What About What Billy Wants?Dave Roth
Contrary to Belle’s fears, taking her dad back to visit his farm isn’t about killing him, it’s about bringing him back to life. If you take Billy at his word—and a word is about all he’s got left—he’s happy. He’s used to his routine at his assisted living facility. Wake up, breakfast, walk, sleep, lunch, sleep, dinner, sleep, repeat. I’m the one gnawing my knuckles watching him slip away. It’s a joke they call this assisted living. It’s more like a carnival freak show: pickled specimens in fright wigs and spotted skin slumped in wheelchairs or shuffling their walkers across the lobby.
“How are you this morning, Eleanor?” Angela chirps from the front desk. And Eleanor or Gladys or Joe or Billy or whoever happens to be scuffling by grunts some gibberish as if Angela’s greeting is a distraction from some urgent mission. When I lean over the registry to sign Billy out, Angela whispers, “Don’t know why people want to live so long, die so slow. Three score and ten, the Lord said.”
“If they knew it would be like this, maybe they wouldn’t,” I say.
“True,” she concedes. Then, as if realizing she has slipped out of her head cheerleader role, perks up and adds, “You and Billy have a blessed day.”
I don’t tell her that if I had my way I’d free them all from their zombie lives. I’d love to be Chief Broom to Billy’s McMurphy. But I don’t have the pillow option so I’m thinking outside the box of the living dead. This is my Plan B to Billy’s glacial meltdown: a trip to the country to breathe some life into him.
The drive is nearly five hours. Belle sits in front and Billy has the back seat to himself. We try talking to him, but conversation isn’t his strong suit. He spends most of the ride lying on his side, hands under his head as a pillow. It’s nap time. I ask Belle, “Do you remember Hank Bremmer’s description of your dad’s stroke?”
“That was a long time ago,” she says without turning to face me.
“I know, but it really got me. They were talking and suddenly it was like the words fell apart in Billy’s mouth. He’s standing there trying to reassemble a bunch of jumbled syllables and then he drops like he’s been shot.”
“Why bring this up?”
“Because right after that was the last time we were up here. I felt bad for Hank. He said Billy was lying there with a what’d-you-do-that-for look on his face.”
“What are we doing?” Belle asks, her eyes still forward.
“What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said. Tell me again what we’re doing.”
“We talked about it.”
“He’s been asleep in the back seat for over three hours. Remind me why dragging him off to the farm is a good idea.”
“Bringing Billy home is the least we can do for him.”
“No. Letting him die quietly in the assisted living facility is the least we can do for him.” She finally turns toward me. “This is something else. What is it?”
“Ah, come on. This trip is the first right thing we’ve done for Billy in five years.”
“Five years ago maybe he could have appreciated it. Now he won’t even know where he is.”
“I don’t believe that. It’ll do him good. You’ll see.”
Belle sighs, leans against the car window and closes her eyes.
“We’re giving Billy a chance, babe. A chance to get back a little bit of what he’s lost.”
She joins Billy in stone silence. I envy Belle the distance she’s put between herself and her dad’s dying. That’s not really a fair thing to say. Makes her sound mean. She’s just protecting herself. I know it’s breaking her up. Belle loves Billy despite all the tears and teeth-gnashing over her mom. It was Ruth who wanted the cancer kept quiet. All Billy did was respect her wishes. Like he had a choice. Like Ruth left any wiggle room between what she wanted and what she expected him to do. If somebody was to ask my opinion—and in over twenty years no one ever has—I’d say Belle is madder at Ruth than Billy. It’s not so much that Billy didn’t do more, it’s that Ruth didn’t let Belle do more. But piss runs downhill and when it comes to Belle’s feelings about losing her mom, Billy always seems to be at the bottom of that hill.
I know Belle’s not asleep so I say it again, “You’ll see.”
Without opening her eyes, she says, “It’s not a leaky roof. You can’t patch this up.”
I decide it’s best to leave it at that for now.
I stand on Billy’s back porch and take in his hundred acres of crop fields and pasture. The 150-year-old farmhouse sits on three suburbanized acres that run north to south from the dirt road out front to the fields beyond the backyard, and east to west from the evergreen windbreak to the patch of wild flowers—and Ruth’s ashes. Billy and Ruth never so much as planted a vegetable garden on this farm. Billy made handshake agreements with his neighbors and they worked the fields and grazed the pasture. For Billy, retirement was about fundraising for the new YMCA, playing the farm country golf circuit, and Rotary Club and church activities. The only farm-like task that ever interested Billy was mowing the oversized lawn that surrounds the house like a green moat. I smile picturing him in his industrial grade earmuffs rumbling around the yard on his tractor mower. It was absolute solitude with a pure purpose. A man lost in a world all his own. A country monk on his John Deere.
