Billy - Saturday before Mother’s Day

     It was good to get outside in the sunshine even though a heavy haze hung over the horizon. For a change, the neighborhood was quiet except for a sinister threat of trouble that could erupt at any moment. Gangs, drugs, and prostitution were common even in day time. When the probation officer said, “Billy, are you staying out of trouble?” it almost seemed like a joke. Trouble was all around him but Billy was determined to stay clean.

      Soon after moving to the ghetto, Billy learned which streets to avoid in order to escape potential violence. On the way to the bus stop each day, he went out of his way to avoid a two-block area that was often described as the “pit of hell.” At the diner he sometimes saw headlines about a murder that happened in that area. Prostitution raids, drug rings, and street fights were too prevalent to report.

      On this day, though, something different was happening in the pit of hell. From a distance Billy could see a crowd of people that extended for blocks. Unlike usual gatherings, this one was calm and orderly. A bright sign on the back window of a truck attracted his attention. He was too far away to read what it said, but curiosity compelled him to walk toward the truck. In the most dangerous area around his neighborhood, he suddenly felt safe. Strangely, fear was replaced by a sense of anticipation. Whatever was keeping such a large crowd in check might have benefit for him too.

      As he neared the green truck, the words of the sign were clear: “Call your mother for Mother’s Day–FREE.” The approaching holiday had not dawned on him before. For him, Mother’s Day was cause for sadness rather than celebration. All he could do was look forward to the day when he would be worthy to take his place as his parents’ son. Before that could happen, he still had to put his life back together.

      The sight puzzled Billy. It’s odd, he thought, that homeless people, drug addicts, and prostitutes would stand in line to call their mothers. What could they say to Mom? Why would they want to bare their shame to their mothers? Didn’t they know the call would break her heart?

      It was as though the scene was a magnet that drew him closer. A man in a clerical collar sat in a chair in front of the line. He dialed the telephone and then handed it to the person seated beside him.  When Billy came within earshot, he stopped to listen to the one-sided conversations. Tears punctuated the halting words – words like “I’m sorry” and “I love you.” The next man to sit down addressed the other man as Pastor Kurt. 

      It seemed that Pastor Kurt shared the emotions of the callers. Tears welled up in his eyes and sometimes streamed down his face. Some people had little to say but others talked for a long time. When the phone conversation was over, Pastor Kurt patted each person on the shoulder, and said encouraging words such as, “God bless you,” or “God loves you.”

      A sudden urge to call his mother startled Billy. It wasn’t time yet. He needed more answers. How long would it take him to earn enough money to start over? How long would he have to report regularly to the probation officer? When might his probation period be suspended? Billy didn’t want to take shadows of his past into the future reconciliation with his family.

      In spite of all his misgivings, Billy found himself in line to make the call. From the way the line moved, he estimated it would take a couple of hours to wait his turn. He had plenty of time to kill. There was very little conversation among the people in line. Perhaps they, too, were rehearsing their lines for an important drama in which they would soon star.

      The smile on the face of a man who had just finished his call boosted Billy’s confidence that he was doing the right thing. Now he was eager to talk to his parents – especially Mom. But what would he say? More than anything, he wanted to say, “I’m sorry,” but how could he express the depth of his remorse? 

      Something still did not seem right about this whole set-up. His time in prison taught him to be wary of anything that promised to be free. What was the catch? Would he be asked to sign something that would put him in bondage for the rest of his life? Especially when two people in front of him left the line, suspicion prompted Billy to leave too. After waiting this long, though, he decided to stick it out. If asked to sign anything, he would refuse and leave.

      In one way, the line was moving too slowly. In another way, it was moving too fast. Realizing that he would soon be seated in the chair beside Pastor Kurt sent quivers through his stomach. What if he were to become ill? Suppose Mom was already on the other end of the line when Billy had to make a mad dash for a bathroom!

      With only a few people ahead of him, Billy’s emotions vacillated. One moment he wanted to run but the next moment he longed to hear Mom’s voice. When a woman ahead of him sat down beside Pastor Kurt, Billy’s pulse quickened because he was next in line. He listened intently to the conversation.

      “My mom will probably hang up on me,” the woman said nervously.

      Billy had never thought of that possibility although he realized such treatment would be well-deserved. Of course Mom and Dad were never unkind to anyone; so he need not concern himself about their response. He need only to worry about what he would say.

      The woman on the phone started out crying but ended up laughing. Pastor Kurt seemed to empathize with her every emotion. Billy felt a connection with Pastor Kurt that eased the loneliness that had become his constant companion. It was good to be with someone who cared.

