by Cameron Bachmeier
Billy was tired of lying to Harold.
He just wanted to tell him flat out “No!” But instead he made up excuses and later felt rotten about it. After all, why couldn’t he just give Harold a ride?
Then again, Billy argued to himself, if it were just a ride, he would be more than willing. But because Harold couldn’t walk so well, or use his right arm and hand, everything, even giving a simple ride was far from simple.
Harold farmed three quarters of land south of Avalon, North Dakota, for almost 20 years. Then his hands went to trembling for no apparent reason. In 1963 they found a walnut-sized tumor had taken root in the meat of his brain. The doctors down inRochestercut out a quarter of his frontal lobe, which left Harold half-paralyzed. His memory was impaired, too and he hardly knew who he was after the surgery. His self, the person he was, hard working farmer, joke-loving man, the person we knew so well, had collapsed and withered into an unsmiling shell.
His prognosis was not good. The doctor gave him two years, tops. Then an infection crept into the scar tissue on his brain and it looked like he wasn’t going to make it two more days. But guess what? The infection killed the cancer and Harold was cancer free though still immobile and housebound.
Billy actually enjoyed helping Harold in the beginning. Billy found a renter for Harold’s farmland, took him to the grocery store, helped him fill out his deposit slips at the bank, shoveled snow in the winter and mowed his ditches in the summer. Then one day he got a phone call. Harold had fallen down and couldn’t get back up. Billy raced over to Harold’s place and found Harold in a heap on the floor. His hair was a black mat, his T-shirt was wet from his sweat and his head lay in a puddle of saliva. When Billy lifted Harold he was astonished at how little Harold weighed. He was thin and frail, he felt no heavier than a gunnysack full of hollow chicken bones.
After that Billy didn’t want to help out with Harold any more. Maybe it was because he suddenly realized how vulnerable Harold really was and how much he depended on him. Billy couldn’t quite put his finger on it — was it fear, pure selfishness — but decided he had done his share of helping out Harold. “Where was everyone else?” Billy wondered. “I’m no kin to him,” he’d tell himself. “Where the hell is Harold’s kin?” Of course, he knew exactly where Harold’s kin were. They lived southwest ofEau Clair,Wis.Far enough fromNorth Dakotanot to do much good. Oh, a brother would visit once in a while, stay a couple days, then head out, but that was about it for family support.
Harold always prided himself on his network of friends. But those people were friends of the old Harold — the vibrant, ready-to-party Harold. The ravaged invalid Harold was someone else entirely and old friends became mere acquaintances that soon erased Harold from their minds without so much as a wisp of angst or remorse.
Billy hated and admired those people. Hated them for abandoning Harold in his time of need and admired them for having the balls to break clean from Harold and all his inconvenient neediness. He wished he could do it, too; be one of the impenitent, and carefree, but chronic guilt plagued his thoughts. Sometimes Billy thought Harold knew he was susceptible to guilt and manipulated him, which made him angry at Harold and this anger at Harold and his anger for all those who had forsaken Harold, helped him to rationalize his desire to be free of Harold.
One morning Harold called Billy and asked to be taken to the hardware store. He needed some nails, he said, to fix a loose step board. Billy immediately wondered who was going to help him actually nail down the board once he got the nails. But he wasn’t going to ask, that would only get him more involved than he wanted to be, so he lied, saying he had to pick up his son from school and wouldn’t be able to take him down to the hardware store.
Harold never challenged Billy’s excuses. He could have asked why Billy’s son, Phillip, wasn’t coming home on the school bus with the rest of kids. He just let it go. Perhaps Harold knew he was in no position to argue. He was truly dependent on Billy and anyone else he felt comfortable enough to call on, and that list was short and getting shorter. He couldn’t risk saying too much for fear of forever ending any chance of ever calling Billy again.
Guilt stalked Billy. But he never called Harold to see how he was doing. Worse, he stopped picking up his phone in fear of it being Harold on the other end. Billy couldn’t stand making any more weak excuses. He was sick of himself lying. He was sick of Harold and his constant needs. Sometimes he secretly wished Harold’s cancer would return and kill him once and for all.
The anger, guilt and self-loathing began to wear on Billy. He always thought of himself as a good man; the guilt he felt was proof of that. A man that did right by others; a man that believed in God; believed God was good to those who lived right; and believed God could be righteous and wrathful to those who strayed from the path. He believed in a divine reciprocity.
So when the transmission in his Buick suddenly went out, he wondered if God was trying to get his attention. When he tripped on a piece of barbwire and fell into a patch of poison oak behind the barn he was sure God was punishing him for neglecting Harold.
Blistered and in pain he swore to God that once this blasted scourge left his body he’d help Harold with a free, loving spirit. But he didn’t keep his word.
One day the phone rang. He was tempted to answer it, but couldn’t bring himself to pick it up. This was his chance to redeem himself but instead he let it ring. The phone rang and rang. “What was it Harold wanted? A carton of milk, some more nails, or had he fallen again?” Then the phone finally went silent.
That was a warm March day and the heavy winter’s snow was melting. Billy loved the hopeful smell of spring. Billy was eager for the school bus to pull into the yard. He wanted Phillip to help him get the John Deere 830 ready for spring plowing. Phillip was a natural mechanic and Billy enjoyed working with him.
But it was almost 4 o’clock and the bus hadn’t come by. It was only 10 minutes late at that point so Billy didn’t get too excited but at 4:20 he began to wonder if something hadn’t happened to the bus. Billy hopped in his Ford pickup and drove down the muddy township road towards the school. He speculated that Eileen Torgerson, the bus driver, had lost control of the bus on the greasy roads and ended up in the ditch. But the school bus wasn’t anywhere along its route so Billy drove the full 6 miles to the schoolhouse. When he got there the bus was parked toward the back and the hood was up.
