“What is this?” I asked, when after our marriage and at my urgings Billy and I moved from his apartment back into my house. All he brought was a suitcase. It lay open on my bedroom. An old bible lay on top of the clothes it contained. “Is this yours?”
“Yes… it belonged to my father… and to my mother after he left us. My father left it with me but I didn’t want it. I gave it to her. He used to keep pictures in there. It’s the only thing I have from my parents… or from my childhood for that matter. I used to hate it when I saw my mother coming at me with it in her hands… it meant I was in for one of her long reading sessions from the Old Testaments. I thought about throwing it away more than once, or at least hiding it from her. Now I’m glad I didn’t.”
I picked up it up thumbing through the tissue-thin pages. It was chock full of old pictures. I picked one out at random… a little boy maybe eight years old wearing a cowboy hat and a holster with a toy gun with his arm around a little girl a few years younger who was dressed like an Indian. They both stood smiling self-consciously into the camera. I looked from the picture to Billy and back at the picture.
“Is this you?” I wondered, showing it to him.
“I think so…” he said, turning the picture over. The year 1983 was written on the back. “I don’t know who that little girl is though… she seems so familiar…”
“You were such a cute kid,” I laughed, taking the picture from him and placing it back where it came from. “And my God but how you’ve grown into such a handsome man! You have a way of making my toes quiver, Billy Austin.”
“I remembered who that little girl was in the picture you showed to me,” Billy told me later that night while we lay tangled in each other’s arms and legs and blankets. “She was my sister.”
“So you have a sister!” I said, sitting up to look at him. “What’s her name?”
“Her name was Pearl… Pearl Ann… that’s what I would call her when she aggravated me… little sisters can do that, I suppose.”
“Where is she now?” I wondered.
“She died when she was seven years old. She got sick and never recovered. My parents didn’t take her to the doctor… I guess they didn’t have the money… or maybe my mother thought prayer would heal her. She was a very religious woman… she believed that the power of God resided in everything and if a person was devout enough, God would take care of them.”
“I’m sorry, Billy,” I told him. “That’s so sad.”
“I used to take care of her when she was little. I wasn’t much older than her but no one else would do it. I tried to make sure she had clean clothes to wear to school. I had to wash them out by hand in the sink and hang them up to dry. I didn’t care so much about my clothes but I knew how I got teased for wearing dirty stuff to school and I didn’t want her to go through that.
“We’d have to be careful around my father. He’d get drunk and the tiniest thing would set him off. We used to hide in closets and play games… just the two of us. At night we slept in the same bed and we’d whisper each other to sleep… at least I whispered her to sleep. Most nights I couldn’t get to sleep. I’d just lay there staring up at the ceiling thinking that there must be some kind of magic in the world and if I could only learn how to do it I might be able to wish us both away to somewhere warm where there was plenty to eat and no one was ever mean to anyone else.
“She got sick one day. At first I thought she just had a cold… it was the dead of winter and the place we lived was never warm… the old radiator pipes rattled like something was inside trying to get out but whatever was in there sure wasn’t heat. My mother put Pearl to bed. At first she seemed to get better but then she started to cough. She couldn’t stop. She coughed so much that she vomited. I heard someone knock at the door and I thought it might be a doctor but instead a group of people all carrying bibles came into the bedroom and started praying over Pearl. They all looked up at the cracked ceiling like they could see God up there.
“While they were all praying I snuck off. I remember it was very cold outside… the wind was howling and snow was blowing sideways. I didn’t have a coat to wear. I put on several shirts and my jacket and my two pairs of pants and I walked eight blocks to the nearest drug store. The only stores in our neighborhood sold liquor. When I walked into the store there was a mean-looking woman behind the counter. She stared at me as if she knew I didn’t have any money. I walked around looking at kid stuff… you know… candy and toys and things like that… until another customer came in and distracted her.
“I went to the medicine aisle and stuffed bottles of cold and cough and flu remedy down my pants. I would have asked the lady if I could just have it but I thought she’d say no and I didn’t know of another drug store close by. I couldn’t take the chance. I walked home. By that time the snow had worsened and it was even colder. When I got home I couldn’t feel my hands or my feet and my nose and ears felt like bees were stinging them. I didn’t care. I just hoped the medicine would help make my sister well.
“All the prayer people were gone. No one noticed that I was missing… I heard my mother and father arguing in the kitchen… I couldn’t hear their words but they both sounded mad. I went to our bedroom. Pearl was breathing funny, like she had something in her throat and couldn’t cough it up. I warmed up the medicine by holding it against my stomach and then I gave her a spoonful like it said on the label. She was so weak she couldn’t raise her head. The medicine didn’t help. By morning she was dead.”
“I can’t believe your parents didn’t take her to the hospital,” I said, shaking my head. I had heard stories before of parents letting their kids die while trusting in the power of prayer but it never made sense to me. “They should have been arrested.”
“My father left a few days later, right after the funeral. I remember they didn’t have the money to buy a coffin. I heard someone pounding on something in the shed behind our apartment. When I peeked inside it was my father. He was drunk. He was using old plywood piled against the wall to build a coffin for Pearl to be buried in. He saw me and said come here you little son of a bitch. He always called me that. He made me hold the boards in place while he nailed them. He told me how my sister would be buried in a little graveyard just outside of the city in a small town where he had grown up… where his parents were buried and one of his brothers. He said to remember where it was because there was a grave waiting there for me too. He said that was the one thing I would need in life.”
“What a horrible thing to tell a little boy,” I said. There were tears in my eyes… I was shaking… I realized for maybe the first time that I wasn’t the only one of us who had a rough childhood… who had been terribly abused. “I’m so sorry, Billy.”
He pulled me close wiping away the tears rolling down my cheeks with the back of his hand. I laid my head on his chest, feeling it rise and fall like the ocean outside our window; listening to his gentle heart beating… neither of us said anything for a long time. I thought he had fallen asleep when he spoke again, very low, almost in a whisper, as if he might have thought I had fallen asleep too.
“I’d always been frightened of my father,” he said. “He never called me by name… he’d say get over here you little bastard… most times it was to give me a beating. I remember the last time I saw him… he came into my room with that old bible in his hands. I acted as if I was sleeping… I thought he might hit me with it. He stood by my bed for a long minute… I lay very still, not daring to move a muscle. And then he laid the bible down beside me and left. I never saw him again. I didn’t want the damned thing. I gave it to my mother. Sometimes I dream about that night, only I don’t act like I’m sleeping. Instead, I sit up and I say goodbye to him. And he says goodbye Billy.”