THE OLD MAN WHO WENT TO DISNEYLAND

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

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MIDNIGHT IN MY SCHOOL BOY HEART

It’s always midnight in my school boy heart
Only the alleys have known my joy
For sometimes I have experienced a bliss that is so exquisite it can’t be verbalised to anyone
Not even to the few who would care
So I have walked it away
In the dark
Along empty city side streets
It’s a pity Oscar Hammerstein didn’t write the script for our lives.
He would’ve written it just right.            It would’ve had its highs and lows, some humour, all the boring bits cut in Philadelphia, and ending, of course, on a note of hope
Instead here we are
What’s it all about, Alfie?
The Winner Takes It All?
A Change Is Gonna Come?
Or just 45s from our youth?
Is this the little boy I carried?          We live in a world where everything we’ve been told for the past 50 years
Has been a lie
And those that come forth and tell us the truth
Get removed from this life
New leaders are elected on a platform of change
But usually it’s just a case of
Same car, different driver
Evil does indeed exist
And those who have sold their souls
Worship at the alter of a false God – Money
But all it buys them is emptiness
And if there is an eternity
What a hell it would be spent in that state of regret year in, year out – Arrogance comes before a fall  The prophets told us  – Yes, Wilhelm Reich was right            And the weather report suggests a hard rain

(C) Frank Howson 2017

THE OLD MEN AND THEIR GIRLS

The old men with their girls
Seated at the best table
The young girls treat the waitress
With a haughty disrespect
Why?
Because they are seated beside
Old men with more money than God
They so easily forget where they came from
Who they are
Because tonight they are queens
Reinvented
Making a huge effort to speak in an accent that doesn’t give away their back street upbringing
And it seems the first thing that dies is empathy
For someone who struggles
And serves in an honest job trying desperately to please
For that much needed tip at the end of the night
So she can walk home happy to be greeted by her young children
Who love it when mommy is in a good mood
Back at the best table
The young girls laugh at everything
The old well heeled men say
Even the serious stuff
One wonders whether they will be laughing long?
Until next month?
Next week?
Perhaps until check out time tomorrow?
Sex is so easily given
When it means nothing
But care about certain women
Really care
And it is much harder to get them to part with their favours
Perhaps a kiss is way more intimate
Than sex anyway
And more revealing
Than nudity
Perhaps I don’t know anything
Anymore
Everything I thought I knew
Was a sham
A pantomime
A play acting
And I was too young
To hear the hollowness
At the heart of her laughter
She got what she wanted
At the end of the day
And I got what I deserved
A table for one
For believing in Hollywood endings
My thoughts are broken
By the sound of laughter at the best table in the best restaurant in town
These young girls are trying very hard
To appear to be sincere to the Moneybags on their way to Life Support
I order a coffee
No sugar
No milk
Just as it comes
I don’t want to disguise the taste of anything
Anymore
It is as it is
The old men and the young girls laugh hysterically
And I feel sad for them somehow
Their eyes contradicting their open mouths and perfect teeth
Like those scary clowns with those insane smiles and eyes of terror
I know how their stories end
I’m a writer
With all the wisdom of a fool
And a life misspent
And no one to impress anymore
It’s a great relief in some ways
I need no sugar or milk
And as such have become an acquired taste
Not pleasing everyone
Not wanting to
But pleasing those who matter
The other acquired tastes
Of humankind
I pay my bill and leave
Giving the middle-aged waitress a tip that I hope helps contribute to her happy walk home to be greeted by those who genuinely love her
I will take the long way home down alleys that go round in circles
No need to rush
I am keeping no one waiting

 

