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Bill Lundy

by

David Rothman

"Red?" he said.

"Sin," Bill said.

"Black?"

"Happiness."

"White?"

"Death."

"Yellow?"

"Sadness," Bill said.

The doctor most likely leaned forward in his swivel chair. The chair might have creaked before the room became silent. This young man equates sadness with yellow. That's a first, he must have thought.

After a while Bill's voice probably intruded into the silence. "Is that it doctor? Am I certified?"

Perhaps he stared at Bill. Two days of tests and the doctor still couldn't figure him out. Was he another smart guy faking it, or did he really have a problem? The organization could not afford to keep mentally unbalanced recruits. Too much risk. Best thing to do when in doubt is to certify them nuts and cut them loose.

"Private Lundy, I'll recommend the Army discharge you for medical reasons. I don't think you are fit for Military duty."

<<>>

Bill Lundy was one of the first kids I met when we moved to Sun Valley, a working class community in the San Fernando Valley, which is just over the hill from Los Angeles. Young families were moving into the area. They came from small mid-western towns near the Mississippi River like Davenport, Iowa, and they came from large cities in the East like Boston, New York, and Pittsburg.

In 1951 construction of inexpensive houses was booming in the Valley. The house my father bought was small, one thousand square feet, but seemed like a Beverly Hills mansion when compared to the rented apartments our family had lived in. Like most of the neighbors, including Bill's family, we had trouble scraping together the meager down payment on the ten thousand dollar tract house.

I had attended five grammar schools before our family moved to the Valley. So, by the time I came to Strathern Street Elementary, the school two blocks from our new home, I must have met every type of young person that existed. But I had never met a kid like Bill Lundy. Even now, years later, he remains an enigma.

We met on the playground. We were both in the sixth grade, and were among a group that stayed after school to play basketball or touch football, depending on the season. Bill wasn't the athletic type. He was not physically well coordinated, wasn't muscular, was short, and he ran slow. His left elbow had a large bump as if the bone had been broken and never set properly, causing his arm to hang slightly twisted.

He was one of the last chosen for a team. Bill compensated for his lack of coordination, strength, height, and running speed by bounding around the basketball court like a hyperactive rabbit, hustling as if life itself depended on making the next basket. He argued about every point the other team scored. He played with abandon as if rules were non-existent, and created a rule when the situation needed a verdict. Verbal insults and physical challenges from the other team did not bother him, for on the court he was in a trance, completely focused on winning the game; nothing else mattered. His competitive attitude must have rubbed off on his teammates since his team usually won.

Bill possessed a photographic memory. He knew the names of most major league players living and dead, and could rattle off batting averages and other statistics for players I had never heard of, men like Harry Steinfeldt of the 1906 Chicago Cubs or Stuffy McInnis of the 1911 Philadelphia Athletics.

In Junior High, subjects like history that required us to remember lists of facts were a breeze for Bill. He was a good speller. His memory probably helped him. I don't know if he wrote well, because I never saw anything he wrote. He was weak in science and math, subjects that required reflection and reasoning.

I can't remember ever having a serious conversation with Bill. Having a discussion with him was like talking to an encyclopedia; he had all the facts and figures about sports, history, and geography filed in, and quickly accessible from, his computer-like memory. We never had much to talk about. I didn't enjoy discussing batting averages and capital cities, and he wasn't interested in science fiction or the meaning of life.

Board games were important to Bill. He wasn't a chess player, but he loved Monopoly and electronic football, and he was good at them. He hated to lose, and rarely lost. He was so good at these games he didn't have to cheat to win. At least I don't think he cheated.

At times Bill invited Raul, Larry, Jerry (friends in the neighborhood our age) and I over to play his games, the games he was good at. His mother, Petra, an attractive woman with long black hair, treated us exceptionally well, perhaps because she wanted her only child to have company. Dan was a different story. Dan wasn't Bill's real father. He was a large, muscular, tough looking, unfriendly man, and we all feared him.

Once, just before a crucial play during an electric football game, Larry teased Bill about a small cloth sack that always hung from his neck. I had often wondered what was in the mysterious sack, worn like a precious jewel, but I never felt comfortable pushing him for an explanation. Bill's concentration was broken by Larry's taunts, and he began to scream curses as tears came to his eyes. Larry, much larger than any of us, could have silenced the cursing with one quick punch, but he never lost his temper with a friend. Dan barged into the room and began to taunt his stepson: "Act like a man you crybaby." He turned to us and told us all to leave. We didn't wait to see what would happen to Bill. After that incident Larry called Bill the "Little Athlete," an endearing name for our friend who, although he wasn't especially likeable, tried so hard.

