A Different VoiceChapter 5
We drove out to Arbutus's house Monday before the funeral. Tom stopped us at the door. Apparently his sister had been talking to him, because he opened the screen door, stood in the doorway, and said, "There's nothing for you to do here. We'll be going to the funeral home in a bit." When Bud didn't move, Tom said, "Go on now."
I could hear Arbutus in the house, "Who is that at the door?"
Tom turned his head and said, "Nobody, Ma," and then he spit at Bud's feet.
Uh-oh. I could see the fire spark in Bud's eyes. "Don't ruin the funeral for Arbutus," I whispered. "Don't." He took a deep breath and tried really hard to settle down, but the McAfee boys seemed to know just what to do to get Bud's blood pumping.
"Just because your wife don't give a shit what you do, don't mean we want our mother to look like a whore," Tom said. Unfortunately for him, his mother came up behind him and heard the last part of that.
"What? Did I hear you right?" She hit him on the head with her purse. It wasn't very big, and probably had mostly handkerchiefs in it, so he didn't even flinch. "Did you just call me a whore?"
"No, Mama," he started patiently. Arbutus disappeared back into the house. "We just don't think you realize how it looks for you to be hanging all over---"
He stopped talking and ran out onto the porch. Arbutus came after him with a frying pan in her hand. He ducked when she swung at him, a couple of times, and then he fell off the porch. "Mama!" he said, "What the hell you doing?"
"You call me a whore again, young man, and the next time, I won't miss."
Arlene came out on the porch. "Stop it, Mama. I think you're going senile. It shouldn't be hard to understand that your children don't want their mother to make a fool out of herself in public."
Arbutus looked like she was just about ready to spit nails. "I'm gonna be so glad when this is over and you can go home. If you think you're gonna tell me what I'm gonna do or not do, you better think again, missy. I've always done just exactly whatever the hell I wanted, and I'm not gonna change now just because you don't like it."
She looked at Bud. "Don't you smile at me, young man." He grinned.
Tom was on his feet, but keeping his distance. "It ain't right for you to be carryin' on like that in public when Donny ain't even in the ground yet!"
"Carryin' on! Carryin' on? You ain't seen carryin' on yet." Arbutus was turning an alarming shade of purple. "And it don't matter a whit anyway. You know if I wanna have my way with this young man on the church steps, you got nothing to say about it."
Bud made a funny noise, and began to laugh.
"And you----!" she said. "You stop that laughing." She grinned at him, and the purple began to fade.
She tossed her frying pan toward the door. It wasn't anywhere close to hitting Arlene, but she hopped out of the way anyway. "If I wanted to have my way with you, boy, you wouldn't have anything to say about it, either. You'd just have to say, 'Yes, ma'am,' and start stripping off."
Arbutus whooped, and began to laugh, too. After a few minutes, she dabbed at her eyes with her hankie and gave a big sigh. "It probably ain't right for me to be laughing so before my boy's funeral."
"Donny's dead, not you."
She nodded. Took his hand, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and said, just loud enough for us to hear, nobody else, "I'm grateful we met up; you're good for an old woman like me."
She gave me a kiss on the cheek, too, and a hug, as well as she could around Becky. The little minx had been hiding her face against my neck during all the shouting, but she peeked out at Arbutus now.
"How's my punkin today?" Arbutus cooed, and Becky grinned at her. Arbutus took her and turned……
……and spied Charles sitting on the fender of the car.
He was still with us; we hadn't heard a thing from Roxanne. Herbert let us get his clothes from Roxanne's (or Rachel's) room, and we bought him a suit to wear to the funeral. He didn't seem to have any toys.
Bud wanted to get to know him, but Charles wouldn't have it. He kept Bud at arms' length all the time. It was an uncomfortable situation.
He was very quiet, very clean, very polite. That seemed wrong, somehow. Maybe it was because he hadn't jumped, or hopped, or skipped, in days.
Arlene called, "We're gonna be late, Mama. I think maybe you ought to leave your boyfriend there and get in the car. Don't you?"
Arbutus took a deep breath and muttered, "Thank God she's going home tomorrow." Out loud, she said, "I would wager they'll not start without me." Arlene slammed the car door.
Arbutus stared at Charles another minute or so. She turned around and looked at me for a second, not at Bud.
"Who is this handsome young fella?" she said. She held out her hand to him. He didn't want to take it very bad, but he did.
"My name's Charles Rhodes," he said.
"I'm Arbutus McAfee." Pause. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance."
Tom was loading his family in his car; it was a noisy process, and not easy, the children kept escaping.
"Mama! Are you coming with me, or not?" Arlene started the engine of her Buick.
"I'll see you at the funeral, then, Charles," Arbutus said. "Perhaps you'll sit by me."
"No, thank you," he said. "I think I'll sit by Lynn."
