Billie of Fish House Lane

Billie of Fish House Lane by Meredith Sue Willis

Smart, sassy, and eleven years old, Billie Lee lives with her eccentric family in a home on Fish House Lane. Her dad is an African American artist who carves tree trunks into sculptures; her mom, who's white, sews African-style robes that she sells at the Boutique Afrique. Billie loves her parents, her two younger brothers, and her know-it-all best friend, Eutreece, and she feels completely at home in her swampy neighborhood under an elevated highway in New Jersey. Then Billie's white cousin, Celia, shows up and changes everything. A sleepover at Celia's fancy suburban home releases a flood of questions. How can Billie be Black but also White? How can she convince Eutreece that Billie hasn't betrayed their friendship? And, when these kids get thrown together at Fish House Lane's summer barbecue, how can Billie and her friends accept one another long enough to solve the mystery of a neighbor named Neighbor, who has hidden something strange—and maybe dangerous—down by the canal? The answers to these questions challenge Billie far more than she ever thought possible.

  • ISBN: 1-932727-02-7
  • Price: $11.95 (paper)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
Fish House Lane
We had the party for the girls' basketball team on the last day of school. We all wore our best shorts, and I had new summer sneakers. I’ll be a starter on the team next year even though I'm not the best shooter. My specialty is keeping on the move. Whatever I do, in basketball or life, I keep on the move. This is one way I am the opposite of my best friend Eutreece Robinson. Eutreece doesn't play sports. She reads and thinks about mysteries and tells other people what to do. I like to tell people what to do, too, but I like to do it on the move.
At first, because of tests and the sixth graders' class trip and graduation, it looked like there would be no basketball party, but we told Coach we had to have a party, so we did. We had an ice cream cake with icing basketballs and hoops. We cheered each other and the coach. We hugged the sixth graders good-bye, and we talked about how we’ll be even better next year. The sixth graders all promised to come back for all our games. Then we cried and hugged some more, and finally my little brother Trane and I left.
Trane was at the party because we have a rule in our family that no one walks out Fish House Lane alone. Our house is the last house in the City. It is so far out in the marshes that it's like you aren't in a city at all. Well, it’s not like the country either, because you can see overpasses, electrical towers, old warehouses, and a canal. But we like living there, especially since it’s our first house since my mother and dad got back together.
There are five in my family: me, Trane, Mom, Daddy, and Baby Parker. I don’t count Mama Mae, because she has her own house and just visits us a lot. She’s my Daddy’s mother, and we lived with her the terrible year when my family broke up. Mostly it was Daddy and Mom who broke up, but it felt like it broke all of us. I was a lot younger then.
My Daddy was a famous artist before he got sick. He and my mom lived in New York City, and I was born in New York, but not Trane and not Parker. My Mom used to sing with a guitar in clubs, but now she sews African robes, even though she's like the opposite of African. Daddy’s art was to carve up telephone poles and old logs. The legs of my bed are made out of his logs, each one with a different face. I named my four legs: the long dark face was Daddy; the big-eyed one was Trane; the round one was my mother; and the one that moves a little bit is Darling Billie. That's Daddy's nickname for me.
After Daddy got sick, Mom and Daddy put their priorities in order, and our family was reunited. Then we moved out here, and they celebrated by having Baby Parker. So you can see that things have gotten much, much better.
To get to our house by car, you have to drive around an abandoned factory building, but us kids have a short cut path that goes along the nasty oily canal through weeds that are higher than your head. We have to be careful when we go that way, because it's muddy, and also it goes near the house of a man named Neighbor who drinks alcohol and sets traps to catch rats. Neighbor's house is half on stilts in the canal, and he built it himself. He caught us spying on him once and made us sit on his porch while he made a speech about how we should never waste our time while we’re young, and his son was almost a professional baseball player but lost his chance and now works downtown in a comic books and collectibles store. There was more, but it got very confusing. We were polite and listened to him talk, and he ended by giving us his old rowboat. We keep it hidden on the canal near my house for spying, and even though we’re sort of friends with Neighbor now, we still spy on him when we feel like it.
Some people would probably say our house is even weirder than Neighbor's. Our house is painted two colors of blue: aqua and robin's egg. It sits at the very end of the road with marshes behind it and a highway bridge almost over top of it. But in spite of the bridge, it's private. We like the privacy, and also houses on Fish House Lane are very cheap.
