Wilma the Benevolent
and Billy the Beast
Call her Saint Wilma the Benevolent of Thüringen, Hospitalier of the Bitterroot.
Hospitalier: Qui recueille, abrite, nourrit les voyageurs, les indigents, etc. (One who takes in, shelters and feeds travelers, the destitute, etc.)
Wilma Johnson is the 83-yr.-old widow of Henry ‘Hank’ Johnson, who built the house next to Stan’s, where I’m house sitting. As my closest neighbor in this sparsely populated corner of the Bitterroot, I made sure I paid her a visit early on in my stay here. Stan told me she was German and I may as well use a little German on her and see if she liked that. Boy, did she! She practically cried when I came to the door and began my introduction with the old “Ich heise Daniel. Es freut mich, Sie kennenzulernen!”
Wilma invited me in. We sat at the kitchen/dining table and she said she only had one other friend in the Bitterroot she could speak German to, and wouldn’t I please come often for coffee and cake so we could chat? Would I ever! I remember working on a farm in the Ruhr district and Kaffee und Kuchen was the highlight of the afternoons.
Here I must interject that my German is quite poor- only good enough for a very simple conversation, but apparently good enough for good ol’ Wilma. With only a few reversions to English, and the help of a photo album/scrap book, I learned that Wilma was from Thuringia, or Thüringen, which after the war came under the Soviet occupation. As a little girl she was separated from her family and it wasn’t until she was 15 that the Russian authorities let her cross the border to be reunited with her family, who had relocated to Munich since the war’s end. She got a job working at a restaurant on the outskirts of Munich and that’s where she met corporal Hank Johnson, a G.I. stationed at a base an hour away. Hank was on weekend leave with his buddy Billy and immediately he took an interest in young, lovely Wilma. He came back to the restaurant the very next weekend and in his rudimentary German, straight up asked Wilma if she had a boyfriend. Long story short, Hank marries Wilma, brings her to Massachusetts, then Alaska, and finally Montana to raise their family. The entire time Billy remained close to Hank and in time he came out to Montana too. I can’t tell you if Billy was married, had kids or anything about him besides the fact that he was Hank’s long-time best friend.
When Hank was close to dying, he said to Billy, “Promise me one thing, Billy: that you’ll take care of Wilma when I’m gone.”
Billy did his best to keep his promise, but his efforts were short-lived by a debilitating sickness that left him very frail and only half alert due to steadily worsening dementia. Then the tables were turned and it was Wilma who took care of Billy. Billy had no other friends or family who would take on the job of caring for him, so he lives with Wilma, who does everything for him. She also puts up with everything; the sickness has had a negative effect on his attitude and behavior, and he’s an ornery old curmudgeon, who nobody likes, not even Wilma I would guess. But blessed St. Wilma takes care of Billy and will do so until his dying day, in devotion to her dear Henry, who must have been quite a guy because Stan has a big supper-announcement triangle hanging from his front porch ceiling with a plaque that says, Hank Johnson Memorial Triangle.
Meanwhile, like I say, Wilma does everything for Billy: feeds him, helps him bathe, cleans him up when he soils himself, takes him to doctor appointments, gets him his meds- you name it. All the while Billy doesn’t show an ounce of gratitude; he acts like Wilma’s extraordinary efforts are his birthright. All he does is sit on the couch all day long and watch junk TV, like pro-wrestling, Cops, CNN news, and the 24-hour, schlock-country music video stream. And Wilma only leaves him for very short stints, like when she takes the trash cans down to the main road, shops for groceries, and attends mass at St. Mary’s on Saturday evenings.
To be fair, Stan says he remembers when Billy was a pretty friendly dude, before his sickness. And I can see traces of that still. Whenever I come for coffee and he’s over on the couch, watching the giant screen at high volume, I say hello and he greets me back. When I mention Billy to people who know him, however, their face darkens and they shake their head, dismayed that such a nice person like Wilma has to put up with such orneriness. But like a saint, Wilma doesn’t complain. She takes it all as her natural duty to Hank and to God, and she’s almost always in a good mood, at least when I come over for coffee and other handouts.
Speaking of handouts, Wilma is overjoyed when she has me leave carrying a big load of food. Usually there’s a pot full of something like stew that she cooked, as well as German or Polish sausages, cheese, and thick, heavy, German-style bread. I’m in hog heaven when I’m well-laden with plunder from a visit to St. Wilma’s. Last fall and winter, when young Lukas from Germany was here on his gap year abroad, we came over together often, and Wilma doubled-loaded us with the food packages, such was her joy to spend time with yet another German speaker (a competent one at that).
