Finley's Lighthorse Cavaliers — handpicked for horsemanship, keen eye, steady hand, and fearless spirit; dispatched upon only the most critical of missions. They and their captain reported only to General Lee.
This morning, they were the vanguard of Lee's grand assault on McClellan's right flank. For days, the two great armies had been poised like beasts, eyeing each other warily, each waiting for a precious moment of vulnerability to spring and kill. Captain Finley's mission: to lure the Federals into a false step; to create, with the chaos and confusion of a lightning feint, the illusion of a thrust against the flank of McClellan's forces near Gaines Mill. When McClellan responded with a counter-thrust, Lee would strike, snipping off the Federal advance as if pruning a tree limb, pouring through the breach in the bluecoat lines to divide the right flank and roll McClellan back along a wide front. Lee might, with speed and daring, drive the Federals clear back across the Rappahannock, perhaps even put them to such rout that they would leave the city of Washington, the Great jewel, open to capture.
The Lighthorse Cavaliers were the linchpin of the entire enterprise. Now they must discern the enemy, mark him, draw him out. And thus they waited in their saddles under the pines, anonymous in the gray cocoon of beginning day. At first light there was no wind, only the dry marrow-chilling cold that seemed to grow more bitter with dawn. The day would be clear and blood would freeze on the ground. They waited, disciplined and patient, for sound to confirm what the black horse had already told them.
It came, finally. A clink of metal — perhaps the tap of saber against belt buckle or bayonet against rifle barrel. A careless sound, made by undisciplined troops. (The trappings of Captain Finley's own men and mounts were wrapped with cloth to muffle noise.) The sound would have gone unnoticed among the men in the copse of sycamores three hundred yards across the white field, but it carried like a shot on the brittle air to the pines where the Lighthorse Cavaliers waited. The black horse between Captain Finley's legs was quiet. There were no more of his kind among the sycamores across theway; the smells were all man-smells.
Captain Finley heard the sound. He studied the horse, and then he leaned far to his left and whispered to Muldoon, "Infantry." He smiled, the great slash of his moustache lifting as he showed large, even teeth yellowed by cigar juice. Muldoon turned to stare at the captain, and Young Scout could see the thought pass between them.
Infantry: saber against bayonet. Spread the troop and strike in a rush along the broad blue front of the enemy. Ride howling like demons to be among them quickly in a frenzy of steel and pounding horse, slashing their ranks and opening their bodies. Then wheel and roll up their flanks. Strike until they are panicked and fleeing and then give chase to put them to rout with the terror of whistling steel at their backs and the conviction that an entire corps of madmen is at their heels. That done, withdraw at a canter, stepping around the bodies.
Thus, the trap is set. Smarting from the wound, McClellan will strike back in force. And Lee will be waiting.
Captain Finley leaned and spoke again, his voice soft. "The damn fools will sound us out first. McClellan's boys are in the mold of their master. He's like an old woman who tests the water with her big toe before she steps in. He wastes his artillery, probing and poking and letting every damned soul in the country know where he is. So we'll get a little shot and shell, Muldoon, because whoever is across the field yonder will want to know if there's anything lurking here in the pine thicket before they tiptoe out. But we must hold fast and not give ourselves away. No matter what."
Muldoon nodded. "If a man bolts, I'll shoot the bastard."
"If a man bolts, I'll shoot you, you Irish jackal."
Muldoon grinned. "They'll hold, Captain." And he turned and signaled with a broad wave of his arm for the troop to disperse among the pines. They moved away from each other, and it was their most disciplined act, for men abhor dying alone. They were all upright in their saddles now, sensing danger, testing the stiffness in their limbs, shifting their sore rumps, watching Captain Finley, broad-shouldered and erect on the black horse.
Presently, it came. The first shell passed over their heads with a high moan and burst a hundred yards to their rear, shredding pine trees, and the men of the Lighthorse Cavaliers reined in hard on their mounts and felt the cold knot of fear in their own guts. The single round was followed by another, then another, walking like a man with a cracking whip -- first left, then right, then slowly forward toward Captain Finley's troop. The shells came faster now, one every four or five seconds, one explosion spawning the next. The horses began to dance and shy in terror, and their riders dug in their knees, still watching Captain Finley. He gave them his back and stared out at the open field.
