by Jack Henry
A man recalls his glory days and a one-time encounter with fame.
Phil told me the crazies line up at the gate when he opens at three in the morning. Moon howlers he calls them. Phil teamed up with his missus to manage the markets though I never remember her name. I’m intrigued by the moon howlers, the ones that arrive in the dark and assemble their goods in the feeble light of battery lanterns, rugged up against the chill air of early dawn. The sun was not due to light the horizon for another three hours.
Me, I arrive at a more sensible hour driving past the moon howlers huddled in camp chairs and eye-balling me as if I’m the one who’s crazy.
My job in supporting my unsavoury want to write is selling pictures. Although I must admit, selling pictures is a boring job description. A hippie followed me through the gate. He rode a Harley Davidson motorbike which appeared war surplus vintage. A small djembe was tied across his shoulders. He parked the motorcycle outside the amenities block and slapped a childish rhythm, a sound drawing attention due to its lack of measured cadence. Before his feet lay a polished wooden box, its lid closed. He bellowed his spiel to the early morning crowd meandering past. The daybreak tyre kickers and ‘three P’ folk: Pick em up, Putting down, and Piss off. He declared he would give one-hundred dollars to anyone who could guess what was in his box. Five dollars got you a stab at the contents, all the while he beats the raw pig-skin covering his drum; the type not found in music stores but two-dollar emporiums with gold stickers declaring, 'Made in China'. Phil’s missus, a stout woman with wiry hair, confronted the man, stood squarely before him. She told him he could not set up in front of the female toilets. The hippie loomed over her still beating his faltering metre. He told her he could prove without a shadow of doubt that Jesus was among us. Phil’s wife was unmoved by his hawkish stance, nor by his call to divinity. She stood in steely resolve until he moved on.
The pattern of the morning repeated itself as it did each Saturday market—the early morning time wasters followed by genuine buyers who arrived when the sun was high and the moon howlers grumpy with every passing hour. The hippie swung by to look at my pictures, more for curiosity than anything else. I asked what was in the box. He lifted it and said he collected dreams. Selling pictures sounded lame in comparison, prosaic at best. Not wanting to be out-imagined by the hippie’s exotic and enigmatic panhandle, I told him I was a memory peddler.
“I was there.” A man said swaying on his walking stick. “Seventy-six it was, ACDC touring with The Ted Mulry Gang. I was a bass player in one of the support bands. Them days they didn’t have roadies, not like now. Roadies were volunteers, anyone with cojones enough to lift a ‘W’ bin with a radial horn got the nod. My job was to clear the electric guitar lead from under Angus’ feet so it wouldn’t trip him up as he duckwalked the length and breadth. You see, he starts playing as soon as he gets off the steps and onto the stage, not like the pussies today who stand there for ten minutes waiting for a cue. Other members of the band, you know, Malcolm on rhythm and Evans on bass, had their leads gaffer taped to the speaker grill or to the floor so Bon wouldn’t snag ‘em. He was a wild’un, Bon. Wore these little shorts that left nothing to the imagination of girlies down the front and they liked what they saw, know what I mean? They couldn’t do it for him, Angus that is. He strutted the full length of the stage like a demented chicken. I had to follow him, whipping the long coils of guitar lead away from his legs. It was soon after my life ended.”
The hippie regarded him with unreserved disdain before wandering off. The unsung heroics of market stall traders standing fair game to every nutter who regales their life story knowing the vendor is a captive audience.
Gazing up at the life-sized picture of a shirtless Angus Young playing guitar, hair flying up from his head, the old boy stood silent. He swayed on his walking stick as though it sucked into the ground and the earth twirled him like a straw through a slice of watermelon floating on a smoothie.
I left the bloke with his memories wishing he’d move on. I wasn’t one for jovial quips, “for a dead man, you do a passable impersonation of the living,” I once would have said, engaged the chap in conversation. “Keep ‘em talking and there’s a chance they’ll buy,” goes the adage. My attitude dulled by the experience of recognizing buyers from the time wasters.
