Friends Who Checked Out Early. #1. Billy Nimble.


Billy Nimble was a fat contract cleaner. I don’t mean he’d show up at your crime scene with a vat of acid and a hacksaw no, he’d come to your place of business and get his bucket and little Hoover out and clean it. I have no idea how he got the contract to clean the book superstore I was a manger in but there he was at seven A.M. Monday morning chipper as hell. We stood there with our steaming coffees, shaving rashes and stinging eyes staring down the barrel of another eight-hour retail shift and here was Billy skipping across the industrial carpet with earphones and a shit-eating grin, cleaning the hell out of the place.

In the winter months the Mall opened early so the seniors could get a decent walk in without freezing their buns off outside.  Our store was attached to the Mall at one end. As opening time approached, they’d gather on the other side of the massive glass doors and start moaning and banging to be let in – at five of – because our exit on the other side of the store was closer to the car park and they didn’t want to walk back though the cold. They’d bang on the glass, mouths agape, drooling, their numbers growing as opening time approached. It reminded me so much of Dawn of The Dead that I actually shivered and broke out in goose flesh.  But here is Billy, waving to them grinning and sweaty, mouthing, “It’s not time yet!” and pointing to his tiny watch dug into the flesh of his chubby wrist. He reminded me of one of the dancing hippos in Fantasia, massive and comical but with surprising grace. He had Nike running sneakers with a super fat sole squashed down at the balls of his feet and still thick at the back and sides. He tiptoed quickly everywhere, which was how I came to give him the name, immediately and without thinking; Billy Nimble. He had a wife and a new baby girl, which went a ways to explaining his extreme energy and happiness on the job. A new father, getting things done, making plans. He was guileless, happy and comfortable with his enormous girth. His jokes were bad but he did a great job in the toilets, which can be hard to clean after speckled bits have hardened overnight.

Halfway up the Cape (they’d say ‘down’ but we’re traveling North here) the highway terminates and if you want to go further you come off the rotary and merge into this four lane road, two lanes north and two lanes south. Now, if you’re on an errand and your destination happens to be at the other side of the road you have to slow down and come to a standstill in the fast lane, usually without a light, so that you can wait an eon to finally make the left turn you need. You’re out for ice cream, root beer or a floaty for the pool, maybe you need gas the for grill. So you are sitting there and you’re in peril. Is there a guy barreling up behind you?

It’s hard to come off that highway and drop your speed by forty miles an hour, especially when you’re late for work and the radios cranked and it’s so easy just to stay in the fast lane and forget that the road is studded with hidden cop cars. If you’re a tourist or just a bad driver you might not ‘get’ that in order to get where he’s going the guy in front of you has come to a complete standstill, you have stay alert and be prepared to merge back into the slow lane to get past the guy. Well there are plenty of tourists and plenty of commuters on the Cape and its hard to be alert when you’ve just come off of twenty miles of pre-dawn, featureless highway. That’s why the locals called this stretch of road, Suicide Alley. Because if you had to use it often enough there was an excellent and very real chance that you’d die on it.

I pulled into the coffee shop at Wellfleet and overheard two locals talking about the latest casualty; a local woman just running errands, rear-ended by a tourist, died instantly. “Thank god the kids weren’t in the car.” You’d be in a bar and hear about some fisherman that went out to Orleans for cigarettes and never came back. They want to keep the upper (or is it lower?) Cape nice, understandably, no chain stores, tall buildings or unsightly stop lights every few hundred yards. And it does look super nice. I guess they figure the mounting death toll will encourage local drivers to be more cautious. But bleary eyed vacationers in their Porsche SUVs, how are they to know they are seconds away from vehicular homicide? That the road they’re on, from a safety perspective, makes no fucking sense whatsoever.

So yes, you’ve guessed by now that Billy Nimble checked out early on Suicide Alley and left a young wife and a baby girl. They didn’t take him to hospital, he went like a bulb in a garlic press, they had to hose him off the twisted metal ball that used to be his jeep.  It was hard for me to accept the news at first. ‘He was just here! So young! So alive!’ the usual tropes.  They told me, ‘He’s dead.’ quite matter-of-factly when I asked what this nondescript Hispanic lady was doing Hoovering in front of the writhing sea of living dead on the other side of the glass; oldies with canes, in diapers, zesty biddy’s that had sixty years easy on Billy. I guessed the boomers must have played it safe back in the day, embraced the cold and gone the long way around. Slow and steady wins the race, go long on GE.

About dorian thornley

bookseller, dad, manhattan
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