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Billy and the Golden Goat

There is a truth that underlies the buzz you hear every day. It is a hard truth that does not give when it is questioned or measured against other things that are believed to be true.

We go day in and day out, in this world full of 24-hour news aimed at selling the story, but that isn't what the truth is, the truth I am talking about lies under all that bullshit, a slab of dark bedrock, and it holds everything up. The funny thing about that truth, nobody wants to believe it. Maybe it is "law," I don't know. I shouldn't say that it is funny either, but that is how I deal with it; I look at the world and think of all the chaos and the confusion, and then I see that truth and I laugh. I laugh as if it is an easy thing to see for everybody.

Billy knew the truth. Billy the bum. I was working in a grocery store and I had been there several months, running the night shift, and then after a promotion, I was now being brought to days. Because of this, my daily cast of characters dramatically changed from the old familiar night people to a new crew of strangers. Yes, the night guys had their fair share of homeless people who would come into the store and buy or steal the things they needed, but during the daylight, there were far more bums to deal with. You may think its callous that I say "deal with" when I am talking about bums, but that is the only way I can think to describe it. I was always bargaining with them. There was never a "hi, how are you doing, some weather we got here," moment with these guys. The second they saw you walking across the parking lot, or down a grocery aisle, they were asking for things. Food, money, help, whatever they wanted they came to the boss running the show, and it was "Let's Make a Deal" time. Billy was no exception. He would find me in my office or out on the floor, fixing a display and he would ask me if there was anything I needed done, anything I could spare him.

When I first met him, I was just as unimpressed as I was whenever I met any of the usual cast of homeless that lived in the area of my store. He had the generic look that being on the streets produced: unshaven, stain darkened skin, bleached gray hair, shambling walk, worn out second-hand clothes, and a stare that seemed to be defeated. Upon closer inspection, Billy was far older than the usual band of drunks that milled around the parking lot and the back of the store during the day, and he had something else odd about him, his eyes smiled and sparkled. I soon grew fond of him and actually looked forward to "Let's Make a Deal" whenever he came around. Billy had that truth I was talking about. He understood the way gossip and talk and all the bullshit that people worried about wasn't the real problem, he understood that under all that dead skin, there was a real truth that could be seen if you scrubbed hard enough.

"Hey, there's some carts back in the alley behind the store, up the street."

I was in my office and Billy had popped his bearded head into the doorway, a baseball cap was on his head backwards and he had a spry expression on his face, as if he had just heard an exciting story that ended with a funny punch line. I swiveled my chair around to face him completely.

"Two bucks each, also, if you have time, some bastard shoved a bunch of garbage underneath the compacter out back, while you're getting those carts, I'll give you another ten if you clear out that shit."

It was our standard price for him getting carts that were out in the neighborhood. Sometimes I gave the job to Billy; sometimes I gave it to somebody else. There was never any argument about how the jobs were assigned, it was all first come first served. I also knew that I shouldn't be giving out any jobs to any of the bums that lived around the store, if my bosses had found out about it, I could have lost my job, but as it was this sort of thing had been going on since before I had gotten there, so why mess up a good thing. It was an unspoken rule between the office manager and me that the payouts that went from the safe to one of the bums would be fixed through petty cash every time the safe was balanced. Nobody ever was the wiser.

Billy was happy with the work and leaned further into the office. He held up his hand to give me a high-five and I looked at it to make sure it wasn't covered in some sort of crap. It wasn't and I high-fived him with a great smack. He turned and strode across the front end of the store like a man with a mission, doing the job in half the time one of my paid employees would have taken to do the same work.

Billy had survived on the streets for a long time. He wasn't a war veteran or some sort of mental case that had been thrown out of the hospital. He was just a man who had once had a marriage and a job and all the crap we put up with in our lives. He gave up one day and that was the end of the marriage and the job...and most of the crap. To survive the way he did, you had to have some sort of skill. You can't just expect money to fall from the sky or food to appear in your pockets when you were hungry. Billy had cunning and he was always on the lookout for the next deal to get him along to his next hit or his next bottle. Sometimes these deals were a bust, like the time he had tried to break into the flower shop at the end of the mall. That hadn't been Billy's best moment, but at least the cops had let him replace the lock he had screwed up with an ice pick and then sent him on his way without beating the shit out of him and then tossing him into a jail cell for a few months. Billy had kept on chugging after that, if the break-in plan had failed, there was always something else coming along; it was a day to day hustle that never ended.

After a while, I went out back to see how far along he was with the compactor job, and also to have a cigarette. I took my key ring out and opened the big back doors that swung out into the back lot and gave a quick glance under the compacting machine. The big beige thing was a hulking box of metal that connected to a dumpster that had a locking top. We didn't want the neighborhood to toss all their excess crap into it, and they would have the second nobody was paying attention, so the locks stayed on. Under the huge metal box was a little area to crawl around and fix the motors that pushed the garbage. Some dipshit yoakle in the neighborhood must have moved out and had no place to store his junky furniture, so he had decided to toss it in our dumpster, only to find that it was locked up tight. I could see it in my mind. The guy had pulled up, all smug and crafty in his pick-up truck, and had found the top of the dumpster screwed down tight. Unable to open it, and at the end of his rope with the garbage, he had said "Fuck it," and just started shoving the crap under the box. I am quite sure he actually said that "Fuck it," when he realized he wasn't going to be able to use the compactor, and then with a silly grin on his face, he's started cramming. People are assholes.