Muldoon and the boy held fast at Captain Finley's side. Young Scout glanced at the adjutant and saw the faint glint of perspiration on his broad forehead. The noise of the shells mushroomed and the boy could feet the concussions pushing at his back and the bile rising in his throat. He had the sudden urge to dismount and shield himself with the chestnut, but he fought it. He heard a piercing scream to his rear, swallowed immediately by the roar of an explosion as a round erupted in the midst of the troopers. Smoke and dust were swirling about them now, so thick he could barely see the two other riders to his front. And then Captain Finley turned to him and shouted over the din, "Tighten your bowels, Young Scout! The Federals are sending us a purgative!" He laughed, throwing his head back and baring his teeth. He spoke again, but the words were lost in the terrible noise. The shells were upon them.
In the clear cold morning air above, Billy Benefield listened to the roar of the finely tuned Pratt and Whitney engine throbbing at the nose of his bi-winged Curtiss Stearman and thought of the smooth freckled thighs of Alsatia Renfroe.
Billy admitted to himself again, unashamedly, that he would renounce all — family honor, birthright, pilot's wings, the chance to glory himself in battle — for one more deliciously sinful moment between Alsatia's thighs, as he had had under the banana tree by the courthouse with summer midnight breathing on his bare bottom. Why else would he have finagled and connived for six months for the opportunity to make his cross-country flight over the sacred spot where Alsatia lay warm and tousled abed? Just beyond the blur of the propeller, Billy could see the smooth freckled thighs of Alsatia Renfroe opening, opening. He moaned. Oh, Alsatia. Oh, rapture.
Billy flew on past the open field and the woods beyond, then banked to the left and made a broad sweep around the perimeter of the town, pointing his left wing at the slate roof of the courthouse on its neat brown square of frosted lawn. From the open cockpit of the Stearman he could see the pecan tree at the corner of the courthouse lawn where the pinochle players gathered, the storefronts along the courthouse square with their awnings beetle-browed over the sidewalks, a lighted window at the radio station upstairs over the Farmers Mercantile Bank where Ollie Whittle would be giving the early morning market report and the weather forecast, another at Biscuit Brunson's cafe where the breakfast crowd would be gathering. He could see the streets marching off smartly at right angles, making other squares beyond the business district, the stubby brick steeple of the Methodist Church and the slim spire of the Baptist, squat frame and brick houses huddling under the bare winter branches of elms and oaks and maples.
The sun was beginning to nudge over the horizon now and it sent pinpricks of orange and pink through the limbs of the trees and inflamed the wings of the Stearman. Billy breathed deeply and felt the icy air sear his lungs, even through the wool scarf he had wrapped around his face and over his leather flight helmet. He reached deep into his clothing -- under the fur-lined flight jacket and the wool shirt and three undershirts and union suit — and felt again, for reassurance, the silk handkerchief next to his breast. Again, the hot vision of Alsatia made him flush.
He looked down and saw far below him his own home, three blocks from the courthouse, the forbidding brown brick with green canvas awnings over the windows and a towering magnolia in the front yard -- the house where his father, Mayor Rosh Benefield, would still be sleeping the sleep of a fat man this Saturday morning in the canopied bed next to his wife, Ideal.
The Stearman came full circle over the town and Billy banked to the right and set the nose toward the horizon, following Partridge Road to where the houses began to thin out and the pavement ended. The road snaked on past the copse of sycamores, the frost-covered field, the pine thicket, and then past Jake Tibbetts's house with the huge spreading oak tree in the front yard. It ended finally just beyond Tunstall Renfroe's house, where Alsatia slept now in the upstairs back left-corner bedroom. It was time.
Billy reached again deep into his clothing and plucked the silk handkerchief from its warm spot next to his breast. He removed the leather flight glove from his right hand and placed the glove on the floor of the cockpit. Then, holding the Stearman on course with the control stick between his knees, the handkerchief open in the gloved palm of his left hand, Billy unbuttoned the fly of his trousers and opened himself to the morning. With the throb of the Pratt and Whitney loud in his ears and the vision of Alsatia Renfroe swimming before him, he stroked and gave birth with a bellow. Oh, Alsatia! Oh, Rapture!
