THE BIG MOUTH STUMBLES

2 dogs barking through a symphony
A bottle of red wine gone bad
Like a new king in early spring
One never knows what one had
I lost my youth in search of truth
But it got me here
I came so neat
I’m gonna fake my death
And find some peace
Just like Elvis did
I’ll walk away my pain in the Kentucky rain
Just another face in the crowd
I never knew what love was till you broke my heart
Now I’ve got it all down I don’t know where to start
K.D is gone. And Sisto too
Maybe our world ends one at a time?
So many things lost in translation
And disguised by poets’ rhymes
Distractions invented to confuse
By some other guy’s muse
Wearing a tattoo that says “Born To Lose”
I’ve clearly overstayed my welcome
By the look on your face
I didn’t hear the starting pistol
In this human race
Well I’ve walked with kings
And I’ve walked with fools
And I’ve treated him them all the same
I judge people on your spirit
I don’t need to know a name
But you on the other hand
When I was down
I heard you laugh at me
But now I’m back you reappear
Quoting lies like poetry
Do you think I’m dumb?
Do you think I’m smart?
Or a bit of both
Cursed with a heart?
Call me Einstein or Casanova
But give me credit for once
For knowin’ it’s over
You assassinated me
And poisoned my son
You polluted the lives
Of everyone
You’re a Shakespearean character
And this story ends in death
Cursed is the one
Who steals a dying breath
Because a good life
Has belittled their evil
They can’t live till I am gone
Gone, gone, gone
But in death we are everywhere
And cannot be conquered
The evil vote for evil ones
But God is on my side
And the love I leave behind
Not even fake news could distort or hide

 
(C) Frank Howson 2018

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WHAT IS TRUTH?

I’m at the age when people die. I view life from the cluttered comforting living area of a mystical art space, going from room to room as inspiration strikes me. A song lyric here, a line of dialogue overheard from lunch, a painting or sketch there. It’s a very full solitary life and reduces everything to the minimalists’ joy of simplicity. I suppose I would be just as happy in a jail cell with my necessary tools, although I’d miss the occasional walk in the sun. And impromptu visit from a friend. My life has been crammed with so many adventures, tragedies, faces, external forces, Machiavellian plots, heartaches, silent joys, defeats and comebacks etc., that I sometimes feel I’m five hundred years old. Other times I forget and am back to feeling like that seventeen year old kid with it all before me. Sometimes Hercules, sometimes Norman Maine. Many memories occasionally stampede through my mind from what feels like another life. Friends and lovers long gone, but my heart still carries the weight of their memory. Although death may take a life it seems that the relationship continues for those left behind, excluded from the final mystery. Sometimes I resent the birds who are not chained to the ground like us confused humans. Our only soaring comes in those momentary waves of joy that are so overwhelmingly spectacular and personal that there are no words invented to accurately verbalise them so we walk them away in dark alleyways, alone – as alone as our birth and our death. The magic hours just before dawn. There is an exquisite sweetness in failure, just as there is a sour aftertaste in triumph. Perhaps only General Grant fully understood this when he allowed General Lee to savour the nobility of defeat in all its glory and, as Grant stood in his torn and dusty uniform, head bowed in humility, paying homage to his defeated opponent, denying himself the tacky opportunity to steal the thunder of victory from a long and vicious campaign where young boys died bewildered and despairing on battlefields made muddy from the blood of their comrades.
In my own line of work I too have known long campaigns that have left me too weary to celebrate the victory knowing how much it has cost myself and those that battled alongside to make a dream a reality. “Was it worth it?” The eternal question that is right up with Pilate’s “What is truth?”
David Lynch believes that life is just a dream. And perhaps he is right. And perhaps it does one no good to think too long and deep about such things, for to stare into the abyss too long may be as damaging as staring at the sun. You just become blinded in a different way.
Does it matter how one achieves creativity? Does anyone really care what price is paid for their entertainment? Scott Fitzgerald put something of himself into six novels and over a hundred short stories, until there was nothing left. He died a hollow, weary, flawed man, old before his time. Broken by Hollywood because he took it too seriously and led with his heart. And didn’t realise it was all just a game.
I too have worked for many people in my past that nether understood what I did, or how I did it. But that doesn’t stop them attempting to piss on the tree to claim ownership. A bet each way. If it’s a disaster it’s all my fault. If it’s a smash, it’s because of them. I don’t work for such people anymore, regardless of the dazzling upfront fees that are used to tempt you to go against your instinct. This donkey has been beaten too many times and won’t go down the dark mine shaft anymore. I now only work for people I truly trust and/or admire. I can’t be bought by money because experience has taught me that it’s a false god and to worship at its altar will never fully satisfy your hunger for more and more until there’s nothing of you left. You will die like Elvis having over-eaten, been overworked, misused and misunderstood, devalued, surrounded by carny promoters, backslapping sycophants, con artists and those who want to be you and secretly resent that they can’t be. The most desired man in the world died of loneliness. Now, if that doesn’t tell you something about our society, nothing will.
Success has to come on your terms or else you lose your identity. And to lose sight of who you are is to become a ghost ship wandering lost in that innermost night of the soul. Going through life mimicking the happy-go-lucky person others expect you to be lest you reveal that you’re haunted and thus damned from seeing too much. As my dear ol’ daddy used to tell me, “The best way to lose people is to tell ’em you have a problem.”
Those who don’t understand creativity will seek to belittle your contribution, downplay your involvement, and even humiliate you by praising everyone except you. This is a tactic and you are smart enough to recognise it. And, thankfully, so is the audience.
Wilhelm Reich once said, “The living are always under attack from the dead,” and so it is and will be till the end of days. All I know is this – it’s alright to love something, but you are damned if you love that thing too much.

