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Mr. Willis

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"Alright class, don't forget your assignment is due next Thursday. Go out and get to know a random stranger and write a five page report on what they tell you, make sure to use plenty of direct quotes, and please have it typed." Those are the words that changed my life forever, I thought it would be a simple assignment, but I learned more from that "random stranger" than I did in my entire high school career.


I left school that Friday afternoon with the intentions of getting wasted and partying all night, but that is not what happened, not at all. As I walked through an alley on my way home, I passed the crazy old homeless man known as Mr. Willis. I'd never spoken to this dirty old man before and I didn't plan to start now until, he called to me. "Hey Kid, come here" I figured since he was homeless he's want some money for food so, I pulled out my wallet and went to hand him my last five dollar bill, and he began to shout. "Put that damn money away boy, I don't want no charity, I just want to talk to you."


So I put the money back in my wallet and sat down beside the man (while keeping my distance the best I could). Mr. Willis gave me a look as if what he was about to say to me, would be his last words. Then, he smiled and said, "I've got a story for you, will you listen to my story?" I looked at his old pained eyes and nodded my head. I reached into my bag and grabbed a pen and a notebook (I figured if I was gonna be stuck here I may as well use this as my homework project). Then he began...


"A long time ago, when I was a handsome young fella' like yourself, I had nothin' but the sky in my path, I was going up to the top and there was no stoppin' me. Then, on my way to what was sure to be the most important meeting in my life, I saw her. She was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen, with her long scarlet hair and her deep green eyes. I knew it was love at first sight. I quickly ran to her and asked her for her phone number, she gave it to me and I went to my meeting. Trouble is, I was late and had not been told that the meeting had been moved to another location. So, while I waited to figure out what to do, I called her. As the phone rang, I looked out the window of my office building, just in time to see her get hit by a car as she tried to answer my call. The next day I was fired from my job and cast out into the streets. Are you gettin' this son?"

I fumbled for an answer and managed to say, "Uh yes sir, what did you do for a living?" Then, he looked at me and with an angered grunt he said "None of your damn business that's what!" I looked down and while drawing my girlfriend in the dust I apologized for my rudeness. He looked up and told me that it was alright but if I wanted to hear his story I'd better keep my mouth shut and my ears open. So, I did and he continued.


"Now there's two types of people on this earth son, there's good people and there's bad people, but what's the difference?" He pulled out a notebook which had a page full of words and their definitions (almost like his personal dictionary) and said, "Good, of a favorable character or tendency, Bad- below standard, poor unfavorable, defective, or faulty. These words just don't seem to be accurate, they are both the same." I paused and looked up from my notebook, "How can you say that good and bad are the same thing?" I asked, and then I again apologized for my rudeness. He looked up and smiled and said, "There is one word in both of these definitions that just makes these words wrong, that word is, favorable. What I want to know is, who decides if you are favorable or unfavorable? 'Cause one man may say you're a favorable kid, while another may say you're unfavorable. Why should we trust a word left for the public to manipulate? It's just like right and wrong"


Again he looked down at his page of definitions and recited the defintions for the next two words. "Right- Something that is correct, just proper or honorable, Wrong- An injurious, unfair, improper, or unjust act. So, who's to decide what is proper, and who chooses what is just? There is no reason at all to use these words because they don't make any sense. But yet, once my love died, I began to hear those words more and more. People'd say things like "That was a good movie" or "That casserole was bad" and yet, there was no stoppin' them from tellin' me what they'd done right and I'd done wrong, even though they hadn't the slightest clue what those words meant. I heard those words like an echo for years, while I tried to get back on top. Finally, it came to the point where I felt my life wasn't worth living. So, I grabbed a rope and fashioned a noose and tied it to a banister in my apartment. And at the age of twenty, I fastened that noose 'round my neck and stood on a chair. But just as I was about to kick that chair over, I saw something carved into the wall. "Life- the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body or inanimate matter. Death- lifeless, numb, very tired, inanimate, inert." And then I realized, I was already dead. Why should I suffer and feel that rope burn though my soul? I am more than a dead body! So as I went to remove the noose, the chair broke. There I was, strangling to death even though, I wasn't ready to die."


