His mother always called him “Buddy.” So did those who loved him of which there were many. But he had in fact been born with the rather formal name of Charles Percival Imes. Perhaps his parents hoped he’d achieve great things. Maybe even become a politician.
Buddy Imes had entered the world in the small town of Stockholm, Wisconsin, and until the last few days of his life it would be all he ever saw of the outside world. Not that he wanted it that way. As a boy he collected lots of travel magazines of exotic places and religiously viewed the Disney TV show, loving it when Walt talked about Adventureland and screened footage of beautiful places Buddy dreamed that he’d venture to one day. But that one day never came because Life got in the way.
Buddy’s parents had witnessed the dust bowl depression as children and it’d ingrained in them both a fear of experiencing such poverty ever again. They also did what most parents did, and that was to pass their fears onto their children. Expertly influencing Buddy not to take risks with his life but to play it safe. As a result, Buddy showed no scholarly prowess and was content enough to just scrape through with grades that gave him a pass in the lower middle realms of his classes.
“Don’t stick your neck out, Buddy, it doesn’t pay” was the chant of his boyhood and teenage years.
Buddy sometimes bridled at these reins and thought about how even the name of his small town, Stockholm, wasn’t original. “Someone certainly didn’t stick his neck out coming up with that name!” he’d joke. But his parents didn’t see the humour in that.
“Play it safe, Buddy, play it safe.”
And so he did.
He left school early and got a job at Mr. Williams’ local grocery store, the most popular in town and, some years later when Mr. and Mrs. Williams decided to retire, Buddy was offered the chance to buy the business at a “friendly” price.
After getting together all his savings as well as a contribution from his parents, Buddy went to the bank in his Sunday suit to see the manager, Bill Giles, who happily loaned the responsible and well liked young man the balance.
A few years later, at the appropriate time in his manhood, Buddy got married to a local girl everyone approved of. Heidi Sims was quite a beauty and came from a respected Stockholm family. Many told Buddy he was punching above his weight and how lucky he was being joined to such a prize.
Buddy and Heidi didn’t have much in common other than pleasing their respective parents, as well as everyone else in town who thought they were an ideal couple. And that is how they set forth on their journey together as husband and wife.
Buddy’s friendly demeanour and a smile for everyone made the store even more popular with the locals, and his soft heart always gave credit to people he knew were struggling. Even if it meant that he and his wife were denied the gravy of the store’s profits most months.
“You’re a store owner, Buddy, not a saint! Saints are martyrs who die with nothing, get it?!” cried Heidi, time and time again in her frustration.
Buddy always floundered when it came to the tedious chores like doing the weekly bookwork and accounts. This is where Heidi proved a most appreciated asset as she was excellent with figures and had topped her class year after year in every subject at high school. They were probably never closer than during this period where they both relied on each other’s talents. After awhile Buddy, always a slow learner, finally got the knack of the bookwork and was able to run the store solo, while Heidi worked on decorating their house and turning it into a home. When Buddy and Heidi sat down to a late dinner each night they’d fill each other in on their respective days. But after a year or two the conversations became almost identical until they stopped altogether.
Over the next few years they added two children to their flock and the evenings were no longer as lonely.
Years went by, some fast, mostly slow, and Buddy worked himself till he looked older than his age trying to pay off the mortgage on their small but impressive family home.
During slow times at the store Buddy would daydream about taking his family to California to visit Disneyland. He’d remembered being a wide-eyed boy and watching the live TV transmission of Disneyland’s grand opening and Walt Disney looking directly into the camera and inviting everyone to come along and experience the “happiest kingdom of them all.”
Buddy promised his wife and children that when they had a bumper year at the store, and those he’d extended credit to had caught up with their payments, they’d all set off to California and spend at least a few days enjoying the happiness that Mr. Disney had promised.
But one year ran into another and then ran away with Buddy’s prime. His children grew old enough to no longer believe in the magic of fairytales, or their father’s promises, and left the confines of Stockholm, Wisconsin, in search of bigger lives. His son, Jacob, laughed in Buddy’s face as though he were a pathetic old fool when his father desperately tried to entice him to stay by offering him his beloved store to run.
