They offered money for the interview finally, and Billy took it. Why the hell not, was what he said to Joe when Joe gave him that look. Why the hell not? Then Joe smiled and even after all these years, Billy didn't really understand why. He had never entirely understood that Joe smile.
"Thanks for agreeing to talk to me," the woman said as she set up her equipment in the kitchen of their apartment which was really the most comfortable place in the house, certainly the neatest. "
Billy was surprised that she still used a notepad and pen along and an old cassette recorder. None of that high tech crap journalists seemed to cart with them these days.
"Wasn't my idea," Joe replied. The reporter…her name was Lilith...gave Billy a look and Billy shrugged.
"Don't be; your magazine's paying us for this. What is it you want to know?"
"Well, you've had quite a colorful career; there are a lot of questions. You do know that there's been a resurgence of interest in Hard Core Logo?"
"Nostalgia is what turns old junk like us into antiques," Joe said with a wheezing little laugh that turned into his familiar hacking cough. Billy got up to get him a glass of water.
"You want your tank?" he asked and Joe gave him a foul look, which Billy understood completely.
"Tank?" Lilith asked.
"He has emphysema," Billy told her, earning a snarl from Joe. "He needs oxygen."
"I'm sorry." Yeah, she sounded sorry. Billy regretting saying anything that would be just more fodder for the Tired Old Farts article.
"And he's constipated," Joe told her once he'd stopped coughing. Billy laughed at Lilith's expression of delicate disgust. Well that wouldn't make it into the article.
She pushed on bravely. "I understand you were childhood friends."
"Childhood sweethearts," Joe said dryly. "You see what marriage has done to us."
Billy stepped in to take over the conversation, which was going to get out of hand if Joe was allowed to continue in this vein. "We've known each other since we were thirteen."
"Fifty-two blissful years."
"Shut up, Joe. He doesn't know when to stop," Billy told Lilith. "I can't introduce him to anyone nice." Flirting never hurt.
"To be honest, I did want to ask you two about the persistent rumors that you have always been a couple."
Her question dropped like a stone. Both men just stared at her. So much for flirting.
"I'm sorry, but you can't be unaware…"
"It's nobody's fucking business," Joe told her. He leaned back and started opening drawers in the kitchen counters.
"Of course we're aware of it," Billy said, watching Joe rummage. "How can we not be? But we've never addressed those rumors because we felt that our relationship… what the hell are you looking for, old man?"
"You're not supposed to smoke."
"Billy, get me my fucking cigarettes or I swear I'll walk down to the convenience store to get some."
Joe would make it to the lobby of their building before he had to sit down. All the same, Billy pulled a pack out of the freezer. "It's the one place he never goes," he explained as he threw the pack at Joe. "He's been trying to kill himself since we met. What was I saying?"
"About your feelings about the relationship?"
"Oh right." Billy sighed. "What we feel is important for people to understand is that we have been best friends since we were thirteen." He tried not to hear Joe snort or notice that Joe's hands were shaking so badly he couldn't light his cigarette, but finally Billy just grabbed Joe's hand and held it steady until Joe took his first successful drag.
"Thanks, Billiam," Joe said on a long exhalation of smoke, followed by another coughing jag. When it was over, Joe said, "Look, why does it make a difference to anyone else if we fuck each other or not?"
Lilith was clearly at a loss. "Fans want to know all about their idols," she told him.
"Very lame, honey; besides, nobody wants to know what a pair of geezers like us get up to in bed, do they?"
"How would you feel if someone asked you that question?" Billy added
"Moving on," Joe said loudly.
"What have you been doing since the group broke up after John Oxenberger's breakdown in 2002?"
"I did a lot of session work," Billy told her. "Probably did about two dozen albums since then."
"That many? I wasn't aware…"
"There's always work for someone as good as Billy," Joe said and Billy could hear the pride under that faint but constant tone of irony Joe had settled into over the years. He wondered if Lilith could hear.
"He flatters me."
"We miss John," Joe told her, veering away from the subject of Billy's session work so quickly that Billy nearly did a double-take. "It was a fucking shame what happened, but he was always on the edge. He had the meltdown in oh-two and we all agreed that it was time to quit."
"Were you surprised when he had the breakdown?"
Joe stared at her as if she'd just grown antennae. "I believe I just finished saying that he was always on the edge," he said, giving her one of those Joe-Monkey-Face expressions that made uptight people want to slap him. Lilith just bit her lip. "Of course we weren't fucking surprised. Pay attention."
She was saved from further abuse by another coughing fit, one so bad that Billy ran to get the oxygen tank. Joe gave him a filthy look but in the end he held the mask over his face and just breathed for a while, content to listen.
"John was always surprising us," Billy told Lilith, "But not with his mental problems. The miracle was that he managed to last as long as he did before he had to retire."
"And Pipe," Joe added between gulps of oxygen. "We both expected that moron to end up in pieces way before it actually happened."
"In his own way, Pipefitter was as much a loose canon as John," Billy explained.