When we got to high school, Bill's family moved to a new neighborhood and I lost contact with him. He was too small and slow for football. I later learned that he went out for baseball and made third string second base. His competitive spirit wasn't enough to compensate for his lack of ability at the high school level and he was hardly ever put on the field during a game. In his senior year he became editor and writer of the sports page for the Van Nuys High School paper. That made sense since he loved sports and had that astounding memory for statistics.

<<>>

I graduated from high school confused about life and without the passion to pursue a college education or a trade. Seeking answers and adventure I volunteered for the peacetime U.S. Army.

Prior to entering the Army I had never read a complete book, but that  changed when I read a mystery novel to pass the time while waiting to be  assigned to cryptography school after basic training. That first book,  although not literature, showed me the power and scope that could be  included in a written story. I couldn't stop reading, and I devoured  everything I could get my hands on: books by Tolstoy, Voltaire, Huxley,  Poe, Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Rand,  Mailer, Baldwin, Burroughs, Kerouac, and other writers dead or alive. Any writer that touched my heart and mind, writers whose style and characters and plots inspired me and opened my mind.

After three years of travel, training, meeting people and reading, I realized I had a lot to learn and was impatient to begin. After being discharged I moved back to the Valley and was accepted by the Engineering school at Cal State University Northridge, a college in the Valley.

One Saturday night in 1965, during my third year of study, I ran into him at the Prelude, a popular bar on Lankershime Boulevard in North Hollywood, a community next to Sun Valley. He had changed. He looked different, confident. He was dressed in a suit, his thick dark hair was styled and raven black (I learned he dyed it). He stood straighter and almost as tall as I (I also learned he wore elevator shoes).

"Hello Ron," he said as he tapped me on the shoulder. "William Lundy from Strathern."

"Bi..........William, how have you been?" I said.

He talked about his job as a writer for TV Guide, a job he somehow obtained after dropping out of college. Even though I tried to turn the conversation towards old times he avoided the subject. He wasn't interested in old times or talking sports, even about the Dodgers who had Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale pitching that year. We each had a drink while we discussed what we had been doing as we eyed the women in the room.

Bill told me about his ex wife and son living in San Francisco. He showed me a picture of her, an attractive blond stewardess he had met through an old friend of ours, about two years before. I later learned she initiated the divorce when she found he had been cheating on her.

Now Bill was going out with a married woman, Anna, and this was one of their nights apart. He was at the Prelude for a little action, and his eyes were constantly shifting, like a weasel's, around the room. After a while we exchanged phone numbers and shook hands. Drink in hand, he strolled in the direction of a blond I hadn't noticed until then. I headed for the door since I needed to wake early the next morning.

Both he and I had changed. I had found direction and established goals. What goals did Bill have? It seemed as if all he wanted to do was chase women. He had changed his physical appearance and his actions. He carried himself differently, with more confidence; he wasn't bouncing around anymore like he did on the schoolyard and he wasn't reciting  baseball and basketball scores and statistics.

Had he grown on the inside? Was he philosophical now? Did he write passionately? Had he read great writers?

<<>>

A few months later, in my senior year, I received a call from Bill. "Are you married yet Ron?" he said.

"I'm not even dating steady, Bil...William. Work and school keeps me too  busy to get involved," I said.

"My girlfriend has a friend. I think you'll like her. Would you like to double date? We could meet at the Prelude. Have a few drinks. Talk. See what happens."

Bill had a funny way of popping into my life. "Sounds like a good idea. My head is spinning, needs a rest."

"What about this Saturday night at ten?" he said.

At five minutes to ten almost every seat in the Prelude was occupied. I stepped through the entry door and squinted toward the twenty or so tables squeezed into the smoky room. The bouncer waved me in, but I hesitated. My eyes had not yet adjusted to the dim lighting, and the unpleasant odor of cigarette smoke mixed with Budweiser and Seagrams bothered me.

The chatter of a hundred and fifty intoxicated patrons assailed my ears.  Piercing voices became louder while I paused in the entry, their volume  reaching an almost unbearable din as they competed with each other to be  heard. Glasses clinked. Men and women, some standing, some sitting, were crowded at the bar. Groups of two or three leaned close together and  shouted at each other. Waitresses were bustling about between the tables with trays of drinks held high. Barely audible above the racket, a three  piece band in the far corner of the room played a Beatles tune.

Finally, I plunged into the crowd and shoved and twisted my way through  the packed room. Bill grabbed my arm when, not noticing him, I passed  near his table. I bent toward him. "Ron, this is my girlfriend Sharon and her friend Teresa," he said.

He wasn't kidding; Teresa was nice. The dim lighting and the cigarette  smoke hanging in the air could not hide her high cheekbones, warm eyes,  and full lips. She tilted her head slightly back and to the side and produced an intriguing smile, which put me at ease. "Hello," she said.

"Hello Teresa, nice to meet you." I still faced her as my eyes shifted to  Sharon. "Nice to meet you," I said, then quickly my gaze returned to Teresa.

