DON’T HIT ME, BILLY…

 

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

I really do believe that every single experience we’ve had is stored in our memories. Even the little nonsense nothings – a mailbox I passed twenty years ago on an old country road – is there, waiting, with perfect clarity, for something or other to trigger it to life before my eyes.

I’m constantly amazed by the odd places I go in my head when a particular scent fills my nose – sometimes it’s just a flashing image: a stream I ran beside at age ten; a kitchen in a forgotten friend’s house where I “invented” peanut-butter by coating peanuts in butter and slamming them with a hammer; or chasing garter snakes in the backyard with my dad.

Everything is there – glimpses of my Kodachrome life.  I’ve always claimed to remember the moment of my briss.  Eight days old, just after the cut, when large, hairy hands placed a fluffy, purple dinosaur in my crib. I remember thinking it was hardly compensation for what had been taken.

My wife says there’s no way I can remember this. She says it’s a made-up image, malarky all the way.

Malarky. Now, that’s a word from a different era. Brings memories of my wife’s stepfather who died recently at the age of 89. He was a swing-time jazz musician and his vocabulary was filled with jumpin’ jive words, like malarky.

So, I was shaving the other day and I saw a flash of myself at age 19, standing in a studio apartment in Santa Cruz, California, with a drink in my hand. My eyes downcast, listening to the stomping of feet toward me, seeing a glimpse of a muscled arm rising.

And me, repeating the words, “Don’t hit me, Billy. Billy. Please. Don’t hit me.”

I don’t know why the memory came to me at just that moment, as I held the razor to my cheek. Nothing to prompt it. Just me staring at my face.

It was only a year ago, right? Maybe ten. At the most fifteen. It couldn’t have been twenty-eight. But it was.

I had arrived at Christie’s home. We’d spent the afternoon together with her four year old daughter. Christie was twenty-three and she worked at the video store in downtown Santa Cruz, owned by the TV producer I had come to work for as an intern. The “TV producer” ended up being a flaky, local entrepreneur and coke dealer. It was the best internship I ever had.

Christie took a liking to me right away. But she had this “friend” named Billy, who seemed to hang around a lot. I never really saw Billy, just a shadow here and there. He was twenty-seven – a real man with dreams and plans that apparently included Christie. Her cute little daughter came from a previous relationship, so Billy had no claim to her. And, according to Christie, Billy was just a friend.

Christie had a car, which was more than I had, and she let me drive her and her daughter around that afternoon, getting take-out at Pizza My Heart and an ice cream at Baskin Robbins. This was a long time ago, when Pizza My Heart had only two locations–one in downtown Santa Cruz (by the bus station) and one in Capitola. 1985. Just yesterday.

We watched the sun as it set over the Pacific and then Christie asked me to take her home. Take us home. It looked like I’d be spending the night.

We drove to her place and then past it because there was a car hovering in the shadows.

“What’s Billy doing here?” she asked, rhetorically.

She told me to keep driving. We went back to the beach, watched the stars come out in the sky. Then I drove back and, still, Billy’s car in the driveway.

“I think Billy thinks he’s your boyfriend,” I said. “Maybe I should go home. While the buses are running.”

“No…no, Billy’s just a friend….” she said, without conviction.

We drove around town a bit then returned to discover that Billy had left.

I carried her sleeping daughter and put her in bed, which was uncomfortably close to Christie’s bed, which, from the way things were looking, would be my bed as well.

Christie fixed me a drink and we stood for what seemed like seconds when the white light of a car’s headlights flashed the window.

“Who could that be?” she asked, rhetorically. I was getting pretty tired of ‘rhetorically.’

There was a soft knock at the door and Christie opened it.

“Billy, what are you doing here?”

 His hands in his pockets, an “aw, shucks” slump, genuine and kind. “Where’ve you been tonight, Christie?”

Then he sees me over her shoulder. My drink in hand, a dopey smile on my face. “Hi, Billy,” I said, in ironic monotone. A slow wave of my hand.

He turned around quickly, a rush of anger. Stepped away from the door, stepped back and away again, then forward with determination, his hand moving through his hair, his cheeks blowing red.

“Billy,” Christie said, “what’s going on?”

