Pam Van Dyk's nostalgic tale of two friends enjoying each other's company before they move on to a new phase in their lives.
Me and Billy Ray are skipping school today. Billy Ray has been my best friend since elementary school. He's been my best friend since we learned that country kids and town kids don't mix. City kids hang in crowds. That's what makes us different. Country kids don't travel in packs. It might be because we remind each other of how poor or different we are, but it's probably because our houses don't have recreation rooms where we can lay around on the floor and listen to Led Zeppelin albums.
In another time and place, Billy Ray might be one of those guys who plays piano in a smoky jazz lounge. He might call himself Bill or William. But here, in this little town, he is just Billy Ray. He wears his dead grandaddy's old suits and shirts. If that's not bad enough it's made worse by the fact that he's only as tall as me (5 feet 6 inches) and weighs about 125 pounds soaking wet. Judging by the clothes, his grandaddy must have been six feet tall and a good 200 pounds. Billy Ray looks like a kid dressed up for Halloween every day of the year. I keep telling him that he should try to be less obvious. He keeps telling me that my hair is never going to look like Cissy Spacek's hair in Coal Miner's Daughter.
I push two fingers in my mouth to check on my teeth and then press my hands to my belly to calm my butterflies. Me and Billy Ray have never skipped school. We are rule followers. We've never done anything remotely adventurous. Skipping school and swimming in the quarry are the only two things I can come up with when Billy Ray asks me about the adventure plan. I have convinced Billy Ray that there are rusted out old car wrecks at the bottom of the quarry and the bodies of the unfortunate victims float to the surface when there is a full moon. This is pretty exciting stuff.
I cross the field and see Billy Ray's old farmhouse. I bet it was nice when Billy Ray's grandaddy was alive. I've only known it since the rain and wind have turned it gray. "Billy Raaaay!" I yell up at his window. Big Lettie hears me and yells from the couch, "Come on in, honey. Billy Ray's still upstairs." Big Lettie is Billy Ray's mama. She's been sick since Billy Ray was a baby. She's got sugar diabetes. That's why they live with Billy Ray's granny. Big Lettie is Billy Ray's biggest fan. I think that's why Billy Ray wants to run off after he graduates. That kind of devotion can weigh a person down. I think he's afraid that if he doesn't leave, he'll be living in that old farmhouse taking care of his mama for the rest of his life. I don't know what Big Lettie would do without him. He's her lifeline. He brings her news from the outside world and sausage biscuits from the convenience store in town.
"How you doing today, honey?" Big Lettie asks as she lies on the couch eating white powdered donuts. She must be having a good day. She's all made up with her Mary Kay Really Red lipstick which is a magnet for the white confectioner's sugar. Billy Ray is always worried about Big Lettie. She fell and hit her head on the coffee table the last time she had a seizure, and Billy Ray faints at the sight of blood. I wonder if anybody has ever told her that it is called "sugar diabetes" for a reason.
The road is quiet. Not many cars this morning. "Hey Jolie, did you know that I was born the day Norma Jean Mortenson died?" Billy Ray is obsessed with Marilyn Monroe. Lately, he has tried to convince me that he is Marilyn Monroe except that he is the boy version of her. When I ask why, in the name of heaven, would Marilyn Monroe want to come back as a boy, not to mention as Billy Ray Ledbetter, he tells me it is so that she can have a normal life. I don't point out the obvious fact that Billy Ray doesn't have what most would consider to be a normal life. He particularly loves Marilyn in The Misfits. Or maybe he just likes Clark Gable.
It's hot and the road is wavy with the heat. I should be in Mr. Tanner's class finishing up my map of the "Impact of Industrialization (1877-1900) in the United States" and listening to kids talk about going to college in the fall. We pass the No Trespassing: Violators will be Prosecuted sign. I let myself think of ivy covered walls and heady debates about feminism and society. Private Property: No Trespassing. I am going to Valley Technical College. My school counselor told me that would be the best choice for me, and if I work hard and save money, she doesn't see any reason why I can't transfer to a university after two years. Maybe I can meet up with Billy Ray and we can be roommates.
"Billy Ray, you hold the fence apart while I go through and then I'll hold it for you." I think the No Trespassing signs spooked him. He looks nervous. "Billy Ray, are you coming?" I stand on the other side holding the fence apart for him. He steps through and we follow the deer path down to the quarry's edge. "Look how far down you can see." Something about the depth of the water makes my heart drop to my stomach. It's like a vacuum or a black hole. To get in you have to swing out about ten feet on a rope unless you want to hit the ledge of the quarry. My head hurts just thinking about it.
