LIGHT OF THE DARK BLACK NIGHT
I was taking a tour of the WLKY-TV studio when Billy died.
Celena's friend Debbie, from her crazy cult church, works there, in some kind of high-up programming position. We went to the studio on our way to see Billy in the hospital, because Debbie had some presents she wanted us to take him.
While we were waiting for Debbie to come out, we sat in this lobby-type area, with couches and a big screen TV. My brother Michael was with us, and we talked about how funny it would be to go up there one day, hook the Nintendo up to the TV, order pizza, and just take our shoes of and lay around there, eating junk food and playing video games all afternoon. It was a lot nicer than our living room. Well, "we" didn't exactly have a living room any more - Celena had moved out of our house in Germantown a few months after Billy moved in and became the third roommate, and I hadn't lived with my brother in years.
When Debbie came out, she offered to show us around the studio. We saw the news set (it looks a lot smaller in real life), and we saw the newscasters' desks, but none of the newscasters were there. We thought it was weird that their desks were in the middle of this big newsroom, just like all everyone else's desks - I would've thought they'd have private offices with mahogany furniture or something. When we left, I got a "What's Jay Say?" magnet, which I stuck to the side of my old gray Escort ("She ain't what she used to be," Billy would sing) - the third piece-of-shit car I'd been through in three years. It was the beginning of April, on a sunny day.
Billy had been in the hospital for about a month. When he'd first gone in, I was in Paris (ooh-la-la), putting my student loan money to good use. Saying I was in Paris makes me sound so bourgeois, but I'm not. I just figured that the money left over after tuition would be a good way to finance stuff that I'd never be able to get a loan for otherwise.
When I got home from Paris, I found out Billy was in the hospital. I don't remember how I found out, but I know I went there the same night, and took him this little Eiffel Tower knick-knack. He'd had kidney stones over the previous summer, and since then he'd had health problems here and there, usually of the abdominal variety. Billy told me that he was having pain again when I left, and that a couple days later he'd gone to the ER after he looked in the mirror and saw that he'd turned yellow. They put him on the ninth floor and started doing tests to try to figure out what was wrong with him. They still hadn't figured it out by the time I got back to town.
I didn't go to the hospital as much as I should have. I went every few days, but I wish I had been there every day, all the time. Sure, I have excuses: I was working full-time, taking two college classes, and I had a four-year-old. But he was my roommate, and my best friend.
Things started looking worse and worse for him.
My mom worked in the same hospital doing medical records, so she went almost every day during her lunch, so she knew the most about Billy's health situation, but I wasn't talking to her much. She was sleeping with my boss, who was a total asshole.
Here's the kind of stunt they would pull: Mom would say she could watch Adam (my son) at a certain time, so I could go to work. Scott (my boss) would know my mom was supposed to watch Adam at the time, and would ask her out anyway, also knowing that my mom would drop anything to spend time with a man. Mom would cancel at the last minute, and I'd have to call Scott and tell him I didn't have a babysitter to come to work. Then I'd get in trouble at work. Sometimes mom would spend the night at Scott's and say she'd baby-sit the next morning. She wouldn't show, and I'd have to take Adam with me to open the store. I'd call Scott's to wake her up so she could come pick him up, she'd tell Scott what was going on, and I'd get in trouble because we weren't supposed to have anyone else in the store before it's open.
Anyway, because of all that, my relationship with dear old mom wasn't at its finest, and I had to get most of my Billy-related news from Billy himself, who was hopped up on Morphine. I had a vague idea that his health was deteriorating, and I knew they still hadn't figured out what was wrong. Apparently my mom was keeping Scott informed about Billy, because one day he came in to work and said, "I know you and I have our problems, but your mom told me Billy's not doing well, and I want you to know that I'm really sorry." I'd been hearing dire prognoses, but I guess I was in denial. When I'd speak to Billy's friends, we'd say things like, "He's tough…he'll be okay…he can beat this."
The last time I talked to him was on the phone, Monday night. I'd been planning to visit him that day, but couldn't get a sitter, so I called to tell him that Celena and I would be there Tuesday, around noon.
Billy always called me Grace, as in ‘Will and Grace,' because we were a gay guy and a straight girl living together. He grew up in a tiny town in West Virginia, and moved, acted and spoke just like Blanche Devereaux from ‘Golden Girls.' We didn't watch much TV in the house in Germantown.
