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by Jesse S. Mitchell
None of the heads in Steele County are ever empty. No one walks around blank, nothing hollow to these minds. All throughout the entirety of the area a thousand, a million different theories, opinions, rumors spin in and out of control, undulating, passing back and forth from head to head…sometimes by means of verbal communication. Not that verbal communication, in its purest form, is even necessary…these people can read a bent up brow and a tan-lined finger like a book. Better than a book. Better than scholars. Or so you would think. You would be wrong. One hundred thousand different thoughts running loose in the cavernous singularity that is the region and not one thing is ever done or changed or taught. Changed…to have changed…to change…none of that happens…always thinking and spying and talking and spying but never ever changing…not their minds, not their attitudes, not their behaviors. While the inhabitants of Steele County are by nature inquisitive, curious, even playful people, they somehow remain stubbornly conservative.
Mainly just a college town, surrounded by fields of soybeans, corn and hidden marijuana, with 50,000 erstwhile and dedicated souls and an annual increase of population when the 20,000 to 30,000 students return and give the appearance of a larger, more urban area. The whole place is crumbling apart. Everyone knows it is falling down. Everyone has been hit and injured by the tumbling debris…no way to ignore it. The shape everything is in can clearly be seen. Earthy, rough cultured, but ain’t nobody blind, ain’t nobody vacuous. No one’s oblivious.
A highway runs up and over an empty lot and slides over an abandoned house…like the roof of the house was built specially to ram the interstate highway up and quickly away. A fence runs around the lot and connects up to itself on the left side of the front yard, containing the whole backyard and much of the front yard with the derelict lot. Walking up the sidewalk in a long black coat, my hands buried deep in the pockets and my collar popped up, I see a small boy standing in the far corner of lot. The corner is lower in elevation than the rest of the yard and house and is flooded with brackish brown water. The little boy is striking the surface of the water with a stick, waits a minute and then strokes the ripples with his finger. He repeats this several times and doesn’t even notice me as I walk up behind but still across from him on the other side of the fence. His dark brown hair is clipped tight, close to his head. His clothes are spotless except for a few tiny mud dots. He looks like a child much-loved. This is no place for him.
“What is your name?”
“Go home Andre.”
He squints up at me and looks back down at the pool of water.
“Go on home.”
“No place for you. Go on now.”
“You ain’t my momma.”
I twist up my face in a lightly grim and possibly grotesque vestige of half-hearted evil and proceed to walk through the fence like a breeze would blow and I do it all without breaking eye contact with Andre and without taking my hands out of my pockets. I hope it is the worst thing he will ever have to see. He looks at me, scared to death; he backs away and starts toward home. As he runs, I yell at him.
“You shouldn’t talk to strangers, Andre.”
I walk through the pockmarked yard and towards the backdoor of the house. It was my house when I was alive…but that has not been since 1978. I think everything has held up pretty well. Why, the old the doorbell even still works. Good mid-century craftsmanship.
I find it interesting that with all the talk and philosophizing done in this hamlet, all opining and figuring…the one thing no one seems to have any theory about is the existence of life after death. Everyone around here just accepts it as perfectly real and rational and, to go a step further, they accept the existence of heaven and hell and sin and reward…the whole lot. The one thing I happen to be able to speak with authority on and there is no real discussion. Unfair. I certainly know that there is life after death. The rest of it…apparently not…but then again, I am unsure. You see, the whole time I have been…dead…I have yet to meet another…well, dead person, ghost, spirit, angel, god, anything, nothing. And oddly enough, I can still see and hear and speak to the living. I don’t know if I can touch them. I have been too afraid to try. I can touch solid physical objects, so it stands to reason that a living human would be no different, but every time I almost find out, empirically (that is the way I was raised), every time I reach a trembling finger out to touch, my head spins…what if the mere touch of my flesh would drop another person dead? Therefore, I just try to keep my hands to myself in the pockets of my coat.
Simcha said I was beautiful, the last words she ever said to me as I left her standing there in Times Square, June 11th 1978. We stood with only the little tips of our fingers touching. We were just another part of everything there in the great big puzzle mosaic of haze and cloud of human flesh and breath and bended light, everything was orange and blue. She was right. I was beautiful back then. Built completely of beautiful things, beautiful eyes and beautiful hair, beautiful ears and beautiful ideas. She had to stay in New York to finish her summer classes. I was returning home, or to the home, we had just bought in Steele County, where I was to start teaching history in the fall. We were both so excited. A real job. A real life. We had both suffered so much in our lives to that point. It wasn’t just me, it was everything, it was Simcha too, it was the world and all the life in it that was so damned beautiful. Simcha only saw it reflected in me but I didn’t own it and I didn’t make it. It was love. It was the love of all the Earth squeezing through us. I I I…I can only still just imagine. It is not a ghost passing through you when you feel a cold chill…it is a ghost remembering…probably remembering you.
