By Debra Levy
Billy Jr. was swimming in the lake with his mother. He was a good swimmer for a five-year-old, fearless in the water. They were out beyond the pier, in the drop-off where sand turned to muck and tentacles of pondweed tickled bare skin. He was wearing his inflatable yellow water-wings, because his mother would have it no other way. He’d taken lessons at the YM ever since he was a toddler. His motor skills were sound. He didn’t need any help. He could float on his stomach and back, and do a fair breast stroke, and unlike squeamish kids, the choppy lake with its greenish-dark water and floating oil blobs didn’t bother him.
Bill Hendrickson sat in a lawn chair soaking in the sun, listening to the water lap against the shore. There was a time when he’d have been out there too, joining in the fun. But now he was busy sulking, wondering how soon they could make a polite exit when the burgers hadn’t even made it to the grill yet. He wondered if it would be tacky to leave before then, tell his mother he wasn’t feeling very well . . .
The sliding glass door to the cottage swooshed open and he heard his mother and Mrs. Gleason come out. They were laughing about something as they sat down underneath the green-and-white striped umbrella. Both women had on strapless beach dresses, the kind that cinched above their saggy tanned breasts and was too short to cover the spider veins on the back of their calves. His mother held up the pitcher of Manhattans, said, “Freshen your drink, Billy?”
He hadn’t touched his drink. It sat tipsily in the grass, cubes melted. Beads of sweat cut little tributaries along the outside of the glass.
He waved her off, closed his eyes against the sun. “I’m good,” he said.
He’d stopped earlier for a beer at the Dockside Tavern before picking up the hamburger patties for the barbeque and now the beer and the sun were making him sleepy. He fought to keep his eyes open, although his wired brain kept trying to plot his escape, some way in God’s name he and Kelly and Billy Jr. could . . .
“I was telling Martha about your promotion,” his mother said. He cracked his eyes open and saw her hand shaking as she balanced the pitcher on a cement paver. “I told her at the rate you’re going it won’t be long until you’re the CFO.”
“Et in Arcadia ego,” he said, kicking off his Crocs and stretching out his white legs. He’d been a junior partner at Clarry, Zent & Tilbury longer than he liked to admit. What could he say? He had an asshole for a boss – who didn’t? – and he’d been yanked all these years like that skier out there in the middle of the lake, at the end of someone else’s tow-rope.
“Billy and his Latin,” quipped his mother, mopping up her glass with a floral-printed paper napkin.
Out on the lake his wife Kelly was guiding Billy Jr. around on a foam splash board, pushing him from behind. Bill knew the water was over her head at that spot, but she maneuvered as casually as if she were standing in the living room running the vacuum or pushing furniture around.
“You have a darling child,” said Mrs. Gleason, who was his mother’s oldest friend. The two women had worked together years ago as typists in the engineering department at the GE, long before Bill had been born. He and Mrs. Gleason’s son, Richard, had gone to school together. His mother and Mrs. Gleason hadn’t seen each other since Bill and Richard had graduated from high school. Mrs. Gleason had remarried and moved out to Tucson during those 25 years.
“He’s our gift,” Mrs. Hendrickson said. “Our little miracle child. The doctor wasn’t sure if Billy and Kelly could even have children. But the good Lord had other plans.”
Bill looked over and saw her beaming, as if she’d orchestrated bringing his child into the world. As if she and the good Lord were on speaking terms.
“Well, he’s a beautiful boy,” said Mrs. Gleason. “Reminds me of you when you were that age, Billy.”
Way out in the middle of the lake a jet ski zipped over the surface, bouncing up and down like a skier tackling fresh moguls. From the shore the watercraft sounded like a buzzing and annoying gnat. Bill stretched out his right hand, sized the jet ski between his thumb and index finger, and promptly squashed it. He felt vaguely satisfied although he knew it was a stupid thing to do, a little joke he’d someday have to share with his son – “Let me show you something,” he imagined saying to the boy, “do this whenever you’d like to go postal but can’t.” He’d hoped no one had seen him do it. He didn’t want to make a fool of himself.
