HOME

The street was the same as I remembered it. And the birds swooped as if to herald my return. So it was true, I hadn’t dreamed it. For a moment I stood and took in the beautiful cacophony of noise that I’d never fully appreciated before in all its ugly glory. The sun came out to shine on cue and its warmth informed me that I had now entered a safety zone for lost boys.

How can you know a place so well and yet feel that you are seeing it for the first time? If this is a dream and I awaken now I will be angry all day. Maybe all days.

I continue moving on further into it until I reach the gate no one ever closes, and the narrow cement path  leading to the apartment block steps I once knew so well I could climb them in the dark, and under the influence of too much life. This time there seems to be a lesson learnt in each step and greater effort needed to conceal the weariness of the outsider.

Halfway up I enter the glow from the first storey window that conspires to shine God-like behind the statue of Buddha as if even the universe is welcoming my return.

More steps and more weary remembrances of lessons learned and I am at the front door, knocking in a drum pattern of whimsy and familiarity.

After an eternity of seconds the door is opened and I see your smiling face as I remembered it from a long ago carefree time. Bright, loving and kind. I can now die in my footsteps and not be lost to wander and wonder.

I enter and am surrounded by the comfort of the greatest books and music ever written. Each word and note a friend of mine. And I sit at the empty table. Alone no more. Everything and nothing has changed as I take my place amongst it.

You ask me how I am. But there are no words to convey the miracle of ordained destiny.

For in that sheltered moment, I am home.

 

(C) Frank Howson 2017

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CHRISTMAS IN ST. KILDA

Harry Grivens had inherited it from his mother. An obsessive excitement about all things Christmas. His mother, Mary, would start her Christmas shopping January every year, her secret way of accruing all the magical gifts that dwarfed her illuminated pine tree every 25th. of December. From her meagre budget she miraculously produced gifts for her children, her husband, her relatives, friends, and even homeless people she had struck up conversations with on the street.

Harry always said he’d found the spirit of Christmas in her eyes, which brimmed with tears of joy as she handed out her gifts to each and every one. He called her Mary Christmas.

Now here he was, a boy grown into a man, an old man, rushing around his little rented apartment with all the enthusiasm of his youth. It was dawn of Christmas morn and all his gifts for those nearest and dearest to him surrounded his little electronic tree in the living room. As he manically prepared the turkey, roasted the chicken, and cut the ham into generous slices, he wondered who’d be the first to show up at his door. Everyone had accepted his invitation with such surprise and enthusiasm that he laughed wondering how his little apartment would hold them all. He knew somewhere, in that other country,  that thinly veiled dimension, his mum was smiling at him and proud of the efforts he’d made to duplicate her day of giving.

He was betting that his son, Jamie, would be the first to excitedly knock on his door. Harry hadn’t spent a Christmas with him in eighteen years. He stopped carving the ham as he froze in the stunted memory of where all those years had gone. A tear appeared in his eye as he thought about what a wonderful Christmas gift it’d be if God gave him back all those years.  He had made so many mistakes. Not out of meanness or not caring but just because so much had happened 18 years ago to pull the rug out from under his established life that he’d had no experience in how to think straight in such circumstances. His successful and envied life had come to an abrupt end at the peak of his ability when he ended his partnership with a man he no longer trusted and who seemed hell-bent on self-destructing, taking all those who rode with him along for the nosedive. Harry had thought he was doing the noble thing by getting rid of this man. Yes, he was standing up over a principle and although he didn’t expect to be lauded a hero, he certainly hadn’t anticipated the trauma and devastation that awaited him and those he’d loved.

He looked down at the cold wet sensation of his finger and realized he’d cut himself with the carving knife. He hadn’t even felt it. Perhaps he was numb to everything when he thought of those wasted years. Perhaps his only way of dealing with the loss. His business partner fine-printed Harry out of his fortune and assets until he had nothing but his integrity left. But Harry was to learn that such a high moral ideal meant nothing to anyone if you had no money and a tarnished reputation by association. They judged winners by who got away with the most money. Harry realized he’d have to wait for a much higher judgment if he wanted an acknowledgment for doing the right thing.

Harry unsteadily sat on the nearest chair and looked down at the blood dripping from his hand.  He thought of Pontius Pilate washing the blood from his hands rather than making a decision to save the life of another: and Pilate’s terse remark to Jesus when the prisoner mentioned truth, “What is truth? …Your truth or mine?” Harry’s body started to jerk uncontrollably now as he bowed his head and sobbed for the naïve, good man he once had been. After eighteen years in the wilderness Harry strongly doubted that he’d ever stand up over a principle again. He couldn’t afford to. Everything was gone you see? The work, the money, the house, the marriage, the child whom he’d loved more than life itself, and, now, finally Harry. Looking down at the pool of blood at his feet he realized how deep the cut was and knew he was bleeding to death.  The blood was draining from his body and he was feeling weak. Numb. Even more numb than usual. The thought of that ignited something in him and he rose and kicked the chair into the next room narrowly missing breaking many of the gift wrapped presents piled high around his $13.99 electric Christmas tree. He grabbed a napkin from the table and pressed it down hard against the wound. He turned off the oven, made it down the stairs and hailed a taxi to the ER of his nearest hospital.

When the nurse on duty saw the blood soaked napkin Harry was immediately admitted deemed unsuitable for waiting. He was rushed into a room where a nice Indian doctor sowed up his cut and made jokes that Harry laughed at without really hearing. He was concerned, no, distressed, that his son may’ve shown up at his door to find him not home. And that he’d think his father had let him down again. He wanted him to know that he didn’t do these things on purpose and that some things are beyond your control. They just…happen. They just happen. The kindly doctor, aware of Harry’s anxiety and, to him, incoherent rambling about his son, administered a sedative and had a nurse escort his patient to an outside cab rank.

