In the grand scheme of things, Howard’s interview probably should have been written before the stories about Harold and Pops, as it came first chronologically, but, this whole month has had a bit of a stream-of-consciousness feel to it, and I’m writing whatever feels most important that day, so, we’ll push forward by going backward.
“You should interview Howard,” Mom told me over the phone. This was about a year before my Harold investigation, where I was detouring weekly phone conversations with my folks about work to discuss a recent assignment for my Freelance Writing course. It had been a difficult process for me so far. My heart had been in fiction, crafting character, erecting complex storylines, and the investigative journalism pieces, the neighborhood news stories didn’t allow me the freedom to embellish the same way. More so than that, it made me realize how unpolished my talent was for that niche. For my upcoming assignment, I had to interview somebody. I’m embarrassed to say it, but I hadn’t even thought about Howard.
“He’s had a really interesting life,” Mom added.
“You think he’d do it?” I asked.
“Of course. You know Howard. He loves to tell stories,” Mom said. “He met Elvis,” she added, which immediately made someone interview-worthy in her book. She loved him. Up to that point, I only knew scraps about Howard’s early life. He’d served in WWII. Funny country boy stories. I knew he had been a musician of sorts, but I didn’t really understand how much it had influenced his life, or how serious he had been about it. I dialed Grandma a couple days later and talked to them over the phone.
“Well, uh, I guess I could tell a coupla stories,” his voice hummed. There was a lilt of interest in it. Grandma laughed in the background. “What exactly, uh, I mean, whaddaya wanna know?” I could hear just a slight bit of hesitation in his voice, mixing together with the curiosity, which made sense. No one wants to be interviewed without being prepared for what they might be asked.
“About music,” I said. “Music in your life. How you learned to play. Anything you can recall about your musical life. Playing. Writing songs.”
“There’s nothin’ like writin’ songs. I never get tired ‘a that. I record songs in my brain and I go in an’ set down and put it on tape and all that, but that’s just more of a hobby. But used to, years before, I made a few records, but they, uh, didn’ amount to much, but had no…had nobody to push ‘em, ya know. It was harder to get in then than it is now.”
“Right, right,” I answered.
“But, uh, I have, uh, sometimes we’re ‘a playin’, your grandma and I, I jus’ might, uh, make up a song, but, uh, she plays right along with me.”
“That’s great,” I laughed. I could feel his energy building as he spoke. The interview had already started.
“We been playin’ together twenty years,” Howard recalled.
“Now when did you start playin’ music? When do you remember first starting to play?” I asked him.
“When did I first start?”
“Yeah. Your first guitar, let’s say.”
“When I first started I, uh, played my older brother’s guitar. This was, nineteen-thirty four, I’s twelve years old. He wanted me to, uh, he showed me a few chords on the guitar, he played a fiddle, and we went and played to an old square dance, way out in the country in Arkansas. They moved all the furniture outta the rooms out on, uh, in the yard, and they danced in the empty room.”
He chuckled a little, Grandma giggling again. He could always make her laugh.
“How’d it feel to play that first time?”
“Well, boy was my fingers sore the next day. I’d played five or six hours, way up into the night. But that was my first job, I remember.”
“That’s pretty good.”
I could hear Grandma Bonnie signaling him in the background, her voice faint, but sharp.
“Ok, Howard. Now that’s enough. You don’t have to keep him on the phone all night.” His storytelling was less slightly less engaging on the phone simply because his presence offered an extra edge that the hollow sound phone did not, but I had the feeling he would have stayed talking to me for hours. And I would have sat there listening.
“Well, you’ll have’ta come on over and, uh, we’ll see if we can make up somethin’.”
It was a Saturday morning and I drove to Freeport as the sun was coming up, a scattered set of questions sitting on my tongue. I’d prepared as many as I could, but, to be honest, I was expecting the questions to flow once I knew more about him. Like the students I teach how to research every year, sometimes it’s hard to ask questions when you don’t know enough about your topic to even form a question.
The day would be pretty simple. I would interview Howard. Then we’d head to the nursing home and I would watch them play for the folks there. Lunch afterward at The Oasis, and then head home. Winter was becoming Spring, the lawns already green. And though they wouldn’t have been there that early in the year, when I thumb through the memories I see Grandma’s red geraniums hanging on brackets on either side of her front door. Pops would get her flowers every Mother’s Day, always geraniums, Grandma Bonnie’s favorite flower. They remind her of her mom, Susie.
Grandma Bonnie opened the door with her usual flourish, her cotton ball of hair bobbing above her painted on eyebrows as she strangled me with a hug. I sat, after I’d stolen a Maple Goodie from her candy dish on the coffee table. Howard sat in his recliner, hands folded, smiling. We shared a few pleasantries about life. How was Chicago? Folks were good. School going ok? Can’t complain.
“Let’s see that guitar of yours,” said Howard, eyeing my blue case. I’d taken up the guitar in recent months, and still made more noise than music, but his eyes gleamed at the sight of the ugly old Brazilian guitar I pulled out of the canvas bag. He’d asked me to bring it. “Let’s see how it sounds,” he smiled, holding out his hands. I’ll never forget the look on his face as he laid it across his lap, wrapped his fingers around the neck, the disappointment that washed over him. Like the guitar peed in his lap.
“Oh, it’s strung lefty,” I told him, and he smiled, chuckling hard. There was disappointment in his chin, having wanted to show me how it was supposed to sound. Even more disappointment, I think, in the fact that he couldn’t establish a friendship with it. Instruments were always like that for him. The old violin he found and cleaned up from the dumpster. My cousin’s banjo. Grandma’s piano. Even if Howard couldn’t play them well, he loved to put his hands on them, introduce himself, pluck a few notes of something that had been playing in his head.
“You know, you really got me good with that one,” he laughed hard, offering it back to me.
He wasn’t deterred for long, however.
“Boy, you know, I really got to thinkin’ after we talked the other day. Thinkin’ over some good ol’ stories.” He was ready. I was not.
“One second,” I said, fumbling through my backpack for my digital voice recorder. I felt a little foolish being there. Not sure why, exactly, but I had never participated in something like this, never interviewed a family member in this fashion. The professional details failed me.
“You gonna record it?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I explained, telling him that all he needed to do was talk, that a normal speaking voice would be picked up just fine.
“You sit here,” Grandma said, scampering over to the couch, offering me her recliner so I could put the recorder between us, next to the chandelier lamp on the coffee table. I had my notebook too, to scratch out my own notes as he spoke. In Howard-like tradition, he offered the most intriguing introduction to the story, the kind that made you scratch your head and think, ‘where is he going with this?’
“Well, I guess the first thing about, uh, playing music,” he said, pausing for a solid thirty seconds, “is that, uh, I probably wasn’t supposed to play music in the first place.”