Death Wish Bill

Bill and Jane were our neighbors on the other side of a wall in a duplex in State College. Neither said much to us while we were moving in, but Bill revealed a bit of his character when I asked him to help me move a chest of drawers inside from the U-Haul truck. He suggested that I stop carrying in the drawers one by one and just haul the whole load at once. We ended up tipping the dresser, dropping a drawer out and putting a dent in its finish.

Judy and I discovered that Bill was a classical guitarist. We weren’t nosy. Our living room walls adjoined and we could hear him obsessively play scales for hours at a time. When he actually played a piece of music it sounded lovely in a dry, detached sort of way. His approach to performance wasn’t to evoke the emotional heart of a composition. It was more of a cold analysis of the structure of the harmonies and the rhythmic pattern of the notes.

We gradually got to know our neighbors and sometimes shared a meal together. Bill told us one night that he went to New York to take lessons with a man who taught the theorbo, an antiquated instrument that looked like a lute with an incredibly long neck. (Bill was trying to pick up a new sound that might distinguish him from the legions of classical guitarists trying to make their mark.) He asked me if I wanted to come along, and also said that he had to make a stop to visit a man who had once been a session player for Elvis Presley. Bill had hurt a tendon from overplaying, and this man was an expert in treating hand injuries.

I hesitated to agree. Judy was six months pregnant and didn’t like me to be away for any length of time. And Bill sometimes seemed a little strange…We shared lawn mowing duties for the whole property, and he usually waited until the grass was two feet high before taking his turn. Then he would push the mower in slow motion as he cut down little patches of the overgrowth. He screwed his eyes tight till almost shut as he grimly plowed ahead. He told us that the mower hurt his hands and his ears and that he hated the job. He also told us that he left behind irregular blocks of unmowed turf so that pilots of UFOs flying overhead would think that the humans were trying to send them a message. He was kidding us when he said that, but his eyes had a curious glint when he encouraged me to leave them in place when it was my turn to mow. “It’s like crop circles in reverse,” he explained.

Bill also seemed to find impulsive solutions to everyday problems. Judy and I once heard the smoke detector go off in their side. Jane yelled, “Bill! Make it stop!” The detector kept shrieking for a long time. Then we heard Jane say, “No Bill—don’t!” followed by the sound of something hitting the floor, followed by a crunching sound, followed by silence. We found out that Bill had knocked the detector off the ceiling and had killed it by crushing it underfoot.

I frequently found tire tracks in the morning dew cutting diagonally across the front lawn from my driveway to their driveway on the other side of the building. I suspected that a man who was too impatient to travel another thirty feet to make a proper turn might be an erratic driver.

I was feeling a little house bound, however, and I agreed to come when Bill added that he’d like to visit art galleries after his lesson was done.

Nothing eventful happened when we drove through Pennsylvania, but things got a lot more exciting when we reached New Jersey. We headed south onto a divided six lane highway with a center median landscaped with thick clumps of bushes and trees. Bill soon realized that we were going in the wrong direction. I expected him to take the next exit ramp to the right and turn around, but he made another choice. He got into the left hand lane and almost came to a stop when we approached an entrance ramp that allowed cars heading north to change course and flow into our side of the road. Bill turned onto the ramp and drove in the wrong direction up a curve and through the curtain of trees that blocked our vision of any car coming in our way. When we cleared the trees we had to suddenly veer over to one side when an oncoming van headed straight for us. Bill seemed mildly surprised when the driver leaned out the window, cursed us and flashed his middle finger.

He noticed just as he entered the highway on the northbound side that I was gripping the dashboard tightly.  He asked, “What’s the matter?” I was still dumbstruck but managed to say, “Well, I thought that I was about to die. A car might have hit us head on or it might not. I had no way of knowing.” Bill smiled at me like a condescending adult comforting a child suffering from a foolish fright and said, “You weren’t going to die.”

We had a good time in New York, and I got to meet the hand injury expert who had sat in with Elvis. He told us that he had also worked with John Lennon, and if he had to compare the musical abilities of the two icons he would say that Elvis was much better. When he played for Lennon in the early seventies he couldn’t believe how bad the music was and had to remind himself that the former Beatle was supposed to be a genius. Elvis, on the other hand, had an excellent sense of timing and could change the emotional impact of a verse by singing a note a half beat earlier.

When we got into the car again Bill began to drive around Manhattan in search of a road that would lead us to the New Jersey turnpike. His tendency to cut off other drivers and switch lanes without looking at his rear view mirrors didn’t stand out in the tumultuous traffic, but we still attracted an occasional honk from an irritated driver behind us. Bill would turn in his seat and wave pretending to be a yokel who thought that the man leaning on his horn was a friend who wanted to get our attention.

On our way home we got off the turnpike and picked up some minor highways through western New Jersey. We decided to stop for coffee and a restroom break at a truck stop and took an exit ramp down to a little development. We got back in the car and saw that there was no easy access back up to the highway. Rather than wander in the dark on back roads in strange territory Bill took what appeared to him to be the most expedient measure: he drove the wrong way up the ramp back onto the highway.

When we got home I told Judy an edited version of the day’s events. Bill had invited me back for another trip to New York, and I wanted to go. I had had a great time except for those few moments when I envisioned Judy standing by my coffin wearing a black maternity dress with the cloth stretched tight over her burgeoning stomach.

My desire for another outing wasn’t totally blind. A few days later when Bill brought up the possibility of another trip I made him swear that he would avoid making any more death defying maneuvers while I was in the car with him. I almost believed that he meant it when he said, “Sure, no problem,” with a bare trace of a smile on his face. But I knew that his definition of what constituted suicidal behavior was very different than mine, and I offered to drive the next time we went.

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