Friday, March 6, 2020

“Billy” by Mary Hassell

I looked at Billy in disbelief as he tried to force a puzzle piece into the space along the border. I became fixated on his protruding tongue and unconscious drooling at the corner of his mouth.

“It has to be a straight-edged piece to fit on the border,” I said.

Undeterred, he continued turning the piece into different positions. “It might fit,” he said. “You can’t tell until you try it.”

In that instant all the pieces came together for me.  Overheard adult conversations, Billy’s size, and his sometime strange behavior. I recognized in an instant what had been previously unknown to me.

Billy had been my summer playmate for as long as I could remember.  I always looked forward to our time upstate, way out in the country, far from the bustle of New York City.  There were no other children around the small cottage we rented next to Billy’s house.   Billy’s mom said she liked the isolation. No one around to intrude on their peaceful life together; no one around to cause them any trouble.

I liked that Billy was always willing to follow my lead and play whatever I wanted.  We enjoyed our breakfasts of eggs collected from the small hen house and sun-warmed tomatoes from the garden Billy and his mother had planted.  We watched cartoons as we ate while our mothers drank cups of Sanka. And then, when Arthur Godfrey came on, we went out to play

On the hottest days we played with boats and splashed each other in the plastic wading pool under their kitchen window.  My mother and his mother drank iced tea while they shelled peas and chatted. Occasionally, we would get out of the pool and run through the sprinkler, stopping only to share sips from green glass coke bottles that were set out for us in ice buckets under the tree.

Sometimes we played store, using the short brick wall at the at the bottom of his steps as the checkout counter. We took turns being cashier and wrapping purchases in large leaves.  Other times that brick wall became a zoo of various bugs we caught and put into pie plates and containers to be examined and later released.

We learned to bake cookies and knead bread. We played house. Billy enjoyed taking the part of the dad.

“I am a man, you know, so I have to be the dad,” Billy said in his hesitant way of talking.

I didn’t pay attention to this. Even though Billie was as tall as a man, he played just like a kid. Just like me.

Often, we had picnics of cold pizza or peanut butter sandwiches and fruit punch. Billy’s cocker spaniels Reddy and Jeffrey would run with us into the shady woods behind his house.  We played catch but Billy would miss almost every time and I got tired of looking in the tall grass for the ball.

Tag and simple card games filled our days. When it rained we watched movies of previous vacations projected onto a white sheet hung on one of the walls. In the evenings we caught fireflies in mason jars.  I always caught many more than Billy but he was happy anyway just seeing the magical fireflies. 

Our mothers were always in the background, not far from us.  I remember my mother slowly swinging on the faded porch swing her bare suntanned foot tapping the ground lightly.
 Billy’s mom was standing, iced tea in hand. “Billy never knew him,” she said. “He left the two of us as soon as things were evident.  He never even said goodbye.”

At the time I wasn’t even curious about who “he” might be.

One year I proudly showed Billy how I could write my name.  Later we played school. I was the teacher and tried to teach him how to write his name. I showed him numbers too but Billy found them too hard so we just wrote our names and colored.

We showed our signed masterpieces to our moms.

“I never sent him to school,” Billy’s mom said to my mom. “I didn’t want the other kids to make fun of him or hurt him.”

I thought that was odd, that Billy had never been to school, but it wasn’t until later when Billy was attempting to finish the puzzle border with random puzzle pieces that I put all of this together and understood.

Mary Hassell gets many of story ideas on the long daily walks she takes around Ancaster with her 12-year-old boxer Bernard.  She has learned that if she doesn't record her ideas immediately on her iPhone, they evaporate.  When she isn’t writing, taking writing courses or thinking about writing, she travels, runs, does yoga, plays mahjong, tries to keep up with friends electronically or in person, and visits her four precious grandchildren.

See Brian’s complete schedule here, including writing workshops, weekly writing classes, and weekend retreats in, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Georgina, Guelph, Hamilton, Jackson’s Point, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Southampton, Sudbury, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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