Billy was on the far side of the compactor, smoking one of those long thin cigars that smell like crap, and he was poking a long rake handle under the box, trying to dislodge some piece of shit. I stepped off the back dock and walked around to his side of the machine. He glanced up at me, took his ball cap off and wiped some sweat off of his forehead with a dirty sleeve.

"Just about done, somebody had stuff wedged under here pretty good." He said and smiled. The day wasn't very hot, but he was dripping with sweat. The streams of it on his face had made little rivers of clean spots on his skin around his eyes and on his cheeks. I handed him 14 bucks.

"Good work Billy," I said and took a drag on my cigarette. He nodded and went back to poking. I watched him for a bit and then tossed the cigarette into a puddle that had filled up an indentation in the blacktop. I made to go, but Billy gave a motion. It seemed he didn't want me to go just yet, he had a conversation he wanted to start.

"Can I bring in a bunch of change to the office?" he asked cautiously.

"Sure," I said thinking that this must be the new scam. "Make sure you roll them up before you turn them in to Betty. Also, don't try to scam or low count them...we'll be checking random ones."

Billy seemed to be shocked that I would question his honor, but he never really realized that I had kept him at arm's length for a reason, and I never, ever, paid him before a job was done.

"No, this isn't like that, I just have a buncha change I need to get rid of...y'know from aluminum cans."

"Okay Billy, come around front and get some change wrappers from the office, then roll them up and we'll give you bills for what you give us."

Billy beamed at me, but if you looked carefully, there was something sly in that grin.

I went back into the store and worked on some receiving bills for a while in the back room, when I went back up to the front end, I asked betty, the office manager if Billy had stopped by.

"Yeah," she said through her yellow teeth. "Picked up about 300 dollars worth of rolls and said you gave him the go-ahead." She was blaming me for Billy taking all the change rolls. I didn't like Betty very much, and she didn't like me either, she thought my promotion was wrong and that I was too young to be doing the job I had been given. But we were stuck together in that shithole of a store, so we tried not to tread on each other's territory much.

"I didn't tell him he could take three hundred..." her head was nodding, making her wiry white hair shake while I talked to her. "Just order some more, I'll take care of it if somebody asks."

The next day, early in the morning, I pulled into the store's parking lot and saw my stock crew all sitting outside, smoking cigarettes and bullshitting around. That's a good sign. If they are still inside, that means the store isn't set up for the day. I walked up to the stock manager and asked him how things were, how the store was, and if any trouble had occurred the night before.

"Fuckin ambulances out back all night," he said.

"Oh Christ, did somebody fall off the roof trying to steal an air conditioner unit again?"

"Nah," he said. "Y'know that bum who sometimes sleeps back there? Somebody stabbed him last night."


"Yeah, that's the guy. The ambulances came and took him. He's gonna be okay, but somebody tried to kill him. Ended up just a scratch."

I went inside and dialed a cop buddy of mine to see if he knew anything about it. He didn't, but he promised me that he would find out about it when his shift started. He was going to need to talk to whoever had worked this side of town last night. I went about my day and over the course of the day's stresses and little dramas, I forgot about Billy. I forgot about him until I got a page for a phone call. It was my cop buddy and he had just arrived at the precinct.

"Billy got stabbed over some money or something. He's down at Riverside and he's gonna be released tonight. They kept him over more to keep him sober than anything...and to feed him up a bit."

"They stabbed him over money...that doesn't make sense," I said into the phone. "He never has any money..."

My buddy cut me off. "He didn't give them anything at all, but when we got to him and put him in the ambulance, he had seventy five dollars in rolled change. He's still got it. its in a bag in his room, and he's sleeping with it like a teddy bear."

I laughed, that sounded like Billy. I could see him in my mind: his freshly cleaned hands on top of sterile white hospital coverlets, gripping an old paper sack like death as machines hummed and beeped in the background. I thanked my cop buddy and hung up.

I didn't see Billy for about two weeks after that. Whenever any of the bums around the store came into some unexpected money, they usually found a cheap room with a bathtub and a bed to sleep in for a few days. They would soon be back, but they would be clean for a while and their attitudes would be brighter for a minute or two. I figured that Billy probably did whatever all the other bums did and found a nice warm place to quietly and safely drink up his seventy-five bucks. When I did finally see him, he looked better than I had seen him in a long time. Evidently, he had saved up some of that money, gone to the thrift store, and purchased himself some new clothes. He had on a pair of work chinos that had belt-loops for paintbrushes or hammers; the kind that carpenters wear when they are out on some building's roof. He also had a brand new t-shirt on under a worn out, but clean flannel shirt. He had a great big smile on his face as he walked across the front of the store and found me just outside of my office.