"But with less reason." Joe paused. "He's still alive, isn't he?" Joe asked, a frown adding a few more creases to his forehead. Joe sometimes forgot things now. Not all the time, but occasionally.
"Yeah he is. He's a quad now."
"Poor bastard." Then Joe began to laugh. "You want to touch my stump?" he asked Billy and wheezed with laughter.
Billy chuckled in spite of himself. "Sorry. Private joke," he said to Lilith.
She turned to Joe. "Speaking of the reunion tour and rock casualties, I know a lot of your fans are still wondering about the Bucky Haight benefit concert and the story that you were the one who started all those rumors about him having been shot, losing his legs and dying in New York. Bucky said as much in his last interview."
"Of course he did; how could he tell the world the truth? Listen, Lilith, the only thing we were guilty of is not being upfront about where we originally heard the story. Bucky called me and actually told me he was just home from the hospital, that he'd lost both legs in a shooting, and that he didn't know what he was going to do because he couldn't work the farm and the bills were going to eat up most of his savings."
Lilith looked skeptical so Billy took up the thread of the story, following Joe's lead. "Joe told me about it and that the whole benefit concert thing was Bucky's idea, and I said, "Don't tell the fans it was Bucky who contacted you."" Billy explained.
Lilith looked surprised. "Why?"
"Don't you see? If the fans thought that Bucky had suggested a concert to raise money for himself, they might not have responded. But if it was someone else's idea…well you know what happened. You know that we raised a lot of money for Bucky."
Joe smiled in that old, charming way and Billy sensed one of those famous Joe Dick grace notes was about to be delivered. "I plead guilty to lying about his death, Lilith. You see he'd asked me to send him the money. In fact he insisted that he didn't want to bother me with delivering it in person, but he didn't realize that the concert brought the band back together. He couldn't have foreseen that we'd be passing his place on the way to one of our dates." Joe fell silent, studying the burning tip of his cigarette in that sad, thoughtful way he'd perfected when the band was young. Billy reached out and patted his arm.
"He doesn't like to talk about this," Billy told Lilith. "He worshiped Bucky. Even when he found out what Bucky had done to us, he took the blame. You saw that film Bruce made, you saw him say it was his idea."
"Yes, of course," Lilith agreed. "Which is why…"
"Which is why this whole thing got started, this whole rumor thing. The fact was that he knew the minute he saw Bucky that we'd been used."
"It's right that she should hear this, Joe. The man ripped into you in front of the fucking camera, blaming you for the whole fucking mess when it was him all the time!"
"Billy, cummon. Don't speak ill of the dead, man."
"No. Joe it's time to set the record straight! Bucky Haight used us; he used you because he knew he was your hero. When I think of how much he hurt you that day, taking the money and then telling you never to come back…" Billy let his voice break a little here, passing the ball back to Joe.
"Lilith, I told Bruce that the whole thing had been my idea because I just wanted him out of our faces, I needed time to think about what to do, what to say to Bucky. I really felt that we should give the money back, but to who? Bucky told me he needed the money for drugs," he confided. "You know what sort of habit he had; he talked about it on the film; two bills a day? He never really kicked it no matter what he said, and it killed him."
Lilith nodded. Billy guessed that she was about to buy the story, so he decided to wind it up with a little righteous indignation.
"Joe's only lie was to tell the world Bucky had died, Lilith. And for Joe, Bucky had died. You saw Joe's face in that film; you fucking saw his eyes. He was in pain, Lilith!"
"Hey, hey…Billy. It's okay. It's over a long time ago. I just feel sorry for Bucky now. His friendship once meant a lot to me and that's the way I want to remember him, as a friend."
Billy stole a glance at Lilith; there were tears in her eyes. Mission accomplished.
"I'm so sorry," she said quietly. She turned a page in her notebook. "Can we talk a bit about the other band members?"
"Sure. Oh, would you like a drink?" Billy asked. "Juice, water, tea, beer…I can fix you a martini."
"Water would be great, thanks. Now…getting back to John, I wondered if either of you had heard that he's writing a book about his years with the band."
"Is he?" Joe asked. "He was always writing something. Used to drive us nuts with that fucking writing. Like, what's this gonna be? Hard Core Logo in Oz?" He wheezed a little and winked at Billy who felt somewhat less than lighthearted. John knew too much about them.
"No, we hadn't heard, but we wish him luck with it," he managed.
"John's writing…man that guy had talent, but some of that stuff was so…crazy." Joe shook his head. The thing is that he could sound like the most rational human being on earth even while he was saying things that were way out in left field. I remember once he told me very seriously that he always knew who our enemies were because he could see the rays shooting out of their eyes."
"You never told me that," Billy said as he set a glass of water down in front of Lilith. He'd brought two beers to the table for himself and Joe, and opened both. "Did he really?"
"Yup. I can only imagine how crazy this is going to be."
"So how'd you manage to see any of them? I heard they were tied up in litigation."
"His girlfriend tried to sell them to my magazine which is how the lawsuits got started. I managed to read a few before they were withdrawn."
