I grew up in rural America, Eastern Kentucky to be exact. To be more precise, I lived in a small town on Park Hill or Ballpark Hill or Ball Park Road, depending on your preference. I would like to tell you of the hard times and struggles we had, but we didn’t have any of that. We lived quite comfortably in a nice house and didn’t really want for anything. One of the great things about my hometown was that it was a melting pot. Like us, you might live quite well, but your neighbors may not. Your best friend could live in poverty, but it didn’t matter. We really didn’t notice or make judgments about that kind of thing, at least not to the extent that I see living elsewhere now. Having a neighbor who had been shot or shot someone or been to prison wasn’t all that uncommon. Heck, one of my close relatives was shot by a cop one time. Occasionally, the melting pot would bring you into close contact with the “wrong side” of the tracks. For a few years, we lived that experience. His name was Billy.
It was the mid-1970’s. Billy had been in prison for several years. He was the getaway driver in an attempted murder. Due to the vagaries of prison rules, he somehow served longer than the actual gunman, who, by the way, was a fine fellow. His mother, brother (Jeff) and stepfather lived across the road from us. Jeff was in elementary school, and was a friend of my younger brother. They were a little rough around the edges but good neighbors. They were the kind of folks who ate souse and ‘mater sammiches and would offer you one. Good people.
Jeff kept telling us that Billy would soon return home. I was in front of the house the day he arrived. His mother’s house set on a little rise across the road (we lived on the side of mountain. Everything was on a rise.). His car swerved into their front yard and came to an abrupt halt. Billy got out, took two steps and collapsed flat on his face. Out cold. He laid there for an hour or so until his mother got home. She roused him, and he staggered to the house. I assume he was overwrought from the excitement of returning home.
I would guess that Billy was in his late 20’s. He had long, greasy hair–dirty blonde, with the emphasis on the dirty part. He was small, maybe 5′ 5″, 120 pounds. He had that hard, flinty look that only Eastern Kentuckians have. His eyes were wild.
It didn’t take long for Billy to wear out his welcome with his stepfather. The first peculiarity was that he rarely slept. Perhaps he drank too much caffeine or was ADHD. It’s hard to say. When everyone in their home went to sleep at night, Billy would hook up a water hose and go about the house spraying everyone down and yelling “PARTY WITH ME!!’ You can imagine how disconcerting this was. As a result, his stepfather banished him to a metal storage shed behind their house.
Now, Billy was nothing if not resourceful. Somehow, he got his hands on a long spool of electrical wire and spliced it into the meter box of their house. He then ran it back to the shed to power a lamp and record player. At this point, I must comment on his innovation. I watched him work on this. No insulated gloves. Smoking and swigging a half pint the whole time. Anyone else would have been electrocuted immediately. Somehow, he did it with no problem. It was impressive.
Now that he had power, he adorned the shed with many, many Playboy centerfolds (and a few pictures of Elvis) and would party far into the night. He was having a grand time, albeit alone. As you might expect, there were bumps in road in his transition from prison. For example, his mother once gave him money to buy groceries. He went to the store, came home, threw a roll of bologna on the front porch and disappeared for three days. Then, there was the time he took off on Jeff’s bicycle only to be arrested for drunk bicycling. Another time, my father spied him siphoning gas from one of our cars. Dad ran him off. The stepfather called to apologize, lamenting that “that boy is headed back to prison.” Dad simply said: “If he touches my car again, he’s headed to the cemetery.” Later Billy apologized to Dad, stating: “I wouldn’t cipherin’ yore gas. I swear to God.” Maybe not. He could have been having a refreshing drink through the rubber hose in his mouth.
His years in prison had hampered his social skills, as one might expect, too. He had a unique, if combative, way of answering the phone. Instead of the more traditional “Hello,” he answered with “Yeah? What of it?” I’ll admit that my brother and I called their house more than a few times just to hear this.
By and large, Billy’s stepfather kept him in line. Oh, we’d peer out the window and see him dancing by himself in the moonlight, but he was harmless. For the time being.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
After Billy had been home for a year or so, his stepfather died. Billy moved back in the house. Freed from the bonds of marriage, his mother joined the party. They ripped and roared far into the night. His mom picked up a boyfriend who also joined in. There are too many stories to tell, but I will share one.
