Honky John Tonk was a real man. By that I mean he lived, he breathed, his feet trod upon this earth. Love, sorrow, anger, and regret; were known to him. He lived the better part of the last century into this. During the course of his life he had lived without electricity, fought in the Second World War and marveled as Neil Armstrong stepped into the annals of history and onto the surface of the moon.
Honky John Tonk was not his real name. Neither was the name I had known him by until the reading of his will, his true name. His given title, I will not share, as he has instructed in his final wishes not to do so. I may, he has granted, share the assumed moniker by which he went.
Joe Smith was how I first met him, and how I still think of him. He revealed to me, that he had gone by the name Honky John Tonk in his younger age while scraping out a living as a musician. It was this, which drew me to him, as I was in my youth, a musician. This is what happened.
I went to visit my grandmother in The Twin Oaks Assisted Health Care Center in July of Ninety Seven. The summer was hot and I remember it was a cool day, down in the seventies, and having little planned for the afternoon I had borrowed my mother’s car and driven into town to visit with grandma.
Arriving at Twin Oaks, I pulled into a shaded spot as far away from the door as I could get. It wasn’t that I was worried about the car, but I was young and enjoyed the feel of using my body. A small brisk walk from the car would be enjoyable on a cool day.
Pushing open the door and walking into the lobby, I smiled at the attendant receptionist. She was new, or at least hadn’t been working on any of my prior visits, and she was young and attractive. I smiled at her, approached her window and signed the visitor registry. Patiently, and enjoying the view, I waited for her to fill out my pass.
I knocked on Grandma’s door and waited for an answer. When she didn’t call out to me to come in, I opened the door. Her room was vacant and the light in her bathroom was off. Stepping inside and pulling the door closed behind me, I checked the bathroom. Empty.
Exiting the room and turning right, I headed towards the dining room. In the mess hall, I failed to find her, so turning around, I headed to the recreation room. She wasn’t there either as I glanced around, noting the lone old-timer sitting hunched in a wheelchair and listening to a portable CD player through small black headphones.
Watching him for a moment, wondering what horrid music he was listening to. I
wondered, too, whether someone had come and picked grandma up to go shopping, or visit, or just to take a ride out into the country where she had been raised. Deciding I knew where to find out, I left the old man to his listening.
The receptionist, whose name I discovered to be Denise, informed me that yes, she was new, yes my grandma had been picked up (“Sorry I forgot to tell you.”), she appreciated the remark about her eyes, and that she was taken. I snapped my fingers in disappointment at the last, winning a giggling smile from her.
I had returned to the car and was fishing the keys from my pocket when somebody called out to me. I didn’t realize at first that I was being hailed, as the speaker had only generically hallooed to some youthful male.
“Excuse me, young man!” I heard the voice but didn’t think it was directing itself towards me.
“Young man!” I found the keys, and smiled.
“Hey there boy!” I slid the door key into the lock.
“You in the white shirt!” I paused.
“Yeah you! Ain’t no need to think on it! You’re the only one out here!” I looked around. I was the only person in the parking lot.
“That’s right son.” I turned my head towards the voice. It was coming from behind the wood slatted deck fence behind the recreation room.
Walking over to the fence, and gripping the top, I pulled myself up to view the person who had hailed me. It was the old music lover from inside. I lowered my eyebrows at him inquisitively.
“What can I do for you sir?”
“Well, I saw you leaving. Thought maybe you dropped by to see Janette. That your grandma?” I nodded.
“Well, you see, I know she comes back here and smokes time to time, I saw her once. Anyways, I know she’s got doctors orders not to and I was thinking, somebody must give ’em to her.” Now I was smiling.
“You need a smoke?” I asked. He tilted his head to the side and smiled at me as he pushed himself into a posture resembling erect.
I dropped to the ground grinning, walked back inside and made my way through the building and out onto the back deck. Finding him seated now next to a bench, I took a seat, pulled two cigarettes from my pack and handed him one. He bowed his head towards me in thanks and accepted the lighter I handed him. Glancing towards the fence, I noted that I couldn’t see even from this raised side, the parking lot.