Not long after, Buddy’s wife left too to join her children in Chicago, causing a scandal in the small town, but the kindly store owner never gave it wings by talking about it.
Twenty years later he still found it too painful to even think about. Was he such a failure as a human being that everyone he’d loved the most had to desert him? This thought gnawed at him until the light went out of his eyes to be replaced by tears.
He found the nights very lonely. He’d finally paid off the house and now had no one to share it with. Only the voices from the past.
And some of those voices were hurtful…
“You’re a store owner, Buddy, not a saint! Saints are martyrs who die with nothing, get it?!” screamed Heidi.
“Why would I want to become like you? You’re just a loser who runs a small town store! You’re an embarrassment to me, and that’s the truth!” screamed his son, breaking the peace of the night with his tone, as well as his father’s heart.
“Daddy, you’re not the most loved man in town. You’re a joke. People just use you and you’re too stupid to see it!” hissed his daughter, empowered by the knowledge that her mother agreed with her.
These voices usually yelled at him when he tried to lose himself in sleep.
Sometimes during dinner he talked to his wife as if she was still in the kitchen or on the porch. He’d beg her forgiveness on wasting her beauty, youth and intelligence on him. She could’ve had any man in town but had chosen him. Buddy felt guilty that he’d let down his family and, in doing so, had lost them.
Other times he got angry at their lack of loyalty to him. After all, hadn’t he wearied himself old before his time in his loyalty to them?
It was enough to rock your faith in things. Buddy couldn’t help but wonder why God tested us again and again. Some he tempted with riches, and others with disappointments. But Buddy Imes, always a slow learner, steadfastly held onto his faith. In many ways, it was all he had left.
His parents, Joe and Kathleen, were dead now. He was all alone in the world and sometimes the thought not having anyone to turn to, or talk to, really talk to, filled him with anxiety. His father had died suddenly from a heart attack, but his mother, a few years later, had lingered in a shabby and cold hospital ward for months. This triggered Buddy’s profound dislike and fear of the antiseptic smell of hospitals. The scent of dying.
He sometimes sat in his darkened living room at night thinking about the last time he’d seen his mother. Looking back, he thought that she may have been the only person who ever truly believed in him. He remembered the last time he saw her. He’d walked into her hospital ward and her eyes had lit up with pride as she announced to the nurses and other patients, “Here comes my son, the most loved man in town.”
Buddy had been so loved by the townsfolk that he’d been asked to run for Mayor, but secretly declined, thinking that he wasn’t academically qualified to take on such a responsibility. And knowing politics, he knew that no matter what you did, you’d wind up disappointing half the people, regardless of how well your intentions were. And he was not quite sure his capacity for guilt could stand letting any more people down.
When Buddy hit 70, things started going wrong health-wise. He’d noticed his eyesight dimming, at first subtly, then dramatically. So much so that it was necessary to hire a young man, Jerry, to do all the main things around the store. Buddy would still spend his day sitting behind the counter chatting to his customers and smiling. That golden smile that brightened the life of the locals but hid a sad, lonely and somewhat broken old man.
Buddy got word that his son had been married in Chicago to an heiress and it’d made all the society pages. The old man was numb with disappointment that not only hadn’t he been invited, but wasn’t even pre-notified. But thinking about it, he understood. No doubt his son was afraid that his small town unworldly father would embarrass him in front of his sophisticated big city friends.
It was shortly after that Buddy lost all sight. His condition baffled several doctors as there seemed no likely cause for it. One young doctor floated the theory that perhaps it was psychological. That Buddy simply had seen too much and didn’t want to see any more. This psycho-babble mumbo jumbo was scoffed at by the elder doctors. Why would Buddy Imes do such a thing? Perhaps if one was dealing with a deeply depressed and despairing old man it could be considered, but everyone knew Buddy was the happiest man in town. He was always smiling.
Buddy came to rely on young Jerry very much. His loyal and hard working assistant would pick him up in the morning in his car, and drop him off at his house every night after stopping to get some take-out food for the old man’s dinner. Jerry didn’t mind. He felt honoured to be looking after the town’s most treasured citizen. He also listened and learned from his boss and hung on every word of wisdom in the morality stories he loved to tell.
