"The Content of Bill"
by Michael Thomas Heller
I am assuming, due to the state of my being here, that at some point during the course of my life a woman gave birth to me. I cannot rightly say who this woman was or give a full description of her. I can safely assume that she had the normal run of feminine characteristics, such as breasts, a vagina and so forth. When I was young, I was told by Bill, the man who raised me, that my mother was a very impressive woman. Apparently, she held a high rank in a national group whose function it was to build dams for invalid beavers. I tried not to take much of what Bill told me to heart.
In my younger life I bounced freely from dream to dream like a pinball filled with marshmallow cereal. One day I would want to be a fireman. I would ride my bicycle through the neighborhood putting cats in trees, calling their owners and then saving the cats amid heaps of praise. The next day I would want to be an astronaut, so I would build my own rocket ship. It was simple enough, just take a few garbage cans, turn them upside down with some firecrackers underneath and strap a chair on top. Blast off was always the best part, because I rarely had enough fuel to get anywhere fun. And then, on a rare occasion I would dream that I was an interior decorator. I filled my backpack with swatches and paint chips and fabrics, and I would go door to door telling people that their houses were ugly.
The details of the rest of my formative years can be summed up in a few choice phrases. Dirty boxing gloves. Sandwich luncheon holdouts. Nervous dental history. I suppose that I could embellish on these points, but much of my life is inconsequential to this story, so I will merely detail the first phrase and hope that the rest become understood as this tale progresses.
When I was fourteen, Bill decided that I needed to become more of a man, and thus made it his mission to teach me how to box. I have never been, nor will I ever be an impressive physical being, especially compared to Bill who still has not lost the muscle added in Marine training. Nevertheless, we would spar every day after school. I never developed great strength to my punches, but I was quick and had a good technical mind, so by the time I was sixteen I was a fair match for Bill. One thing that always amazed me was how well he could move. We only had one real fight, which I had insisted on, soon after my sixteenth birthday. Bill didn’t like the idea, but he thought it would be good for me. The fight lasted one minute and nine seconds. My nose still whistles sometimes.
In growing up Bill often had stories for me and as I mentioned earlier, I tried not to put much faith into what Bill said. With this in mind, I tried to sift through his stories and find the truth within them, especially when he began talking about college. This is what I could piece together based on the stories Bill told me.
No one in Bill’s family expected him to go to college on account of the crippling case of arthritis that he contracted while at a summer camp for the gifted on the northern shore of The Great Salt Lake. He was forced to stay in bed for three and a half years, drinking nothing but soy milk and eating only granola bars until his joints healed themselves. Seventeen times daily Bill’s sister would rub an ointment made primarily from cactus ova into his arms and legs. Eventually, the arthritis pain dissipated and he began rehabilitating his muscles which had withered away during his time in bed. By the time he had recovered fully he was twenty years old and didn’t have the nerve to go back to his second year of high school. He decided to join the Marines, get his high school diploma while in the service and take his chances with college once his term of duty was up. During an undocumented accident during training, Bill lost his left foot just above the ankle to friendly fire. He was forced to leave the Marines, move home and get a job in the local high school cafeteria ladling out sloppy joes. He never made it to college. In fact, he never got his high school diploma, though he has worked at the high school for nearly thirty years.
I know that based on my previous statements it may seem that Bill hasn’t had what one would call a "charmed life." I would be hesitant to even call it a happy life, but Bill has always made the best of his place in the world. He loves his job. He loves the kids that he helps to feed day in and day out. And he keeps a small, but enchanting collection of wooden figurines, many of which he carved himself. I have known Bill for much of my time on this earth and I would be given pause if asked to name a more content person than Bill.
That should be more than an adequate amount of background information, so let us proceed to the true matter at hand. Today is the 13th of May, or possibly March. I have trouble with words beginning in the letter "M." They often get mixed up, but I don’t think it makes too much difference in this case. Suffice to say that it is sunny outside, the global thermostat is set to somewhere between cold and warm, and there is a gentle breeze that smells faintly of thawed rotten leaves. Today, Bill is going to die.
I am sitting at the kitchen counter, eating a bagel and reading the morning’s news, and I hear Bill coming down the stairs. He is whistling an old tune, something made famous by Dean Martin, but I can’t recall the name. Bill hasn’t put on slippers or shoes, so his prosthetic left foot is clacking on each step. As he comes to the hallway, his foot clacks as he places it down, then makes a fwip noise with each step as it slips a bit on the linoleum.
"Hey, boy," Bill says to me as he reaches the kitchen. "How’s the world?"
I shuffle the newspaper and reply, "Doing well enough to warrant a newspaper."
"Always good to hear it," Bill muses as he saunters to the coffee machine. He lets out a slow groan and stretches his back before reaching for his mug. "Gonna be a bitch of a day, I tell you what."
"Why’s that, Bill?"
"It’s grilled ham and cheese day at school. That means two hours of making sandwiches and another two hours grilling them and probably burning my damn self in the process."
"Is that why you’re ready so early?" I note that Bill had already shaved, showered and dressed for the day. I note this merely because Bill had commonly come down to breakfast wearing only his Y-front briefs and occasionally a neon pink headband.
