The day that Billy died, I stole his last beer.
Angela brought word on Monday morning that Billy’s patrol car was found the night before, greasy side up in a dry irrigation ditch, with Billy in full uniform, blue and dead and cold.
“They think he was drunk.” Angela’s voice was flat. “The back of his unit was littered with Budweiser cans.”
Her face looked gray in the fluorescent light.
“How’s Helen doing?” I asked. Helen was Billy’s wife.
“Okay, I guess. The Sheriff and the Captain are at their home with her now.”
Billy once gave Angela and me a ride back to the crime lab in his squad car after our crime scene van broke down, stranding us at a homicide scene, surrounded by low lifes. I crouched in the caged rear seat among the crumpled beer cans, while Angela perched on the front seat with her feet straddling the beer cooler that was strapped to the front passenger side floorboard.
“You’re going to get busted for deuce, Billy,” Angela said.
He just grinned. “I drive better drunk than sober.”
And it seemed to be true. I knew from past experience that Billy had drunk at least two six-packs of Bud, but his driving was so smooth it was almost silky. He drove the speed limit, stopped carefully for all stop signs, red lights, and pedestrians, never neglected to signal a turn, was never impulsive, and he threaded effortlessly through traffic with that uncanny ease possessed only by the best race drivers, chauffeurs, and cops.
As far as I know, Billy never got a ticket, never had a traffic accident, and was never arrested.
But his prodigious capacity for beer was legendary and the common feeling throughout the police community was that it was merely a matter of time before Billy’s penchant for drinking and driving caught up with him.
“Sooner or later, he’s going to put his unit in a ditch,” was how Angela put it.
“C’mon, Angela, lighten up. All he drinks is beer.”
“You can be an alcoholic on beer as easy as on hard liquor,” was her reply, “especially when you’re driving.”
I couldn’t argue with her.
Four years before, I had drawn the task of supplying the beverages at a birthday party for Billy and Angela. The party was being thrown during a Friday lunch hour in the Crime Lab library, the only room in the lab big enough to hold the combined employees of the Crime Lab and the Identification Bureau.
The fact that Billy and Angela were coincidentally born on the same day had for years been a source of exasperation for Angela, and of mischievous opportunity for Billy. For Angela, it meant that her birthday was inextricably tied to Billy and his beer. Every birthday party was a combined celebration complete with beer, shared birthday cakes, beer, dual birthday cards, beer, gifts and, of course, plenty of beer.
Just once Angela wanted her birthday to wind up as something other than a beer bash, so that year she engineered things so that the party was during working hours, when no alcohol was permitted in Sheriff’s Department facilities.
The morning of the party, I bought two six-packs each of Coke, 7-up, Dr. Pepper, and Diet-Pepsi, dumped them into my big old blue foam ice chest that I had brought from home, and covered the sodas with four bags of party ice to cool them down. I slipped the 12-ounce can of Budweiser beer from my coat pocket and carefully shoved it down through the ice and the soda cans to rest in the exact center at the bottom of the ice chest.
The party was in full swing when Billy and Angela arrived. Technicians, cops, and secretaries were scattered in groups, eating taco salad and spaghetti, swapping department gossip, sipping sodas. The usual freeloaders from other units were helping themselves to the usual free grub.
Billy smiled and helloed his way across the well-wishing room, his gold badge gleaming on his neat khaki uniform shirt. I watched from across the room as he opened the ice chest. He hesitated, frowning down at the ice, as if there was something unusual about it. Suddenly, he bent and thrust his hand through the cracked ice, reaching to the bottom, and, without the slightest fumbling, pulled the Budweiser can out of the ice, hoisting it into clear view. He beamed, and the room, as if on cue, burst into laughter.
Angela laughed, too.
“Happy birthday, Billy!” She called over the merriment.
He laughed. “Thanks. I’ll drink it later.”
But he never did.
Billy never mentioned the beer again, but the next day it was on the shelf above his desk, beside his photograph of Helen. It remained there until the day he died.
I left my office, heading for the elevators, then down to the basement to the Identification Bureau and Billy’s office. I slipped inside and, with silent apologies to Helen, took the Budweiser from the shelf and slipped it into my coat pocket. I left as quietly as I had come.
The next three days were grim, with members of other units, secretaries, deputies, and officers from neighboring agencies dropping by to express their shock and sorrow at Billy’s demise. The coroner declared the cause of death as cardiac arrest brought on by coronary disease, compounded, no doubt, by half a lifetime of donuts, smoking, lack of exercise, job stress, and, of course, too much beer. Billy’s blood alcohol level at autopsy was 0.22 percent, over twice the legal limit for driving.
