Billings was born in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised in San Bernardino,
California, he has lived in Austin, Texas for the past 17 years. The
product of an illicit union between a Yankee schoolgirl and a drunken
French-Canadian piano tuner, he was raised by extroverted, door-slamming
Italian-Americans. He talks with his hands.
Taught by Jesuits,
Billings has struggled all of his life to reconcile his Catholic guilt,
his atheism and his own transgressive impulses. A lifelong painter
and musician, he is a relative newcomer to the world of creative writing.
His mentors include the novelist Megan Staffel and the writer Matthew
Goodman, editor for the Daily Forward.
South was first published in
Absinthe, a literary journal.
* * * * * * * * *
From Africa, from Cuba, and the
edge of the Antilles, the ocean churns forward, toward Texas. With
a roar, the Gulf of Mexico heaves itself against the soft, crumbling
shoulder of the coastline. From Corpus Christi to Baton Rouge, to
Panama City, the sea's contents tumble ashore. Deck hatches and rotten
redfish twist and eddy against grating rocks. The Portuguese man-of-war
broils in the noon sun, and the starfish nods to heavenly sisters.
If I were an astronaut orbiting
above, I might feel the urge to trace a finger along the gulf's inner
edge, where the Rio Grande ends in a shallow trickle. At night, lit
by a dull lunar glow, the dark emerald water and sifting sands bleed
together like the edge of a quarter moon. Along the coast, fickle
breezes flutter with promise, then disappear behind the sand dunes
like out-gunned Bedouins. Egrets hunch on rotted pilings, and the
stagnant resacas bubble with sulfites and snapping turtles. Johnson
grass clots the edges of the coastal landscape. In the late summer,
hurricanes rumble through the gulf and head straight inland, seeking
vengeance and release.
The approaching storm swallowed the
stars. I sat in front of my motel room in a folding lawn chair after
calling friends in the next town. They were safe enough, drinking
beers, watching the sky. Gusts of wind unfurled themselves, announcing
the arrival of the massive hurricane. My cat, Esperanza, paced the
floor and moaned softly, rigid with fear. I drank and waited. Fireflies
twinkled against the rustling mesquite, and the last crop-duster skulked
home with a low, bloated throb.
A hurricane owns the land it threatens.
It drifts closer, and we are caught in the sticky grip of its undisclosed
path. It doesn't matter what we name it because like a feral cat,
it won't respond if we call to it. Terrified families toss clothes
and birth certificates into open car trunks. Grim-faced men hammer
plywood against window sashes. Cops waggle flashlights at snaking
lines of outbound traffic. We draw the curtains closed, and light
candles. Stunned by the sudden change in our daily lives, we lose
control of the hour and the day.
Beyond our limited sight, the brujo
snuffs his incense and flits away to the mountain peak. The sacred
eagle hunkers in cool cave darkness. The flesh trade halts; pimps
in Cuidad Acuna shift their human cargo west to safety, a thick perfumed
parade of garter belts, fat thighs and hollow, blinking stares. With
a child flung across his straining back, the ranchero wades
the river, as if the storm might be less potent here or houses and
barns will not fly to pieces in the first wet blast. The Rio Grande
is no border, no protection, no guarantee; just a smudged pencil line
on a yellowed map.
"A huge Hurricane is headed
straight towards us."
"Really? It took you long enough to call. When are you coming
back to California?"
"I don't know."
"You belong here with me and the kids."
"I don't belong anywhere right now except where I am. Besides,
it's beautiful here. There are wildcats and ocelots. Down in Brownsville,
some of the old houses are built on stilts. Mexican women in bright
dresses sweep the porches. There are banana trees. It's like living
at the edge of a jungle, the edge of the world."
"I don't care; you should come back here. You're just running
away from us. Are you drunk?"
"No. Well, a little bit."
"The girls ask about you."
"Tell them I love them."
"Your friends keep calling, looking for you."