He was now several miles past Alsatia's house. He composed himself, then turned the plane sharply on its wing and throttled forward, bearing down on the house like a glide bomber. The white frame siding, the galvanized tin roof, the wisp of smoke curling out of the chimney from Tunstall Renfroe's early morning coal fire, the Packard parked in the side yard, grew large over the fat nose of the Stearman. He leveled off at five hundred feet, and as he roared over the house he dropped the handkerchief far out over the side and pulled the nose of the plane up sharply. He banked and saw the handkerchief fluttering toward the Renfroes' side yard. He waggled the wings of the Stearman, then headed east, into the sun.
In the pines, the morning was in pieces. Young Scout gasped for breath, the air sucked from his lungs, his head dizzied by the awful roar of the shellbursts and the choking smell of the acrid smoke. To his right a riderless horse bolted toward the open field at the edge of the pines, and Captain Finley whipped out his pistol and shot the animal dead with a single bullet to the brain. The horse dropped soundlessly. Captain Finley holstered the pistol and grabbed the reins of Young Scout's chestnut, pulling boy and horse to him. "Take a message to our battery," he shouted in Young Scout's ear. "They are yonder in enfilade." The captain pointed back through the blasted pines where their own artillery, five small field pieces, had been dug in beyond a low rise. "Tell the gunners we have not revealed ourselves to the enemy. The Federals will advance when the barrage is lifted, thinking the woods are undefended. They are to wait until the Federals are fifty yards from our front and then give their britches the grapeshot. We'll strike on the heels of their thunder!" He pushed the horse away and Young Scout wheeled and dug his heels into the chestnut. "Ride hard, Young Scout. Godspeed!" he heard Captain Finley shout at his back.
Horse and boy pounded through the scattering ranks of the Lighthorse Cavaliers with shrapnel whistling through the tops of the trees near their heads, lopping off pine branches with a wicked snapping sound. The ground trembled with the impact of the shells. The noise was deafening. Young Scout gagged on the bitter stench of burning powder. He leaned forward in the saddle and wrapped his arm around the chestnut's neck, trusting the horse to keep a steady course. On either side he could see the blur of horseflesh, hear the curses of men and the agonized whine of their mounts — tatters of sound shredded by the roar of cannon shot.
Then suddenly he was out of it, bursting into the open at the rear of the pine thicket beyond the barrage, galloping breakneck toward the rise where the battery of field howitzers awaited Captain Finley's orders.
A fleck of white caught his eye and he looked to see a handkerchief floating to earth near the farmhouse two hundred yards away. His throat caught. An enemy signal? Federal treachery? He hauled hard on the reins and the chestnut reared on its hind legs, pawing the air viciously. What to do? Take the message to the artillery or warn Captain Finley?
Lonnie! Hooooooooooo, Lonnnneeeeeeeeeee! The clear voice of Mama Pastine trumpeting across the frozen morning, calling him to breakfast, ended Young Scout's dilemma.
"Oh, shit," said Young Scout.
"What we need to do is let the churches organize the wars," Jake was saying. "It would make everything a good deal more civilized."
He speared a four-inch-thick stack of hotcakes from the steaming platter in the middle of the kitchen table and dropped it on his plate.
"Take the Germans in the Middle Ages. They had the right notion. Start a war, and they'd send out a bunch of prelates to oversee the business. They had a thing called the Peace of God where the prelates would decide things had got hot enough and they'd just say, 'Okay, boys, time to knock off.' And most times, the combatants would just stop right there and then. But that didn't always work."
Jake poured a puddle of syrup on top of the hotcakes and slivers of brown trickled over the sides of the pile.
"So they had another trick they called the Truce of God. That's where the prelates would say, 'Okay, boys, no fighting between Thursday and Monday.' And sure enough, the aggrieved parties would cease the hostilities at sundown on Thursday and clean up and go to town and recharge their batteries and take in a sermon on Sunday and then go back to it hot and heavy come sunrise on Monday. Now that's..."
Jake forked a hunk of the hotcake pile into his mouth and chewed methodically. Twenty times. Chew every bite twenty times and you'd never have gastric distress, Daddy Jake always said. He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, impatient to get on with his story. His cheeks puffed like a chipmunk's. Then he swallowed and the great bony lump of his Adam's apple bobbed like a head nodding.