“How’d you see me?” I asked. Smiling, he extended his hand.
“I’m Joe Smith.” He stated as we shook. “And this is how I know to meet somebody.”
“Jon Bautz.” I replied, puzzling over his proclamation.
We released our shake. Handing the lighter back to me, he studied my face. I lit my own cigarette, aware of his gaze. Returning the lighter to my pocket, I turned my face to his appraisal.
“You’re thinking on it.” He stated. Of course, I knew what he meant and I nodded.
“That’s good. Thought you sized up as a good kid. Probably make a good man one day.” His head bobbed up and down as he agreed with his words.
Turning to look over his shoulder, he indicated the fence with a nod. I followed his gesture and stared towards it.
“Pried a knot out of one of them boards a few weeks ago with a fork I stole from the mess hall. Got me a little spy hole.” He chuckled and I found myself appreciating what he had just revealed to me.
Something stirred in my mind and I thought of all the Louis L’Amour novels I had read. He reminded me of some of the characters in the author’s stories.
There was just the beginning of what would become a deep respect, born in me at that moment as I realized here was a man from an era which did not understand the world today, but had known wonders that would never again exist for my generation’s discovery.
Of course, those are not the terms in which that cognition expressed itself when I was so young. It would take me years to be able to properly express the initial impression I received from Honky. But, years I have and back then I had more.
“You meet somebody with an introduction.” I blurted out.
“Yessir.” He nodded again, smiling. “You a real good young man.”
“So why don’t you have any smokes? Doctors orders?”
“Nope. Just ain’t got nobody to get me none.” I nodded, assuming his easy style.
“Well, you can have mine.” I offered them to him and he accepted. I wondered briefly whether I had just done something generous or been bamboozled by a sly old man.
“Grateful, son. You wait up a minute and I’ll pay ya for ‘em.” I held out my hand, waved the offer away.
“Don’t worry about it. They’re cheap, I get paid decent.” Again he nodded, bowed his head again and smiled.
“So what were you listening to earlier?” I asked. He picked the disc-man up from his lap and handed it to me.
“Take a listen.”
I slipped the headphones on and hit the play button. After a few seconds of grainy silence, a blare of trumpets erupted in my ears and I looked down to find the volume turned all the way up. I left it, listening to about forty seconds before turning it off.
“Don’t like it?” He asked.
“Sounds like the soundtrack to a cartoon.” I told him. He chuckled again.
“Well, I reckon that’s probably so. Try song eight.” I humored him.
It was the first time I had ever heard Johnny Cash that I can recall. The guitars were crisp and chugged along over a driving bass and on top of a jumping beat. I was tapping my foot and slapping my palm against the top of my leg. By the time the chorus came around for the last time I was singing along to Big River.
When the song ended, I took the headphones off and hit stop. I handed the player back to Honky.
“Liked that one huh?”
“Who was that?” I asked. His eyes widened in exaggerated surprise and he inhaled sharply.
“You mean you ain’t never heard Johhny Cash?”
“I don’t think so.” I admitted.
“Son, you just heard him. Now tell me you wouldn’t recognize that voice if you ever heard it again, even if you forget the name.”
“True enough.” I granted.
My pager beeped on my hip pocket and I looked down. It was a familiar number, one that I associated with a pretty face and a good time. Checking my watch I noted that it was just a half hour past when she got off work.
“Well, Mr. Smith,” I extended my hand. “Nice meeting you.”
He accepted my hand and we shook. I Headed for the building door and turned around as my hand closed on the knob.
“How long will that pack last you?” I asked.
He lifted it from his lap. Flipping the cover back he counted before talking it over with himself.
“Well, I like one with coffee about noon, one again after lunch, and maybe one after dinner. Of course I do like one at eleven and two in the evening too. How many’s that?”
“Six.” I supplied.
“And let’s see, there was…” He recounted. “Twelve.”
“Well then…” I said. “I’ll see you Wednesday.