Over 800 people attended the funeral, according to the local
The cloudless day, lit by an early morning sun that cast soft shadows
among the mourners, was disturbed only by the gentle murmur of the
preacher’s voice and the distant hum of traffic racing past on Hwy 401.
Off-duty Durham Regional Police officers received an unexpected bonus that
morning, when they were called in to handle parking problems around the
cemetery and direct the seemingly endless flow of floral tributes.
“Black Billy” he’d called himself. He’d appeared in Pickering one
unremarkable day, just as suddenly as he’d departed this life. No fanfare
of trumpets, no grandiose announcements, no pre-fight publicity. He simply
showed up at Mulligan’s Bar one Sunday afternoon when the regulars were
discussing the merits of the Tyson/Doakes fight, and settled in the far
corner next to the miniscule stage, nursing a half-pint of beer. Mulligan’s
being the type of place it is, he wasn’t alone too long.
“Useta call me Black Billy,” he growled, lumbering to his feet. His
head ducked and dodged, body swayed, as he danced on his toes, shooting
lefts and rights at an imaginary opponent. His scarred face looked troubled
for a moment. “Coulda been the Champ. Didn’ get a chance. Said I don’ got
the killer instinct. I know I got it. Jus’ need a chance.” His audience
nodded appreciatively and exchanged understanding glances. Billy shuffled
to a stop and shook his big head as a huge grin split his battered face.
“No use cryin’ over spilt milk. That was a long time ago. Yeah man, a long
time ago. He extended a large paw and shook each person’s hand solemnly.
“Jus’ call me Black Billy,” he said, the infectious, innocent
grinencompassing the entire group, like a warming beam of sunlight after a
rain-storm. It was hard not to like him.
Before too long, someone who knew someone who had a friend, had
arranged a job for Billy, in the Marina at the foot of Liverpool Rd. A
small housetrailer – “It was just rusting away, sitting up at the cottage,”
according to the owner – was procured and installed in a corner, near the
parking lot. Billy spent a few days cleaning it up and airing it out, then
he moved his meagre belongings from his temporary home in the small motel
on Hwy #2. Pillows, blankets, drapes, cutlery and all of the things needed
to make a house a home were donated with quiet mutters of, “Here, Billy.
Maybe you can use this. Wife was gonna throw it out anyway, so you’re
welcome to it.”
He became a fixture in Pickering. If he’d lived in some quaint country
village, he’d have been known as “a character.” When he wasn’t scraping
hulls, or painting the underside of yachts in the marina, he could be seen,
trotting around in a jogging suit, surprisingly light on his feet, as most
big men are, his sneakers gently slap-slap-slapping the sidewalk in a
steady, unbroken rythym. Occasionally, he’d drop into Mulligan’s to nurse a
half- pint of beer, and despite repeated offers, was never seen to drink
more than one. “No, man. Gotta stay in shape,” he’d grin. “Too much o’ this
stuff slows the reflexes. Thanks anyway.” He was a quiet man, keeping
himself very much to himself, unless invited to join a group, which he
All attempts to extract information about his past life were met by
the same big grin, and the same stock answer. “Long time ago, man. Useta be
a fighter, long time ago…..” In a moment of weakness, he confided to
someone that he hailed from Nova Scotia, and that he had no living
Initially, the more cautious parents in the neighbourhood instructed
their offspring not to talk to Billy, but as time progressed he became a
familiar figure. And he’d happily interrupt one of his endless jogging
trips to help a flustered young mother trying to cope with two kids and
armfuls of groceries, or lend a hand with a pile of lumber destined to
become a garden shed. He became accepted by everyone.
He had a special affinity with little kids, though. They hung around
the marina, peering through the chainlink fence, watching Billy scrape
hulls, his huge, muscled body stripped to the waist in the summer sunshine,
the sweat beading, glistening and forming rivulets to soak his trackpants.
“You a boxer, Billy?”, some third-grader would squeak, initiating
the ritual that had been performed hundreds of times before.
“Yup! Useta be a fighter, long time ago.
“Could you beat up Mike Tyson?”
“Dunno. Sure woulda liked to try, though.” Then the infectious grin
would make its appearance. “You think he’s maybe afraid o’ me?”
