Bill knows about my drinking. I lie to family and friends that I’ve cut down, but that’s just to get them off my back. Only Bill knows exactly how much I drink in a week.
That’s because he collects my pop cans. I drink diet pop. I know the Aspartame is killing me, but I don’t care. Bill keeps quiet about it, so we get along.
My tall Cree friend is often seen collecting cans and bottles in Old Town with his shirt unbuttoned to the mid-chest even in minus 30 weather. He seems to appear wherever I go.
“Roxanne!” he calls across the Extra Foods parking lot.
“Oh, hi Bill.”
“Roxanne, I’m not stalking you.”
“Good to know Bill, good to know.”
An hour later we’ll meet on Main Street or at Mary House and once again he assures me he is not stalking me. But when I want to get together with Bill I can’t find him anywhere! Then when I get home there’s a string of voice messages from all over town where he’s used the phone to call me. I call back the last place but they tell me he just left.
One December morning the message was “I’m sick. Meet me at Tim Horton’s right away.”
Which Tim Horton’s? Is he still there? Luckily he called back as I was bundling up and we soon meet in front of glistening doughnuts. I coax Bill into eating a sandwich, naively thinking food will make him feel well. Slowly, in his deep gentle voice, he tells me a bit about his life.
“I was once a firefighter. I’m from Alberta. I worked in a sawmill too, played hockey.
“When I was a boxer they used to call me The Contender.”
Twenty-four years ago Bill rode the Greyhound into Whitehorse at the urging of his wife who wanted to move back here. The marriage fell apart and he has been drinking steadily all along.
“I got kicked out of my apartment last year. A crackhead next door robbed me of my residential school money. I was passed out and he took my bankcard. I had the pin written on it.”
From the apartment Bill moved into the Chilkoot Hotel, but was kicked out within weeks.
“It was 40 below. I just got thrown out on the street. It wasn’t my fault. The neighbour punched a hole in my door and I got blamed for it.”
In summer, Bill and his girlfriend lived in a tent behind FH Collins but were warned by Whitehorse to move. When Bill didn’t, his tent was taken and he thinks it was the city.
“I’m living in a trailer now. I get out in the morning when she goes to work. I come downtown about 8 o’clock because I’m scared of the ghosts in my trailer. I think there’s a demon in there. I come downtown and look for my drink.”
Bill can make $10 or even $20 collecting cans and asking a few people for change.
“This is the lowest I got in my life – picking cans and empties; I’m such an alcoholic I can’t even shovel snow anymore like I used to. My alcoholism took advantage of me.”
Right now he’s finished his sandwich and says he’s still sick. The only cure is booze. So we head out into the minus 29 ice fog. I’m wearing heavy boots, snow pants, toque, facemask and mittens. Bill’s shirt is open to the chest, no hat or mitts and his shoes are cracked open.
He lets me know I’m not to nag him or write about the reason for his open shirt. Since he keeps quiet about my drinking habits, I consider it a fair deal. Wordless, we trek amidst the grey car exhaust in search of a drink.
It’s a Sunday, so it’s straight to offsales. There, he’s overcharged until I complain, then refunded $1. Bill opens the six-pack as we step out the door, peels off the first beer and drinks it as we cross Second Avenue.
He tosses the can neatly in an alley and it seems each block he’s downed another ice cold beer. He’s feeling better.
“One time there was this new native lady cop in Whitehorse. So I’m on the street and she pulled up to me and said she’s going to take me home. I got all excited. I thought I had scored a lady for the night. It turns out she meant she was taking me to my home to drop me off!”
We’re laughing hard now and since we’re the same age we share some goofy memories.
“I used to have a haircut like David Cassidy of Partridge Family. I was a looker back then. Do you believe me? Hey, do you know why Michael Jackson always shopped at Walmart?”
“No Bill, why?”
“Because boys’ pants are half off!”
We zig and zag until we’re sitting in the snow on a bench at 4/20 park, at the foot of Main Street.
“Hey Bill, why don’t we go have a hot lunch at CYO hall? The soup kitchen there opens in another half hour.”
“I’m not hungry. I don’t like the soup kitchen anyway.”
“Well, I don’t mind going there when I’m drunk, but not when I’m sober. I don’t like the attitudes of some people. They always ask me for a cigarette. I’ve never smoked a day in my life!”
I’ve heard via the grapevine they call him ‘Wild Bill’ because he can be a terror when he fights. But he insists he only does it when he has do. My tall friend admits drunks bug him because he sees himself in them.
Now I whine that I’m cold and hungry. I try to bargain – we could sit far from the madding crowd at the soup kitchen so there won’t be any trouble. Bill peers at me through his long hair and I’m startled by the depth of compassion in his eyes.
“Oh-kay Roxanne, oh-kay.”
After we eat I’m sleepy and tell him I’m going home. He goes back to where he stashed more booze.
For days after that it was terribly windy and cold. I didn’t see Bill, but hoped he was somewhere warm where the demons didn’t haunt him. Outside my house the wind rattled and banged everything in my yard. Then I heard my name echo down my chimney.
I thought I’d finally gone crazy, writing alone too much, like Jack Nicholson in the movie The Shining. But a glance outside showed the silhouette of Bill at my gate.
“Roxanne! Can I come in for a minute to warm up?”
“Yeah, Bill. For God’s sake get in here.”
His war-weary frame sat gently on my couch. I cracked myself another diet pop.
“Roxanne, I’m not stalking you.”
“Yeah, I know Bill. I know.”
Last in a series.
Roxanne Livingstone is a freelance writer who lives in Whitehorse.