The Last Time I Saw Howser

Al Simmons

The last time I saw Howser was at Pauli Pratt’s new flat on Fat Street, just west of Broadway, a couple blocks inland from the lake on the far Northside of Chicago, in East Rogers Park. Howser’s girlfriend had left him and for some reason he blamed me. I had a six-pack under my arm and offered him a beer. He reached into the side pocket of his loose-fitting, black leather car coat and pulled a knife and thrust it into the belly of an empty cardboard moving box stacked by the door awaiting to be taken to the garbage, and then he gave the blade a twist for emphasis, and said, “I think you should leave before I do this to you.”

“Okay,” I said, took my six-pack, less a beer I gave Pauli, and left Pauli Pratt’s new flat, while Pauli Pratt sat watching our exchange wide-eyed from the far end of the room. Pauli finally moved out of his parents’ apartment in Albany Park, where he grew up, and this is how he celebrated his first day at his new residence. Pauli sat there and never said a word. Once the egg is cracked. Congratulations, welcome to the world.

Howser had been a junkie and a thief for as long as I’d known him, possibly a killer, though he’d never robbed me until recently. Howser and I used to be good friends. We go back to the days of Ed Dorn’s creative writing workshop when we shared editorial responsibilities for Stone Wind Magazine, our college-sponsored literary rag and winner of two Illinois Arts Council Awards for editions issued on my watch. I introduced Howser to Amelia, his now ex-girlfriend. She was another under-aged waitress I knew from working at The Kingston Mines. She approached me at Howser’s reading at the Body Politic and asked if I could introduce her? “You scored a groupie,” I told Howser, “and she is a cutie. She said to tell you she’s yours for the night if you want her.”

We took Ami along to the after-reading party where Howser got paid. Perhaps, had they paid Howser by check, he might have stuck around, but with cash in his pocket he asked me to look after Ami for him, and he took off to score. The party was at a third-story walkup apartment. Amelia followed me out to the back porch. There were no chairs or anything to sit on, so we slid down to the boards and used the redbrick building wall to lean back against. I lit a joint and we passed it back and forth. We sat side by side, the full moon rising in the night sky before us. I slid my hand up her thigh. She caught my wrist and covered my hand in hers, and said, “What about Howser?” I smiled, what about him?I said, “okay.” We finished our smoke and then I drove her home.

A couple of days later she moved in with Howser and he taught her how to write poetry. They were quite the couple while it lasted. Amelia’s new poems sounded like a female Howser. And then, one day she left him flat, just like that. Howser thought she was kidding and refused to accept it was over, they were so in love, at least he thought so, and pleaded with her to return. She refused. Amelia began phoning Howser each time she climbed into bed with someone so he could hear for himself and believe his own ears. Amelia liked to bop about and probably thought she could do better than living in the basement of Howser’s mother’s home, on the Northwest side of the city in an old Polish Catholic neighborhood, without a private kitchen or bath. “Four feet under,” as Howser called it before he met Amelia.

Howser tried to hang himself. He showed me the rope burns on his neck. He complained, “The basement ceiling was too low. I kicked the chair out from under me and landed on my toes and hung there unable to die.” So, he cut off his nose instead. I don’t know where he thought that would get him. He was a good-looking guy, tall, slim, handsome, articulate, and even regal in that junkie sort of way. He submitted to circumcision at age twenty-three; he developed warts. He was thirty when he lost his nose. Howser needed someone to blame for losing Amelia so he chose me.

“At the time I thought I was doing you a favor,” I reminded Howser. “I told you when I introduced her she was a groupie, a cute fuck who would like you to take her home for the night. She didn’t ask to be taken home to marry.”Howser refused to remember. I asked him, “What did I do other than introduce you?” Again, he gave no answer, but insinuated I did something. “Like what?” He wouldn’t say, and instead tried to stare me down. “Go fuck yourself.”

Amelia left him because Howser never had any money, didn’t work, and seldom left the house. He lived like a guard dog in the basement of his mother’s house, protecting the property, getting high, and writing poetry. His characters were inanimate objects found in his surroundings. He spoke to his phone, not on it. His phone spoke to him. He lived partially submerged beneath the soil among the dead and half-dead. His previous girlfriend, Nell, since high school, danced at a Rush Street strip joint and kept him in money and drugs for all those years she lived there until she moved on for whatever reason and Howser was left to survive on beer money his mother threw at him, and whatever he managed to pick up on the street, stealing, robbing homes, or by moving a bag or two.

