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a short story by Norman Allan
Ron Hellman was close to being the man that I wanted to be. That's how I saw him when I met him. If I had had Tee's perspicacity I would have know better. His last sortie would not have surprised me.
At fifty-six Hellman's snow white curls belied his youthful vigour. A clean shaven Santa Claus on a bicycle, thin, and seen all over town: who is on his crossbar? where are his hands? In the air, "Look Ma! Ho ho ho". That's how I see him. Playboy of the Low Lands. In denim. Tee reminds me, we... he found this long cardboard carton roll, twenty foot long by the road side. Strapped it on to our little yellow Fiat, like a tank, proboscis proceeding. Tee, though lame, rode gamely home on Ron's cross-bar. Through cobbled streets. Was it a thrill? You bet. Just for the adventure.
Hellman lived in a studio apartment. Wood panels lent the room warmth. A wall of windows afforded a panorama - one could see the river from anywhere in the room - and they placed one, these windows, right in the heart of time, right in the heart of now. Now was Dortdrect. I'd never heard of Dortdrect. It's one of the older cities of Holland, bordered by river, laced by canals.
Ronald Hellman was Steve the Creep's friend. We stopped, unannounced, on our drive across Europe from Poland. Tee's baby Fiat crammed with all her belongings. (Do Fiats have gills?) Despite the Netherland's reputation, there are some long hills.
The little car had begun to complain, and it was a welcome haven to be with Hellman. Ron with his white hair and his occasional son. His wife lived crosstown, and painted. Holland loves painters. Everyone clothes themselves with culture. Anyone willing to put up with the privation of an artist's subsistence can find a grant, or at least a welfare cheque, and just as important, with it comes a public indulgence, if not quite applause and approval. The artist community thrives, and to some extent, so do the arts.
Ron and Hilda Hellman left a relatively affluent existence in Greenwich Village, driven, I believe, by "alienation" - now there's a word - driven by isolation to the refuge of the old world. Warmth, that's Europe as I romanticise her from ten years wandering in the wastelands of the new world. Ron and Hilda left the desert of MacDonald and Coca cola dunes for rebirth in the old lands, low lands. They settled, but soon parted, in Dortdrect, and shuffled their child, Ron junior, at thirteen years old a gangly lad, awkward in his growth-spurt years. He sat morosely in the corner our first night there. Then disappeared. "Why has the kid got a chip that big on his shoulder with a father like that?" I wondered. I'd learn.
Ronald senior was a man of several parts. His current passion was designing clocks. Bizarre clock faces. Metal model fish swimming through a cloud-puffed sky to indicate the time. Or shoelaces pointing round a wornout sneaker.
Clocks were Ron's passion, but games were his living. He'd left the bosom of advertising fifteen years before to pilot the waters of invention, creating games and toys. You won't have heard of any of his board games. They float a hundred "Wall Street This" and "Madison Avenue That"s to come up with one "Monopoly". You may, however, have heard of one of his toys. Ron was the inventor of the Oobi. "Oo" as in "do" and "shubeedoobeedo".
Oobi was a clam-like piece of orange-red plastic, three inches by two and a half inches in diameter and about an inch tall, with two big eyes printed on. Amused eyes. Soulful eyes. There was also a message printed. "Hi! I'm Oobi. I'm going to visit..." and a blank to fill in a name and address. The idea was that, say you're living in New Jersey and you've got a friend in Oregon, and you've sent them letters, and you've talked on the phone, but they're still three thousand miles away. Well, you buy an Oobi, and you put a message in - Oobi was hollow, with a slot. You wrote on the outside, I'm going to visit "Joyce at 1000 Washington Street, Portland, Oregon", or whatever. Then you leave the Oobi in a public place somewhere, a dinner counter, a washroom, and somebody picks it up. "Hey, I'm going in that direction." So Oobi hitch-hikes from counter to counter: encounter to encounter.
Oobi was a child of the sixties, connecting people with goodwill. That's an idea that sold in the sixties. The idea sold. It sold songs. And it sold Ron's creation to a big toy conglomerate who spent several million dollars manufacturing and marketing Oobi. But Oobi didn't fly. And Ron Hellman, father of Oobi, like most of my readers, had never had his day brightened by a message passed from hand to hand: "Hi! I'm Oobi!" So Oobi died. Ron had just two surviving Oobis left. He gave us one. It was quite an honour to receive the penultimate Oobi.
Now Ron, besides his clocks, was designing video war games. Time moves on.
Tee recalls Ronald's comment that you could judge the size of a man's cock by his confidence, and the quality of a woman's cunt by the shape of her mouth. It put her back up. Ron stared at women's faces in a disquieting way.
Tee recalls Ronald being offended that she should make a suggestion on how he might finish one of the clock faces, the face then in progress. It put his back up. Tee recalls that I took his part. It put a space between us. Perhaps that space is still there. How do we bridge it? "Hey, don't tell me how to finish my story." It's fifteen years on. My confidence has grown. Has her mouth grown fuller or thinner? Just kidding.
Ron had a friend in Philadelphia, Martin, a cartoonist, and they exchanged letters. Special letters. An exercise in literature and illustration. Illuminated letters. Treasures. Martin's manuscripts were fit for a museum. Ron, recipient of this trove, showed off his archive with the pride and enthusiasm of a child. Tee recalls that Ronald had a disdain for mediocrity. In his manner of living, his panache, and more particularly in his correspondence, Ronald felt that he was a king. The thick brown binder, with its epistolary wealth, was a king's ransom. There was a philosophy that went with this about how friends could enrich and ennoble one another.
We didn't get to see the letters Ron sent to Martin. He confided that they weren't the jewels that he received. He lacked Martin's illustrative flare and genius, but he was proud of the prowess of his prose. He sent studied letters, painstakingly contrived.
Despite the friction between Tee and Ron, those two days in Dortdrect warmed my heart. I glowed in Ron's attention. He shepherded us round town to meet artists galore, to smoke dope in pubs, in public, no fear of bust or stigma. Paranoia gone. A gentler, kinder civilization. Santa Ron cycled round the town, white locks waving in the wind. Greeting every town dog by name. Stopping to converse with children in pigeon Dutch and pigeon English.
I idealised him. Delighted in this middle-aged man who knew how to live. Playfully, with culture at his shoulder. This meeting seemed to promise me that my life, too, could be passionate, without compromise.
Not long after we returned to England, with Tee now living with me, we moved out of the flat I had shared with Ronald's friend, Steve. I sent Ron our new address. Daunted by his and Martin's exalted correspondence, I filled the page with repetitive drivel: "I don't know what to write so I'll just write I don't know what to write so I'll just write..." The new address neatly copied in the top right-hand corner.
A week later a letter arrived from the Netherlands with two tiny slips of paper inside. One, cut off the right-hand corner of my letter, was our address returned to sender, as it were. The other, the left hand corner of my letter snipped off, and on this Ron wrote a terse two word message. "How stupid!" it said.
The penultimate Oobi was sitting on a shelf in the bathroom. His soulful eyes had warmed me in those weeks he'd been with me. His orange-red plastic presence [he spoke of "friendship" to me] his presence actually seemed to glow. Now he would soothe my wound. I put him in a box, and sent him through the regular channels, the post, the mail, not risking him to the hazards of the hitch-hiking life he was contrived for. I sent him surely back to Ron, so Ron might one time get to open an Oobi. A little slip of paper tucked inside. "How sad," it read.