by Jim Adams Over 800 people attended the funeral, according to the localnewspaper’s estimate. . . .
. The cloudless day, lit by an early morning sun that cast soft shadowsamong the mourners, was disturbed only by the gentle murmur of thepreacher’s voice and the distant hum of traffic racing past on Hwy 401. Off-duty Durham Regional Police officers received an unexpected bonus thatmorning, when they were called in to handle parking problems around thecemetery and direct the seemingly endless flow of floral tributes. “Black Billy” he’d called himself. He’d appeared in Pickering oneunremarkable day, just as suddenly as he’d departed this life. No fanfareof trumpets, no grandiose announcements, no pre-fight publicity.
He simplyshowed up at Mulligan’s Bar one Sunday afternoon when the regulars werediscussing the merits of the Tyson/Doakes fight, and settled in the farcorner next to the miniscule stage, nursing a half-pint of beer. Mulligan’sbeing the type of place it is, he wasn’t alone too long. “Useta call me Black Billy,” he growled, lumbering to his feet. Hishead ducked and dodged, body swayed, as he danced on his toes, shootinglefts and rights at an imaginary opponent.
His scarred face looked troubledfor a moment. “Coulda been the Champ. Didn’ get a chance. Said I don’ gotthe killer instinct. I know I got it. Jus’ need a chance.
” His audiencenodded appreciatively and exchanged understanding glances. Billy shuffledto a stop and shook his big head as a huge grin split his battered face. “No use cryin’ over spilt milk. That was a long time ago. Yeah man, a longtime ago. He extended a large paw and shook each person’s hand solemnly.
“Jus’ call me Black Billy,” he said, the infectious, innocentgrinencompassing the entire group, like a warming beam of sunlight after arain-storm. It was hard not to like him. Before too long, someone who knew someone who had a friend, hadarranged a job for Billy, in the Marina at the foot of Liverpool Rd. Asmall housetrailer – “It was just rusting away, sitting up at the cottage,”according to the owner – was procured and installed in a corner, near theparking lot. Billy spent a few days cleaning it up and airing it out, thenhe moved his meagre belongings from his temporary home in the small motelon Hwy #2. Pillows, blankets, drapes, cutlery and all of the things neededto make a house a home were donated with quiet mutters of, “Here, Billy.
Maybe you can use this. Wife was gonna throw it out anyway, so you’rewelcome to it. “He became a fixture in Pickering. If he’d lived in some quaint countryvillage, he’d have been known as “a character.
” When he wasn’t scrapinghulls, or painting the underside of yachts in the marina, he could be seen,trotting around in a jogging suit, surprisingly light on his feet, as mostbig men are, his sneakers gently slap-slap-slapping the sidewalk in asteady, unbroken rythym. Occasionally, he’d drop into Mulligan’s to nurse ahalf- pint of beer, and despite repeated offers, was never seen to drinkmore than one. “No, man. Gotta stay in shape,” he’d grin. “Too much o’ thisstuff slows the reflexes.
Thanks anyway. ” He was a quiet man, keepinghimself very much to himself, unless invited to join a group, which heinvariably was. All attempts to extract information about his past life were met bythe same big grin, and the same stock answer. “Long time ago, man. Useta bea fighter, long time ago.
. . . .
” In a moment of weakness, he confided tosomeone that he hailed from Nova Scotia, and that he had no livingrelatives. Initially, the more cautious parents in the neighbourhood instructedtheir offspring not to talk to Billy, but as time progressed he became afamiliar figure. And he’d happily interrupt one of his endless joggingtrips to help a flustered young mother trying to cope with two kids andarmfuls of groceries, or lend a hand with a pile of lumber destined tobecome a garden shed. He became accepted by everyone. He had a special affinity with little kids, though.
They hung aroundthe marina, peering through the chainlink fence, watching Billy scrapehulls, his huge, muscled body stripped to the waist in the summer sunshine,the sweat beading, glistening and forming rivulets to soak his trackpants. “You a boxer, Billy?”, some third-grader would squeak, initiatingthe ritual that had been performed hundreds of times before. “Yup! Useta be a fighter, long time ago. “Could you beat up Mike Tyson?””Dunno. Sure woulda liked to try, though.
” Then the infectious grinwould make its appearance. “You think he’s maybe afraid o’ me?””Yeah! I bet he is. “”Well, he’s a pretty big guy. . .
