This one speaker Howard had us all frozen up, we listened to him stock-still for forty-five minutes. He started out simple, comes out of high-school, tries the infantry, finds the service kind of boring without a war. Drinking on leave and weekends. Gets his discharge, goes to Santa Rosa Community College. Going for a business degree. Drinking on weekends. Itchy and discontented. One night, he has this friend who’s a cop in SR, guy says, ride along with us and get a taste. He says two hours into the ride I’m feeling like I never felt. These guys tell a citizen what to do, he better do it. They give orders and they’re obeyed and I never knew how bad I wanted that. Zip into the Santa Rosa police training program, then I’m a cop, got three girlfriends, one black, one Asian, one white, cruising in a squad car all night long, kicking ass, busting heads, top of the world, man. One year in I’ve got a sweet little wife and a six-week baby daughter. Two years in they put me on Narcotics and Vice, undercover. My job is to hang out in bars and party like Nero. Can I do that? Hell, what do they think I’ve been doing every free minute anyhow? And will I buy drugs? Gee, okay, I’ll give it a shot. And Howard, they say, listen, sometimes in the course of your duties you will have a line of coke laid out before you and in the course of your duties you’ll just have to put your head down there and suck it up. It’s part of the ride, okay Howard? Yeah, I say, part of the ride, and inside of six months I’m the biggest coke-head, the biggest dealer, and the crookedest cop in Northern California. I did armed robberies on dealers and drugstores up and down Highway 101. I had seven girlfriends and I was pimping every one. My sweet little wife divorced me and took my daughter and I never even noticed. The force gave me a thousand a month to buy coke in little bags and turn them in, and I had thirty thousand under my bed in a shoebox next to three or four kilos of coke the force would never see. I’d wake up in the afternoon and fare forth and wreak havoc. I murdered three guys I still claim the world is better off without, but I’m not the judge though, am I? But I sure thought I was. I took the lives of other human beings. I thought I was God. I looked in the mirror and said so — looked in the mirror and said, You are God. When God decided to prove me wrong, it all came down like a mountain of dogshit on my head. They rolled me up and socked me with so many charges, including at one point second degree murder, that if they stacked them up and ran me through I’d be doing time a hundred years past my natural death. I’m lying in jail and that cell is sucking the drugs and the fight and the soul right out me and giving it to God and God is squeezing it in his fingers, man, every last fiber of my soul in the almighty grip of the truth. And the truth is that everything I’ve done, every thought I’ve thought, every moment I’ve lived, is shit turned to dust and dust blown away. God, I said, fuck it, I’m not even gonna pray. Squeeze my guts till you get tired, that’s all I want now, because at least it’s real, it’s true, it’s got something to do with you. So then I think I died. I think I died in jail. My life itself just left me, and who you see before you now is someone else. So I wandered like a ghost through the court system and came out with a sentence of ten years. Did seven, one day at a time. Prayed every day and every night, but only one prayer: Squeeze till you get tired, Lord. Kill me, Lord, I don’t care, as long as it’s you who kills me. Just got out eight days ago, and rehab is part of my parole. And nothing to show for thirty-six years on this earth. Except that God is closer to me than my next breath. And that’s all I’ll ever need or want. If you think I’m bullshitting, kiss my ass. My story is the amazing truth.
I KNOW what they said. They said I didn’t run away from home but that I was tolled away by a crazy man who, if I hadn’t killed him first, would have killed me inside another week. But if they had said that the women, the good women in Jefferson had driven Uncle Willy out of town and I followed him and did what I did because I knew that Uncle Willy was on his last go-round and this time when they got him again it would be for good and forever, they would have been right. Because I wasn’t tolled away and Uncle Willy wasn’t crazy, not even after all they had done to him. I didn’t have to go; I didn’t have to go any more than Uncle Willy had to invite me instead of just taking it for granted that I wanted to come. I went because Uncle Willy was the finest man I ever knew, because even women couldn’t beat him, because in spite of them he wound up his life getting fun out of being alive and he died doing the thing that was the most fun of all because I was there to help him. And that’s something that most men and even most women too don’t get to do, not even the women that call meddling with other folks’ lives fun.
He wasn’t anybody’s uncle, but all of us, and grown people too, called him (or thought of him) as Uncle Willy. He didn’t have any kin at all except a sister in Texas married to an oil millionaire. He lived by himself in a little old neat white house where he had been born on the edge of town, he and an old nigger named Job Wylie that was older than he was even, that cooked and kept the house and was the porter at the drugstore which Uncle Willy’s father had established and which Uncle Willy ran without any other help than old Job; and during the twelve or fourteen years (the life of us as children and then boys), while he just used dope, we saw a lot of him. We liked to go to his store because it was always cool and dim and quiet inside because he never washed the windows; he said the reason was that he never had to bother to dress them because nobody could see in anyway, and so the heat couldn’t get in either. And he never had any customers except country people buying patent medicines that were already in bottles, and niggers buying cards and dice, because nobody had let him fill a prescription in forty years I reckon, and he never had any soda fountain trade because it was old Job who washed the glasses and mixed the syrups and made the ice cream ever since Uncle Willy’s father started the business in eighteen-fifty-something and so old Job couldn’t see very well now, though papa said he didn’t think that old Job took dope too, it was from breathing day and night the air which Uncle Willy had just exhaled.
But the ice cream tasted all right to us, especially when we came in hot from the ball games. We had a league of three teams in town and Uncle Willy would give the prize, a ball or a bat or a mask, for each game though he would never come to see us play, so after the game both teams and maybe all three would go to the store to watch the winner get the prize. And we would eat the ice cream and then we would all go behind the prescription case and watch Uncle Willy light the little alcohol stove and fill the needle and roll his sleeve up over the little blue myriad punctures starting at his elbow and going right on up into his shirt. And the next day would be Sunday and we would wait in our yards and fall in with him as he passed from house to house and go on to Sunday school, Uncle Willy with us, in the same class with us, sitting there while we recited. Mr. Barbour from the Sunday school never called on him.
Then we would finish the lesson and we would talk about baseball until the bell rang and Uncle Willy still not saying anything, just sitting there all neat and clean, with his clean collar and no tie and weighing about a hundred and ten pounds and his eyes behind his glasses kind of all run together like broken eggs. Then we would all go to the store and eat the ice cream that was left over from Saturday and then go behind the prescription case and watch him again: the little stove and his Sunday shirt rolled up and the needle going slow into his blue arm and somebody would say, “Don’t it hurt?” and he would say, “No. I like it.”