"Before I knew it, I'd had my little ol' Swiss army knife in my hand and was desperately tryin' to cut through that rope. And then just as my head hung heavy, I hit the ground. I was coughin' and cryin' and I didn't know what to do. So I stood up, and said, "If ever again I am a living corpse, may I be struck down. But today, I am still breathin' so I guess I'd better make the most of it!" I found a notebook later that night; it was stuck between the mattresses on the bed. It was completely blank, except for the very last page. On it was a note, must've been from the fella' who carved into that wall. It said, "Kid, I know you don't want to see me like this, but that's alright, if you're reading this now, I'm long gone. My pain is gone, now go out and live your life, don't be a fool like your old man.
Love,
Your father"


"And there I saw it, a photograph of me and my daddy when I was a little runt, on the back my he'd written the four words that kept me going "I'm proud of you" It was right then and there that I decided, I needed to stop bein' stupid and go out and live my life! I read through the notebook and less than half-way though, the pages ran blank. On the last page my father'd written on, he left me a note. "Son, this is my life story, now write yours down." So, I did. Oh, damn kid! It's gettin' late, you best be gettin' on home, your mama's prob'ly waitin on ya. This must a given her quite a fright. Besides, I gots to go find me some food."


So, I thanked the man for his time and stuck out my hand "My name's Jason, Jason Stark." I said. Then he grabbed my hand and again with that old tired smile of his he said, "Well, Jason it's good to meet ya, I'm John, John Willis. Now, if you want to hear my story some more, it sure would make these old bones a little happier if you'd come back soon." I smiled and told him, "I'll be back, I promise" Then, his eyes got angry as eh said "Ok now, didn't I tell you to get the hell out of here and get your butt back home?" A little worried I said "Yes sir, see ya soon!"


I went home on that cool November evening six hours after school got out and sure enough, I was no sooner in the door and my mom was tearin' into me. Yelling and screaming, about how I scared her half to death and demanding an explanation. So I told her, I told her everything and the next thing I knew my mother was helping me pack a basket with warm dinner rolls and turkey to give to Mr. Willis. Just as my mom was about to get the car warmed up to take me to him, I asked her to stay home; "He won't like being crowded" I said. So, she nodded her head and gave me a strange look when I set the basket down. "What are you doing?" she asked. So I explained that it was very cold outside and the least I could do is get this poor old man a blanket. And then, just as I was on my way out the door, my mom stopped me, "He can stay in the guest bed room upstairs." I nodded and ran out the door.


I ran to the alley where I'd talked with John Willis not long before that, and there he was. I set the basket beside him and said, "Mr. Willis? I brought you some food and my mom said you can sleep in our guest bedroom if you like and, I brought you a blanket as well." He coughed and slowly reached into his pocket and gave me a glare, "I don't want no charity, I told you that earlier. But here, I'm gonna pay you for that meal and blanket." I looked at him and said, "No, this is a gift Mr. Willis, I can't take your money" He looked at me and said, "Dammit boy take this money, I told you I don't want no charity!" So he pulled out an old crumpled up five dollar bill and said, "Thank ya boy, you've got kindness in your heart use it." I put that old five dollar bill in my pocket and went home.


I spent most of that night thinking of Mr. Willis, I wondered how he had gotten so, strong when most people that are old and homeless are weak. Then, I fell asleep while writing my journal for the day. At five o'clock I awoke and was restless for a while and I knew what I had to do. I left a note on the fridge and left the house wearing nothing but my boxers and my heavy coat. I walked to the alley where Mr. Willis was sleeping and carefully tucked that five dollar bill back into his pocket.


I went back home and slowly walked into the house and suddenly a lamp went on. "Your father was a handsome man." my mom said nearly in tears, "I think about him constantly, I wonder where he went after he left us all those years ago. You were only a baby, and he couldn't handle his drinking, but he knew that he loved you and if you were to be safe, he had to leave." my mom hung her head and sobbed (and then promptly sent me to bed after thanking me for the note) "Dear mom, Mr. Willis tried to pay me for the food and blanket, I've got to give him his money back. p.s. I borrowed twenty bucks (he needs it more than we do.) Just as I was nearly up the stairs to my room, I stopped "I'll pay you back, I promise" I told my mom. She smiled "Don't bother" she said, "He needs it more than I do." I smiled and went to bed, I dreamt of nothing but that poor Mr. Willis.


The next morning, I woke up to the aroma of crisp bacon drifting up to my room (my mom makes the best bacon) I went down stairs and there sat my mom. She sat at the kitchen table with a plate of waffles and bacon and a glass of orange juice. "Yours is on the counter" she said. So I walked to the counter and grabbed my plate of chocolate chip waffles and bacon (which was on a separate plate all together) then I grabbed my orange juice and sat down. It was then that I saw my mom’s eyes, they were all teared up. "What's wrong mom?" I asked. She grew angry and yelled "What the hell is wrong with you? Why didn't you just ask to go to that party? And then, taking our food, blankets, and my money to one of your drunken buddies! How could you do this to me? And then you made up that sob story about that poor old Mr. Willis. You are ridiculous!"