On one occasion, about a year before his death, Billy was working with Angela in the Crime Lab, using a bright green-colored female mannequin to reconstruct and photograph the sequence of gunshots through the body of a murder victim. The mannequin was very realistic, having been cast from the body mold of a real live, curvaceous young woman. The mannequin had beautifully shaped hips and buttocks, a narrow waist, flat abdomen, and perfectly proportioned breasts. The effect was so perfect that even slight dimples and a faint silhouette of pubic hair were visible. The only flaw was that the dummy had no head, legs, or arms. It looked like a woman in graceful pose, (neck curved, arms raised, legs slightly bent), was suddenly frozen in place and had her head and limbs chopped off.
The effect was erotic.
Angela caught Billy eyeing the striking figure of the naked mannequin. “Do you like her?” she asked. “Why don’t you find a real one?”
Billy eyed the mannequin. “You know, if you cut that neck off level so I could put my beer up there, she’d be the perfect woman.”
The day before the funeral, Angela and I visited Billy at the Grace Funeral Chapel and Shelter of Eternal Repose. He was laid out in a maple casket, in full dress uniform, on white satin quilting. His hair was perfectly combed, mustache carefully trimmed, eyes closed, peaceful, asleep. His khaki uniform shirt held a perfect military press and the gold star on his left breast gleamed in the colored floodlights. His hands were folded together over his abdomen.
We looked down at the casket in silence. The vaulted chapel felt chilled. It had a faint stale odor, like a beer hall, and it seemed to be filled with a vast hollow ache.
I watched Angela looking down at Billy, saying nothing, impassive. She turned and walked out without looking back. As I signed the guest book, I looked for her name, but I did not see it.
When the last visitor was gone, I closed the chapel doors and turned the deadbolt. When I was sure I wouldn’t be disturbed, I pulled out the 35mm camera I used to take photographs of homicide scenes, and I snapped several pictures of Billy in his fine wooden coffin, his immaculate uniform, and his manicured sleep. His hands were cold and his fingers were stiff. After years of experience examining dead persons in various states of damage, decomposition, and chaos, the sight of clean, cold, unblemished death was unnerving; I half-expected Billy to open his eyes, rise up, and ask for a beer.
“So long, Billy,” I said. “Have one for me.”
The funeral was a colossal affair, with several thousand police officers from all over the state paying their traditional respects in their various dress uniforms, black mourning bands across their badges. The motorcade from the Grace Chapel to the cemetery shut down cross-town traffic, and police cars were parked bumper-to-bumper, four-abreast, stretching for a quarter-mile along the cemetery road.
Angela and I stood near the canopy that shaded the gravesite, enduring the drone of the minister, the heat, the anguish of Billy’s family.
The honor guard, seven deputy sheriffs in brilliant full dress uniform, shoes and badges gleaming, rifles ported, white gloves like flags of truce, rendered the traditional twenty-one gun salute. Three volleys of seven rounds, the shots crashing in unison. The shrill of bagpipes droned through the assembly, a strange and borrowed skirl from another culture, and seven police helicopters from five visiting agencies winged over in the missing man formation, another treasured and purloined ritual. Then the clarion call of taps, the bugler positioned on a nearby mound, turned away from the ceremony, like he was helping Billy on his way.
I turned to Angela, with her grim eyes and gray lips. “You look like shit,” I told her.
Nine months later was Billy and Angela’s birthday again, this time on a Saturday. I called Angela and asked her to meet me at Billy’s grave at seven p.m., just her and me.
“Let’s hoist a cold one for Billy,” I said.
Angela was there when I arrived. She was standing with her hands folded in front, looking down at the marker with Billy’s uniformed portrait etched in bronze, a tribute from the Deputy Sheriff’s Association. The cemetery was empty and quiet, and the evening was warm and smelled of iris and hops.
“What did you have in mind?” she asked.
I removed the paper wrapper from the framed, eight-by-ten photograph of Billy that I had taken the day before he was buried. I propped it upright on the grass beside the grave, straightened, and pulled the Budweiser from my jacket pocket and popped the tab. The distinctive, familiar click-pop of the tab seemed to echo from a thousand gravestones.
“Here’s to you, Billy. Have a cold one on us.” I tipped the can and drank a swig of the beer. It was slightly stale from the years on the shelf.
Angela took the beer can from my hand, raised it to her lips, and sipped, grimacing at the taste. She handed it back to me and I poured the rest of the can over the gravestone. The spattering of the beer sounded like someone peeing.
We stood together, looking at the photograph of Billy in his uniform and his coffin. “The Budweiser is a nice touch,” said Angela. “But don’t you think the mannequin is a bit much?”
“What would Billy think?” I asked.