White fluffy clouds grazed on the horizon. He looked over and saw his mother sipping her drink, staring straight ahead, her gray eyes squinting back the sun. He knew she was straining to see the past which is where she seemed content to hang out these days. He felt a story coming on. She’d always been a storyteller but lately he’d noticed she was embellishing more, a writer crafting her characters, putting in nuances, things he didn’t remember while leaving other things, important details, out.
“You remember when Billy and that terrible boy – what was his name, Billy?”
“I don’t know,” he said, knowing the name and the story.
Flustered, she sipped her drink. Her lips pursed together, twitching like a rabbit’s. It seemed as if she were talking to herself without any words coming out. “Oh, for goodness sakes, let’s see. A – Ansel, that’s it. Ansel Harper. Billy and that awful Ansel. A real shit, that kid. A bully.”
“I remember that child,” said Mrs. Gleason, putting on her sunglasses. “Such a rambunctious boy.”
He could feel the big blow coming on. It was one of her favorite stories but she hadn’t been able to share it for a while – lacking an audience well-acquainted with the names. He was sure Mrs. Gleason had heard it back when but she was too polite not to pretend otherwise. Besides, his mother’s stories were always changing these days, morphing under artistic flourishes that had once been given over to the blank canvas. Her stories had become something else, more else than anything.
His mother sipped her drink, cleared her throat.
Billy had soft-veiny hands and knobby knees. He also had a protuberant nose for his small, downy face, which kids jokingly called a “beak,” and it was true that from a distance he did rather resemble a newborn chick. He was the only kid in sixth grade still wearing button-down shirts he always tucked into chinos, never jeans, which his mother refused to let him wear. His hair, like hers, was blonde and feathery, his frame slight as if his bones were hollow. He had his father’s steel-gray eyes – the only attribute he’d inherited from the man who had left them both.
He was smart, but shy. Hated school. The classroom was insufferable, as were the dreaded daily bus commutes. For some reason, kids were always cruelest in the a.m.
By the time Mr. Dudley, the old bus driver, got to Billy’s stop there were never any seats up front where the quiet kids sat so Billy had to sit in the back by the troublemakers. He put his backpack on an empty seat, scrunched down in the seat beside it, and stared out the icy window at the dark, monochromatic sky.
“Hey, Billy,” whispered a voice from behind. “Billy, Billy-dilly-dildo, faggot boy!”
Billy wanted to turn around and tell Ansel where to shove it but knew the outcome wouldn’t be good. He’d already seen what Ansel had done to another small boy. That kid had since transferred out of Glennhaven.
He put his warm hand to the window and melted the frost, watched the passing landmarks. County Line Road. The McKenzie’s horse farm. The Hamlin’s old rusted-out grain elevator. The brook.
– Ah, the brook. He’d sometimes ride his bike there on days when his mother retreated to her studio. He’d tell her he was riding over to help Mrs. Tan with her garden but would peddle right past the old woman’s house on out to the woods. Way, way down the road. His mother never even knew.
He liked to roam among the birch and fir trees where it was dark and quiet, and it smelled like Christmas. Here he would parse out the hidden messages in the burbling water running over stones and fallen branches. Sometimes he lay on the edge of the bank on his belly scanning the greenish water for tadpoles and toads. Once he saw a black water snake whipping itself along the current. Often, he’d lie there poking a stick in the water, thinking.
Mostly he thought about death. He was a boy who’d cheated death – that’s what his mother had said. They had spent two years at U of M where specialists had helped him “outfox his problem” – his mother insisted on euphemisms like “outfox” rather than “treat.” There was power in words, she said, and they were not going to give his illness any more power than it deserved. Some nights she had to sleep in the Ronald McDonald House, otherwise she would sleep in his room curled up in the corner using one of his stuffed animals as a pillow.
He sometimes thought about the silence of death, what it would be like – which was magical thinking since everyone knew that once you were dead you were dead. As far as he knew, only Jesus had ever come back from the grave. They were not religious, Billy and his mother, but that much he did know.