What is truth? Well you sure as hell won’t find it in your newspaper or favourite news channel or the Internet. These days it seems to only exist in our hearts. Our in-built shit detector. Trust it. It’s all we have.

 

(C) Frank Howson

THE ASSURANCE OF HEAVEN

I applied for a government grant
But was knocked back on a technicality
They thought I had talent
Some asshole suggested I get a second opinion
I came wanting
Pushed into this world
A dark room
With much huffng and puffing
Blood and tears
Born into a religion
That gave me the assurance of heaven
If I followed the rules
(Made by man
To ingratiate himself to God)
I read much about this God
And learned that in his youth
He was like us
Quick tempered, revengeful, slow to forgive
But, also like us, he mellowed
In later years
And ordained a common man
As his adopted son
To bring us the good news
That God had changed
He was now non-judgmental
Forgiving, compassionate, and
Like your favourite grandfather at a Barbecue
A joy to be around
But when his chosen son
Was railroaded by a fixed jury
Of the envious and the threatened
And was killed in the most agonising and cruel death ever invented by man
God withdrew from the world
He had over estimated us
And like all those that do
We deeply disappointed him
Some say he died
Some say he’d never existed to begin with
Some say he was just sad
And a sad God cannot rule
In his absence we were left lost
And confused
And scared as to how to go on
This manifested itself
In self destruction
And we have since sought many unique ways to achieve this
For those with money
It was drugs
For those without money
It was drugs
The cowards way out
Because the burden of living
And doing the right thing by each other
Was too great a responsibility
So, like God,
We, in our own way,
Have become sad
And withdrawn from the world
Most of us can’t be bothered voting
And then complain about the leaders we are saddled with
Who, in their naive stupidity
Attempt to lead us out of the darkness, and try to sell us some strong medicine to heal our wounds
And, if they don’t succumb to compromise and side deals
The shadow people shoot them
Or they’re found hanging from doorknobs
Their deaths a question mark forevermore
In the file marked
“Believe It Or Not”
The weight of carrying the cross of responsibility
Is indeed great and we are not programmed to stand it long
Falling time and time again
On our lonely agonising walk to our own Calvary
And in those dizzy blindingly excruciating final hours we find ourselves confused and insecure and doubtful
Because we were promised
An assurance of Heaven, you see?
A free ticket
An escape route
A place where we’d be welcomed and loved and held
God shouldn’t be hated or blamed for spreading this dream
He meant well
He just forgot that we are human
Deeply flawed
And always looking for the easiest option
We have no loyalty
Other than to the junk man
And that’s because the junk man has something we want
But unlike heaven
We can see it, feel it, at a cost
It may not be paradise
But in those despairing moments
We have lowered our expectations of miracles
It numbs us and that’s enough
To get through another lonely night
But why burden ourselves
Worrying about it
When it brings momentary relief
Like a happy finish
It ain’t love
But it’ll do
Tomorrow we can wake to the aftermath nightmare
But now
Let us just drift
Into our dreamtime
Our glimpse of grace
The small change
That we don’t deserve
But were born into
Like thieves in the temple
Women are not madonnas
And men are not messiahs
We have more in common with a sewer rat
And just as much cunning
They say rats will survive the end of the world
Perhaps we will too
Having brought about the ultimate destruction
It would be just if we were made to live in it
My own condition is of great concern to no one
Well, maybe someone in Rumania
Frets about me
But if so, I am unaware
And in this state of ignorance
In some year of our Lord
I begin this…