(C) Frank Howson 2018

I DON’T DANCE ANYMORE

I was fooled by the mystery of women
Until I realised there is no mystery at all
Only myth
Invented by men so they could
Fall in love with the Virgin Mary
And partner with her to give life
To their boy child Jesus
But like Joseph us men don’t last the distance
We leave to give our saviour a chance
Not even returning to witness
His crucifixion
One overcast day
On a mount somewhere east
In our guilt
Sacrificing his life
To try and live up
To our destructive hopes
I once was a child dancer myself
Early in my journey
Spending hours
Polishing the steps made famous
By others before me
Too shy to speak to girls
In case they saw right through me
And realised any charm I possessed
Only hid my fear
That the problems of my life
Could not be cured by a slick dance routine
And a few witty lines
I was married three times
To three absolutely charming women
Who took everything I had
Except the will to go on
Still, the romantic fool
Remained hopeful
And God was exasperated
By my lack of ability to learn
Anything
So I endured many hardships
And trauma
Smashing my spirit
And voice
I then judged my true friends
By those still willing to listen to me
Patient enough to judge the message
And not the flawed messenger
Thus I found Saints
Where others found fault
I found angels
Where others found beggars
I found God
In the humility of affliction
No one is born with empathy
You are gifted it
After walking many miles
In the shoes of the suffering
Having lived it
How could you turn your back on another?
Young women are very well mannered
When they remind you that you are too old
It’s in their eyes
Their smile
Their giggle
Their changing of the subject
It is appreciated
For otherwise us foolish romantics
May think we are still 18 years old
And that life is still before us
But it is I that also pity them
For I know what their road beholds
And such outer beauty
Is a hard thing to live without
On their journey to inner beauty and humility
And empathy
Aloneness
And the higher purpose
Of a life
For sex leads to the entrapment of both parties
And longing is replaced by the desire to not belong
So just say that I don’t dance anymore
For my heart and my legs ache
And perhaps like Doc Pomus
Someone special
Will save the last dance for me
And although now
Wiser
I will decline it
But will be touched
And moved
By the invitation
As I think back
And remember
The days when I danced

(C) Frank Howson 2018

 

 

WRITERS

Why would anyone become a writer? Especially in a world that doesn’t seem to read anymore. Or go to the theatre, or go to the movies to see anything other than comic book heroes. Good question.

All the great writers were mostly drunks. Coincidence? Or is there a cost for looking too long into the abyss and reporting back to the good folk what they’re too timid to experience for themselves? Springsteen once wrote that there is a darkness at the edge of town. No, that darkness lies within us all. Each one of us has the latent potential to be a Hitler or a Christ. God has cleverly given us free will to choose our own poison. And the highly sensitive among us reach for the bottle, or the harder stuff, in order to numb ourselves to the responsibilities of that choice.

When I was at school I just couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was hopeless. Sometimes I feel sorry for those who attempted to teach me anything. Not sure if my undisciplined mind was a result of the trauma I witnessed most nights in my abusive family home, or I had what is now diagnosed as ADD. One day the headmaster of the school phoned my mother for a meeting to question her as to why her son had the highest I.Q at the school and the lowest grades. She was at a loss for words. But not me. Words always came easy to me. In fact I could talk myself out of any beating I was about to receive from a Christian Brother. That was quite a feat considering the relish they got from handing out such brutal punishment. These guys would’ve been more at home as members of the Third Reich than Jesus’ band of 12. But talk my way out I did. So, words became my friend, my salvation. And humour protected me from the cruel slings of other peer group bullies. I could always hysterically put myself down before anyone else had the chance to. Timing was everything. Playing the court jester got me through my troubled youth and shielded me from revealing my true self. And what was that? I was scared of everything and everyone. I felt like an alien most of the time in a strange world that only threw contradictions at you.

My refuge again and again were words. The only subjects at school that I attained any respectable grades for were Art, English and Religious Knowledge. The latter because I loved hearing all the Biblical stories and for some reason remembered every detail. They were filled with such amazing imagery and drama. Oh, and miracles. I guess I was depending on a miracle to happen in my life that would save me. And this Jesus character sounded like he might’ve been the only person who would’ve taken the time to understand me. Whether he was the Messiah or not is up for debate, but he sure sounded like a nice man. And like me, and all the other loners and misfits in the world, grossly misunderstood. I never forgot those stories and if nothing else they were great morality word plays.

