By Caleb Johnson
Boone, North Carolina
Word spread fast when William Jesse “Billy” Wadsworth died last month of an apparent heart attack while putting on his coat to leave for work.
First, a message from my best high-school friend. Next, a phone call from my mother. Later, one from my father. Social media posts appeared by the dozens, and a tribute page was created so people had a common place to share memories of Billy.
From my current home in North Carolina, I watched this collective remembering take place. In Arley, Alabama, Billy Wadsworth was a one-person welcoming committee, part town crier and part walking gossip column. Once he knew the school was on fire before anybody in the building did. Everybody back home, it seemed, had a Billy story, which often wound up being a story as much about themselves as him.
Billy was born with mental disabilities. In 1960s rural Alabama, people called this being “different,” though Billy was not treated as such. He came from a large family. They took care of Billy and gave him a job at a gas-station grocery we call The Store because it’s the only grocery store in our tiny community.
When I was a kid, there was a patch of grass at one end of the long rectangular building. Where that grass met the parking lot stood a telephone pole and nailed to this pole was a basketball hoop. Every afternoon, Billy waited for us kids to dart across the road from school and play basketball until our rides home showed up.
There were rules to playing basketball on Billy’s court. He called all the fouls and determined the number of free throw attempts — sometimes five. Try calling a foul against Billy and the result was often game over. He took the ball and left. To my memory, we played one-on-one, maybe two-on-two. There wasn’t enough space between the brick house where Billy lived and the paved parking lot to run five-on-five.
While waiting our turn, we munched Golden Flake potato chips and drank Gatorade and taunted whoever was playing. When something amused or angered Billy, he huffed not unlike an old dog does. When excited, his eyes fluttered, and he wiggled his index fingers. We weren’t always kind, but neither was Billy. He teased vanquished foes, bragging for days about a final score. Billy loved winning and lost his temper when the ball didn’t bounce his way. Most times it did though. Billy had a two-handed shot that came from the chest. There wasn’t much arc to the shot, yet the ball never touched net on its way through the hoop.
Over time, Billy’s hair turned grayer, his waist grew a little larger, and it became less common to see him out there on the grass playing one-on-one. However, his passion for the sport did not wane with his playing days. Every referee who officiated a high school game in Winston County recognized Billy Wadsworth’s voice without looking at the bleachers. Billy rarely missed a Meek High School Tigers sporting event and was not shy about expressing displeasure over a missed or mistaken call. Red-faced, he shouted out every traveling violation and offensive foul.
Billy died days before Meek varsity basketball teams played in a county-wide tournament. To honor him someone had shirts made that read Remembering Billy: Meek’s #1 Fan. Cheerleaders and basketball players wore them. The varsity boys team won their tournament. People updated the tribute page with posts telling Billy the news. A call to buy Billy t-shirts went out to community members. My mother asked if I wanted one. I told her no. We each grieve our own way, and I suspected a shirt would not help me parse my emotions. Instead, I sought what always leads me toward understanding in times like this — stories.
I looked for people sharing memories about playing basketball on Billy’s grass court. There were none I saw. But his kin had started an online fundraising campaign to build a concrete court named after Billy in the local park. Many posts written were about Billy’s devotion to the high school’s marching band. For 30-plus years, it was Billy’s job to carry a stand onto the football field for the drum major to climb and conduct a halftime performance. Though I didn’t know it until after he died, Billy had been a member of the marching band, too. His senior year he earned a standing ovation during his final performance. At his funeral service, current band members and alumni joined to play the school’s fight song (what else but “Eye of the Tiger”?) while pallbearers carried Billy’s casket out the door.
Other stories were about Billy’s religious faith, how one day in church he’d stood up and given a succinct testimony: “Jesus loves me and I love Jesus.” My family used to go to the same church as Billy. Since he didn’t drive, Billy depended on people in the community to take him to and from services. He always rode in front. My family long ago changed churches and when I’m home, we rarely attend service anywhere. Last summer, my mother and I stopped by The Store on a Wednesday evening and Billy asked us for a ride to church though. For the first time I remember, he got in the backseat.
On the way, my mother pulled in a Mexican restaurant to pick up takeout we’d ordered. Billy huffed.
“Debra,” he said, “we going to be late.”
My mother played innocent, knowing when you gave Billy a ride he was in charge.
“Well Billy,” she said, “we can’t have our food getting cold.” When we got to the church, Billy directed her to pull up all the way to the front door, curbside delivery.
I last saw Billy during Christmas. My mother and I were picking up groceries at The Store. We couldn’t find a vegetable — carrots, I think — and even though Billy was off the clock he checked the stockroom. We continued checking off our list, Billy trailing us and making small talk. Telling the final score of a basketball game, asking how my grandmother who has dementia was doing, wondering what we’d fix for supper, suggesting fried chicken livers and grinning when my mother feigned disgust. This was Billy’s favorite joke, one he repeated, I learned by reading stories on the tribute page, to just about everybody he met.
I was never vain enough to think my mother and I were the only ones Billy talked to this way. But I am certain he cared about the details of our lives as we recounted them while walking up and down The Store’s aisles. Billy Wadsworth had a gift. He made people feel seen and heard. Coming home was a comfort because I knew in my bones Billy would be there, which meant a part of me would be there, too.
Before we left that day, Billy picked up a package of cheese-filled bratwurst and his eyes fluttered like they did whenever he got excited.
“Hey, these right here taste good,” he said. “You need to try these.”
I didn’t then. Unless I’m drinking, I don’t feel the urge to eat cheese-filled sausages. But next time I visit home I plan to march right into The Store and buy those brats — maybe some chicken livers for frying, too — then go home and eat until my stomach hurts.
Caleb Johnson is the author of the novel “Treeborne” — an honorable mention for the 2019 Southern Book Prize. He teaches writing at Appalachian State University.