Featured Column, Features, Column

Once Upon a Time in Wisconsin

For once, I am not going to lie to you. I want to convey a point through a real, legitimate, actually-happened-not-making-this-up experience of mine. The following story occurred as it is written and is not the product of my compulsive need to openly deceive readers and then explain that deceit and then explain the explanation of that deceit until the sentence is way too long.

At the end of Winter Break, a few short days before my flight back to Boston, I needed to wake up at 5:30 in the morning.

I knew this because at 5:30 in the morning someone stood over my bed and yelled, “YOU NEED TO WAKE UP,” directly at my sleeping face.

Wrenched from my dreams of dental-floss-wrapped heads, gushing stomach wounds, and apocalyptic fire, I struggled to open my eyes.  

“TIME TO GO,” he repeated, apparently seeing no reason to lower the volume. “WAKE UP.”

In that moment, in a sleepy fog, I knew where I was, back home in my bed, but somehow couldn’t pinpoint when. Was I a sophomore in high school being woken up to search for a lost cell phone in the dark, snowy backyard? Was I a funny-looking middle schooler who almost slept through mass or maybe a shockingly-handsome first-grader about to fly out to Massachusetts? That same voice had been yelling at me to get out of bed since before I could remember.

But, as I pushed myself out from under the sheets using a maneuver that can only be accurately referred to as a sckwrimsh, I figured it out: I was a junior in college who needed to get a haircut. I was also a renowned columnist of great renown, known for my great columnizing skills, awe-inspiring humility, and total lack of syntactic redundancy. So maybe I could squeeze a little column-juice out of this particular moment.

Minutes later, I was sporting my patented grey-hoodie-under-black-jacket/vaguely-sad-and-ugly look (the latter of which remains a permanent part of my wardrobe). The car was already started and idling in the driveway when I jogged out into the freezing Wisconsin morning.

The man who had woken me up a few minutes earlier sat in the driver’s seat. When I looked at him, I was sure he would not want to be directly named in a column and might prefer to be called simply “man,” even though anyone with basic reasoning capabilities could figure out who he was in relation to me.

We didn’t talk much during the drive. Decades ago, this man had not been voted “Quietest” in his senior class, because he didn’t talk enough for his classmates to know who he was. I’ve made it through entire days only speaking four sentences aloud, three of which involved pointing at food and asking for it. We’ve always made great conversation.

The same nearly-silent drive with the same man every few months since I was a child made it possible to see each difference between us through the progressing intervals, miniscule at first, but undeniable after nearly two decades. Not even my move halfway across the country could change the repetition.

The drive took 45 minutes, per usual. Leaving the car and walking out into the cold, I realized how starkly our physicality had been reversed. I wasn’t supposed to be taller than the man driving the car. I wasn’t supposed to be faster, wasn’t supposed to slow down so he could keep up with me as we walked toward the door. I was supposed to rush to catch up with him, to barely come up to his shoulders, to see no flaws, only a permanent strength. Neither of us were supposed to be thinking about another impending goodbye, followed by another, and another, and another, and another. I wasn’t supposed to walk into the barber shop with nothing but the end on my mind.

But there we were.

I turned 20 half a year ago, I still have youthful energy, both physically and mentally, and hopefully my future will be, in some ways, an improvement on my present. But all the while, I watch the opposite happening to those around me, and it turns the good of all that bitter.

“Archer goes back soon?” said the barber, the only person to ever cut my hair since I was a baby (blame the unwashed greasiness on him).

“Yup,” said the man I’ve known for my entire life.

That was all.

Leaning heavily on the armrests, he lowered himself into a chair, and I walked over to the barber’s seat to get my haircut. I considered why we were both here, why we always came to get our haircuts at 7:00 on a Saturday morning at a barber shop almost an hour away from where we lived. When I look beyond all the practical, real, stupid reasons like late scheduling and stubbornness, I think it’s because we share some of the same aspects of a weird mind that enjoys waking up obscenely early, running out into the cold, driving down an empty interstate, and getting a haircut at a small Irish barber shop down the road from a seminary. It’s a nice thought, to consider a bizarre, almost nonsensical, bond, but that same thought, like everything else, is poisoned by my growing understanding of decay, loss, and the end.

While these idea ran, or at least lightly jogged, through my head, the barber walked to the back of the shop and flicked on the radio:

“Dust in the wind / All they are is dust in the wind / Same old song / Just a drop of water in an endless sea / All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see.”

God, that’s a little on-the-nose, isn’t it?

When I looked over, the still-unnamed man was suppressing a laugh. I bit my tongue to avoid an attack of manly giggling.

Another example of that weird, genetic connection of minds. The sadness didn’t go away, I’m struggling to think about it as a write this column, but it was numbed a little bit by the unspoken joke.

Nothing clears the air more than laughing about death. Because instead of crying about it or desperately avoiding even the thought of it, you’re quietly shaking with laughter at that cliché Kansas song, picturing some iron-jawed, oatmeal-brained movie star gazing at the sunset while the chords play in the background. It’s the best way I’ve figured to deal with this kind of stupid, sentimental, overdone, inescapable crap.

So next time I dump a smelly poop joke on this column, just know it comes from a place of love.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor

February 6, 2017