ledbetter tat

IloveyouBillLedbeter

I knelt and brushed away the brown cut grass from the dark gray granite, pulling a few stubborn green blades that encroached on the dates that anchor the bottom corners––the left side is August 2, 1962 and the right states January 21, 2002. While doing this busy work, I prattled on.

“Get out of here, stupid grass. There we go, baby. Much better now. Wait. Let’s get this.” I licked my thumb and rubbed the oval porcelain photo––the shot I took of him on the boardwalk one random day never knowing it would end up being so definitive––removing a few whites specks with my thumbnail. “There. Handsome guy.”

I brought more than I normally do on my weekend morning visits, because today was special. Along with the usual two bunches of baby’s breath, the Today, Tomorrow, Forever heart-shaped balloon, and a blue windmill, I bought a silvery mylar Happy Birthday that had someone’s idea of a festive cake printed on it.

For gifts, I had a few key chains in my pocket, one from a recent stopover in Chicago and one from Montreal, the city where Billy proposed to me in 1998. I’d fit those onto branches of his tree later on, but now I had arranging to do.

I fluffed one of the bunches into a giant snowball that stuck out from the vase centered over him, jammed the windmill into the ground to the right of the headstone and the birthday one on the left.

Crisscrossed lines from the grass etched my knees as I stood and walked the ten paces to Billy’s bench. The tree was overgrown, it’s branches flopping down in a way that startled me every time I drove up, afraid I was going to find that the park had trimmed them away, and all of those key chains that I’d woven into its branches over the years would be lost.

I untangled the other bunch of tiny white flowers next to the bench, another summer snowball, putting the heart balloon next to it, but decided it looked better swaying in the center of the unpolished front edge with WILLIAM LEE LEDBETTER engraved across its length. I took the newspaper that’d wrapped the flowers, wadded it up, and wiped a few white bird droppings away.

I looked up into the tree; the sun flickered through the moving leaves, a disco in the park. It was cooler there, and I tore open the Hostess Cupcakes package, a brown plastic bra, turned it over to tap one out, and laid one of Billy’s favorite snacks on the upper right hand corner of the bench.

After inserting a red-striped candle, I lit it with a match, cupping my hand to keep the flame alive. Water filled the inside of my Revo lenses as I bent over to blow it out.

“I hope you’re dancing right now, baby.”

I sat on the other side of the bench and polished off the twin cupcake, staring toward the downtown skyline that seemed a hundred miles away, the silence broken only from my pleas for none of this to be true.

ledbetter tat

2556

“What do you think you’ve missed out on the most?” It’s a question I’ve wanted to ask Billy for the past few years, and I’ve endlessly pondered his possible answers.

“The iPod!” He blurted it, his lower lip jutting out, his arms huffily folded.

“You know you would’ve gotten one right away from me.”

“I know.”

“What else? Do you miss dancing?”

“I still dance.”

“Oh.” Well, of course he did; nothing could stop that engine from running.

“And the house! You know I’d love that house even if we had to give up Venice.”

“I bought it with you in mind. I always imagined how much you’d like it. And what about Stephen and Eddie? They’re no Bob Slobbers, but¬¬––”

“I sent Eddie to you! And I can’t believe you bought a house in Saint Elmo! I told you that you’d like it there!”

“I should’ve listened then, huh.”

“Yes” He paused and looked down at his feet. “Maybe. I dunno what else. I guess just having your arms around me at night.”

“That’s what I miss the most, too, Guyster. Wrapping you in my arms and holding you tight, real tight, and never letting you go.”

And just as I reached out to demonstrate, he was gone.

guyster

Tiny dancer

I can’t remember whose idea it was for Billy to wear the red wig, but it looked funny with his bristle of a mustache sticking out and I remember he wanted to wear his shirt backward, so I buttoned it up for him. It was Billy’s first and last appearance on television. Our friend Mickey hosted and produced a cable access show that was a purposeful train wreck, and on this episode, she booked Francine Dancer as her guest.

Francine was an LA-famous, yet homeless woman with a fondness for garish clothes and bouts of spontaneous street dancing. I believe she had her own cable access show, too. Mickey asked Billy if he’d like to dance with Francine on the show, and while Billy said yeah, sure, he was still too shy to do it without some sort of disguise.

That Herman Munster laugh you hear in the background is mine, egging him on, proud as can be.