I knew what was going on.

He stomped into the house, pushing Christie aside.

“Billy!” she screamed. “Billy, stop!”

And me, just watching him come. I was no match for him. I knew it. There was really only one thing to do.

“Billy. Don’t hit me, Billy. Please. Don’t hit me.”

A calm, pleading appeal. I made no move to defend myself. I guess in the back of my mind I pictured the tables turned – would I be able to hit a defenseless kid who meant no harm, a kid who clearly hadn’t slept with my girlfriend or friend or whatever I chose to call her?

Billy approached like a bear with his arm cocked all the way to his ear. He stood above me, a foot taller, knuckles shaking in a now-or-never fist.

In the background, Christie screaming, “No, Billy, stop, stop!”

In the foreground, a droning mantra, “Please. Billy. Please. Don’t hit me, Billy.”

The combination worked. He turned on his heel, brought the anger to his lungs. “Get the fuck out of here!” and pushed me from the house.

The door slammed behind me. It was a cold winter night. The buses had stopped running and it would be a long, long walk to my apartment on Pacific Avenue. Seven miles, was my guess. I sat in the shadows in the front yard, listening to Christie talking nonsense and Billy punching walls.

Somehow, she managed it. Explained that I was just a friend from work who bought her and her daughter some ice cream–on my way home when Billy came to the door. I don’t really know what all she said, except for the “I love yous” and “Oh, Billy, it’s only you, you know that.” After an hour he stepped through the door and came to me with his hand extended.

“Sorry, man. I totally misunderstood,” he said.

Me, I’m glad he didn’t show up twenty minutes later.

“Well, yeah, okay,” I said. “But now I don’t have a way home. I could use a ride.”

Billy wasn’t about to drive me home and he wasn’t going to let his whatever-she-was spend a minute alone with me in a car. We compromised and they let me borrow her car so I could drive to my apartment, where I slept lonely and alone in an ice-box room above the local Mexican club, the Acapulco Lounge. Mariachi music until two a.m.

A month or two later Billy took Christie and the kid back to wherever it was he came from, Minnesota, I think, where they could have a normal life among normal friends. She was twenty-three, Christie. She’d be in her fifties now.

How did this start? Oh, yeah. Memories. That one came while I was shaving.

Time is not what we know. I’m convinced that everything that ever happened to me happened no earlier than fifteen years ago. Whenever someone asks me how long I’ve known this or that person, or when I left Albuquerque, or when I went to music school, I always think, “Well it had to be around fifteen years ago.” Because that’s as long as anything has every happened in my life, right?

I’m one of the most sentimental, nostalgic persons I know. I love my memories, good and bad. I used to be the only one like this, until I met all the friggin’ authors. Now I know I’m not alone. It’s a gene we’re born with, me and the writers. We’re lost in our memories. We’re lost in our minds.

Not a bad place to be, if you have to be anywhere at all.

                                                    *     *     *

Come read next week’s episode, when Stephen finds Billy dealing blackjack in Vegas and says, “Hit me, Billy. Please. Hit me.”*

* The last bit is just a bunch of malarky.

23 thoughts on “DON’T HIT ME, BILLY…

  1. Richard Maguire

    A fascinating post, Stephen. Very enjoyable. Thanks for a great read.

    Malarky is a word my father often used. That and "cockamamie". Not sure if that's the correct spelling. Can't find it in my English dictionary. Maybe it's in Websters. Or maybe it's a load of malarky.

  2. Allison Davis

    Sweet, wonderful writing. Makes me nostalgic as well, what happens during the holidays. Memories triggered by all sorts of things, bits of music, and especially smells. Certain smells remind me of my great grandmother's basement, that had a coal bin and a particular smell, and from that her beautiful banister, that as little kids we would slide down. She thought it was great, my grandmother would scold (yes "scold") us. She made the best pie in the world.

    More recently an old boyfriend got in touch and it triggered memories of soft ice cream cones, an MG I think sports car that barely ran, exploring caves and feeling on top of the world when I was 20. Oh, damn, so long ago. So many dreams ago.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh my god, the trouble we get ourselves into at age 19. It's a wonder any of us survive to 25. Or 18, in fact. Thanks for letting me inside your skin to live a more male kind of trouble.