“Billy, Billy, silly Billy bopped the boys and made them cry . . . because his dick was so small-fry!”
A few of the boys began to laugh which made the girls who were trying to impress them giggle into their mittens.
“It was so small it was like an earthworm crawling in his pants. In his gay, lame pants. Billy Chino, pretty-boy Billy and his baloney pony, his bobby dangler, his Billy boner.”
And how they laughed.
Mr. Dudley gazed into the rearview mirror, his gray shaggy eyebrows arched and waiting. He hunched over the steering wheel, turning it with both hands as though he were trying to crank open a vault. “Hey, you better not be messin’ around back there!” he yelled over his shoulder. “If I have to stop this bus you’ll be sorry, you hear me?”
Then he harrumphed, stirring up phlegm and started to cough. He finally got the bus turned down the dirt road and they bumped along.
Ansel Harper whispered, “‘You’ll be sorry.’ Mr. Dudley’ll come back and sit on your face and won’t you just love that. Mmmm.” He rolled his red tongue around his mouth.
The boys began to laugh and Billy felt his bottom burning through the ratty leather seat, wishing he could just drop through it onto the dirt road. He imagined hitting the ground and rolling under one of the mammoth tires. He imagined being found with nary a scrape or scratch, not even a trail of blood, just a skin sack of broken bones and punctured lungs, the life run out of him, and plastered on his face a defiant smile. If only he could die with a smirk on his face, he thought. Ah, now that would be worth . . . .
The air-brakes sounded, chh-chhhhh, and everyone knew by rote it was Alice LaPlante’s stop and for a moment a vortex-sucking hush filled the bus. Alice was the prettiest girl in Glennhaven Middle School. She was also one of the nicest. If there was one thing Billy had learned in his short twelve years it was that people usually became what they were expected to become, but Alice either hadn’t figured it out yet or had decided to resist expectations. Whatever the reason, he was grateful one person in this adolescent prison could be put up on a pedestal and admired for good reason. He hoped she’d never change but also knew that everything changed, even people.
Alice appeared at the front of the bus with her lavender ski jacket and faux fur trim. She had a backpack, an athletic bag and a violin case. She was a cheerleader, but he didn’t hold it against her because Alice never acted important like the rest of the girls on the squad; she just went out on the floor and cheered the team on, earnestness and goodness coursing through her “O-type” blood, which he’d happened to know because he’d been partnered with her when they’d had to prick each other’s fingers. She’d been afraid to prick his finger, so he’d told her his type was B-positive and they pretended as if she’d gotten the answer on her own. “It feels like cheating,” she’d giggled, and he’d said, “You’d have gotten it. I just made it easier.”
The Gerrigan sisters, Jade and Bethany, began to make room for Alice on the bench seat behind Mr. Dudley. They always made room for her so that she could put her things in the aisle and then sit by them but this morning Alice left her bags and violin and walked on toward the back of the bus.
A girl Billy didn’t recognize followed her and they sat down across from him. Alice went in first sitting by the window. The other girl took the aisle seat but kept her head turned away. She wore a blue knitted hat out of which a few strands of blonde hair poked out. Her matching blue and red scarf was pulled up around her face.
After the bus got moving again Alice leaned forward and smiled at Billy demurely while her friend gazed straight ahead. Billy pretended to stare out the window across the aisle but really he was glimpsing Alice until he heard the familiar voice beginning to harangue and tease him again.
He’d never gotten used to the bullying but he’d learned to endure. His mother had told him that when it happened he should “go to his private place.” He’d never told her it was the brook but that’s where he went – to sit by the rust-colored water hiding in the gradient shadows of the long spindly fingers of trees. It had mostly worked.