As Harry climbed the stairs to his apartment his inherited Christmas spirits rose again and he found himself calling out, “Jamie are you there?…Here I come!…I had a stupid accident that’s all….You know me!… Accident prone…Your silly dad, huh?…Don’t worry, just give me an hour and you’ll have the feast of your life!…”  But reaching the top floor he realized he was talking to himself.  He looked down in hope to see if there were any tell tale signs that his son had come, waited, and gone. But no. There’d been no visitors from what he saw. None at all.

With some difficulty he inserted the key into his lock and opened the front door. He was home. Whatever that meant. A new enthusiasm energized him when he looked at the clock and realized it was still only 10.30am. What an idiot he was. His guests hadn’t arrived yet because it hadn’t reached the appointed hour.  Hope sprang eternal again. He turned on the oven and looked around at all his preparations and felt the joy his mother had felt all those years ago, knowing what a wonderful day awaited the cherished ones.

At 2.45pm Harry found himself sitting at the head of his small table, wearing his Christmas hat, and staring at the perfectly roasted turkey, chicken, sliced ham, rustic potatoes and other goodies worthy of a king on a  budget. In the background Christmas music played on endless repeat and now he was listening to Bing Crosby, his mum’s favourite. He turned off the pot of boiling water bringing life to his plum pudding and caught a reflection of himself in the shiny salt and pepper shakers. He looked ridiculous. He wearily took his Christmas hat off and went to sit in his living room to gaze at all the unopened gifts.

He’d been hoping to have a beautiful bonding Christmas day with his son which explained his anxiousness about every detail of it being perfect. He’d wanted him to experience the type of Christmas his dad had known when he was young, and his mother was still alive.

Harry’s ex-wife had not allowed their son to spend one Christmas day with his dad in eighteen years and even when Harry had gone to a woman lawyer, who was appalled at the situation and sent Harry’s ex several very serious legal letters, Jamie’s mother defused the situation by agreeing to allow Harry and son a Christmas. But unlike Christmas, it never came. There was always a reason. Harry wondered how someone could hurt another so cruelly. Had he treated her so? Or was she just bitter that the money and the expensive trinkets all went away?

She had also told his son lies. Told him Harry had deserted them both. Left them with nothing. Never paid alimony. Lies, lies, lies. Trouble was, how could Harry set the record straight without telling his son his mother was a liar? He’d attempted to explain the real story one day but it ended bitterly with another two precious years wasted in not talking.

The truth was that eighteen years ago Harry’s career had finished in his homeland. Although he’d taken action to get rid of his business partner, those facts were buried deep beneath the guilty by association tag that was so much easier for people to remember.  In the end he was advised by his lawyer, friends and wife that it’d be easier to resume his career in Los Angeles where he was still highly regarded. Over there the only thing that lived was the work, not the innuendo and cocktail gossip. In fact, his wife, so convinced it was the right decision, eagerly drove him to the airport. He’d realized later that she’d wanted him gone as she had a more promising option awaiting his exit. Harry had left her everything his business partner hadn’t taken, mainly a big mansion and everything in it. The sale of it intended as a big one lump sum payment to her and the welfare of their son. In contrast, Harry walked through the airport departure door with a suitcase, the clothes he was wearing and enough money to last him a year in L.A if he lived like a monk. Then one year became two, then three and so on for nine years that seemed to go by like nine months.

Harry sat on his couch and thought that perhaps he deserved this Christmas. He couldn’t wait until New Year’s Eve to pledge that he would never stand up over a principle again; or love something too much lest it be taken from you.

His only ambition now was a simple one – he just wanted his son to know the truth and how much his dad had loved him, and…everything.

Then he looked up and saw his mother standing by the electronic flashing Christmas tree. Her eyes were filled with that all too familiar Christmas joy and her accompanying smile not only warmed Harry’s heart but healed it.

“Have you been a good boy, son?”

“Yes mum, I have tried so hard to be. But I feel old and weary from the trying.”

“What do you want most this Christmas, Harry? And I’ll see if I have it for you.”

Harry’s voice trembled as it always did when he got too emotional, “I want to be home, mum. I’ve been trying to get back there for so long but I think I took the long way. And got lost somewhere.”

Harry felt something and realized his wound had reopened. Maybe they all have to be reopened before one can truly begin again?

No one was in Harry’s apartment to see him go. So many had wanted to be there but things just got in their way. But that was Life, huh?

(c) 2015 Frank Howson

SHEK-O BEACH

It had been 50 years since Bill Cassell had set foot on Shek-O Beach in Hong Kong. He was still a young man when he’d walked onto these sands all those years ago. Although well preserved he’d lost along the way all those things that define you as a young man – ambitions, dreams, hope, confidence and the infinite belief that everything would work out for the best. Now he stood on this empty beach clinging to his last remaining hope. A hope so thin and futile he felt ashamed at how pathetic he’d become in his old age.

50 years ago on this beach he’d been stopped by a young Chinese girl selling hats. He’d looked at her and everything had changed. It wasn’t just her obvious beauty, there was something else about her – perhaps her calmness, perhaps the wisdom in her twinkling eyes, her joyous laugh, the feeling that he meant something to her  – that suggested there could be a purpose in his meandering and confused life. He’d bought the hat he didn’t need and they’d chatted. They’d also laughed and enjoyed each other’s company for what may’ve only been 10 minutes in total, and then she’d bid him farewell and walked away. But had never left him. He’d promised to come back and see her tomorrow but his Aussie buddies had gotten him drunk that night and he slept all the next day, nearly missing his night time flight back home. Since the encounter there’d not been a day when he hadn’t thought of her and wondered how she was. He hoped maybe she’d thought of him too. Such are the dreams that torment old men.