She looked so so wonderful as she walked away from me, bathed in the golden light, it was so ethereal…I just didn’t know why at the time…I guess it was because at the time my blood was already poisoning me. Talk about the burning. I say that but I have no idea to this very day how I died. I do not remember the taxi ride or my flight back home or how/why/when/if I made into our new home. In fact I had no idea anything had even happened…this is my next to last memory. The fleeting touch of my lovely Simcha’s fingers on my palm, on my cheek, her words in my ear, the sound of her departing footsteps. A cold chill. Goosebumps…I hold these things so dear. My next to last memory. My last was my eyes, cloudy, looking up into her screaming face. I felt her tears on my face, splash splash and then everything went away. And for the longest time, there was simply nothing, but slowly landmarks started to pop up, green grass, a hill, a tree or two, a building. I remember the shock of seeing the sun again, high in the sky, the light and how it burned. And the moon, the moon late one night, I saw it hanging above my head. Shivers, I shiver but I never rest.
There once lived two sisters. One was named Sadness, the other, Happiness. Sadness was tall, skipped instead of walked where she was going, and always had a smile on her face. Happiness, on the other hand, was short, never skipped, and always scowled. If ever there was a case in which names didn’t matter, this seemed to be one. Still, people like names, and they weren’t about to let something like reality get in their way, which brings us to a young man named L.
(L was not really his name, but that is what we’ll call him since he was as lonely as lonely gets.)
For a while, L. put the feeling off. He didn’t like admitting to his condition because he noticed that even though loneliness was not contagious, people seemed to act as if it were. So for a while, he suffered in silence. Until one day, he couldn’t take it any longer. He wasn’t sleeping well. (It should be said that L. loved sleep more than most things.)
After a week’s worth of bad nights, L. paid money to an online dating service. He had his doubts. After answering a lot of questions that he thought were too personal, he found that he had to write his own profile. This caused him a lot of anguish, though not as much as his loneliness, so he went on. Still, he didn’t know what to write.
He noticed that on the site there were a lot of not-so-clever young men trying to sound clever and then there were others who took the “honest and sincere” approach. The first group of young men sounded dumb, and the second, sounded lonely, which made L. feel both queasy and sad for now he understood why others had recoiled from him for all those years before. In the end, he wrote what he thought was a simple yet honest answer to what it was he was looking for. He wrote, “I am looking for Happiness.”
Now, something to keep in mind: first off, L. committed a grammatical faux pas here. Like the other young men, he thought he was being clever. He thought that by capitalizing a common noun he was showing how for him, happiness was and should always be Happiness with a capital-H. But if ever there were a case for correct grammar, this was definitely one because the good people at the on-line dating service saw his profile and they did what anyone would expect: they fed the information into the algorithms and lo and behold, the best pick, the top of the top, the cream of the crop was none other than Happiness, the sad sister.
Even though she was not who he expected, there was no point in arguing the matter with L. He believed in fate. And fate via a Google-like algorithm, said that Happiness was who he should date, so L. accepted the decree and put in a good amount of work to make sure his first date went well.
He rented a Zipcar, checked out a list of restaurants on Yelp, joined FourSquare so he could see if other wonderful and not lonely people were hanging out in any of these places. He compiled a list for himself of ten restaurants, started a blog called The Countdown to Companionship and asked for feedback. Though the blog was a featured WordPress site, he got very little help from readers.
(Blog readers are, like everyone else, a bit scared of by the desperate and lonely.)
Still, L. made plans and he picked up Happiness from her home. Sadness first opened the door and she was smiling and tall and lovely, and for a moment, L. thought that maybe the algorithms were wrong. But then he thought there was also the names to consider. Maybe algorithms can get it wrong, but a name is a name. You just can’t get around that.
It’s true that when L. first met Happiness, and they shook hands, he couldn’t help that there was something sour about her, not just her face or the way she moved. If truth be told, the first thought that came to L.’s mind was an image from childhood when he would stick six or seven lemonheads in his mouth and chomp down on them. The sourness was existential, and that was the same feeling he had after seeing Happiness and spending time with her, which he did for the next six months until he married her.
