f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: "When Bill Left the Porch" by Mike Duran

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, January 02, 2006

"When Bill Left the Porch" by Mike Duran

How in the hell do you drown in the desert? Well, leave it to Wild Bill to find out.

We descended into the canyon, buoyed by the rising warmth. And there he was, with his back to me, as usual. Toward the end, he rarely looked me in the eye, more out of shame than disregard. Once his debility blossomed, he turned his back on us all.

That’s probably why the desert held such fascination for him. It was vast and empty, like Bill.

“Don’t go out there,” he’d say in his helium voice, pointing toward the desolate expanse. “There are scorpions, mines, prickly things.”

When we were kids, he said this to frighten us, herd us into the monastery of doubt and distrust. Well, it worked. Trudy would scamper off and within minutes, return with Mom. “Bill, stop scaring them. Things ain’t that bad.”

“They need to hear it,” he’d retort, with a nasal blast. “I don’t want them wandering off. You remember what happened to the Rollins boy.”

Yeah, the poor kid became a permanent symbol to us, an icon of imprudence, another plank in Bill’s slow retreat from normalcy.

Trudy clung to Mom’s skirt and pouted. She learned to hate the desert because of him. The distant yapping of coyotes, the incessant arid breeze, and Bill’s paranoid rants, became one. He got so deep in her head she needed therapy and moved somewhere green, with fences and walls, where distance was calculable and mystery, minimal.

But I’d stay for the lecture.

“There’s too much wrong with the world, Jim. Disease, crime, freak accidents. You can never be too careful. Mom can pray all she wants, but you can’t stop it—you can only find shelter.” He’d wheeze in his cigarette and the ash blazed like a comet against the starry sky. “That’s why we moved. There’s less people here. And less people, means less problems... less chance things can go wrong. Just stay close. Stay on the porch, and you’ll be all right.” Then he’d settle back in his rocker with a quilt draped over his legs and gaze out into the twinkling black curtain. “Never, ever leave the porch.”

Yet there he was, five miles from home, floating.

So much had gone on between then and now, but somehow it seemed a fitting end. The house became a compound, a sanitized, air-conditioned hell, a cloister against ill winds and happenstance. Yet inside, Bill’s toxicity flourished.

Mom often tried to make sense of it, enunciate the exotic names. But like most neuroses, it transcended definition. He refused medication and we couldn’t coax him out of the house, much less get him to the hospital. “Do you realize what kind of germs are there?” he’d scoff, as if we were the oddballs. “It’s a breeding ground. And they’re all waiting to hitch a ride.”

As usual, Mom cut him slack. “Your father had a rough childhood, James. Besides, he needs God more than a doctor.” But the way she doted over him, all he needed was her.

The co-pilot, a Native American guy they called Rudy, turned around, pulled his headphones off and pointed into the ravine. A cumulus shadow rippled across the terrain, dousing us, before the relentless sun turned everything monochrome. The search party stood on the shoreline, solemn-looking, bracing themselves for the ensuing maelstrom. Nearby, Bill drifted weightless, for once in his life.

In a way, it was a relief seeing him there, lifeless, without anguish. He’d carried so much, so far. The inertia of his personality far exceeded his girth, no doubt making him an easy target. They christened him Wild Bill, way back when, in mockery. Maybe it was the panic attacks, the dark, sullen, psycho eyes or the feminine pitch. The name hung on through high school, but how Bill did, we’ll never know.

According to Mom, at one time, he took a swipe at the demons, tested the boundaries of his affliction. Like when they decided, spur of the moment, to drive to Yellowstone. Halfway there, Bill came to his senses. Said his ulcer was acting up or the car sounded funny, and hurried home. He always had a lame excuse. Those days he worked, even went to the market. But something snapped. The remainder of his life he leeched off disability and fossilized out back, staring off into the desert for hours on end, cordoning off mystery.

But the mystery caught up to him.

