by Siobhan Fallon, Army spouse
“Val was letting Billy run this show. She wanted him to do the things he needed to do in order to put his life back together again.”
A few days after Billy’s homecoming, Val and Billy pulled up in front of Lucy’s house in a U-Haul. “I can’t believe you’re really leaving,” Lucy said, standing in her driveway and looking at the truck in amazement.
“We’re figuring things out,” Val said with more confidence than she felt. “Billy’s going to see if his trucking company can transfer him here, so we might be back before you know it.”
Billy kissed Lucy’s cheek and walked around the house to join Jim at the grill. Billy had told Val they had exactly two hours to spend with her sister’s family and Val had tried not to argue. She, of all people, could appreciate Billy’s desire to get on with his life and career. But Val wouldn’t have minded a couple of lazy days of getting used to each other first.
They were driving north that very afternoon, immediately after lunch, to Bogalusa, La., where Billy’s “aunt” was throwing him a welcome home party. Tomorrow, they’d head to Biloxi, and from there, straight on back to Atlanta.
Val followed Lucy into the kitchen, sampling a cracker loaded high with crab dip. They could see the men on the back deck through the sliding glass doors. Billy cracked open a beer and handed it to Jim.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?” Lucy whispered. “There they are, just a couple of feet away, flipping steaks on the grill. It’s so miraculous to have them home.”
Val nodded, a piece of cracker catching in her throat. It was a miracle. Then Jim opened the grill and a plume of smoke obscured the men for a moment. She held her breath until it cleared, and yes, they were still there, safe and sound.
“Val, we made it,” Lucy said.
“Yeah, we made it,” she replied. “Thanks to you, Luce.”
Lucy shook her head. “You could have done anything, you could have gone longer, knowing Billy was at the finish line.” She leaned in toward her sister, squeezed her hand, and both looked out again at the men who had come back to them.
They arrived at the barbeque in Bogalusa, north of New Orleans, by sunset. Billy’s parents had died when he was a teenager. He’d been taken in by his mother’s best friend, Aunt Flora, and her yard was now full of Billy’s high school friends.
Val wandered between pockets of light from the fire pit, to the grill, to the tiki-torched porch, watching Billy get pounded on the back by young men who, unlike him, had started to go soft in the middle. Billy, wiry and thinner than when he left for Afghanistan, clanged beer cans with the best of them and ate more protein than she had ever seen him ingest before. But Val could tell he felt even more out of place than she did.
They were on the road again early the next morning, belts bursting from Aunt Flora’s stacked bacon, praline pancakes and strong chicory coffee.
“One more stop,” Billy said. Val leaned back in her seat, dreading this final visit. They were going to see the family of Jake Smalls, Billy’s friend who didn’t make it back. Val had tried to convince Billy that this was a time of homecoming and reunion, so couldn’t they visit Jake’s widow in a couple of weeks? He’d looked at her as if she’d transformed into a stranger, saying, “There’s no homecoming for Jake. The least I can do is pay my respects.”
They followed the signs toward Biloxi. Billy glanced at his watch too often, inspecting the map as if he didn’t know most of the roads in the South better than the lines on his own palm. He pulled into a grocery store parking lot at the city limits and Val looked around, confused.
“Can you go buy some nice things?” His shoulders were rigid, his face was pale. “There’s two kids. A little girl and baby boy.”
She nodded. She was letting Billy run this show; she wanted him to do the things he needed to do in order to put his life back together again. “I’ll be right out.”
She returned with pecan cookies, a box of dark chocolates, a few fancy bags of pasta, some kid snacks, a colorful baby rattle, and a handful of coloring books and crayons.
Billy inspected the bag. Then, as if there was no other way to avoid it, he started driving again, staring straight ahead, braking suddenly at stop lights, a line of sweat over his eyebrows even though the windows were open and the cool autumn breeze was giving Val goose bumps.
They finally pulled into the driveway of a small bungalow, a child’s play set sitting forlornly out front, the swing broken and dragging on the grass. Billy sat in the driveway with his hands on the steering wheel until the front door opened and a woman came out and stood on the porch, watching them with squinting eyes.
“It’s OK,” Val said. “I’ll go first.”
Billy nodded. Val grabbed the grocery bag and got out of the truck.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Val Boudreaux. This is my husband, Billy.”
The woman’s eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed again. “Sergeant Boudreaux?”
Billy got out, closing the driver’s door quietly behind him. “Yes, ma’am, Mrs. Smalls. I was Jake’s squad leader.”
She turned and walked into the house. Val looked at Billy, feeling salt gather in the back of her throat.
