Although he had had enough sleep, Billy did not want to get up and face the world. With nothing to look forward to, it was less painful to pull the sheet over his face and block out the midday sun. At eight o’clock tonight he would begin his shift at the all-night diner. Until then he had time on his hands.
The worst part of Billy’s mundane existence was realization that he alone was to blame for his lot in life. Not too many years ago he would have spent free time hiking a nature trail or hanging out with friends.
Friends could be a blessing or a curse. Choosing the wrong friends landed him on skid row. Why, oh why had he gone along with Jack’s suggestions? The question was never far from his mind.
It all started at the gun target range. “Hey, man, you’re good,” Jack said after Billy hit the second bull’s eye. Billy liked the recognition.
Later, Jack said, “You need to turn your talent into cash.”
With interest mounting, Billy asked, “How?” It would be good to find something better to do than pumping gas. “When an opportunity comes up, I’ll let you know.” Jack’s answer left Billy with a sense of anticipation mixed with curiosity. Maybe he could play a bit part in a movie. The man with the quick draw. Although he doubted if he actually had a movie career ahead of him, his mind began to imagine the different scenes he might play. Every few days Billy asked Jack, “How can I make my gun pay off?” His friend always put him off.
Just when Billy was about to run out of patience, Jack said, “Well, Billy, are you ready to ‘bang bang’ for a buck?”
“Yeah–more than ready,” Billy said with a wide grin on his face.
As Jack described step by step plans for the heist, adrenaline surged through Billy’s veins. Several times Billy tried to interrupt, but Jack just talked louder. “Now, do you understand what you are to do?” he asked after he described Billy’s role a second time.
“Uh ... uh ... I didn’t expect to get involved in ... in armed robbery.”
Jack laughed. “It seems kind of scary the first time but you’ll get used to it. Think what you can do with all that bread!” The money tempted Billy. While still under the influence of Jack’s spell, he agreed to go along with the deal. In the years since, how often had he remembered that moment and shuddered?
When time came up for Billy’s trial, Jack had skipped the country to a place where the law had been unable to find him. Had Jack planned from the beginning to escape and leave Billy to take the rap if trouble came? Billy often wondered. Caught in the act, Billy could only plead guilty. The Public Defender merely asked for lenience because it was Billy’s first brush with the law, and on the films, he played no part in the robbery. He just stood there almost in a daze of disbelief that this was happening.
Mom and Dad were in the courtroom on the day Billy was sentenced, but their presence brought him no comfort. He was too ashamed to face them. Even after nearly four years, he could still see the pain in their eyes as he was led away to begin serving his sentence. Even now, out of jail, every time he saw his parents’ eyes in his reverie of the past, Billy had to turn his mind elsewhere. Throwing the sheet off his face, he got up, brushed his teeth, splashed cold water on his face and dressed for the day. In addition to cereal and milk for his midday meal, Billy opened a can of peaches and ate them all. Fortunately, he was able to take his evening meals before his shift began at Majestic Diner. When he finished eating, he nursed a second cup of coffee while taking a reality check of his future.
In the eight months since his early release from prison, Billy had accumulated seven hundred dollars. At that rate, he should have two thousand dollars in no time. With that amount of money, he would head back home to make a fresh start. He hoped to turn the look of pain in his parents’ eyes to a look of joy - even pride. He did not want to risk becoming a burden to his parents who did not have extra money to throw around. Until he could stand on his own two feet, he would continue to work at Majestic Diner.
Jobs for ex-cons were hard to come by. Ex-con – how Billy hated the label even though he realized it was well deserved. Actually, he was not sure he could claim the ex status. For eleven more months he was still on probation. He had to keep regular contact with his probation officer to check his progress. The probation officer was helpful and encouraging. It was through him that he landed his position at Majestic Diner. Each week he had to show proof of employment documented with check stubs. Any travel plans beyond his apartment and work had to be cleared with the probation officer. He thought of his probation period as his second sentence.
The restrictions did not bother Billy except for the implication that he could not yet be trusted to take his place in society. From the beginning of his prison term, he had decided to make his life right. More than anything else he wanted to go home, tell Mom and Dad he was sorry for bringing disgrace to the family. He would then work and make an honest living to prove that he was a good citizen.
During his prison term Billy had had no contact with his family. He never questioned why they did not come to visit him. He understood that was how his family was. They really never talked about “trouble” in their lives. It would have been too hard to face them anyway until he had redeemed himself. Incarcerated more than two hundred miles from home, he would not have wanted his parents to spend time and money on a visit to him. With Dad’s disability, Mom was the only one who worked to pay the bills. Thinking about his parents now, Billy wondered if they even knew he had been released from prison.
As he put the milk back into the refrigerator, his mind lingered on the note he had posted on the outside. “Clean up my life and go home.” The reminder was also on the bathroom mirror and in his empty wallet. Nothing would deter him from that goal.
After finishing with the dishes, he still had nearly four hours to kill before it was time to leave for the diner. With nothing else to do, he decided to walk to the diner instead of taking the bus. Since he had no friends, time spent at work became his social life as well as his livelihood. With no television at home, his entertainment consisted mostly of dreaming about a better future when he earned enough money to return home.
Last night was unusually busy at the diner. He lost track of how much he had earned in tips, but a few people were extra generous. Tips had to be turned over to his boss named Clem, but they were then included in his paycheck. If business was good today, maybe the boss would ask him to start an hour or so earlier to earn a little extra. Maybe he would even have an opportunity to work the grill. During the time he had been employed, he had worked himself up from dishwasher to busboy to waiter. Most people wouldn’t consider that to be a big deal, but to Billy it was a miracle.
Actually, Billy liked the restaurant business. Making good on his own began to build his self-esteem that had reached bottom after the burglary. His job brought him so much satisfaction that he considered building his life’s work around the food industry. When he left home, there was no shortage of restaurants and new ones were probably springing up all the time. By the time he returned home, maybe he would be in line to take a job as a chef. Someday he might even own his own restaurant.