Three days of my mind encircling two friends of many years who both left the body same day. Jeanette in Atlanta was lifted out of the body sitting in her car after work. In Eufala, Alabama, my friend Bill Foy didn't wake up that morning. His sister, Delia, found him still sleeping. I've entered the zone where my peers are taking leave of this world. Bill, I see all day the same as I see Jeanette all day. They take turns in my mind's eye and memory. All my life I've been drawn to people who make me laugh. Bill was a stand-up comic, a sit-down comic and a telephone comic. He also had the darkest sense of humor of anyone I know. First image to come to mind, a Christmas card he made one year, a postcard of black ink on red paper, Malcolm X in profile wearing a Santa hat. The greeting: Merry Xmas. His caring was deep as caring goes while at the same time suspicious of caring. At heart, he was a visual artist, who did not like the gallery world of sucking up to the rich, being the token artist at cocktail parties. Not his world. I have the same affliction. I love Bill's painting, but he let it go for wanting nothing to do with the art market world. Had he gone on, he'd have been a well respected artist by now. It had no appeal for him. He majored in art at U of Georgia, Athens. He knew the guy from the band, the B-52s, at UGa and was a B-52s fan the rest of his life. They never tripped my trigger, but I wasn't Bill. He saw the Sex Pistols at both their Atlanta shows. Like me, he was somebody who had a hard time living in this world of jobs and inter-human indifference. It was Bill who turned me on to John Waters films, Pink Flamingos first. He was a lover of foreign films, Waters his American favorite film maker, no close second. His sense of humor and Waters' matched like twin souls. He had the original LP of Divine's album of singing. He was a collector. His house had a room full of big boxes of his collections, off the wall items you'd never think of collecting. In the living room, done in 50s chrome and plastic chairs, on a chrome and glass table between two chairs, a small bowl. Sitting there having a drink, some good music playing, talking, I reach automatically to the bowl of peanuts to pick some up. I look and the bowl is full of human teeth.
I met Bill in my last months before leaving Charleston for the Blue Ridge. A friend of mine, who was a friend of his when he lived in Atlanta, told me she was driving to Atlanta for a Stanley Turrentine concert, jazz, tenor sax. She was from Atlanta, also visiting parents. I went with her and first thing was to see Bill. We went by his apartment. He had some friends there involved in some art project. He looked at me and looked away, paid me no more mind. This was 1975. I took to dressing mildly wild in my last year in Charleston. I'd wear things like a black mohair suit found at a thrift store with an electric blue shirt. Had a canary yellow mohair suit, too, found at the thrift store, I wore with a hot pink shirt. With both suits, white dress shoes. When I wanted to look really bad, I'd soak hair with Vitalis and comb it straight back. Greaser. It was something to do to break the monotony of everyday life, give it a little zip. Several friends were dressing up too. That evening I was wearing the black pants and a black leather vest, no shirt. Bill told me later he wondered where Sally picked this clown up. We didn't use the word geek then. He and his friends were wearing button-down collars. In the apartment, I paused at his bookshelf. I read titles of other people's books. It tells me what their interests are, what they're reading. I worked in bookstores about ten years. Bill's rows of books looked like my own. I'd never met anyone who read the same titles I read. It made me curious to know Bill, but he was being aloof and I don't recall we talked at all that weekend. I learned about him that he made postcards, arty postcards, and mailed them to friends.
Upon returning home, I found at a thrift store a Kingston Trio album, the famous one from the late Fifties with Tom Dooley, the Zombie Jamboree, a record I never wanted. The front and the back were almost separated and the record in terrible condition. I paid maybe a dime or a quarter for it. I tore the front off. It had a picture of the three California guys in button-down collars. I mailed it as a postcard to Bill. It started years of postcard exchange. He told me some years later he wondered what that thing was about. I told him when I saw the album cover I thought of him and the two guys at his apartment playing art, all in button-down collars. I didn't know anybody wore those collars anymore, like alligator tshirts. He made me a clever card I received soon after. I made a card for him and we went back and forth making postcards to send, the cleverest, funnest things we could put together. I didn't even try to compete with him when it came to the bizarre. His cards were always funny in one way or another. His bizarre items were about humor. It was like playing scrabble with somebody who beat me every game. It was the game I enjoyed, especially receiving his cards. He had a card printed every year for Christmas. The most memorable one had a b&w picture of him with arm draped over Jonbenet Ramsey's tombstone. She was buried in Atlanta. The text: Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, except in the basement. The theme that ran through everything for him was to fly in the face of the holy, whatever the holy may be, from Van Gogh to racism. I moved to the mountains and we continued our postcard correspondence for several years. He moved to Charleston where he coincidentally lived in the apartment above the one I'd left. Weekends I'd go to Charleston, we'd get together, see a movie and entertain ourselves with laughter for a few hours. Our humor was where we connected.