That morning, however, Ansel seemed unusually hell-bent on making Billy’s life miserable. Try as he might, Billy could not get to the brook and the cathedral of trees. He couldn’t hear black birds chirping in the branches or squirrels skittering over the forest floor, and he missed the consoling sound of twigs snapping cleanly underfoot. He couldn’t imagine the monster in the forest who was as tall and wide as a fir tree and who lived to crush a kid’s skull with a simple flick of one of its massive branches. He couldn’t get there no matter how hard he tried. And just as he was beginning to think this ride couldn’t get any worse he was suddenly thrust forward, slammed from behind. He flew into the seat in front of him, hitting his head on the metal handrail.
Of course, he knew.
Looming over him in the aisle was Ansel, one hand on the rail, the other on the back of Billy’s seat. His fat red lips were taut, his eyes crazed with anger. Billy had never seen him so mad before. They were still a few miles from the school which gave Ansel plenty of time to torture him, and Mr. Dudley, intent to aim the rickety bus along the dirt road, had a death-grip on the steering wheel and never once looked into his rearview mirror. He was as good as a blind cop. Incredibly, the old man was also deaf to the heckling and jeering coming from the back of the bus.
“Billweeey Boy is just a little fag-got or maybe just a mag-got,” sang Ansel, hanging over Billy, who was trying to scrunch down as close to the window as possible. “C’mon, Billwee, show me what you got. And not that little prick of yours either.”
He could feel a draft but the hairs standing up on his neck were not caused by the cold but by a gut-wrenching fear lurching up his constricted throat. He couldn’t speak, could only babble like a baby which he’d been called numerous times – “Momma’s boy, momma’s boy.” He was an easy target after all, one of the few kids back then with a single parent. And his mother was known for her eccentricities – an “artist,” some of the kids, and parents, never hesitated to mention. She was a free-thinking intellectual but in the small town of Glennhaven that was as good as nothing. He knew then what he had to do. Stand up to Ansel once and for all. Get it over with. Fight back. Take his licks, drown in their laughter if need be.
Ansel was horsing around now, pretending to dance, luridly thrusting his hips and wagging his tongue. The other kids were howling – like dodos, Billy thought. He’d gotten interested in birds last year when he was sick – or rather “out-foxing his problem” – and had to be home-schooled for a time. He’d learned as much during those months as he’d ever learned in the public school. For instance, he knew that while dodos might not have been as dumb as legend would have it, their too trusting nature made them easy pray for humans and contributed to their extinction. And besides, they were fat and clumsy. And they couldn’t fly, were moored to the earth like their relatives the pigeons. Couldn’t fly, couldn’t fly.
The bird Billy adored, and ended up writing his report about, was the Eurasian magpie, a small bird but considered one of the smartest animals in the world. Like humans, a few apes, bottlenose dolphins and Asian elephants, Billy had learned that magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror, proving they have self-recognition, a sign of social behavior. Even his dog, Jax, smart as he was, couldn’t pass the “mirror test,” which Billy had given him.
After he’d written the report his mother had gone over it carefully, reading glasses perched on her thin nose, her lips moving silently. Sometimes he could hear little wisps of sound escaping through them. She was a painter, but she revered words and wouldn’t let him get away with lazy writing. When she’d handed back his report, marked up in red ink she’d suggested he draw an illustration which would help him to learn even more about birds by letting his hand and eye get involved – intimate knowledge she called it.
He’d tried drawing a magpie but all of his attempts were horrible. None of them looked like the photo in the book. He kept starting over, drawing a few squiggly lines and then, disgusted with his results, wadded the paper up and threw it on the floor. Just as he was about to give up, tell her he couldn’t do it, something extraordinary happened. He drew an outline that really did resemble a magpie. It was as if a ghost had taken over his hand and were guiding the pencil, fixing a miraculous boundary between what was and everything else – space and negative space, his mother later explained.
He loved that drawing just as he loved his mother. Was there a crime in loving someone because they unconditionally loved you back? They were each other’s world and always had been. Did that make him a momma’s boy like Ansel Harper and the others had claimed? He knew that he was soft and sensitive, and yes, even shy, but he was definitely not a momma’s boy. He loved the woods but it did not make him a woodsman.