Celena, Michael and I left the TV station and drove to the hospital. By now the route was rote: parking garage, through hallway with portraits of hospital bigwigs, up elevator, past waiting area, into room 917. But today, when we passed the waiting room, my mom ran out of it and stopped us. She shook her head: "Don't go in there. Don't go in there. He's gone."
"What?! (that's impossible you're crazy no one told me he was gonna die i didn't think he would die i knew he was sick but he couldn't really die, right, he was only sick for a month it happened too fast i didn't visit enough i abandoned him what am i gonna do he was only 29 i love him)"
We all hugged, our arms full of gifts with no recipient, following protocol. Then mom said, "Go on, you can go in there." I thought, "Why would I want to go in there if he's gone?" But I didn't have time to ask. She was shooing us in.
Apparently, Billy hadn't been dead for very long, because he (his body) was still in the hospital bed. I've seen dead bodies before, but only in funeral homes, when they're arranged, with makeup, rosary, suit and tie, etc. Billy was in that bed in - it must have been the exact position he was in the second he died. One arm was up behind his head. His bare foot was sticking out over the bottom of the bed, uncovered. People had to walk around it to get to the other side.
His mom sat on the bed beside him, where you'd sit if you were singing someone to sleep. She cried, sniffed, sighed, and held Billy's hand, rubbing it between her own, leaning over now and then to kiss his face. Her tears ran down his cheeks, like he was crying.
Billy's hair was a mess. Stubble peppered his chin and the sides of his face. His skin was the color of egg yolks.
The last few times I'd visited him, there was a horrible smell in the room. Celena had noticed it too (you couldn't not), and once we ate lunch with him, and couldn't eat without gagging. It didn't smell like body odor, but still, the only explanation Celena and I could come up with was that maybe they weren't bathing him often enough. Years later I learned that people with liver failure give off a distinct smell that medical journals compare to "mouse droppings" and "rotten eggs."
When Billy was dead, the smell was gone.
I met Mike, a childhood friend of his I'd heard a lot about. We stood around the bed crying for a while. On the way out, I touched Billy's foot.
We went to the smoking area and talked about memorial services. Billy's funeral would be in West Virginia, where he would be buried, but he had a lot of friends in Louisville, so we thought we should have some sort of service here. Mike and his boyfriend went off somewhere to make phone calls, and said they would come to the house later to pick up some clothes for the funeral, and a few items his mom said she wanted. We didn't know what to do, so we went home and cleaned the house for their impending arrival.
Sometimes in moments of insane synchronicity, the song playing on the radio is exactly the one you need to hear. I don't know what was on the radio when we got home, because Celena put on a CD. It played Blackbird, on repeat, and no one stopped it.
We cleaned, wordlessly, until Mike got there, then we all went into Billy's room, which was permeated by Billy's pre-liver-failure smell, and started bagging up his stuff. They took a few clothes, some personal items, and his web TV, climbed into his car, and took off for West Virginia. We were left with a roomful of stuff we didn't know what to do with. We just put it in bags. Some of it we kept: a little notebook of poems he'd written, some candles, pictures - small things like that. We went through an enormous chest of drag-queen paraphernalia, stuff that no real woman would ever wear even if it weren't too creepy because it belonged to her dead roommate.
I cried when we found his old boobs - birdseed stuffed in the cut-off toes of pantyhose that he put in his bras before Frederick's came out with those silicone ones.
The rest is just details. There was a memorial service at Connections, the bar where he worked. A giant she-male sang "His Eye is On the Sparrow." We drank and told stories. The bar offered to pay for half his funeral expenses, but I heard they backed out later.
I spent three days making and returning phone calls until I'd called everyone in his dozens of phone books. Some were one-night stands, some auto mechanics who'd worked on his car, and some who never did figure out why their numbers would have been there. I always hated "passed away," but there I was: "he passed away, he passed away, he passed away." You just can't say "he died" - what if it turns out to be a long-lost friend who's shocked to tears? You don't wanna be too blunt.
I called my landlady to tell her what happened. She knew Billy was in the hospital because I couldn't afford to pay his half of the March rent. I told her I didn't know what I was going to do - find a new roommate or move out - but honestly, I hated every minute of being in that house after he died. It was too easy and too tempting to go into his room. I'd find any reason to go in there, then I'd sit and be weirded out in the dark. It wasn't healthy.
about the author
Laura Ellis has appeared in Where Handstands Surprise Us: The Best of the Bean Street Reading Series and one of her lists will soon appear in McSweeney's. Laura is in a band called Shine-0la and they are really really great.