I met Billy right as I started my freshman year at Clovis High. He was a senior, same as my brother Jay. Goofy, lanky, and with a walk that made him visible from across campus. Imagine what Jughead from the old Archie comics would have moved like. Some people called him ‘Chicken Man,’ although I don’t remember anyone saying that to his face…not twice, anyway.
I don’t remember exactly how I came to know Billy, Cameron, & Tom. What I do remember are nights at JFK’s and Aldo’s Pizza. I remember dumping a salt shaker into Cam’s coffee and returning from the bathroom to find the contents of an ashtray stirred into my own.
That’s right, kids. We go so far back we could smoke inside a restaurant.
And maybe that’s where Billy and I really got started, Little Brown Jug. I wanted a pack of cigarettes and he said he knew where I could buy them. I agreed to spring for a pack of Marlboros if he would introduce me to Tex, thereby securing a supplier of nicotine for the rest of my adolescence.
We walked all over Clovis at some point. One stupid night the four of us walked backwards down Clovis Avenue, relieving ourselves of excess coffee and accusing one another of meat-gazing. But usually we just gravitated to Billy’s house.
His dad has a place just West of Clovis High, the backyard actually looked out on the teacher’s parking lot and the tennis courts. I can’t tell you how many relationships sparked and died next to that pool. I can’t imagine what horrifying, possibly unclassified diseases were shared under the pool table. The collection of friends, clowns, miscreants, and shit-disturbers that passed through those double doors…or that came bailing over the back fence – a cinderblock wall – to the bellows of Pops, Billy’s dad, admonishing anyone dumb enough to trample the shrubs.
Billy introduced me to my first long-term girlfriend. A singer with a flair for the dramatic and a wee bit of a jealous streak. Billy didn’t warn me that her nickname was the “Big-Titty Banshee.”
She grew up to be an awesome woman, by the way. And Billy knew she would. That was one of his gifts. He could see kindness under even the roughest exterior.
Billy knew BTB had everything she needed to be amazing, but we were young and I am not known for my patience.
Billy also introduced me to a kind of extended family. Michelle: a blind woman with four kids and a big mouth. She was ‘Mom’ to a collection of youth that didn’t have much direction, and usually even less support. She welcomed everyone into her home without judgment.
Check that. She had an opinion about every-damn-thing. But she had no hate in her heart for anyone but an ex who was bad to her and her kids.
Billy loved Michelle and never condoned disrespect. I saw a couple kids get their bells rung for failing to abide her loose rules.
In time a cute little blonde, coincidentally also named Michelle, came into the picture. She was a free spirit and had a heart as big as Billy’s. Due to circumstances beyond her control Billy and I eventually had to help her relocate. This may or may not have involved an uncle or a step-dad who wanted to throw down but who got a surprise from the skinny kid with the raspy voice.
I used to wonder if that’s the night she fell in love with him.
When I met my high school sweetheart one of the first people I introduced her to was Billy. I knew she was beautiful and smart, but I needed Billy’s radar to tell me where her heart was. He didn’t steer me wrong.
I lost contact with most of ‘The Family.’ Some of it was drama, most of it was just growing up and moving on. But Billy didn’t let infrequency sour our rare visits.
One afternoon I was at a fast food joint on Blackstone. I had not heard from most of that crew in over a decade. But I heard “What up, Motherfucker?” and knew who was walking up behind me.
He told me about his dad, our old friends, and how things had played out with his wife. Never a bad word, even if some of us were going through a rough spot. We swore up and down we would get together for coffee or a drink. We agreed to seek each other out on social media. Still MySpace then, I think. We chatted a few times online. We never did get that coffee.
I can’t really explain our friendship. I went through some of the hardest years of my life while we were friends and Billy was always there. Sometimes he just said dumb shit until I laughed about whatever was bothering me. At least once he threatened to kick my ass (and meant it). Most of the time he just passed me a lighter, pulled out a chair and acted like we always had and always would be friends.
I am sorry we never had those drinks. People who are unfailingly positive and encouraging are few and far between. The world is a poorer place without Billy Harris in it.
Today was a sad day for a family that is made up of people who aren’t related and (some of whom) haven’t talked in twenty years. Do me a favor and do something kind for someone tomorrow.
Bill’s not here and someone has to pick up the slack.