When I lived in Belle Plaine, Wisconsin, I used to fish with my neighbor Jerry Bilinski. He was the son of a dairy farmer, and he was the only guy with enough patience to fish with me, a greenhorn from Madison. Most of the time I talked while Jerry hauled in pike. He baited hooks with one hand, held an Old Milwaukee in the other, and listened to everything I said. I told him all about myself: I took a job at Clintonville High School teaching English, both of my parents were teachers, I had a girlfriend at UW, and I had never been to Lambeau Field. And, until I met Jerry, I had never been fishing, which I told him the first time we went.
“No shit, not once?” Jerry said.
“Nope. Never. Dad isn’t into it.”
“Never? Damn. I mean, nothing against your dad, but damn. My dad loved to fish, after he sold the farm and moved to Appleton. He’s been dead a long time, though. You really never went?”
I laughed. The thought of my father and me trying to wrestle a musky into a boat was ludicrous. First, we’d have to fight over which of us would touch the fish, and eventually we’d cut the line and say we didn’t get a bite all day. But I didn’t tell Jerry that.
“No, Dad’s more of a golfer,” I said.
“Oh. Well that’s all right. You go golfing with him, and you can go fishing with me.” Jerry turned the boat toward the dock. It was late afternoon, and the sun was the same color on the lake as it was in the sky. When we got home, it was dark.
“Thanks, Jerry, this was a good day,” I said. I climbed out of the truck and shut the door.
“Yeah, it was fun. We’ll do it again. Night.” Jerry turned around in my driveway and rolled across the street. I watched him unhitch the boat and back the truck into the garage before I went inside.
We fished together as often as we could, until it got too cold for me. One day, Jerry came over and knocked on the door while I was grading papers.
“Hey there,” he said. “Gonna take the boat out for a while. You, wanna come?” He fidgeted with the zipper of his coat. “I got a spare hunting jacket you can wear.”
It was frigid outside. I watched Jerry tie a leader on, without gloves, like it was nothing. Everything I saw Jerry do looked effortless, like it was just Jerry doing what he was supposed to, by some law of nature.
“My mom’s got cancer,” Jerry said. “She called me this morning.” It was strange to hear him talk so candidly. He told me his mom had been sick for months, but hadn’t wanted to tell him. “She didn’t want me to worry. You believe that shit?” Jerry looked out at the lake. Everything was still, except the gentle rocking of the boat. I knew I should say something.
“Jesus, Jerry, I’m sorry.” I said. “How bad is it?” Jerry laid his rod down.
“She’s going to have to come live with me,” he said. “She can’t stay by herself anymore. And I don’t want to leave here.” Jerry didn’t tell me that his mom had Stage 4 rectal cancer, or that she sometimes bled back there. But he told me she was in a wheelchair now, and he would have to take her into Green Bay for chemotherapy.
Jerry’s mom moved to Belle Plaine around Christmas. I watched Jerry help her out of the truck. She was decently hearty looking, like a Wisconsin farm wife. She didn’t look sick. Until she got into her wheelchair, I thought maybe there had been some mistake. Maybe Jerry’s mom was going to be okay. Jerry washed his mom’s wheelchair, a couple times a month, out in his driveway. He rolled it out, locked the brakes, and cleaned it with a green chamois and a bucket of soapy water. He dried it off with a pink bath towel, sprayed the seat with Windex, and rolled the chair back inside.
Everyone on Adams Beach Road saw him, at some point, cleaning his mom’s chair. It wasn’t voyeurism, we just couldn’t help it. We had to look. The old women of Belle Plaine knew they might be like Jerry’s mom soon. When they saw Jerry, they saw their own sons, and it frightened them. When Jerry waved from his yard, the old ladies only half waved back before they turned away and drew the blinds. The only thing they resented more than Jerry’s dying mother was Jerry. His devotion made the old women wonder if their children would do the same for them.
I cared about Jerry, so I watched, like I’d watch him catch a forty pound musky, when he washed that chair. Something about the way he scrubbed, especially once he started washing it twice a week, told me he loved his mom. I knew, from watching Jerry work, that he would wash the chair for a hundred years, if God would give it to him. I also knew his mom’s cancer was getting worse. But I didn’t know about her fistulae, or what Jerry was up to his elbows in. All I knew was what I saw.
