A Film About Billy
When I was in high school, my cousin Dan and I skipped class and went to see a lecture by a guy named Andrew Furmaniuk at a nearby university.
Furmaniuk made movies. Lots of movies. All the time. He would think up plots on the way to shoots, which were mainly at his actors’ houses. These plots were almost always disjointed and usually smutty.
In a world of glossy books, hotdogs, and Hollywood features Andrew Furmaniuk made gritty, half-assed, whole-hearted flicks. Flying saucers on strings, and backgrounds drawn in colored pencil. Everything about him screamed, “You can do this.” And for some reason Dan and I thought, “Maybe we should.”
We split the cost of a video camera in December of our senior year and from that point on we filmed everything. For about three months before Billy died and two months afterwards there was barely a word spoken that we didn’t catch on tape.
After high school I moved to Pittsburgh, two hundred and fifty miles away from my old town and my old friends. I started cutting a movie on an artist’s grant, editing together a documentary about my dead friend, making a film about Billy.
My Father’s Room
After a month living in Pittsburgh in my dad’s old bedroom, I hadn’t changed a thing. Wooden molecules collected dust on the dresser and a yellowed comic book stash rotted under the bed. The only contributions I had made to the room were a laptop and DV deck on the desk, and a lot of dirty clothes on the floor.
I shut down my computer but left the DV deck running. I pulled a sheet of labels from the desk drawer and wrote down a date and a title—“Sick.” I pushed myself out of the armchair I used as a deskchair and stretched while the tape rewound.
I lifted my jacket from a pile of shirts and tugged it on as the whirring changed pitch with shifting gears. I patted my pockets to make sure there were cigarettes in them before stepping toward the desk and lifting my finger to the eject button right as the tape went, “click.”
How many times did I do that? How many times did I pop a tape, stick on a sticker, and throw it in the drawers of my father’s bureau?
Hundreds of times—there were hundreds of tapes. I took hundreds of yellow legal pads filled with thousands of notes and slipped them in the bureau too, before going to sleep, grabbing a snack, or (this time) zipping up my coat, ready for a nighttime stroll.
On my way out, I stopped to read a note that was sitting on the kitchen table. It was written in shakey cursive and said that there was dinner in the fridge in case I wanted it, and that Jane had called.
I dialed Jane’s number on the rotary phone that hung in the dining room. The whirring digits annoyed me as usual—if something happened to
Grandma (if she fell, if she suffered a stroke or a heart attack) this would waste precious time. I pulled the cord from the dining room into the kitchen and shut the door, so I wouldn’t disturb her.
“Hello?” Jane sounded confused and groggy.
“Did I wake you?” I said.
“It’s five a.m.,” she groaned.
I checked the clock on the microwave. She was right. “You called the house.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Like ten hours ago.”
“Why did you call here?”
“Jesus Collin, I wanted to talk to you. I thought your grandma would know where you lived. Why didn’t you tell me you lived with her?” Jane’s family had lived next door when I was little. Jane and I would play together when my dad and I came to visit Grandma. When Jane’s father got a job in Connecticut we lost touch. Ten-year-olds aren’t really correspondence buffs.
We didn’t talk again until after I moved to Pittsburgh. I was lying flat on my back, smoking cigarette butts on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, when I noticed someone staring at me. She said I looked just the same.
“How did you get this number?” I said to the receiver.
“The phone book. What is wrong with you?”
“Nothing’s wrong with me. I just…” I lost myself in the pattern of the kitchen linoleum. “I just need a cigarette.”
Jane sighed. “Well. Since I’m up, do you want to get breakfast?”
“No,” I said. “I’m going to sleep.”
“What the fuck?” she said. “Why are you treating me like this?”
“Don’t call here anymore. Okay?”
When I woke up I was feeling ok. It was nice to sleep in my bed for once instead of passing out in that chair in front of my computer. My grandpa used to fall asleep in that same chair all the time, and I was starting to think it was the chair that made him so old.
“Morning Honey,” Grandma said. It was three-thirty. She was having her tea and scratching her daily lottery ticket.
I was coming down the stairs and wiping my eyes open. “Hey Gradmum.”
“Would you like some tea?” She peered through heavy plastic lenses at the gold cardboard square. Her cheeks jiggled as she spoke.
“No thanks.” My grandma was a first generation Irish immigrant, and put more tea bags in the pot than water.
“Oh, come on. Have some tea with your grandmother.”
I didn’t care much either way. So I went to the kitchen to get a cup and saucer and filled a quarter of the cup so there would be plenty of room for milk and sugar.
In the dining room Grandma grumbled and lifted the card close to her face, double and triple checking the ticket. There was a TV playing clips from the Grammys in the corner. An R&B performer brought a three headed puppy, which my dad would probably call me about. Anything that destigmatized bioengineering got him giddy as a kid on Christmas.
I sat across the table from my Grandma and sipped my tea.
Grandma glanced at the television and then at me. “I had a nice chat with Jane Brenden yesterday; after you locked yourself up for the evening.”
“I know,” I said. “I saw the note.”
“Why didn’t you tell me she lived here?”
I shrugged. I didn’t tell Grandma because I knew she would want to invite Jane over and have dinner, and stuff like that. I wanted to keep my distance. I had work to do upstairs.
The jingle for Pittsburgh local news pulled my attention to the TV. “Tonight at eleven: What are Pittsburgh teens doing on Japanese suicide websites?” The screen cut to a girl in her twenties with dark hair. “It’s pretty disturbing,” the girl said.
“She’s going to college here.” Grandma lifted the remote and pressed mute.
The girl with dark hair disappeared from the screen. “I know,” I said. “That’s where I saw her.”
“What does she look like?”
“I don’t know. Her hair’s brown now.” I blew on my tea. Brown hair, brown eyes, olive skin. Dark rings that loop around long lashes. A stupid tattoo of a paw print on her hip, below the pant-line.
“Is she pretty?” Grandma asked me, slurping black tea through puckered lips.
“Sure.” I shrugged.
“Did she fill out?”
“She did, didn’t she? Little girls with big eyes always fill out.”
I cringed. “You’re just making that up.”
“I had pretty big eyes when I was young,” she winked. “That’s why I have so many back problems.”
“Grandma.” I tried to think of people with big boobs, but the only girl I knew with any breasts at all was Jane. I shook my head.
Grandma giggled. “Anyway, it’s nice that you’re talking to girls your own age. It’s not healthy to lock yourself up and only talk to your grandmother. Not that I’m complaining.” she added. “You know what we should do?”
“What?” I took a sip of tea and added more milk.
“We should invite Jane for dinner.”
I sighed. “I’m going to work.”