WHO SAW HIM LAST?

These were the shoes he wore. Notice the soles are thin. He’d walked many miles in these trying to get ahead.

This was his favourite jacket. He felt wealthy when he wore it. Even though it had holes in the pockets.

This is the shirt he called his lucky one. He always wore it to important meetings and although nothing ever came of them he felt this shirt would bring him luck. Someday.

These were his favourite pants – he’d been married in them. Twice.

This was the hat he wore everyday. It shielded his head from the rain and the wind and the sun. And if he pulled the brim down, from everyone.

This is the map he lost just before he lost his way.

These are the tears he cried when he had nowhere to go.

This is the heart you broke and you didn’t even know.

These are your letters he kept when he believed in you.

This is the photo of his mother who thought he was precious.

Where are the friends he helped instead of helping himself?

This is his favourite song that he played every night.

This is the movie he said changed his life.

These are the books he loved now all packed away.

Who saw him last?

(C) Frank Howson 2019

WHERE DID WE LEAVE THE STORY?

Where did we leave the story?
Oh, that’s right, you left me
Were we out of our minds
To ever think we’d be free?
What’s the name of that street?
No, wait, it’ll come to me
Did we throw away our good fortune
Whilst searching for destiny?

“I knew a man who went to sea
And left the shore behind him
I knew that man for he was me
And now I cannot find him”
You once sang me that song
On our way to the gym
I think it’s about a legless man
And how it was he could still swim

Where did we leave the glory
We’d fought so hard to win?
Perhaps God was insulted
And deemed it a sin
What is that condition
When we’re too scared to win?
But perhaps we can’t blame it on theories
The truth is we’re made of tin

Where did we leave those tablets
That got us through the night?
Who said we had a chance
And that we were in the right?
You know me so you know
When I glow in the light
I don’t give up till I’ve given my all
Although this time I just might

Why did you leave our story
Just when things had worked out?
Were you afraid to express
All of the things that you felt?
Well it snowed this Christmas
Alone I watched it melt
Then I toasted us with aged whiskey
Although our drink is stout

(C) Frank Howson 2019

THE DEAD AND THE DYING

The heavy decrepit bodies of the great and not so, mingled with their offsprings, children too young to realise that this too would be their fate. Pathetic men way past their glory days paraded pretending that they still had it, while bored defeated women looked on knowing they didn’t.

It was another day at the enclosed perfectly temperatured salt baths. The warmth was comforting to the skin and the soul and made old bones and muscles feel rejuvenated. The inhabitants floated safe in this maternal womb away from the business deals that no longer mattered in a world that no longer cared and was on its last legs. Some old guys studied the racing form while younger middle-aged men preferred the stock market. Some gambled with their own money while others ventured with what they had married into, or had inherited. All in all there’d be few winners that day. There were no more lucky numbers to be had, or surprise gold and mineral funds in a world that had been looted, raped and gang banged so many times there was nothing left. Certainly not energy for outrage. Only resentment from natives who had been trampled under foot and squashed by the invaders who destroyed paradise without ever having taken the time to truly look around and realise the greatest wealth was above the ground. But like rats they burrowed lower and lower into darkness desperate for any shiny morsel of opportunity. Never thinking any further ahead than that.

We had destroyed the world without realising that such an abomination also destroyed ourselves. What we project outwards also implodes us. Given time.

I stood in the warm salt water as the floating bodies of the dead and the dying circled me.

(C) Frank Howson 2019

Sketch by Frank Howson.

A WALK IN THE RAIN

He aged within the silences of our stilted conversation. His eyes were those of a man who’d seen his kingdoms fall and the survival mechanisms of such pain had turned him into a statue. Although he was outwardly pleasant and patient there was no one there. He was a ghost haunted by himself but chained to a place that had been familiar in his real life. I wondered if like other theories of ghostlore he was doomed to act out his past mistakes over and over again until they revealed something he hadn’t known before. And replayed to the incessant drumbeat of “If only I’d done this. If only I’d done that. If only…If only…

The dark circles beneath his eyes told me he didn’t sleep much and that the night was rarely his friend. To him there was no morning, afternoon or evening only awake time and dozing time.

It was those eyes that still haunt me to this day. They told me they knew the secrets of this life and that the knowing of such things begats a penalty far beyond any pain most humans experience.

He said his best writing came to him at 3am which was God’s favourite time to speak through us, when the night is still and the silence is that of eternity. The world at momentary peace with itself and you feel you can hear God’s breath within the comforting embrace of darkness. Such were the fleetingly magic moments when inspiration struck him.

