Perry and Dorothy met Howard in the early 1970s at one of the many local venues where Howard played music. Taverns. Eateries. Most of the locals knew him in the scattered towns around Hardee, which was puny on its own. These were establishments where he could croon old country tunes from his youth in a dark corner, and strum the rural, folksy songs to which most of the patrons could hum at least a few bars while they tapped their feet and nibbled on french fries. He was married to a woman named Betty at the time, and Howard’s sense of humor, along with Perry’s iron confidence, probably rubbed an instant electricity between them. Perry probably approached him to hear the story or two from the amusing showman. Turned out, they only lived a few short blocks from each other, in the same development of houses. Howard and Betty were often invited to Perry and Dorothy’s to shoot pool after that, have a few drinks, and giggle the night away while Howard told stories of his childhood.
Laughter, however, couldn’t cure Betty’s cancer.
It would unravel her swiftly, Howard tending to her in their quaint, three bedroom, ranch-style home until she passed. While I never spoke to him about any of that, I can imagine it left him tired and alone, scrambling to make sense of an unsure future in a home that had fallen to clutter and chaos in the months leading up to her death. Their son, Wayne, was grown, and had his own life, his own family to fashion in Alabama, so after the funeral, after the guests and kin and friends had all gone home, Howard, a mostly quiet man, probably found himself alone in a house of too much quiet. Pressing in on him. Exposing all the things he wasn’t prepared to handle. I have to believe Perry and Dorothy had a big role in saving him during those years.
Howard would have maintained. I do believe that. He was resourceful and durable, and had survived with much less. He would have found some way to keep his head above water, playing those taverns and restaurants, but returning home to the blistering quiet of his own solitude would have wound him down like an old watch over the years. Alone. Alone in a way that went deeper than his quiet nature, heavier than the hours that he went without speaking, leafing through books and magazines by himself. No, this quiet would have slowly eaten away at him, inch by inch, they way it had deteriorated a few of his brothers that never married, or lost their wives young. The isolation would have manifested itself in the piles and piles of dirty dishes in the sink, mounds of unwashed laundry, perhaps creeping into declining hygienic habits, a muted life so far removed from that cacophonous childhood with 11 siblings.
He also just wanted someone to care for him, I would imagine. A man from a time and place when men’s and women’s duties were clearly defined, Howard was no Mr. Mom, no whiz with a mop, no kind of housekeeper. These weren’t things he couldn’t do. But, from what I knew about him, he simply wouldn’t do them.
I often mistrusted Howard’s stories when I was young. The way he told them, the bizarre things he said. Seemed like big fish stories to me. But as I grew older, I realized he’d just gotten so good at telling them. Sure, slight exaggerations were to be made, but no less true. He told me a story once that I didn’t believe, though I eventually got confirmation through his son and Grandma Bonnie. It went something like this:
Betty had raised a fuss one day because of his poor housekeeping habits. Dishes had piled up all over the table and counters.
“Now, Howard,” Howard whined in the same high-pitched, irritable voice he used to imitate all women, “I cook for you and clean for you, and I never say nothin’ ‘bout it. But I tell I’m tired of waitin’ on you all day long without you liftin’ so much as a finger to help clean up. And I’ll tell you something else. I ain’t comin’ back into this here house until there’s a clean set of dishes on the table. You get off your lazy behind and do somethin’ ‘bout it.” Her voice was punctuated by the rap of the screen door, along with the clunk of her shoes down the steps. “She’d gone off somewheres,” Howard added, staring off at nothing in particular. He would usually pause for the better part of ten seconds at spots like these, leaving you hanging, and you prayed the story wasn’t over.
“Well,” he’d continue, “so I set there awhile.” “It got dark.” Pause. “Went to bed.” Pause. “Woke up the next morning, and them dishes was still a’settin’ there.” Pause. “Still no Betty.” Chuckles from around the room. “So, uh, I got to thinkin’ ‘bout what I might like to do with the rest of my life.”
“Now you stop it!” Grandma Bonnie yelled at this point, and smacked him hard in the shoulder. “You’re lucky, buddy,” she barked with real disdain in her voice. “I wouldn’t have come back!” she told the rest of us in the room.
“No,” Howard snickered, smiling big, “I don’t reckon you woulda.”
“Well, finally, uh, after, uh, it got ‘bout to lunch time.” Pause. “And, uh, well, I started a’gettin’ hungry.”
More chuckles from around the room.
“So’s I got up…started puttin’ the dirty dishes on the table. Rounded them all up.” Pause.
“Aww, and you washed them?” my mother prodded, anticipating a lighthearted finish.
“Well…no,” Howard smiled. “I went and I grabbed the four corners of that tablecloth. You know, I pulled ‘em all in a bundle. And then, uh.” Pause. “Well, I walked ‘em right outside to the trash bin.”
Gasps from my mother. Chuckles from my father. The vague speck of a smile materializing around Howard’s cheeks.
“And then I, uh, made my way to the store and bought some new dishes. Whole box of ‘em. Set ‘em all up nice on the table…nice and clean.”
“I don’t imagine she was happy when she came back,” my father chimed. Another long pause while Howard thought.
“Madder than hell,” he grumbled, “but them new ones sure was nice.” Howls of laughter, even from Howard, as my grandmother reached to smack him again.
My father confirmed a few stark details with Grandma over the phone last weekend about how she met Howard, as much as she could remember anyway. She was in good spirits, and chuckled at the memories.
Bonnie had driven down to visit with Dorothy for a few days in the summer of 1987. After reminiscing for a few hours at the small formica table in the kitchen over iced tea, Dorothy told Grandma she’d like to introduce her to somebody, and they walked out to the pool hall. There were Howard and Perry, mid-game of 8-ball, laughing, the hum of a ballgame on the radio. After brief introductions, they all sat and laughed together, each taking their shots. Dorothy and Grandma played too, and were no slouches, if memory serves. The hum of the window unit air conditioner filled the hollow spaces between their conversations, which were few. As well as I know them both, I assume Howard teased my Grandmother a bit. And I’m certain that she snapped right back at him. She probably loved his stories. And he probably took a shine to her spunk.
A few days later, Grandma left, laughing from time to time on the lonesome 10 hour drive home about silly stories Howard shared. Although, the way she drove, I’m sure it was more like eight and a half. She hadn’t been home an hour, still unpacking her suitcase, when the telephone rang.
“Bonnie?” The voice crackled. “Bonnie?”
“Yes, this is she,” she said back.
“Well, hello, Bonnie. This is Howard.”
“I’m, uh…I’m a’comin’ up to see ya.”