“Yeah! I bet he is.”
“Well, he’s a pretty big guy…”
“Big as you, Billy?”
“Uhhhh…Guess not, but he’s fast.”
“Fast as you, Billy?”
“Yeah. Maybe faster.”
“You could beat him, though,” the eight-year-old expert would
proclaim. “You’re strong.”
“Maybe. Too old now, though.”
“How old are you, Billy?”
” ‘Bout forty-two, I think.”
“I’ll be nine, next week!”
“Well… You don’ say. You sure are big, for nine. But your Momma’s
gonna be wonderin’ where you are. Maybe she won’ buy you any
presents if you don’ hurry home for lunch.”
“OK. But I brought something for you.”
“Something for me? Well! Maybe it’s MY birthday today,” he’d
Sometimes it was a child’s painting, still damp from the excess of
watercolours used. Sometimes a treasured marble, a baseball card, or a
stick of gum, the wrapper sticky from being clutched too long on a warm
day. But Billy accepted any gift with feigned delight. Each painting would
be scrutinized closely, its artistic merits questioned and explained, and
the budding Picasso would head home, secure in the knowledge that at least
two people in the world understood art. Marbles and other childhood
artifacts were accepted by Billy only under the solemn understanding that
he would look after them until the rightful owner required their use again.
One Friday around dinner time, Billy finished work for the day, had a
quick wash and changed into a fresh jogging suit. He set off on the path
along the beach, swapping “Hiya’s” with just about everyone he passed, his
smile flashing on and off as regularly as Christmas tree lights. Someone
noticed that the time was 5:18 pm. Continuing along the beach, Billy swung
left into the Hydro Park and followed the gravel path, his sneakers making
a satisfying scrunch-scrunch as he picked the pace up a little. He
travelled the meandering walkway, and slowed to call a warning to two kids
who were playing a little close to the slippery edge of the lake. Moving
uphill now, he forced himself to a quick sprint, for the sheer joy of it,
before reaching the high plateau which afforded a panoramic view of the bay
below. The downhill portion was easier now and once through the park gates
and out on to Sandy Beach Rd, the going levelled out.
He followed his usual course and was approaching the small strip plaza
when he recalled that he needed some vitamin pills. Only two left in the
bottle, this morning. Turning into the plaza, he began to slow down, coming
to a stop in front of the pharmacy. Old Manny, the owner, always offered to
armwrestle for the cost of the pills. Billy’s face split into a
good-natured grin as he mopped his forehead with the waistband of his top.
Manny was five foot three and weighed 120 pounds, tops.
He opened the door and stepped into the welcome chill of the air
conditioning, noticing that Janice, Manny’s cashier, was not in her usual
position at the cash register. “Yo! Manny? You takin’ a nap, back here?”,
he called as he made his way to the rear counter where Manny could usually
be found, peering over the top of his bi-focals, tie askew and silvery hair
puffed up like a mad professor. “Hey! Manny? Janice? Is everything free,
today?” His questions were cut short as a ski-masked face shot up from
behind a display rack. “Shut up, mouthpiece. Get over here. Fast!” The gun
held in the robber’s fist indicated that he meant business. Billy slowly
raised his hands and moved in the direction indicated. As he drew close to
the display rack, he saw Manny sitting awkwardly on the floor, one hand
pushed back to take his weight, the other clutching a blood- stained
handkerchief to his head. Janice, her long, blonde hair obscuring her face,
was bent forward, fiercely hugging two young children to her, as if by
holding them she could shut the horror from their minds. “Billy,” gasped
Manny, “Do as he says. He’s threatening to shoot everyone.” “Shurrup old
man,” snarled the ski-mask, “Or I’ll blow you away first. You wanna die?
Huh?” His voice rose to a shriek. “Easy, man. Take it easy,” said
Billy.”They ain’t gonna hurt you. What you want?” Ski-mask blinked rapidly
a few times then turned towards Billy. “I told him, man. I want the heavy
stuff. Valium. Percodan. Uppers, downers. Everything. And the cash, too.
He’s stupid,” he added, pointing in Manny’s direction. “Billy, I’ve told
him,” Manny groaned.”I don’t get a lot of call for that stuff, so I only
carry small quantities. He’s got all I have, but he won’t listen.