When Mickey gave me this clip a few days ago, I asked her when it was done. She looked it up and said it was November 21, 2001, which makes it two months to the day before Billy left. Two fucking months later…

And I still can’t believe it.

ledbetter tat

Happy Anniversary, Guyster!



They’ve called Ludlow a ghost town ever since Interstate-40 came along and destroyed its little Route 66 businesses. Sitting in the middle of the Mojave desert, sped past by most except those riding on the fumes of an empty tank, the only thing in Ludlow besides the abandoned diner are a gas station––a sign warns that the next fuel is eighty miles up the road––and the Ludlow Motel with its Vacancy sign always lit. In our house, though, the very mention of the name of that spit of a town meant, It’s time to shut the hell up and accept the fact that I love you, no matter how mad you or I are right now.

It was our time-out, or a safe word.

I spent Thanksgiving in Saint Elmo, Illinois, Billy’s hometown, where the business district is two blocks long, yet it’d make Ludlow look like a bustling metropolis, but once you get outside the town’s limits, there’s nothing but winter cornfields and an endless sky.

I drove to Mattoon, up north a bit, the next day to get my annual tattoo, a ritual that celebrates our anniversary. This year it was our sixteenth and while that number doesn’t have a particular meaning, I’d already designed what I wanted in my head.

His oldest sister Dixie asked me why I just got that name, Ludlow, tattooed on the back of my calf––I had it done in a classic sailor font with an orange fill. That night, we were at dinner with every member of Billy’s family except for that sister Deb whom no one likes (and I guess she feels the same way about them), and when Dixie posed the question, the table silenced, even little Jack, just thirteen days old, but old enough to know to hold his tongue when a good story was brewing.

“Well, when Billy drove out here to fix up Grandpa Hopper’s house…” I saw every eye on me, except for Kaeden and Kael, too young to know where they even were, and I felt like some exotic creature from that crazy big city out west, but I just continued.

Billy had called me in a panic, his little Toyota truck hadn’t made it more than two hundred miles away from home before it broke down. He was stuck at the gas station off the Ludlow ramp and the mechanic there told him all he needed was a hose. He’d already called an Auto Zone near our house and asked if I could drive it out to him.

Without thinking twice, I jumped in the car, bought the hose for five bucks, and got on the road for a nice long drive. It was about a half hour into the trip that the temperature gauge shot into the red––the only thing to do was turn on the heat so the engine wouldn’t burn up.

To make the story more exciting, and accurate, I emphasized to the family that it was a hundred degrees out, which made it cooler outside than inside the car, and I was sweating. Oh, and all four tires were as bald as the crown of my head.

I made it all the way to Ludlow, somehow, and found a dusty roadside motel and a gas station with one guy there who had no access to auto parts. Billy was sitting in his motel room with the door open waiting for me. When he saw me, he beamed and hugged me and said he could never thank me enough.

“Oh, yes, Guyster, there is a way you can thank me,” And there was. I thought of it while sweating over the past four hours.

Almost every bad fight we had, Billy would retreat into the corner of You don’t love me, you don’t care about me… and I would then have to find ways of reassuring him that he was, in fact, loved.

“OK, from now on, every time you think I don’t love you, I will say one word and one word only. Ludlow. The only reason I’m here, Bill Ledbetter, is because of love. Pure love. Love love love. Love drove that fucking car and love is going to drive it back. So. Ludlow. Got it?”

He nodded in agreement, went out to borrow tools from the attendant and fixed his truck himself. We went back into his motel room. It was dark and cool. We laid there in silence and then started to fool around. It was great being a fleabag motel room and we made the most of it. We fell asleep in each other’s arms. We woke up around nine at night, the sun had said goodbye, and it cooled off outside. I didn’t want to drive back the next day in the heat, so I kissed him, said “Ludlow” as a reminder, and left.

Ludlow became shorthand for love in our home. Ludlow is one of the many words engraved on his memorial bench that sits under the tree near his headstone. Ludlow.

ledbetter tat

Forever 39

“What do you want for your birthday, Guyster?”

“Nothing.”

“What do you want for your birthday?” I repeat the question with playful annoyance.

“I dunno.”

My thumb runs over the smooth glass, tracing his arm.

“How about I wrap up some dog poo and give it to you?”

“No.”

“I’m gonna unless you tell me––“

“No!”

I rub over his face.

“Okay. I’m going to take you to dinner and lavish you with expensive gifts that you’ll never use.”

“Whatever.”

“iPhone?”

“No.”