Where had 50 years gone? Oh that’s right, he’d returned to Australia, and married a safe convenient woman approved by everyone as a “good catch” and had then worked his guts out to buy a home to make sure his marriage remained safe and convenient. Then children had come along and gone. And finally, so had his wife, taking the safe and convenient home with her. He was now standing on the beach at Shek-O a laughing stock to his own logic but he was too old to care anymore. And it was almost dark.

How come 10 minutes had meant so much in his life and 50 years hadn’t? Perhaps it’s one of the cruel jokes God plays on us. Penalizing us for not following our instincts and wasting our lives in safety. Surely He gave us a life to live, not to hide in. Bill had discovered this wisdom all too late and it was in the knowing that the severest pain comes.

He asked some of the bar people overlooking the beach whether they remembered her. But most couldn’t understand him. In the nearby village a wise looking old Chinese medicine man listened patiently to Bill’s story all the while looking intently into his sad eyes. Bill guessed he too couldn’t understand a word and was trying to decipher meaning by other means. When Bill was finished his manic raving, the old Chinese medicine man smiled and nodded his head. Maybe he was used to silly old Western men retracing their bad decisions and too kind to tell the latest lost soul that it was gone. Gone, gone, gone.

Bill walked back to the beach as if it might miraculously manifest her. And there he stood for hours until it was night. He did the same thing the next day and then the next. His skin was burned red by the lack of a sun hat. Or someone caring enough to offer him one. By the third day some locals had gathered to watch this strange man pacing up and down the length of the beach, fully clothed.

So many thoughts stampeded through Bill’s mind. The years he’d lived up to those blissful 10 minutes and all the wasted time he’d spent in its shadow. Perhaps God gives us the opportunity for happiness and leaves it to us to recognize its face when we see it. Unfortunately, when we make the wrong decisions we spend the rest of our lives cursing Him, like a spoiled child who didn’t get what they wanted for Christmas.

A curious old local lady spectator to this dilemma asked the Chinese medicine man to explain what was happening. And in his Mandarin tongue he answered, “If you hold onto some dreams too long they damn you to hell.”

The old Chinese lady looked back at that stranger on the beach as if she vaguely understood. She’d once sold sun hats there and had waited for weeks for a boy to return and be her friend. He’d seemed like such a nice person. And was so full of enthusiasm and dreams. But she was wise enough to know that it’d been in another life, or so it seemed.

On the beach, Bill Cassell paced ceaselessly, searching for his youth and driven made by longing. Trapped in the hell of his own making. And ranting at the deserting tide.

(c) Frank Howson 2015

MY FAVOURITE BOOKS LIST

A friend asked me to pick my 10 fave books of all time. The 10 best of anyting is a hard ask but here’s goes. I have chosen those 50 books that moved me the most and had the biggest influence.

1) THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

2) GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens.

3) THE DISENCHANTED by Budd Schulberg.

4) THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY by Oscar Wilde.

5) NODDY IN TOYLAND by Enid Blyton

6) A LIFE by Elia Kazan.

7) CRAZY SUNDAYS – F. SCOTT FITZGERALD IN HOLLYWOOD by Aaron Latham

8) CHRONICLES by Bob Dylan.

9) THIS IS ORSON WELLES by Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich.

10) A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway.

11) THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

12) IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote

13) A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens

14) HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain

15) WHAT’S EXACTLY THE MATTER WITH ME by P.F. Sloan

16) DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller

17) TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

18) TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F. Scott Fitzgerald

19) POWER WITHOUT GLORY by Frank Hardy

20) PETER PAN by James M. Barrie

21) DIARY OF AN UNKNOWN by Jean Cocteau

22) ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE by William Goldman

23) THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD by Ron Hansen

24) SCOTT & ERNEST by Matthew Bruccoli

25) THE POWER OF MYTH by Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers.

26) ERROL FLYNN – A MEMOIR by Earl Conrad

27) ON THE STREET WHERE I LIVE by Alan Jay Lerner

28) DON’T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD by Eric Burdon with J. Marshall Craig

29) OLIVIER ON ACTING by Laurence Olivier

30) THE MUSIC GOES ROUND MY HEAD by David Johnston

31) FREE ASSOCIATION by Steven Berkoff

32) THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE by Robert Evans

33) MARILYN by Norman Mailer

34) HITCHCOCK BY TRUFFAUT

35) A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway

36) JOURNAL OF A NOVEL by John Steinbeck

37) PICTURE by Lillian Ross

38) HOME BEFORE DARK by Ruth Park

39) TINSEL by William Goldman

40) PORTRAITS by Helmut Newton

41) THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT by Quentin Crisp

42) THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell

43) TEN GREAT PLAYS by William Shakespeare

44) FINISHING THE HAT by Stephen Sondheim

45) W. C. FIELDS – HIS FOLLIES AND FORTUNES by Robert L. Taylor

48) THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN Volume 1 by Mark Twain

49) IN HIS OWN WRITE by John Lennon

50) THE ENTERTAINER by John Osbourne

THE OLD MAN REMEMBERS.