I sat between Bill and Teresa, and ordered a drink for the table when the waitress arrived. After a while the crowd began to thin out, and those that remained settled down. Conversations became mellow and the band was no longer struggling through the tunes. We had an enjoyable evening, talking, listening to the band, and slow dancing into the quiet late hours. Teresa and I dated for the next few months.

Bill now worked for Universal Studios, in their script reading department. Even though he had dropped out of college, his writing experience at TV Guide gave him the credentials to talk his way into the job. He was earning good money, had an office, and best of all, from his point of view, he had his pick of young starry eyed females who were attracted to the studio. He acted as if he were somebody and the secretaries and other young women who worked at the studio were all looking for a somebody.

Just before my graduation, Bill and I went to a movie. It was an art film called "The Grass Eater," or something like that. After the show we discussed the main character and the plot. Before long we were arguing and he reminded me he was a professional reader of scripts, and he let me know I didn't know s**t about movies and plots. In fact, as far as he was concerned I didn't know anything about Life.

"Ron, you are nothing but a pseudo intellectual who hangs around too many college types who know nothing about the real world and will never know anything about it. All you know is what you've read about."

What did Bill know about life, I thought. He had a job that required him to write, but I don't think he ever read any of the great writers. I had never discussed novels or philosophical subjects with him. He hadn't traveled to a foreign country. In fact, other than trips to San Francisco and Las Vegas, he hadn't left the Valley since his family moved there in 1950. True, he seemed to know a lot about women -- or was it sex? -- but what did that have to do with examining and understanding the human condition?

After that episode we lost contact. I graduated a few weeks later in 1966 and got a job as a logic design engineer for Litton Industries.

<<>>

My life went on. I married, bought a nice house in the Valley. We had a son and I opened a business that became successful and we were happy.

One evening in 1992 I received a call from a woman. She was Bill's fiancÚ and told me Bill (not William) had a medical problem and wanted to get together with old friends.

Terri had divorced an abusive husband three years before. She owned a small hair salon and her two sons were recent college grads. Her daughter was working and taking college classes. Bill and Terri had known each other for a year and were in love. "Ron, I've gotten in touch with Larry and Jerry, your old grammar school friends. Can you come to Bill's house for a little get-together? They are coming," she said.

Even though we hadn't seen each other for twenty-six years, we all had no trouble talking to each other and spent the evening discussing our lives. Larry had never married and was having a rough time coping with life, emotionally and financially, but that night he became the happy-go-lucky young Larry of our childhood. Jerry had worked hard and invested in apartments and owned about thirty units and was in good health and his family was doing well, and he was still the stable, shy quarterback of our after school touch football games and high school team so many years before.

As the evening went on, we reminisced and Bill told us that he missed us all and had been diagnosed with colon cancer. "Not the Big C. No way, not my little buddy," said Larry. Jerry and I were shocked and didn't know what to say.

He let us know he was scheduled for an operation the next week. Part of the colon would be removed. "After the operation I'll have to wear a bypass bag to collect my solid wastes until the colon heals. Quite a mess, but as long as I wear a shirt all that you'll see will be a bulge under my clothes," Bill said.

The operation was a success and we all decided to celebrate once he recovered. We set a date for a Friday night the next month at a well known Latin dance bar about twenty miles east of downtown L.A. Terri would invite three of her single girlfriends and I would drive Bill, Jerry, and Larry to the place. My wife and Jerry's told us to have a good time.

The four of us drove to Cisco's in good spirits. Bill was still getting used to the bag and we all joked about it. During the drive he kept threatening to show it to us, but none of us wanted to see the thing. Larry, who was sitting in the back seat with him, could easily overpower him if he pressed the issue. The four of us talked about old times, and then Larry told us how lucky Jerry, Bill, and I were to have children and companions and success. Although he told us how he had messed up his life, he didn't sound depressed.

Cisco's was as large as a supermarket. I felt the excitement of the evening as soon as I drove into the parking lot. Fords and Chevys, highly polished and heavily chromed, low to the ground, exhausts rumbling softly, cruised around the lot. Serious young men and brightly dressed young women, ready for an evening of dancing and drinking, strutted to the entrance. I hadn't been out like this since I was married. We were four men, over fifty, about to go back in time.

When we entered the place, the music hit us like a blast of air. The odor of cigarettes and beer and tequila, the chatter of the crowd, and the motion of the waitresses and dancers brought back erotic memories.

"Where are they?" I said, leaning toward Bill.

"They got here early and reserved a table." I barely heard him as he pointed in the direction of the dance floor. This was going to be an evening of shouting. I knew my throat would be raw by the time we left. As the four of us made our way to the table I couldn't keep my eyes off the young ladies. I noticed Jerry's eyes moved like mine. But Bill seemed peaceful, untempted by the beauty all around, a chaperone happy to escort us. As we made our way to the table, we were careful to protect Bill's bag from the swelling crowd of revelers.