"I bet you learned a lot about the band…most of it probably…" Joe made a little gesture with his hand and looked at Billy.
"Most of it probably straight out of John's imagination," Billy finished.
"Some, certainly, but some seemed quite rational. For example, he wrote…" She consulted her notebook. "In 1991, he wrote: "Last night everyone's dreams came to an abrupt end over something I'm not sure we'll ever understand. Billy is leaving. He says Joe raped him last night and he can't trust himself to stay without killing Joe." I was wondering what you both had to say about that."
Billy felt something constrict inside his chest.
"Oh man, did he really write that?" Joe asked. "Poor John. I wonder what that was all about. Billy?"
"Well I never told him that," Billy snapped. "Jeezus!"
"I ask because the rest of the entries for this time seem quite rational and the known facts are all straight…"
"He was always good with the real details, Lilith. That's what made the crazy stuff seem less crazy."
"I mean, even if it was true, which it's not, why the hell would I tell John?" Billy asked. "I can't even imagine what provoked him to write something like that."
"It might…" Joe began, then stopped.
Joe shook his head.
"Don't be that way, Joe. What were you going to say?"
"It's just that sometimes, well, John seemed to want to blame everything that went wrong in the group on what he thought was happening between me and Billy," Joe said quietly. "I know he once told Ed Festus that the band was going to break up because I was getting married and Billy was jealous and had threatened to kill my girlfriend."
"You never told me that either."
"I didn't think it was worth repeating. John lived in this weird fantasy world, and I think he might have been jealous of the fact that Billy and I were such good friends. I sometimes think Pipe was, too. And while Pipefitter wasn't capable of that sort of craziness, I pretty much figure that he's said some lousy things about us since the breakup."
Lilith looked surprised. "As a matter of fact…"
Billy jumped in here. "Listen, I don't mean to be difficult, Lilith, but I don't want to have to discuss what either of them said about us. When you're in a band as close-knit as HCL, there's always going to be weird group dynamics. And Joe and I were best friends from age thirteen, so the other guys are always going to be at a disadvantage because of it. I'm sorry if twenty or thirty years down the road it's a problem for anyone, but it's a dead issue. The band is over with, and it's time for everyone to move on."
"John's dead, Pipe is…not what he used to be. Let's let it rest," Joe suggested.
"Would you comment on that Ed Festus quote about the two of you being a white trash couple?"
Both men laughed and Billy felt the tension in the room lift.
"Absolutely. Don't we look like one?" Joe asked, leaning in towards Billy. Privately Billy thought that was perhaps true of him, but age had treated Joe graciously at least on the outside. He was still a good, solid man, unbowed by his years, still clear of eye and with a full head of spiky, snow-white hair. Young Joe had been almost a little goofy-looking sometimes, but the Joe beside him was distinguished, even handsome.
"Nah," Joe said, answering his own question. "Not Billy. Billy is still beautiful." He turned and smiled at Billy, who felt that old, familiar rush of pleasure he always got when his lover looked into his eyes.
There were other questions, but nothing dangerous, nothing that caused Billy any anxiety. Lilith seemed to have accepted their word as truth, or at least, if she didn't, she wasn't saying so.
They talked for about an hour, and she turned off the recorder and thanked them. "You've cleared up a lot of nagging questions," she told them. "I appreciate you taking the time to do that."
"It was our pleasure," Joe told her. "I didn't want to do this, but I'm glad now we did. It was time to set the record straight."
"I'll see you out," Billy told her. He went downstairs with her, and at the door to their building he stopped and said, quite seriously, "Thanks for listening. I know some of the things you asked were rough for Joe, but it was good to clear the air. We both appreciate it."
"No, thank you," Lilith said. "It's always difficult to know what to believe. Thanks for being so candid."
They shook hands and Billy watched her walk out to the street before he turned, picked up their mail and went back upstairs. The kitchen was empty. He found Joe lying in bed.
"You all right?"
"No, I'm fine."
"No chest pain?"
"I said I was fine, Billy," Joe said with surprising patience. "You didn't tell her about my heart, did you?"
"Of course not." Billy lay down beside Joe and took his hand. "This wasn't too much for you was it?"
"Billy, I'm not made out of glass." Joe opened his eyes and gave Billy a let's-just-drop-it look. "We're still a good team."
"It wasn't so bad," Billy observed.
Joe was silent for a few minutes. Finally he replied, "Billy, we systematically destroyed the memory of people we loved to cover our mistakes. Not so bad? It felt like a train wreck. But we got through it. I hope it was worth it."
"You don't think so?"
"I didn't say that."
"What are you saying?"
There was a long silence and then Joe said quietly, "Maybe I just wish we hadn't had to do it. Maybe I wish we'd lived our lives a little more reasonably."
Billy rearranged the pillow and wrapped his arm around Joe's waist. "There was nothing reasonable about the way we felt about each other, Joe. Anyway, it's too late now."
Joe smiled a little. "They all thought I was the hard one."
Billy closed his eyes.