Howser’s real problem with me had nothing to do with Amelia. Howser wanted my job at the Arts Council, and thought he deserved it, too. Richard Friedman published Howser’s first book, and considered Howser his best writer on his Yellow Press publishing list. Howser, in turn, thought he deserved the call from Friedman before me. “Friedman phoned me,” I reminded Howser, “I didn’t call him. What did you expect me to do, turn it down?I got rent to pay.” Howser never considered that maybe threatening to throw Richard Friedman out of a speeding car during our three-man cross-country reading tour last spring may have caused Friedman to think twice before offering Howser a job. Richard Friedman gesticulated wildly when he spoke. He had wild blue eyes, dirty blond hair with a cowlick, and a face full of bleeding pimples and herpes pus. He was a straight-arrow button-down know-nothing fool, insulting and obnoxious in every way and ways you can’t imagine, arrogant, square, an academic from the suburbs. Friedman didn’t drink, do drugs or smoke tobacco, and never smoked a joint in his life. Friedman invited Howser along on his reading tour to lend credibility to himself and help promote Yellow Press Books, but Howser refused to travel alone with Friedman, and asked me along as a personal favor, and in return offered I could read with them in Bolinas, California, at the end of the tour. A free ride to the West Coast in the springtime sounded like a good idea to me, so I went along.

Friedman and Howser rubbed each other wrong from the start. Friedman was easy to dislike. He’d ask questions like, “What makes you guys so cool? I don’t get it?”

“How do you answer a question like that?” Howser asked me.

“With patience,” I chuckled. Friedman was such a creep he was amusing. We were driving a dark blue, late-model Ford Comet sedan Friedman arranged for the trip from a car-transport company, oil and fuel expenses included. “We try not to insult each other every time we open our mouths, for one thing,” I offered Friedman, adding, “You can’t teach cool. But, maybe, if you tried thinking before you spoke once in a while, might be a good first step. I don’t get it. How does a clueless person like you get to own the press and land the Arts Council job?” He never heard a word I said.

“You guys are tough nuts to crack,” Friedman argued in return.

“You see, that’s just the point,” Howser scoffed. “We’re not nuts, and we don’t want anyone try to crack us. How come you don’t get it?”

“Trying to break somebody’s balls is counter to trying to fit in, man. You need to be cool, talk less and relax, observe more, maybe try enjoying life around you.”

“Like counting corn rows?”

“No, man, ain’t nothing to do with corn.”

We were on our first day on the road entering Nebraska, late afternoon, and Howser cussed and said to me, “One more word out of that guy and I’m gonna throw him out of this goddamn car.”

“Well, just don’t try it while I’m driving, okay?” I offered to drive the entire way, but that got nixed in favor of 200-mile pit stop rotations—one sat or slept in the back seat. We only stopped for food and gas. I’d never seen Howser drive a car before. The first time he got behind the wheel, he set off cautiously like he never had, either. The Ford spun off the road twice with Howser behind the wheel driving through Wyoming in a snowstorm, once before and again right after we stopped for a meal. You would think you’d get a decent cut of beef in cattle country? I ordered steak and got a brick and a side of catsup. I argued, but Howser refused to give up the wheel, even after the second spinout had us moving sideways and then trunk-forward until we finally slid to a stop. “Thank God there’s no traffic.” 

“I got it now,” Howser argued.

“You sure? That’s what you said last time. Christ, that was wild. Good thing we’re the only ones on this road.” We were heading west in white-out conditions, on a straight and abandoned stretch of Interstate 80, driving ass-backwards down a junkie’s dream highway devoid of signs or traffic in the dim white light beneath a quickening storm coming up from the far end of a sunset obscuring our view with darkening shades of varying white and gray. Snow continued to fall and covered all four lanes of raised highway and the fields on either side enwrapped us in a landscape of dim fading white. I couldn’t stand any more. I took a Valium, secured my seatbelt in the back seat, and snoozed right through the next two shifts.

Friedman woke me from a deep sleep to tell me he won thirty dollars in the casino. “That’s why you woke me up, just to tell me that? Why are you such an asshole?” I looked up and saw we were in a casino hotel parking lot. I crawled out of the Ford’s compact backseat to stretch my legs and use the casino restroom, and wash my face. We made two brief stops along the way for Friedman and Howser to hawk their books, one in Denver and the other I had no idea where we were, some college-town bookstore backroom scene. Four people showed up and our host invited me to read, as long as I was there, and since we were, apparently, the only act in town. By the time we got to our final destination on the coast, the fog was in, the night was cold, Friedman looked weary and tired, and Howser looked worse, having run out of drugs and needing a beer. Unlike my two companions, I felt refreshed, well rested, full of energy and ready to have some fun.