The other day Wilma calls me and asks for help. “Are you OK?” I said.
-Yes, but I’m going in for a heart operation.
-What? Are you sure you’re OK?
-Yes, I don’t have any symptoms at all and feel fine. But they say I have a bad valve and this disease is a silent killer and must be treated, so they are going to give me a new valve.
-Where are you going for the operation?
-To St. Patrick’s in Missoula. They have the best heart doctors in the world!
-I’m glad to hear that.
-I’m calling to ask if you can come next Tuesday and watch Billy.
-Of course. I’ll make sure I get the day off from work.
-I will pay you!
-Oh, no, Wilma. It’s my pleasure to do this.
-Oh, I will pay!
I dropped in on Monday night to get the details of my stint babysitting Billy. Wilma had everything ready. She brought me down to the basement. Here is the wood and kindling for the wood stove, or you can use the gas one if you like; here is the DVD player; here is the phone; here in the fridge is chicken soup you can heat up (along with anything in the kitchen fridge or pantry upstairs), here is your bed. I was all set to come in Tuesday and stay until Wednesday morning, when I would be free to go to work, as she would be returning from the hospital around noon. When we went back up the stairs, Wilma said, “Oh, and you can take these too. You can have these three.” There were five bottles of booze. She moved aside the Kahlua and the Bailey’s on the ends and pointed to the Wild Turkey, Absolut, and peppermint Schnapps. When we got to the door, Wilma gave me keys to the house, the phone number of her son and daughter in law, and said, “I’m so happy you can do this, Dan. I’m glad I can go to the hospital and not worry about Billy!”
-It’s no problem, Wilma. My pleasure, really!
-OK. You’re a good man, Dan.
And that was it. This morning I walked up to Wilma’s at 9, as per her instructions, and began my baby-sitting day. Billy was still asleep so I made myself a coffee with the Keurig, parked myself at the kitchen table and did some reading. At just after ten I started to worry a little about Billy, who “sometimes doesn’t get up until 9,” according to Wilma. I knocked on his bedroom door and got no answer. At 10:15 I knocked again, harder this time and I said, loudly, “Hey Billy! Are you OK?”
There was again no answer. I opened the door, very slowly and saw the unmade bed. I moved a foot closer and saw Billy’s tousled, gray hair. I moved another foot and saw his face. He was awake!
“Hi Billy. Are you OK?”
He was lying on his side. He continued to stare to the side and said, irritatedly, “Does it look like I’m OK?”
I honestly don’t know if he was saying, “What do you think? Of course I’m okay!” or “What do you think? Of course I’m not OK!” but I could tell he was angry I had entered his room, so I said sorry and quickly shut the door. That was not a good start to our day together, but at least he didn’t say, “What the hell are you doing here?!” which would indicate he’d forgotten that Wilma told him I’d be there for the day (and night). He knew he was going to share the day with Fun Dan! I still thought things might turn out all right.
When he finally emerged from his room, knowing that Wilma did just about everything for him, I jumped up and asked if he’d like a cup of coffee. Wilma told me he liked his with cream and she had left the little cream decanter in the fridge.
-Okay, well, if you need anything just let me know.
There was no answer to that and Billy ensconced himself in his favorite place, the molded-to-his-body part of the sofa where he always sat, stone-faced in front of the TV, in old t-shirt and loose undershorts as always.
When 11 o’clock rolled around, I asked Billy if he would like a bowl of cereal. Wilma had one pantry door full of the typical, sugar-bomb stuff like Cap’n Crunch. Billy doesn’t eat eggs and bacon or sausage for breakfast; he usually just sniffs at Wilma’s delicious home cooking and prefers the junk, which Wilma duly provides.
I figured he was just being ornery, but he was probably actually hungry, plus I was tired of listening to his favorite TV show, JAIL (reality TV from a Las Vegas detention center) so I took my books and computer down to the basement and set up shop there, and waited to hear some sounds from the kitchen overhead. At noon he took a break from TV and I heard the floor creaking, indicating he was heading for the kitchen. I heard something go bang and charged up the stairs to see if he’d fallen. I was in my socks and I slipped on the last wooden stair before the top and fell to the floor of the laundry room next to the kitchen. There was Billy next to the kitchen sink, in his sagging undershorts and old t-shirt, gut hanging out, holding a soup pot and staring right at me. Somehow it was a little like a scene from The Shining. I picked myself up quick and pretended nothing happened.
