"Eh!" It was something Billy did all of the time. He would throw his right hand up in a dismissive gesture and say "Eh!" at the same time. It was the last thing I ever saw him do and the last word I ever heard him utter.
He was walking east on Oregon Avenue toward a trail that would allow to take a shortcut home cutting off half of the block that he would otherwise have to travel. Both of his arms hung from his side like he Popeye walking along looking to beat the shit out of Pluto. At the last second, he threw the right arm up showing me the back of his hand and saying the word loudly, not screaming exactly, but enough for me to hear.
He didn't do it out of meanness or anything, or to show a disdain for me. He was just telling me, once again, to take things easy, to be disdainful of rules that made no sense or people who blathered with beads of sweat on their foreheads and authoritative gesticulations. It was Billy who taught me that such people were clueless and talked and acted like they knew stuff that they didn't know.
Billy drowned the next day while swimming in a ditch in front of dairy that now belongs to the prison. He hit his head on a rock and panicked almost dragging a friend down with him. The incident caused me a lot problems, most significantly, making fearful of water and delaying my ability to swim by several years.
I have written it about several times, each time from a different perspective but always showing a great deal of respect for the missing specter of Death. Sometimes I end the narrative by telling about the dream I had the night after I had heard the news, but at other times ending it with that last image I had of him walking away with his hand upraised right before I turned my gaze in the direction of my home which was just around the corner.
As I have grown older, my belief in the power of ghostly visitors from the past has grown by leaps and bounds. I have often ruminated on the importance of the incident and especially on how I instinctively knew to turn and get that last glimpse of Billy defiantly walking into the great unknown.
I realize now that it was Billy who first taught me the value of defiance. Before he came to our school, I always walked the straight and narrow blindly oblivious to the idea that there was any other way. Once, we were talking to two girls after school by the cafeteria at Mark Twain Elementary, and he used the word fuck in a sentence.
It was the first time I had ever heard the word used in polite conversation, and I anxiously awaited the girls' response. When they, in turn, used the word, I mentally told myself, "Fuck, they aint a got problem with it, I guess I shouldn't fucking either." I marvel at the fact that I could reason that out while still understanding that it would probably be best that I didn't use the word in Sunday School class or in conversations with my mom.
One time the students from Fremont School from across town came to Mark Twain to watch a basketball game. Billy had attended Fremont prior to moving to our side of town, and I could tell from the way he talked about some of the kids that it wasn't a very pleasant experience for him, and intuitively I recognized that a lot of his disdainful outlook was probably in response to the fact that some of those kids with their bright white smiles and expensive shoes had looked down upon him and his comedic antics.
What being around Billy taught me was that life wasn't always going to be nice, and that it would often bring me into contact to unpleasant people and painful situations and that the worse thing that you could do was submit to it. Billy's dismissive hand gesture was a way of telling the world with all the evil stepmothers, damn bullies, and billy goat gruffs in it to go fuck themself.
It was a way of effortlessly swimming through the vast flood waters of the unconscious that life unleashes upon us all. And it was lesson well worth learning, but one that has taken me years to internalize because of the fear of drowning that his premature death engendered.
The next year the kids from my class all traveled north across the city to attend junior high, and I learned first hand about the pain that a deeply felt sense of inferiority can cause a human being. I really needed Billy there to teach me how to properly execute that hand gesture and how to utter a simple two letter expression in such a way that it banished self doubt. Instead, I was left with a childish mantra, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me, " knowing full well that it was a lie because they do, they surely fucking do.