Billy spends his first day back proving Belle right. We sit him up in his recliner on the sunporch with a view of the property and the birdfeeder. It’s a clear day, there’s a thin blanket of snow on the ground. The snow stripes the gray tree branches and the feeder is a frenzy. But Billy spends most of his time with his chin on his chest, asleep. I decide to take him on an afternoon trip to the woods at the top of pasture. I tell Belle I want to sit for a while in the hunting blind with my bow—maybe a deer will wander by and wouldn’t it be nice to take some venison home with us? I say I’m taking Billy to give him a taste of what he’s been missing, everything we took him away from.
“If this doesn’t pry his world back open,” I say, “nothing will.”
“You’re serious,” she says.
“It’s nearly freezing out and you’re going to take daddy up to the woods?”
“Why not? I’ll bundle him up. We won’t be long.”
She shakes her head and gives me her look; the one that says here’s my chance to recognize how idiotic my idea is. When I don’t concede, she says, “Promise me this is the end of it. That we’ll go back tomorrow.”
“Deal,” I say. Actually, I’d like to give Billy more time, but I know better than to press my luck. If this goes well, maybe she’ll change her mind.
I ease the tractor up the logging road like I’m pulling precious cargo. I’ve got Billy propped against a U of hay bales in the flatbed utility cart swaying behind me. The pace wants patience, which I normally reserve for my time in the blind waiting on turkey and deer. But this isn’t about hunting. It’s not bow season, something I counted on Belle not knowing.
We pull up to the forest edge and I swing the tractor a hundred and eighty degrees so Billy’s facing the trees. I cut the engine and the sudden quiet surprises me. I close my eyes and let the winter’s calm settle me before I walk back to attend to Billy. I’m preparing myself for a tedious trek, Billy’s version of walking having been reduced to that of a toddler. If the old man has taken any pleasure in surveying the familiar Pennsylvania farm country from his straw throne, he doesn’t show it. His gaze is still pointless, his jaw still sagging under the weight of years and dragging his mouth into a weary droop. I part the hay bales and he wriggles his butt to the edge of the cart. “How’s this for executive parking, old man. I’ve got you a front row seat a couple of hundred feet in. Think you can make it?”
He works out his answer. He raises his chin; the sign that he’s found the word. “Yes.” I’ve heard robocalls that sound more human.
“Good answer. You’ve got about six inches to the ground. You ready?”
I grab a handful of coat under each arm and pull Billy down. His legs stiffen and take his weight. “Good to go?”
I load my left side with gear and take Billy’s upper arm in my right hand. I’m confident he can make it to the treestand. Three inches of snow drape the woods in seasonal stillness. It’s heavy but not slick, leveling the ground enough to make Billy’s shuffle a little easier. Only his labored breathing, like the gasp and puff of hand bellows, breaks the white silence.
“Here we are, Billy. The top of Royal Slough Farm. You picked one hell of spot to retire. A considerably better than average slice of Willie Penn’s sylvania.”
He doesn’t seem to register what I’m saying. He just gasps and puffs.
“You know it’s almost thirty years since Belle first brought me up here to meet you and Ruth? You remember that?”
I give him a chance to answer. It’s takes a while to fire up those slumbering brain cells.
He stops, raises his chin. “No.”
“No? Well I’m not very memorable I suppose. I don’t blame you. Hank Bremmer still pastures his cows on that hill we rode up. He and his boys still rotate corn and alfalfa in the field below the house. And once in a while the Amish still thin out the dead wood up here. You remember the Bremmers, right?”
He stops. “Right.” I’m not sure if he remembers or if he’s mimicking me.
The pale sun is well above the humps of the hills that mark the horizon like a line drawn by a drunk. The sky’s still a powdery blue. We have time. He’s moving along pretty good again, developing a pattern now: about every twenty steps he stops and looks around like he’s sniffing the air to orient himself. Each time, I offer some variation of You’re doing great. Keep it up… then squeeze his arm and he reanimates. He’s so cooperative. No complaints. Here I am walking this helpless codger through legit cold to a place that before long will slip into darkness disrupted only by a sliver of waning moon and he responds by shuffling along beside me like a played out circus bear.
“Hey Billy, remember that time we were having a couple of beers over at Pete’s Tavern and I asked you about Belle when she was a kid?”
He stops to answer. “No.”