"...the way to run your wars." He nodded for emphasis. "Pastine" — he held up his coffee cup and waggled it — "could I have another round, my beauty?" Mama Pastine gave the three hotcakes sizzling on the griddle a flip and brought the coffeepot to the table. The coffee was boiling hot and it bubbled in Jake's cup as she poured it. "What do you think, my darlin', on the subject? Could we get the churches to take over the supervision of the lists?"
Pastine speared him with a warning glance. She had small bright eyes that danced when she was in one of her no-nonsense moods. "You blaspheme, Jake Tibbetts. You haven't darkened the doors of a church in forty years, and you sit there and babble on about churches running wars. The Lord listens and takes note." She took the coffee pot back to the stove.
Jake glanced at Lonnie and cocked his head to the side like a small dog.
"You'd have to take turns, of course. Spread the responsibility around. Give everybody a piece of the business. You could have your Baptist war and your Methodist war and your Catholic war and your Reformed Agnostics and your High Episcopals and your Low Episcopals. And then your Presbyterians would want a piece of the action. Get a good thing going and your Presbyterians will always find a way to get in on it. Then when they do, they sit around and argue with each other."
Jake was waving his fork now, the color high in his cheeks, his ears twitching the way they did when he got on a tear.
"Your Baptist wars would be sort of grim kinds of affairs. No cussing or that sort of thing. Strictly business. The Methodists, now, they would run a loose kind of game, if you know what I mean. Bingo at night, covered-dish suppers, dancing, the like. It would give the hors-de-combat a little spice."
Jake chopped off another bite of hotcakes and chewed twenty times, drumming his fingers on the table while he rolled his eyes. The Adam's apple bobbed.
"It would give a fellow a choice of wars, too. Take for instance you had a Baptist war coming up. A fellow who enjoyed a little fun along with his combat might say, 'Well, now, I think I'll just sit this one out and wait until a good Reformed Agnostic war comes along.'"
"For goodness' sake, Jake!" Pastine turned from the stove and brandished the spatula she was using to flip the hotcakes. "Hush and let the boy eat his breakfast. And you," she pointed the spatula at Lonnie, "get busy. I'd think you'd be starved half to death, running around in the woods before daybreak on a freezing morning, doing Lord knows what. And then you sit here with your mouth open listening to that old goat" — she waved the spatula at Jake again — "blaspheming and talking nonsense while a good pile of hotcakes gets cold right before your nose. What were you doing out in the woods, anyway?"
Lonnie ignored the question. He held up his coffee cup and waggled it. "Could I have another round, my beauty?" he mimicked Jake's raspy voice. Jake guffawed, then ducked his head. Pastine hung fire for a moment, then put the spatula down with a snort and poured a small puddle of coffee in the bottom of Lonnie's cup, filled it the rest of the way with milk until it lapped at the brim, and dumped in a heaping teaspoon of sugar.
The kitchen was a warm cocoon against the morning. The Atwater-Kent radio murmured Ollie Whittle's market and weather reports from its mahogany cabinet on the counter next to the pantry. At the window beyond Pastine's head the thin edge of frost around the panes glittered with new sun, and the way it fractured the light made her face seem more angular than usual. With the glistening window at her back she seemed to hover somewhere between the table and the frostbitten morning where Captain Finley Tibbetts, Lonnie's great-great-grandfather, would just now be carving up the Federal infantry in the open field beyond the pine thicket with his glistening saber. In counterpoint to the raging battle, Mama Pastine smelled deliciously of coffee and hotcake batter and the faint aroma of lilac water.
She gave Lonnie's coffee a vigorous swish with the spoon, then turned back to the stove, picked up the spatula, shoveled the three hotcakes from the griddle onto her own plate, and placed it on the table at the empty seat. She took a glass from the cabinet and held it under the sink faucet. The water came out with a splat.
"Jake, get those pipes wrapped today."
"Ummmm," Jake said, his mouth full of hotcake, as she sat down at the table.
"I mean it."
"One of these nights, I'll be lying upstairs on my deathbed with it freezing cold outside and neither one of you outlaws will have sense enough to come in here and turn on the faucet so it will drip, and then the pipes will burst, and come morning, you'll have a worn-out old dead woman lying upstairs and the pipes spewing all over the backyard." Pastine poured a thin stream of syrup over the top of her hotcake stack, then cut off a small bite.