We read at the Bolinas bookstore. Lewis McAdams was there, along with Joanne Kyger, one of the original Beat poets, Arthur and Simone Okamura, Joe Safdie and his two wives, and Charlie Ross and the Smithereens Press gang all cozied into the tight-spaced, small bookstore emporium to hear us read our poems. Friedman gesticulated wildly a poem about hats for ten minutes, Howser read some magic from the crypt, a dead man embracing darkness, and I closed with Some Auld Lang Syne. Afterwards, we went down the street to Smiley’s Saloon for drinks, 9-ball, and dancing to a live rock band.

The next day, I woke up in an unheated, damp, chilly house, with a warm, pretty dark-haired girl I’d danced with the night before. The band played a slow blues to close the last set. I held her in my arms and bit her ear. She smiled and offered to take me home. Friedman had arranged for us to stay in the city so I told them to go ahead and I’d meet up with them tomorrow. Richard gave me the address in the Richmond District of San Francisco, then added, “If you’re not there by three p.m., we’re leaving without you.”

“Ya, don’t you dare. I’ll be there.”

She never told me her name nor did I ask, nor did she ask me mine, or maybe we did and I forgot. We left the bar and walked up the street in the coastal fog until we came to a path cut into tall grass and overgrown bramble and lilies, and followed the trail a few hundred feet to a dark house where we entered through a rear unlocked sliding glass door. She was there house sitting the residence. She explained there were no lights. The power was off. Apparently, as part of the deal for the house sitter, the owners of the property preferred the premises be kept without power and gas while they were away. Or, we were trespassing. I didn’t care. Bolinas really is in the middle of nowhere. It’s a cool artist town. I’m there for a night, and either way it felt good to take a break from my edgy traveling companions, and have this woman and a bed to stretch out in. Bolinas had a homey, lived-in feel, or was it the funky sheets and mildew?

So many birds to wake you in the morning. I got up and took a cold shower. She said she preferred showering in the afternoons when it was warmer, and I didn’t blame her one bit, but I knew it would be days before I had another opportunity, so I jumped in cold water, or not. Bolinas was little more than two streets that met between the coast and The Bolinas Lagoon, but there is a hotel downtown. We had breakfast at the Bolinas Hotel outdoors on their café patio. I still didn’t know her name and felt embarrassed to ask, so I didn’t. I took my last sip of coffee, said goodbye, and rose from our table. I stepped off the wooden-planked veranda onto the gravel-paved road that served as Main Street and stuck out my thumb. The first car to come by stopped and picked me up, an old VW bug with no backseat. We took the road up over Mt. Tamalpais and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. The friendly driver was going my way and offered to take me down 19th Avenue to the Richmond District where I met up with Howser and Friedman for the ride back home.

And now, I had the poet-in-residence job and Howser didn’t. A week after the incident at Pauli Pratt’s flat, Friedman approached me downtown at the office with a deal. If I would agree to be responsible for Howser, he’d hire him.

“What do you mean, responsible for Howser?” I asked.

“Keep an eye on him. Make sure he’s where he’s supposed to be. If you’re willing to take responsibility for Howser, I’ll hire him,” he repeated.

“I don’t think so,” I said. I didn’t want any part of it. “Howser can take care of himself. He don’t need me. But, you should hire Howser if that’s what you want to do. But, don’t ask me to do your job. I have my own responsibilities. And besides, you know Howser. He’s a full-grown man. He always shows up where he’s supposed to be.”And, that was that.

I might have agreed and secured Howser the job on the spot, despite the incident at Pauli Pratt’s flat, had he not burglarized my apartment over the weekend while I was tending bar down the street. Like the cop said, “It’s always someone you know.” I can forgive a threat, people have bad days, but breaking and entering and stealing my shit is a no.

I never heard what happened to Howser after that. I never saw him again.

Alan Ray Simmons was born in Chicago on December 21, 1948. He attended Northeastern Illinois University, in Chicago, and won two Illinois Arts Council Awards as editor of Stone Wind Magazine, Northeastern Illinois University Press. Poet-In-Residence, City of Chicago Council on Fine Arts, 1979-80. Founder of the Blue Store Readings, home of the Spoken Word Movement, and creator of the Main Event, the World Heavyweight Poetry Championship Fights, and The World Poetry Association, (WPA). Commissioner of the WPA and the World Poetry Bout Association, (WPBA), Chicago, Taos, New Mexico, 1979 – 2002. Publications include Care Free, poems, Smithereens Press, Bolinas, California, 1982, and a memoir, King Blue (Stone Wind Press, 1992). He is retired and lives in Alameda, CA.