THE WORLD ENDS ON TUESDAY

I got the good news, baby
All our troubles are gone
The world ends on Tuesday
God said “Hey Frankie
The world’s in a mess
But it all ends Tuesday
I gave you the gift of love
That you seldom used
I gave you countries and borders
You chose to abuse
I sent you many angels
But you killed every one
You couldn’t get the message
So I sent you my son
I gave you seven seas
You polluted them all
And every time a tree grew
You made it fall
You think you’re me
And you’re oh so smart
But come Tuesday night.                    I’m gonna break your heart”

(C) Frank Howson 2018

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THE DEAD SHALL NEVER AGE (for my father)

I was awakened to the end
From our waiting sleep.
He was going and it wasn’t long.
Sitting in his chair,
He bid us all farewell.
We were too scared to cry,
Too lonely to try,
Though we sat at his side.
Death left its calling cards years before,
But in morning’s safety had waited.
Gasping for breath that wasn’t there,
Holding our hands that were.
He never cried a lonely tear
Or closed eyes that knew only hope,
To those past long nights
When nightmares were life.
They came for him, ready as he was.
We brushed his hair and washed his face.
He knew, and we knew,
Though nothing did we say
Lest we frighten the other.
Yet I screamed so loud in my silence
And cried so long in my pain.
So many things left unsaid,
But, oh, think of the times we spent,
And don’t bring flowers for the dead
Unless he saw them in life.
Just think of his humour as dry as the sand,
And his smile as big as his heart,
And those eyes as blue as the sky
And twice as wise.
Even now we miss him,
Every day I’ll wish he were here.
He loved us more than he loved himself.
We loved him back as much.
Something’s gone now forever,
Part of us is gone with him,
And in the still of things a night voice screams — “God, I’m as lonely as hell.”

Dedicated to Henry (Jack) Francis Howson

By Frank Howson (c) November 1974

 

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

TELL ME STORIES ABOUT OUR LIFE

Tell me stories about our life
Did we have fun?
Were you truly happy when you told me you were?
Because, you see, I was happy when I thought that to be so
And if you take that back now my life suddenly means nothing
And the doctors have nothing to give you to treat wasted years
And it breaks so many
To fall so far
So, let us just sit in the sun
On our favourite bench
Surrounded by the trees we named
And chat
Like we used to
When we held hands
Like each other was the most precious thing in the world
And it was
Or so I thought
Please tell me now
Was it true for you?
Or were you just being kind
When you said you were mine?
Were you settling for less
Than you believed the world owed you?
Do you feel that you threw away your life
And beauty
So I could live?
Because if you did
You have killed us both
And our life was just a one-sided
Delusional dream
Perhaps I worry too much
In these September years
But you’re all I have
My only constant
In a world that has lied about everything we’ve been told
For the last 50 years
A governmental plan to confuse us But enough about lies
I surrender
To whatever it was that got us through
Let us take some time out
And sit in this park
And you do the talking
Hold my hand
And tell me stories about our life

(C) Frank Howson 2018

 

painting by Frank Howson

THOUGHTS ON BOB DYLAN

The word enigma doesn’t come close to describing Bob Dylan. For a start he’s a Gemini – the sign of the twins. Duality. He once said he wakes as one person and goes to sleep as another. And that’s before we add all the different masks he’s worn, and the myths that have been woven by others, and by himself. This is no doubt an attempt by him to protect his true self – Robert Zimmerman. Bob Dylan was his invention and as such even his own autobiography “Chronicles Volume One” contains numerous things that are fictional. Again, adding to his own myth as a means of throwing people off the scent of this fiercely private man. He writes about Bob Dylan like the old Wild West reporters wrote about Billy The Kid, Davy Crockett or Jesse James. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

There must be many hundreds of books published about Bob Dylan. And why is that? Because he continues to fascinate us. We can’t work him out. Scratch the surface and you just come up with another surface. But I think this has always been his masterly plan. In the words of the late, great Alex Scott after seeing the movie about the life (or lives) of Bob Dylan, the aptly titled “I’m Not There,”  Alex said, “I knew more about him before I saw this movie!” Precisely. Or did you? I’ve had the good fortune to know quite a number of people who have known Bob for many years as a friend. And the words they use about him are “kind,” “sweet,” “gentle,” “loyal,” and “sensitive.” And those qualities are precious and need protection. “They say every man needs protection.”

Last Monday and Tuesday nights in Melbourne, a troubadour playing the role of Bob Dylan took to the stage at the Margaret Court Arena. No grand entrance. He merely sauntered on as a member of his band and found his designated place at the piano. No hello and no goodbye. Just two hours of brilliant songs, some old, some new, that any writer would give their soul to have written just one of them. But here is a small man trapped in the spotlight that has a catalog of so many classics they are too numerous to name. He has given us so much, and continues to give, thank God. When so many of our music heroes are gone, some cruelly taken from us who had so much more to give, we truly should be thankful that Bob is not only still alive, but continues to spend the majority of each year on the road performing for our pleasure.

Some people complain that he just stands there and sings his songs. There are no “showy” effects. No scripted witty repartee. But I continually have to remind some disappointed patrons that that’s all he’s ever done.

Bob was once asked if he still gets nervous before a show, to which he replied, “No. Never be afraid of disappointing people.” At first when I read this quote, I laughed thinking it was just another example of Bob’s very dry sense of humour. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised the heart of what he was truly saying. There is no point worrying about a performance. It will either soar or it won’t. He is not slick, nor does he want to be. He is an improv artist. A method actor. He has the same inspired, spontaneous genius as Brando. Always reaching for that unplanned moment of pure magic. The trouble with being that bold is that sometimes you miss the mark totally and run the risk of being ridiculed and walked out on. All of the greatest innovators have at one time or another been ridiculed and hung out to dry. But they’re the ones we remember. The brave ones. To be totally unique is a very heavy cross to have to carry. A lot of people will not “get” what you’re doing. Or what you’re attempting. But if everyone played by the tried and proven formula, where would the excitement be?

Bob has literally never looked back. The range of material he has tackled is extraordinary and at the age of 77 when most artists are happy to coast on their back catalog, Bob is still taking chances. Spare a thought for the huge risk he took in attempting, at his age, five albums of crooning the American Songbook. Yet those albums have been big hits and in some cases even named among the Top Ten Jazz Albums of that year.

But this is the same man who, just as he reached the pinnacle of the folk music world, went electric and angered the majority of his then fans. Next, just as he won most of those fans back with the electric mercury sounding masterpiece that was “Blonde On Blonde,” he goes country music. More angst from fans. Then he rebounds with introspective “Blood On The Tracks” about the pain of his divorce. Then Jesus popped into his life and we had the Gospel Years! Then, just when everyone thought he was no longer relevant, and running on empty, he comes back with arguably his best album, the multi-Grammy Award winning “Time Out Of Mind.” Then the Christmas Album. Then the Sinatra inspired saloon song standards. This man deserves a medal for bravery.

Oh, and when people say they don’t like his voice, I always ask, “Which one? He’s had about 6 different voices over the journey.”

As his dear friend George Harrison once described him, “He is a friend to us all.”

It filled my heart with warmth and my eyes with tears to see him perform such a spirited and brilliant concert last Tuesday night. It certainly was the inspired spontaneous magic he strives for.

And then, without a word of farewell, he was gone. But rest assured, he’s still on the road, headin’ for another joint.

(c) Frank Howson 2018

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