I let him be.
It’s the one who can pin a story, a memory, to a picture who is never put off; their memory urgent and they compelled to tell it unless it vanishes to the ether.
The fellow continued.
“Worked the Brisbane Expo, eighty-eight it were. I picked up a bug, and later they told me I had six months to live.” He turned in expectation. I performed a well-practised look of awe and amazement tinged with sympathy. Like all salespeople, I clung to the hope, albeit a long shot, of closing the deal and selling the Young picture.
“Yep,” the old fellow chuckled impressed with my performance. Now I think back, he may have seen through the shallowness of my concern.
Regardless, he resumed his tale, “I collapsed, you see, had a hard time breathing. Spent ages in hospital before they found out what was wrong with me. A bug was eating my brain. A virus called Guillain-Barre Syndrome lay dormant in my chest for a while until it took hold. I picked it up from a Campylobacter infection at Expo, you know, the one that gives you the squirts. At the thirty-two years of age, my working life and pretty much everything else was cactus.” His free hand wandered over his crotch to squeeze his balls. I let it pass. Most memories inspired by pictures are pretty inane—a little girl sings Let It Go upon seeing Elsa, or a kid recalls wasting an entire school vacation in the hot funk of his bedroom playing Halo, that sort of stuff. I noticed a flicker of defiance in the guy’s face when he declared he outlived his doctor’s prognosis, as though the long wait for death is worth it.
In my mind, the chap existed while not fully living. But who am I to judge the way others live? Many would deride sitting alone for hours writing thoughts from the imagination as not a productive life choice.
“Been on benefits ever since—can’t do things, you know, a shit number in the Centrelink queue, give you just enough to get by. I been down there so long now the three security guys give me a nod. Hell, not everyone gets recognized in that place. Seen it all down there, the overweight mums who can’t afford to dress their kids but spend fifteen-hundred bucks getting their legs covered in ink. The so-called refugees who been here five minutes and demand their handout. Yeah, you wanna see a cross section of life—sit in a dole queue. But I gotta tell ya, I seen worse than that.”
I waited for him to continue.
“I seen my life disappear like piss down a pretty urinal.”
The man gazed at the picture of Angus Young; a photo of him in his prime, youthful and exuberant. In an unguarded moment, a pang hounded me, sympathy for the dull hand life dealt him. I thought to lighten the mood by asking if I should stand so close in case the virus was infectious.
“Only if I kiss you,” he said with a wry smile. He said his brain was a shambles. He remembered the concert night well enough. He twisted on his walking stick to front Angus Young. “You know what Angus said to me that night? Yelled it across the stage, if you must know, in front of six thousand people, looked right at me and said it,” he stabbed a point at one of his eyes.
The old boy paused. It was a defining moment in his life, a pivotal incident that spelt the times. A time before his malaise. A brief period held in the neurons of his addled brain. Panic scrambled through my own (gladly not so addled) mind. Do we all stand condemned, guilty of watching our moments and opportunities slide into oblivion? The long hours working only to withstand mindless commutes through ramshackle suburbs of congested cities. Nights that saw the little ones already asleep upon returning home. The times of absence stolen by bank mortgages and futile deadlines. Lives lapping the edges in fear of a bleaker tomorrow?
I raced through possibilities of what the celebrated musician and energetic rocker would have said. Perhaps something to sustain him through illness. Perhaps an explanation to understand the fickleness of fate, or pacify his anger at the limitations of a compromised life. Something like, ‘Live like you’ve been thunderstruck’.
The fellow leaned with the closeness of a fellow conspirator.
“Angus said to me, get the fucking lead, will yer,” the man grinned as though it was the best thing to happen to him before bugs ate his brain.
He sauntered between the moon howlers packing their wares hoping to be home before lunch.
As I said at the outset, my other job is peddling memories, and sometimes I also sell the picture.