Tuesday, December 28, 2010

New-found faith

Freewriting exercise

Rick Bragg, Somebody Told Me, p. 186:

“The housing authority found Bill Simpson living on the street, relying on a new-found faith in God and the kindness of strangers.”

Billy’s smile could light up the room. Back then, before Vietnam, Billy Simpson and I danced in his basement. He had one record that he played over and over again on the little record player—Chances Are by Johnny Mathis. We danced real slow on the green and black asphalt tile floor while his mama’s dryer went thump, thump in the corner. Every once in a while we’d stop dancing to eat some potato chips and drink some RC Cola. And every once in a while his mama would come downstairs to put another load of towels in the dryer. She’d chuckle and say, “You two just love that song, don’t you now?” His mama was a real sweet lady. She was a nurse’s aide at the Catholic old folks home and Billy said she held the hands of a lot of old people when they died but she was so used to death that it seemed normal to her and besides, he said, she was real religious and just prayed to Jesus and all the saints when people were dying. Billy said she should have been a nun and he was probably right, except she wouldn’t have had Billy if she’d been a nun. I wondered how she could spend so much time with dying people and still be so sweet. I thought being with someone dead would near to kill me, but it didn’t kill Mrs. Simpson. Billy got a big break and went off to college on a football scholarship but soon he got in big trouble. He had been put on probation at the college for drinking and when he was caught cheating on an exam, the college kicked him out for good. That was bad news for Billy because he then got drafted and soon went to Vietnam. But I heard he started using heroin in Vietnam and the army kicked him out too. Sitting with all those dead people didn’t phase his mama, but the shame that her son brought down on the family killed her. No one was sure where Billy Simpson was when his mama died. Billy’s father tried to find him with no luck. Five years after Mrs. Simpson died I saw a picture in the newspaper of some homeless men eating Thanksgiving supper at a shelter run by Catholic nuns in Newark, New Jersey. I looked closely at the photo. Even though the man in the tattered coat and the baseball cap was older and worn by life on the streets, he had the unmistakable smile of Billy Simpson. I passed on the information to Billy’s family. The housing authority found Bill Simpson living on the street, relying on a new-found faith in God and the kindness of strangers.

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