“”Big as you, Billy?””Uhhhh. . . Guess not, but he’s fast. “”Fast as you, Billy?””Yeah. Maybe faster.
“”You could beat him, though,” the eight-year-old expert wouldproclaim. “You’re strong. “”Maybe. Too old now, though.
“”How old are you, Billy?”” ‘Bout forty-two, I think. “”I’ll be nine, next week!””Well. . .
You don’ say. You sure are big, for nine. But your Momma’sgonna be wonderin’ where you are. Maybe she won’ buy you anypresents if you don’ hurry home for lunch. “”OK.
But I brought something for you. “”Something for me? Well! Maybe it’s MY birthday today,” he’dchuckle softly. Sometimes it was a child’s painting, still damp from the excess ofwatercolours used. Sometimes a treasured marble, a baseball card, or astick of gum, the wrapper sticky from being clutched too long on a warmday. But Billy accepted any gift with feigned delight. Each painting wouldbe scrutinized closely, its artistic merits questioned and explained, andthe budding Picasso would head home, secure in the knowledge that at leasttwo people in the world understood art.
Marbles and other childhoodartifacts were accepted by Billy only under the solemn understanding thathe would look after them until the rightful owner required their use again. One Friday around dinner time, Billy finished work for the day, had aquick wash and changed into a fresh jogging suit. He set off on the pathalong the beach, swapping “Hiya’s” with just about everyone he passed, hissmile flashing on and off as regularly as Christmas tree lights. Someonenoticed that the time was 5:18 pm. Continuing along the beach, Billy swungleft into the Hydro Park and followed the gravel path, his sneakers makinga satisfying scrunch-scrunch as he picked the pace up a little.
Hetravelled the meandering walkway, and slowed to call a warning to two kidswho were playing a little close to the slippery edge of the lake. Movinguphill now, he forced himself to a quick sprint, for the sheer joy of it,before reaching the high plateau which afforded a panoramic view of the baybelow. The downhill portion was easier now and once through the park gatesand out on to Sandy Beach Rd, the going levelled out. He followed his usual course and was approaching the small strip plazawhen he recalled that he needed some vitamin pills.
Only two left in thebottle, this morning. Turning into the plaza, he began to slow down, comingto a stop in front of the pharmacy. Old Manny, the owner, always offered toarmwrestle for the cost of the pills. Billy’s face split into agood-natured grin as he mopped his forehead with the waistband of his top.
Manny was five foot three and weighed 120 pounds, tops. He opened the door and stepped into the welcome chill of the airconditioning, noticing that Janice, Manny’s cashier, was not in her usualposition at the cash register. “Yo! Manny? You takin’ a nap, back here?”,he called as he made his way to the rear counter where Manny could usuallybe found, peering over the top of his bi-focals, tie askew and silvery hairpuffed up like a mad professor. “Hey! Manny? Janice? Is everything free,today?” His questions were cut short as a ski-masked face shot up frombehind a display rack. “Shut up, mouthpiece. Get over here.
Fast!” The gunheld in the robber’s fist indicated that he meant business. Billy slowlyraised his hands and moved in the direction indicated. As he drew close tothe display rack, he saw Manny sitting awkwardly on the floor, one handpushed back to take his weight, the other clutching a blood- stainedhandkerchief to his head. Janice, her long, blonde hair obscuring her face,was bent forward, fiercely hugging two young children to her, as if byholding them she could shut the horror from their minds. “Billy,” gaspedManny, “Do as he says.
He’s threatening to shoot everyone. ” “Shurrup oldman,” snarled the ski-mask, “Or I’ll blow you away first. You wanna die?Huh?” His voice rose to a shriek. “Easy, man. Take it easy,” saidBilly.
“They ain’t gonna hurt you. What you want?” Ski-mask blinked rapidlya few times then turned towards Billy. “I told him, man. I want the heavystuff. Valium. Percodan.
Uppers, downers. Everything. And the cash, too. He’s stupid,” he added, pointing in Manny’s direction.
“Billy, I’ve toldhim,” Manny groaned. “I don’t get a lot of call for that stuff, so I onlycarry small quantities. He’s got all I have, but he won’t listen. He. .
. . I. . .
