Ask anyone about Bill and the first thing they’ll mention is his white t-shirt. It’s the only shirt he ever wore. People would see him all over town in it. At Food Lion buying a six-pack of Yuengling for his version of a wild Saturday night. Jogging around the middle school track every Sunday morning, right after going to mass at a church he’d attended since childhood. Drinking a coffee (always black) at the Bustling Bean, the lone cafe in Loresville’s small downtown area. Bill would sit by the window, one leg crossed over the other, reading the most recent edition of The Loresville Local, waving at acquaintances as they passed. Sometimes it was a childhood friend’s mom. Other times it was one of his former high school teachers. No matter who it was, Bill’s greeting was always the same: glance up from his paper, smile, wave, then go back to reading about how the Loresville football team was looking halfway decent this year, or some other slice of small-town Americana. Unlike most people who grew up in Loresville, Bill didn’t prefer to live any other way.
A few years after graduating high school, Bill tried to move to the coast with a couple buddies. It didn’t work out. They rented a three-bedroom condo one block from the beach. Bill got a night job cleaning a nearby office. His friends enjoyed the new lifestyle (one took up surfing, the other became a lifeguard), but Bill pined for home. Nobody knows me here, he’d often mutter to himself as he scrubbed yet another dirty toilet. Instead of trying to cure his loneliness, by joining a local church or softball league or whatever, Bill became depressed, sleeping during the day then dragging himself to his job at night. He never saw anyone as he swept the halls of that empty building, and soon he was balls deep in an existential crisis that forced him to return to Loresville four months after he’d left. His two friends, meanwhile, never came back. One became a lawyer in New York City. The other a police officer in Atlanta. Life sometimes goes that way.
Indeed, most people who grew up in Loresville moved elsewhere. But Bill was not most people. It’s curious that Bill became a Loresville lifer, because the rest of his family was adventurous. His parents traveled the world before settling down. His older brother, Jack, spread his wings like a great heron. Jack had been a star tennis player in high school. During his senior year, he was the only Loresville player to make it past districts, advancing all the way to the state finals, where he lost to some kid from Hitestown (a juggernaut) who went on to play at UCLA. Jack wasn’t UCLA good, but Middlebury College in Vermont offered him a scholarship. He graduated college with honors, then became an English teacher at a charter school in Maine, where he lived near the beach with his wife and two kids. Jack returned to his hometown once a year at most, usually around Christmas to visit his parents and, of course, his younger brother, Bill. While there were reasons for Bill to feel jealousy or resentment toward Jack, he never did.
Upon moving back to Loresville from the coast, Bill lived with his parents in their small rancher for several months while he figured out his next move. Soon thereafter he landed a job as a lunch guy at the elementary school. The gig paid enough for him to rent a two-bedroom house with a nice yard a couple of blocks from the Bustling Bean. For some people, working in your former elementary school lunch hall would’ve been demeaning. But Bill was in heaven. It gave him a chance to meet the children of people he’d gone to school with, and many of these kids loved Bill, who was always ready to serve up pizza or mashed potatoes with a smile on his face and, of course, a white t-shirt on his back.
Bill also loved the job because it didn’t rule his life. Many people he’d gone to school with were so wrapped up in their careers that, he felt, they didn’t have time to do anything for themselves, to stop and listen to the small miracle of birds tweeting in the trees. Working as a lunch guy afforded Bill time to do what he loved: painting enormous, vibrant pictures of ostriches. Almost always ostriches. If you asked Bill why he adored the large flightless birds, he wouldn’t have had a straight answer. It was an obsession that defied explanation, yet brought him joy on a primal level. Almost as much joy as sitting at the Bustling Bean and reading the paper. But not quite.
Bill’s parents tried to get him to branch out. They offered to pay his rent if he moved to another town, not because they wanted him to leave, but because they felt he needed life experience. After all, the two of them had moved across the country, from California to Maryland, on a whim in their 20s, and it had changed them for the better. If it turned out Bill wanted to live in Loresville after venturing out for a couple years, they would’ve been fine with that. Their main concern was that Bill was missing out on one of life’s greatest gifts — the brilliance of new places — and that by staying home, his perspective on himself, on the world, on existence, would be lacking.
Their main concern was that Bill was missing out on one of life’s greatest gifts — the brilliance of new places — and that by staying home, his perspective on himself, on the world, on existence, would be lacking.