"Wait mom," I said "I swear I didn't go to a party at all last night, I honestly was talking to Mr. Willis. I promise" I looked at her and she looked confused. "Well, then why did Austin call and ask if you were gonnna come get wasted with them?" she asked. So I told her, "Because I wasn't already there. I was out with Mr. Willis" she looked at me with that motherly scorn and said, "You had better not be lying to me! You'll end up just like your father! You know what? I want to meet this Mr. Willis, Now!" I sighed and said "ok"

We got in my F-150 and I drove her to the alley where he was and we got out. "Mr. Willis?" I said "I want you to meet my mom. And she'd like to meet you." He turned around and as soon as his eyes met my mothers, they stared at each other for a long time. Finally, Mr. Willis stood up and said "Mam, nice to meet you my name's John Willis" My mother smiled (an odd school girl like smile) and said, "Nice to meet you John, My name is Anne" and again they stared into each others eyes for what seemed like forever and finally my moms cell phone broke the silence. "Oh um, Jason I've got to go, I'm late for work. Um it was nice meeting you John." She began to blush and got in the car and left. Mr. Willis sat down smiling and then, when my mother was long gone he stood up and punched me. "God dammit boy! I told you I don't want no charity! How many times do I got to say that?" he said as he shoved the money I'd given him back into my hands. I stood back up, gave him the money again and said, "It's not charity, I'm uh paying you for your story." hoping he'd believe me. "Ok" he said, "Where did we leave off? Oh yes, I think I remember."

" I found that half empty note book and my fathers’ note that day. I grabbed a pen and set it next to that notebook. If my father wanted me to write my story down, I would do it. I loved my father; he had all of these qualities that make a great man" Again Mr. Willis flipped to that page with all of those definitions "Mr. Willis?" I asked "Why do you have that page full of definitions, sorry for interrupting, I just wanted to know" Mr. Willis looked at me and smiled, "Well boy, I've filled pages over the years with these definitions just as my father did, they help me explain things. Now, about those qualities my father had. Fear- an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by expectation or awareness of danger. Fear was a great thing my father had, he wasn't immortal and he didn't pretend to be, he was always open with his emotions. And he always showed courage in tough situations. Courage- the ability to conquer fear or despair. But I'd say the biggest quality my father had, was wisdom which is accumulated knowledge or insight. He never failed to show us our mistakes, he wanted us to learn."

"The night I found that photograph of my dad, I went out and got a job, I was workin' as a bouncer at Grimm's Bar. Things were the same as you'd expect, throwin' the usual drunks out night after night and never getting to take a break. I was always havin' to keep people from throwin' beer bottles at the band (though they almost always deserved to get hit) and in my 13 years at Grimm's I got one smoke break. I thing that smoke break has lasted me a good 17 years now, and I don't think I'll be clockin' in at Grimm’s again anytime soon. But I'll tell you what, the night I left old Grimm's I met the woman of my dreams (unlike the beautiful red headed angel I'd once "loved"). We fell in love with each other and barely a year later, we were married. My life was all beginning to make sense now. Until, the baby was born. I showed up to the delivery room, completely wasted. I nearly dropped my baby when I held him. I stayed that way for nine months, and then it hit me. I realized that my drunken antics had caused me to break my baby's nose. So, I kissed my wife goodbye while she slept and walked out of the house. I wish I could somehow make it up to her; I walked out on my family. I feel so evil! I even fit the description, I’ve caused distress and harm; I can't believe I did that! I was such a fool! Some days, I think about going back but how would I explain myself?” Mr. Willis hung his head in shame and as he looked up a tear rolled down his cheek. “Mr. Willis, it’s ok, I’m sure your wife understood.” I told him. And he looked up at me and again with his withered old smile he said, “I hope my child does too.”


“Any who” Mr. Willis said “What’s up with you young man?” I looked at him and spoke, “I feel as if the people of the world are not listening, when the other people cry. Why must everyone feel so, alone?” Mr. Willis looked at me and in agreement he said ”Boy, you’re preachin’ to a choir that don’t give a damn. But anyway, what stemmed these thoughts? Was it, a girl? What’s her name? Is she hot? I’m just askin’ son ‘cause it’s been a while since anyone I ever knowed found a pretty li’l thing.”

I looked at him and with a chuckle I said, “No Mr. Willis, I haven’t found a girl yet. Please, tell me more, what happened after you left your family?” He looked up and in a nearly depressing tone he said “Well, after I kissed my wife goodbye things got rough. I began to get into trouble and in all these years there’s hardly been a day where I haven’t been in a fight. I’ve fought and fought and kicked some ass in my day but I swear to God, I never stopped loving my wife. My stupid drunken acts led me to the roughest three years of my life. I made the mistake of deciding to rob a bank, drunk. I was busted and locked away. My first night in the big penn, I saw a man get his throat slit and another man get his skin ripped. Prison was a helluva place young man, don’t you ever get your ass locked up you hear me?”

