I only met him once, a decade ago when Billy and I drove through town on our way back to Los Angeles from our year in New York City. He was a good six or seven inches taller than Billy, husky and redheaded. They couldn’t have looked less alike but as I was sitting in my car at the Wal-Mart, I knew I’d be on the lookout for some kind of familiarity.
I saw him drive up, waved a wave of Here I am, and hopped out of the car. We hugged right there at Sam Walton’s place. He told me to follow him back to his home, that it wasn’t very far. We walked through the screen porch. Bub opened the door to three barking bundles of energy, each jumping for Bub’s attention or mine or probably anyone else who would’ve walked through the door at that moment.
Bub got right to the point. “I wanted to tell you why I didn’t come out to California for the funeral. Karen just had her hysterectomy and I just couldn’t leave her.”
“That’s okay, Bub. No one was thinking bad about you. We were all just in a state of shock. We did the best we could.”
“I just wanted to let you know…” his voice trailed off. I was looking at the teddy bear collection his girlfriend, Karen, had around the place, and I thought of how much Billy liked teddy bears. I turned back to look at him. The nose and eyes were different but there were the unmistakable Ledbetter cheeks and chin. His skin was Billy’s, as well, white skin that was blushed all over.
“You know Billy loved you very much, Bub. Sure he told me some stuff you guys got into as kids but he never spoke bad about you. He loved you.” I choked out the last sentence, my throat tightening.
He told me about Karen, how she saved his life, made him a better man. I told him that’s how I felt about Billy. We sat for a moment, letting it all sink in, then made plans to meet for dinner.
“I really want you to meet Karen.“ He walked me out to me car, we hugged again, and I drove to get my tattoo, an incomplete journey.
Later, the whole family gathered at Effingham’s Mexican restaurant, El Rancherito. We sat at a long table, eating southern Illinois’ version of Mexican food. Dixie took some pictures with her new cell phone, shots of me with this amazing family that has adopted me as one of their own. There were brothers and sister and nieces and nephews and grand nephews that I never would’ve had had it not been for Bill Ledbetter.
I am, indeed, a lucky man.