  4. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hey Stephen

    I have a memory of being in my pram, being wheeled down the street where my grandmother lived, and one of her neighbours leaning over her fence to peer in at me. Honestly!

    Oh, and I can show you how to cope with Billy – call me :))

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Richard – thanks, man. Ah, yes, cockamamie was another big favorite of my father-in-law. My writing was mostly cockamamie and malarky until I was published. He was actually a very good short story writer and published a few in the O Henry collections of way back when. I want to republish them someday as an ebook collection. But I have to retype them all, which slows things down a bit.

    Twanya – If I see him in Vegas I'm running the other way.

    Sarah – thanks. I'm thankful for the adventures of my life – they've given me something to write about.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison – your descriptions of your grandmother's place gave me instant memories of my grandfather's basement in Omaha, Nebraska, where he sat all night with his Ham radio. I remember how he would help typhoon victims in Japan, just by communicating with them and rescue workers over that radio. It was a yesteryear for sure. And my dad actually had an MG for a time. Little, senseless sports car to fill the mid-life crisis gap.
    I'm betting that your grandma's pie was a heck of a lot better than my grandma's fruit cake.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Alex – I think your female kind of trouble trumps all the male kind of trouble I can throw your way.

    Zoe – You and me, girl, the most perceptive babies in the world. And this pram thing – when my wife and I were pregnant (I say "we," but she carried most of the load) we read all the baby magazines we could find. In one of them we kept reading about "prams," and we were thinking, "Oh, my God, we need a pram! Where do we get a pram? What the hell IS a pram?" In the same magazine we read an article about a woman who flew to London when she was 9 months pregnant. We thought she must have been crazy to take a flight that long. Then we saw that she flew from Ireland to London, which was where she lived. And then we realized we were reading a British magazine, and a "pram" was a "crib." Moment of panic over.
    And I don't know if I want your advice on how to handle Billy…I don't look good in prison clothes.

  8. David Corbett

    Please, Stephen. Keep writing stuff like this. Keep remembering, Stephen. Please.

    (I feel like I've forgotten damn near everything, and my life feels very gray at times because of it.)

  9. Zoรซ Sharp

    Ah, sorry, Stephen, a pram – perambulator – is actually a buggy, as opposed to a pushchair, which I think would be a stroller. A crib is just … a crib. Or a cradle, or a cot.

    I think :))

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David – I'll do my best to remember for the both of us. One of my great fears is that I'll someday have Alzheimer's, which would be my undoing. I'm hoping to nail all these little memories as blogs before that day comes.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Zoe – Oiy, what was I saying, I MEANT stroller, not crib. I knew what I meant but I didn't say what I meant. I guess it's the first stage of losing one's mind…

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Reine – Santa Cruz from way back then was the BEST. Still a hippie enclave, it hadn't been turned into Melrose Place yet. I do miss it.

  13. Reine

    I had my first Szechuan food there. And it was there I had my first experience of walking through the woods and being frightened by them. I met a professor there who knew where I came from back east, which neighborhood, and the block I lived onโ€“ just by listening to me speak, he said. He was scary too. I felt much safer out in the open with the hippies down on Pacific Avenue and by the water. It was my first sense of rocks being safer than trees.

  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Reine – those woods can definitely get spooky. I actually lived ON Pacific Avenue – right above the Acapulco Lounge, across from Logos Bookstore. The building doesn't even exist anymore, it was damaged too much during one of the big earthquakes. So, I would sit on my windowsill watching the street scene – the hippies and hustlers and students and musicians. It was just one room – no kitchen, no bathroom. The bathroom and shower were down the hall and I had to share it with everyone in the building. I had a hot plate and a sink and I learned to make spaghetti that way. It was a great time. Cost me $160 a month. Ah, memories.

  15. Blair Hayes

    Great story, subjective details of which made me totally there with you, scared shitless that "we" were gonna take a punch to the nose.

    How long we known each other? 15 years, right?

  16. Matt Coyle

    Malarkey brings back memories on its own.
    Your post made remember when someone did hit me, a cheap shot actually, and big brother got to be a big brother. Thanks for the memories, Stephen.

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