He felt he was no longer a person, but a vessel. He had worn himself out in his search for a lasting kind of love and knew now that it was not written as part of his destiny. Hence he no longer sought it for it only carried disappointment in its train. and such disappointment sometimes took years to wash away. A penalty for those who cared too deeply. Furthermore he now feared he no longer contained the capacity to feel the emotions of normal people, and wondered why God had spared him and taken so many others. Sometimes it crossed his mind that the lucky ones died young, still hopeful with dreams intact. He mused that perhaps that old saying was true, “God calls home first those he loves the most.”

These days he liked to walk in the rain. It made him feel something.

(C) Frank Howson 2019

Photo by Raija Reissenberger.

THIS PRISON HAS NO BARS

From the mansions of sadness
To the bums on the street
From the highways of loneliness
To the halls of defeat
I’ve watched your ascendance
The road I never took
Girl, you’ve come a long way
On a smile and a look

From the poolside of stardom
To the kids on the run
From the mountains of compassion
To the things never done
I’ve watched your progression
With an assassin’s eye
I could have been there too
But my heart doesn’t lie

There are stars in cars on every corner of this town
You’re gonna need a lot of help
When you finally come down
You’re slept with the Caesars
And you’ve dined with the Czars
But none of them told you why
This prison has no bars

From the towers of power
To a broken man’s plea
From the face on the magazine
To the girl you used to be
I’m waiting for some answers
Beneath the falling stars
Wish I could’ve warned you
This prison has no bars

(C) Frank Howson 2019

THE MEANING OF LIFE

He came with love in his heart for every living thing. His innocence had been untouched and his light force shone so bright that crowds gathered to see him but, more importantly, to feel his warmth. By gazing upon him they were somehow changed. “Was this the Messiah?” they mumbled to each other in hushed tones lest they be deemed blasphemous by some. For some can find darkness in every hope, every wish, every prayer.

And when this man spoke it brought some to their knees, others to tears. It was as if the calmness in his voice could heal every hurt and fear that had weighed them down and they were now somehow lighter.

The taking away of such anguish even brought back sight to the blind. As if all they had needed was to believe in something and were being granted the ability to see the world anew. Men who had walked too many lonely dead end loveless roads and were now crippled, found that they could walk again. And after those first awkward unsure steps they inched closer and closer to him growing more confident and accepted with each one until they were in his arms, and the safety and strength  of unconditional love made them sob for the joy of each precious moment. Time that they had, until now, misinterpreted and cursed for their burdens, and wasted, was now rediscovered and rejoiced over. All things were possible again.

In his face they saw no judgement, no impatience, no pity, only love. And his love became contagious among the people and they sang his praises.

He had not come to destroy the Romans, or hand out weapons, or preach hate. He was here to give meaning to our lives. What was the meaning of life? Love. For love opens the door to joy. And its light extinguishes all shadows.

But there were those, the shadow people, who were angered by us learning the meaning of existence and saw that this teaching could undermine their power over us. For they ruled by fear and threats, both of which were rendered insignificant when the masses walked proudly in the sun again unchained from their own mental limitations.

So they arrested this man, this dangerous man, beat him, whipped him, ridiculed him and his suffering, and sentenced him to an agonising death for the crime of telling us to love and forgive each other.

And in his final conscious moments he forgave those who had plotted his death, and the ignorant who had killed him. To this day it remains the greatest triumph of the human spirit.

Perhaps he was drawing evil into the light so that the world could recognise its face?

 
(C) Frank Howson 2019

Painting by Frank Howson (c) 2019

THE ICON

Robert Travell was about to make a comeback. It seemed like all anyone had talked about for the past few months, the return of the 6os music icon whose songs helped changed the world and stop a war. You couldn’t turn on the TV, radio, pick up newspaper or surf the internet without seeing the excited commotion this had caused. It was rumored that Columbia Records were paying him a million dollar advance for his first album in thirty years.

What had happened to him? At the height of his career he just disappeared. Retired. Became a recluse. Periodically there were sightings of him – or someone resembling him – in diners, at bus depots, on a construction site, but nothing ever confirmed. Some say he’d gone mad like Howard Hughes and now had a beard to his knees – others say he did a J.D. Salinger and had simply had enough of the prying eye of the press and public and was now working as a history teacher in some rural area school. The truth is, no one knew.

The magazine I worked for had assigned me to interview the great man on this eve of his return. I was only twenty-one at the time and had missed Mr. Travell’s glory years, but had grown up in a home where my parents had played his records ad-infinitum. In many ways he felt like a member of my family. Like a beloved uncle I was yet to meet.

I was given his address and the appointed time for the interview. The address was in a little street in West Hollywood. It seemed an odd location for him as I knew the street well and the homes and apartments there were all very modest. I would’ve expected a mansion befitting this man’s contribution to the world, but I was young and yet to learn about the music business and the thieves that run it.