"We'll see you there," Bud said. Arbutus handed Becky back to me, and we all started for town. For the funeral.
Donny's sister Angela didn't come to his funeral. Neither did Richard and Nancy. I think everybody else in Bisbee was there, though. The Reverend said the church was full half an hour before time to start; more than a few people had to stand.
I doubted they were all good friends of Donny's wanting to say good-bye.
Arbutus took Bud's hand after she got up the steps and inside the church. Donny's casket was near the entrance, open. I knew Arbutus had asked that the casket be closed today, but apparently someone decided differently. Arbutus turned away. Bud left her with me, and closed the casket himself.
Tom said, "You get back away from here, we're gonna do what we think is proper."
If Bud had looked at me the way he looked at Tom, I would have known better than to say anything else, from caution, if not from fear. "Don't push me."
"What're you gonna do about it?" Tom reached out and gave Bud a shove. Just a little one. But big enough.
Arbutus grabbed Bud's arm. "Bud. Don't hit my boy. I know he ain't much, he's dumb as a post, but he's the only boy I got left. Don't start nothing here at the funeral."
It was hard. Bud swore under his breath.
"Promise me," Arbutus said.
He took some deep breaths, relaxed a little, and took a few steps back. "OK."
"Promise me. No matter what he says."
"Yeah, OK, I promise."
She put her palm on his face for a moment before she turned away to walk down the aisle to the seats left vacant for the family.
I guess I was the only one watching Tom. He was close enough to hear what we'd been saying; he stuck his hands in his pockets, and looked like he might actually be thinking……..It made me uneasy.
It looked like we weren't going to be able to get seats together; we'd be lucky if we got to sit down at all.
Arbutus looked back at us. "What are you doing?" she said. "Come up here with me."
I thought Arlene would bust a gut. "I am not----!" she said. "----going to have some…some strangers sitting with me!"
"That's fine," Arbutus said. "They're sitting with me. You can sit wherever you want."
"Really, Arbutus," I said, "we don't want to cause problems, we can find other----"
"There's gonna be plenty of room left up here, since Angela and her family didn't come. And I want you with me. Unless you don't want to sit by me."
After she put it that way, what else could we do? Arlene glared, and Tom glowered. Bud had that don't-fuck-with-me look on his face. Charles looked like he wished he was somewhere else. I don't know what I looked like.
Bud and Arbutus held hands until Becky got fussy. Then Bud took her, and whispered to her until she quieted. Arlene, on the other side of her mother, fidgeted all the way through the service. Just like a kid. I had a terrible urge to thump her on the head with my finger like my mama used to do to me when I didn't sit still.
Tom's family sat behind us, and although I expected a lot of noise and possibly jumping about, they were actually pretty well behaved.
Charles sat quietly, never said a word, until Arbutus started to cry and Bud put his free arm around her shoulders. Then Charles pulled on my sleeve till I bent over, and he whispered in my ear, "Is that dead man her husband?" I whispered back that she was the man's mother.
Reverend Skinner must have worked on the sermon a long time, 'cause by the time he was done, we were all sorry Donny was gone. It was a service to be proud of. The graveside part went off without a hitch. Arbutus seemed a little lost afterward, but Arlene grabbed her elbow and took her to the car almost right away.
The Ladies Auxiliary had a lunch in the basement of the church, and we all went back there. There was quite a crowd. I think there might have been a few people there for the lunch that didn't actually come to the funeral, but I might be wrong. I'm not sure I saw everybody.
Patty scooped up Becky and took her back into the kitchen so the ladies could fuss over her. Bud ate a little, then went back out to the car to bring in Becky's bag.
Charles seemed fascinated. He watched and listened to everyone so intently, he almost couldn't eat. It took him a long time to finish the little bit he had on his plate. I left the table to get him some cake, and was stopped by several people wanting to know who he was. When I finally got back, he was sitting by Arbutus. She was bent over close to him, to hear him above all the conversation. I couldn't tell what they'd been talking about, but he looked very serious. Arbutus shot me a look, and then she said, "I think if your mama doesn't come back, you'll probably live with Bud and Lynn. Won't you?"
That was when I noticed Bud hadn't come back with Becky's bag. We needed it. She was wet; pretty soon she'd be uncomfortable to hold. I was trying to see him in the crowd and listen to Charles at the same time……..
Charles' little voice just got lost among everybody else's. I couldn't hear what he said at all. And Bud wasn't anywhere to be seen.
I had a bad feeling.
Arbutus put her arm around Charles and hugged him, and he hugged her back just as if he'd known her all his life.
"I wonder if Bud couldn't find the bag," I said. That was silly, the bag was in the back seat. No way to miss it. Someone probably just stopped him to talk. It was probably silly for me to worry; he was just outside the church. What could happen to him there?
"Arbutus," I said, "Where's Tom?"