“You’re doing great. Keep moving. Try to walk and talk. There you go. Anyway, you told me a great story that night. The bear story. Remember that?”
He stops again. He’s digging into this one. I may be on to something here. His chin lifts and he says, “Yes.”
“No kidding? That’s great. Remember we were talking about how Belle reminded you of Ruth and you said it was this look they both have. You said Ruth never needed to argue you into changing your mind. All she’d do was give you that look and you’d know whatever you said was exactly wrong. Then you’d correct yourself, she’d agree and you’d move on like that was your idea all along. Remember that?”
He huffs what seems like it could almost be a laugh and says, “Yes.”
“You do? No shit. Remember what you called that look? You can stop if you need to.”
He stops and stutters, “M-m-m-ama b-b-b-b…”
“Mama bear stare. That’s right. Damn, I knew it. There’s still a bulb working up in that old attic. So I asked you why you called it her mama bear stare. Remember what you told me?”
“You laughing or crying, Billy? Looks like both.” A tear rolls down his cheek and the corners of his mouth keep their droop, but the sparkle in his eyes looks like the stuff of happy thoughts. “I love that story. Loved the way you told it. Let me see if I’ve got it right. You take a bag of burnables out to the fire pit and you’re about to strike a match when four-hundred pounds of she-bear busts through the windbreak. You freeze, ready to crap your pants, and she gives you a look that says if you two tangle you’ve got no chance. Then, calm as can be, she continues her she-bear sashay across the yard and disappears into the hollow. And that was the mama bear stare, right?”
Billy lifts his chin and announces, “Right.”
“Love that story. Hold up a second and let me dry your face. It’s getting too cold out here for tears.”
I wonder how much he really remembers about me coming up to hunt deer and turkey in his woods and paying him for the privilege by helping with odd jobs around the farmhouse. We talked a lot over beers at Pete’s. At least I did. Billy has always been a man of few words, even fewer after Ruth died. But most were words worth listening to, some even worth remembering. I’m thinking about one time we visited after Ruth had been gone a few years.
“Remember what you told me about bears and the Indians?”
That one stumps him. “No,” he says, without lifting his chin.
“You said if you skin a bear what’s left looks almost human. You said the Indians considered them brothers. Remember telling me that?”
“You did and I looked it up and it’s sort of true. Short and stocky with long arms, but yeah, almost human.”
I also remember how, after telling me that, he’d stopped and gazed into the deflating head of his beer. How he’d seemed as far away as I’d ever seen him. I let him sit there, wherever he was. Then, after maybe ten seconds that felt longer, he looked up and winked. I didn’t ask what was floating around in that beer foam and the topic never came up again.
“Remember what you told me you liked about the farm after Ruth died?”
No hesitation this time. “Qu-qu-quiet.”
“Damn. That’s right. I can’t believe you remember that. It’s quiet.” He spent twenty years up here with that quiet. Pre-stroke solo Billy was self-contained and content, two qualities I find particularly admirable.
We finally reach the treestand with a couple hours of daylight left. We don’t need more than that. I just want Billy to have a taste of that quiet again, to feel the hug of the world one last time. I set him up with a folding chair at the backside of the tree facing the sun. I put a thermos cap of hot cider in the chair’s cup holder. I open the bag of Belle’s still-warm oatmeal raisin cookies and put it in his lap. Belle made it clear she’d baked them for him, not me. I get mine when I bring him back safe and sound.
Billy’s view takes in the valley behind the farmhouse and the high opposite ridge with its lineup of ghost-white windmills. I watch as he scans the landscape, impassive as a searchlight. Mechanical sounds drift up from a fracking platform down in the valley, the most obvious being the trucks’ shrill backup beeps. They sound like small birds arguing. When Billy was last here, the fracking towers weren’t. Scrawny steeples lit up like Christmas trees with trucks coming and going — I’m pretty sure that before his stroke the sight would have stirred something in Billy, at least some conflict between what some up here see as great loss and others as unimagined good fortune. I’m guessing pre-stroke Billy would be pissed off at the gasmen. But what’s gone is gone and Billy’s one of the gone things. All the towers and concrete pads and pumps mean now is a monthly royalty check that pays for his space back at the human terrarium. Lousy trade if you ask me.
“Nice view, huh?” I say. He doesn’t respond so I ask, “What’re you thinking about?”
Wait for it. He’s working on it. “Nothing”
Nothing. I can’t decide if it’s the worst-case scenario or the best.
“Nothing, huh? That’s hard to do, you know. Makes you a Zen master or something, right?”