Three days ago, Trudy called. “James, Dad’s lost it.” She made her peace, supposedly, but remained stolid. Said he drove Mom to her grave, needed to find God before the final implosion. Somehow, I became the bridge between them, but my peace was far from made.

Anyway, I agreed to call.

We grew accustomed to his fits and I assumed this was one of them. After Mom died, they came with regularity. Of course, once the cloud passed, he renounced his paranoia and promised to fight the good fight, only to reinvent the scene round the corner. His vows never held water. Nor did they compel me to go rushing over, pronouncing absolution. Or receiving it.

But the lamentations became borderline suicidal.

“We should’ve got out more,” he whimpered. “She always wanted to see Old Faithful. But I locked her up.” He squeezed his eyes shut and drifted behind them. “Every Sunday she stood at the front door, holding that ugly, red leather Bible, hoping I’d finally make a move. ‘Will ya come, Bill? Will ya please come today?’ She looked so pretty in her church dress—the yellow one—with those white gloves. And that perfume... ” His chins trembled and he looked away. “Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe I can still join her.”

Yeah, well, you told us never to leave the porch.

The rotors pummeled the parched air, casting dust and brush skyward as we settled on the desert floor. The search party stood before a tree-rimmed, turquoise pool with their hats off, fighting the gale.

When the storm first descended on Bill, fighting was futile.

It started with him on all fours, damp and ashen, by the rocker. Mom cried to Jesus and I phoned Doc Eagan. Columns of red dust rose along the barbed wire fence, signaling the old man’s arrival. We knew what was coming. He spread Bill’s shirt and nestled the stethoscope between folds of blubber. The stress finally caught up and Bill’s insides had buckled under the pressure.

“If you don’t stop smoking and lose some weight,” the doctor scolded, “you’ll have another one.” And he went back down the long red road.

But it didn’t stop Wild Bill. Rather, it seemed to fuel his innate pessimism. By then, he could barely walk; his ankles were blue and inflated, the outgrowth of emotional rigor mortis. He sat around, smoked and ate, and worried about it. He was circling the drain.

Trudy left long before, and I wasn’t about to stay for the next round. Despite his placations, I escaped and began to detox or, at least, medicate the pain. I found someone with Mom’s grace, who didn’t ask questions. But Bill never left me. He’d worn a rut in my brain like that old rocker of his, whittling away at the floorboards of my sanity. I visited, but mainly to see Mom. She remained unaffected by his madness. Yet even that changed.

One morning I arrived and found her draped across his massive frame, asleep. After the heart attack, she stationed herself at his bedside. On the nightstand, next to the ashtray, her Bible and reading glasses lay amidst unwashed dishes and gathering grime. Bill winked when I walked in and continued stroking her hair.

Some days, he leaned into me and lumbered out to the porch. I’d help him squeeze into the rocker and it would dissent and threaten to collapse. He stared into the wasteland, watched the sky turn auburn and dust funnels dance in the distance. Then he fired up a cigarette and resumed his ritual.

But his lectures weren’t what they used to be.

“You’re being careful, aren’t you?” He’d lost a decibel in the skirmish. “It’s getting bad out there.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“How’s Jordan?”

“She went back to school.”

“It’s not far, is it?”

“Not really.”

“People get antsy stacked on top of each other like that. It ain’t healthy, Jim. Folks live longer in the country. The air is better, there’s less chemicals. And if they’re gonna nuke us, they ain’t aiming for me.”

I ignored the affectation, as usual, and changed frequencies. Besides, I was there for Mom. She bathed him, fed him, found him the TV changer and watched over his soul. And it started to show.

She refused assistance, said she could do all things through Christ, at least, until the headaches came. I paid someone to clean and deliver groceries. She obliged, with reluctance, and went for tests. But in the end, she didn’t want to leave Bill—said he couldn’t make it without her—and declined chemo. Mom propped herself in that chair as long as possible, then surrendered. Church folks came over and wrinkled their noses at Bill. They stood over her, prattled in tongues, swayed and hollered, and left in the red cloud, taking their faith with them.