Due to my restless mind I found it too difficult to persevere and read a book through to the end. But I tried again and again to achieve this. Thank God I did because I now must own over a thousand books that I cherish and have taught me more than I ever learnt at school. I always tell people I was self educated and that’s the truth of it. All my education took place in a class of one. In many ways, books saved my life.

My introduction to books began when I was a small child and my Irish grandmother would sit me on her lap and read aloud the adventures of Noddy in Toyland. We bonded through the whole Noddy series until she was taken from me when I was two.

The first book that hooked me enough to finish was, ironically, “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. I guess it proved that I had a fascination with the mystery of women from an early age. This of course led to much heartache and my premature death but that’s a whole other story. Either that, or Ms. Alcott was one helluva writer that captured my imagination and kept me turning the pages. By the end of the book I felt I knew all the characters and cared enough about them to shed some tears. The mark of a great writer.

After that I read Enid Blyton’s book series “The Famous Five” followed by “The Secret Seven.” Then I graduated to “Biggles,” and then many books about the Wild West that introduced me to such colourful characters as Davy Crockett. Kit Carson, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Billy The Kid etc., etc., etc. Yep, who needed to time travel or see the world when you had books?

Then in my late teen years I read “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and my life really did change. A book about the ultimate loner always surrounded by a party of people. I savoured every word in that book – it’s prose was exquisite and the story heartbreaking. It foretold me that following the wrong dreams can get you killed. Reading Fitzgerald was like finding a new best friend. I understood him. And from what I read I knew he understood me. After that I read all six of his novels and every short story he ever wrote. I couldn’t get enough of his words and the insight he gave into the human heart. It really was like he’d read my letters or thoughts and knew me intimately. Of course being part Irish, like me, virtually every story ended in death or heartbreak. He painted such a romantic but dangerous world where his characters always paid a high price for caring too much.

Fitzgerald’s own life was cut short by too much booze and heartbreak topped off by rejection in Hollywood. But he remains my friend and I reread “Gatsby” every couple of years. It never fails to move me. Hollywood has never been able to pull off a wholly successful film treatment of it for the simple reason that most of the truly beautiful stuff in the book are the thoughts in the characters heads, and that’s impossible to shoot. Films are about action. Fitzgerald’s writing is about emotions. Unless you do endless voice-overs and that usually renders your movie as exciting as porridge. That’s why the great Fitzgerald had such a hard time of it in Hollywood trying to make it as a screenwriter in order to net enough money to keep his wife Zelda in a mental home and pay for his daughter’s schooling. He died a broken, despairing, weary man old before his time.

Like Gatsby, killed by the wrong dream.

I came to Charles Dickens late. Not sure why that was but come to him I did. The first book of his I chose to read was “Great Expectations” and was astounded. To me it remains one of the greatest novels of all time. And in my opinion he is right up there with Shakespeare.

I heard that Dickens original ending to “Great Expectations” was tragic and certainly all roads in the book are leading there. But his publisher leaned on him to come up with a more upbeat ending. Dickens listened, went away and rewrote it, and what he does is simply sublime. He gives it a happy ending that is so bitter sweet he moves us to tears as our damaged leading characters come together to try and seek a way forward, and into the sunlight. It is so beautiful my hands trembled as I read the final pages. This novel alone would’ve assured his place among the giants of literature, but he did it again and again, novel after novel – “Oliver Twist,” “David Copperfield,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Hard Times,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “A Tale of Two Cities” (another ending that is so exquisitely executed as our flawed hero rises to the most noble of acts, laying down his wasted life so that others may live and find the joy that had always eluded him. Death giving his meaningless life a meaning. If there’s a better speech than his final words, I would surely love to know about it.