"I'll write to them sometime. I was in Mexico last night, in
Reynosa, in Boys' Town. There are very beautiful young whores there,
slender Indian woman from Yucatan. They're tiny, and they walk like
they're carrying jars of water on their heads. I drank with them,
and gave one of them my phone number."
"That place sounds like a hell hole. You'll disappear, and they'll
find your bones in the desert someday."
"I hope so. I had a dream about you; we were in bed."
"I never liked what you wanted me to do; I just did it for you."
"I don't know what I think. We should have had normal sex, and
lived a normal life."
"We're not normal people."
The hurricane began to scream overhead.
I sat on an old wooden chair on the lee side of a nightclub next to
my motel room, the safest building around. I sipped an enormous whiskey
sour out of a stainless steel blender jar. Rain slanted and howled
against every surface. Groaning with fury, the storm knotted itself
into a fist, and smashed doors, roofs and windows. The warm, sticky
air clung like wet Saran wrap. Water pounded the roof, flooded the
nearby cane fields, and overflowed the sewage plant until turds and
clotted paper filled the ditches.
"I went out to dinner last
week. I had fresh fish, and I thought about how much you like it."
"There's better fish here. Everything is better here. When are
you coming back to California?"
"I don't know."
A few miles away, on the western edge
of Hurricane Alley, the storm churned about its eye at 140 miles an
hour, heading straight for Brownsville. The ramshackle belongings
of Caribbean islands, kitchen chairs, lifeboats, doorknobs, and nightstands,
whirled against the walls of the hurricane, banging together like
the ice cubes in my drink. The storm ripped water from the shallow
gulf, then spat it over the fields and gullies.
"We've always been competitors."
"Yes. Haven't you realized that?"
"No, I think it's only you. Is that why you always hated my music?"
"No. I never liked the guys you played with or the music; and
you work in dives full of half-naked little sluts and Hell's Angels."
"I have to go where the work is."
"There's work out here; something else is wrong."
"I guess so. Yeah, a lot of things are wrong."
The bar manager grabbed me. A gunsmith
up the road needed help moving his hogs to high ground. We got into
a car and hissed along the highway, up to the door handles in rooster-tailed
water. The police had holed up somewhere, so we carried a .45 and
a baseball bat on the front seat because, here, men use hurricanes
to their advantage.
The boar hogs weighed nearly 800 pounds
apiece. Squealing like frightened girls, they hissed and snapped at
each other, fear so thick it glistened on their bristling backs. We
slithered up the muddy bank, terrified of their slashing hooves and
grinding teeth. We screamed at them, kicked them, and poked them uphill
with sticks until they were safe; a churning blur of boiling heat,
frightened men and shitting, hysterical hogs.
To the south, a thick ribbon of wind
and water rolled slowly toward us, whipped the cane fields flat, charging
us with a jolt of foreboding electricity. Snapping turtles twisted
and bobbed below the surface of the muddy creeks, hopeless eyes flickering
with silent terror.
"You haven't called in a while."
"I was in jail in Mexico."
"What did you do?"
"I got drunk in a whore house with a couple of buddies, and we
pissed in the street."
"For that, they put you in jail?"
"North Americans with money. Some guys we know found us and got
- - - - - -
The jail had a partial roof, and it was cold, nearly Christmas. I
could see constellations through the openings. Fat guards with pump
shotguns taunted us every hour. Shouting boys pushed tacos through
the bars, trying to make a little money. The Federal judge wore a
leather jacket, pearl-handled pistols, and aviator shades. He sentenced
us to thirty days in a Vera Cruz prison unless we came up with some
A couple of Mexicans gave us cigarettes,
and smiled at us. I curled up on the concrete floor and tried to sleep.
I had a dull hangover, and my pockets were empty. I was living low,
deep, hidden from my friends and family, so far away that they'd never
find me or disturb my unquenchable thirst for alcohol and solitude.
I was an easy day's sail from the Tropic of Capricorn, farther south
than the Florida Keys, hiding out at the bottom of the world, locked
up in a Mexican jail, surrounded by poor half-starved beggars and
a handful of vomit-coated drunks. I couldn't escape; I had come far
I remembered an Easter Sunday morning.