Those guys with shaved heads and red robes sit around for years hoping to find Billy’s mindless bliss. Here’s an idea. Looking for enlightenment? Have a fucking stroke.
“Right.” Billy smiles.
“You smiling? That’s a good sign. In my experience, you can’t smile at nothing, Billy. You must be smiling about something.”
“Right.” He lifts a cookie to his open mouth.
“Billy, you mind if I share something I’ve been thinking?”
Through his mouthful of cookie, he mumbles, “No.”
“No you don’t mind or no you don’t want to hear it? Whatever. I’m going to tell you either way. What I’m thinking is I owe you an apology, Billy. What I’m thinking is I’m sorry.” He shoves the rest of the cookie in. I brush crumbs from his stubble. His jaw rolls the cookie like a cow working cud.
“Back when you had your stroke Belle and I came to stay with you for a while. Remember?” His mouth is too full to answer. “What I remember is you told us you were fine. You weren’t walking great and you had this aphasia thing with your speech, so we were worried. We figured you needed help. But Belle wanted to give you the choice to stay up here. Hire somebody to help you out. I told her I thought that was a bad idea. I knew if anything went wrong we’d get the call and that would mean driving up here to deal with it. If you fell or had another stroke, whatever. And it’s a long drive and Belle would have to take time off work… Anyway, I told Belle she should talk you into moving into a place down by us. Someplace that could care for you and we could keep an eye on you. It was my idea, Billy. But I knew if she said it you’d agree, Belle having Ruth’s eyes and all. You know, the look.”
I have no idea how much of this is sinking in. The cookies are getting more attention than me.
“Here, have some cider to wash those down.” He takes the cup in both hands and does as directed. I slip it out of his laced fingers and return it to the cup holder. His eyes follow the cup and linger there. I kneel right in front of him.
“Billy, I want you to know it was me who said you shouldn’t have a choice. Belle said, What about what Billy wants? I want you to know that. And I want you to know I know I was wrong. You should’ve had a choice. That’s all. I’m sorry.”
He looks like he’s trying to decide if he wants another cookie or more cider.
“That’s all I wanted to say. That I’m sorry. Okay?”
He looks right at me and that dimwitted grin comes back. “Okay,” he says.
“Okay.” I straighten his Eagles football cap and flash him a thumbs-up. He returns a half-assed thumbs-up. “I’m going up in the stand to have a look around. You enjoy your view, the cookies and cider, and thinking about nothing. Okay?” He smiles his mute smile. There’s something in there. Something either he can’t figure out how to tell me or I’m not hearing.
I climb into the blind, wondering if he gets it. And, if he does, does he forgive me? What a fucking stupid question. He can’t forgive me and shouldn’t. When Belle and I brought him back here from the hospital, there was no reason to believe he wasn’t fine. Slower, maybe not as stable as before, but what had he really lost? Words. And with Ruth gone who was there to talk to anyway? We sat with Billy on the sunporch. Belle made my case for moving. He tried to say how he felt about leaving the farm, but the words got stuck and he dropped his eyes and shook his head. Then he looked into Belle’s eyes and agreed to move. I’d sealed Billy’s fate, shrunk his world from a hundred acres to a hundred square feet.
Two days. That’s all it took to pack Billy’s clothes and keepsakes, to secure the house and make arrangements with the Bremmers to keep an eye on the property. We folded up his life like a pup tent. Now I’m pounding my forehead with my palm like maybe I can knock the memory loose. Like maybe I can unremember, undo the last five years.
“Hey Zen master, you still there?”
I can’t see him but I can feel him working it out. “Yes.”
“You happy, Billy? Belle says you told her you’re happy. Is that true?”
Longer pause than usual. “Yes.”
“I don’t mean right now. I mean back at your new place. Are you happy there?”
“Yes.” No hesitation that time.
“Really? I’m struggling with that, you know. I mean you pretty much have four walls, three meals and a bed, Billy. Not a lot going on there. Doesn’t seem like a recipe for happy.”
Long pause. Then he says, “I’m h-h-happy.”
His voice is louder and more insistent, like he’s pissed that I’d challenge his answer. Happy. What I want to tell him is, Your underwear is a diaper and you can’t even wipe your own ass. You’ve got a whole lot of nothing to think about. Talking to you is worse than talking to a Magic 8-Ball. So how do you come up with happy out of that, old man? But what I tell him instead is, “Okay, got it. I’m just saying if I was in your shoes, I’d have a problem with a slow fade out in a place like that. But I get it. And I’m glad you’re happy. I am. And I like that it’s your choice, you know. You hear me?”
