When we were teenagers, my brother Bill got one of those styrofoam heads that preserve the shape of a wig. He decorated it with lipstick, added a wig and drew other features to create a woman's surprised expression. While I drove, he held the head at window level, turning it to "stare" at drivers who glanced over. The reactions made me laugh until I cried.
"I loved when that happened," he said years later.
In our family of well-behaved people, Bill was the indoor cat who escaped and only trotted further away at being urged back indoors. He worried us, charmed us, avoided us, needed us, but in the field he stayed.
"Anyone heard from Bill?" someone would ask.
"Not since Christmas," someone would answer.
Slight and savvy, Bill was deliberately mediocre, earning only passing grades in school, working only enough to live and have a little fun. Rarely, was he still. Often, did he fall for appalling women who hoped his manners and nice hand-me-downs meant he came from money.
We say we struggled to accept him but really, we struggled to understand why he wasn't more like us. I was the worst, losing patience with his choices while I modeled more "appropriate" behavior around my growing children. But then he'd show up with stories of his cowboy life and we'd laugh until we cried and the next day, he'd be gone again.
"Have you heard from Bill?" I would ask someone.
"Not in a long time," someone would say.
He settled on a career driving 18-wheelers–a poetic answer to his need to wander, to connect without committing, to power something bigger than himself, and oh, to support an infant son he'd fathered on the fly.
I was not surprised by this news, nor was I quiet about it. I believe I even referred to Bill-the-dad as a "pinball." I wanted everyone else to be as indignant as I was. But everyone else, he'd won over. Me, he'd learned to steer away from.
When most of our children had gone, and my husband had taken a job out of state and I was alone and struggling to finish a novel, Bill called with new stories; he'd jammed the truck under a New York overpass–twice. He'd gotten it stuck in an alley.
I laughed like I'd never stopped.
And then, the calls came frequently, always on the heels of some memory he'd been soaking in behind the wheel of that truck. I began to search the energy in his voice to locate him on the luck spectrum–troubled, healthy, broke, happy.
One night, while I was cooking a sauce, the phone rang.
Road noise whirred in the background.
"I just need..." he said.
"What do you need?"
"I just need someone to tell me it's going to be all right."
I turned off the burner.
"It will," I said. "It will be all right."
In my writing, I found myself stymied by one character that wouldn't leave my mind. I called him different things, "Sully" and "Iggy", but nothing fit. The character was familiar, I knew him, but I couldn't fluff him into more than a profane alley cat, a profane barfly or a profane truck driver. The way to endear this character to a reader just wouldn't travel to the page, no matter what I did.
"What's this shit about you writing a book?"
He'd never known an author. An excited, expletive-filled response followed. It began to depress me, to think I'd disappoint him.
"Maybe you can help me," I said.
He was, for the first time ever, too surprised to respond.
We began a series of trips to the east side of Manchester, New Hampshire where there was poverty I didn't know existed, and menacing teenagers, and lost people with whom I feared making eye contact. I needed them, I could see them on the page but the world I was writing scared me too much to enter it in reality. But, it was Bill's world. He knew the places, the people, how to engage them, how to escape them. He drove, I took notes. He chatted up strangers on corners. I listened.
"Look over there," he said once, while we cruised an alley lined by garbage cans, abandoned cars and chain-link fences. He pointed to a garage door. Across the panels had been painted a mural, the image of a dog who stared wistfully into a starry, navy blue sky. It was the work of a child.
"Now, look over there," he said, pointing across the street to a chain link fence bearing a hand-drawn sign: BEWARE OF ROTTY.
"Imagine what that fucking dog was doing while that kid painted. But look, he got it done."
And I had my character.
Bill's luck turned on him when he was in his late 40s. A heavy smoker for decades, he developed severe COPD. Extrovert that he was, he now shied from situations where he would need oxygen. Diagnosed with a brain tumor shortly after that, he lost his driving privileges, and gradually, his sight. Soon, he stayed at home, where he watched Judge Judy every day, his nose inches from the screen. "She's kick-ass," he said, "she reminds me of you."
Every Tuesday, I took Bill for dinner. In the driveway at 5:00 I'd wait, and out he'd come, walking slowly, deliberately, oxygen tank hanging from his shoulder like a purse. In silence, we'd ride to the restaurant. When we were seated, we'd order a drink and he'd stare into the haze.
"How are you?" I'd ask.
"How do you think I am?"
"You want to talk?"
"I want to be able to fucking see you. See my son."
"Remember that time we went to Taco Bell and you got that wig head and decorated it and then we drove around with it?"
"I remember you laughing your ass off," he said. "I loved when that happened."
By now, the server knew us, and knew when to bring the check.
"Bill," I said when he answered his phone one Tuesday.
"Five o'clock still good?"
"I don't think so, Sue. I think I'm going to cancel this one."
The check came a week later.
At his service, 200 people showed up. The line extended out the door and around the corner. I stayed at the side of his son, Billy, now 20, my brother's "hero" since birth.
"He thought you were awesome," said one friend of Bill's after another to us.
"My dad was awesome," said Billy.
"I'll miss him every day," was what I could manage.
It took months, but I went back, alone, to Manchester. Then, I returned to the page, where my character waited, unfinished. I resumed the story of "Aggie," a man who gains overnight custody of a teenager he must now shield from the bad neighborhood he knows all too well.
It's ready, and I'm trying to let it go, much like I struggled to open the door and let Bill go back to the field.
Nobody didn't love Bill. If he knew you, it was for life. If he knew you, he loved you anyway. And, if he knew you, he only wanted to make you laugh.
He loved when that happened.