Once there was a grimy little man with a gritty little shop on a side street in a good-sized town. His name was Mr. Healey and he was a sign painter by trade. He was ink-smudged and paint-splattered and had dirty fingernails. His shop was a dusty tunnel of floor to ceiling shelves dripping with paint cans and brushes and sketches and mouse droppings and books and books and books. Mr. Healey liked to read.

Mr. Healey was a good sign painter but he was an exceptional musician. He could play anything with strings; I know because I saw him do it. Guitar, piano, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, dulcimer. He handcrafted instruments, too, and carved wooden capos that perched like little folk art sculptures on an instrument’s neck.

Tools of an aspiring picker...

When I was 12, Mr. Healey taught me how to play the banjo. An odd musical choice for a middle-schooler, perhaps, but my great-grandpa had played it, and we already had a guitar player in the family, that being my sister. In 6th and 7th grade, I heard every “Deliverance” joke known to man but likewise, I was the only kid in my school who could play “Dueling Banjos” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. So piss off, banjo haters.

Each week at my lesson, I’d perch on the cleanest part of the wooden stool in front of his drawing board, banjo balanced across my knees, and wait for him to write my songs for the week. Mr. Healey didn’t teach out of regular books; he wrote the songs by hand in a music notebook called “The Spiral”, 8 staves, heavyweight paper. With a felt tip pen, he marked the clefs, drew the notes, added the title and date, and if it was his own arrangement, he signed it as such. Mr. Healey wrote music, too. When he was done writing, he’d take the banjo and play the songs the way they were meant to be played. Then he’d hand the banjo to me and I’d try my best to do the same.

For nearly two years, I inhaled the faint perfume of fresh paint, watched mice scurry across the drawing board in front of my notebook, strummed and picked until the blisters on my fingertips turned into calluses that cushioned the sharp sting of the strings. And listened to Mr. Healey talk about the power of music and how once you had it, there was nothing you couldn’t do.

His name was Roy Healey. And he was a genius.

The mark of a legend…

In this epic novel we live in, great characters are everywhere. Know any?

  1. You have a great character there, and I bet Healey thought you were a pretty great character, too! Can I make a suggestion though? I got a completely different vibe on the post from the first few words…would you consider a different word in the phrase “dirty little man?” Feel free to edit this comment however you like.

    • I appreciate the feedback but the phrasing was intentional though not in the pedophile sense, if that was the vibe you got. More to illustrate that all people saw him as was this grimy old sign painter, if they saw him at all, when actually he was a highly talented and educated person. But I’m curious; what word would you suggest?

      • I like grimy, which you just used. Or grungy, but maybe that would sound Seattle 90’s. Dirty is okay for the shop, but for the man it definitely sounded pervy. I figured out what you meant soon enough, but once the image is there…darn changeable language. Oh, the days when you could be dirty and gay and still just be a happy little gardener.

  2. Nisha says:

    I must be honest, I also interpreted the first ‘dirty’ the same way Lynette did. But otherwise a very well-written post! 🙂

  3. @Nisha @Lynnette Made some edits to the opening line. More palatable? Thanks for the feedback!

  4. Rosie says:

    Hey, I’m passing on the 7 x 7 Link Award to you. Check it out here:

  5. Your post of taking banjo lessons with Mr. Healy reminds me of the few short months I took accordian lessons (and hated to ever admit it). I can’t remember my teachers name, but it was in her very musty smelling home. She was missing some teeth and had stringy, long, gray hair, was heavy set. But she knew her music. I just didn’t have the passion she did and dropped out.

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