Jerry had never known a father. He was born out of wedlock, the result of a one night stand between his mother and a traveling musician. His real father most likely didn’t even know of his existence. And his mother never ever told the young boy his daddy’s name.
One day Mr. Imes, sensing that the young man seemed forlorn, told him, “Some people have family, others find them along the way,” and gave Jerry a tearful smile.
The old man’s hurt became Jerry’s hurt. Such was the loyalty of this young man to his kindly boss. In fact, when a new style whiz bang supermarket opened across the road from the small grocery store, Mr. Imes lost quite a few of his regular customers to the conglomerate. Including many who still owed the old man money. Jerry knew this betrayal hurt Buddy deeply although he never said a word or acknowledged it in any way.
One day, unbeknownst to Mr. Imes, Jerry stood outside the supermarket during his lunch break and berated the Judas customers who had deserted his boss for the saving of a few bucks.
“At least Judas got 30 pieces of silver! You people are scumbags! Shame on you!”
One morning, Buddy asked Jerry to take him to the bank. The young man dutifully did so and his boss withdrew a considerable amount of money.
Afterwards, on the way back to open the store, Buddy also requested that Jerry phone Ed, a loyal customer and the town’s best lawyer, and ask him to call into Buddy’s home after he’d finished his office duties for the day.
That night, Buddy instructed Ed to draw up a will and bequeath the grocery store to young Jerry.
“But don’t you have family, Buddy?”
“Nope. They left me to worship a false god called Money. That’s all they’re interested in, so leave ’em what’s left in my bank account and what’s in my pockets when I drop down dead. They won’t be interested in a nickel and dime store. It’d be too much like hard work. But if they do fight Jerry for it, give this to some of the wayward boys in town to burn it to the ground one night. And give Jerry wants left of this.” And with that, put a large stack of hundred dollar bills on the table and pushed it towards Ed.
Ed did as Buddy requested, returning the next night to get the old man’s signature on the appropriate documents.
The next morning, when Jerry came to pick up Mr. Imes, his boss appeared all freshly scrubbed and cologned in his Sunday best suit and instructed Jerry that the store would again be opening late today.
“Why is that, Mr. Imes?”
“Because I need you to drive me to the bus depot in Milwaukee, Jerry.”
“Where you going, Mr. Imes?”
“California. I made a promise to the boy inside me many years ago to treat him to a trip to Disneyland. And something tells me it’s time.”
A few nights before, Buddy had experienced what he thought was a mild heart attack, and it had left him with a partially numb arm and the occasional dizzy spell if he stood up too suddenly. There was also sweating and sharp chest pains. He knew what was coming and that it wouldn’t be long. He thanked God for giving him some warning, something his father had not received, for it seemed the higher power had granted Buddy enough time to complete what he needed to do in this life.
“But Mr. Imes, how are you going to cope on your own trying to get off a bus and navigate your way to the right train to California?”
“God will guide me, son.”
Jerry fought back the tears at being referred to as “son.”
“No Mr. Imes, not on my watch. We’re closing the store for a few days and I’m driving you there and back.”
Buddy smiled. “I always wanted to take my…well…someone special, to Disneyland. Let’s do it, Jerry. While we’re still brave enough, and before our logical minds come up with a hundred reasons not to.”
And so, they set off, two for the road. Jerry driving while Buddy recalled incidents from his life peppered with pearls of wisdom intended to help the young man beside him save years of his life and not squander them as Buddy felt he had done.
Intermittently the old man would drift off to sleep. Sometimes he’d awaken with a groan and start rubbing his arm or chest, and then drift off again. One time, this pain became so intense that Jerry suggested they stop at a hospital and have it checked out. But Buddy reacted badly to this.
“I said I wanted to go to Disneyland not to a hospital!”
Jerry reluctantly continued the pilgrimage, distressed to see his kindly mentor in such a bad way.
Day turned to night then to day again, but all Buddy saw was darkness lit by a faint, far off dream. Jerry noticed him occasionally smile to himself as if visualising his destination. Perhaps in his mind he was already there, in the happiest kingdom of them all.
