Toby Chapter Twenty

Previously in the novel: West Texas farmboy Harley Sadler had a long career on the tent show circuit through the High Plains, marrying the love of his life Billie, helping farmers during the Great Depression, losing his fortune and regaining much of it. His daughter Gloria died. He and his wife decided their hearts just weren’t in it any more and retire.
When the Sadlers returned to Sweetwater, the town threw a big banquet for them called “Flowers for the Living.” All their friends from the shows stood and testified how wonderful Harley and Billie had been to work with. Representatives of many of the small towns recounted how Harley had rescued farmers down on their luck. If their lives had been a play, that evening would have been the grand finale. But real people don’t go away at the curtain fall like fictional characters. They continue to live, struggling along as best they can.
Soon the highlight of Harley’s day—when the Legislature was not in session—was his morning walk through the neighborhood. Billie sat on the living room sofa looking out the window, waiting for him to appear along the sidewalk. She slipped out a pint of whiskey and took a nip. Suddenly she sat up and hid the bottle under a cushion.
Harley turned from the sidewalk into his yard. His girth was wide, and his thinning hair almost white, but his gait was still lively and his grin boyish. A group of boys, waiting at the corner school bus stop, saw him and ran his way. They were respectful and earnestly eager.
“Hi, Harry!” one said.
“Hi, boys!” Harley turned and smiled.
Another boy nudged the first one. “That’s Harley, not Harry!”
“I’ll answer to most anything.” He paused the proper amount of time before delivering the punchline. “Now President Truman, he might be insulted!”
The boys laughed.
“Like some gum?” He reached into his pocket.
“Yeah!” the boys shouted in unison.
He opened the pack and distributed the sticks.
A boy who previously remained silent, grabbed his stick and stuck it into his mouth. “Thanks!”
Walking up to his front door, Harley overheard them whispering to each other.
“Boy, he’s a nice old man.”
“I’m glad he lives in our neighborhood.”
“You know what he used to do?”
“My dad said he traveled in something.”
Harley turned and asked, “You boys ever hear of Toby?”
“No, who’s he?”
“Oh, an old friend of mine,” he replied.
Harley saw the bus pull up, so he went into the house and joined Billie on the couch. He closed his eyes and sighed deeply.
“Hi, honey,” Billie said. “What did those boys want?”
“Some gum.”
She stared into his face. “I noticed you turned back to say something to them. They weren’t being rude, were they?”
“Oh no. They’re nice boys.” He opened his eyes and wanted to smile but could not quite muster one. “I just asked them if they knew who Toby was.”
“Did they?”
Billie patted his leg. “I guess they would have just been babies the last time you were Toby.”
“You know the man Burnie works for?” he asked tentatively.
“The one with the tent show?”
“Yeah, Joe McKinnon. “He gathered his thoughts. “He’s been after me to go back on the road.”
“Oh, Harley,” she moaned. “I don’t want to do without you all summer.”
He turned to face her. “I told him you could handle the books. You could play Susie again.”
“I thought you said your heart just wasn’t in it anymore,” Billie pressed her objections.
“People want comedy, Billie. They’ve got enough sorrow in their lives already.” He paused and pinched his lips together. “I’ve had enough sorrow in my life.” He reached down under the cushion and pulled out the bottle. “And you’ve had enough too.”

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