He….I….He hit me with the gun,” Manny’s voice trembled as he gestured
with the handkerchief. “Enough talking,” snapped the gunman. He reached
over towards Janice, and before she could react, he grabbed the little girl
and pulled her towards him. “Billy,” the child’s voice rose to a terrified
wail.”I want my Mommy.” Billy knew her only as Karen. Just two days before,
she’d passed a bunch of dandelions to him through the marina fence. “It’s
okay, honey. Mommy’s gonna be here in a minute. Don’t be….” “Hey!”,
screamed the ski-mask. “Is anybody listening to me? You got five seconds,
you hear me? Five seconds to deliver, or the brat gets it.” He aimed the
pistol at the struggling child’s head. “Five…..four…” “Billy! I want my
Mommy. Please…..” “Three……two…..” Billy began his shuffling dance,
head bobbing and weaving, the familiar incatation rolling easily from his
lips… “Useta be a fighter. Coulda been the Champ. Didn’ getta…”. He
moved smoothly, on the balls of his feet, throwing jabs and hooks at his
phantom opponent, body swaying, ducking and dodging. He blocked imaginary
counterpunches with his forearms,, his own blows punctuated by sharp hisses
of expelled breath as he moved constantly. Circling, always circling. “Hey.
What’s that freak doing?”, yelled the gunman to no-one in particular. “Tell
him to quit!” “…..Coulda been the Champ…” “I said quit it! You want me
to off the kid? Huh?” Billy circled closer. Ski-mask was like a rabbit
hypnotised by a snake. He couldn’t remove his eyes from the big man. “Is he
crazy? I gotta gun!” “Didn’ getta chance….Know I got it….Jus’
needa….” Ski-mask removed the gun from the child’s head and aimed at
Billy as he moved dangerously close. Too late,the robber realized his
error.Before he could return the gun to its former position, Billy lunged.
Karen fell to one side, unheeded for the moment. There was a flat crack and
Billy staggered, but kept coming. His left jab was slightly off-target as
he was off balance, but the looping right hook caught the gunman solidly in
the ribs, just as the gun spat for a second time, before flipping
end-over-end to land in the chest freezer. Billy grunted heavily, but
another right to the midsection of the gunman folded him up like an
accordion, and the crushing left, landed flush on the point of his chin
with a sound like a two-by-four slapping wet cement. The robber flew
backwards, his feet lifted from the floor by the force of the blow, and
crashed into a shelving unit before falling motionless.
Manny, stunned by the speed of events, gawped at the
unconscious gunman for a few seconds. Then seeing Billy clutch at his chest
and sink slowly to a sitting position, he scrambled towards the big man.
“Billy, you crazy son of….are you alright? Janice! Get some surgical
dressings. Hurry! Call an ambulance – and the police too!”, he added as an
afterthought. The front door opened, and in walked a harassed looking young
woman.”Janice, did Robbie and Karen get their….Good God! What’s
happened?” “Mommy! Mommy!”, cried the kids, abandoning Janice and rushing
to their mother’s outstretched arms. “Janice! Get those dressings. Now!
Hurry up!”, Manny almost shouted. “Billy?….. Billy?” The big man toppled
over onto his side, and Manny scurried around to cradle the fighter’s head
in his lap. “Can you hear me, Billy?” The eyes opened. “Sure, I hear you.”
His voice was slurred and he frowned slightly, then his eyes lit up. “Hey,
Manny? Didya see the combination I threw?…. Two rights set ‘im up, then
the left…… Hurt me bad twice, but I didn’ quit…..Knew I got the
killer instinct…Y’saw that Manny, huh? Y’saw my killer instinct, didn’
ya?” His voice tailed off for a few seconds. “Didn’ getta chance…Was
gonna give you…chance, today…. Armwrestle for vitamins….Wanna
try?…” A faint grin appeared and a huge paw rose slowly, unsteadily, then
dropped back to the floor.
At 5:31 pm, the police arrived with drawn guns. They found Manny still
cradling Billy’s head, tears trickling unashamedly down his cheeks as he
crooned softly to the fallen fighter, “….You could’ve been the Champ,
Billy. You would’ve been a great Champ…”
Over eight hundred people attended the funeral, by the local