Having reached California, Jerry, exhausted, pulled to the side of the road and took a much needed nap. Four hours later he woke with a start. Night had fallen. He immediately looked to Buddy to see how he was. The old man’s breathing was swallow and quick, his complexion grey and tiny bubbles of perspiration all over his face. Jerry’s first instinct was to defy his boss’ order and drive him to the nearest hospital. But he rememberered Mr. Imes’ adamant words, “…I want to go to Disneyland not to a hospital!”
Now a new panic set in. Jerry checked his watch and wasn’t sure they could reach their destination before closing time. He started up the engine and took off, pushing his foot down on the accelerator. He remembered thinking if God was truly on their side they’d make it.
Buddy opened his eyes, from one darkness to another, and asked, “Are we there yet?”
Jerry smiled at his dear employer, and now friend, whose voice was as excited as a child.
“Not long now, Mr. Imes. I’ll wake you when we’re there.”
“Call me, Buddy.” The old man closed his eyes and drifted off again, back into that dream world where things work out and wishes come true. Jerry thought to himself that perhaps that was the true essence of Disneyland’s magic – it reduces those who believe, back to being child. Back to a time when things were simple and people did the right thing by others. Back to a place where your heroes rose to the occasion and saved the world every night before bedtime.
For these two men travelling through the darkness, their way lit only by the throw of their headlights, that place was their much needed destination.
Some hours later, after a few wrong exits, Jerry finally found the right turn-off in Anaheim and the road that leads to Disneyland.
In Jerry’s mind, in that world where things always go according to plan, his idea was to reach Disneyland in time, take Mr. Imes inside and perhaps catch the closing parade, and then, whether the old man liked it or not, get him to a hospital as quickly as possible. And in that hospital they would treat Mr. Imes, get him well, and they’d return to their small town of Stockholm, Wisconsin, and their grocery store where they knew the names of all of their customers, and life would go on. But unbeknownst to Jerry, he had already entered the land of dreams.
But back in the harsh world of reality, Jerry pulled into the Disneyland parking lot at 12.13am. And although he could see the lights of the magic kingdom, the gates were closed, and the business of show was over for the day.
Jerry was despairing in his grief, as he looked at the dozing Mr. Imes. How could he wake him with such disappointing news? He felt responsible for letting the old man down. In desperation he started the car and drove around the empty streets of Anaheim in search of an idea. A miracle. Something.
To himself he whispered, “Please God, do something.” A few minutes later he turned towards the light of a main road.
Inside the Ambrosia Cafe, Beryl was getting ready to end her shift that night. This greasy spoon diner had two lone diners sitting in separate booths lingering over their meals. Two mature lonely men with nowhere to go. Their faces were etched with lines that told you their journey in life hadn’t been a walk in the park. Beryl then looked at the kitchen guys who were cleaning and locking things away at a pace that gave you the impression that they had somewhere to go. Readying their escape from one prison cell to another.
Like the shabby walls of the Ambrosia, they’d all seen better days. Beryl wondered if all the Disney cut-out characters that clumsily adorned the walls had merely been put there to cover the cracks, damp spots and flaking paint job.
The dark wood booths also told stories of a lost world. Once, excited teenagers had sat there drinking their sodas and telling beautiful lies to each other while the jukebox boomed three chord masterpieces about girls and cars. But three shots in Dallas ended all that. They didn’t just kill a president that day, but also the sweet naive era of hope. Now the booths were occupied by solitary old men who kept to themselves as they slowly sipped coffee and stared into infinity, not really seeing anything, nor wanting to. Strangers didn’t really talk to other strangers any more. It could be dangerous. It was dark outside. And sometimes that darkness penetrated within.
At 12.38am this twilight zone of a bygone era was disturbed when Jerry entered and became the focal point for the inhabitants of this dusty museum. The young man, without uttering a word, charged the air with all the internal desperation and anxiety he contained.
Beryl, going through the robotic motions of a long-time waitress, reached for a menu, and asked, with a standard smile, “Counter or booth?”
Jerry didn’t even hear her.