All I know of today
Is that dawn came on time
And that I have ruined dinner
And every chance I had to be free
I mistook sex for love
A handshake as a promise
An enemy as a friend
And money as happiness
Someone more mature
Should’ve had my life
They’d have known what to do with it
But they’d have never known the exquisite bitter sweet taste of loss
Of having no further to fall
Which in fact gives you some real security
I have been betrayed by many friends along the way
But at least I drew evil into the light so that I now recognise its face
If there’s no afterllife then why have we been made to learn all this wisdom that can never be put to use in this world that is built on false values?
But maybe God’s sadness has turned to boredom
And this is some kind of ironic game for his enjoyment
Come to think of it, if there is an afterlife why the fuck would God want us there?
Perhaps we have inherited our self destructiveness from him!
Freud stumbled upon this theory whilst smoking himself to Death on a cocaine binge.
Maybe you have to be stoned in order to see through the surface bullshit and glimpse the truth?
We on earth are angry.
We have awakened to find all our heroes dead. We didn’t win the lottery. Every war fought was just a lie. And the Vatican is run by Satanists.
But apart from that everything’s just fine after a few pills.
The most damaging drug I was addicted to was women. They quite clearly got me up and then nowhere. I’ve come to realise that two people can’t live one life. Unless there’s huge compromise and compromise breeds resentment. Both have to forfeit dreams in order to keep the relationship going. This leads to you both acting roles in each other’s company making out that this dire situation of strangulation is actually bringing each other bliss. After awhile you start telling bigger and bigger lies until you get caught out and it’s over.

As a child I loved the circus. In many ways it tells you everything you need to know about Life.

Cigarettes were my friend right up until the time they weren’t.

You were my friend too. Right up until the time you weren’t.

I die so hard each time I think of you. But never learn the easy route, always doomed to take the long way home. Alone.

Born into a world hellbent on bringing about its own destruction, what hope did we have?

I drive around
At night
Going nowhere
The desert is beautiful
After nightfall
The stars are so clear
The air is so thin
Up here
One can almost forget oneself
Almost

And sometimes on the wind I hear you calling my name. But from your lips it now sounds like a curse word. And in the mist of early winter I sometimes see your vision of who I imagined you were.

And our dissolving future.

So, it’s once around the clock we go. Our history of joy squeezed into a crowded hour, before the sun set for good.

If there is a heaven, will you be there? If so, I may have to make other plans.

(C) Frank Howson 2018

ME FOR THE ROAD

Who’ll share this load?
There ain’t two
Just me for road
I’ve loved psychos and fakes
I’ve made more than enough mistakes
I did everything I could
Everything I should
But it left me empty handed
Feeling stranded
I never understood you
Payback for never seeing who
I am
A fugitive on the lam
Yet all roads lead to this
The Judas kiss
Another saviour on our block
Killed by the ticking clock
I wake today to find I’m old
And that the outside world’s too cold
My secret identity revealed
Every layer of skin’s been peeled
Still answering to the name “son”
From a time when I was one
And my dreams were bigger than me
And the world was further than the eye could see
And my princess was still undiscovered
My mission failed but I recovered
Or so they say
There’s no better way
To find yourself
Than to lose your wealth
And the love you were waiting for
Still the crowd cried out for more
But my encore went on too long
And they lowered the curtain mid-song
So now who’ll share my load?
There ain’t two
Just me
For the road

(C) Frank Howson 2018

WARNING – THE ENDING MAY BE SAD

Sometime, before I was born, I was offered a deal by God. He said, “Okay, here’s the deal. I’m going to let you go back and have another shot at Life. I will also grant you a great gift. You will experience the dizzying highs and devastating lows of human existence but you must write about it. You will have great loves and learn what it’s like to lose such a prize. Your heart will be broken to such an extent that you will develop empathy for everyone and everything. It is only through pain that one obtains true insight into the human condition. You will be broken but through that you find a humility that will enlighten you with an appreciation of how precious every second of life is. While others around you accumulate money you will see the ultimate futility in this, and realise that true wealth is found in true friendship. Your loneliness at times will make you feel like a prisoner in solitary confinement, but this will only heighten your joy of walking in the sun. You will be granted my greatest gift to all mankind, free will. It is up to you whether you choose to call this life a burden or a gift. No one is born with empathy for others, it is earned by a life well lived, the mistakes made and the knowledge that is garnered by shared loss. You will break your heart to live it, and break your heart again to relive it in words. There will be times when you curse me for being a hard God and there will be times when you weep for how compassionate my love is for you. For true love is to accept not only the best of someone, but also their worst. We all fall many times under the weight of our cross. But let me remind you that this life was never intended to be heaven. It is a learning place that prepares you for the ultimate joy of having weathered a storm and the appreciation of finding the warmth and welcoming arms of unconditional love granted to those who complete their journey without bitterness or hate. For to truly appreciate heaven, one must first pass through hell.

 

(c) Frank Howson 2018

photograph by Raija Reissenberger.

BRIGHTER DAY

I dreamed that you will come to me
In the land of no surprise
And you will kiss my lips
And look into my eyes
And I will say to you
Behold the holy sign
“All was lost, all was lost”
Well everything that was mine
But your presence now
Renews my belief
That true love
Springs from grief
And all the tears we shed
Along the way
Got us through the night
To this brighter day

(c)  Frank Howson 2018

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