By: Donna Johnson
Billy stands on top of an eight-foot ledge in front of Summit Towers, the high rise, subsidized apartment building in downtown Knoxville where we both live.
It’s mid-November and he is dressed in plaid Bermuda shorts and a white shirt open at the neck. A pair of bright green goggles worn upside down completes his odd costume. Waving a large Bible overhead, he mutters to himself, and ignores the stares of fellow residents. It is uncertain whether he is going to jump or preach. Perhaps he is going to preach while jumping. Nothing surprises me any more at Summit Towers.
Billy and I are both stalkers of the night, so I see him often, always carrying his enormous King James Bible, muttering to himself, and looking tragic. Perhaps he really is tragic, or just looking for sympathy, or both.
I want to scream at him to stop being so pathetic and to get out of my sight. Perhaps it was all my years as a social worker that have made me so ruthless, but I have discovered that people who are truly sad rarely talk about it, and they almost never make a display regarding the tragedies of their life.
Who am I to judge, really? What might be sad to one might be trivial to another, such as the acquaintance I met earlier this year who was despondent over not being able to purchase a Monster energy drink at The Market on Gay Street.
I suspect this is the only way Billy knows how to make friends. A native of Detroit, he has the air of one who has been beaten down his whole life. He is almost always alone, but my days of saving people are over.
I know he smokes crack because of the unmistakable stench that comes out from under his door. (I know this smell very well from having been addicted to the same substance many years ago.) Billy’s desire to please God while subcumbing to his addiction must be a dark shadow that follows him wherever he goes.
A cold gusty wind blows the remaining leaves off the trees, leaving stark black branches like something barely remembered from a dream. It is forlorn and beautiful in the grey mist of late autumn, but the temperature is dropping rapidly.
Billy jumps from his perch like a prehistoric bird and he begins preaching to a huddled group of women wearing colorful scarves and coats. Steam rises from their cups of coffee. A child’s wail pierces the coming dusk. Billy raises the Bible over his head: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you!” Within minutes the group has gathered their belongings and gone inside.
Tonight when I pass Billy’s open door there is a noticable absence of the ghastly crack smell. He frequently leaves his door open or he leaves his keys in the door knob when his door is closed. Perhaps this is another way Billy tries to make friends. At Summit Towers, leaving your keys in the door is more likely to get your robbed or murder instead of helping you acquire friends.
Outside Billy’s door is a large and heavy television. Billy regards the large television as I regard my tired reflection in the hall mirror. I imagine was look pretty strange to anyone passing by, like characters in an independent film.
Finally, Billy hoists the television onto his shoulders and takes it into his apartment. Soon, I can hear the voices and laughter from some late-night talk show. Shortly after this, Billy comes out into the hall.
“You want to watch a movie with me?” he asks. Though I don’t really want to watch a movie, he is holding a bottle of vodka and I would like to have a drink, so I go in. I know Billy is harmless.
We have a couple of shots, which interests me greatly, but the TV show does not, so I get up to leave. Billy gets up, too.
He startles me by reaching over to touch the top of my head. “Your hair,” he says, “it’s like royalty.” I am touched to be so admired. I look at Billy’s face and suddenly know his sadness is no affectation. I am moved by the sorrow of his life. Clearly his devotion to God is sincere, as are his attempts to bring everyone he meets closer to God, but his addiction is interfering with his life and his good intentions. Hopefully he and his God can remove the shackles of addition from around his soul.
Today I run into Billy in the hallway. He wears a red flannel shirt around his head and he carries an American flag. I tell him I’m writing a story about him. His face brightens as he looks at me in disbelief. “Really? Really? About me?” I read it to him. “That’s me,” he says smiling. “That’s really me. Can I buy it?”
“You don’t have to buy anything. When it’s published you will have your very own copy,” I said.
Billy’s whole being seems to smile as he walks away with the strut of a child who has just presented by father with a report card full of As. And I walk away smiling, too.
I hope it is a gift that will remain with him as he goes through the days of his life. Even though our paths will most likely seperate, I will always remember him and his love of God. He is a worthy person to carry the message of love to all those he encounters.
In between her writing with the Metro Pulse and Knoxville Mercury, Donna wrote the column “Local Color” for Knoxzine. This is the first of her Knoxzine articles.
© Donna Johnson, 2014.