“Look, I have a very ill blind man in my car. We have travelled many miles to visit Disneyland and we arrived too late. It’s been his lifelong dream to be here and I don’t have the heart to tell him. Please? I’ll give ten bucks to anyone who plays along with what I say.” Then, as abruptly as he’d entered, Jerry left.
Beryl had experienced all sorts in this eating house, but this promised something new. She turned to exchange a bewildered look with the solitary booth dwellers and the dissppointed kitchen guys who thought they were done for the day.
A few minutes later, Jerry reappeared holding the arm of a smiling Buddy Imes, carefully guiding him as though he was the most precious commodity in the world.
Then speaking at a volume all could hear, he exclaimed, “Well here we are, Mr. Imes. Disneyland! Well, the Disneyland Diner. I hear that sometimes some of the Disney characters hang out here.” With that, Jerry shot Beryl a look of desperate urgency.
“Welcome Mr. Imes to Disneyland. We’ve waited a long time to see you here. What kept you?” said Beryl doing her best to capture all the sweetness and light of a Disney creation.
“Oh, you know. Things just got in the way. Please call me Buddy. And to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
Jerry and Beryl exchanged a look that said many things. Then Beryl looked back at the excited old man whose childlike happiness was enough to make you weep. Perhaps, Beryl thought, hope had returned to the Ambrosia Cafe.
“I’m Cinderella, Buddy. But you can call me…Cindy.”
“Did you hear that, Jerry?! You sure brought me to the right place! Cindy, I am so honoured to meet you.”
Just then, another voice cut through the air and surprised everyone, “Hey Buddy, do you recognise my voice?”
Buddy turned his head to the direction of the voice, and with a mixture of awe and hesitancy asked, “Mickey?…Is that you?”
Beryl looked at the lonely old man in Booth 3. But he no longer looked lonely or old. He too had returned to childhood and his impersonation of a mouse that he’d once regaled his young pals with a lifetime ago.
“Yep, Buddy, you got me in one!”
Tears of joy appeared in Buddy’s eyes. Those eyes that had given up on the magic in this world.
“Mickey, I…I can’t tell you what this means and I…”
But another familiar voice cut through the moment…”Oh don’t talk to him, Buddy. He’s no fun. I’m the one who likes to have fun!”
Buddy then looked in the opposite direction, and in his mind he didn’t see Pancho, the kitchen hand, but instead, another of his childhood heroes, “Oh, is that that rascally duck that always gets in trouble? Donald, is that you?”
“Yes, Buddy. It’s me.”
The Ambrosia Cafe closed early that night. But inside a big table had been put together and for anyone looking through the window that night they would’ve thought it was a private gathering of the dearest friends, all laughing, amusing each other with stories and songs. But, from the outside, one wouldn’t have realised the exalted company seated each side of Mr. Buddy Imes and Jerry Fulton of Stockholm, Wisconsin. For at that table, that night, in that magic hour, were Cinderella, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Davy Crockett. At one point, Crockett took a photo to commemorate the happy occasion in the happiest kingdom of them all.
The excitement that renewed Buddy also took him. At 2.56am Buddy Imes smiled one last time and his spirit left this earthly place.
An ambulance arrived and his new found friends gathered together as the ambulance guys put the stretcher containing Buddy’s body into their vehicle, and his loyal friend Jerry climbed in to take the final journey with his beloved mentor who’d taught him much about this world. To the ambulance guys it was just one more job closer to the end of their night. Buddy’s new friends hugged each other and stood watching the ambulance drive away and then turn off into the darkness leading to the freeway. They remained there holding each other for sometime. For even though there was a chill in the air, they felt strangely warm inside. It was that warmth that comes from finding humanity amongst the ruins. From knocking down those walls we build between each other that only lead us to solitary booths in late night diners. Buddy Imes had never build a wall around himself. He was a giver, and he gave until he had nothing more to give.
There is a framed photograph that now adorns the feature wall at the Ambrosia Cafe in Anaheim. It shows a group of smiling faces gathered around an old man who has the biggest smile of all. Sometimes Beryl has customers ask about the significance of the photograph, to which she replies, “Oh, that’s Buddy Imes, on the happiest night of his life.”
(c) Frank Howson