Probability Zero

We huddled in a patch of woods about a hundred yards from the cemetery. From where we crouched, we could see the police car’s searchlight and the sounds of the night watchman walking by the stonewall. The watchman’s flashlight was bobbing up, and then down, we could see the vapor from his breath in it’s light every time he stumbled on the stones. A sharp wind and blowing leaves were reminders that it was late October.

A half an hour ago, we had been stumbling through the cemetery searching for the grave of our friend Bill – “Zero.” He had died earlier that week in a totally avoidable, but very fatal car crash. This morning I had served as a pallbearer. Darryl, still on crutches from the accident, had walked alongside. We hadn’t met before but shared a bond in our friendship with Bill. After the service, we hatched a plan to honor our friend in a way we knew he would have appreciated: seed his grave with Marijuana seed.
Through the day, we combed the city, visiting each friend, asking for seeds gleaned from their nickel bags, and dimes. There were many friends, and it wasn’t hard to get a bag of seeds together. There was also a volunteer corps ready to move on the cemetery. But Darryl and I figured that a small commando operation was best.
By the time we had collected the seed and a few bottles of wine, it was late afternoon. We caught a city bus to within a few miles of the cemetery. The whole time we spent walking, sipping wine, and talking about road trips and experiences we’d had with Bill.
We didn’t find the fresh grave by sundown as we’d hoped. We stumbled into the freshly turned grave soil with a mutual shudder, a fast check of landmarks, and a shiver down our spines. We ceremoniously scattered the bag of seed over the earth. We had meant to pour a generous final drink on the grave, but by the time we arrived, all but a few sips were gone. We could hear Bill saying, “…like usual. You guys never save any for me.” We spilled those few sips on the head of the grave and started to say our goodbyes when we saw the flashlight from the caretaker’s house at the gate. Then we heard the wail of a police car heading into the cemetery. Having been friends of Bill, it wasn’t the first time we’d been fugitives. Darryl flung the bottle away, and a white folky with a guitar, and one tall skinny black guy on crutches, ran into the woods. We negotiated the wall, guitar, and crutches, and plunged into the woods. The lack of moonlight hindered our progress, but also made it easier to hide from searchers.

“Hey, Wes? Do you think we’ll be stuck here long? It’s damn cold!”
“Could be a while, Darryl; you got another bottle?”
“Nah, man. That was the last one.” After that, neither of us spoke for most of an hour caught in our own thoughts and shivers. I’d been road partners with Bill for years. Darryl had met Bill in Baltimore and had been with Bill on the awful trip to California. Their opting to take the southern route had resulted in a smooth journey through most of the south but had landed them in a Texas jail. In 1966 a big red-bearded folky and black guy hitching together through some very conservative small towns attracted notice. I had been in Maine, and very grateful I’d missed their little excursion. We both had shared many miles and times with Bill. I looked over at Darryl and asked him, “you know how he got to be called Zero?”
“No. But we’re not going anywhere for a while, so tell me.”

It was initially “probability zero.”
You never met Jen, his first wife. She really loved Bill, but she loved and respected her mother more. Her, how do they say it French? Maman? She was a French Canadian. Well, Maman hated the idea of her little girl being married to this folky with all that red hair. She especially hated his beard. The longer he grew it, the more she hated it. So the longer he grew it. One day she asked what the chances of his shaving it off were. He replied that the probability was zero. So I started calling Bill Probability Zero. Eventually, that just became Zero or Captain Zero. Maman just got madder when Jen dutifully told her about the new nickname, and it didn’t take long for her to find out who’d hung the tag on him. That made me very unpopular at that house too. Maman worked on Jen for most of a month until Jen left Bill, and went home to Maman.
Bill and Jen were a matched pair of opposites: where he was absurd, she was practical, where she was timid, he was bold. They really needed each other to be complete. Jen, however, was a dutiful daughter and informed Bill that she’d come back when he changed his ways: no more wild trips, folk music, and no more beard and long hair.
Bill’s response was a big road trip. We went to Philly, D.C., Baltimore, and then came back to Boston’s Beacon Hill. As soon as we had settled into our booth at the Harvard Garden’s Bill called Jen and told her he wanted to come and visit. Jen was silent on the other end, then said that if he wanted to come, he had to shave. Bill was silent for a few. Then he agreed to shave, and send the clippings to her mom as proof. In the background, you could hear Maman shouting that when she saw the hair, held it in her hands, then he could come, not a moment before.
Days passed as Bill mulled over shaving. Finally, we bought a case of Narragansett beer to ease the trauma, and he dutifully shaved. The next morning we walked to the post office with a parcel and sent them off to Jen’s Mom. Three days later, Bill got the go-ahead to visit. Being a pair of rovers, we planned a chaotic path westward. We meandered through towns in Central and Western Massachusetts we hadn’t visited yet, and generally had a frolicking detour of magnificent proportions. Bill wasn’t too eager to show up on Jen’s doorstep anytime too soon.
It was Friday when we arrived. It was too late to go over to Jen’s, So Bill and I camped in a woods about four miles away. We cooked canned beans over a fire and told stories.

In the morning, we showed up at Maman’s house. Bill rang the bell, and I stood to one side. Maman came to the door. Smiled, then did a double-take of Bill’s unshaven beard. Then she glanced towards his crotch, shrieked and fainted. There’s more, but you can fill it in for yourself, Darryl. That cemented the name and the fame.

About that time, we decided that it was safe to creep out of the woods towards the highway. Fifty years later, I appreciate Maman’s viewpoint better. I tremble at the thought of Billy and Wes showing up on my doorstep. But, and but is the critical word here, I still grin every time I think about that trip.

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