As I [try! to!] return to writing the novel “Pushing the River,” the character that I find haunting me is Billie. As regular readers may recall, I knew there would be a character in the story who struggles with significant mental illness, and that her lifelong struggle was a large part of the landscape that produced two very different sisters who are pivotal in the book. In the novel overall, the character of Billie Rae is relatively minor and remains mostly apart from the action. But her impact on the sisters — both past and present — is looming and ever-present. I wanted the description of her illness to be minimal, but memorable.
I have previously posted excepts from Billie’s story; this is a continuation, meant to be somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle.
Billie Rae would brush her hair for hours. “That feels so nice,” she said. “Please, just a few more minutes, Stevie, pretty please?” Steve weren’t never the one who had brushed her hair – it was always Carol. But who she’d gone fishing with, and who made her special grilled cheese sandwiches just the exact way she liked them, and who done her hair, had gotten all mixed together inside of her. They was all people that used to be there, and now they wasn’t.
Billie wasn’t scared no more to walk home from school all by herself. She and Steve talked the whole entire way. He laughed and laughed at her stories. “You’re still my baby sister, Billie Rae, but I swear that when your times comes, you are going to have yourself the pick of the litter, the cream of the crop. The boys are gonna be lining up, Billie girl, so they can laugh their fool heads off.”
The door to her mama’s bedroom was closed when Billie got home. Always. She knocked on the door, said, “Mama, I’m home? Did you have a good day, Mama?”
She no longer waited for a response.
It was completely silent on the other side of the bedroom door. Billie used to remove her shoes in the kitchen, and tiptoe to her mother’s bedroom. Without making a sound, she lowered herself onto the floor and rested an ear against the cool glossy paint of the door. She sat for a long time, straining to get even the faintest hint of stirring, an audible breath, any sign that there was a life on the other side.
She made up stories after that. Her mother had been secretly taken away by gypsies and was playing a tambourine with bright yellow and orange streamers every evening around a roaring campfire while men played the fiddle and women told tall tales and babies ran amok. Her mother had run away with a traveling circus and proven to have a remarkable talent with the elephants, who understood that she loved them dearly and would do whatever she wanted for the reward of her gentle strokes and soothing words. Her mama had been sucked right out of the window like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and was traveling through a magical and wonderful land, but all she wanted to do was get back home.
Billie had a recurring dream. She was in a beautiful place, right next to a dazzling blue sea. She said to the owner of the restaurant: “I’m waiting for my family. They’ll be right here.”
“We’re very busy today,” he replied. “Very busy.”
“They’ll be right here.”
He seats her at a table. She gazes out at the endless blue and feels a sense of tremendous peace. She enters a dozy, dreamy state. When she emerges from the deep reverie, a woman is sitting at her table, kitty-cornered from her. Billie is unsure what to make of this. She thinks that perhaps the owner has allowed the woman to sit there for a bit because it is so crowded. She’s not sure whether to pretend the woman is not there at all, or whether she should say something. The woman looks up from the book she is reading, gives Billie a small smile.
“My family will be right here,” Billie says, with an edge of assertiveness in her voice.
The woman smiles her small smile again, and resumes her reading. Friends, or perhaps they’re family, come over to the table, with much chatter and buoyant good cheer. They pull out the chairs and sit at Billie’s table, everyone talking at once as they open their menus and engage in a lively discussion of what wonderful foods they will all order. The waitress comes to the table, and Billie’s earlier sense of peace shatters like a pane of glass, the shards floating inside of her body, tearing at her.
The others look at her when it is her turn to order. “But…my family…”
They laugh, and return to their conversation. Billie doesn’t know if they don’t believe her, or if they don’t care. The little shards of glass rip at her guts.
Top painting by Otto Pilny