After Dickens I discovered Hemingway, Steinbeck, Schulberg, Shakespeare, O’Hara, Maugham, Hammett, Greene, Wilde, Twain, Isherwood, Chandler, Huxley, Ephron and many others.

All complex people, flawed, contradictory, confused, and yet so much wiser in their work than in life. Perhaps the writing down of stories and emotions helped them understand themselves.

It’s interesting how great writing never dates. You may think that picking up something that was written a hundred years ago or, in some cases longer, couldn’t possibly be relevant to your life. But the surprising revelation is that the emotions felt are timeless. Just different scenery and choice of words. But at the heart of every great story is just another human being trying to solve the same problems, whilst dealing with the same heartaches, pressures and obstacles. The universal human emotion. If you write the truth in its naked honesty it will always connect – now, tomorrow, a thousand years from now.

It teaches us that we are not alone. We are all in this together, wandering around a desert seeking an answer to why we are here. And awaiting that opportunity to rise to the potential of who we could be.

John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.”

A person with books is never alone.

(C) Frank Howson 2018

HOMELESS 20146

He had no name
Let’s call him Homeless 20146
He was once called something
But it was long ago
There’s a rumour he had a sister and a brother
But they’re missing from our records
So let’s call them nameless
Blameless
People lose touch
It happens a lot these days
Families can kill you
In so many ways
He was just another victim
Of our coldest winter on record
We keep a note of these things    On our records
Important data for something
He seems to have otherwise
Been in good health
So the cause of death seems to be
The lack of a blanket
A pair of gloves
A hot cup of coffee
A friend
Which of these should I note
On our records?
Our fucking records
Our arse covering records
That no one ever looks at
No one ever learns from
And you who sit in your homes
By your warm fire
Sipping your hot chocolate
And laughing at TV shows
About idiots
That aren’t really funny
But make you feel smart
And superior
And it takes your mind off
Feeling ashamed that you don’t care
No, you don’t even think
About those with no names
And no faces
The ones you don’t make eye contact with
In case you may feel something
And that feeling could spread like a cancer
And spoil a perfect day
From your perfect life
So you mutter under your breath
“Get a job”
To justify your ill feeling
It saves you asking their name
Or finding out their story
And what bad luck led them to bad things
That led them here
You hate them for making you feel guilty
And wish the police would move them along
But where to?
Anywhere
Just out of the way
Of us good people
Who have somewhere to go
And a schedule
And a plan
And mummy and daddy
With a safety net
Lest you stumble
Well, there’s some good news
There’s one more
Deplorable gone
But you won’t remember him
Because you never looked at his face
And the deep etched lines
That were a road map of where he’d been                                       What he’d survived
And how far he had fallen
From the life his parents had hoped for
And those haunted eyes of his
That expected nothing
And saw that the world was naked
Perhaps he was Jesus on the make
And you missed him
You are safe now
The nameless man on the corner Of Lonsdale and King
Has ended his journey
Tonight he sleeps warm
And safe
In a place where names are not important
Or the cut of your clothes
Or how many figures you make a year
It’s a shame you never got to know Him
He knew things                       Perhaps you were scared of what he knew?
And his story may have made you weep
It was in fact he who could’ve given something to you
But you were in such a rush
Going nowhere
But
Down

 

(C) Frank Howson 2018

REMEMBERING

It was one of those days neither here nor there in the life of Felix Appleton. He had experienced the dizzying heights and the devastating plummets of a life lived in the circus ring of the performing arts. He was often praised as a born performer but wasn’t sure of the truth in that. He hadn’t sprung from the womb singing and uttering funny one-liners. Perhaps his screaming was in tune? He didn’t know and was not about to reinvent his life for the joy of some hungry reporter. If he had a talent to amuse, it had come from pain and the ability to live with it. He used to say, “Show me an artist who hasn’t suffered, and I’ll show you a phoney.”

