Second Place Winner
Still Fiction Writing Contest
Billy Thompson’s Thriller Days
Lately, I’ve been thinking backwards.
Maybe it’s the undertow of hopeless news. The moonpie faces of missing and the murdered splashed until they become as familiar. Neighbors. The twisted wreckage from terror. Skysent scattering the same as manmade. The mindnumbing minutia of celebrity lives and loves and fashions. The click and clack of constant connecting.
The tide washes out but does not come back.
So, I disappear into the third grade. Back when hair was criminally big. Television came in three channels. And the cola wars were all that raged.
The Copper Basin had been emptied of trees long before we got there. Nothing but desperate red hills in every direction. Two stop lights--the only green in town.
The land got to people. Hardened them. Some scrabbled to get away. Everyone else worked the mine. Kept regular hours at Queen’s Pool Hall. Saddled with sadness: Picklesimer, Grindstaff, Ratcliff. Names that made them meaner than need be.
I knew we didn’t fit in. No one needed to tell me.
Billy Thompson didn’t belong either. A quiet kid, the kind that could easily get worked over on days we had a substitute. Must’ve been in my class for a while—the runt stuttering over math problems, chewing his eraser, sometimes wearing the same clothes three days over—before I ever noticed. Far as anybody knew, he’d never been to a sleepover. Absent birthday parties, PTA dinners, fall carnival. He didn’t go to First Methodist or any of the Baptists or the Church of God either. Summers, he did not swim the public pool or the one we paid for.
And then, he got himself that cheap red jacket. A knock-off Michael Jackson. No one knew where. Rumors that he’d stole it. But everyone paid attention. Bound up by all those zippers, smiling like he’d invented happiness.
The days stretched and we didn’t mind when recess spilled into lessons. Girls held court on the swingsets. Skinned cat on the monkeybars. Boys tormented each other playing dodgeball. Sometimes they’d catch crickets and chase us round and round.
Not Billy. He didn’t take a turn on the merry-go-round or team up for kickball. With “Billy Jean” on loop in his head, he worked the edge of the asphalt like it had been greased with butter. Sending the ends of the jacket flaring. Zippers winking in the sun. I watched atop the jungle gym, Lindy Helton braiding my hair.
“Some people,” she said, twisting tighter and tighter.
I scurried down to him pulled by those curious shoes with a black, blinding shine.
“You’re good,” I said. Saturday nights I ate fish sticks in front of Solid Gold. I thought I knew a thing about moves.
He stared past me, beyond the kudzu toward a cracked and creviced mountain. His feet twitched the whole time.
“I think it’s okay you don’t play ball with them.”
The whistle blew. The air fraught with squeals and dust. He spun a few more times and moonwalked a square around me.
“It’d be a waste,” I said. Lindy climbed down from the jungle gym looking like some horrified little bird.
“You th-th-think you’re so much better than me.”
Cut with meanness. Then he smiled. Deep dimples from nowhere. I wanted to stick my finger in them.
Lindy said he’d give me leprosy. Or worse. But most recesses, I sat with Billy in the clover. The bees as thick as secrets. Just a baby, his parents dropped him at his grandmother’s. Drove to Panama City for a beach weekend still hadn’t ended. I’d seen his grandmother once or twice. Delivering him late to school. I was a little afraid of her. No matter the season, she wore houseshoes and calico shifts. Her arms gleaming like honey-baked hams. Nothing like my ruby-lipped granny who never left the house without pearls. He showed me dents in his knees where he’d knelt on rice. Eaten with punishment for a mistake he couldn’t recall. Looked like my father’s Titleists.
I ran my thumb over the marks, asking if his parents would come back soon.
“Why would they?” He rolled his jeans down and took my clammy hand.
By then, he wore one glittery glove.
When my mother hosted bridge, I sat on the stairs and picked through the whispers. Billy’s grandmother set out frozen dinners on nights she went to Turtletown. Backroom bingo. Learned that she ought to be ashamed. That the whole family was trash.
I loved him more.
I asked over supper one night if we could take him in.
“He’s not a stray,” my brother said.
I tossed and turned in my bed, dreaming up ways to run off with him.
Deep spring descended. Everywhere else, pollen. But we were covered with cruelness. Not but a couple of things to flower. Vulgar against the miserable dirt.
That’s when fliers for the talent show sprang up and buried our minds.
The week of the show, the rains came. Washed the hills slick. Kept us indoors. Cooped up as the river was wild. Townsfolk brought folding chairs to the banks and watched the rise.