But Bill never took his parents up on the offer. He didn’t even like going into Hitestown, for heaven’s sake, which was only 20 minutes away but more populated and hectic. Relatively speaking. Hitestown only had 75,000 people, but compared to Loresville, it was a metropolis. So Bill stayed put, wearing his white shirt, painting ostriches and serving food to school children. It was a life that, from the outside, looked terribly boring. But in truth, Bill was filled with a sense of contentment that most people, especially those who’d moved elsewhere in search of happiness, would never possess.
I found myself at Bill’s house last summer, sitting on his patio overlooking a yard in which four full-grown ostriches were prancing around. I’d graduated with Bill and we had at least one class together each year, so I knew him decently well. I was in town visiting my father, who’d had a heart attack and then a triple bypass a few days earlier. He was doing OK, but it’d given us a scare, especially my mother, who was already prone to fits of anxiety.
I lived in Pittsburgh. I moved there after college and toiled around in the marketing industry before landing a job as a “brand cosmetologist” for a start-up that helped local businesses increase their social media presence. It was alright, I guess. I was still finding my stride, even though I’d just turned 30 and was financially well-off. A great hole needed filling, but most of the time I ignored the emptiness and kept branding away, to limited spiritual returns.
I’d run into Bill at the Bustling Bean, where’d I’d stopped in for a coffee after visiting my dad in the hospital. We’d chatted for a few minutes, and I told him about the heart attack and the bypass and all that. He said, hey bud, why don’t you come by my place later today? Have a beer. Look at the ostriches. Take a load off. I just bought the house, he said, it was a great deal, twice as big and with twice as much land as I could’ve gotten for the same price in Hitestown. I said all right Bill, that sounds like a plan.
So there we were, sitting outside in the summer heat with our shoes off, sipping Yuengling and enjoying the spectacle of Bill’s well-manicured backyard. It was a full-on garden, really, complete with white wooden arches and ornate flowers that burst forth in dramatic yellows and reds and purples. The ostriches strutted around, picking at insects. Birds darted between the vegetation. It was pleasant, unlike my one-bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh, which had no yard to speak of. Bums often slept on the front steps of my complex and I’d have to shoo them away with a broom. But they’d always return, reeking of sweet wine or corn liquor, because bums are nothing if not resilient.
The two of us were a few beers deep when Bill, in his signature white shirt, gestured toward a tree with a half-empty Yuengling.
“The yellow-bellied birds are my favorite,” he said. “They’re called shawpicks.”
He took a swig of his beer and placed the bottle on the table.
“What makes ‘em special?” I asked.
“You can’t find them anywhere else,” he said. “And they don’t migrate. When winter comes around, they bury themselves in the dirt and hibernate until spring. There’s no other bird like them.”
“No shit,” I said. “To think I grew up here and I’ve never even heard of a shawpick.”
“There’s a lot special about this place,” Bill said. “People just overlook it because they’re busy going someplace else.”
“You ever paint them, like the ostriches?”
“Of course, yeah,” Bill said. “I paint them all the time. All the time.”
“That sounds nice,” I said.
Bill stood up and walked into the garden. Insects were buzzing in a cloud around his head as he moved deeper into the greenery. He rubbed his biggest ostrich, Jack, behind the ear. It was getting late and I realized I should get home to spend some time with mom while dad was recovering. I polished off the watered-down Yuengling and threw the bottle in the recycling by the door. “Hey Bill,” I said. “I should probably take off.” But my old high school acquaintance couldn’t hear me. He was hugging Jack around the neck, whispering something I couldn’t make out.
Out of nowhere, a shawpick landed in my lap. It was shockingly ugly. Red dangly things stuck out of its face at odd angles. Its eyes were beady and demented. But my goodness, its belly was so brilliantly yellow that it almost made me forget about its obscene face. The strange creature mesmerized me for several seconds before flying away. When I snapped out of the spell, Bill was standing next to me with his arm around an ostrich, a look on his face that told me he was in the center of the universe, and by God, why would he ever want to leave?
I drummed up a little contest for the two adults in the car. I grabbed a tin of Mr. Planters cocktail peanuts from the passenger seat. Placed a single nut in my mouth.
And all of a sudden my dead grandpa and I were walking side-by-side down a desert highway.
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