I remember when dinosaurs roamed the earth. About a hundred years ago now. Great fucking clumsy arrogant things – they crashed through everything and left us small creatures to clean up the mess – Well, guess what? They’re gone and we’re still here – Makes you think, doesn’t it? Ah what do I know? …They say I’m the oldest man in the world – well, what does that get you? Huh? A telegram from Elizabeth Vagina the Third of the House of Dimwits or whatever her fucking title is. I’ve had a few titles in me life – The only one I’ve held onto is “Fucking Idiot” – I’m quite proud of that title and wherever I go, even into unknown places – all I had to do is start talking politics and sure enough within a few minutes someone will acknowledge who I am – I used to have a razor sharp memory – but now things blur together – I sometimes can’t decipher between what I’ve lived, read, or dreamed – Well, that’s what the doctors say – but what the fuck do they know, huh? – Let’s face it, if they knew how to live why would they be studying someone’s bowel? – You couldn’t pay me enough, y’know what I mean? – My mind wanders, forgive me – But at least I’ve felt something, y’know? I remember being a small boy – and I saw Les Darcy, the greatest boxer ever, step out of the darkness of a doorway. He was dressed in a beautiful suit, collar, tie, gold fob watch – I stood there transfixed – He was magnetic – He turned and looked down at me and smiled that smile – the smile that would finally kill him – and walked away – Not a word was spoken and I’ll remember it till I die – I hope to God that really happened and I didn’t just dream it – I’m pretty sure it did happen – Life has robbed me of just about everything now – I can’t walk can’t eat -can’t have sex – can’t remember what sex was like – all I had left were me memories – and now He’s taking those away from me – You’d think He’d kill me outright rather than this sneaky stealing of things in the night – How come Darcy, who had everything, died at twenty-one and I’m still here? – Does it makes sense to you? – It sure as hell doesn’t to me – But what do I know? – I’m the Fucking Idiot – But Life goes on – and for some of us – on and on – and on – I have a couple of kids – a daughter – and a son – Haven’t seen either of ‘em in years – Still, I heard they’re proud of me – I believe they tell everyone their father’s the fucking idiot – Sometimes I dream of them – and in my dreams they’re beautiful in every way – But then again, so am I – That’s how I know it’s only a dream – I do remember riding in the Kelly Gang – Did I tell you? – I lived to tell about it, didn’t I? – Told Ned that the ambush at Glenrowan was a big mistake – He told me to fuck off, so I did – It’s lonely having the last laugh – no one laughing along with it – kinda spooky – Joe Byrne was a nice guy – So was Ned but his habit of trying on ladies dresses was a little unnerving to us country boys – He loved dressing up – Finally, he made himself that suit of armour – great concept but like all things Irish, deeply flawed – He forgot to cover his legs – Now I know the Victoria Police are renowned for their stupidity but – give me a break – it only took ‘em a few hours to work out that they could aim at his legs and bring the arsehole down. And down they did – You know what I mean? – I was invited to the reading of Ned’s will – I didn’t know whether to be touched or insulted when he left me his dresses – Anyway, in shame I took off to America – I joined the Seventh Cavalry under the command of General George Armstrong Custer – Well, what a friggin’ lunatic he was, you know what I mean? – Looked the spitting image of Errol Flynn in a blonde wig – I distinctly remember saying to him in no uncertain terms – “Listen Dickhead, there’s six thousand fuckin’ Indians down there!” Well, he just gave me that stupid vacuous smile of his and said “Alright then, let’s be about it!” and rode off, spraying me in mud from the hooves of his equally stupid horse, Bigballs – Well, what the fuck does that mean? – “Alright then, let’s be about it”? – I fairly quickly determined it meant “Let’s get a hurry on and get killed in the most grisly fashion.” Fortunately I had one of Ned’s dresses in me saddle bag and I rode off, side-saddle, in the opposite direction – I got about forty miles before I ran into the James Gang and they gang-raped me – Not the worst experience I’ve had – Still, I did try tellin’ them I was a man – seeing they were obviously too fucking dumb to work it out for themselves – but alas, I fell on deaf ears – I remember one of the Younger brothers grinning a set of decaying teeth and saying “Let us be the judge of that!” – I did and they never got back to me – It was a few days before I could resume riding side-saddle – but there I was – heading across the desert – a changed man – desperately traumatized – and crying into my perfumed hanky – I finally made it to Dodge City where I promptly bought some manly clothes and got drunk to prove I was…well …a man. In my present condition I was finding it easy to walk like John Wayne – I sang a popular song of the day, “Oh Mother, I’ve Just Had a Big Whopper and It Hurt Like Hell” and burst into tears – Fortunately someone in the bar recognized my royal lineage and called out “You must be a fucking idiot”, to which I replied, “Yes. Yes, I am. And I am honoured to be amongst you.” After that, their attitude toward me changed dramatically. Buffalo Bill walked up to the bar and said “You’re the kinda gal I’ve been lookin’ for” – To cut a long story short – I ended up having quite a successful career under the name of Annie Oakley – Let’s face it, I wasn’t the first person in show business to become a star by working in drag. Two years later I left Dodge City with some colourful memories, a love letter from Wyatt Earp, a different view of life and riddled with VD – This altered my thinking somewhat and I took off as a crew member of a sea vessel. The captain was a nice enough man – he had one leg and took an instant liking to me, much to the envy of the other sailors – Well, a few weeks into the voyage I realized we were sailing with a fucking madman. All he wanted to do was chase this fucking monstrously huge whale – I instinctively knew it wasn’t going to end well – He called the object of his obsession, “Moby”. One night, having put up with hours upon hours of listening to him ramble and rage about this fucking boring old prick of a whale, I lost my temper and called it “Moby Dickhead”. The Captain, Ahab, stopped and smiled. And, like everyone in showbiz, he had to embellish my idea by pissing on the tree. He shortened my idea to “Moby Dick.” In my honour, he said. Of     course, true to form, he told no one else about it and my contribution has been lost to history. Not, may I add, the first time I have been written out of a good story – Anyway, we chased that fucking whale until we couldn’t remember what our names were anymore – Then, as moi predicted, that fucking spiteful blob said, “Enough is enough” and turned on us – Smashing the ship to the shithouse and taking the demented Ahab to the bottom of the ocean – All the crew perished except me – I was picked up some days later by a Norwegian whaling vessel and explained my story to them – I said, through an interpreter, that “…we’d all been fucked by a huge Moby…Dick.” I presume something was lost in the translation because I soon found myself back in the ocean. This proved to be a very trying time in my life. Still, what can you do? Fortunately, an English speaking person by the name of Bligh picked me up in his lifeboat. I asked him why he was rowing across the ocean and he confided that he’d too recently experienced a traumatic situation of which he could not elaborate. And, although he liked to whip me twice a day, we got on quite well and it was nice to be back in civilized company. I told him he bore a striking resemblance to Charles Laughton. He had no idea who I was talking about and it earned me another thirty lashes. But, having lived the life I had, I was painfully aware that things could be worse, and contented myself to looking on the bright side of things. Bligh told me he’d never known another man to say thank you after a good lashing. I was a chirpy chap in those days. So appreciative of any crumb. We finally made it back to London and I got a job working for a detective by the name of Holmes. He lived on Baker Street with his “friend”, Doctor Johnny Watson. I soon found out that my new employer was a raving coke-head and would stay up all hours of the night ranting about fuck-all. Several times I stumbled upon their late-night shenanigans – the two of them dancing around – Holmes looking like he’d dipped his sizable nose in the flour jar – with eyes like red pissholes. Creepy bastards. Made me long for Captain Ahab. Still, it was all good experience. I was able to draw on all this in my later life as a successful writer of children’s stories. I wrote under the name of Enid Blyton. My first book, Nuddy in Boyland created great controversy so the publisher changed the name to Noddy in Toyland. Couldn’t help feeling something was lost, but still – it sold well. I felt that the discerning reader was still able to read between the lines and get something out of it. Unfortunately, my favourite character, Big Dick, never quite recovered from my publisher’s molestation.