-Oh, hi Billy. Having some lunch?
He didn’t answer, but just sat down in the chair with the best view of the living-room TV and started eating a stew that Wilma had left for him. The stew was steaming so, worried he might have overheated it, I waited just long enough to make sure he wasn’t going to scald his mouth. Then I went back downstairs.
When Billy went back to his second TV sitting, I figured he’d be there a while so I allowed myself a little time to go back to Stan’s log house to hang out some laundry and make myself a plate of eggs. Wilma had shown me all kinds of food options but at this point I thought minimal interaction with Billy was best, and there’s no barrier between kitchen and living room, where he’s always watching TV.
When I came back, Billy was still watching TV, as usual. I went back downstairs. Out here, as at Stan’s, I get poor reception on my little flip phone, so when Wilma’s land-line rang I jumped to answer, thinking it might be for me. But the phone stopped ringing immediately and I could hear Billy upstairs talking loudly.
-Huh? Yeah…Yeah…I’m OK. Huh?...No…Yeah, everything’s all right… OK.
Then he hung up. Then I got a call to my cell phone in a brief period of intermittent reception. I couldn’t call back but I went downstairs and dialed the number on the land line. It was Wilma’s daughter in law Judy. She was just calling me to see how things were going when Billy snatched up the phone from the holder right next to his spot on the sofa. Judy was very nice and super-grateful I had come to take care of Billy. I could tell by her voice that she thought it would be a bit of an ordeal. I tried to reassure her.
-Oh, no Judy. Things are fine. We’ll be OK. Don’t worry about it.
-Thank you so much, Dan!
There was another call soon after that. I was too slow to pick up the phone first on that one too. I ran upstairs to see who Billy would be talking to. It was Wilma! She must have been done with the operation. Billy listened to her stone-faced. He didn’t ask how she was. He just said, “Uh huh... OK… All right… When are you coming home? Uhm…Okay.” And that was that.
I went downstairs and called Wilma. She sounded a bit groggy but quite good, considering her age and the circumstances. I tried to put her at ease, telling her everything was going fine with Billy.
Things went smoothly the entire afternoon. I heard some movement once and went up to check, more carefully on the slippery stairs this time. This time Billy didn’t see me. He was at the west window of the kitchen, looking toward the road longingly, probably wondering when Wilma was going to come home and take care of him.
Billy watched another hour or two of JAIL, then switched to pro wrestling. Well, all was smooth except for the time he reheated some stew and left one stove burner on and the other three with the sparking starters going ‘click, click, click’. Here I have to fault myself a little, though Wilma had said, “You don’t have to be here all the time. If you need to go somewhere for a while, go ahead.” But I really shouldn’t have left Billy to use the kitchen without watching him, and let him nearly burn the house down.
“What are you doing!” said Billy.
-I’m just turning the burners off.
-I’m turning the burners on the stove off. You left one burner on and also the starter. I turned them off.
He looked at me for another second, then turned back to wrestling. The next time I went upstairs to check on him, he had gone to his room for a nap.
Downstairs I had enough time to watch a movie, always listening for movement upstairs. Wilma had warned me, “You might need to help him if he falls. But I don’t know if you could get him back up. He’s very heavy.”
It was about eight o’clock when I heard footsteps coming down the old, creaky stairs. Except for the table I was sitting at, under a bright, fluorescent light, the basement was pretty dark. Out of the shadows came Billy. He reached the bottom of the stairs, looked around, and then looked at me. He nodded toward the bed and said, “What are you doing?”
-Nothing, just doing a little work on my computer.
He shook his head, irritated, and said, “When are you going?”
-Going home. You’re not staying here tonight.
-Yes I am, Billy.
He gave me a “Who do you think you are,” look and said, “You’re not staying in my house tonight!”
-Is this your house, Billy? I thought it was Wilma’s house.
-You’re not staying here.
-Billy, I’m doing this for Wilma, the woman taking care of you. She asked me to stay the day and the night, and I promised I would.
-Get the hell out of here!
-I’m staying right here, Billy.
He looked squarely at me for a couple seconds, and said, “You’re a fucking moron!”
That upset me a bit. “Billy, you’re an ingrate!”
“You’re a fucking moron,” he repeated, and he started back upstairs. Now why did I pursue him and not just let the whole thing rest? Three reasons, I suppose. I wanted to make it clear that I was staying the night. Second, I figured if he still has enough wits about him to dish it out, he’s cognizant enough to take a little too. Third, it wasn’t just me he was insulting, but the sweet lady who takes care of him. Oh, and the fact that I don’t want guys like Billy to go to their grave (and judgement) with such a contemptible attitude. Billy needs a good Scrooge and the Ghosts experience to snap him out of his anger and misanthropy.
