Today I drove the whole way to St. Elmo, Illinois thinking of the different video shots I would grab during my visit. I wanted shots of Billy’s high school, Main Street, the house in which he grew up, and all of his family members that would fit into the lens’ view. Dixie called me half way through the drive and told me she had to work the swing shift but she would come by the motel around midnight.
As I unpacked the car, I discovered I had forgotten my video camera someplace along the way. I tracked it down at the motel in Amarillo where Deborah, as nice as pie, told me they would be happy to ship it to me. I reached Amie, Billy’s niece who's on a tilt-o-whirl of psychotropic medication along with her boyfriend, Jason, and asked her to round up the rest of the family for a dinner out, any restaurant they wanted.
She suggested Ryan’s where she promised it was going to be the biggest buffet I’d ever seen. We went by Chris’, one of two of Billy’s nephews, and I got to meet his wife and three kids, two of which are twins although one has dark hair and the other a towhead. Next stop was Matt’s, the other nephew, who lives in a large trailer out in the cornfields with his girlfriend, her brother and her two children.
As we were driving to monster buffet, we passed through downtown Altamont; the neighboring town and it was Americana, up close. Unlocked bikes were left on front lawns, kids played in the middle of the maple and elm lined small streets without fear, and neighbors sat on their porches, fanning away the summer heat.
There were fourteen of us when we arrived at the restaurant, six of them small children. After negotiating high chairs and seating arrangements, we headed to what was, indeed, the biggest buffet I’d ever seen. It was steak night and the town came out in force. I ate until I was stupid and the conversation flowed easily as they spoke of the kids and different local gossip.
After dinner, I hung out with Amie and Jason until Bob and I went back to the motel, and waited for Dixie who snuck out of work early and arrived at 10pm. The printing plant she where she works was giving her grief about this and that and she also told me she was worried about Amie being back with Jason after they had split up for a year. The conversation was rapid and disjointed; it was as if I were speaking with Billy.
She left a few hours later and Bob and I took a long midnight walk along the rippled fields of soybeans and the commanding stalks of corn. It was warm, humid and the sky was black. We came back to our room and settled in for some TV although the only thing on seemed to be a Halloween fest and endless news reports of the Alabama courtroom crisis. There was Team Coverage.
Dixie came by early today to pick me up and show me all of the sights I wanted to capture on my wayward camera. I have the digital camera I bought Billy for his last birthday so I took stills of the house he grew up in, the plots where his mommy and daddy rest, the IGA where he earned high school money and finally, we went by to see his grandpa. Grandpa Hopper is in a nursing home at the age of 92 but he’s still as sharp as a razor. The family held off telling him about Billy for some time, knowing that Billy was his favorite grandson and how much it would hurt him.
I walked in the door with the convele-scents slamming my nose. He was sitting up in his chair, surrounded by family pictures, and Dixie introduced me. He beamed and shook my hand, telling me he had been looking forward to meeting me. I held back my urge to grab him with all my might, crying and never letting go. Billy spoke so often of his grandpa and was the only grandchild who really looked after him. Every Christmas, Billy would fashion a gift basket or something he made to send and by his bedside, many of those gifts surrounded him.
I heard stories of Billy at age three running and playing in a mud puddle, butt naked, and getting whooped by his daddy. I saw the school where Billy had spray painted his name, now long gone. Dixie pointed to the place where Billy got into a bad bike accident when he was twelve. Over there was where they lived when a train killed his brother, Charlie.
It was so easy to see the little Bill playing in this town. The little Bill never left him; it was always there at a moment’s notice. When he would get really blue, he’d say, “Terry. I want to go home. Let’s go back to St. Elmo. We could have a nice, quiet life there.” He said this several times and each time, I scoffed at the idea of a big shot like me living in a small town like that.
I look around me now and I wonder. What if…?
Chris and his wife, Becky, planned a cookout for everyone to celebrate my visit. Mike, Dixie’s common law biker husband came along with the previous night’s crew. Bob was running around the big backyard with an out of control Buffy until he finally lay down in the grass and didn’t move for the rest of the night. After a dinner of grilled steaks, a casserole made of potatoes and a pound of Velveeta with bacon on top, and baked beans; the only thing left was dessert, a Twinkie cake. I gorged myself and was sitting back, soaking in the Ledbetterness.
Chris and Becky came out to the backyard where we were all sitting and told me to close my eyes. They made something for me.
“Is this gonna make me cry?” I was joking.
“Well, I don’t know. Open your eyes,” Chris said as he handed me a framed picture he had Photoshopped. I found myself looking at a handsome picture of Billy I had taken somewhere in Texas, floating in the beach and clouds with the inscription from his headstone printed in the lower left hand corner.
“Since you’re not going to be able to see Rose Hills much for a while, we thought you might like this,” Becky said. It was a good thing I had my sunglasses on because the water works started immediately. Everyone was looking at me, gauging my reaction and Dixie started to cry as well.
We swore we’d travel, Billy, side by side
We’d help each other stay in stride
But each lover’s steps fall so differently
But I’ll wait for you
And if I should fall behind, Billy
Wait for me.
Bob and I kissed the women good night and hugged the men. We went back to the motel, cried ourselves dry and went to sleep.
I woke up feeling better than I can remember. The two days I spent in St. Elmo were the best two days I’ve had in the last eighteen months. I was surrounded by the love of family and by those who loved Billy most. I had people who cried with me instead of helplessly looking at me.
We all met up again, the entire gang, for breakfast at Cracker Barrel. I had chicken and dumplings. We converged back to my motel for some last good byes and a promise to see each other at Thanksgiving. I know where I’m going this year for that holiday and for my eleventh anniversary. Home.