 

 (c) Frank Howson 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE HIT MAN

He had ended up in Van Nuys. A crummy studio apartment with a bed in the living room along with everything else. Well, what there was left of his life. The books, DVDs, unsold screenplays (some had come very close to being produced but that’s a long story and everyone in this town had one), deteriorating videos, clothes that were fashionable a decade before, and letters from his father. The other two rooms were a closet, and a bathroom. He used the closet as his workspace where he’d set up a little desk and his temperamental PC. It was the dream room and like his dreams the rooms that housed them were getting smaller. He would sit there sometimes all night writing a new screenplay in the hope that he could write his way out of this downward spiral he found himself on.

He also worked various part time jobs in order to pay the rent and buy some cheap food. He tried to keep busy to take his mind off the cold hard reality of the situation. If he thought too much about it he suffered panic attacks. He was far from home. And alone.

In April of 1997 he had landed in Los Angeles, full of excitement and fuelled by a motivation that he was going to take this town and knock it on its ear.

He’d saved enough money to comfortably get him through a year. Maybe two if he was frugal. Back home in Australia he’d been quite successful. A hit play here, a well received film there; even a few critically acclaimed books.

On paper he seemed to be someone to watch.

There are no damned seasons in L.A so its easy to have years slip by you. And slip by Jonathan Tarney they did. His father gave up on him ever coming home. Then the old man gave up on life. Jonathan couldn’t even afford the airfare to return for the funeral and his mean-spirited sisters hadn’t offered.

Jonathan had started out living in fashionable West Hollywood, then moved to a sleazy part of Westin Boulevard, then to Sherman Oaks, then to his present rat hole in Van Nuys.

He’d been married, briefly, to an actress, but she gave up on his dream, and then him. She’d realized she needed to hitch her wagon to someone more substantial before her assets expired. And then one day she just left.

Jonathan came home to an empty apartment with some promising news but there was no one to share it with. So he bought a bottle of Jack Daniels. He bought one the next day too. He bought so many he never got around to polishing his script for the interested producer and the deal went away. Just like his wife.

His spiral accelerated after that. He couldn’t help thinking that there was a weird, exciting feeling about free falling. The bills piled up and so did the empty bottles and all he could do was sit and look at them through hollow glazed eyes. He now had much in common with his father. They were both dead. Just in different ways.

When he was especially maudlin he’d re-read some of his late father’s letters pleading with him to come home. He wanted to cry but tears didn’t come anymore. Tears belonged to the living. Those that could be hurt.

One day while he was walking down Sepulveda Boulevard to the 99 Cent Store to buy his canned foods for the week, he saw a notice on a strip joint door advertising for a bartender. He pushed on the door and stepped inside the dark cavern of a place and stood there until his eyes adjusted and he could make out a few shadowy figures. One of them, a rotund shadow, said in a gruff voice, “What do you want? We don’t open for a few hours. Come back later.”

“I’m here about the job,” answered Jonathan.

“Oh? You’re a bartender?” said the rotund shadow man who walked into a pool of light.

“Well I’ve had some experience. Years ago. Back home. I was pretty good at it then. Well, so people said.”

“My name is Louis Moretti. I own this place.” He looked Jonathan up and down and smiled. “Yes, yes, you may well be the answer to my prayers.”

“Please to meet you, Mr. Moretti. My name is Jonathan. Jonathan Tarney,” giving a smile he’d usually reserved for producers.

“Hey guys, I like Jonathan already. Unlike you bums this guys has manners. Have a seat, Jonathan. Tell me about yourself. You mentioned home. Where’s that?”

“Australia.”

Louis Moretti’s eyes widened. He was impressed. He wasn’t sure he’d ever met an Australian before.

“Well how about that? Did you hear guys? Jonathan here is from Australia. You guys are fearless aren’t you? You know Paul Hogan?”

“No. No I don’t.”

“You know how to make a dirty martini?” Moretti laughed, and so did his shadow men.

“Yes I do.”

“Well what say you make me and the boys some dirty martinis and we’ll talk money.”

By the time Jonathan exited the place two hours later, and after making enough exotic drinks to impress Moretti and his associates, he had a new job. The money was good and he was also promised a small share of what the girls made each night.

