With his back to the family, Peyton could listen to all of their conversations, tuning in and out as if he were turning the dial on a radio.
His father's two sisters, Aunt Camille and Aunt Charlotte, were sharing the porch swing closest to Peyton:
"Could you believe that dress Arlie Seton wore to her own daughter's wedding?"
"Ridiculous. It was cut clear to here and twice too short for a woman half her age."
Uncle Julian, the middle son, was doing what he always did—trying to sell Granddaddy Cabot on one of his big ideas: "We could parcel off a thousand acres over by Reidsville and turn it into a residential development. We'd make a fortune. Can't you see that?"
"Julian, Reidsville's not close enough to anything—not Atlanta, not Savannah. All those vets settin' up housekeepin' want to be close to a city where they can find work."
Nothing about Peyton's Uncle Julian was genuine—not his smile, not his concern, and certainly not his devotion to the family. Whenever there was any heavy lifting to be done, you could count on Uncle Julian to be needed elsewhere. Peyton's mother had once said that he was "doomed to go through life feeling cheated" because he believed any good fortune that fell on someone else rightly belonged to him. He fancied himself a statesman but so far couldn't even win a seat on the Savannah city council.
Peyton spotted two of his cousins on a quilt underneath the Ghost Oak and decided to join them. Their grandfather had named the tree long ago, and the moniker was apt. Sit beneath it on a breezy night—better yet, a stormy one—and the rustle of leaves did indeed sound like a swirl of specters communing overhead. When they were children, Peyton and his cousins would dare each other to sit under the tree on windy evenings while the others hid in the azaleas, calling out into the darkness, "Ooooooooo, I am the ghost of Ernestine Cabot, dead from the fever of 1824...Ooooooooo, I am Ol' Rawhead, swamp monster of the Okefenokee..."
Peyton had never been afraid of the family ghosts or the tree they supposedly haunted. There was something to be discovered way up in those branches, and he had always been more curious than fearful.
Stepping off the porch, he dipped himself some homemade ice cream from a wooden freezer that was probably older than he was and sat down on the quilt with his cousins Prentiss and Winston.
"Somebody's goin' home mighty early." Prentiss nodded toward Peyton's mother, who was walking slowly up a dirt road that led from the main house to a pretty lakeside cottage about a quarter mile away.
Peyton watched his mother's back as she moved farther and farther away from the family, now and again raising a hand to her face. Just then his father appeared, following a path that led from the back of the house, through a pecan grove, and out to the stables. In one hand was a highball glass, already filled. The other held his ever-present companion since he had come home from the Pacific, a bottle of bourbon.
Peyton's aunts said it was "the worst kind of stupid" for the Army to draft men in their thirties, but once everybody younger was already over there, they had no choice. Peyton's father was gone for just over a year before the Japanese surrendered, but by then the war had done its damage. The war was still doing its damage.
"Don't look good, does it?" Winston asked him.
"No," Peyton said, watching his father disappear into the pecan trees.
Winston swatted at a bee circling his head. "Hey, Peyton, how come you didn't bring Lisa?"
"To face the whole clan? Way too early for that. Might scare her off." Peyton finished his ice cream and stretched out on the quilt. Closing his eyes against the sun filtering through the branches overhead, he pictured the girl who was never far from his thoughts.
Lisa Wallace had transferred to his school in January, when her family moved to Savannah from Augusta. She was the prettiest girl in the whole town, the prettiest girl Peyton had ever seen. But there was more to her than that. For one thing, she didn't flirt, a rarity in a Georgia beauty. Then again, she didn't have to. Every boy in school wanted to go out with her. Her hair was deep auburn and fell in long glossy waves down her back. Her eyes were blue, with just a hint of green, and she had a complexion like ice cream.
The minute she walked into his homeroom class, he knew. He felt it in his gut or his heart or whatever you want to call it. While all the other guys were working up their nerve, Peyton made a beeline for Lisa in the lunchroom that first day and offered to carry her tray to her table. She had smiled up at him and said, "You don't waste any time, do you?"