Some people might also say my family with its two colors of parents is weird too. But they had better say Unique instead of Weird to my face. Even though I am an excellent student and a very polite young lady, I am also fierce, especially when I let my hair spread out behind me. Usually I tie my hair back or let Eutreece do it in Nubian braids, but when I'm fierce, it spreads out like wings on the wind. My hair is not an African sculpture like Eutreece's, and it isn't floppy, flat, and yellowish brown like my mother's. My hair is the exact same color of light brown as my eyes and my skin. My hair is almost impossible to comb, but I always comb it anyway, because you have to respect yourself, especially when your family is unique.
There is one other house on Fish House Lane besides ours and Neighbor's. That’s the Robinsons’. Another way we were lucky when we moved out here was because Fish House Lane had friends for everyone. Eutreece is my age, Martin is almost Trane's age, and there is even a tiny girl just a year older than Parker. They also have a grown sister who is a cosmetologist and a grown brother who is going to take the test to go to the police academy, plus Mr. and Mrs. Robinson and their really old relative that everyone calls Aunt Lucy.
Their house has a porch for each floor. Eutreece usually sits out on the top porch and reads. She wasn't there the day of the basketball party, but her father was out front cleaning a giant grill made out of a metal barrel. It was a surprise to see Mr. Robinson, because he usually sleeps in the day. All the grown up Robinsons except Aunt Lucy have jobs. Mr. Robinson has three different jobs, and Mrs. Robinson is a private duty nurse who lives with rich old people until they finish dying.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Robinson," Trane and I said.
"Hey, children," said Mr. Robinson. "I hope you got your appetites ready for the Robinson Family Fish Fry this Saturday. Ribs and barbeque and fried chicken!"
"Oh yes," I said. "We're looking forward to it."
Trane said, "Mr. Robinson, if it's a fish fry, aren’t you supposed to have fish?"
I was embarrassed that he asked, but I'd been wondering too.
Mr. Robinson shows his gold side teeth when he laughs. "That's what folks used to call it Down South," he said. "It's just a barbeque. You can cook what you want. We always did call it a fish fry."
"We're looking forward to it very much, Mr. Robinson," I said. "Is Eutreece in the house?"
"No, I think she went over your way." Then he added, "Listen, children, you bring all your friends you want to, and all your family to the Robinson Family Welcome-to-Summer Fish Fry, you hear? Everyone's invited. Be sure to bring your mother!"
The Robinsons try to be especially polite to my mother because she is White, and everyone else on Fish House Lane is Of Color. I am light tan, and Trane is mahogany, and Baby Parker is the color of caramel candy. Eutreece counts those as colors, but not white. I say, "Look here, Eutreece, if white wasn't a color, then you couldn't see my mother."
This is the kind of thing Eutreece and I can talk about for hours.
Actually, Eutreece likes my mother, maybe more than I do. My mother gets on my last nerve, especially when she cries for happiness or when she sings one of her sad folk ballad songs or when she stays in her nightgown all day while she sews African robes and she isn’t African.
We were about halfway down the road to our house when we saw Martin Robinson. He jumped up and down. "Billie!" he yelled. "Billie! Billie! Eutreece said! Eutreece said Billie! Billie! Your Mom said!"
He stayed where he was, hopping up and down and yelling. "Calm down, Martin," I said. "You're popping like a toaster."
Trane started to laugh. "Martin's toast! Burnt toast!"
Martin's face was getting ready to cry or fight, so I said, "Now Martin, tell me again. Slowly."
"Eutreece says, Billie, get your butt to Surveillance Place! And your Mom says, Get in the house!"
"Everybody is telling me what to do," I said. "Martin, is my mother in the front of the house or the back?"
"She's inside feeding the baby," he said.
That meant she'd be sitting down away from the windows trying to get Parker to fall asleep after he nursed. So I said, "Trane, you take my backpack, and you and Martin go to our house, but go real slow. Take your time and tell Mom I'll be there in a minute. Okay?"
They are pretty good, Trane and Martin. They can be a real pain when they're playing around, but you can depend on them if they know you are serious. Martin stopped hopping, and Trane stopped teasing, and I slipped around the back way. My dog Panther was tied up there, and I stopped and petted her and told her she was a good dog, which isn’t really true, behaviorwise, but I love her. Then I went past our vegetable garden into the swamp.
Eutreece and I built Surveillance Place ourselves. Eutreece said that if an old drunk crazy man like Neighbor could build an actual house by himself, then we could build a little lean-to. Trane and Martin carried stuff, but we built it. We use it to spy on the canal. It is in the shape of an A, like a tent made of two plywood sheets leaning together. There are more plywood sheets for the floor, and blankets for a door and walls. We have a nice plastic lounge chair where Eutreece sits and two partly broken chairs. The canal side has a window flap so you can spy on the deserted warehouse on the other side.
Eutreece was relaxing in the lounge chair with a bottle of cherry soda. She is the largest and smartest person I know of my age. She is as solid as if Daddy had carved her out of wood. Her eyes are a little slanted and her skin is satiny, and she never runs. If she has to speed up, she just sort of glides. I don't tell Eutreece, but sometimes I wish my mother was like her instead of pale and wobbly and emotional. I know that sounds stupid for a kid my age to wish another kid the same age was her mother, but Eutreece is very mature, and she always knows exactly what she thinks.