Jonathan breathed a sigh of relief, walked past the 99 Cent Store and went into Ralph’s Supermarket instead. A celebration was called for, so he purchased some cans of food that actually had names on them, and some real vegetables as well as some meat. It’d been so long since Jonathan had tasted a steak that he was beside himself with the excitement of a child. Hang the expense, he even grabbed a bottle of red to accompany his meal. He felt rich and tears welled in his eyes at how little it took these days to fill him with such euphoria. How far had he fallen? All the pride and ego had long been trampled out of him and suddenly he felt like the luckiest man in the world. Yes he could still cry. He was still alive. And he was going back to his apartment with a car full of groceries. Just like real people do.

That night he sat on his bed and ate his perfectly cooked steak and assorted vegetables, sipped his budget priced but nice red wine and thought of his ex-wife. He wondered where she was and if she was happy. As happy as he was at this moment. He hoped so. All the anger was gone now and all he remembered was that he had loved her deeply and, for a time, she had loved him. In the end that’s all that mattered isn’t it? He would’ve loved tonight to phone her and wish her well but he didn’t have her number anymore. He was no longer considered a friend.

He turned on the TV to watch something mindless so he wouldn’t have to think.

This town had a habit of shrinking your dreams and your expectations down to size. If you were weak you got broken. If you were a survivor you learned to appreciate any crumb that fell from the table.

Jonathan Tarney became a very popular guy at the Tits! Tits! Tits! strip joint on Sepulveda Boulevard. The customers liked him, so did the working girls and, more importantly, so did Mr. Moretti and his associates.

Jonathan was making good money and had even been able to afford a bigger apartment. This one had two bedrooms and Jonathan converted one into his office where he occasionally attempted to write his great screenplay. The one that would make him a household name. Well, an industry name at least. He wasn’t sure the public really cared about who wrote the latest hit movie. He wasn’t completely convinced that many even realized they were written. What did it matter? Perhaps he just did it out of habit. Or to prove to himself that he was good at it even if no one wanted to give him a break. He smiled at the fantasy that one day, after he was gone, they’d discover his work and regret their stupidity. Then the more sobering thought entered his mind that all his work would be thrown out into the trash along with the other possessions of a man nobody really knew or took seriously.

For some weeks Jonathan had noticed that Mr. Moretti had seemed troubled. Not his usual self. Jonathan was fearful that perhaps his boss had taken a dislike to him or maybe one of his associates had complained about something he’d done. Paranoia haunts the desperate and Jonathan was panicked that his job would be taken away from him and he’d be banished back to the free falling spiral and the anxiety attacks about the next rent payment.

A few nights later, one of Mr. Moretti’s shadow men, Joe Camerilli, came over to Jonathan and asked him to stay back and see Mr. Moretti when he’d finished closing out his bar takings for the night.

“Sure thing,” beamed Jonathan, trying to sound and look upbeat, but Camerilli’s expression didn’t change. It gave nothing away.

At the end of the night, Jonathan nervously made his way to Mr. Moretti’s office. He knocked.

“Come in,” barked Moretti.

Jonathan stepped in and closed the door.

“You wanted to see me, Mr. Moretti?”

“Yes. Yes, Jonathan.”

With that, Moretti got up and walked over to the door and opened it. He peered out, checking that everyone had gone. He then closed the door and returned to his chair behind his big mahogany desk. His face was grim.

“Have I done something wrong, Mr. Moretti?”

“No. No, not at all. I love ya, Jonathan. I feel you’re the son I never had. I really mean that.”

Jonathan was suddenly so relieved he felt light-headed and exhaled his tension.

“But you can help me. I’m relying on you. I have a problem that someone needs to fix and I am willing to pay for it.”

Jonathan waited for him to elaborate but nothing came. Moretti just kept looking at his talented bartender as though trying to read his every thought.

“Of course, Mr. Moretti. You in a way saved my life – or what was left of it – and if I can help you you know I will.”

Moretti smiled. It was his turn to feel relieved.

“I knew I could rely on you, Jonathan. You have an honest face. That’s why I liked you the first time I saw you. Remember?”

Jonathan smiled at the memory. He was feeling relaxed now, and loved.

“I need a man killed.”

Jonathan thought Mr. Moretti was joking so he went ahead and laughed out loud. When Mr. Moretti didn’t laugh, the cold reality set in that he was serious.

“Are you joking?” asked Jonathan, already knowing the answer.

“I don’t joke about a man’s life.”

With that, Mr. Moretti opened his drawer, brought out a revolver, and gently placed it on his desk.

“This is an unmarked gun. It cannot be traced. You have my word on that.”

“But I can’t kill a man! That’s not who I am.”

“You would be surprised what we are capable of, Jonathan, when the situation arises.”

Mr. Moretti got up and started pacing the room as he spoke.

“There is a man. A very bad man. And he is threatening my life, my livelihood, and that of my family. I cannot accept that or wait for him to strike. I must strike first. You understand?”

Jonathan clearly didn’t.

“If I was to tell you all the things this man has done you would hate him as much as I do. He has killed men, women and children. I kid you not. Answer me one thing, Jonathan. If you had’ve had the chance to shoot Hitler would you have done it and saved all those peoples lives?”

“Of course but…”

“Of course you would. This man is not Hitler but this man is evil. He is capable of hurting me, those closest to me and a lot of innocent people. Good people. Maybe even you. He is nuts. There’s no telling what he’ll do or how many people will step into his line of fire.”

“Mr. Moretti – I am not a killer. I make drinks, I write screenplays nobody wants. That’s about it.”

“That’s why you’re perfect. No one knows who you are. No one would ever suspect you. As far as the police are concerned you don’t exist. I had someone do a check on you. You’re clean. You’re not on their radar for anything. I am willing to pay you a hundred thousand dollars. Hear me? You could turn your whole life around on that, Jonathan. You could go to Mexico, buy a big house and live like a king the rest of your life. No more worries, no more pressures, no more hassles. You’d be free and clear.”

