In photos from his youth he looked like a porcelain doll, a severely myopic puppet. When I knew him, he was in constant motion, a coiled spring: knee bouncing, fingers grasping and lighting cigarettes, eyes darting, lips moving and always talking sports. I couldn’t keep up with him though I knew I was smarter.
He was my mother’s only sibling, born when my grandmother was in her 40s, eventually becoming too much for her to care for. Back then my Uncle Billy had a sweeping range of unspecified mental issues (widely ignored by all around him), yet he possessed an eidetic memory for sports trivia. (Asperger’s Syndrome wouldn’t be recognized until 1944 and only officially named for Hans Asperger in 1981, a year after the good doctor’s death.) He was hyperactive, displayed attention deficit tendencies, was susceptible to stimulants and depressants alike. We merely called him Silly Billy, but not to his face. Billy was simply complicated.
He played rough, too. He would yank the grapefruit from the trees in our grandfather’s back yard in St. Petersburg, Florida, and entice me and my brother into games of catch, the velocity of his delivery increasing until, hands throbbing and covered with juice, we begged him to stop. Uncle! we’d bleat.
When I was little, he would pick me up and plunk me on his shoulders and then run around the yard at full speed. Although he was agile and strong, he was extremely nearsighted — I was convinced he would trip over a sprinkler and I’d be hurtled headlong into the bougainvillea. I suspected, too, he interpreted my screams of fright as shrieks of joy.
One thing: he never dropped me. Not ever. Were it not for his mental and ocular aberrations, he would have made a fine second baseman.
Then there were the stories. Before I was born, Billy went through an altitude phase. He would escape the confines of his parents’ house, ride the city bus to a nearby water tower and scale it. As in the film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Leonardo DeCaprio’s character Arnie habitually climbs water towers like Uncle Billy did, but Billy was more coherent than Arnie. Still, both shared the altitude itch.
I regret never spending more than a few days at a time with my uncle. Although my mother dearly loved her own mother because she was well educated, she wasn’t close to her father or brother because they were not. Billy was a creature unto his own, and she kept us away. When I was a kid I was fascinated by him. Within the context of our extended family, his every movement was calculated, choreographed. When the subject of sports arose, which it often did, he was the sage at the center of the discussion, winning every argument. As for matters of politics or world affairs, he couldn’t care less.
But it’s the water tower episodes that intrigue me. I was told, reluctantly, that the police were involved and that Billy spent a handful of nights in jail. In his 30s he began to drink heavily, perhaps to quiet the barrage of sports facts and figures in his head — speculation on my part — or as a result of his myriad untreated mental problems. His parents (my Nana and Papa) could no longer handle him then, so Billy was handed over to his Uncle Bill and Aunt Lucille. He worked odd jobs in their downtown deli, but couldn’t function alone in the house for more than a few days. One such experiment yielded a drunken party with a prostitute ensconced in an upstairs bedroom, Billy confused and hungry in the trashed livingroom.
In his 40s, Billy lived with Bill and Lucille in their house by a lake on the south side of town, and he continued to drink and smoke heavily. By 1972 his mother was gone and he saw his aging father sporadically (though both lived in the same city), and Billy became a daily fixture at the local tavern, landing in jail a handful of times for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. Although he wasn’t a fighter, I’m sure his sports trivia knowledge was challenged unfairly.
He continued his utilitarian work at the deli, continued to drink and smoke heavily, and I rarely saw him, save for our holiday visits to the south side of town when he would whip my ass at gin rummy.
Papa died in 1983, and when Uncle Bill followed four years later, Billy and Lucille sold the deli and moved to a small apartment in the west central part of town. They led quiet, uneventful lives mere blocks from the house where Jack Kerouac spent his last tragic, alcohol-soaked years in the late 1960s. After my wife and I moved to Atlanta, we returned home one Christmas and I was surprised to find Billy much slower than I’d ever seen him — by then he was riddled with lung cancer. Lucille cared for him to the end, even searching for him one night when he wandered off in a haze, scooping him up across the street from Kerouac’s pitiful, darkened ranch house. Although Billy knew about Kerouac, he wasn’t a fan and I can’t imagine him making a pilgrimage there, 20 years after the mythic man’s death. In 1993, Billy died at home in the bathroom. Afterwards, I remember noticing blood stains on the bathroom tile which Lucille was too weary to completely clean away.
Three years later, Lucille died in a car crash: a lousy, stupid, t-bone wreck one block from the Kerouac house. The significance of living and dying near the iconic Beat writer’s last stand baffles me, yet the sadness seems appropriate. To this day I can’t bring myself to visit this area of my hometown. It’s just too overwhelming. To some, Florida is Disney and sunshine; to me, it’s sorrow and loss.
In the photograph of me and Uncle Billy, I appear on the verge of tears. I like to think that by setting me high on his shoulders he was trying to teach me to be brave. “Hang on, buddy!” he would say.
Still, sadly for me, I never fully understood him.