Terri introduced us to her girlfriends, Pony, Alicia, and Susan, all in their early forties. Everyone was in a good mood and shouted greetings to each other above the noise of the crowd and the beat of the music. We insisted that Bill sit on the one available chair. "No way. I want to stand and feel the music," he said.

Jerry and I leaned toward Larry and told him to take the seat since he was single and it was between Pony and Susan, a perfect place. We ordered a round of drinks as the band finished the set. Suddenly the noise diminished and we could have a reasonable conversation. We joked about our being Bill's childhood friends and how we were here to recharge our aging, weak batteries.

Bill was more relaxed than I remember ever seeing him. Larry told stories about the four of us as kids, embellishing Bill's strong points, ignoring his weaknesses.

The band started and I caught Melissa's glance from across the table. The atmosphere, the music, the drinks and occasion conspired to remove any inhibitions I had. I stood. "Would you like to dance?" I said.

The beat was just right, not too fast, not too slow, and the dance floor not yet too full, and I felt twenty-six again, and I felt as if we were the only two on the floor as we moved to the rhythm, close but not touching. We stayed on the floor, dancing this way for the whole set. I felt something and I could tell she felt something too.

We returned to the table and joined the conversation, and I knew that nothing more would happen between Melissa and me, because it couldn't. A night like that happens rarely in one's lifetime. Perhaps that is why the sweet memory never fades away.

I cupped my hand over Bill's ear. "Bill," I said, "let's go to the bar so I can buy you a drink."

The bartender gave Bill another plain Coke, and me a Jack Daniels and Coke. "Bill, I'm enjoying this evening. How's the colon healing?"

"Glad you guys are having a good time. I'm happy to be able to come out with you. Hope we can do it more often. Doctor says I'll need another operation in a month and will have to wear the bag for at least six months."

He now worked for a firm that represented screenwriters, directors and actors, in their contract dealings with studios. He himself was writing a screenplay. Because of his sickness the firm was giving Bill special hours and a lot of time off.

"How's your story coming along?" I said.

"A little slow. Don't have the energy and I can't concentrate. I'll show it to you when it's finished."

I was feeling relaxed and sentimental. "Bill, when we were kids you wore a small cloth sack around your neck. What was in it?"

"You know, Ron, I haven't worn it since I was thirty," he said.

I didn't press him. There was no reason to. It wasn't important. He wore a long shirt and I couldn't see his elbow and thought about asking him about it too, but ignored the impulse.

"Bill, when we were kids I always envied how you could memorize things. What a great gift. I couldn't."

"It didn't do me much good. Memorizing things was easy for me, the only gift I ever got in life. I never had the patience, or maybe it was the ability, to examine things. I never planned a lot in advance. Everything I've done has been on impulse, has been what was good for me at the time," said Bill.

The conversation turned to our families. "And how is your father, how's Dan?" I said.

"I thought you knew Dan was my stepfather," he said. "My real father, Christopher, lived in Boston where I was born. He was a wealthy, married restaurant owner, when he had an affair with my mother who was a waitress there. He paid off my mother and she moved to California with me, where she met Dan. I never met him or wanted to."

Now that I was in the questioning mood, I wanted to ask him about his elbow, but then I thought why, does it really matter if I found out whether it was a birth defect or an accident that caused the bump? So we both stood silent and I tapped the bar with my swizzle stick.

The band was moving back to the small stage in the corner. "Ron, I give  you credit for completing your Army duty and college. I never told you I got a medical discharge. I faked insanity, and they let me out," Bill said.

"Why'd you want out?"

"I was drafted and didn't like it. The Army was just a waste of time. On impulse I decided to get out and figured I could outsmart the doctors."

"I guess you did what was best for you. Anyway it was before Viet Nam.  It's not as if you were a coward," I said, and thought, but I could never have done it, not many people could or would. It takes a special person.

Larry began to date Pony after that evening. Terri, Bill, Larry, Pony, and Jerry and I and our wives got together a couple of times. I met Bill for lunch a few times while his condition deteriorated over the next six months. Then he became bedridden as the cancer advanced throughout his body and we visited him at his house while Terri with the help of a  nurse did the best she could to minimize his pain.

Bill's mother and stepsister and her husband came to the funeral. His  stepfather, Dan, had passed away in 1985. A writer from his old days at TV Guide was there. Some people from his firm were there. Larry and Pony came, along with Jerry and I and our wives , and Melissa and her fiancÚ.

As Larry gave the eulogy, I wondered if Bill ever completed his screenplay. Even if he didn't, I told myself I would find out if a draft existed. "... and we'll all miss the Little Athlete," said Larry when he concluded the eulogy.

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