"Got any work boss?" He asked; his grin was crinkling the skin around his eyes.

"Yeah, there are some carts back in the neighborhood and I can give you the going rate. Just go out and get them, then come see me and I will write out a pay voucher."

He made a small salute and walked back out of the store. A few hours later, he was back in the store, just as lively as ever. "Seven carts!" he said when he saw me. I asked him into my office and offered him a seat while I wrote out the pay voucher. He kinda glanced around the room, looking at all the monitors for the computers, paying close attention to where the security cameras were pointed. I gave a small chuckle.

"Okay," I said as I tore off the top voucher on the pad. "Fourteen dollars...just take this up to the office and they will cash it, I don't have any money on me right now."

He took the voucher and began to lever himself up out of the office chair. He gave a slight grimace while trying to get up and I remembered the stabbing and the hospital. I asked him what the hell had happened.

"Some bastards wanted to take my change..." he said quickly. "And..." he looked out the door of the office to see if the coast was clear. "And...they wanted to know how I got it."

"Well yeah," I said. "Seventy-five bucks is kinda odd to just come up with. Don't you think?"

"I didn't just come up with it," he said and winked. "I got a new scam and I don't think nobody is ever gonna figure this one out...as long as I keep m'mouth shut."

This piqued my interest. A new scam might mean the store was getting ripped off.

"A new scam huh?" I asked, all ears.

He could see my interest and sought to allay my fears quickly. "It ain't got nothin to do with the store or the parking lot. Don't you worry bout nothin. They tried to get me to tell them how I was doin it, even stabbed me, but I wouldn't tell. Ha ha, those punks won't ever get it out of me."

I still didn't quite believe him, but I gave him a smile and told myself that I would keep more of an eye on the guy.

After his cryptic little conversation with me, he settled into a pretty regular routine around the store. On a Sunday or a Monday, he would come in and ask for change wrappers. On Tuesday or Wednesday mornings, he would come back with the wrappers full, usually between fifty and seventy dollars worth of change. He would disappear after that and the whole store would lose track of him for a full week until he came back that following Sunday or Monday. Whatever his scam was, I was working well for him because this went on for the next two months. On the odd day when whatever he was doing didn't work out, he would see me and ask for any jobs around the store. I always had something for him...more because I was trying to find out what he was doing rather than the store needing a job done. I never found out what it was that he was doing while I was at that store.

I was moved to another store by my supervisor and forgot about the whole thing, until my cop buddy ran into me. One spring day, during a businessman's league softball game, I ran into my old cop buddy who was playing for another team. He handed me a beer and took a pull from his own. "They found your old buddy in Edison Park," he said.

I opened my beer and asked him what he was talking about.

"The bum...that guy who got stabbed out back of your store."

Realization dawned on me. Billy! I quickly asked my cop buddy what had happened.

"He got hit pretty hard over the head. Somebody wanted whatever he had because just about every stitch of clothing was gone and his cart full of cans was ransacked and strewn all over a playground. He was dead when we found him."

I had never known Billy to be a "can collector," but evidently he had gone on to do that after I had left that old store. It was a pretty heavy blow to me that he had been killed, but to be honest I would probably forget about it by the third inning. For lack of anything better to say, I sighed and said "Oh well..."

"Get this," my cop buddy went on. "When one of the medics was picking up his body to put it in the bag, they found a key under him...you'll never guess what the key opened."

"Oh god, not the store--"

"No, not the store, the Golden Goat in the parking lot across the street from the store."

For those of you who don't know what a Golden Goat is, it's a machine that will take your old aluminum cans and exchange them out for cash; usually loose change because aluminum cans don't weigh that much and its cheap anyways. These machines are big green things that have a locker on the back of them were a machine crushes down the cans into a manageable block that can be hauled away. On their front there is a receptacle that will take your cans, or whatever other scrap aluminum you have, and then a coin return cup fills up with whatever the going rate for aluminum is. There aren't many Golden Goats in nicer parts of town, but if you drive around the ghetto, you will see them in mall parking lots and near liquor stores. Somehow Billy had gotten a key for the back of the machine across the street from my store.

As I trotted out to second base, I had a little smile on my face that didn't have a right to be there. I was imagining Billy, covered in grit and working in the middle of the night, messing with the lock on the back of the machine like mad. Then, once he had the locker door open, he would gather up as many cans and scraps as he could and run around to the front of the machine to begin shoving them in the receptacle as fast as he could. He would repeat the process until the Golden Goat quit spitting out bills and refused to take any more cans. About seventy dollars worth of cans.

Billy had that truth, or now that I think about it, he had that honor and he had taken it to his death. They had tried to beat and stab it out of him and he had ended up dead to defend his own version of the truth. He was valiant in his own way. Sure, he knew he was a homeless drunk and he would often admit to it, especially after a particularly bad bender when he would get violent and had to be thrown out of the store or off the parking lot for causing trouble. He knew what he was. He saw what the world was and what was going on. It didn't matter if you were a drunk or a doctor, if you didn't lie to yourself everything was going to work out.

A hot grounder came at me, I laughed, and the game was on.