"He was right here……a while back……" I could tell when she began to think what I was thinking.
Becky would be fine with Patty. I told Charles to stay put.
It took a minute to see them. They were down the street several blocks, where we'd had to park the car, since we were late. Arlene was there, too, watching.
"Oh, my God," Arbutus breathed, and we took off running.
Bud was up against the car, with his arms in front of his face, trying to block Tom's punches. Tom was pounding away, one blow after another, and we saw one get by Bud's guard, and snap his head back. We could see the blood then, running from Bud's nose, and on his face under one eye.
It's damn difficult to run in high heels. I tried to throw 'em off as I ran; Arbutus noticed and did the same thing.
I didn't understand it; he wasn't fighting back. Not at all. Just trying not to get hit. Till we were about half a block away. Suddenly, he pushed away from the car, grabbed the back of Tom's neck, and slammed his other fist in Tom's gut, more than once. Took him by surprise, I guess, and after about half a dozen of those, Tom fell on the ground, gagging. Bud sank to his knees, and looked up at us as we ran up.
"I'm sorry, Arbutus," he said. His lip was swelling; it gave him a lisp. "Dammit." He turned his head and spit blood on the cement. "I promised you. Not very good at promises, I guess. I'm sorry."
The blood was still running out of his nose. There was a cut on the bone under his eyebrow. The cut on his lip. Probably bruises we wouldn't see until tomorrow.
He wiped at his eye, and blinked.
I got down on the cement with him. I had some hankies in the pocket of my dress, and I tried to wipe some of the worst of it off him…….a useless gesture at the moment, but what else was I going to do?
Arbutus put the fingers of one hand under his chin, and tilted his head back so she could see better. "Dear Lord," she said. "I didn't mean for you to------I just meant you shouldn't throw the first punch……."
She was dead white……still and calm. She turned to Tom and said, "Get your sorry carcass up off the ground and get outta my sight. I'm ashamed a' you."
Arlene said, "Mama, you weren't here, you don't know what----"
"You shut up," Arbutus said. "You're no better than your brother. I don't know how I came to have such a sorry excuse for a family, but I'm washing my hands of the both of you right now."
Tom got up off the ground, holding his stomach. "Mama, you don't mean that."
"Get that wife of yours, and that passel a' brats, and get outta my house. I want you gone before I get home."
Bud slumped a little more, and I put my arms around his neck, carefully around his head, and held him against me. Charles ran up and squatted down on Bud's other side. His eyes were wide. He stared at me for a minute. I wiped the tears off my face.
"Bud's not gonna die, is he?" he asked.
Bud opened his eyes. "I'll be fine," he said around his fat lip. "Don't worry. It looks worse than it is." He reached up and ruffled Charles' hair. Usually Charles ducked his head when Bud tried to do that. This time, he scooted a little closer, right up next to Bud, and Bud put his arm around the boy's shoulders.
"Don't say something you're going to regret, Mama," Arlene said. "One of these days your boyfriend there won't look so good anymore. Or he might decide you're too old for him. What then?"
"I expect I'll manage. At any rate, it won't be your business to worry about."
Arlene's eyes turned to nasty slits, and she opened her mouth to say something else, but Arbutus didn't let her.
"You've always been a snotty little bitch, and nothing I ever did or said seemed to make a damn bit of difference. So now I'm done with ya. I don't wanna see your face again." She turned her back on Arlene.
Tom seemed to think Arlene should help him back to the church, but she pushed him away, and stalked off toward her car.
"Mama?" he said. "Arlene told me to do it." Arbutus didn't even turn around. She crouched down by us.
Charles said, "Bud's not gonna die."
Arbutus put her arms around him, and hugged him. "Thank you, boy, that's good to know. Keeps me from worrying so much." She shook her head when she looked at Bud. "How's your ribs?"
A small group of people was gathering not too far away. People that had noticed us running down the street, probably. Doctor Graham walked up before Bud answered Arbutus's question. "Making friends again, I see," he said.
"How many times did he hit you in the head?"
"I wasn't countin'. Why?"
"Did he bang you up against the car? You hit your head?"
"I don't know…..maybe…..why?"
"Ever know any old boxers?"
Bud shook his head.
Arbutus said, "Yeah, I have."
The doctor said, "They're all about the same, aren't they?" She nodded. "You know why?"
"But Bud's not a boxer."
She looked sick. I probably did, too.
"I noticed it the first time I saw him," the doctor said. "This eye droops just a little more than the other. See it? And the corner of his mouth. General muscle tension's a bit less on that side. Now, it's not serious, not yet. A little more than a kid could get playing football, or falling out of a tree…..a few times. But it's cumulative. Adds up." He gave Bud his arm to help him up. "You've got to start living a more settled life, young man."
"Sure." Bud winced and put a hand to his side. "You bet."