“Yes sir” I said feeling nervous about the topic “So was there any good things that happened in prison” He looked at me smiling and said “Hell yes, The food tasted like somethin’ that came out of a horses back side but at least we had good ol’ Dyl. Dyl was the kinda guy who could get you anything. I remember, every Thursday he’d get us each a bag of the sweet leaf and sometimes even a loaf of the stuff ‘cause he’d convinced the warden it would be a good way to prevent riots. I swear we all had a helluva time downin’ that stuff. I was there a year and then good ol’ Dyl got busted for passin’ out shanks, I was sad to see him go, we all were. When the guards came to our cell to get him he threw a punch knockin’ the warden out cold. They grabbed him and dragged him away. They told us that he was in the hole, but we all knew better. He was in a hole, yeah six-feet-deep! You see, our warden was a real tough son of a b****, and if any of us pissed him off, we regretted it.”

“So, what did you do when you got out?” I asked. Laughing he said, “I drank, and drank, and drank. I fell down one night right outside the bar, then I claimed that alley as my new home and if anybody messed with it I’d kill ‘em. And now, so many years later, I’m still right here. I’m sober now, but that’s just because I can’t afford a bottle, and I thank the heavens for my rehab out here. I haven’t touched a bottle in a long time, funny thing is, I never really liked the taste of liquor. It was always the “feeling that I was after, but the truth is, while I was drinking, I couldn’t “feel” anything.” “Oh, Mr. Willis?” I chimed in when he stopped for a breath “what happened to your journal while you were in prison?” He looked at e like I was vexing him quite terribly and said, “I kept it, I kept that damn thing with me from the second I found it. It hasn’t been more than a few feet away from me at all since that night. You got any other questions burnin’ holes in your brain boy?” I thought about it and said, “Yeah, how have you kept yourself fed all these years?”


“Well, I was just getting’ to that. About a week after I sat down in this spot I decided, I should probably eat somethin’ and so I went to the grocers and tried to steal a ham sandwich and the manager caught me. After I explained my situation he gave me the sandwich and, an application. I worked at Jacks Grocery up until about a week ago. Oh shoot, is it dark already? You best be getting’ on home now.”

“We’ll pick this up tomorrow won’t we?” I asked him. “As long as you’re here to listen, I’ll be right here to talk.” he said with a smile. “Now git on home! And tell your ma I said hello.” I nodded and did as he told me. When I arrived home my mom was not there so I went up stairs. I grabbed my guitar and plugged into my amp. I shredded through some simple blues licks at full volume, but yet I couldn’t get Mr. Willis off my mind. I’d only known him for a couple of days and yet I felt as if we had somewhat of a relationship built up. I went to bed without dinner that night and dozed off to my Led Zeppelin cd playing in the background”


I woke up the next morning at 8 a.m. (two hours too early). My mom still wasn’t home but there was a lot of noise coming from downstairs. I crept down the stairs slowly to find a big group of guys taking everything they could carry out and what they couldn’t, they took out with a baseball bat or a tire iron. My house was being trashed. I ran up the stairs and a big guy chased me. He smashed me into a wall and everything went black. When I woke up, I was tied up and the men were spreading gasoline all over. Just as they threw the match Mr. Willis came bursting through the door. He took those guys out like a one man army. Then, he took the smallest one and slammed him on the ground until the flames were out (I couldn’t believe he put out a fire using a man like a fire blanket!) and then he came and untied me (while I was in and out of consciousness) he carried me outside and set me on the ground just as the fire department and police pulled up.

“Goodbye blue sky” I thought as I looked up at the sky and saw the thick black smoke covering the sun. Mr. Willis and I were sent to the hospital. I had a concussion and he had a broken rib from the fight. The doctors were going to operate on him but as soon as they left the room he got up and said, “See ya kid, Have a nice day mam.” And just like that he was gone. My mom hung her head and cried and I just laid there waiting to get released. Mom and I never did find out what the people wanted, but the second I got home, I ran to Mr. Willis.

There I found the man that had been of such a great influence to me over the last week. He was sleeping in the alley, when I found him. I shook him to wake him up and then I saw the knife in his heart. He was holding a piece of paper in his left hand, so I grabbed it to see what it was. It said, "Kid, I know you don't want to see me like this, but that's alright, if you're reading this now, I'm long gone. My pain is gone, now go out and live your life, don't be a fool like your old man.
Love,
Your father"





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