2019 Porch Prize Winner in Fiction
I was scared of Billy at sixteen. Billy, I called him behind his back. Mr. Potter, in person. He’d be laid out, usually, snoring off a twelve pack of Bud in the den, the television’s sound turned up when I brought his only daughter home from weekend dates. There was no other way to her room but past this sleeping Marine. He’d killed Charlie, I was sure. I might be next. I prayed he wouldn’t wake up.
It seemed like everyone in town had a story about this undomesticated man whose daughter I was falling in love with. She the tomboy athlete, the wild-hearted smart girl, possessor of a passport to every corner of my heart. The one who inherited his piercing brown eyes, his fierceness, his alcoholism.
A favorite Billy tale I’d heard and retold was set on a cold Sunday. He’d arisen in some vague corner of downtown Nashville on a wintry morning back in the ’60s. Billy, maybe early thirties—combat Marine, husband, father. Adulterer, street fighter, drunk. He awoke in a warehouse where he’d been working as a concrete laborer—evidently, he didn’t get home with that Friday’s check. Dehydrated, hungry, the high wearing off, he staggered onto the Shelby Street bridge, hazily wondering why his right-hand knuckles were scraped, why his ears rang. The bridge is maybe a football field long, a hundred feet high over the Cumberland River’s muddy swell. Billy’s head was down, mostly, as he trudged. Indistinctly, a sound penetrated the ring in his ears prompting a glance up to see a man—a stranger—leaning from a pier, poised to leap, just one hand grasping the bridge’s rail. The man lamented loudly, though his words were incomprehensible. And his despair was so great, and his judgement was perhaps so poor, that this stranger released his grip. Billy, lacking hesitation, ran to the rail and dove headfirst into the cold air—perhaps to save this stranger, perhaps to join him. There were no witnesses, no emergency crews, no life-saving volunteers to the rescue. Only a river that would not have these two and a current that washed them onto a bar.
Four decades later, I take Billy to Sunday dinner. Red Lobster, his usual choice, though it’s an unusual night. After dinner, he wants to stop at McDonalds for a vanilla cone. Tomorrow he’ll have open heart surgery, his second. The doctor says he can’t live without it, might not live with it. I wonder if ice cream is a good idea. He looks weak, bends like he’s bowing when he walks. But those brown eyes still sparkle when he flirts with the waitresses. Leaving McDonalds, I help him into my truck. We’re at eye level as he arranges himself in the seat. He looks me up, forms his mouth to speak, pauses and reshapes his lips, reminds me to feed Black Dog. We’ve had a contingency plan in place since he rescued her. I will take care of Black Dog for life if a time comes Billy can’t. We don’t talk about tomorrow’s trauma. It’s a big operation on his high-mileage body, which has broken so many Commandments, consumed his net worth in Budweiser and Kools, picked fights he didn’t have a chance of winning. I pray he’ll wake up.
After three Sundays, he’s still in cardiac care. I’ve been coming a few days a week, usually evenings. It’s busy at work. Tonight, he’s awake, we’re alone. We’ve been through a lot, this old soldier and me. Suffered for his only daughter, for the only woman I’ve ever loved. Cursed against the Saturday morning she stopped for the day’s second six pack and merged head-on onto the wrong interstate ramp. Grieved as some men, left alone, do—with too much work, and too much whiskey and too little patience with people who offered condolences. Funny, we never drank together, Billy and me. I could—still can—knock back a couple or three shots and be content to shelf the bottle. To him, shot glasses were needless, a bottle the serving suggestion.
One morning, he just quit, let go the whole routine. No more drinking, no more self-pity, no more hate. He lived twenty more years, this new man. Billy-lite, I called him sometimes to his back. Something was different—a melancholy had set in, maybe acceptance of what was and what won’t be. I asked him once, this new Billy, what he’d do if he knew he only had a month to live. He smiled and opened each palm thumbs-up around what he described as a frothy mug of Budweiser. “I’d start with the coldest, biggest beer in town, then just see how things go.”
In this dreary hospital room, I can tell he wants to talk—to growl out, like usual, what he has to say. But the voice he summons up is so soft that the sounds he emits are undistinguishable. I keep trying to understand. “Are the tubes hurting your nose? Do you want a drink of water? Have you found Jesus?” I tease him, but a deathbed conversion isn’t to be. He tries talking again. Only raspy sounds come, not words I can understand. Grunts that smell like they’re coming from deep down his chest. “Black Dog is asking about you,” I say. No response.
I hold his head off the pillow a ways, my left hand on his gray hair, and put my good ear to his mouth. Clumsily, I almost pull off his IV tube in the process. All I can make out are the same guttural sounds and whispers; they only last a few seconds. He looks angry when I can’t understand him, eyes I’ve seen before. I ask “Do you want a nurse? Do you want a particular nurse?” He would normally have smiled at that, but he just limply shakes his head. “TV channel changed? Are you cold? Hot?” More disappointment in his eyes. “Do you want me to phone someone? Is there unfinished business?”
Next afternoon, a call. The Marine was gone. This place he’d come to heal had done what the Viet Cong, ten thousand seedy bar nights, and even a morning-after leap into frigid water could not.
A few new years, come and gone, have coated dust over so many past. Black Dog, here at my feet, sports a snowy white muzzle and walks with a stiffened gait. Me, I’ve muddled through a dozen or more relationships with good women, blown a few of them up just for the doing, walked from others into darkness for no reason I can explain. My tastes run to small batch whiskey and higher altitude grapes now, but there are nights—and, I shouldn’t admit, some Saturday mornings—that I’ll pour a Budweiser into a frosty mug and toast the unquenched thirsts of a beautiful young woman and a crusty Marine. A toast to broken dreams, broken promise, broken people. And, usually, I’ll be done with that mug after the one pour. Its frost evaporated, gone too the opaque seduction of a moment right there in my hands, one held but never possessed. Somedays, I’ll follow with a tumbler of brown, take it in two-ounce sips, neat. Feel the burn, the trace of charcoal in the first sip or two. I can see my fingers, distorted a bit, through the tumbler. In the raisings—each from index down—they become clearer, more scaled to what’s real. It is good, perhaps, that there is a calmness and peace in knowing that we, this black dog and me, have known our life’s loves. The angst of life’s great search satisfied. Perhaps we should not measure by length, but by height.