"Yah. That and the principal wants to meet with me before I start today. You ain’t gonna be needing the truck today, right?" Bill is, of course, referring to my semi-daily trips downtown for various supplies.
"No, I’m working strictly from home today. After my bagel, I’m locking myself in my room and not moving until you get home."
"Sounds like a solid plan there, boy. Don’t forget about lunch though. I know how you can get lost in your stories. There’s some leftover Shepard’s pie in the fridge for you."
"I’ll set my alarm for it. Thanks Bill."
"Don’t worry none. I’ll see you this afternoon," Bill says as he moves towards the door. "Hey, you think you’ll ever put me in one of them stories?"
I smile, "I can’t say for certain. I guess I just don’t think my stories are worthy of a character like you. At least not compared to the stories you’ve told me over the years."
Bill’s laugh sounds more like a cough, "Not too many stories out there that ain’t worthy of a fifty year old crip who wears a hair net day in and day out." And with that, he leaves.
I’m not sure why I lied to Bill. I wrote a story featuring him, or a character based on him to an extent. A story separate from this one that is. The story is about an elderly one-armed janitor who has had disappointments his entire life and has one last chance at love and happiness with the captain of the high school’s football team. I have tentatively titled it, "Hail Mary." In the end, the football captain, under influence from NFL scouts and his local priest attempts to break off relations with the janitor, but "accidentally" pushes him in front of an oncoming fruit truck.
I’ve heard that controversy sells.
I clean up the dishes from breakfast, fold the newspaper, place it under my arm, and head towards my room to get some work done. I put the newspaper down next to my typewriter and begin to wander back and forth from my desk to the window, letting my story build itself back up in my head. I’m not exactly sure why I still use a typewriter rather than a computer. I own a laptop, but it just feels more satisfying to hear the clack of the typewriter keys and the congratulatory ding at the end of each line. After about fifteen laps from desk to window, I sit. I stretch my arms out and crack each knuckle one by one. Now, I am ready to write.
The story is flowing through me swiftly and without pause. My eyes are not properly focused on anything; my fingers are dancing along the keys as if propelled by the story itself. Suddenly my eyes lock onto the page I’ve been writing. The last three lines are blank. The ribbon is dry. Shit. I check the drawer and find, to my dismay, that I have no extra ribbons. Bill took the truck. I ponder my options for a moment. It is a nice day, so I decide to walk to town. It is only approximately thirty minutes by foot and I could do well to have my story percolating for a bit longer.
Downtown is as it has been for as long as I can remember. Red stone sidewalks, rusted pickup trucks, a park, a drug store, a liquor store, a hardware store, an ice cream parlor, and an antique shop, where I have just exited with my new typewriter ribbon. There are a few people wandering from store to store without any real business. They simply like to visit with the store owners each day. I don’t have any more business, so I turn towards home.
When I reach the intersection in town I see Bill stumbling through the park. I call to him, but he doesn’t acknowledge me. I jog over to him and grab his arm.
"Bill, what are you doing here?"
He is startled, but sluggish to respond. I could smell liquor on his breath, "Wuzzat? Hey, boy! I thought you’s workin’ today."
"Why aren’t you in school, Bill? What’s wrong?"
Bill looks at me for a few moments, a tear building in his left eye, "That place ain’t been the same since you graduated. Those people don’t like me. Never have."
I put my arm around his slumping shoulder as he thinks of his next words, "Thirty damn years burning my hands and getting onion in my eyes and they don’t give me no warning." He begins to weep. "Principal Sanders didn’t even tell me why. She just said that I was a ‘lawsuit waiting to happen.’ I ain’t done nothing…"
"Oh, Bill. Don’t worry about it. I still have money from that last article I did. I can take care of the bills for a while."
Bill’s eyes ignite and he pushes me away. "You don’t get it, boy. I spent thirty years doing nothing, but lovin’ them kids… And now those fuckers…" His arm lifts up with an audible creak and, quick as ever, Bill’s fist crashes down on my jaw. I fall to the pavement, cutting my palms. Everything goes blurry for a moment. When my eyes regain focus, I see Bill taking two jerky steps towards the intersection and stopping as a woman and her dog pass by him. I spring to my feet.
"Bill wait," My hands move toward him. Bill falls forward, his left foot gets caught on the curb. Tires screech and the woman screams. Bill’s prosthetic foot breaks off as he dives forward and pushes the woman through the intersection. The truck can’t stop in time.
I walk around the truck and kneel next to Bill, who is lying just under the front door of the cab. He looks up at me, his eyes glazed over. There is a spot of red on his white shirt. A drop of my blood on his shoulder, where I last touched him. His mouth moves slowly.
"Don’t try to talk, Bill," I say.
He closes his eyes for a moment and when he opens them, they the clearest blue I have ever seen. His mouth moves again, this time he makes out a gritty whisper, "Is she okay?"
"Yes, Bill, the woman is fine… the dog too."
Bill smiles, "The best thing I’ve ever done in my life…"
And with that he dies.