      Billy stepped forward to hear the greeting, “Hi, my name is Pastor Kurt. Won’t you have a seat?” 

     “I’m Billy,” he said as he extended his hand to return the greeting. With his head down, Pastor Kurt was wiping the telephone. The pastor did not see the gesture until Billy dropped his arm. “I’m sorry,” Pastor Kurt said, “but I had to disinfect the phone to make sure it was safe for you to make your call.” Noting the grimy appearance of most of the people in the crowd, Billy was glad for the precautionary measure.

      By now, Billy’s nerves were on edge, but Pastor Kurt was as calm and unhurried as though they were the only two people in the world. Expecting Pastor Kurt to hand him the phone, Billy once again allowed his parents’ telephone number to run through his mind. During the past several years, the number had run through his mind a million times, but now he wondered if he was too shaky to punch in the numbers. Pastor Kurt kept the cell phone and said, “What number do you want me to call?”

      After the words stumbled out, Billy said, “Oh, man, I hope that’s right.”

      Billy’s emotions mounted. He could not tell whether his high was from nervousness or excitement. He wondered why no one was answering the phone. “It’s taking too long,” he whispered.

      As he hung up the phone, Pastor Kurt said, “The number has been discontinued. Are you sure it was the right number?”  “Maybe I said it wrong because I was so nervous.” They tried again with the same results.

     “I’ll call information to see if they have a new number,” Pastor Kurt said. “How long has it been since you called your parents?”  Speaking in barely a whisper, Billy said, “It’s been a long ... long time.”

      When Pastor Kurt had information on the line, he handed the phone to Billy. No matter what suggestion Billy had for finding his parents, the answer was, “Sorry. No listing.” When people in the line realized they were trying to locate family, they started to complain.  “Hey, this isn’t the Missing Persons Bureau,” someone yelled. Pastor Kurt acknowledged the complaint with a raised hand and a smile. At that moment Billy felt like he was the most important person in the world to the pastor.

      When Billy ran out of ideas, he sighed and handed the phone to Pastor Kurt. “No luck. What do we do now?”

      Pastor Kurt seemed as determined as Billy was to find the young man’s parents. “How about relatives?” Kurt asked. “Aunts? Uncles? Cousins? If you know where they live, we can call information and find them.”

      “Great idea. Let’s try.” By now Billy was desperate to learn anything about his family.

      After several failed tries, the operator said, “I’ll connect you with that number.”

      With sparks of anticipation in his eyes as he waited, Billy said to Kurt, “It’s my uncle. He’ll know what goes with my parents.”  “Uncle Rudy,” Billy said when a male voice answered.   “Yeah. Who’s this?” Before Billy could answer, recognition registered in the older man’s voice. “Billy? It’s Greta’s boy Billy,” he said to someone who was apparently in the room.

      “Yeah, Uncle Rudy. I’m living in Atlanta now.” He would try to avoid speaking about his past.

       “What are you doing in Atlanta?”

       “I’ve been working at a job for a while, and I’m doing okay.”

      “That’s good to hear. Your parents were worried about you.”  “I tried to call them but the phone has been disconnected. Can you fill me in on their whereabouts?”

      Uncle Rudy’s silence on the other end sent throbs through Billy’s head. Finally, he cleared his throat and spoke, “I’m sorry, but Greta passed away less than a year ago. Cancer. She was sick for a while.”

      Billy’s mouth went dry, but the words squeaked out. “What about Dad?”

      “I don’t really know. After your mom died, he didn’t communicate much with any of us. Then one day he just up and left the area and no one has heard from him since.”

      Too devastated to continue the conversation, Billy mumbled his thanks and goodbyes and handed the phone to Pastor Kurt. Taking hold of Billy’s hand, Pastor Kurt said, “Do you want to talk about it?”  With his head hung low, Billy murmured, “It’s too late. Mom’s gone and no one knows where Dad is. Shaking his head and lowering his voice even further, he whispered, “I can never tell Mom I’m sorry or that I love her. She’ll never know.”

     Numbed by the shock of his loss, Billy stood up in a daze. As he wondered what to do next, Pastor Kurt stood up and placed an arm around Billy’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Billy,” he said. “I hope you’ll come back to see me should you feel like talking and praying. I’m here for you whenever you need me. In fact, I’ll be here again tomorrow.”  Aimlessly, Billy began to walk away. Where should he go? What should he do? ... Oh, yes, he needed to head for work. On the way to Majestic Diner, Billy kept rhythm with his steps by repeating in his mind, too late ... too late ... too late ...