I was so nervous on the day that I almost had a car accident because I was so tense and my mind was on everything other than the road. I pulled up outside the address and had to recheck it as I couldn’t believe this little house in disrepair could possibly be where the great Robert Travell had ended up.

I knocked on the door. There was no answer. My disappointment went straight to my stomach and I felt sick. I must’ve written down the wrong address. Maybe I misheard the interview time. Oh shit. I’d been given the chance to interview Robert Travell and I’d screwed it up. Just as I was beating myself up on the porch, I heard a voice.

“I’m around the back! Come to the backyard”

Oh thank God! He’s home. Well, around the back. I then began the grand adventure to get to the back yard. I had to maneuver my way past several rusted out cars, knee-high grass, an old discarded washing machine, and through garments that looked like they’d been hanging on the clothes-line for several years. Finally, after some time, I succeeded in reaching the backyard but no one was there. Then, from inside I heard…”Where are you?”

I know realized he’d gone to the front door in search of me. My fantasized wonderful interview with the great man was rapidly descending into a farce.

“I’m here!” I yelled out but doubted if he could hear me.

I opened the back door and walked in. I could see him, his back to me, at the front door. I was silenced by awe and fear. I heard him grumble something to himself and then he closed the door and turned. Lost in his thoughts he was almost up to me before he saw me. He stopped with a jolt.

“Who are you? And what are you doing in my house?”

This was now a Laurel and Hardy sketch and I just wanted to turn and run from the embarrassment.

“Ahhh I’m Suzie Montrose…I’m here to interview you, Mr. Travell. I’m sorry, I went to the backyard and you weren’t there so I just came in. I’m so sorry. I’m usually very well mannered.”

He smiled and his whole face softened. “You are well-mannered, Suzie. I see that in your eyes. A cup of green tea, perhaps?”

“Yes…Oh thank you, Mr. Travell…thank you so much. That would be lovely.”

I hate green tea but at this moment I was so looking forward to it.

As Mr. Travell walked into the kitchen to prepare the tea, which he did with great care as though it was sacred ritual, I studied his living room for clues about him. I looked at his book shelf which usually revealed a lot about a person. But in this case it was empty except for one book – “The Art of Dentistry.”

“Mr. Travell. I see you’re interested in dentistry” I yelled out so he could hear me in the kitchen.

“No, not at all. A friend of mine gave that to me.”

“Your dentist?”

“No, he’s a carpenter.”

This man was becoming more and more fascinating and enigmatic by the second. How could someone so great with words be the owner of only one book?

He suddenly appeared with a tray and our teas. He took great care to place my cup on the coffee table in front of me. I could see his hands shook a little. Perhaps he’d been an alcoholic? Or maybe by caring too much as illustrated in all his songs he’d burnt our his nervous system.

“Don’t you read many books, Mr. Travell?”

“No. I find they contain too many words.” He sat. “Never read a book that couldn’t be improved by cutting it in half.”

I wasn’t sure whether he was serious or just having me on. I was lost for words so he jumped back in to fill up the void.

“For instance, “A Tale of Two Cities” would’ve been much better, in my opinion, as a tale of one city. But what do I know?” Then he smiled.

I was speechless and had nothing to add to that, so I drank my green tea. All of it, in order to buy some time to think.

“Ah, we’re off to a great start! I see we have something in common.”

“Huh? What’s that?” I asked.

“A love of green tea.”

“Oh yes, I can’t get enough of it” I lied.

“Well I shall get you some more.”

And so he did, and poured it slowly and with considerable care.

Desperate to say something to fill out the silence, I uttered, “I see you live very simply, Mr. Travell.”

“Two divorces and a record company that robbed me blind. I have always admired Jesse James. At least he was honest about what he was.”

“You must be excited about your new album?” I ventured on.

“No.”

“But the whole world is waiting for it.”

“Are they really?…Isn’t that sad?”

I had nowhere to go with this interview and was losing any grasp I had on an angle for the story.

He looked at me for a long time. I was used to that, being a woman and interviewing sleazy rock stars. But Travell’s look was different. He was looking at me – into me – as though seeing my soul. There was nothing sexual about it. His caring eyes exuded the warmth of a father. For the first time in my life I felt safe. And loved.

“Here’s the deal. Forget this interview, I know how they go, you ask the standard questions and I give you the standard answers. Why don’t you hang out with me for the rest of this week and get to know me. The real me. Y’see everyone I’ve ever met has written a book about me, as well as all the people I never met. They all seem to be an expert on my life. And y’know something? It’s all bullshit and lies. And seeing this will be my last foray into the public, why don’t you take the time to get me right?”

“Really?…How do you know you can trust me?” I asked.

He smiled again, “I can trust you. You have a shining soul. You must protect that, but I’ll tell you how to do that later in the week. Now, who’s for some doughnuts? I know a wonderful place and it’s so much superior to those Krispy Krap ones.”