Ansel danced forward in the aisle playing himself for a clown. His broad frame filled the space and he looked even larger in his unfastened, over-sized Notre Dame jacket, the leather sleeves flapping like wings that wouldn’t lift. When the bus got to the highway Mr. Dudley had to tap the brakes hard and Ansel lunged forward but caught himself at the last moment, grabbing hold of one of the rails. He turned around and twisted his big fat lips into a wad of leering flesh and then started in again, chanting, “Billy-boo-boo, there’s a boy waiting for you.” He blew Billy an imaginary kiss then waddled down the aisle with his short, stumpy legs. Boys and girls were laughing now and Ansel kept marching.
Then he stopped. Darkened eyes laser-focused on Billy, jaw line set, he started to run but just before he reached his target he was suddenly launched forward, jacket bunched up around his broad shoulders as if he were about to level a tackle. Instead of ramming into Billy, he crashed hard on the wet and dirty floor behind Billy’s seat. Someone had thrust their foot out at the last moment causing him to fly like a magpie across the aisle. For a few seconds the bus went eerily silent, only the sound of the bald tires hitting the cold pavement.
Ansel moaned on the floor. When he finally pulled himself back to his seat he slunk down and didn’t say another word the rest of the way.
No one laughed. And after that, Ansel Harper never once tried to bully Billy Hendrickson.
Mrs. Gleason swirled her cubes around in her glass. Even though she had on sunglasses Bill could see she was casting a sideways glance at his mother. “So, that’s quite a story,” she said.
His mother leaned over and picked up the pitcher of Manhattans, poured some into her glass then offered some to Mrs. Gleason.
“Not yet,” said her friend, cupping her wrinkled hand over the glass.
He shook his head.
“So, what exactly happened on the bus,” said Mrs. Gleason, apologetically. “I mean, I know that Ansel was tripped . . . but who did it?”
Bill could see that his mother was gloating. The alcohol had kicked in. “I was Alice LaPlante’s little friend,” his mother said, beaming. “We had it all worked out that I’d get on the bus with her. That way I could be there when that little shit Ansel started in with his bullying.”
She put her glass to her lips – for dramatic effect, Bill thought.
“You remember me, I was always small. Always young looking for my age. None of the kids, not even Billy here, recognized me. I was the girl with the blue hat. When Ansel began teasing my son I did what any mother in her right mind would do – the little son-of-a-bitch.”
“Aha,” said Mrs. Gleason, “What a story!”
His mother was basking in her glory. She was staring out at the lake but he knew she was thinking about herself, how she’d taken matters into her own hands, out-foxed another problem as though it were a blank canvas she had painted, framed and hung on the wall – a representation of a real thing.
“Alice was such a sweet girl,” Mrs. Gleason sighed. “Smart and pretty. That girl was going places.”
“I know,” his mother said. “Simply tragic.”
There was real tenderness in their tone. Bill had to keep his eyes clamped tight so they didn’t see the tears welling beneath his eyelids. He had loved Alice from afar. She had been the first one to get inside his heart and she had never left it. He had not wanted to remember but now it was there again, stamped indelibly in his mind.
A month later, Alice had been rushing to catch the bus, lugging her violin and backpack and athletic bag to the stop at the end of the road. A car had come over the hill, and when it got to the bottom Alice was just then running across the road. There was a patch of ice. The driver hit his brakes and the car careened wildly.
When the school bus lumbered up to her stop they had all looked out the windows at the police cars, the flashing red lights. They saw the car with its dented fender. A desperate man with gray hair leaned against the back of it, holding his head in his hands. Mr. Dudley had been told to turn the bus around. Painstakingly, he’d managed, but barely. The rest of the way the bus had been as silent as the snow coming down. They’d taken a different, longer route to the school and were late but nobody had cared.
Just before lunch there had been an announcement – there were never any announcements before lunch – Mr. Jenkins, the principal, confirming the worst: It had been Alice and she was dead. The same vortex-sucking hush had filled the entire school, students and teachers staring at each other in disbelief. Many of the girls cried and some of the boys, including Billy.