      As Billy began to process what happened in terms of his future, a myriad of questions invaded his mind. Where could he find strength to go on? What would serve as an incentive for starting a new life now? He could never, ever, ever make things right with his parents. One summer, when Billy was little, he had attended a Vacation Bible School in the neighborhood. He remembered hearing the story of the Prodical Son. Now he could never return home and bring happiness to his parents.

      Pulling more of the Bible story from his subconscious, Billy realized that the boy returned home while he was still messed up. He didn’t wait to first straighten up his life. Why did I wait? he asked himself. Why, oh why, did I wait?

      His head throbbed with pain as his thoughts turned to his parents. Was Dad still alive? Where was he? How was he doing? And Mom. How much did she suffer with the cancer? Did she die peacefully? The next thought sent his mind in a whirl and his knees turned to rubber. He had to lean against a post to regain his balance. No doubt Mom went to her grave heartbroken by her son’s poor choices.

      When he got to the diner, Billy was still early for his shift, but he did not feel like working just yet. Brushing aside his co-workers’ greetings, which he usually returned with an enthusiastic response and a friendly smile, he walked with his head down and headed straight for the coffee. To avoid interaction with anyone, Billy took his coffee to a table where he sat facing a brick wall. From time to time he took a sip of coffee but, most of the time, he just sat with his head slumped down. Oblivious to the questioning glances of co-workers, Billy tried in vain to still disturbing emotions.

      Unaware of time that had passed, a startled Billy looked up into the face of his boss, who had tapped him on the shoulder. “I know something is wrong, Billy. Do you want to talk about it?”

      Billy just shook his head. Clem persisted, “What happened?”  Scratching his head, Billy said, “Family stuff.” Never before had he mentioned his family. Conversations about family always made him nervous. If anyone asked questions, he would change the subject.  “I see.” The boss paused before he asked, “Do you need to go home? We can cover for you tonight – and all weekend if necessary.”  “No! No!” The sharp tone of his voice invited stares from others in the restaurant. In a softer tone, he said, “No, I need to work. I’ll go crazy if I can’t work.” This time, he was not even thinking of the monetary benefit. In response to Clem’s questioning expression, he added, “I will be fine. I promise.”

       “All right. Go to it.”

      With an apron tied around his waist, Billy handed a menu to a couple who had just sat down at a table. “Welcome to Majestic Diner,” he said. “Could I get you something to drink?” It was all he could do to paste a plastic smile on his face.

      “Just water for now,” they both indicated as their eyes scanned the menu. With a frown on her face, the woman asked, “How’s the meatloaf?”

        Memory of one of his favorite childhood meals made it hard for Billy to say, “Very good. It’s our special.”

       “I’ll have the meatloaf,” the lady said.

       “Make it two.”

      Unable to put his heart into anything, Billy still found he was able to function simply by following his usual routine. When there were no customers, he kept busy cleaning the counters, the cupboards, the refrigerator – anything to chase the demons from his mind. Would that be the only way he could cope with circumstances the rest of his life?

      The restaurant was empty and Billy was mopping the floor when Clem said, “Billy, it’s time to go home. Your shift has ended.”  The thought of going home to an empty apartment brought Billy to a near panic. He had to work to keep a semblance of sanity. At home he could only stare at the drab walls and think about his lost opportunity to make things right with his family. Anger at himself would consume him, and he would sink into the pit of depression from which he might never recover.

     “Let me stay a little while longer,” he pleaded.

     “All right, Billy,” Clem said with sympathy ringing in his voice.

      Turning bolder, Billy said, “In fact, I’d like to work all day tomorrow. Let someone stay home who needs to celebrate Mother’s Day with family. Let me work.”

      After looking over the schedule, the boss said, “Cindy likes to have holidays off, but I had to schedule her for tomorrow. I’m sure she’ll be glad to have you cover for her.” Noting Billy’s grimy hands as he scoured the oven, Clem said, “Finish up with what you’re doing and then head for home. You need to get some sleep.”

      By the time he finished cleaning the oven, Billy could hardly stand up from physical and emotional exhaustion. The shiny chrome on the stove, though, gave him a sense of satisfaction. He was ready to put the problems of life on hold and call it a day.

      On the bus Billy checked out the place where Pastor Kurt had set up his operation. The area was now empty. He hoped many people connected with their mothers before it was too late.

      Nearing his bus stop, Billy pulled the cord, got off the bus, and walked home. Without even removing his clothes, he jumped into bed and fell fast asleep.