Monday, September 24, 2001

'It was late in December, the sky turned to snow. All 'round the day going was going down slow..."

I came across the dusty college French textbook during an archeological dig in the attic the other day.

Where the little window let a few rays of late autumn sun dance among the dust devils, I sat down, opened the book and thought about Bill and the old songs for the first time in too long.

He was the intellectual wizard of the back row of French class that year, Bill Milefchik. Our paths crossed briefly in this alcove of Iowa junior college academia, a place everyone was passing through on the road to somewhere else.

"...Night like a river, beginning to flow. I felt the beat of my mind go drifting into time passages..."

No two people could be less alike. Bill went about his French studies like he did all other things - precise, precocious, workmanlike. I would rather have been conjugating a basketball than dribbling European verbs. Bill had it calculated to the tenth of a grade point how the class credit would round out his academic portfolio. I believe I wound up in French either by dizzily checking the wrong box on my registration form or deciding in a not-so-lucid moment that a few French phrases would really impress the babes.

We became unlikely friends. Bill introduced me to a poet named Robert Frost and I introduced him to poets named Springsteen, Jimmy Buffet, Steely Dan.

"...Years go falling in the fading light. Time passages..."

Bill made me show for class at least as often as I skipped to shoot jumpers in the gym. I made him appreciate the importance of foolishness. We talked about the very different reasons we wound up wintering at a little juco tucked into the cornfields.

He, because poor health had prevented his body from keeping up with his mind. Me, as a wandering soul just

discovering a lot of new ideas, if not yet the words to express them. At 19, he knew exactly what he wanted. Even today, I'm still looking.

We talked about the football team being extra gigantic this year, it seemed, and the girls extra pretty.

Maybe it wasn't such a bad place, we'd laugh - it could be the other way around. At least the conversation was good.

Bill reminded me about the need for goals and concentration, I reminded him that grades aren't always as important to life as romance and music and imagination.

"...Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight..."

Bill would reach over and make sure I got at least one question right on the weekly French quiz, and I made sure he spent enough time on pure fun that he'd have to miss at least one. Perfection isn't good for the soul.

Bill could never understand why I didn't own a suit. I couldn't understand how he could look up at the winter stars and see only points of light that a science book could explain.

He was going to be a millionaire before he turned 30 and said he was going to give me hot stock market tips.

I told him I was going to be a hotshot writer. When I made it, he said, maybe I'd mention him in my column for the New York Times.

"Yup," I said. "Maybe I will."

"...Hear the echoes and feel yourself starting to turn. don't know why you should feel that there's something to learn. It's just a game that you play..."

Bill didn't talk about it much, but I knew, somehow. I don't remember the long name for the particular species of cancer, but I knew there was something wrong and getting worse, and for once, even good music couldn't fix it.

By the time a kid gets to college, he knows of death; old hunting dogs and great-aunt Betsie - she's-better-off-this-way goodbyes.

Still, when they told Bill he had only a little time left, I didn't believe it. It wasn't fair that anyone should have to see fate coming at you.

At the funeral the minister tried to explain why God would choose to take a life so young, so good. I don't remember the words, but I do remember that as he used them, the minister didn't sound so confident he understood, either.

"...Well, the picture is changing, now you're part of a crowd. They're laughing at something, the music's loud..."

I never had a chance to say goodbye, and I feel bad that I haven't thought about Bill and the old songs for I-don't-know-how-long. I sat there for a long time with the worthless French book held so tight my knuckles turned white. "Hey, dreamer," Bill would have said, as he had so many times. "There's a lot to be done and time's running. Don't wait on me. Get on with it, willya?"

I wiped angrily at my eyes. Damn dust!

The book rattled home into the Hefty bag half-filled with other artifacts from past dreams and rusty endeavors. Wait. No. I pulled it back out and put it gently into its old place on the shelf.

Maybe I'll need it again one day to remind me there are things more important than a million dollars or the New York Times. Like friendships. And living every year with joy and grace and dignity, as if it could be the last. It was the last and best lesson Bill ever taught me.

I left that attic humming softly. I think it was his favorite.

"...The things that you lean on are the things that don't last. Well, it's just now and then that my line gets cast into these time passages..."

Sorry, Bill, I'm 20 years too late, and maybe not the hotshot you thought I might be. But if you remember, I promised you the dreamer would get the wizard's name mentioned in a newspaper column one day.