My forefinger wanders up to the silver-plated frame that’s lost its luster over the years; the words that Billy had engraved I’m Missing You are still visible. He’s shirtless, a beaming smile under his sailor hat, his arm outstretched and anchoring him to his bunk.

“Want to have a party? It lands on a Saturday this year.”

“Surprise me! Get me whatever you. I’m busy.” He noodles with his mixer, one earbud dangling down his left side. The whole conversation is silly, really, since I’ve already bought him that iPhone, and I have organized his friends to surprise him in the private room at Baja Cantina.

I give his smiling face a long wet kiss, the glass warm on my lips, and put the framed photo back in its place, by my bedside.





magic mountain

How January 21, 2002 should've gone.

I woke up gasping for air, my arms pushing straight out, which almost sent Billy flying against the wall.

“Stop it!” He grabbed the bedclothes and curled up into a protective ball with his back to me, armed for any further surprise attacks.

“I just had the most awful dream,” I said, still getting back my breath.

“What was it?”

“I dunno. I don’t want to say. It might come true.”

“Then go back to sleep. God!"

And I did just that, wrapping my right arm around Billy’s warmth, my hand resting over his heart in a pledge of allegiance.
guyster

I keep writing this over and over again. Maybe someday I'll get it right.

If you didn’t already know that we lived in a non-smoking house, the twenty flyers Billy had plastered everywhere would have given you a clue. It had been a week since he'd first complained that he was short of breath, and drawing on what I considered to be my encyclopedic reserve of medical knowledge, I had insisted we both stop smoking immediately. I hammered this edict home by buying a box of nicotine patches the same day.

It was the Sunday before a holiday, if you consider Martin Luther King Day to be much more than an interruption in mail delivery, and after I surprised him with breakfast in bed, two slices of egg-in-the-hole, he finally got up and ambled into the kitchen while I washed the dishes. He stood by the back door, lifted his shirt, and said, “Put my patch on.

I obliged, of course, still in shock that he’d taken to a non-smoking lifestyle with the enthusiasm of a recent religious convert. We’d been trying to quit for years, and sometimes we’d even go for a few months without a cigarette, but then we would get into a fight or a few beers would come along, and we’d be back to Kool Milds and Camel shorts–Billy liked his menthols while I chose my grandfather’s brand loyalty.

I put it on his bicep, telling him to press the patch once it was on, a trick someone had once told me that was supposed to make it work better, and he leaned against the dryer doing just that, rubbing it like a genie’s lamp before he pulled his shirt back down, the long-sleeved one I’d given to him as one of his Christmas presents.

I asked him if he wanted to go see a movie, but when I told him that it was Gosford Park, he made his stink face and said, “Too much talking.”

“Well, then what do you want to do?"

“I think I’ll go over to Hal’s.” When he said that, I knew I’d soon be eating popcorn. I hated Hal, a man given to too much cologne and too many drugs, who called other men “girlfriend,” as if he were still roaming with the boys in the band. In fact, there weren’t any of Billy’s friends that I liked to hang out with. Billy claimed I was a snob, but I just found his friends dull and cloying, people who couldn’t even name the current Vice President, not that that opinion wasn’t a source of trouble in our house. For nine years, when he spent time with his friends, he usually did it stag.

We sat at the kitchen table with a large bag of croissants between us. I’d bought the bag a few days earlier, thinking Hell, what effective smoking cessation plan doesn’t include French pastry? I told him I was going to the movies anyway, without him, but he was more than welcome to join me if he changed his mind. He shrugged, chewed his croissant, and said he was going upstairs to mix music.

I might have asked him how he felt, or maybe I didn’t. Over the past week, he'd stated that he had chest pains, and a few times actually said, “I think I’m having a heart attack.” I even caught him saying so on videotape with the camcorder he gave me for Christmas.

After I made the bed and tidied up the front house, I made plans with our friend Tommy to see the movie, then bounded upstairs to see Billy and, as I expected, found him in headphones at his DJ stack, lost in his house music, dancing with the twelve-foot coiled cord swinging in time. All eighty pounds of Bob were sprawled on the couch, struggling to watch Billy as he slowly lost the battle to stay awake.

I mouthed, “Okay, I’m going,” which prompted Billy to un-cup one ear and ask what I’d said. “I’m leaving, Guyster,” I repeated, and asked him what time he’d be home. We arranged to have dinner together around five, and I left without stopping to kiss him goodbye.