. He hit me with the gun,” Manny’s voice trembled as he gesturedwith the handkerchief. “Enough talking,” snapped the gunman. He reachedover towards Janice, and before she could react, he grabbed the little girland pulled her towards him. “Billy,” the child’s voice rose to a terrifiedwail.
“I want my Mommy. ” Billy knew her only as Karen. Just two days before,she’d passed a bunch of dandelions to him through the marina fence. “It’sokay, honey. Mommy’s gonna be here in a minute.
Don’t be. . . . ” “Hey!”,screamed the ski-mask. “Is anybody listening to me? You got five seconds,you hear me? Five seconds to deliver, or the brat gets it.
” He aimed thepistol at the struggling child’s head. “Five. . .
. . four. . .
” “Billy! I want myMommy. Please. . . .
. ” “Three. . . . .
. two. . . . .
” Billy began his shuffling dance,head bobbing and weaving, the familiar incatation rolling easily from hislips. . . “Useta be a fighter. Coulda been the Champ. Didn’ getta.
. . “. Hemoved smoothly, on the balls of his feet, throwing jabs and hooks at hisphantom opponent, body swaying, ducking and dodging. He blocked imaginarycounterpunches with his forearms,, his own blows punctuated by sharp hissesof expelled breath as he moved constantly. Circling, always circling.
“Hey. What’s that freak doing?”, yelled the gunman to no-one in particular. “Tellhim to quit!” “. .
. . . Coulda been the Champ.
. . ” “I said quit it! You want meto off the kid? Huh?” Billy circled closer. Ski-mask was like a rabbithypnotised by a snake. He couldn’t remove his eyes from the big man. “Is hecrazy? I gotta gun!” “Didn’ getta chance.
. . . Know I got it.
. . . Jus’needa. . .
. ” Ski-mask removed the gun from the child’s head and aimed atBilly as he moved dangerously close. Too late,the robber realized hiserror. Before he could return the gun to its former position, Billy lunged. Karen fell to one side, unheeded for the moment.
There was a flat crack andBilly staggered, but kept coming. His left jab was slightly off-target ashe was off balance, but the looping right hook caught the gunman solidly inthe ribs, just as the gun spat for a second time, before flippingend-over-end to land in the chest freezer. Billy grunted heavily, butanother right to the midsection of the gunman folded him up like anaccordion, and the crushing left, landed flush on the point of his chinwith a sound like a two-by-four slapping wet cement. The robber flewbackwards, his feet lifted from the floor by the force of the blow, andcrashed into a shelving unit before falling motionless. Manny, stunned by the speed of events, gawped at theunconscious gunman for a few seconds. Then seeing Billy clutch at his chestand sink slowly to a sitting position, he scrambled towards the big man.
“Billy, you crazy son of. . . .
are you alright? Janice! Get some surgicaldressings. Hurry! Call an ambulance – and the police too!”, he added as anafterthought. The front door opened, and in walked a harassed looking youngwoman. “Janice, did Robbie and Karen get their. . .
. Good God! What’shappened?” “Mommy! Mommy!”, cried the kids, abandoning Janice and rushingto their mother’s outstretched arms. “Janice! Get those dressings. Now!Hurry up!”, Manny almost shouted. “Billy?. .
. . . Billy?” The big man toppledover onto his side, and Manny scurried around to cradle the fighter’s headin his lap. “Can you hear me, Billy?” The eyes opened.
“Sure, I hear you. “His voice was slurred and he frowned slightly, then his eyes lit up. “Hey,Manny? Didya see the combination I threw?. . .
. Two rights set ‘im up, thenthe left. . . . .
. Hurt me bad twice, but I didn’ quit. . . .
. Knew I got thekiller instinct. . . Y’saw that Manny, huh? Y’saw my killer instinct, didn’ya?” His voice tailed off for a few seconds. “Didn’ getta chance.
. . Wasgonna give you. .
. chance, today. . . . Armwrestle for vitamins.
. . . Wannatry?. . .
” A faint grin appeared and a huge paw rose slowly, unsteadily, thendropped back to the floor. At 5:31 pm, the police arrived with drawn guns. They found Manny stillcradling Billy’s head, tears trickling unashamedly down his cheeks as hecrooned softly to the fallen fighter, “. . . .
You could’ve been the Champ,Billy. You would’ve been a great Champ. . .
“Over eight hundred people attended the funeral, by the localnewspaper’s estimate. . . .