I loved this man already. “Yes, count me in!”

And so off we went on another adventure. This is how the whole week was. A series of adventures with a man who, if he was mad, it was a madness like Don Quixote – a madness that cut through all the ugliness of the world and taught you that there was love in everything. If you looked hard enough.

That week I had the best doughnuts ever. We also went to a baseball game; sat on Venice Beach and saw and heard the drum ceremony at sunset; ate in diners and all the while talked about our lives. He asked me why I was working for a stupid magazine that only interviewed stupid celebrities. I told him my dream was to buy my own little apartment so I’d never have to struggle to pay rent again. He told me I could achieve that without selling my soul.

I was concerned for him because he fell several times that week. Literally. He had so much pride he was back on his feet within seconds. He told me he had dizzy spells occasionally and was on medication for it. In fact he seemed to be on a lot of medication. He had pills in every pocket and regularly took them.

Every time I asked him about his new album he changed the subject. All he would confirm was that it was finished. And so was he. It would be the last.

“So that means that it must contain some interesting statements about the present day and age?” I ventured.

“You could say that,” he smiled mischievously.

“Why did you walk away for so long?”

“I didn’t walk, I was driven away actually. But that’s a story of greed and darkness and why ruin our meal? Anyway, I’d said everything I wanted to say in all those songs. Each one of them deals with a different aspect of life and, seeing the world unfortunately hasn’t changed, I have nothing new to add. To have gone on would’ve meant I’d have just been repeating myself, which so many artists do. You have to have the class to know when to go. You owe it to the public to leave their fantasy about you untarnished.”

“So, with the new album – are you taking music in a new direction?” I bravely asked.

He looked momentarily disappointed in me. But then the warm smile returned. “I am giving the music industry what it deserves.”

He then looked sad, and turned away indicating he’d said all he was going to say about that.

I asked him if he had any children.

“Yes. But they were taken away from me years ago by mothers who convinced them I was mad and dangerous to be with. Not a day goes by that my heart doesn’t break when I think of them. I hope they have grown to be good people and that they are safe.”

That night we walked back to his place. When we got there he was genuinely concerned about me driving home.

“I won’t hear of it. You’ve had three glasses of wine over dinner and that’s enough to get you in trouble with the cops or worse still be involved in an accident. You can sleep in my bed, I’ll sleep on the couch.”

“No, no, I’ll sleep on the couch.”

“Nope, that’s the deal. Besides, I like the couch. It’s my friend. To tell you the truth I fall asleep here most nights.”

Then he looked at me and said, “You are safe here you know?”

“I know that. In fact I have never felt safer.” I am so glad I said that to him.

The next morning I got up and went out into the living room. He was sitting up asleep, or so I thought. After some time I touched him and he was stone cold. As cold as a statue. As cold as the monument they would eventually erect of him. I ran screaming into the street. I wanted to tell the world he was gone. I wanted to tell them everything was now changed. A light had gone out. He was gone.

I watched them take away his body. But that was not him. It was just a body. I lied and said I was his daughter just so I could sit in his house and feel his spirit a bit longer. On his table I found a CD that had scribbled on it “The New Album.” With trembling hands I put it on and sat on his friendly couch to listen to Robert Travell’s last statement to the world.

The first track was Robert reciting “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”

The second track was a diatribe about what thieves record companies are.

And so it went on. 10 tracks in all. He had delivered 10 tracks and fulfilled his contractual obligations, and thus could keep his million dollar advance.

I started to laugh, uncontrollably. This was his “fuck you” to a record industry that had fucked him long and hard. The record company would later issue a statement saying that the reason the album wouldn’t be released was due to the fact that it was unfinished and in respect of Mr. Travell’s important legacy they would shelve it.

In his will he left each of his two children $400, 000 plus all the royalties from his record and publishing catalogues. And to me he left $200,000 so that I would never have to struggle to pay rent again.

I have quit my job writing about other people’s lives and have started a Robert Travell Charity Foundation to help homeless people. I am also writing my first book and making sure it’s not too long.

Every night I sit on the couch, his couch, in my apartment, sip my green tea and give thanks that he came along and that I was lucky enough to know him. Really know him. Trouble is, I fear he has ruined me for any other man. You see, a Robert Travell comes along just once in a lifetime. If you’re lucky. Although I live in hope that I will find his spirit in someone else. And that that someone will look into my eyes and really see me. And I will feel loved and safe again.

Recently I was offered a million dollars to write about my experiences with him. I told them to go fuck themselves. And somewhere, Robert Travell laughed, and I was filled with a warmth deep inside. A warmth that told me he was proud of me and that I’d turned out alright. In his words, I’d grown to be a “good person.”

(c) Frank Howson 2014