They entered the house. It was dim inside, the blinds all closed, just a lamp or two shining dully in the corners. The television set murmured and flashed its underwater blue in the small living room. A little girl was eating a grilled cheese sandwich at the kitchen table, and a baby was sitting in a mechanized swing, reaching for colored butterflies that spun above his head.
“Is this Jake Jr.?” Billy asked, stopping in front of the infant.
“Yup. Never got to see his daddy,” the woman said too sharply. Val glanced at the girl, wondering what she was about to hear.
“We brought some… things,” Val said, hoping to steer the subject away from death. Mrs. Smalls took the offered bag and plopped it down on the floor next to the fridge, not bothering to look inside or say thank you. She looked from Val to Billy, challenging them, and Val couldn’t help but glance away. She knew the woman was thinking, “Why did your husband come home instead of mine?”
“Mrs. Smalls, ma’am, can I call you Kate?” Billy asked. The woman nodded, her mouth tightening. “I thought you might want to talk to me, I don’t know, ask questions about Jake, about his life over there-” Billy’s voice faded. He looked down at his feet, unable to take that hard, blue gaze any longer. “I’ve got something for you.”
He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and took out a ragged envelope. “Everyone in the company chipped in. We didn’t know how long it would take for the benefits to start. Figured you could use a little cushion.” He held the envelope out and Kate stared as if she considered not taking it. Then her hand snapped it away. She opened the envelope, her mouth loosening at the amount of cash inside.
“I haven’t tried to collect any benefits yet,” she said, her voice still on the verge of anger. Her little girl put down the corner of her >> sandwich and watched her momma. “Once I sign all that paperwork, it means Jake is really gone.” She reached into the envelope and pulled out two photographs. She looked up at Billy, suspicious. “Where’d you get these?”
“Those are the pictures Jake had at the side of his bed,” Billy said, his voice so quiet Val almost couldn’t hear him. “He showed those photos to everyone, ma’am, all the time. He was so proud of both Maisy and little Jake; he couldn’t talk about you all enough. They missed the pictures when they sent you his other… effects… but Jake’s bunk mates asked me to give them to you, so you’d know what Jake woke up to every morning.”
That’s when Kate cracked. Billy stepped forward and took her by the elbow as her suddenly limp body was about to collapse into the kitchen table, putting his other arm around her waist and guiding her into the living room. Val watched as Kate buried her face into Billy’s neck, as Billy helped her sit on the couch, as he wrapped her in his arms. He was tender and held the woman so close that another version of Val might have felt a flash of jealousy.
Today, though, Val felt a wave of love for her husband, so amazed that he could understand and absorb such extraordinary grief.
“I brought you some coloring books, Maisy,” Val said to the girl. She looked at Val with eyes too knowing for a four-year-old, and then she nodded stoically, as if agreeing to color just to make Val feel better.
Val was impressed at how well Kate had been able to keep it together. Though there were dishes stacked in the sink, the kitchen maintained a certain order: the table was spotless, the pantry had enough food for at least a few days, the milk in the fridge had not yet expired. Val washed the dishes, swept the floor, picked the baby up when he started to fuss in his swing.
She couldn’t imagine the strength it would take to get out of bed each day, comb your child’s hair, pick out cereal at the grocery store, pay your water bill, all while knowing that the man you loved was never coming home.
“He likes rice and peas,” Maisy informed Val when the baby began to cry.
Val looked around until she found the box of powdered rice and a jar of blended peas. She read the directions and surprised herself by whipping up something only mildly disgusting. Then she managed to hold little Jake on her knee with one arm and spoon the mixture into his gaping mouth with the other.
“Thank you,” Kate said at the door. Val looked back into the dark house, wishing she had brought more groceries and toys, wishing she could make some kind of difference.
Billy moved from foot to foot, as if he felt the same way. “I’m just going to fix that swing,” he said. “It’ll only take a minute. I’ve got some tools in the truck.”
As they drove away, Billy reached for Val’s hand, lifting it and kissing her knuckles. The grin he gave her filled his eyes in a way she hadn’t seen since he’d gotten back. “That baby looked good on you,” he said. “What do you think about making one of our own?”
Val leaned her head against his shoulder, looping her arm around his and holding tight. She was exhausted and unsettled, trying to reconcile the Smalls family’s grief with her own relief at having Billy next to her. But she had been surprised at the strange comfort of Jake Jr.’s weight on her hip. The baby had felt good.
“We’ll see,” she said softly. And she could see it, their whole joined life suddenly illuminated by the setting sun. There would be babies, misunderstandings, reconciliations, birthdays. They’d move a few times, get a dog, then find a house with a swing-set of their own. And maybe there would be more deployments. Like so many other military families, they had a long road and so many unknowns ahead. But they had made it, and they would always make it. No matter what, Billy and Val had found a home in each other.