I had no idea that different areas of the USA had different flavors to the extent they do. Even within a state there is such variation in geographical identity as to render these sub communities almost different countries. Driving up the 101 towards Aberdeen, Washington, there are many little coastal communities. The sky is greyer, the weather cooler and rainier, the houses are all that deep periwinkle powder blue, with little white doors. All of them seem to exist solely next to white churches, all of them seem to have a cow or a horse in their three acres, and smiling sweet children playing outside on swing sets and climbing frames. It is a trick of the light, or else the beauty of the area, that my memory is fixated on large white wooden stars tacked onto freshly painted blue clapboard houses. I drove past, desperately wanting to move into one of them. I have one in particular in mind, it was opposite a lovely campground that we stayed in now and again. Pretty small, modest blue house, opposite a hobby farm with a few cows. The light suited it, the house could not exist anyway except Washington State on the coast. I imagined crabbing pots outside, a small boat to take out fishing, a couple of blue heelers at my ankles helping me with the chores. I put myself there in my mind, and thought how perfect life could be, if only! If only!
We would pass that house by, drive up into the campground, pull into one of the spaces as far away from anyone else as possible. Billy got the Old Man’s rates, so it was reasonable. The showers didn’t work, but there was electric and water, a lake and beautiful walks. We would drive by it, pull up the small gravel road that was lined with trees that led to the campground, open the gate, drive past the pavilion used for gatherings and picnics and into a space. At this end of things, from out here in San Francisco, years after the fact, I struggle to summon up the love that was there. I can’t paint it accurately, I cant tell you how much I cared for him. He saved me from being killed. He saved the children. He saved us, and flawed as though he may be, absolute drunken drugged out asshole that he is, I loved him for it. I used to look over to him in the driving seat, take his hand, look at my kids, safe, and as long as he wasn’t in one of his early drinking phases, I would feel a rush of appreciation and kindness and, yes, love. I felt about Billy how you should feel about a father or a brother. I got him. I understood him. I wanted to protect him – I became fiercely protective of his inability to deal with normal life and people. He had a finite ability to deal with others, that was almost amusing, like watching Captain Jack Sparrow negotiate a straight path through a storyline. Billy was a pirate. Billy was a buccaneer. Billy could occasionally tip over into embarrassing. When asked for his occupation, instead of giving a polite “retired”, he would hit ’em with “Rock Star”, making me groan inwardly whilst elbowing him in the ribs, which sometimes prompted “musician”. He never quite gave up on the idea that he was actually undiscovered musical genius. Don’t get me wrong, he used to be able to really play the guitar very well, he could write a party song, and was capable of touching folk covers, but he was no Jim Morrison, no Townes Van Zandt. He never threw himself into actually making music, to being in a band. Instead he partied hard, he drank like he was already rich and famous, and never really did anything with his life.
Billy was your archetypal loser. He returned from overseas spectacularly fucked up, they took a clean cut kid who was meant to be in college for football, and spat out the bones of a man. He was not good at taking orders, he was not good at accepting shit from college boys who stayed in school. He was good at drinking, wandering round with his wineskin full of an unholy mixture of 151 and everclear, smoking more weed than any man should, eating cross tops like they were candy. He was loud when drunk, and silent when sober. He didn’t leave me behind. Something I didn’t understand happened in his head when my old friend realized I was stuck in Asia. As far as he was concerned I was a prisoner of war, a soldier, he had to get me out of there. It might be the singular most successful thing he did in his life, but the follow through was shit. He promised not to drink, and drank. He promised not to do anything else…and smoked so much research chem smoked weed he scared me. Fact was he wasn’t capable of being there for me, but I was loyal as the day was long, to the man who broke me and the kids out of there.
We spent most nights boondocking everywhere from parking lots to national parkland, to places you could pull over and not be bothered, spending the night in a watchful half sleep, waiting for someone to beat on the side of the camper and tell us to move on. The best of those nights was spent next to a semi hauling cows, who screamed through the night in a cow-opera, making the most terrifying sound I have ever heard. It triggered Billy’s PTSD, and he started looking for small men under beds, tunnel entrances behind chairs, and pacing up and down. I had to tell him to stand down, and calm the fuck down. It didn’t work, in the end, he crawled into a small ball of fear, and huddled under the table. I bought him a blanket and told him to hunker down, it would be over by morning. When he woke up he was embarrassed, shamed, humiliated. I reminded him it was me, and we went on down the road.
Those nights in that campground were precious. We would have lights, and we would have the stereo. In our nights boondocking we would make lists of things we wanted to listen to when we had electric once again. It was rarely my turn to go first. I would hunger for Television, and The Velvets, for Neil Young and Joni. I would get stuck listening to his favorite album – Sandinista by the Clash, and sit there sulking. But I could sulk. I could sulk and Billy wouldn’t hit me. He only hurt me a few times, and only after the stroke. More shoving and pushing, not really hitting. It broke my heart, because I knew if he was himself he would have hated himself for hurting me, however minorly.
We would fish in the lakes, walk the trails, one day we walked down a trail, Billy pulled out his knife and carved our initials into a tree. He didn’t include the kids. I was hurt.
No, he wasn’t perfect, but he did love me, and for a while that was enough.