|my wedding -- Bill on the left|
|mom and Bill|
|Bill on the left|
I have not been sure if I should, or even could, write a tribute to my friend Old Bill, who died a few years ago, and whose birthday it is today. I’ve known him almost my whole life. My mom has always had a hard time taking care of herself, and he was pretty much her unofficial (as in, not a government-sanctioned public administrator) caretaker, out of love for her and kindness. He picked me up from school every Friday to take me to mom’s work to pick her up, and then to drive us home. I’ve gone over all of this before, but it’s so important to underscore again and again what a wonderful person he was. There will never be anyone even close to him in this world again. Me and mom called him Old Bill because she had another close friend we called Young Bill. I thought it might hurt Old Bill’s feelings at one point, probably when I was 11, to have him referred to as “old” so I tried to establish “Cat Bill” as his nickname, but it never stuck, and he wasn’t offended to be called “old.” In fact, one time very close to the day he died but before he was too weak to go outside, me and my husband took him to see a Woody Allen film, and I was sheepish about asking if I should ask for a senior discount for his ticket, because he’s always been ageless to me and I wasn’t sure if it was presumptious to assume he was a senior. He laughed because he was around 72 by then.
He owned a bookstore that had a regular following of customers (who never bought anything) who sat around all day enjoying his company, even though, in honesty, I don’t think the feeling was always mutual. He was born with no sense of smell, which contributed to how sloppy he was; one time I was looking at the leg of his pants because I thought I saw a huge piece of lint, but it was actually a pupa.
His business used to be successful, but the internet took its toll on him, and his store went out of business. In fact, a contagion of poverty seemed to spread to many of his friends. Everyone got older and poorer. He and mom, who was always poor, began pooling their resources, which made them even better friends. She stopped taking him for granted.
Once, when he had an apartment on the first floor with his bedroom window facing on to the parking lot, I was walking from my car to his apartment and I saw him lying on his side in bed, petting one of his cats and reading a book, radiating contentment.
He got renal cancer. He had to get treated at the county hospital. One December we got the good news that his cancer was in remission, and it was a wonderful Christmas. In January when he went for a check-up, the doctor told him that oops, his cancer wasn’t in remission, the doctor had just been looking at someone else’s chart.
He moved in to live with my mom, staying on the couch in the living room all day, never taking off a long-sleeved shirt I bought for him on my Puerto Rican honeymoon. It was the shirt that was most comfortable to him.
A couple of his friends who were able to afford it sent him money. And a couple of his friends, who he’d helped and helped, were more than able to afford it but did not give him money, because rich people don’t get rich by sharing. The last time I saw him we watched Darjeeling Limited, which he was interested in but warned me he might doze off in the middle of. When that movie was over we watched a little bit of The Treasure of Sierra Madre on tv. I was there alone with him because mom had some errands to run. Before she left she warned me that if he died, the numbers I needed to call were taped to the cabinet, and there were a few Ativan stashed away in an old, pretty tea tin on the top shelf of this cabinet, in case I freaked out. He didn’t die that day. I cried because I was going to miss him and he said he wasn’t so scared but just felt bad for putting us through grief.
He died in mom’s bed, not a foxhole Christian at the very end, just an intelligent and rare person, a friend of cats and homeless people.
His ashes are on a shelf in the L.A. coroner’s office, or else they’ve been placed in a communal grave by now.
His memorial service was held at mom’s church, and even though I’m staunchly anti-christian, I didn’t think twice about setting foot in a church rec room to grieve for him. His friends and hangers-on, mostly in their fifties, have the mindsets of fucking teenagers and wouldn’t come to the service because they’re too smart or something to be in any way associated, even for a half hour, with anything Christian.
Only me and my mom fully understand Bill. He was patient but he was no saint. He kept the classical music station on in his store, but he didn’t care either way about classical music. He loved cats more than anyone I’ve ever known, but he didn’t go around talking about it, and when a cat of his died, he took it as the way of the world, and didn’t unduly mourn. Anyone who judged him by how sloppy he looked will forever be at a disadvantage for having passed judgment on the most dignified person to grace this earth.
His converse low tops were beat up along the sides, because he feet were severely messed up and the way he walked tore up his shoes; it was a pained shuffle. But he walked all the time. In his later years, before incapacitated by cancer, he had to walk for blocks from the bus stop, to his part time job as a shelver at somebody else’s bookstore. He was a legend to other used bookdealers, but what good is it to be a legend when he had to dumpster dive for food.
He needed so little to be content.
I dream that he is still alive but it’s a transitory sort of life, in which we know he’s already dead but is in a grace period of having come back. Often, I dream that his store has been leveled but we stand in the rubble, still trying to sell books. Often, I dream that he is annoyed with me, and sometimes I dream that me and him and mom live in her hoarder’s apartment, sleeping standing up between tall stacks of books and toys, and that Christmas comes but it’s nothing special, just another day.
I think I will always disdain rich people who don't donate a lot of their money, because of his death. Money turned him out of his home and his store and robbed him of so much. The cancerous cells that devoured his insides paced the cancerous greed of this capitalist country. Health costs money. Honest and true dignity are worthless.
He was the best person I’ve known.
|Our Last Christmas|