It feels funny to be standing here with Billy Ray in his yellowed briefs and me in my faded pink bra and cotton panties. I guess neither one of us considered our underwear when we were getting ready this morning. I notice Billy Ray has a star shaped birthmark on the back of his right shoulder. I can tell he is about to say "this is a bad idea" by the way he's pulling on his lower lip. I lean out a little to unwind the rope swing from a nail on the tree and watch a clod of red dirt break away from the bank where my foot slips. It hits the water and disappears. I swallow hard, take a deep breath and I am flying. I drop like a stone and slice the water in half. All I can think about are those rusted out old cars at the bottom of the quarry. I kick hard to get back to the surface and suck in the air once I get there. I see Billy Ray leaning over and looking down. "Billy Ray, you got to catch the rope while it's swinging back towards you. Come on."
Billy Ray takes a few steps back with the rope to get a running start but stops short of the ledge. "Count to three and then go, Billy Ray." One, two, three. Billy Ray sails over my head. He disappears for seconds and then pops out of the water. He lets out a high pitched laugh. I watch him float around on his back, spitting water into a long stream through his two front teeth. The water feels like cool clean bed sheets after a hot bath. It is so clear that I can see my feet kicking back and forth below my body. Beyond that, I can see nothing. Nothing to rest on. My head pounds and I can't breathe as I realize the knotted part of the rope, the part that is meant to serve as a ladder, is still curled up at the base of the tree. Damn, damn, damn.
I wonder if Mr. Tanner will notice that I'm missing. Maybe he'll call my mama. Maybe he'll think I'm home sick and won't do anything. After all, I rarely miss a day of school. Mama will think I'm at Billy Ray's and Big Lettie will think Billy Ray is at my house. Nobody will know we're missing until close to dinner time when Big Lettie will be expecting her sausage biscuits. No note. No trace. I can't breathe.
I hear Billy Ray whistle and I exhale. "Hey Jolie, do you think you might want to hitchhike with me this summer? You can always catch a bus back home when you get tired of being on the road." I try to picture me and Billy Ray catching a ride with some nice old couple or a family heading somewhere for vacation. We can make up stories about ourselves. We can say we are brother and sister and our parents died. We are trying to find our long lost uncle who might take us in. The driver will probably buy us lunch on the way.
I try to picture me on graduation day in my nice blue dress. Billy Ray will of course be wearing one of his grandaddy's shirts and a tie under his gown. I think about going out for hamburgers and ice cream after. I think about whether Aunt Johnnie will have time to cut my hair before the ceremony. Thinking gets harder to do when you're freezing cold.
Poor Billy Ray. I look at him floating on his back. "Jolie, I'm getting cold. Should we get out?" I scan the sides of the quarry looking for something to climb up on. Ten foot slab walls. Straight up. He must have read my mind. "Jolie, how do we get out?" I want to swim over and hug him and tell him everything will be fine, but I don't want to tell Billy Ray about the rope ladder. He will know he was the last one in and blame himself even though it's my fault. How could I have forgotten the rope ladder? "Billy Ray, let's swim over yonder and see if we can see a ledge or something to climb on to." Or hang on to until somebody finds us.
Big Lettie was so worried by dinnertime that she lumbered her way across the field to knock on our back door. She was sweating something awful when she got there. Her hair was frizzed out and her Mary Kay Really Red lipstick was smudged on her right cheek. It kind of gives a whole new meaning to the phrase you can't put lipstick on a pig.
Mama and Daddy turned my room upside down looking for a clue that would tell them where we were. Too bad I was never one for keeping a diary. It would have saved them a lot of trouble. As it turned out, just as Mama and Daddy were calling the sheriff's office, a security guard from Collins Quarry and Stone was making the rounds and heard me and Billy Ray screaming for help.
We went on to graduation as planned. I wore the blue dress that matches my eyes and my Aunt Johnnie styled my hair. I went on to college. My parents, relieved that I was alive or maybe they had planned for it all along, somehow found the means to send me on to the state university. I would eventually find myself living in a big city... just as I had always imagined.
Billy Ray's granny died the next year. Big Lettie followed a year later. Billy Ray stayed in that old farmhouse. Slowly, like it was moving backwards in time, that old house was transformed. First by a fresh coat of paint, then by refinished wood floors polished to a sheen. The kitchen and bathrooms were updated with shiny new fixtures. Billy Ray never married but found a lifelong companion in his roommate, a young lawyer, who calls him William.
On a recent visit to my folk's place, I take a walk out to the quarry. The old rope swing is gone and the No Trespassing signs have been replaced with an eight foot high fence topped with razor wire. The occasional sounds of water lapping against the edge of the quarry, aided by the slight breeze and accompanied by birdsongs, are the only sounds an outsider would recognize. But I hear the voices of two young people. I hear talk of what is to come and of what remains. I hear voices of the future.