Honky Tonkin’: A Short Story
When I was thirteen years old my family had moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from Somerset in England, and my dad, who could be cheap, decided to ship my Mom’s green Corsair. Not a particularly good car at the best of times, and a terrible idea in theory became a worse one in practice because it had the steering wheel on the left hand side unlike the US and.. take a breath right now. I am lying on the ground after a slow crossing of Queens Boulevard ended abruptly. I’ve been run over again. It won’t be long now.
I was thirteen years old and we moved three months before because Dad worked for a multinational company that moved me and dad and Mom and here we were. Sure I liked it fine. I didn’t realize at the time but the UK was a staggered up mess still recovering from WW2 and the US was this bright shiny thing, and talk about culture shock. Just the highways and the TV stations, and the morning cereal, and the movie houses and the sparkling clean all platinum side of all these ultra modern thingies. Fries and milkshakes, swing and dances… I was getting it, slowly, but faster than my parents. The street where I lived felt like a parody in 1948, today it would be like some sort of dream world, all trees and picket fences, all that stuff. Families sitting in the front garden, rain on the leaves sometimes dripping, housewives in aprons and business men’s in a shirt and tie and slippers smoking a pipe.
I was walking home from school and crossing the street, yeah in the middle of the street but even so, when my Mom was on the wrong side because of the steering wheel and hit me and it was more like a tap than a full-scale hit but it was more than enough. I was off the grown and then I got lucky and fell on my side because if my head the street, had touched it just a bit, bang I’d have died. and got lucky.Still broke both legs and both arms and was stuck in traction for knocking on a year. . I lay on the street, mom screaming and crying,and I just lay their, and I started to move my lips and my Mom was sobbing, I guess somebody had run indoors and called for an ambulance, I was moving my lips and Mom moved close, put her ear closer and I sang, “When you are sad and lonely and have no place to go, call me up, sweet baby, and bring along some dough…”
Seventy years later and my body was going into shock, I should have known better, maybe I should have just moved completely away from Queens, a slower paced place. I should have known it would take at least three light changes to make it across Queens Boulevard when you are eighty three. Sucker mistake, I wonder if people will think it was a suicide. I sang to myself ” Honky Tonkin’, Honky Tonkin’. Honky Tonkin’, Honey Baby. We’ll go Honky Tonkin’ ’round this town.”
What people? My parents were long dead, my son died in the Air Force, my daughter ran away with her fiancée and ended up the victim in a murder suicide. My wife left me for my best friend soon after my daughter’s death, she had another two children and succumbed twenty years ago after a short illness. And, yeah, there were friends and lovers after my divorce but the young friendless 13 year old was not that lonesome, and my natural dislike for any company whatsoever wasn’t an aberration, but rather something I sincerely embraced. My son joined the Airforce in 1975 and died in 1976, an accident. he was a hotshot Top Gun who got unlucky, I know I should have loved him, I didn’t hate him. But you would imagine I’d have been devastated that my first born had died. I thought it was a reckless, stupid death. His Grandfather didn’t fight for the Allies in WW2, and I was in league with the hippies, though not sartorially, and considered dying for your country a form of insanity. Looking back on my relationship with my boy, it was really my fault. I didn’t go to school games he played in, I didn’t help him with his homework. This was my loneness at work, I came home from the office and any attempt by my son to speak with me was either tolerated or rebutted. My wife was the glue that kept the kids together, I was relegated to the side. The family would spend a month in Delaware every year, visiting with her parents, I couldn’t leave my job of course, and had the house to myself. it was my favorite month of the year. I was upset when he died, of course I was, he was only 20, but not in the way you hear about people being upset , not the way my wife and daughter were.
My daughter’s death was more upsetting. My feelings for her were complicated by my sexual attraction to her. That was nothing I wanted, looked for, or ever acted upon, directly in any way whatsoever -but it lead to the biggest mistake of my life. Around the time she was fifteen years old, I began having sexual dreams about my daughter. It was the very last thing I needed., the very last. I thought of going to a therapist, maybe my incestuous dreams were a metaphor for something else. They weren’t. I began to notice her and I got sick of feeling guilty. I just considered it a weirdness no one would ever hear about and I lived with it. When she was 21, she had a very serious boyfriend and at my wife’s insistence I turned the garage into a home for them, and when they married they would live there. That ended when she began to show up with bruises on her arms, I questioned her about it and it was always I fell, I hurt, I… One night, around 3am in he morning, she was pounding on the front door, neaten and bruised. I went for him. I’m a big guy though never very violent, and this night I went crazy, I told her it was me or him. When I woke up the next morning they were both gone. A year later I was burying her. That was the end of my marriage, the mildew of habit that had kept us together and also kept us (really, her) in pain was scrubbed clean by the baking soda of hatred.
I spent the following 31 years alone. I mean alone as in despite friends from work, occasional girlfriends (none longer than six months) I was alone. No Thanksgiving, Christmas, Birthdays, no nothing. Alone. I didn’t mind it at all. I have no clear idea why I was so much happier by myself, friendless. There is that sense that a life alone has wasted the most precious moments, I preferred it. Coming home every night, playing Hank Williams on the stereo, watching the news, going to sleep. A certain calmness that I hadn’t enjoyed while happy. I didn’t grieve my lost family and once I reached my mid-70s my biggest fears were poverty and illness. If I had made it till I was 85 I would have had a major disaster on my hands. Instead I misjudged a traffic lights at the age of 83 and 70 years, perhaps to the day, I was hit by my Mom’s Corsair.
My Mom died in her 50s and my dad lived on and on (at least it felt that way) and while I invited him to live with the family he refused, choosing to stay in a nursing home towards the end. I found the way life, the gradual degradation of his body through age, had ripped him into pieces. I found myself infantilizing him, like because is bodily functions had regressed, he himself no longer had a thinking brain. In those thirty years, I took great comfort in the seasons, how they passed me by, and how, as the world shuddered from day to day, I was immune. In the quietness of my mind, with everything gone so the entire universe had become just me and my singularity, I had ceased to be confronted by my llife and instead was adrift in my life, my only anchor this brain of mine. The thing is, time conceals us all, whatever else might happen, we are lost to all our thoughts and achievements. Being alone we live in a future we won’t live to see.
From a distance I could hear ambulances, too late late late. I sang along:
“When you are sad and lonely and have nowhere to go…”