It Depends What You Mean By Death
When I was a boy I killed two babies who were lying on the side of the road where I couldn’t see. It was two-sixteen in the late afternoon when Billie and the tough kids came knockin on my door askin what all the hubbub was about in terms of me being a murderer, and did I want to join their gang? Well, I sure did and asked em in for pie, which my momma served as a smile, and my pa was still off workin in the death factories, so I didn’t say nothin about him since all the tough kids’ dads were dead, you know, from workin so often catchin sewer rats down by Sixth St. and Lexico ave?
Anyway, I and the boys took off joggin when all the pie was in our bellies, and by then I was a little tired, but I wanted to know the boys better and I was sure why Billie was lookin at me so smart so often; I figured it was just the glint in his eye that I loved ever since we kissed by accident on the playground in the second grade and he told me never to tell anyone or he’d hit me real hard, and then when I promised, he kissed me again. So, well, I was glad to be near him again, taking his old bike-truck alongside the beaver highway, where all the Christmas Doctors used to hang out and offer us kids liquor for just a nickel a pail.
Now, I know a good man when I see one, after all, my father is a good man, and my mother would be too, if she were a man, and so when we got over to Bill Jelly’s house, a different bill than the one who led the tough kids gang, I coulda swore he was the twin of my father, Bill Jelly’s father and him lookin so far alike. But all in all they talked different, and Mr. Jelly gave us each a pack of cigarettes and told us to go down by Mexico Lake while he had a good time with his old lady, Mrs. Jelly.
Bill—Jelly Bill—was a skinny kid who was more shy of his father than I was of holding a gun, and just to make it real clear, I wasn’t the kind to like holding guns. In fact, I hated holding guns, and my least favorite thing in those days was having to watch Billie, not Belly Bill, but the Billie, the leader of the tough kids gang, line up some kids from the elementary school and shoot at their feet and tell em not to dance but to do kart-wheels instead.
Well, I walked across the top of the swings drunk a few times after that whole Winnebago fiasco, the third night Billie shot Franklin Stoole in the foot just to make the Tough Kids laugh. And I ended up talkin to Billie, saying the way he was treatin the neighborhood kids was going to end up getting him in trouble with the FBI—I mean the police, one of these nights. And all he did was smile, take out his pocket-knife, and carve my initials into his palm, wiping the blood on his cheek instead of mine.
I walked home with my hands in my pockets that night, confused, and wondering how things could go on this way with me and Billie, him always doing these bad bad things. But sometimes, just sometimes the way he’d toss a look my way would beat my heart so well that I’d feel silly, and not say too many more words than stand and puff my cigarettes, which could’ve been candy for all I cared. With my father working the death factories so late around these times since my mother had lost the dog in a poker game, I had a lot of free time outside of babysitting Mr. Marissa’s kids over on DuPont St. And the smoke didn’t taste like candy, but it made me feel like candy, specially when I was drunk, and boy, goddamn, I’m sorry for cussing but I didn’t quite know what to do.
Billie gave me the shivers one night—well, he’d give me the shivers a lot, while I’d be standing, watching the other tough kids throw torches into the lake, and he’d grab me hard on the shoulders so that I’d be real frightened, but did my best not to say a word. And then we’d stand, and sometimes he’d tell me stories of when his pa got home and had a snake, and held it by the neck and said if Billie didn’t start acting right, then this is what he’d do, and he stomped on the snake’s neck, with real passion said Billie, and after the dog played with it for a long while till the thing had mostly fallen apart, his dad made him clean it up. But said Billie, his pa would get drunk and do this just about every week, Billie said it seemed like he got off on it in a certain way, popping the things head into the carpet like that, and then sitting and watching the dog tear it up, while he had his whiskey in a wine glass.
Billie said afterwards it would be real loud upstairs between his folks, and not in a bad way, well in a bad way for Billie but not for them. They were rolling in the sheets you see, that’s all I’m saying. Well, anyways, Billie said one night his pa brought home the snake, and was drunk before he gave Billie the speech so that when he went to stamp on the head, he missed, and the snake got him many times, bitten all up. Billie said it looked like a dog had gotten at him, and what about the dog I said? Billie told me the dog got bit too and it was his mother, who came down half-naked and drunk already, that screamed and ran down, pushing one of the cabinets over onto the snake, but onto Billie’s dad and the dog too.
