“Hey John! What are you doin’ here? Where’s Billy?”
As the old guy turned toward me, he moved slower than usual. I wondered if he was sick or injured.
I saw him the Friday before–caught him just as he was closing.
“Hey Billy! Before you go, can I get a Coke?”
He pretended to frown, his furrowed forehead and mischievous eyes gesturing toward the world outside.
“Lotta dames are waitin’, y’know.”
“Yeah, but I gotta work late and I’m gettin’ tired.”
He waved me in.
The store is small, smaller than any other lobby shop I’ve seen in Boston’s financial district; but it is efficient. Two steps in and you’re surrounded by varnished shelves stuffed with Twinkies and Wheat Thins, Cracker Jacks and Tootsie Rolls. A mahogany partition separates the customers from the cashiers. On top sits a huge, steel register with a side lever; each hand cranked transaction rings like the bell on a kid’s bike. Beyond the chinging currency counter, cigarettes and lottery tickets rise, stacked, against one wall; two large thermoses and a heavy duty coffee maker occupy a counter against the other. Between them, through a glass door, a refrigerator tempts you with canned soda, bottled water, and thick sandwiches swathed in Saran Wrap.
“Regular or diet?”
“Why ya workin’ late? It’s Friday.”
“Yeah, I know, but I gotta a project due on Monday.”
He handed me a can. I dangled a dollar.
“The register’s closed. Pay me next week.”
“All right.” I stuffed the bill back into my pants. “Thanks…and have a good weekend.”
“You too.” Then, a second later, as I was heading out the door: “Try to have some fun, will ya? Ya work too much.”
“I will,” I said. But I did not sound convincing.
Billy disturbed me. He had from the beginning. I met him along with John during my first day on the job, a couple of years back, and have been a regular at the store ever since. Writing system documentation can get tedious. A coffee in the morning and another after noon keeps me going.
I met John first. Short and gruff with sharp blue eyes and a gravely voice, he’s so typically Irish Southie that I sometimes wonder if he acts that way on purpose. He follows sports and current events, and each morning we talk a bit. I never have to ask him for a coffee. He automatically fills a cup–black, no sugar–when I walk through the door.
On that first day, I asked John if he owned the store.
“Naw, a guy named Ted owns it. I just work here. Ever since I retired.”
“You work all day?”
“Naw, just mornings. Another guy works in the afternoon.”
That afternoon, I met the other guy. The store was packed with young women, an occurrence I would soon find common. They were laughing and talking, sipping soda, some even smoking, though it was illegal to do so indoors—anything went, I would discover, when Billy was working. I stood in the rear, assuming it was the end of a line.
A cushion of dark hair hovered over their heads.
“How’s it goin’!”
“Uhh…good, thanks.” His exuberance had caught me off guard.
“What can I get for ya?”
“Coffee, please. Black.”
I watched him as he worked. So did all his friends.
He was about my age. A year older actually, as I would later learn. He was also good looking; not handsome, but boyishly so. His face was full and dimpled, his cheeks a fleshy red. Beneath black curls, green eyes seemed amused. Billy affected people, especially women. It was his smile: a radiant, prankish, infectious grin that never vanished.
Unlike John, Billy never learned my name. After a short while, though, he’d also anticipate my order.
“How’s it goin’!” his greetings always ending a few notes higher than they began.
“Yes, please. And how are you doin’?”
“Dannnndy. Gettin’ outta here soon. Gotta redhead t’meet.” He’d look me in the eye and wink. “One–dollar–please.”
I’d hand him the buck.
“Thank you. Have a good one.”
The conversation was usually the same. A few times, though, it extended further. I discovered that he had a college degree and that we lived in the same town.
I started to wonder about Billy: How could he be so carefree and happy? He sells junk food to bankers from a closet in a high rise. Is he satisfied with that? Where’s his ambition?
One day, I hung over the wall that separates my cubicle from Tim’s.
“I bet he’s a drug dealer,” I said, ”or a bookie.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. Haven’t you noticed that he leaves a lot? And he takes that gym bag with him?”
“Yeah, I have noticed that. He posts a sign on the door: ‘BACK IN 15 MINUTES’”. Then Tim paused, obviously in thought, before adding: “He does take off a lot, doesn’t he?”
Where does he go? we speculated. To lunch?
Doubtful. The store has plenty of food.
To the bathroom?
Not with a gym bag.
My curiosity surged. Sometimes, I’d go down there and a radio would be blaring and Billy would be singing. Other times, I’d find him in Bermuda shorts, no shoes, puffing a cigar. One time, I found him alone.
“Billy, is this your full time job?”
“Nooooo. I’m just doing Ted a favor. He asked me to help him out for awhile.”
That was a year-and-a-half ago.
John finally spoke.
At first, I thought I had misunderstood him. I wish I had.
“God, John–did you know him well?”
The old guy lowered his head. I noticed, in thinning white, a patch of pink I hadn’t before. Time seemed paralyzed as my eyes absorbed the bright badge of age. I can still see the ruddy flesh shining in my mind.
“I thought I did.”
The walk back to my desk took forever. The walls wavered. The floor felt like sponge. Tim was standing in his cube. He saw the coffee in my hand and the look on my face.
“I guess you’ve heard.”
I nodded, my bobbing slight and robotic, my focus distant, my mind detached.
Silence ruled a long, uneasy moment; then Tim spoke.
“Do you, uhh…know how…he did it?”
C’mon man! I thought, snapping out of my cerebral haze. Is that really import…. But I answered nonetheless.
“A .357–through the mouth.”
The Globe lay open on my desk. Tim had put it there. Billy’s obituary was the only one with a photo. He wore that same sunny smile.