It was around noon on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day; early in 2002; twenty-six days after Christmas, when he’d given me the camcorder I’d always wanted; nine years and two months since we’d moved in together; and thirty-nine years, five months, and eighteen days from when he was born.
He often spoke in exclamation points.
For both of us, it was the first time we'd ever found a real home.
He was a five-year old eighty-pound black lab mix, more lab than mix. He was closer to Billy than he was to me, seeing something of his own kind in Billy, maybe. It was Billy who gave him his name, and he knew Billy as “Daddy” and me as “Dad.”
“Try again!” he said, and I threw down another bill. The wheel clickety-clacked and a lucky gust of the Santa Ana winds brought it to a halt with the pointer squarely on the slot that read Swatch. The bored-looking girl operating the wheel handed me a wristwatch in a plastic box, and I turned to Billy and said, “Here, Guyster.” He looked at it like it was a Rolex.
On the night before Martin Luther King Day, I was watching the Golden Globes on the couch, with Bob at my feet and Billy sitting behind me at the computer, working on his new eBay business. He’d been laid off the previous fall and was struggling to find his way.
"Bedtime. Are you coming?"
“No, I wanna finish this up first." He was focused on his work.
“Okay. Come on, Bob.” Our dog slid sleepily off the couch and followed me downstairs. I fell asleep around half past midnight.
“You can get the band reduced, you know,” I informed him.
“I kno-o-o-o-o-w,” he replied in a playful sing-song. It was a response that I’d heard ten thousand times in ten thousand different situations, one of the thousand little games we played.
“Like a crazy person,” was my well-honed reply.
“Do you need me?”
“Like the air I breathe.”
“Are you gonna keep me?”
“Forever and ever, you big dummy guy.” I’d spin him around, wrap my arms around him from behind, and kiss the warm spot of the little raised heart-shaped scar at the nape of his neck.
"Shit! Did they take the stereo?” I asked, as if that was something important.
"They broke the window and took my watch," he said, his voice breaking. I felt helpless.
"Aww, Guyster. What was it doing in the truck?"
"I was taking it to the jewelry store!" he said. In tears, he pronounced it “jewry.”
"Honey bunny, I'm sorry,” I said. I knew that the watch meant something special to him, a trophy from a perfect evening not so long ago.
“I loved that watch,” he said.
“I kno-o-o-o-o-w,” I softly sang back.
This watch won't go away. Just like my love.
The next morning, Billy called, crying again, crying harder than ever. “I can't believe you! You’re too good to me!”
“That’s impossible. I love my Guyster!” I said, and beamed. I lived for those moments.
When I arrived back home, I found the new watch, in its box, back in its special spot by the computer. He never moved it again.
I opened the door and the whole world shattered into a billion pieces.
“Please! No! Billy! Please! God! Billy! No!” I screamed over and over and over and over as I held him. Somehow, I managed to call 911. Over the operator’s urgings to try CPR, I kept screaming those same words to her.
God. Please. No. Billy.
Howls of grief are a different thing, as dark and thick as globs of motor oil: a distraught father weeping as he realizes his worst nightmare has come true, a crumpled young army wife finding two starched officers at her door, or waking up to find your lover has left the earth, without warning, without reason. Those tears have the long shelf life of a can of soup in the cupboard.
The law required an autopsy because of his age, and so I had a week to plan the funeral while Billy was in the county coroner’s office. At the service, a few hundred people stared at me with eyes clouded by disbelief. I gave his eulogy with all the grace and emotion of a robot. I was afraid I would do it wrong.
Was it beautiful for you? Did you feel a sense of relief? Or peace? Was there the white light? Were your mom and dad there to meet you? Is that when you knew what happened? What was the last thing you saw when you were here? Did you say anything? Did it hurt? Did you call out for me? Were you scared? Did your mommy take you by the hand? Were you still there when I came in that morning? Or had you already settled into your new way of being? Are you still Billy? My honey bunny? Did you see Bob coming? Was he happy to see you? Are you okay? Are you safe? Are you happy? When it’s my time, do you promise to be the first one I see?
I love you, Bill Ledbetter
We drove across the country together, Bob and me, for a new job in a new city. Bob hated it. He missed his backyard, and the game Billy and I made of hide and seek with his cookies.
If I thought it would’ve worked, I’d have joined Bob at the back door, sitting on the tile floor there, just watching, just waiting.
Hunched over, gasping for air, I made my way to the bathroom and mopped my face with toilet paper. I’ve heard it said that you should never look into the mirror while crying, lest you fall in love with your own pain. I didn’t pay attention to that warning. I just stared at myself, saw a familiar stranger, and went back to the couch where I glazed over at the news. There was no love for my pain, only resignation that my cupboard would always hold a can of soup.
I have to sleep.
They have other plans for me, though. This is when both of my nighty-night clowns with soiled jumpsuits come a-calling, one with a big red painted Bozo smile and the other with weeping sores in the corners of his mouth, giving him a permanent frown. Fully armed for the show with bag after bag of dirty tricks, they giggle and get to work. My chest tightens, my heart beats faster, my eyelids flutter, and I try to get warm.
“Billy wasn’t all that warm the last time you saw him, was he? He’s not very warm now, either, is he? I wonder what he looks like now?”
“Do you really want to go to sleep? If you just hadn’t been asleep that night, Billy would be here with you now. Right about this time, too, wasn’t it, when you fell asleep? And so did he! Ha ha ha!”
I feel tears sliding down my cheek, spotting the pillow.
The clowns start to dance, holding hands and spinning around in a dizzy celebration. “Oh look, he’s about to cry! Boo-hoo-fucking-hoo,” they laugh.
“Try this one,” one says.
I had to ask the funeral director to help me place his “jewry” on him. It wasn't that I was afraid to touch him. I did that as often as possible over the next three days, kissing and holding him, unconcerned with the spectacle of it all, but I didn’t know how to put on his ring and the watch; I just didn’t want to disturb anything.
The last time I saw the watch was just before they finally closed the casket on the day of the funeral, before the grave side service, before the Navy honor guard gave a twenty-one gun salute, before Taps was played, before they folded the draped flag into a tight triangle.
Everyone had left the chapel, shuffling to their cars in a daze; I took one last moment -- just Billy and me. I fell to my knees, knowing this was it. I reached in and held his arm.
I pulled myself up, dusted off the knees of my black pants, and kissed my Billy for the last time. I held the kiss. I rose and stared at him. I told him I loved him. I adjusted the necklace, kissed his ring, and I looked at the Swatch.
It was keeping perfect time.