I saw Jerry in the yard one Tuesday. Since I hadn’t talked to him in a while, I walked over.
“Hey Jerry,” I said. “How’s your mom? You guys hear anything new from the doctors?”
“Oh, hey,” Jerry said, looking up from the chair. “Hey, you don’t want to get too close. It’s not just soapy water over here.”
I stopped and waited for him to say something else. Eventually, he stood up and looked at me.
“It’s all under control over here,” he said. “Thanks.” Jerry looked back toward the house. “I got to get back inside.” He turned and started to roll up the garden hose.
“Here, let me give you a hand with this stuff,” I said. I bent down and reached for the chamois.
“I got it,” Jerry said. He dropped the hose and snatched the chamois. “I got it,” he said again. “I’ll see you around.”
I never walked across the street again. I wanted to avoid waking Jerry’s mom, or interrupting what free time Jerry had. All of us kept our distance. And, for his part, Jerry kept to himself. He knew the sight of his mom’s chair, and what her body leaked onto it, was off-putting. Some of the neighbors had tried, right after his mom came home, to ask Jerry about her condition. Maybe it was out of respect for his mom’s privacy, or out of fear, or maybe he just got sick of us, but Jerry wanted us all to back off. His waves turned into stiff-armed instructions to stay away. He even stopped shopping at the Clintonville Wal-Mart. Tom McNeil said he’d seen Jerry at a Costco in Shawano, with a cart full of bleach and bed sheets.
“When he saw me he ducked down the beer aisle,” Tom said. “I guess he don’t want to talk.” Without Jerry none of us could know what went on in his house. But we speculated.
“His mom doesn’t wear pants anymore,” Tom said. “She sits in her chair with a sheet over her legs, but she hasn’t worn pants since she’s been home.” Someone else said that the whole house smelled “like piss and 409,” and that “Jerry ought to send his mom off to a home.” I thought Jerry was doing his damnedest to make a bad situation better. His mom was going to die. Jerry knew it, I knew it, and the rest of the town knew it. But Jerry, the toughest farm boy in Belle Plaine, wasn’t going to let the inevitable get in his way. If I could have sat in the boat with him, I would have told Jerry exactly that: that he was tougher, more sincere, and more patient than me. I would have told Jerry he was better than me.
But I didn’t tell Jerry that. I was afraid. We had all become terrified of Jerry, his house, and especially his mom and her wheelchair. For us, the presumptively healthy, Jerry’s mom’s chair was everything we didn’t want. It was cancer, old age, dependence. And, in some backwards way, we were afraid those things were contagious. Her wheelchair was death, and Jerry was out there, battling against it, trying to clean it, to keep it serviceable. So we kept away. We whispered to each other over beers or through screen doors, hoping somehow our conjectures might convey our sentiments to Jerry. But none of us spoke to him.
By July, Jerry was out there twice a day, in old tennis shoes and a hospital gown, with the chair flipped face down in the street. He doused it with Clorox, sprayed the underneath, around the outside, and then dried it off. The natural grace of Jerry’s movements was gone. He had been working against the chair, and against time, for months. But now he looked like it. There was an almost resentful hitch in his stride as he wheeled the chair back into the house.
“He’s got to be about sick of it by now,” Tom said. He and I were in the back yard, having beers over the fence.
“It’s hard, that’s for sure. But we’d all do the same thing for our moms,” I said. But would we? I wanted to believe it, but I couldn’t be sure. All I knew, all any of us knew, was that Jerry washed his mom’s wheelchair, and whatever else he washed, as often as he had to. He had cut himself off from us, and we, for our mixture of motives, had let him. All we could do for Jerry was hope his mother’s dying didn’t kill him too.
Jerry’s mom died right before Labor Day. After the funeral, Jerry went fishing. I wanted to go with him, to apologize, for all of us, for not trying harder. I wanted to tell him I cried for his mom. I wanted to tell Jerry Bilinksi he was my friend. But I didn’t. I watched his truck turn onto the service road and out of sight. When he came back, Jerry washed his boat with the same green chamois, the same garden hose, and the same pink towel. He did it every Saturday, until I moved back to Madison. Maybe he still does.