Billy didn’t have lunch money that week. I split my peanut butter with him. Shared fruit salad. I told him how a pair of missionaries bound for our church had been taken by the river. Swallowed.
I don’t think he heard a word.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about all that water. How it poured into their car. Carried them off. None of it seemed fair.
He looked lost. And I itched to be outside. To be alone with him. To wrap myself around him, push the two of us down into the mud, smother him in my outfit from Davison’s, grind his pain into the red earth. The dirt had been taking abuse for quite some time. It could always bear more.
The day of the talent show, the parkinglot shimmered cars. Everyone there but his grandmother.
“Maybe she’ll show,” I said, irritated my mother had convinced me to recite “The Song of Hiawatha.” She’d be on the front row. All smiles.
“It’s nothing.” A grocery sack sagged in his arms.
But I knew. It was everything.
“Maybe she’ll wrap herself in a ditch and die.”
“You don’t have to try so hard,” he said, pushing ahead, leaving me alone in the covered walkway.
I wanted something better for him. A real family.
Still, I shouldn’t have said it.
The show went on. I didn’t care.
Several kids played the piano. Or flute. Or drums. Badly.
Shelia Patterson embarrassed herself in a leopard print leotard tapdancing “The Stray Cat Strut.”
Standing halfcourt, I stumbled around the shores of Gitchee Gumee, regretting I’d come at all.
The fifth graders, in pinafores and pastels, worked the ribbons of the May Pole until it stopped wobbling. All the other grades sorry they weren’t a part of it.
And then, Billy.
The lights dimmed and the music cued. Those first hollow peals of “Beat It” rang out. My stomach sour with shame. He’d traded his red jacket for sequins. Black pencil pants, ready for a flood. Socks as brilliant as his teeth. Spectator shoes. He became a dervish of moving parts. Flipping. Kicking. Spinning. The whole student body on their feet whistling and cheering. I don’t know how his clothes stayed on.
When it ended, he popped onto his toes and flashed his dimples. I wanted to kiss him black and blue.
Afterwards I waited for him by the waterfoutain.
“The next superstar,” I said, reaching for the corner of his jacket. Soft. Like the inside of a dog’s ear.
“You can’t feel sorry for me,” he said. Gone. Swallowed up by the crowd.
Love in the third grade flickers fast. And dies quietly in the hallway.
Some will say it isn’t real. A child’s love. But it’s honest in a way that’s hard to see since.
I never asked him why he danced. I spared him the explanation. I imagine it started late at night. Copying footwork from late night shows. Graduating to backspins and floats and flares. Perfecting each move one by one. No one watched. No one told him to turn the music down. Dancing well into the night. Well after the talent show faded from thought. Plenty of reasons to keep busy when he wanted to quit.
He started wearing mirrored sunglasses. Same as Michael. His grades slipped all through May. Someone said his grandmother had lost all their money. That she was looking to send him away.
Sometimes at recess, I’d sit with him while he worked on new moves. It wasn’t the same. And the school year slid away.
Maybe I always knew Billy lived in a rusting trailer high above the two-lane. Maybe I put that knowing where I couldn’t get to it. All summer long, we passed by on the way to the lake. But I never saw anyone. No one planting flowers or washing a car or carrying groceries inside. Looked deserted. The backyard was a bank of clay, a billboard for Jesus stuck into it, casting shadows. The frontyard worn to dust. Like a dog had been staked there. And I thought of Billy with a heavy chain around his neck for punishment, scratching into the dirt, undaunted.
That summer, I looked for him all over. He never was at the Piggly Wiggly or Sky City or Arp’s Restaurant where my mother took us when my father was away on business. I never stood behind him at the Burger Hof. I don’t know if he liked fries or onion rings. Strange how a person could disappear in a town so small.
All I know for sure about Billy Thompson is this—he was a hell of a dancer. And for a while he was more than a forgotten kid in a trailer on the outskirts of town.
We weren’t in the same class that next year. At recess he folded himself into the pickup games with the other boys. Oh, he danced in the hallways when he thought no one was watching. My heart hurt to see it.
In a year, I left those red hills for a bigger town. Same problems, different packaging. I like to think Billy sat on the hill, waist deep in kudzu, crying when I left. But I know he didn’t.
Eventually, as all things do, Michael Jackson fell from grace. I wonder what became of Billy then, who he became next.
Sometimes, I think of driving back to that scarred piece of earth. To look for him. See if he made it out. Or if he dances still. But I hear the trees are coming back and the kudzu’s all died off and it’s not the same at all.