-Why am I a moron, Billy? What did I ever do to you, besides treat you nicely? I came over here because Wilma asked me, and help you in any way, and you can only call me a moron? What kind of bullshit is that, Billy?
We were standing only two feet apart, face to face. I could see a flicker of it in his eyes; he wanted to take a swing at me. The crazy scenarios rushed through my head. I could easily dodge the poor old guy, but if he swung he could very well lose his balance, as he almost did in the kitchen earlier in the day, and my job was to make sure he didn’t fall. Would I hurt my back as I tried to catch Billy as he fell? Have you ever been in a fight where the prime concern was the safety of your opponent?
Then he walked all the way to his sofa and sat down, facing the TV. I followed and sat in the easy chair across from him.
-You know I’m doing this for Wilma, the woman taking care of you in your last years. Don’t you think we should think about her wishes? Do you have any respect or appreciation for the woman taking care of you? Do you care what she wants?
-You’re a fucking moron!
-You’re an ingrate. Do you know what that means, Billy? You’re ungrateful for all the things Wilma does for you. You’re an ingrate!
-Get the hell out of here.
-I’m going downstairs.
Down at the basement table under the florescent tube lights, I thought about my situation. “Well, there’s a crazy man upstairs who seems to hate my guts, and wants me gone. I guess I’ll be OK, though. He’s too slow and wobbly to fight. If he comes downstairs with a kitchen knife, I’ll hear him well in advance and be able to stay clear and subdue him if need be, I suppose. There’s lots of stuff here I can throw at him.”
Then I said to myself, “Whoah, wait a minute. This is Montana! I’m toast if Billy comes down with a gun.”
It didn’t take me long to get on the phone and call Judy back. But this time it was Ronny, Wilma’s son. Ronny wanted to say how appreciative he was of me coming over. I had to cut him off and say, “Ronny, let me get to the point. Billy is nuts.”
-What’s going on, Dan?
-He just called me a fucking moron and said “get the hell out of my house!”
-So I just want to know. Are there any guns in this house? I don’t trust Billy to be sane about anything.
Ronny said no I shouldn’t trust Billy and that indeed, somewhere in the house was a 22 and also a 38, and he didn’t know if Billy knew where those guns were. Ronny knew I was downstairs and said, “Dan, just get out of there. Use the door downstairs and get on out.”
I think Ronny thought things had escalated already to the point where it might get violent fast. He already had the specter of Billy in nightgown in his mind, waving that 38 around, like some crazed Norman Bates-with-a-gun scenario. I wasn’t that worried yet; I was only speculating on various possibilities. But I had decided to leave. Guns and crazies don’t mix.
“Ronny. It’s OK. I’ll just let him know I’m leaving and that will be that. I’m sorry Wilma will have to hear about this.”
“Don’t worry about that, Dan. You need to go. I’ll take all the blame for that.”
“Okay. I’ll swing by the house in the morning and make sure Billy is OK.”
So I packed my stuff. As a parting gesture, I grabbed the Wild Turkey off the railing next to the staircase, and the chicken soup in the basement fridge. It wasn’t to upset Billy, and I’m not much of a whiskey drinker. I just figured Wilma would be comforted a little if I got something out of this unpleasant experience.
Before I left, I approached Billy again. I wanted to let him know I’d be gone so he wouldn’t trip and kill himself on the stairs looking for me (or hunting me) in the basement that night.
-Billy, you were right. I shouldn’t spend the night here. I’m leaving now.
I had to gather a few more things. When I left I said, “Good night, Billy.”
“Okay,” he faintly answered.
And thus ended my babysitting stint and neighborly favor for St. Wilma.
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alternative title to story: You had one job, Shumway
Addendum: I have to wonder if these stories shouldn’t be aired on my substack blog. Is it kind of a betrayal of confidence? I guess I don’t feel too bad about it because,
1. What I said here is the truth, with a couple writer’s-license, possible half truths due to plain forgetfulness.
2. I’m certain Wilma doesn’t read my substack (and double-certain Billy doesn’t!).
3. I’ll tell some local friends about this anyway (but would this be gossiping, or just true storytelling?).
4. It’s all part of the My goofy life file, which is fun to get down on ‘paper’ for posterity.