“And what if I fucked it up and got caught?”

“There’s no way that’s going to happen. This guy takes the same route home every night. He’s like clockwork. He has a driver we’ve gotten to and we know that on Monday night he will reach the corner of Van Nuys and Vanowen at 8.30pm. The driver will stop at the cross section. When he sees you approach he will slide down onto the front seat giving you clear access to our man. You will be wearing gloves and empty the contents of the gun into him. You will drop the gun down the water drain on that corner and walk away. Not run. Walk. A block east will be a car with no number plates waiting for you. You will be driven to a hotel on Ventura Boulevard where there’ll be a suite waiting for you. No need to report to the front desk as you are already checked in under a false name. Then next morning you walk out of the room, have breakfast at Jerry’s Deli and catch a cab back to your apartment.”

“I can’t take someone’s life. Even if they are evil.”

“I think you can, Jonathan. Think long and hard about how good I have been to you, and what you can do with all that money. Don’t think of yourself as a killer. Think of yourself as a soldier. And this is a battle. And you have the chance to save your father. I’d like to think I’ve been like a father to you. Haven’t I?…Well?”

Jonathan’s head was spinning. Mr. Moretti wisely sent him home to think about it.

Jonathan couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t sit, he couldn’t stop pacing, he couldn’t comprehend what had happened and what he’d been asked to do. At 5am he drove to an all night liquor store and bought a bottle of Jack Daniels. By 8am it was gone.

Now he was drunk and it was time for the devil to whisper into his ear, “Think about what you could do with a hundred thousand dollars. Go to Mexico, buy a beautiful house, maybe get married again and have someone love you. You deserve it. You have had a hard life. All you have to do to change things is say yes.”

At 9am, still drunk, Jonathan phoned Mr. Moretti and said yes. The wheels were turning now and couldn’t be stopped. Jonathan hung up and had the feeling of free falling again. Only his Maker above knew how this would turn out. His hands trembled as he realized he was placing the biggest bet he’d ever gambled with; his own life. He wasn’t sure if the death penalty still existed in California for murder. He wasn’t even sure if he preferred death to a life behind bars. He frantically tried to get those thoughts out of his head. This had to work. It just had to. He was going to kill a man who didn’t deserve to live. He was doing society a favour. That’s right. Step from the shadows, identify the subject and say goodnight. That’s all he had to do to be free and clear the rest of his life.

Mr. Moretti treated him like a son the rest of the week. Even the shadow associates were friendly to him, smiling and nodding their head with a new found respect. Jonathan liked being treated this way. It had been so long since anyone took him seriously.

He tried to get more information on the man he was to…meet on the corners of Van Nuys and Vanowen but Mr. Moretti and his associates thought that was a bad idea. It was best to know as little as possible about the subject, they assured him. All a hit man ever wants to know is the routine of the person involved and what they look like. The less you know, the less emotionally involved you are. It is just a job. All Jonathan needed to know was this man was evil and had done despicable things.

On the intended night, Jonathan waited in the darkness. He checked his watch. It was 8.25pm. He realized that there was a man approaching who had but five minutes to live. Tonight Jonathan got to be God – it was in his power whether someone lived or died. He wondered how long ago it was ordained that his path would lead him to this spot on this night.

He nervously fiddled with his leather gloves and pulled the gun from his inside coat pocket. He attached the silencer he’d been given and gazed down the street. His heart was beating so fast it was like he was overdosing on amphetamines. Then the headlights of a big black car became visible in the far distance. The driver was good, he was right on time. Everyone was playing their parts in the play to perfection. It felt like it was meant to be.

There was no going back now. He knew too much. If he didn’t go through with it he’d probably pay with his own life. His only option now was to put the bullets into the man in the backseat of the approaching car, or put one in his own brain.

The big black car came to a halt at the corner. Jonathan moved from the darkness and strode towards the vehicle. The driver on cue slid down and sprawled across the front seat. Jonathan was now close enough to see the face of the man in the backseat. He was about sixty-four with silver hair slicked back. He looked confused at the actions of his driver and said something inaudible. He then looked over and saw Jonathan approaching him. It only took him a split second to realize that something bad was about to happen and his last look was of great sadness as he grimaced and awaited his fate. Jonathan emptied his gun into the man, disposed of his weapon and walked away as instructed. It had all gone so smoothly it added to the whole feeling of everything being unreal. As Jonathan walked to the waiting getaway car it sank in that he was a murderer. He couldn’t identify the feelings racing through him. Was it shame? Guilt? Or empowerment? All he knew was there was so much adrenalin pumping through his veins nobody had better get in his way. Not tonight.

He got in the car and his driver sped off. Ten minutes later Jonathan was alone in a hotel suite watching a re-run of “I Love Lucy” and registering nothing. The snappy dialogue couldn’t drag him back from his own conscience.

The next morning it was on all the news programs. They flashed photographs of Albert Esposito across the screen and showed footage of him with his family at his daughter’s wedding. He looked so proud and happy. He gave a speech about the meaning of love that broke Jonathan’s heart and he bowed his head and sobbed. He continued to sob through all the tributes from the community and local politicians who praised their fellow committee member for his efforts to clean up the district and shut down the sleazy strip joints and pornography industry that thrived through corruption of authorities and the sales of illegal drugs.

It was reported that his last words, according to his driver, were for his children, “Tell them I love them.”

This was the evil man? The man who’d been compared to a local Hitler?

Jonathan spent an hour in the shower trying to wash away his guilt. If he’d still had the gun he’d have used it again.