Out on the water Kelly was still pushing Billy Jr. around on the splash board and she was blowing bubbles in the water that sounded like a motorboat engine. Billy Jr. giggled and kicked his feet into the water, a spray shooting up behind them. Bill could tell already that his son was a magpie, smart and self-possessed, who’d never have to worry about the Ansels of the world because he’d instinctively know how to fend for himself.
He squeezed his eyes tight against the sun. Behind his eyelids was a sea of red with flickering yellow and green lines. On the lake, had he been looking, the light reflected similarly.
It was true his mother had gotten on the bus with Alice. And when she’d come aboard everyone had grown silent, including Ansel Harper. But she had made no pretense to disguise herself. She wore what she always wore – black cotton jodhpurs and one of her flowing white painting shirts stained with color and a wool coat on top to keep her warm. She came on the bus, whispered something to Mr. Dudley who seemed to oblivious to one more rider, sat down, crossed her arms and waited. And after a few blocks when Ansel Harper had begun to sing “Billy-Billy,” quietly taunting in his old sing-song way, she turned around and told him to shut his fucking mouth or she’d chop his little dick off before he’d ever learned to use it.
Ansel had shut up.
The rest of the ride to school, uneventful.
Mortified, Bill had melted into his seat. He knew a day or two later Ansel would be teasing him even more fervently to burn off his own public humiliation. His mother had looked over and smiled knowingly, while Alice LaPlante turned her head to the window and stared out at the passing scenery.
When the bus had arrived at the school, his mother popped out of her seat and waited for him to follow her off but he hadn’t wanted to go; he’d wanted to stay on and ride back to wherever empty buses went. He knew Mr. Dudley would never even know he was still on. But his mother glared at him as if to say “I’ve done this for you, now come,” and so he’d gotten up and followed her down the aisle. Outside, standing before the school doors, she’d told him to go in. Alice LaPlante’s mother, she’d said, was waiting for her in the parking lot. She, too, had been in on his mother’s little secret. She kissed his head and pushed him gently toward the school and he went forward, never once looking back.
Two days later, Ansel Harper had gone back to his teasing again and this time he hadn’t let up. Billy’s private place had become a prison and even Alice LaPlante’s sad smiles couldn’t stop any of it from happening. When he got home from school and his mother asked how things had gone that day on the bus, he’d answered, Better. There was no need telling the truth. He’d hunkered down, he’d taken it. What else could he do? She’d meant well but there were some things she couldn’t help him out-fox.
He was thinking of something he’d read about magpies. Native Americans viewed the birds as a symbol of trickery, their intelligence often used deceptively but they played out their deceptions with a light heart and good intention. That had always stayed with him and he hadn’t known why. He’d never found a way to use it in his report.
“How do you make your Manhattans?” Mrs. Gleason was asking his mother. “With rye or bourbon?
“Rye,” his mother answered. “Never bourbon.” She shook the pitcher and topped off both of their drinks. “Billy, all of the maraschino cherries will be gone if you don’t let me pour you a glass.”
To Mrs. Gleason she said, “Even as a little boy he’s always loved maraschino cherries.”
Out on the water, Kelly was no longer blowing bubbles but was still pushing Billy Jr. around, although now the boy was supine, facing the sky. His giggles sounded throaty but quieter and more infrequent. His wife seemed intent on what she was doing and being very careful, too.
“Ought to be getting those burgers on the grill pretty soon,” he heard her say as if she were down by the water, her voice trailing up on the wind.
About the Author
Debra S. Levy holds an MFA in Writing and Literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is a recipient of two Individual Artist grants from the Indiana Arts Commission. She has had work published in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia, Little Fiction, Brevity, The Pinch, The Common, Glimmer Train, and others. In 2016, she received a Pushcart Prize nomination for fiction, and in 2017 a chapbook of her flash fiction will be published by Finishing Line Press. She and her husband, their dog and cats live in Indiana and northern Michigan.