I never felt like he flourished after he moved to Charleston. His spirit grew dim over time in a place with no aesthetic anything going on. This was before the new Charleston, while the new Charleston was brewing. On one of my visits to see Lucas and Judy who live near Atlanta, I'd heard Bill was in the hospital in Atlanta after heart surgery. Lucas and I dropped in to see him and put a big surprise on him. He kept us laughing the whole visit. We wondered if the laughing might be a problem with the new surgery, but couldn't stop it. He said he wished he could have a video of the operation. That one was over the edge for me. I couldn't stand the thought of seeing a video of a heart operation on anybody, certainly not myself. It was one of those things only Bill would say. Bill was in a foreign country in Charleston. The city drained his vitality. He needed social activity, people with interests similar to his. Hurricane Hugo came to town. The days before the hurricane struck, he spent his time boxing his collections of items all over the house. It took longer than he'd hoped. He meant to evacuate town with everybody else, but was unable to get away in time. He was then living in a little old wooden house west of the Ashley. Bill hunkered down in the middle of the house with blankets up for flying glass. He said he would never ride out a hurricane again. It felt like the house would be blown off its foundation. The roar was constant. He said he would rather lose all his toys than sit on the floor wrapped in a blanket for twelve hours with the house straining to break loose ever again. He said it was fear like he had never known and did not want to know. Some years later, after his mother died, he moved back to Eufala to live in the house he grew up in and the culture he grew up in. His sister, Delia, was living in Eufala with her husband, Jim Estes, the name of a neighbor kid in my Kansas City childhood, who turned me on to Elvis before Heartbreak Hotel, Sun label songs, and among others, Searchin by the Coasters, a song I love as much now as then.
I met Delia once in Charleston; she happened to be visiting when I went by. I liked Delia a lot. She was a psychotherapist in the Atlanta prison. We talked at length about the American penal system. She told me interesting accounts of her experiences with the prisoners. Mostly, she took care of homeless guys put out of mental institutions by the Reagan Junta. She said they would be arrested for peeing outdoors because businesses would not let them use the toilets. They'd be arrested for indecent exposure, put in prison without charges or trial to be abused by the hardcore convicts. They were living a Kafka story. We spoke of the futility of wanting major change in the penal system. She said it is not going to change until the attitude of the American people changes. She could not change the system that was the entire American population bigger than she was. She could, however, work to help some of the people in there who needed help, who desperately needed help. Another big coincidentally, Rob and Bet Mangum, potters who have lived here in the county as long as I have, came here from south Alabama. In school growing up, Bet and Delia were friends. Delia's husband was the forest manager for a great timber forest in the area that had to do with Bet's family. Rob and I only figured it out a few years ago that we both, oddly, know Bill Foy and his sister Delia. I called Rob this morning to tell him about Bill if he hadn't heard. He'd already heard from Delia. We talked about Bill at length. He told me Bill's humor came from that part of Alabama. He said it was the style of humor particular to the area. Bill and I have only talked on the phone a few times since he moved back to Eufala. His friend Sue Highfield messaged me on facebook with her phone number, wanting me to call her next day. Good sign something was up. I saw it a certainty that he had died. Same day as Jeanette. Very first thing, I regretted I'd not called him in so long. I called Sue, and sure enough, Bill was no more. The last few days my mind has zoomed in on Jeanette and Bill. Both their faces I see like faded transparencies before my eyes I see though. Close my eyes and there they are.