She was his lemonhead. He would say that to her, each time hoping she might smile, but gravity being what it is, the corners of her mouth could never find any uplift, so the best Happiness could do was to look at him and not say anything mean.
Now, if this sounds like a sad love story, think again.
L and Happiness married and had children and they died an old couple. It wasn’t just that L. liked lemonheads, which even in old age, he did. He also liked irony and the unexpected things in life. There was something absolutely wonderful, he thought, about being married to a woman named Happiness who was the saddest person he’d ever met. And this paradox made him Happy.
Yes, that’s right. Happy with a capital-H.
Hair is a very old thing. It’s been with people for a long time, and like a lot of things that are old and that have been with us for a while, it was originally a gift from the Gods. Not everyone knows this, which is why I’m telling you. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that hair comes from one very sensitive God in particular, which is why very sensitive people are the hairiest—something else a lot of people don’t know.
He’s been called a lot of names in the past. The Squishster, Lord Squishymore, Wimpolulous, but these were family nicknames. His real name basically translates to Bob. So Bob is what we’ll call him here.
From the start, I should say that Bob didn’t have magical powers like the rest of his family. He couldn’t toss thunderbolts like his dad or control the ocean like his uncle. Still, he was powerful. As soon as we—and by “we” I mean human beings, mere mortals, us—came onto the scene, Bob was always looking out for us. While his cousin, Mars, was getting people riled up to war with each other, and his Uncle was out on the seas convincing one captain to attack another captain’s boat, Bob was trying to calm people down, or he was advising sailors how to avoid other sailors who might be under the influence of certain mean Gods. If you think this isn’t very cool or that it has nothing to do with you, then think about this: you remember that time in the third grade when Gregg the bully stopped picking on you and actually started looking out for you on the playground, well that was Bob working behind the scenes, so be thankful.
If you’re still unconvinced, you’re not the only one. Even before we came along, Bob was getting flack. In fact, we came about because Bob was so unpopular with his family. I mean, some of his cousins hated him—not just regular hate, either. But hard-core, in-your-face, God-hate. We weren’t around back then, but the dinosaurs were, and after one God-gathering when all the cousins ganged up on poor Bob, he cried for a good 1000 years, which to a God isn’t very much. But to the dinosaurs, all those Bob-tears falling down on them for 1000 years was too much, and eventually, they died.
That proved to be pretty cool for us. It was cool for us because if it wasn’t for all that Bob-rain and the end of the dinosaurs, we wouldn’t have come to be. Another thing most people don’t know: we’re made up of like 95% water, which in reality is Bob-tears, and 5% dinosaur meat.
Anyway, back in the clouds, Bob’s family was none too pleased by what was happening here on Earth. They all liked watching the dinosaurs fight, and they didn’t have much use for a bunch of walking dinosaur-Bob-tear cocktails, which is what they thought of us. As a result, Bob was even less popular around the Gods than before. I mean unpopular like you’ve never known. Friendless, totally rejected by everyone, no doubt about it, a total social zero.
“Why don’t you go live with your little wimpy-dolls?” his father boomed.
“Yeah. They’re made out of water, but they can’t even stay in the water for very long without becoming wrinkly like a pickle,” cried his uncle.
Bob’s cousins were no better. They laughed at him and called him names. Eventually, they started doing terrible things to us humans, too, as a way of getting back at him. They were especially into sending down bad weather. They split the Earth up among themselves. One cousin would make one part of the Earth really hot and then watch as we fled somewhere cooler, but then another cousin would make that other location too cold. Lots of people suffered, and Bob felt responsible. He didn’t cry this time, though. Instead, he decided that we needed some kind of protection from the elements. So he plucked one hair from his head for each person who lived, and while they slept one night, he inserted that hair in each of them.
The hair was smart, of course, and sensitive, like I already said. For people in hotter areas, the hair would grow thick on their heads in order to absorb their sweat, and for those in colder parts, their hair would grow on their bodies like fur to protect them from frostbite. The other Gods didn’t like it, but they couldn’t do much against Bob’s gift. Hair is sensitive, but it is strong, too.
Anyway, after a while, Bob’s family learned to accept us, though they never learned to accept him again. That’s why Bob lives down here among us. Truth be told, he doesn’t get a lot of love from us, either. Some people call him Sasquatch, others the Boogie Man. It’s good for us that Bob doesn’t seem to mind. From what I’ve been told, he’s just happy he has a hairdo named after him.