Eileen was sitting on the bottom step of the bus with its doors open.
“Spose you’re looking for Philip?” she said.
“Yeah, I got to wondering. . .” Billy mumbled.
“Decided to hoof it, I guess,” she said.
“What’s wrong with the bus?” Billy asked.
“I don’t know. My husband thinks it’s the clutch plate, but it could be anything, you know?”
“I didn’t see Phillip coming down the road,” Billy said. “You don’t spose he’s tramping across Miller’s bull pasture?”
“Could be,” she said. “I know he called home for a ride but no one answered so he set off. No harm in it. It’s beautiful day. I have half a mind to go for a little stroll myself. Such a nice day after such a terrible winter.”
Billy slowly drove back towards his farm and craned his head to the west to see if he could spot Phillip but saw nothing. When Billy drove back into the yard it was already a little after 5 o ‘clock. He walked into the house expecting to see Phillip in front of the TV but he wasn’t there.
Billy became unnerved. He was half-angry that Phillip wasn’t home yet. He imagined he was goofing off out in the pasture pretending to be a solider or chasing gophers as he was known to do. He was half worried Phillip might have crossed paths with Zeke, Miller’s dangerousHolsteinbull. That bull had a countywide reputation for running down unsuspecting hunters and anything else that came within a quarter mile of him.
The thought of that ugly bull bearing down on Phillip prompted Billy to get back in his pickup to find Phillip. This time he drove across his land and headed towards the fence line between Miller’s land and his. Standing water, mud and snow made the going tough and he had to stop and lock in the four-wheel-drive hubs. When he got to the east edge of the Miller pasture he got out of his truck, crossed the barbwire fence, and walked in the direction Phillip should be coming from.
Crossing over the highest hill on the horizon, Billy was fairly shocked when he looked down and saw that a rush of water was running full, wild and high down Elbow Creek.
Immediately he was worried that Philip might have tried to cross it. He ran down the hill, then ran along the wild creek but saw no sign of Phillip. Then something on the other side of the creek glinted and caught his eye. He looked long and hard then realized what he saw was one of the chrome snaps from Phillip’s backpack. His backpack was caught on a tree branch and was sloshing in the current.
Billy jumped headlong into a full-fledged panic. “Please God, no,” he said. “Please God, no. Please let Phillip be alive.” He couldn’t help but think that his disregard for Harold was now coming back in spades.
He ran downstream stopping every 100 feet or so to peer into the water for any sign of Phillip. He went along like this until he came to where the creek boiled into theCedar River, which was still covered with ice and snow in some places. By this time Billy was exhausted and consumed by the devastating notion that his son, his only son, had been taken from him.
Finally, a stream of reason cut across his anguish and he decided to get back to the house and call the sheriff as well as his neighbors to come help him find his son.
He drove into his yard, the wheels of his pickup spinning and throwing mud, then jumped out of his truck and, without removing his muddy boots, ran straight into the kitchen and started dialing the phone.
Before someone picked up on the another end, Billy heard the screen door slam. It was Phillip.
“Phillip,” Billy shouted. “You’re here.”
Phillip saw the mud tracks across the carpet and the fading terror on his father’s face.
“What’s wrong?” Phillip asked.
“Where’s your school bag?” Billy asked.
“Oh, I must have dropped it on the way home,” Phillip said.
“Goddamn it, Phil. I thought you drowned or something,” Billy said. “Why didn’t you call if the bus wasn’t running?”
“I did. You must have been out in the shop. No one answered,” Phillip said.
“Jesus, Phillip, you put a scare into me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . .”
“I know you didn’t, son, I know you didn’t.”
Right then Billy wanted to pull Phillip to him and hug him deeply and tenderly but he didn’t. “Damn it to hell, you put a scare into me,” he said.
In Billy’s personalized brand of Christian mysticism, God had just given him a huge break. “I got the message,” he said in his prayers that night. “Please forgive this selfish man.”
Billy promised God that he’d never shirk his duties to his fellow man, and that included helping Harold out when Harold needed help. So when the phone rang, Harold picked it up fully expecting and half hoping it would be Harold needing something. Billy was eager to make amends to Harold and to God. But it wasn’t Harold. In fact, weeks went by without Harold calling and Billy began to wonder if something might have happened to him.
So one Sunday, after church, Billy and Phillip stopped by Harold’s place. Billy noticed the front door had a fresh coat of paint on it. He knocked and middle-aged woman with thin brown hair came to the door with a paintbrush in her hands. She read the confusion on Billy’s face.
“Spose you’re looking for that guy what lived here before, huh?”
“Harold’s not here?” Billy asked trying to look past the woman.
“Nursing home inMinot. Didn’t he tell ya?”
“Well, I hadn’t talked to him in a while,” Billy said.
“I’m just renting the place,” the woman said blowing at a wisp of hair on her forehead.
“Oh,” Billy said. “Looks like you’ve been busy.”
“You wouldn’t have believed it,” she said. “I’ve seen cleaner hog barns.”
“Well, Harold was, you know, disabled. Cancer kind of left him half crippled,” Billy said.
“Yeah, that’s what I heard. I can’t believe they’d leave someone out here alone like that.”
Anger swelled up inside Billy. He wanted to tell the woman to mind her goddamn business. “Who the hell was she to be all high and mighty?” Billy thought. “Hell, it’s easy to take a superior air, when you were never called on to lend a helping hand.”
On the drive home Billy’s thoughts raced back and forth. “At least I did something. I did my bit. More than a hell of a lot of others.” And by the time he pulled into his own yard he had almost convinced himself.