Friday, July 22, 2011

Where Are You Now, Charming Billy?

Where Are You Now, Charming Billy?


The first time I met Billy Seabolt he ran into my church in Tewksbury, North Carolina, a town so small the post office and the dry cleaner shared the same shop. Although a teenager, he seemed just an overgrown boy--all Adam's apple, and arms and legs, stringy blond hair and a shadow of a mustache.

"Father, Father! They're after me," he shouted. There was no need to ask who, because under his half-open jacket was a blinking construction lantern. Police sirens whined and lights flashed. I made him give me the lantern and I walked out to the front of the church as the entire police force of Tewksbury, both cars and all three officers, including Sheriff Hines, pulled up. Not knowing how to shut off the lantern, it kept blinking, making the scene look like a surreal homage to disco.

"Hello, Wendell," I said to Sheriff Hines as he yanked at his pants. He was a big, strangely proportioned man with a massive chest and mid-section and surprisingly short legs. Holding the lantern high in one hand, I joked, "I'm looking for an honest man."

Too annoyed to react to my comment, he asked, "Where's Billy, Father Mike?"

Billy peeked out from behind the church doors with a silly grin on his face.

Sheriff Hines took the lantern, also trying without success to turn it off. Finally, in frustration, he forced open the back and pulled out the batteries like a small child ripping open a Christmas present.

"Boy," he said to Billy. "You in a heap of trouble. Why'd you take this?"

Billy shrugged, looked at the floor, and raised his eyes slowly to meet the sheriff's. "It's dark outside."

I could see Wendell's belly shake as he tried valiantly to furrow his brow and hold back the laughter.

"Son," Wendell finally said, shaking his head. "Why don't you just go on home?"

After that, it seemed Billy always came to me when he got himself into trouble. Once, he ran into the church, looking harried and asked if he could use the rest room. I showed him where it was and he stayed in there when Sheriff Hines entered the sanctuary, removing his hat to display a full head of dark hair streaked with gray.

"Where's Billy at this time, Father?"

I wasn't sure if I should protect Billy when we heard the toilet flush noisily, and Billy came out wearing his customary grin.

Sheriff Hines sighed. "I reckon there's no need to search you now, boy. You have yourself a heart to heart with the good father here. Don't make me run you in."

After the sheriff left, Billy pulled out from his boot a small plastic bag of what I assumed was marijuana.

I looked down at my shoes, trying to come up with something wise to say. I showed Billy the way to the rectory and asked him to sit down. "We need to talk."

"But I ain't Catholic."

"That's all right," I said. "I'm Catholic enough for both of us."

I asked about his family and he said it was just him, his father and his uncle. His mother had died giving birth to him. His Aunt Faye raised him, but when she left Uncle Tyrus a few years back, he and his uncle moved in with his father. The two men drove a truck, hauling furniture all over the country, and were away a good bit of time.

"Do you go to school?"

"Nah. I never was too good at that stuff. I just stopped goin'. When I turned sixteen they stopped comin' round."

He was almost eighteen now, he said. He looked a few years younger. "What do you do?"

"Oh, this and that. Sometimes I ride with my daddy when Uncle Tyrus is too drunk. Sometimes I paint houses with Dade Smith. Mostly, I just mess around, you know?"

"You have a girl friend?"

"Nah, I ain't too good with girls." He flashed his country smile and I saw a ten year-old boy in his face.

I hired Billy to do odd jobs around the church, figuring it was as good a way as any to keep him out of trouble. He was a good worker, but like a child, he constantly sought approval, always asking if I liked the way he painted a wall or greased a door jam.

I tried visiting his father and uncle once. They were sitting on the porch of their run-down house off a dirt road just outside of town. The porch was piled with car parts, girly magazines and surprisingly new furniture. I guessed the furniture had "fallen off the truck," but they were too lazy to sell it. In a corner was a large color TV. The two men were watching the Braves game.

Each had a cooler of beer in front of him. I had to drink one from one cooler and one from the other. Anytime I tried to talk they shushed me and each handed me a beer. After a while, I forgot what I wanted to talk to them about, drank, and watched the game. I slept on their porch that night. The next day, I tried talking to them about Billy.

"Billy's all right," his father said, ending discussion.

A few months after that, Billy told me Sally Lynn Lucas was having his child. When I registered surprise he smiled and said, "I guess she likes me."

I asked him what he planned to do.

"She said she'd marry me if I got her a diamond ring. But I ain't got that kind of money."

I said if she loved him, she'd understand. He looked at me like I was from Mars.

Soon after that, I heard Billy pulled a gun in a jewelry store in a nearby town. The gun went off as he took it out of his pocket and the bullet hit him in the foot, ricocheted off the floor, and grazed the leg of a customer.

I counseled Billy while he was awaiting trial, but my order transferred me to another small church in Maine. I returned for his sentencing hearing, testifying on his behalf. Even Sheriff Hines pleaded for leniency.

When the judge pronounced a fifteen-year sentence, I saw the little boy smile disappear from Billy's face. Once behind bars, Billy never answered my letters or took my phone calls.

I often wondered what happened to Billy Seabolt, but time passed and I got involved in my new life. Trying to keep a Catholic church viable in Libertyville, Maine, is no easy task.

***

Not long ago, I looked up from my desk in back of the church and saw a figure opening and closing the heavy wooden front door. After watching him do that a few times, I called out, "What in blazes are you doing?"

"It's me, Father Mike. Billy Seabolt."

I took off my reading glasses and exchanged them for the far distance pair in my shirt pocket. "Well, I'll be damned." Adding, "Just a figure of speech, you know."

"I forgot how corny you could be, Father."

