Previously in the novel: Harley and Billie Sadler spent their lives bringing entertainment to farms on the high plains of Texas in the first half of the Twentieth Century. They endured economic hardship, lost their daughter Gloria, helped each other with personal demons and hung on to each other into old age.
When he arrived back in Sweetwater, Harley came into an empty apartment. Billie was still working the counter at Woolworth’s. Dinner. That was what he would do. It would not be the first time he had cooked for his wife so it would not be a surprise but rather an affirmation. Their last angry confrontation still reverberated through his weakened body. It needed the rejuvenation Harley only found in making someone smile.
The front door opened. Billie walked in, saw the meal on the table and smiled. Harley was healed. Returning to the rehearsals, Harley strengthened as the cast laughed at his jokes, applauded his vigor on stage and sought his advice on theater.
On opening night Harley packed his makeup bag and headed for the door. Billie pecked his cheek.
“Break a leg, honey.”
He hugged her. “The folks would really be glad to see you there tonight.”
“Oh no.” Billie shook her head. “I don’t feel like it. Maybe some other time. Not this play.”
“I understand.” He kissed her lightly on the lips. “Love you.”
A light tapping at the door a few minutes after Harley left drew Billie from the kitchen. When she opened the door she saw an old man in his bib overalls, bald and paunchy. Humbly he held his straw hat in his gnarled hands and took a step back when he saw her. Billie instinctively knew this man. He was one of the dirt farmers who struggled to make a living off the high plains. She and Harley saw them every performance under the tent. They laughed even though their faces where etched with pain and defeat. She smiled.
“May I help you?”
“I hate to be trouble, but is Harley home?”
She pointed toward downtown. “He’s at the little theater tonight doing one of our old shows.”
“Oh.” He sounded disappointed.
“May I take a message?”
“If you don’t mind, ma’am.”
Billie stepped aside, motioning to him to enter. “Would you like to come in?”
“Oh no.” He shook his old head. “I’m jest an ol’ farmer. I’m afraid I’d mess up some of your nice things.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t mess up a thing.” She smiled, her own troubles fading further away.
“Oh no,” he repeated, “I’ve taken up too much of your time as it is. All I’d like for you to do is tell Harley somethin’ for me.”
He took a deep breath. “Well, me and my wife Florrie has been goin’ to his shows ever since we was youngin’s.”
“Why, we was there the night you brought your li’l girl the first time.”
Billie’s smile faded. “Oh.”
“She had on a li’l cowgirl outfit.” His eyes twinkled. “Cutest thing we’d ever seen.”
“Thank you,” Billie whispered.
“But what I really wanted to say was that Florrie got the cancer last spring and died.”
“I’m sorry.” She wanted to reach out to squeeze his hand, but Billie realized the old farmer had established boundaries. He would be uncomfortable if she touched him.
“That cancer is so painful. She could hardly stand it. Well, that last night, I was holdin’ her hand, and we started talkin’ about Harley and all the funny things he did and said. Anyway, we both got to laughin’ and, well, because of Harley, my Florrie died with a smile on her face.”
Against her instincts, Billie stepped forward. “Please let me take you down to the theater. I want Harley to hear your story.”
“Oh no. I couldn’t be a bother.”
“It wouldn’t be a bother,” she insisted.
“Jest tell Harley this.” He paused to compose his thoughts. “Tell him that, well, he’s my best friend.”
“Please wait here for him to come home.”
The old farmer turned to leave. “Oh no. I got to go.”
Billie leaned against the door and watched him disappear down the street. Wiping tears from her eyes, she realized what all those years traveling town to town, feeling lonely under the spotlight meant. They had touched the hearts of people who had nothing but heart. Billie and Harley had given a great gift and she never realized it.