capital voices 6-16-05
He was Billy Mack See-Inside because it was the name he wanted and what he could do. He could see inside living trees, feel time as it was when each ring was newborn. Weather permitting, he came by every Saturday, stayed an hour, told his secrets, then lumbered on to his other worlds. His uniform was constant, with no bow to season — a thick, scarred jacket; bib overalls; and worn-flat shoes, topped off by faded brown eyes, detached from any reality today had in store.
Four, five months after it started, his mother sought me out. She was dressed in Billy’s style, only less. She explained him in a practiced monotone, as if she’d been at it forever. She was 65 and 2,000 years old and went from place to place on foot. She told me Billy never hurt anyone.
Whatever was wrong with Billy Mack See-Inside couldn’t be cured, only pacified with chemicals. Occasionally — perhaps when he thought himself strong enough to venture out into the rush of current times — he’d skip his chemicals and reach out and touch lucid. Almost. Once, in a chemical-free state, he cried. A 40-year-old man crying? Not an acceptable sick at all. I cut his visit short that day.
Because he walked by my house at the same time each Saturday, I could be outside to talk with him when I wanted or stay inside and watch him pass slowly by when I didn’t want him around. I gave him $10 once. His mother returned the gift the same day. I didn’t ask. She didn’t explain. She told me Billy never hurt anyone.
Billy’s routine lasted, on and off, about three years. Enough time for him to tell he was a movie star, an airplane pilot, a priest, a major-league ballplayer — and to let me know that my neighborhood was magic. It seemed that the whole block was really an entire town in 1979. The birds of red color knew it; that’s why they nested in our trees.
“You can tell it,” said Billy Mack See-Inside, “’cause there ain’t no rings after 1979, and red-color birds is like red books. I heard the book words once. In 1979.”
I wondered whether Billy hadn’t known a friendly time once, in a 1979 town full-up with flowering trees and red-winged birds and a kind soul who read him a book. But I didn’t wonder much. Then it was over. He was gone for six months before I even thought to inquire.
I asked in a place where I’d seen his mother — a park bench in the center of downtown where we allow broken people to look at the feet of passersby. The wine- and smell-covered man told me they’d moved on and named the town. He thought Billy’s ma was sick or somethin’ and added, “She didn’t bother nobody.”
All forgotten. Until last week.
I chanced across their new town. It was small enough that everyone surely knew everyone else’s business. The guy on the corner stool answered the question I asked the bartender: “About a year ago, found ’em both dead in the abandoned house, corner Maple and Second.”
Back newspapers in the tiny two-table library told their story. They had lived there for a few months 40 years before. Her life and death read one line. Billy was mentioned as an afterthought; he had no line of his own.
If they deserved more, maybe this is true:
We are gathered here today to honor the memories of two people who were so successful at living, they never harmed nor bothered another person. They took no money for their method.
Billy Mack See-Inside is dead. He was a professional baseball player, a pilot, a movie star, and a priest. He could see time inside trees. He liked birds. His mother is dead. “Mother” is her single epitaph because she spent her life doing it. She was 2,000 years old because she loved Billy more than she loved herself.
I was Billy’s friend when it was convenient for me.
I mention their passing because I know those of you who were not so selectively kind, those of you who befriended Billy and his mom all the time, would want to pay your final respects.