The thing about me and Eutreece is that even though we're different, from the first time we met, we have been able to look each other in the eye and know things that most people have to talk about. Even when we are mad at each other, we understand exactly why.
I could see from Eutreece's eyes that something was going on. I sat down in the plastic chair with a bent leg, and she handed me the bottle of lotion that we rub on to keep the mosquitoes away. She had my Daddy's expensive black binoculars around her neck.
I said, "What are you doing with Daddy's binoculars?"
"I told your mother I needed them."
Knowing Eutreece, she probably just knocked on the door and said please lend me the binoculars. For me to get those binoculars, Mom would make me wait for Daddy to wake up and then I’d have to have a long i with him about the proper care of lenses.
I said, "Well, you better not put your thumbs on the lenses."
She gave me a look that is supposed to make you go shaky inside, but I don't. That's another reason we're friends, because I'm not afraid of Eutreece.
"What?" I said. "What?"
"Billie," she said. "Billie, Billie, Billie," like I was this totally stupid little baby girl. "Just look over across the canal at the warehouse and tell me what you see."
"Let me have the binoculars,"
It took me a while to get them adjusted. I could see weeds, reeds, mud, our leaky rowboat, canal water, more mud and gravel, then the wall of the abandoned warehouse. I could feel mosquitoes and other bugs bouncing on my arms in spite of the lotion, and way in the distance I could hear cars passing over the highway bridge and an airplane taking off. "Nothing," I said. "I see nothing."
Eutreece really knows how to be annoying. She slows herself down to one quarter speed and says each word like it's in a plastic box. "Oh. . . yes. . . you. . . do."
I looked again. I let the binoculars fall onto my chest. "I'm going in the house. My mom wants me."
"Neighbor buried something."
"Beside that pile of metal next to the warehouse."
I looked again. I could see the wall of the warehouse, and I could see the stack of rusty barrels and engine parts leaned up against the wall. "I still don’t see anything."
"Then you don’t see good." I gave her a look now, but my looks aren't nearly as strong as hers. I get restless and give up staring. "Beside the pile of metal, there’s stirred up dirt." I looked again, andmaybe just maybe I could see a ruffle in the dirt. She said, "I was just doing a little surveillance, and here came Neighbor in his good row boat. He pulled it up on that side, and he got out. He had a small shovel and a Bargain Bob shopping bag. He dug a hole and buried the thing in the bag. It's written in my Observations notebook." She keeps all these notebooks she calls Notes and Observations. "He looked from side to side, and then he buried the thing, and then he got back in his rowboat. And we have to find out what it is."
I didn’t care very much—maybe because it was hot, and maybe because I was still thinking about basketball and being a sixth grader next year and the oldest in our whole school.
Eutreece said, "You don’t bury something unless you don’t want people to know what it is."
"Maybe he just wanted to put it in a safe place."
"Maybe," said Eutreece. "Either way, it’s a mystery, and we’re going to find out what’s going on."
Sometimes I think she reads too many books. But just then we heard feet on the boards and Trane shouting "Billie! Billie! You have to come, Billie!" He came right in the blanket door, with Martin behind him. "Billie, Mom says you have to come right now!"
"We'll do what we talked about right after you see your mom," said Eutreece.
"What?" said Trane. "What are you going to do?"
"Surveillance," said Eutreece.
"None of your business," I said, and I led the parade through the reeds along the boards. You'd think after school is out, you'd get a rest from people giving you orders.

Praise for Billie of Fish House Lane

Thoughtful books are not always entertaining, and entertaining books are not always thoughtful, but this book merges both into a joyful look at family, friendship, and race. . . . What an interesting way to frame [these issues]—placing the essence of racial conflict inside a single character allows Willis to explore these questions in a nuanced, non-pedantic way. Billy's voice is as fresh and interesting as her story. Children of all races will find both humor and understanding—as well as plenty to ponder—in Billy's open, enthusiastic approach to life. This book would be an excellent choice for book clubs and classroom discussions.

Barbara Carroll Roberts — The Critics Children's Literature

Biracial Billie Lee leads a harmonious life in a funky New Jersey neighborhood until her white cousin comes to town. There’s that, and a mysterious neighbor [who] alerts her inner detective. Billie Lee’s an appealing problem solver.

Claudia Ebeling — Bucknell World, Vol. 34 No. 4

Billie of Fish House Lane transcends the genre altogether, bringing to mind great books about children for adults such as This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolf and Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John. Recommended.

Adam Sexton — author of Master Class in Fiction Writing: Techniques from Austen, Hemingway, and Other Greats

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