Lonnie thought about the pipes. They had taken out the hand pump beside the kitchen sink and put in running water during the summer six years before, when Lonnie was six years old. Daddy Jake should have done it right. He should have had the plumbers rip out the old sink and put in a new one with faucets built in and the pipes run up through the floor. But no, he told them to just run the pipes under the house and out through the bricks of the foundation and up the backside of the house and into the kitchen just below the window. Lonnie remembered Mama Pastine fussing about it, Daddy Jake saying it was all right, he'd wrap the pipes so that they didn't freeze. Now the pipes were still bare, and Mama Pastine had to turn on the faucet and let it drip on cold nights so the pipes wouldn't freeze. Lonnie imagined the pipes busting while Mama Pastine lay on her deathbed upstairs, rupturing just at the point where the straight pipe connected to the elbow just below the window, spewing a fine spray of water that glittered in the dawn and froze as it hit the nandina bush under the window, turning the bush into a spectacular ice monster like the kind that lurked in the High Himalayas.
Jake looked up from his plate, now empty. "Well, Pastine, which do you want us to call first — the plumber or the mortician? Are you fading fast, my beauty, or will you last another winter?"
"Plumber? Who said anything about a plumber?" She pointed her fork at Jake. "You said when you had the plumbers out here to put in the pipes that you could wrap them yourself. If you weren't going to do it, why didn't you have the plumbers wrap the pipes, Jake? Or better, why didn't you have the plumbers run the pipes up through the floor and put in a new sink like you should have?"
"I'm a newspaperman, not a laborer," Jake protested. "I deal in words, not monkey wrenches."
"Then why..." she began, then tossed her head in disgust.
Jake took a sip of his coffee. "I have good intentions, m'dear. I simply sin and fall short. My feet are made of clay, I confess it. I'll get the pipes wrapped today, plumber though I am not. Lonnie and I will stop at the hardware while we're in town and pick up whatever it is you wrap pipes with."
Mama Pastine glared at him and kept eating. She took small bites, chewed them precisely. Lonnie watched, studying her even, deliberate movements as she worked through the stack of hotcakes, washing them down with small sips of water. She was no coffee drinker. She fixed Jake's coffee every morning, and she would allow Lonnie two cups of mostly-milk on Saturday, because she said if they wanted to rust away their insides, they would have to pay the consequences.
Jake drained his coffee cup, set it down with a clatter on the saucer, wiped his mouth with the cloth napkin in his lap, and laid it in a heap on his plate. "I wonder who that damn fool was in the airplane?"
Lonnie's ears perked. "What airplane?"
"My Lord," Pastine said, "you must have been asleep out there in the woods if you missed it. He passed right over the house just before I called you in. Almost scared me to death. Do you suppose they're having maneuvers?"
Jake shook his head. "Lost, probably, and looking for landmarks,"
"You reckon he crashed?" Lonnie asked eagerly.
"Well, I ain't seen any debris in the backyard," Jake said.
Lonnie thought about it, imagined the plane clipping the chimney with a wheel as it roared over the house, tilting crazily, digging a wing into the big pecan tree in the side yard, spinning and devouring itself as it came to pieces in the limbs of the tree, scattering flaming pieces of struts and propeller and fabric over the backyard as the chickens ran cackling in terror, skittering along with their feet skimming the ground.
"Godawmighty," he said softly.
Mama Pastine looked up at him sharply. "What did you say?"
"Nothing," he mumbled.
"I heard you," she insisted, "I heard what you said."
Lonnie cut his eyes over at Jake, who gave him a don't-look-at-me-buster look.
"I'm sorry," Lonnie said.
"You should be. And on the day before Christmas. Santa Claus has no truck with blasphemers."
Daddy Jake snorted. "Hogwash."
"I beg your pardon?" Mama Pastine said.
"You are confusing Santa Claus with Father Coughlin. Santa Claus makes no moral judgments. His sole responsibility is to make young folks happy. Even bad ones. Even TERRIBLE ones."
"Then why," Lonnie broke in, "does he bring switches to some kids?"
"Exactly," Mama Pastine affirmed.
"Whose side are you on, anyway?" Jake demanded.
"I'm just tryin' to get it all straight," Lonnie said. "I'm all for Santa Claus."
Jake tapped his plate with his fork. "This business about switches is pure folklore.