As we embraced, I noted how time had changed Billy. He was bigger now, fuller, but deep lines extending downward from the corners of his mouth replaced the mischievous smile I remembered. Billy's eyes no longer had the full of life clarity of a boy. They now looked like the eyes of a man who had seen too much.

"How are you?" I asked. "And what were you doing with the door?"

"Just opening and closing it. Since I been out, that's about my most favorite thing to do."

His voice had grown deeper, but he still sounded like the rambunctious teenager who used to run to my church whenever he got into trouble.

"How long have you been out? How'd you find me?" I was genuinely happy to see Billy again.

We sat in a pew and Billy told me he had been released from prison six months earlier. He had returned to Tewksbury, but his father had disappeared after his uncle died in a knife fight with a pimp up in Raleigh. "Nobody knew where my daddy went off to. They told me he just packed his truck and left town. We didn't talk since they locked me up anyways."

"I tried writing and calling you, but you never accepted my calls. Even the letters came back."

"I know. But I kept the return address. That's how I found you way up here in Maine. Man, couldn't you find some place warmer?"

"But why didn't you . . ."

"I couldn't talk, Father Mike. I figured the only way I could survive was by thinking about nothing but getting by."

"It's been how long? Ten years?"

"Twelve. I shoulda been paroled sooner but there was these guys inside who wouldn't let me be. I cut one of them with a toothbrush I sharpened."

I tried not to let my face register shock. As a kid, Billy was always in trouble. But there was something about him. Something innocent and hopeful. Even trying to rob a jewelry store to get a diamond ring for his baby's mother and accidentally shooting himself in the foot had its charm. The fact is I always had a soft spot for Billy. I don't know if it was his naiveté or the fact that he came to me when he needed help. Whenever I thought what it might have been like having a son of my own, I thought of Billy.

"How are Sally Lynn and the child? I heard she had a boy."

"She got herself in a bad way, I hear. Drugs. They took the baby away from her and some folks say she died. Others say she just run off."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Billy. Have you seen your son?"

"Nah. They won't let me. He's been adopted and they say he's with a good family." Billy looked down at his dirty boots. "Probably a good thing. I wouldn't a made much of a daddy. Wouldn't know how."

We spoke a little more after that. We talked about Tewksbury and about Libertyville. I told him how hard it was being a Catholic priest in such small towns. And how lonely it felt sometimes.

I watched Billy's eyes dart around the church. He even blushed. 'I always wondered," he asked, "don't y'all ever miss . . . you know?"

"All the time, Billy. All the time."

"I sure missed it," he said, his familiar grin returning like an old friend. "Never done it with no one but Sally Lynn, but I sure missed it after that." He was still blushing and I could see the awkward adolescent still inside him. "I tried not thinking about it, but I couldn't help myself."

"I know, Billy," I told him. "Sometimes it's better to let yourself think about it and slowly allow your mind to find its way to more spiritual things."

That look I remembered from when he was a kid returned. The one where he wondered what planet I might be from.

He asked if I could help him find work and a place to live. He stayed in my office in the back of the church for a while and then he moved to his own place, a small house in the woods. It was run down, but the owner said he could stay there free if he fixed it up.

Billy worked odd jobs, but when they found out he had been in prison for attempted armed robbery and that he knifed a man in jail, the people around him acted suspicious and afraid. He was soon encouraged to leave, although no one had any problems with his work. He did a good job repairing the house in the woods, but the nights started getting cold up there and Billy was still a Southern boy at heart.

I went to visit him one evening. He was drinking beer from a cooler he had next to his chair. "Too damn cold to do nothin but drink," he said, slurring his words. His eyes were red and his face looked tired and worn.

I offered him a job at the church and a room. "At least until the weather warms up."

"Nah. Thanks anyway, but I can't go backwards. I gotta move forward."

We watched the Red Sox on television. They were ahead 2-0 early in the game, but after a couple of errors they blew the lead and lost 4-2.

Less than a month after that, Herb Gossage, the owner of the cabin, called to ask if I knew what had happened to Billy. When I told him I hadn't spoken to him in a week, he said he heard Billy just packed up his truck and drove off.

"I went back to the house to see what he stole," Herb said. "But he left the house in fine shape. Did good work, too, fixing the roof and painting the place. Even washed and folded the sheets and towels I left him. I'd like to pay him if you ever hear from him."

I assured him I'd pass the word on to Billy if I ever saw him again.

***

I've been thinking a lot about Billy lately, wondering what will happen to him. I tried making some phone calls to people I knew in Tewksbury, but they hadn't heard from him or his father.

"Good riddance to them," one former parishioner said, summing up most of the town's feelings about Billy and the Seabolt clan.

Wendell Hines, now retired, was one of the few people in town who remembered Billy fondly. "I like to have helped that boy," he told me. "But I guess you can't save 'em all, huh Father?"

Sadly, I had to agree with him. "No, Wendell. You can't save them all."

After I hung up the phone, I locked the church and shuffled to my room in the rectory. I poured myself a scotch and sat in silence, something I had been doing a lot lately. I knew I couldn't save them all, but if I couldn't save a boy I'd known since he was a teenager, who could I save? What good was I to anyone? I thought about the choices I had made in life, the loneliness I accepted as my lot. I wondered what kind of father I would have made.

I downed the scotch that remained in the glass, stood up and washed the glass in the little sink in my room. I lied down on my bed and prayed for Billy.

-end-

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Bio:

Wayne Scheer has locked himself in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne's, not the turtle's.)

To keep from going back to work, he's published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories, available at http://www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews.htm. A film adaptation of his short story, "Zen and the Art of House Painting," can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/18491827. He's been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net.
 

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