Billie was nearly tearing up telling me all this, or he was tearing up, but I just don’t want to embarrass him by saying that because he wouldn’t like the way it made him look, specially with the guys looking up to him and all, but he did cry telling me that he couldn’t move, that he was stunned, sitting there, just sitting there while his dad nearly got eaten by that snake, and the dog too, and then his mother having to do what she did. I could see it really shook him up, and as I wiped the tears from his chin, and leaned near to him, he more than shrugged away from me, and walked down to the shore of the lake with the rest of the gang, and told em he wanted to do something special. They all, the nearly ten of em, took and lit up new torches, and in the reef of the speckled night, up to the blackness they threw their torches, as if a hail of matches were being dropped into a toilet, while we all stood in that unlit bathroom and heard the grizzle as the water brought the light again to death. I cried a little too, watching Billie. He had a reason for his ways, but that doesn’t mean his ways were right.
Anyway, he’d come up behind me while all of us were drunk and scare me like I said, but then sometimes he’d whisper something in my ear. At first it was just something like “I’m the boogeyman” or “I’m god, come to bring you to the blackness,” but then he started whispering weirder and weirder things like “take out your prick or I’ll kill you,” and we’d laugh about it, but one time, he came up behind me, and now I was so seasoned to his trying to frighten me, that I barely flinched, but after he grabbed my shoulders, he didn’t try to whisper anything either, but he pressed up against me, and I could feel him hard pressing into me.
We did kiss that night, and left away from the other boys, and made love behind the soda fountain, where the lamps couldn’t tell our names. It wasn’t long before Billie and me started hanging more and more alone, and with my father working so much at the death factories, and my mother working so much at the health clinic, we had my house a lot to ourselves and would sit and eat pie and watch TV and make love.
Never did either of my pa or ma find us doing anything more than drinking a little pineapple whiskey from their felt cabinet. But I’ll say with more remorse than I could then, being a little older now, that it wasn’t Billie’s choice to die, but it was his fault. Mr. Jelly found him one night hopped up on gas from the tooth doctor, digging through a dumpster saying he thought he saw a racoon say something bad about him to the other racoons.
They lobotomized Billie on the sixth of August 1949. I appeared in court 3 separate times to testify on his behalf, but all for nothing. I don’t think he could much recognize me then, as they already had him pretty subdued with that dope they’d been mixing up for years in those government labs. Anyway, I’ll admit I was glad not to have to see him after that because I knew I wasn’t really seeing him, seeing Billie that is. And I guess it wasn’t too long after that, that I was coming home from the milk factory, drunk with Tommy Romenco, who’d decided instead he’d walk home, and I ran through a red light, striking two babies who were crawling across across the street.
I probably woulda crashed anyway, being how drunk I was, but why were those babies out there? I still don’t know. No one’s told me either, but I do regret it. It pains me to think of them like road-kill. That’s what I made them. But I have a lot of time to think on that, while I’m sittin here, writing this, in the Foxtrot County jail. Boy I’d give more than a dime to go back to those days. Even all the havoc we caused, all the doves we killed trying to prank Mrs. Sucrose that one Thursday after the Chesterfield Parade, even with Joe Stappo losing his hand when we blew up the beaver damn, even with Christian Pipe going to jail for hanging that mongoose on the lamppost above Altitude street. Even with all that, the only thing I regret is not kissing Billie more. He sure was a good kisser, and I’d all but wish to kiss him now. It’d be real hard though, looking into his toilet-black eyes, knowing he doesn’t quite know anything anymore. But in three years I’ll get out of this prison, and maybe they’ll have invented someway to reverse the lobotomy by then, cause I sure can’t reverse my love.
The last thing I wanta say, is that being here, reading and all more than I ever had before. I want to say two things: I condemn what my father has done in the death factories, I don’t think that’s right, though I know in his heart he was just trying to provide for his family, but look what good it did with the ways I turned out.
Anyways, I read yesterday about antelopes, and how when the king antelope gets old and can’t walk anymore, all the baby antelopes nuzzle under him with their noses until they lift him up a little, and after a little while they’ve got him carried on their backs. Then all the other antelopes crowd behind and the baby antelopes bring the king to the watering hole. But they let him down right at the water’s edge, and since he can’t walk, he can’t move much either, so he ends up getting real thirsty, and the whole flock of antelopes just stands and watches the king die of thirst right before the water, because they say the great thirst cures the king antelope of all his sins, and that when he dies, god will make sure no more gays are born.
Now, I’m not sure if that’s true of not. Obviously god isn’t going to make the gays disappear, cause then I would too, and so far I don’t want to. I just mean the story of them doing and thinking that, but all I’m saying is, I think that’s real messed up, and that I feel a little like the king antelope, in being let here to starve, and also I feel a little like that’s what me and all the tough kids did to Billie, letting him die when we knew we coulda helped him at least a little longer. I’m not sure how that all sounds but that’s how I feel about all this. Anyway, I tried my best to tell it. And I don’t much care for antelopes anymore, but I’m not sure I really ever did.