He was born in a public hospital and taken home in a taxi to a single-fronted weatherboard house in a street not many people walked down. It was in this small modest home that he got to know his parents, both workers who had struggled for their existence and carried the scars of their battles and defeats on their faces as proudly as old soldiers displayed their medals. They smiled with sad expressions and their eyes brimmed with the waters of a joy that’d rarely found the opportunity to flow. Felix instantly fell in love with them and knew he’d found the right home. His parents were that dying breed called good people. Yes, they were tremendously flawed if one was to appoint a critic to write a cold and detached review of their lives, but that critic would’ve missed the value entirely. Like the first critics to review “Citizen Kane” and “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” they would’ve been dismissed as “irrelevant,” “a misstep,” “a disaster of epic proportions.” But what do critics know? Because of deadlines they have to rush to judgement and, more times than not, in their haste they miss the point. The true worth of something is judged in time and weighed by the impact it leaves behind in all those changed by having experienced it.

Thus Felix was nurtured through his first steps into this world by two unsung national treasures. He inherited from them the gifts to love with all the loyalty of the poor; the joy in giving away his last coin, cigarette or piece of advice to someone in greater need; the strength to stand by your friend through their mistakes, no matter how unpopular that stance may be. For who among us is not flawed when day is done? As long as there is no meanness in it, all is forgiven. Like the Irish mantra, “No fear, no spite, no envy.”

Oh, and never show your enemies you’re hurting. No one should be
rewarded for their dark actions.

So it was from this environment that Felix went forth into the world. His parents had taken him to Luna Park, and the circus, and to Hollywood movies many times. He had grown to love the lights and the laughter and the collective tears of a reinvented world so much so that he joined it. “Hi diddle-ee dee an actor’s life for me.” He became an actor and acted out all the emotions he had experienced in his little childhood home – all the anger, the heartache, and the humour that can be found in any awkward situation that Life can throw at one.

Felix was praised for his talent to wring insight from any character he portrayed. Was he born with this gift? No, he was born into it. And how could it be called a gift when it comes at such a cost?

He never developed an arrogant ego, for his parents had clothed him in humility. He never cut down a rival due to envy, for he was sure that person’s journey had been as difficult as his. And he never said goodbye to any friend (whether it be man, woman or child) without tagging it with the words “I love you” for he had learnt that in this life we are never guaranteed of seeing that person again.

Felix was now an old man who kept to himself. He hated few things in Life but moving was one of them. It always signalled the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. And as such he not only found it physically exhausting but emotionally draining. He was hoping this recent move would be his last. Not that he was morbid. Far from it. He saw a joke in everything, and put that down to the Irish blood from his mother’s side. The ability to get through even the darkest defeat with a funny line. He thought one shouldn’t take this life too seriously, after all, it’s just a long elongated dream. And dreams come and go. He was just about through this dream and hoped he’d performed as well as he could, given the extraordinary circumstances that had occasionally rained on him. And that he’d given more than he’d taken from this world, for he understood that there was a delicate balance to everything and most of the problems in this world are caused by man’s ego arrogantly tampering with that balance. He’d learnt to let it be. To leave affairs of the heart well enough alone. To respect what you don’t understand. And to do no one any purposeful harm.

When he looked back at his life he was now able to smile at not only the good parts but also the bad. For out of every disaster he had learned a huge lesson. And from great lessons learned comes great wisdom. Yes, if there is a God, Felix thought, he’s a very clever bastard.

Felix didn’t know if he’d be remembered. He felt it didn’t much matter because he’d be dead. And so would all those whose opinions meant something to him. Anyway, who wants a whole bunch of strangers talking about you and dissecting you after you’re gone, and getting it all wrong?

Still, he hoped, if there was another dimension or heaven or universe one goes to, he’d still be able to remember his parents. They were good people. They had given him valuable parts of themselves. And they were worth remembering.

 

(C) Frank Howson 2018

painting by Frank Howson