We buried her and Trudy wailed. She pounded on Wild Bill, then hugged him and wept. Said she forgave him, because that’s what Mom would’ve wanted.

But me, I stayed on the porch.

The engine droned to a stop as the pilots leapt out and summoned me. We picked our way through the scrub into the shadow of the canyon. A crystal spring slashed the red earth, like an incision in the desert floor, making it bleed teal.

“They believe the pool is sacred,” Rudy said over his shoulder, gesturing to the search party. “Visited by their ancestors. Now it’s just a hangout for local kids.”

A cool breeze swept past and rattled the leaves, filling the gorge with soft applause. Gravel and broken glass crunched beneath our feet as we approached the men. They stood with heads bowed, hats in hand. Their skin was dark and taut, and they glanced at me as I passed. Names and symbols, spray painted on the desert rock, marred the oasis, as did Wild Bill’s body, floating face down in the translucent blue. The men followed us to the shore, and one of them slung a rope into the water, attempting to lasso Bill.

We’d been trying to do that for years. When I last spoke to him, three days ago, he’d drifted out of reach.

“You alright, Dad?”

“I saw your mother again last night.”

“Trudy’s afraid—”

“She was standing in the desert with her church dress on. You know, the yellow one with the white gloves. I smelled her perfume mixed with the wildflowers.” He wheezed and something creaked, and I knew he was on the porch, in the rocker, staring into the flatland, smoking. “She called to me. ‘Will ya come, Bill? Will ya please come today?’ You know, like she used to.” The phone line hummed and got real quiet. “It’s time, Jim. I’ve been running from Him... putting it off too long.”

I called the Merchants, who lived two lots over, and asked if they would check on him later. They phoned that evening and said he was gone, the house abandoned. We notified the sheriff and a search party formed. I scheduled a flight in.

By the time I arrived, they’d sent for a chopper and started their sweep. A local tribe volunteered to assist, being they knew the terrain. I waited with the sheriff, listened to the radio garble, and scanned the mess with regret. The house stank, so I sat on the porch and studied the desert, then the rocker. Both sat desolate.

Next afternoon we got the call. The bird picked us up and made a beeline for the crimson foothills. Like all his rants, Bill’s talk of a hidden spring, an Eden in the outback, seemed ludicrous. Until they dredged him out of the crystalline water. Weathered hands grasped his soft, pale flesh and with great care, they rolled his bloated body over.

Then it was my turn to look away.

“I don’t know how a man this big made it this far.” Rudy removed his hat and peered at the corpse. “He was delirious... or driven. By the time he saw this water, he was probably dehydrated or hypothermic.” He shrugged and put his hat back on. “I imagine it threw him into shock. He drowned.”

The others stepped back, whispered amongst themselves, and glanced our way.

“Is something wrong?” I asked. “They seem... agitated.”

“Yeah. They are.” A tarp was spread next to the body and Rudy paused, as if contemplating the matter. “There are many paths in the desert. But out of all of them, your father chose this one. They believe it is not by chance... that he was guided here.” Dust swirled and he squinted. “These are baptismal waters, where the soul is cleansed. Here, the evil is washed away and the new man begins.”

One of the deputies approached holding the red leather Bible, swollen and oozing sacred water. Rudy looked at it, then at me.

I nodded. “It’s his.”

We boarded the helicopter and I sat staring at the tarp, pondering the enigma beneath. Maybe he’d been looking for this place all his life, a place where evil is washed away, where the new man begins, where the weary are made weightless. He took a chance, for once; braved the scorpions, mines and prickly things, wandered off like the Rollins boy, in search of adventure. Wild Bill heeded the call and ventured into the vast, untamed expanse.

We buried him beside Mom. Trudy said we’d come full-circle, that Mom finally got the old man to take a step of faith. She said I was the next in line.

The red leather Bible still sits on my bookshelf, swollen and brittle, carried by Wild Bill into the uttermost parts of the earth. He left the porch and, I believe, my time is nearing.