I dropped Tommy off on the way back from the movie and headed to our favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant, a tiny place next to a 7-Eleven in a strip mall. Neither of us had a regular paycheck coming in, money was tight, but it was the night of the Golden Globes, so it was a forgivable splurge for us. I waited outside for the two orders of spaghetti with meatballs and mozzarella marinara, glancing at the convenience store where I’d bought my daily pack of smokes with just the tiniest bit of desperation.

The lights were off and it was chilly in the house when I got home. Bob was waiting in the green leather chair that he’d claimed as his own, his tail wagging as I opened the front door, and he slipped off the chair to follow me and sniff the bag I was carrying. I walked through the living room, left our dinner on the kitchen table, and climbed the stairs of the back house with Bob trotting behind me.

“Where’s Billy?” I asked Bob; he just looked back at me with his head tilted slightly to the left. I turned on the TV to watch Joan Rivers forcing women to show off their once-in-a-lifetime shoes, and took a couple of hits of pot from the wooden pipe that had been in our family for years. The bong that Billy bought me for Christmas was still downstairs.

I could hear footsteps on the stairs an hour later and the door swung open, Billy huffing as if he’d just run around the block. “Scoot over!” he said, and I sat up to give him room. He snatched the pipe from me, fired it up, and I asked him how his day was.

“I dunno. A day. How was your movie?”

“You wouldn’t have liked it. Too much talking.”

He took another toke, hopped off the couch, and went to the computer. “I have to post some more stuff.” Billy had started his own eBay business, selling random items he found in the neighborhood trash during his long walks with Bob. “But first I have to take some pictures.” He always gave a running commentary of what he was doing, just in case I didn’t notice or as if he needed to remind himself that he was doing it. More than once, he sat upright in bed while sleeping and proclaimed, “I’m tired,” to which my practiced response was, “Good thing you’re sleeping, then.”

It was cold upstairs, too, and I stretched out on the couch with a blanket over my legs, half covering Bob, who had curled himself into a black fur basketball at my feet. Billy worked on taking photos of his future sales, framing each one with Madison Avenue precision.

I looked over my shoulder, watching Billy set up his next shot, the tip of his tongue peeking out from his lips in concentration, and that’s all it took to bring it all back, that perfect, earnest magic he had, and with that, I fell in love with him again, finding him standing there as if I’d lost him in the fog of the overly familiar, as if anything could really hide that light. He was working hard to get his business off the ground and I was proud of him. The past several months had been very hard on him, on us, both unemployed and depressed, bad habits resurfacing, and still, there he was, on the other side of it. In that second, I could see how much he was enjoying himself, that he believed in himself, that he had his own future in control.

Nicole Kidman won, Moulin Rouge won, and the awards were over. For me, it was time for bed. “C’mon, Guyster, let’s go downstairs.”

“Okay.” He was back at the computer uploading pictures on eBay. “I want to finish up.” He flapped his hands shooing me away. “I’ll be down in a minute.”

“Come on, Bob.” Our dog trailed behind me as I shut the upstairs door.
guyster tat2

You'd be 45 today and more handsome than ever.

“C’mon. Sit down. I want you to hear something!” He mumbled the last part, but with ceremony, Billy turned the black leather desk chair around so I could face him at his DJ rack.

“What song?” I was already annoyed by the interruption of my online porn surfing, and just thought he'd play some house music that was already our annoying soundtrack.

Our song.”

I crossed my arms. He slipped a cassette into the deck, pressed PLAY, turning to watch me. It was one of those songs I'd have changed the moment it started on the radio, some diva purse music. I started to say some—

“No! Listen.”

Sometimes the snow comes down in June
Sometimes the sun goes 'round the moon


I harrumphed and squirmed sitting there.

“Stop it, Terry. God! This is about us.”

I listened. The song was pretty, I guess, but I watched Billy mouth the words and soon he was singing along, his eyes watching me, but by the end of the tune, he was belting it out, hamming it up, a big finish on its way.

“Just when I thought our chance had passed,” he warbled at full volume, “You went and saved the best for la-a-a-a-st.”

He beamed when it was done. Even did a little bow.

“That’s very nice.”

“It’s true, you know. We made it through. You know.” His voice was soft, a little disappointed. He thought I thought it was stupid and he felt embarrassed, or at least that's what his expression told me. And in that moment, I knew what he meant and why the song held such weight for him, and for me.

I walked the few steps over to him, grabbed him tight around his waist pressing our bodies tightly together, and I kissed him lightly.

“I know, baby. You saved the best for last.”




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