“Yes.” That one came quick.
“I want you to know that if you want to come back here, we can work that out. We wouldn’t see you very often, but if you’re going to fade out why not do it here surrounded by all this, right? What do you think?”
Another long pause, then, “Happy.”
“Happy. Okay, Zen master, it’s your call.”
Five years and a few billion lost brain cells change everything. Belle’s right. His roof’s been leaking so long his mind is molding. Billy and I sit in silence separated by the tree. I close my eyes and try to think nothing. Try to put myself in the old man’s head. No thing. No think. Shhh. But I can’t even free my mind of the thought of Billy.
I open my eyes and realize the dusk is settling in, blurring details, collapsing the woods. We’ve lingered too long. Some of the return trek will be in the dark. Just when I’m ready to climb out of the blind, there’s a rustle in the thicket behind me. Something big. I can’t see around the tree to check on Billy or see what’s in the thicket, but the sound is still there—like a slow, burrowing animal. “Billy, there’s something in the brush to your left. Stay still, okay?” No response.
I drop out of the blind and skip rungs going down the ladder. When I get to the base of the tree, his chair is empty. The thermos cup and cookie bag are on the ground.
“Billy, where’d you go? Talk to me, Zen master!” I give him the required response time but get back only the rustling of bramble and leaves. I snap on my headlamp and light up a path in the snow from the chair to the brush. No blood. No struggle. No animal tracks. Only handprints. Human hands and knees.
“What the fuck, Billy. It’s a little late for hide and seek. You don’t want to worry Belle. Come on out of there.”
He doesn’t respond and the thicket swallows my lamp light. I need the tractor headlights. I shuffle across the snow scanning the ground for hazards. By the time I reach the tractor, the sun is a slim crescent behind the hills. I swing the tractor in a hard arc, almost losing the hay bales in the process. They rock back into place and settle as I straighten and steer into the wood. I pick my way between trees. Half-way there the cart’s right wheel catches a sapling and the tractor almost bucks me out my seat. I reverse and the cart jackknifes. I jump down and pull the cotter pin holding the cart to the tractor. This is taking too long.
When I finally get back to Billy’s chair and light up the thicket, there’s still no sight of him. “Billy, where’d you go?” The sound of the tractor buries any response. I try to settle but can’t seem to get enough air and my heart’s trying to beat a hole in my chest. I’m still blind to what’s happening in the brush. I have to light it from the other side. I track the edge of the thicket to a spot I can drive through. With the snow and dark I can’t tell what I’m driving over. I take a chance on a hard-left into some low bramble and bust through. Circling back up the other side the tractor lights pick up a trail that disappears into a hole dug under a fallen tree. “You in there, Billy?” I can’t get the tractor any closer. I leave the engine running, the lights aimed at the hole. I drop to my knees to get under the brush and crawl Billy’s trail. Branches claw at my back. The warm must of decay rises from rotting leaves. The snow shivers a dull ache into my fingers and knees. “How’d you do this, Billy?” I make it to the hole and my headlamp lights it up. He’s curled up on his side, twigs and thorns stuck to his jacket, his hands a pillow just like in the back seat of the car. “Geezus Billy, what are you doing? You can’t nap here. We don’t know whose house you’re squatting in. Crawl on out of there. We need to get going.” Nothing. “Ahh Billy, you’re not dying on me, are you? Don’t do it, old man. I’d never live that down. Belle will kill me, and you know I’m not exaggerating.” I think I hear a grunt. “What was that, Billy? Louder. I can’t hear you.” Nothing. I scramble back to the tractor and cut the engine leaving the lights on. I crawl back to the hole, close my eyes and try to block out the sound of my heart. “Talk to me, Billy. Billy?” The night is suddenly a racket. Where there was silence now there’s flapping wings, cars whooshing, snow dropping, trucks beeping, branches snapping, an owl hooting, the pings of the tractor’s cooling engine.
I’m going to need help pulling him out and loading him back onto the hay bales. The Bremmers. I’ll cut through the pasture. I can have them back here in twenty minutes. It’s cold but not so cold. If I hurry I’m sure Billy will thaw out just fine. But I don’t hurry. I wait, warming my hands with wet breath while considering the fetal image before me. I lean my head against the opening. “It’s your call, Billy. What do you want?” Nothing. I can’t hear the bellows of his breath, but I see the slight rise and fall of his chest. The path back to the tractor is easier this time, broken in. I shut off the lights, slump onto the steering wheel and wait for my answer.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.