The quarter, with it’s dull greasy shine, metal warmed by constant touch, turned over and over in Big Bill’s palm as he slowly flipped it with his thumbs and fingers. The coin always on the move, from hand to hand. Bill was always doing something like that, either with a coin, or a bit of paper, or some small thing that he had picked up in the yard somewhere. That was the thing about Bill, even when he was still, listening to someone, his hands were always on the move. The quarter he held in his hands now was one he’d been saving for his young friend, Little Bill, who was the closest thing he ever had to a son.
Little Bill’s parents, had been taken from him without warning, by a railcar accident while they were on their way into Kansas City, when he was only four years old. His parents had always called him Billy, but that was long ago, and the rough men that formed the circle of friendship around their leader, Big Bill, just called the lanky orphan, Little Bill. They all looked out for Little Bill behind the scenes of his life, having watched him passed from the careless keeping of an alcoholic Aunt to the rough, but true watch of a stranger turned father; Big Bill.
Jenny was the errant Aunt’s name, and though Big Bill had secretly loved her, he knew she would not be able to raise Billy, let alone give him the steely heart he would need to survive in the hard life ahead. The death of her sister had bored out a deep place in Jenny’s heart, and she had tried to find refuge in the bottle, but found no hiding place there. Big Bill had known the Johnston’s long before the accident, it was how he had come to care for Little Bill’s Aunt, to find joy in the little lanky kid who carried his own name. No, the accident had broken something deep down inside Bill’s Aunt Jenny, and then Bill had come for Little Bill, early one cold, crisp Sunday morning, taken him away to live with him without any real protest from Jenny. A warm breakfast, was the first the kid had eaten in nearly two days. That skinny kid had hugged him hard after that meal of pancakes, and that was that. The quiet bond between the two was forged over breakfast, and had never been challenged since. Big Bill was going to be “Pops” to Little Bill, and would be hearts refuge for the years ahead.
Evening had laid out its long, blue shadows across the yard of Big Bill’s house. The men there, six of them, not counting Little Bill, sat on the wooden front porch, eyeing a coming thunderstorm, mustering itself in deep grey along the horizon. Big Bill’s house was the finest house the men had ever seen. Four rooms, real rooms with real walls and doors, big kitchen to boot. It was the product of no-nonsense hard labor from their friend and mentor, Big Bill. He may as well have been a king, the yard foreman of the largest lumber yard in Kansas City, and carried the name of his highly respected father before him. Saturday night stretched out before them, as they drank warm beer there in the soft light of the two lanterns that hung on the eves of the house.
One of the men, Tony, nodded towards Big Bill, grinned and asked, “So Bill, you think our young man over there is going to have some fun tonight?” The rest of the men snapped a glance at Big Bill, saw the slight grin, then snickered softly together. They were “in the know” that Big Bill had something special planned for his boy at the county fair that night. Little Bill, startled by the sound of the soft laughter, turned his gaze from the hardy juggernaut june bugs twirling through the lantern light to Big Bill’s face framed in the lantern’s glow. “Fun? What kind of fun, Pops?” Little Bill asked, using the affectionate term that only he would dare using.
A slow grin spread across the face of Big Bill. He said with a deep, measured tone, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to wait to find out, squirt” he said. With that, the men laughed softly again, and went back to drinking their warm beers in the evenings thickening humidity, while the damp shades of the night drew in slowly around them.
An hour later, Murph and Ketch walked alongside Little Bill down the dirt road, as they made their way down the slope of the hill from Big Bill’s place and towards the shimmering lights of the town, and just beyond that; to the dancing lights of the Kansas City fairgrounds. He watched with a small grin on his face as Little Bill and two of his men made their way off down the hill and towards the shimmering lights of town.
Three hours later, Little Bill had spent his quarter, the men and Little Bill made their way in silence back up the hill to Big Bill’s house. The thunderstorm had held its distance, as if respecting something important down below it, something that would change everything in the place where earth met sky. At first, Murph and Ketch had been silly, making “atta boy” comments, but they quickly realized that something had gone astray for Little Bill seemed to be shaken, brooding and quiet. What should have led to an excited young man, left them simply walking respectfully alongside a wounded one. It didn’t make sense. Nothing did. Maybe Big Bill could sort this out, because Little Bill wouldn’t talk about it to them. Little Bill watched the road, putting one foot in front of the other on the dusty road all the way back to the house.
Ordinarily the men would have gone home, to their wives, their beds at that twilight hour but they had waited on the front porch with Big Bill for their return. Waiting for the laughs, the mirth of seeing Little Bill with his fancy now tickled for the girls. They quickly dispersed after Little Bill walked up onto the porch, opened the front door and went straight back into the house to his room without a word spoken to anyone, including Big Bill. After his passing, Big Bill broke the long moments of silence afterwards, “G’night boys. I’ll see you at the yard come Monday morning.” It was marching orders, and all quickly nodded to Big Bill and made their way off into the waiting arms of the night.
The next morning, Big Bill labored to make a nice breakfast for Little Bill. Bill was a good cook, good at just about anything in fact. It was pancakes, just like that first morning when the two of them came to terms over the passing of Little Bills parents, forging the bond that carried them to where they were today. They ate in silence until Big Bill cleared his throat and said, “Been a long time since we had flapjacks, eh son?” “Yes sir’,” replied Little Bill. The sunlight streamed through the windows. The light danced around the big wooden table where they sat, each one trying to figure out what the other wanted to say, to know. “Did you boys, enjoy yourselves at the fair last night?” Big Bill asked. “Yes, sir,” came the reply, but Big Bill didn’t believe it. Having worked with men for a lifetime, he knew their edges, their boundaries, their deep cut characters often better than they knew themselves. A few more moments followed of eating pancakes there in the warmth of the sunlight streaming in through the windows.
Big Bill said, “You know, your Aunt Jenny was a hellavah good cook. She made the best flapjacks I’ve ever eaten.” The metal fork tumbled from Little Bill’s hands, rattling for an instant across his plate and then onto the hardwood planks of the floor. As waters draw back for a long moment before the onrush of the deadly tsunami, the next moment was aching in its intensity for the two of them. Big Bill knew something had veered off course, but he didn’t know just what. Had it been something at the Hootchie Kootchie Show? Had Little Bill just not been ready for the sight of women in a more “natural state” of being? He waited. Then Little Bill drew in a ragged breath, not looking up from the table said, “Oh, Pops. It was Aunt Jenny. I saw Aunt Jenny there behind those curtains. It made me feel so awful in my heart. She looked so sad. So alone.” With that, Little Bill excused himself, as he properly did each day, making for the refuge of his room, his chores around the house and yard. Big Bill cradled his coffee cup, as the flickers of steam rose above the rim, dancing with the unseen thoughts that now spilled from his mind.
Big Bill was a king, heir apparent of the man who would soon hand off the reins of industry, business to his best man, a man of strength, spine enough, wits enough to lead rough men into labor in all seasons. For all that he stood alone, shepherding men, and a boy, while pretending to need no human comfort himself. After a few moments, he carefully set down his coffee cup on the wooden table, pushed back, stood, and then with a mighty heart, a heart of great resolve, he strode out the front door.
Three weeks later with a lively crowd of families around him, he and Jenny lifted up their glasses as they were toasted into a new life together. Little Bill smiled softly, knowing now that his old quarter seemed awfully well spent.