If Jonathan had’ve written the screenplay he may’ve had an ending like this…

It was the perfect crime. He had gotten away with it. He was free and clear and living in a little sleepy village called Ajijic that rests on Lake Chapala in Mexico. He has a large mansion with a guesthouse and a swimming pool. His wife is much younger than him and is a beauty that also possesses a beautiful soul. She genuinely loves him and they are expecting their first child. There is a large photograph of Jonathan’s father in the living room and he seems to be smiling with pride at everything his son has achieved. Life couldn’t be more perfect. At last Jonathan is home. Slow fade to black and the credits roll.

Back in the real world, a man walked into the Van Nuys Police Station at 11.27am and confessed to the murder of Albert Esposito. He told them the whole story and later that day Mr. Louis Moretti was arrested.

The news was broken at 6pm. The anchorperson described Mr. Jonathan Tarney as a failed screenwriter.

(c) Frank Howson

THE DREAM DATE

Tim O’Reilly’s hands trembled as he dialed the number. Her number. Christine Milchem had been the prettiest girl at his high school. A goddess. He had fallen in love with her at first sight and that love had lasted twenty years this January. They had dated a few times during high school and he remembered floating in her presence as if it was a dream. Sometimes, over the years, he had wondered whether it actually had been a dream. Thankfully he had a photograph of them at the Lobster Cave to prove it wasn’t. They had looked good together. Well, so he thought. A handsome couple with life before them. But Christine got a job overseas and Tim stayed at home to pursue some ambitions that wasted him some of his best years. Life was funny, wasn’t it?

He had heard that Christine had married some guy and they’d lived in New York for some years before he got caught with his secretary. Tim married a girl named Lynette who understood him for two years of their ten year marriage. Then she hadn’t understood him at all. They became strangers living under the same roof, going their own ways, not caring enough to even ask. Eight of those years had kinda been like a death. A nothingness. Tim often thought it was lonelier to be with the wrong person than to be on your own.

Well, now at last, he was on his own. There were no more distractions or detours, or certificates binding him to someone, he was free. God Almighty, free at last! A friend had informed him that she was back in town and Tim had tracked down her number. Now he was making the call. Perhaps the most important phone call of his life. Something he should’ve done years ago and stopped her from leaving him. If only he’d done so he could’ve saved them both so much heartache. He was hoping that the time was now right and she would feel the same as him. Perhaps she’d pined for him too and had regrets instead of dreams every night.

It was ringing. His heart skipped a beat and he prayed he wouldn’t have a coronary malfunction before he heard that voice again.

“Hello?” answered the voice, and he was suddenly a young boy again. But a young boy with wisdom. This time he wouldn’t let her go.

“Hello, Christine? It’s me?”

“Who?”

“It’s Tim.”

“Tim who?”

He faltered and so did his voice. All the bravado he’d mustered up for the call was draining away. “Tim O’Reilly.”

“I don’t know any Tim O’Reilly,” she snapped, her tone suddenly that of someone talking to a telemarketer. He’d never heard that tone in her voice before.

“We went to High School, remember? Even went on a few dates. Remember our night at the Lobster Cave?”

“Oh Tim…You were the guy with the red hair weren’t you?”

“No, that was Billy. I’m Tim. Remember the Lobster Cave? We both got a photograph of us there. What a night we had, huh? I told you to go ahead and order anything you wanted, hang the expense, we were going to have a night and create a lasting memory.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been to the Lobster Cave?”

Now Tim was getting a tone, “Yes, Christine. You went to the Lobster Cave with me. I have the photograph. We had a wonderful time. You told me so. We held hands walking back to your place and we kissed. Admittedly not on the lips, you turned your head, but it was a moment. A magic moment. I held you in my arms and it all just felt…right.”

“Are you sure this is not Billy?”

“Fuck Billy!”

“I did actually. He was hung like a horse. Come on, Billy, stop kidding around. You were always such a joker. Y’know I’ve often thought about that night we had. Even when I was with my husband.”

Tim wanted to vomit. This couldn’t be Christine the girl of his dreams? She was sounding like a tart. Then relief set in. It was probably her sense of humor. He loved a girl with a sense of humor.

“Christine, it’s me, Tim. Tim O’Reilly. Remember? I have brown hair. I was quite tall for my age. Used to play basketball. Stop with the kidding.”

“Oh?…Tim,” the name Tim was uttered with a tone of disappointment not heard since the Titanic captain’s response upon being informed he wasn’t leaving the ship.

“Yes…Tim. Remember me? I’ve remembered you. There hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t thought of you. Not a day.”

“Whatever happened to Billy?”

“He’s dead!” He was as dead as Tim’s tone was.

What?…How?”

“A car accident. Killed three innocent people with him. He was always reckless. Do you remember that?”

Tim thought he heard her sniffling at the end of the phone.

“Thank you for informing me. That was very sweet of you. He was the love of my life. He really was. What was your name again?”

Tim was not sure he answered her. He was gone. Gone in so many ways that nothing much mattered or made sense anymore. He was sitting at the Lobster Cave. He thought it would be romantic to call her from there. He had ordered oysters, lobster and champagne. Exactly what they had chosen on their date.

He looked up bewildered and despairing. A waiter saw this and came to the table.

“Would you like something, sir?”

It took Tim a while to answer. To even remember where he was.

“No. I want nothing else. I’m done.”

Tim paid the bill and left. The waiter went to the table and realized nothing had been touched. Perhaps the poor man had taken ill. Oh well, the staff had a nice treat to look forward to at the end of their shift.

Tim walked out onto the pavement and watched the traffic zip by. The noise and the cold air felt good. He thought back to the last time he’d been here and how that young boy had worked a part-time job for weeks to be able to bring his dream date to this place. He now looked at it long and hard knowing he’d never be back. It was like his dream. Once it’s been dreamed you can’t go back. You must dream new dreams. There would be someone else. Eventually. If he was lucky. And this time he wouldn’t let her go.

He walked home. All he knew was he hated Billy.

(c) Frank Howson 2014