One evening, they began to crank up around dark. My brother and I watched from our bedroom window. We cracked the window just a bit to better hear the action. Billy had the record player cranking, and his sister had dropped by. Long before the advent of the air guitar, Billy mastered the “air piano.” He would prance wildly about the front yard “playing” along with the music. His signature move was to run up and down the front porch while “playing” the porch rail. He would dance with a mop, twirling and dipping to the music. It was astounding.
This particular evening, they were louder and wilder than ever, and they wore out fast–except for Billy. As the night wound down, Billy was the only one left partying. He frantically jumped about the porch, singing and playing. His sister came out on the porch and said: “SHUT THE HELL UP!! WE’RE TRYIN’ TO SLEEP, YOU BASTARD!” All Billy wanted was the party to continue. So, he said: “DANCE WITH ME, YOU WHORE!!” Sister picked up a shovel and hit him. Hard. Across the forehead. It made a loud clanging noise mixed with a slightly sickening thud. He was on the top step of the porch. He did a slow motion pirouette, his long, greasy hair flying straight back. Then, he just sort of flipped backwards down the porch steps. He was out. End of party. He was still lying there the next morning. We had half-way hoped he was dead, but he came around.
At this point, you might ask: “Why didn’t you people call the police?” We did. Unfortunately, a member of local law enforcement then was drawn into the party. It was our Studio 54, and there was no stopping it. After that, my Dad gave me permission to shoot Billy if he ever appeared threatening.
As time went on, Billy had more and more conflicts with his family. Once, he knocked on our front door. My mother peered through the sidelight and noticed that he had a pick axe over his shoulder. An impaled telephone was attached to it. She opened the door and said: “Billy, what do you want?” He said “Can I use yore phone?” Mom: “Billy, you’ve been drinking. I’ve told you to stay away from here when you’re drinking.” Billy: “I’ll admit that I’ve had a taste. I need to call the law, and our phone ain’t workin’.” Mom: “I can see that. Leave.” Billy: “You don’t think I’ll shimmy up that telephone pole and war (wire) this telephone in? I’ll do it, by God!” The door slammed in his face. Oh, how we hoped he would shimmy up that pole, but he didn’t.
TURN OUT THE LIGHTS. THE PARTY’S OVER
The party ended for Billy after the death of his mother’s new boyfriend. This guy died in an accident in jail, and there’s no way to make that funny. Actually, I could, but it was a sad story. Not long after the boyfriend’s death, Billy’s mom had a new man. This guy was different. He worked. He was tough. My Dad liked him but said he was the kind of guy who would kill someone if they crossed him. Billy’s days were numbered, maybe literally.
Billy ended up moving to Berea. He pretty much stayed away. He did call home once when his rings melted off his hands. I’m not sure what was going on there.
His mother married her new boyfriend and settled back down. We were happy that Jeff had a good man as a stepfather. When the new stepfather was dying, he told Jeff that he had a brother who would kill anyone for a bottle whiskey. He told Jeff to keep that in mind if he ever had any trouble with anyone.
Time passed, and Billy’s mom was a widow again. She developed lung cancer, and Billy moved back home to take care of her. By all accounts, Billy was a dutiful–if somewhat wild–son. My brother died in 1987, and Jeff died in 1988. In 1989, my Dad had a heart attack. Dad was having difficulty breathing and laid in the floor. While he laid in the floor, he told my mom to call Billy to bring an oxygen tank. Billy’s mom was on oxygen at the time, and he ran over to the house with a tank. He hooked Dad up to the oxygen while they waited on the ambulance. Dad said he did it “expertly.” He then added: “I figured if I survived that, I’d survive anything.” Dad said that Billy “smelled like old John Barleycorn, but he could handle that oxygen.”
My Dad died in 2008. Coincidently, Billy’s father died just a few days later. That dude was a story unto himself. He lived in a shack down below the road on KY 38. His house was small, but he had burrowed out under the road over the years and made a roomy cave for himself. He was married to a woman who smoked a pipe.
As of 2008, Billy was still alive. Implausibly, he survived two siblings, both parents and multiple step-parents. I’d like to think he straightened up, but that seems unlikely. He provided us with some great entertainment and more than a little anxiety. My parents ended up kind of liking him. Like I said, it was melting pot. It just took some folks longer to melt than others.