We stood next to a red climbing rose in full bloom. My wife wore a
long, pale blue dress, and she had some of the roses pinned in her
hair. The girls, shading their eyes from the morning light, wore shiny
white shoes and Easter dresses that flared out at the bottom like
church bells. I wanted to pick them up and ring them.
- - - - -
"That jail was something else, man. Are you still there?"
We drove back, hydroplaning along
the old military highway. Down the road, the release valve on a giant
propane tank blew loudly, venting its fury with a deep, pulsing whistle.
Wet darkness swallowed our headlights. A Mexican rushed across the
road and froze, eyeballs bulging with panic, then dashed into the
nearest cane field and was gone.
"We have to sell the house."
"So sell it; it belongs to you anyway; I signed my part over
to you. I'm in the middle of a hurricane, you know?"
"I know, but this is more important; we could still make some
"I don't want the house or the money."
"You're a shit."
"No, I'm a guitar player."
I could see her clearly now, sitting
on her haunches, bent over the phone, sucking greedily on a cigarette,
the first hint I had of wet, hard pleasures. Her liquid brown eyes,
the downward, unhappy curl of her sensuous, hungry mouth, and the
staccato ring of her angry monologues bubbled up in my stomach.
I was there now, floating above the
bed we shared, and I overflowed with anger, snared once again by the
seductions of her easy cruelty, her brittle ego and self-loathing.
Again, I relived the moment when I grabbed her hair, bound her wrists
with red velvet cords, and pushed her to her knees, forced her to
yield to my pounding, uncontrollable demands, and took her the only
way I could. I slapped her face, and her beautiful, quaking ass, and
rammed myself into her like a gloved rapist, sliding myself into her
wet, sucking mouth until she grunted and squealed with the dark greasy
pleasure of absolute surrender. I was half-erect now, shamed, pulled
toward her, repelled by my own empty heart. I loved her, hated her;
I didn't care at all.
Inside the nightclub, the voice of
the weatherman's voice crackled over the battery-powered ship-to-shore
radio. He predicted two-hundred mile-an-hour gusts, the destruction
of Matamoros, and total chaos along the entire coast. He told us we
might survive a storm like this, and he hoped we'd be among the living
when it was over. Like an evangelist in a hot lather, he begged for
God's mercy, and then abandoned the weather station. The hurricane
was a raging blur, about to sweep cars and houses from the coastline.
Then, it made landfall and stopped. It was over.
Like a storm dredges the bottom of
the gulf, and a falling barometer signals its arrival, memory scrapes
the bottom of the confused, tattered heart and responds to its own
falling pressure, a low, haunting emptiness which can be measured
in thick, black isobars of grief. As sure as any navigational chart
guides a ship through shoals and sandbars, the soul, too, hunts for
"Are you coming back here?
I could come and see you. This is ridiculous; you belong with us."
"I'm coming back there for a little while, then I'm going to
Houston to play in a band."
"You don't even like me anymore."
"I guess not."
"When you left, you took the bravest part of me with you."
"I left with a guitar and a stack of divorce papers. Go look
around; I didn't take anything that wasn't mine."
After the hurricane ended, I walked along the beach at dusk. Great
mounds of broken bedroom furniture and seaweed choked the waterline.
Scavengers rifled through the debris. At dusk, a mild breeze tossed
sand over every shape, softening the sharp outlines of piled wreckage.
Seagulls fluttered and screamed. The channel buoy's arc light swept
the glassy bay. Pink flamingos, trapped in the hurricane's swirl,
nosed east toward Mobile.
I kicked through piles of bladder
pod and wet newspaper, hoping to uncover a language of the past, searching
for sentences to explain the storm's rage; hunted for rusty wire and
old screws, anything I might use to reassemble a torn and sinking
world. I faced south toward the blurred dunes, as a lone crab skittled
across foamy tidal pools; ruler once again of the blank starless horizon.