Did you ever know anybody who really got switches for Christmas? Even one?"
Lonnie thought about it. "I guess not. Even Little Bugger, after he set fire to the woods down by the creek, he got a Western Flyer coaster for Christmas."
"Right," Daddy Jake nodded. "I have been on this earth for sixty-four years, and I have encountered some of the meanest, vilest, smelliest, most undeserving creatures the Good Lord ever allowed to creep and crawl. And not one of them, not one, mind you, ever got switches for Christmas. Lots of 'em were told they'd get switches. Lots of 'em laid in their beds trembling through Christmas Eve, just knowing they'd find a stocking full of hickory branches come morning. But you know what they all found?"
"Goodies. Even the worst of 'em got some kind of goodies. And for one small instant, every child who lives and breathes is happy and good, even if he is as mean as a snake every other instant. That's what Santa Claus is for, anyhow."
"Jake," Mama Pastine said, "one of these days you are going to talk yourself into a corner you can't get out of. I just hope I live long enough to see it."
"So you can gloat?"
"No, I'll probably keel over from amazement."
"One of these days, I'll do it just for your edification, m'dear."
She looked at him for a long moment. "Sometimes I wonder if you know the difference between good and evil."
Daddy Jake grinned. "I do, but Santa Claus doesn't."
Lonnie savored it, his grandparents' warm kitchen and the ice-rimmed window, the drip-drip of the faucet keeping time with Ollie Whittle's soft mutter on the Atwater-Kent, the rich aroma of coffee and hotcakes, Mama Pastine's lilac water and Daddy Jake's cigar smell. And secrets. There was the secret knowledge of the Daisy Red Ryder BB gun and the two Tom Swift mysteries and the pair of brown corduroy pants and the soft black leather gloves with rabbit-fur lining he had already found stashed away in Mama Pastine's closet. And that other secret — Captain Finley's Lighthorse Cavatiers covering themselves with glory out there in the frost-encrusted field.
The moment hung suspended in Lonnie Tibbetts's imagination, and then it ended when Lonnie thought, as he so often did, of his father.
Where, on this fine morning, was First Lieutenant Henry Finley Tibbetts, U.S. Army Infantry? Somewhere in Europe, that's all Lonnie knew. Mama Pastine told him that — a nugget of knowledge gleaned from some mysterious source she had. She shared only that with Lonnie, and only with him, because Daddy Jake would not allow the mention of his son in his presence.
This morning, the thought of Henry Tibbetts bubbled unbidden to the surface of Lonnie's mind — an impression, a feel of Henry more than any specific memory. Lonnie, in fact, could not really remember what his father looked like. He remembered, instead, Daddy Jake's reaction to Henry, the naked anger, the disgust. Henry Tibbetts was a pariah in his own home. It was the very word Jake had used to describe his son — a pariah. A man who had disgraced the memory of his wife and deserted his son and was now off fighting a damn fool's war. He was a drunkard, a profligate, a fool. But worst of all, he had violated the basic rule of civilized behavior that says a man cleaves first to his family and forsakes all else in their behalf, no matter what the cost. In Jake's book, you stood and fought, especially when the enemy was inside yourself. But Henry had cut and run. A quitter. That's what Daddy Jake had said.
Lonnie understood all these things, understood that Henry was absolutely taboo in Daddy Jake's house. But nonetheless he lurked in every comer, a sad, fascinating shadow of a figure just beyond touching. Lonnie felt his presence, but he kept that to himself. As far as Mama Pastine was concerned, Henry was somewhere in Europe. How could you tell her that he was both there and here, that a living man could have a ghost who haunted the house and the person he had left behind? No, you couldn't tell. It was something you kept in your own heart even though it sometimes made you feverish with wondering.
"You gonna stare at it or drink it?" Daddy Jake interrupted his thoughts.
"Huh?" He looked up and blinked at them.
Jake laughed. "Where do you go when you wander off like that, boy?"
Lonnie flushed. "I was just thinking," he mumbled.
"Well, finish up. We got things to see and folks to do."
"And pipes to wrap," Mama Pastine said.
Lonnie picked up his coffee cup and took a final gulp. On the radio, Ollie Whittle was talking about a little town in Belgium. Bastogne, he called it.
Copyright © 1987 by Robert Inman