J. Eric Miller, “Be Happy”

J. Eric Miller’s short-story collection, Animal Rights and Pornography, was published by Soft Skull Press and has since been translated and published in France, Russia, and Turkey. Human Beast Productions has also purchased an option on the book, with the aim of developing several of the short stories into a film. Miller’s novel, Decomposition, has been translated and published in France, Spain, and Italy; a cinematic version is in preproduction with Fatcat Films. A number of his short stories have appeared in various journals, including: decomP, Semaphore, Starry Night Review, The Scarlet Leaf Review, eFiction, Pindelyboyz, Clean Sheets, Manera, Burning Word, Ink Pot, and Outsider Ink. One of them, “Invisible Fish,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “Be Happy” is part of a collection entitled Atari Baby.

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Be Happy

         I’d chat with this fellow, Happy, in the gym, and then sometimes we’d go have a beer or two at the Twin Peaks Tavern across the parking lot. Perhaps the association with the television show of the same name was why Happy brought my father, many years dead, to mind. We had watched it together when I was in high school. It was one of the last things we did together. They did have a woodsy interior, walls of varnished-looking logs with woodcutter’s paraphernalia hanging around on them, but Twin Peaks was not a pie-and-coffee nostalgia business. Really, it was just a Hooters in flannel. I fell continually in love with the servers—that opening love, which is pretty much the same love you feel for a woman who won’t come back to you, the kind of love that is in all the songs. It didn’t matter. I was too old. That had seemed to happen all of a sudden. Younger, I would have been too young. It wasn’t the mid-20’s aesthetic of the women that worked there that got to me. It was just that they carried around all the beautiful possibility of youth. It was just that the opportunity to escape bad starts afforded them a certain kind of attractive innocence for which I longed.
         Other people were usually having early lunches, and though Happy might order onion rings or something like that, we were mostly there to drink and talk. Happy was maybe fifteen years older than I, with short gray hair going thin, and a bit of a paunch, gray lenses in his glasses, a smile that you could imagine was made of dentures. He’d been sitting oblivious on a machine I wanted to use at the gym, until, frustrated, I’d started pacing by and muttering. When he finally took note of me and smiled and rose, I was embarrassed by his graciousness. For our first drink together, I’d turn my head and mumble out a few words like it was a tic I had. You will have friends you don’t even like and who don’t even like you, but he was not one of those. I could admire him without feeling inferior.
         For a while, he was seeing one of the waitresses. The relationship was primarily business, but maybe it was more than that. She was a heavier, big-eyed woman, with a Gina Gershon smile. Happy had these advertisements in various places online and in the back of city magazines offering panties, guaranteed to have been worn for 24 hours by the good-looking woman pictured, who was, in fact the waitress. If you submitted twenty dollars, Happy, in the guise of the young woman, would FedEx the panties along with a photo of her from behind, glancing over her shoulder, naked save the panties. He’d buy them, the exact same pair, from Amazon by the dozen. What her cut of the money was, I don’t know, but Happy told me he insisted she put on each pair for at least a few seconds before he sent them to a customer. It was important to him to keep things as close to real as possible because he felt he was selling something akin to possibility. This struck me as a sign of integrity I imagined to be lacking in most people—probably even myself, and maybe often out of oversight more than anything else.
         Sometimes we walked around the park after our drinks. Once there were boys in their late teens or early twenties playing football. We asked if we could join—I don’t know why. They wanted us on opposite teams, an old guy for each. But Happy insisted we stay together. And I ran across the grass as fast as I could go. He threw the ball, a perfect arc. I wanted badly to catch that pass, but the football bounced off my fingers. I saw Happy smile slightly and look down, away from me. The most beautiful play of the day, maybe of the rest of our lives, busted. For a moment I was filled up with such regret and sorrow I felt I couldn’t face him. The best you can do is try to imagine such an opportunity will come to you again, but even in absence of that hope you have to walk on back to where the other players are gathered.
         We would sit among the antlers and the giant saw blades and talk, and I could smell the deep woods of my youth, when we lived like pioneers in a cabin alongside a river, perhaps the last generation of Americans to do something like that. My father was a company miner and a drunk, and my mother was a woman who read paperbacks and picked berries and wild greens, made rosehip tea, mushroom soup. They were flatlanders who had been freed by the hippie movement and come west with their youths. My mother hooked me once, whipping a hand-tied fly back and forth to lay it down in some specific place in the river where some poor fish would maybe rise to it and some fate it could not have imagined any more than you can imagine your own. I had snuck out of the cabin to watch her and saw the fly pass over my head like a little whistling woods fairy. It sank into the back of my scalp. I did not cry out. Trouble with my mother might carry over to my father, who often lay in the cabin groaning in his alcohol dreams. Dry years later, he was a calm and easy man, but things had to happen to him before he could achieve that. At that time, he was a mystery. There was no sure thing to do to please or displease him. The sun might go down in his face. He could be kind and gentle, could be so loving you felt love was the only true feeling in the world. Up the trail there was a cliff overlooking the river below, the rocks banks black with wet and wearing away second by second as they had through eons. He’d carry me up there on his shoulders and then tip me forward. I felt the emptiness beneath me, and I felt the solidness of his frame and the firmness of his grip. I shared all of this with Happy in time. Eventually, I would tell each of my stories to somebody or another. Maybe when you’ve said them all once or twice, you can figure out what all they add up to.
         Later, at a town party, my father fought with Shawn Shake’s father. All the country kids were there. We wandered among the legs of the drunk adults, and they tried not to trip over us. Warm with drink, some would pick you up or squat down to you. It was our world, and we wouldn’t have known to call it good or bad. My father and Shawn Shake’s father argued. Shawn Shake’s father knocked my father down, into a kiddie pool, and before he could get up, Shawn Shake’s father kicked my father in the stomach. He floundered around in the water. The women came forth, my mother among them. They meant to hold Shawn Shake’s father back, but he shoved them aside. When he pushed my mother, I was sure my father would rise in a mighty anger and destroy the man, but my father did not get up, and Shawn Shake’s father kicked him again.
         Happy listened to all of this with his face impassive, the way certain people do no matter the story you are telling.
         “It sounds like the first unbearable thing you can remember,” Happy said after a little while. When he was flush with panty money, he bought my drinks. Sometimes, he had to send them as far away as Japan. It was industrious. The things people could come up with continually amazed me, and I wondered what had been stunted in my own mind that it never had such ideas. It seemed Happy had continually adapted to the world, and I had probably already been left behind in some outdated version of it.
         “Maybe the most,” I said.
         This was one of the last times I’d see him. Soon after I told him this story, I would quit the gym and, and not long after that, the city, so that I could keep moving on in different directions that would all come to the same place. The waitress he’d been working with was no longer employed at Twin Peaks. Maybe she’d realized she did not need it, and that she did not need him either. “Now we’re on the outs in every way. I need to find somebody new.” He looked around halfheartedly. I knew how it was. You had a thing going that made sense and worked, but once it was over, you had no idea how to get back into its semblance.
I was then making love with a woman, but each time was probably the last. We had fallen into the time of mistakes, the kind you make when a relationship is slowly dying, and I was down about this cyclical thing and the way it could be seen as the shape of my life. Maybe because over the course of time I’d shared so much with Happy, or maybe because he somehow knew I’d soon be moving on, or maybe because of the way he himself had let others down at other times and so now wanted to lift somebody up, he gave me one of the last panties. I smelled it. It smelled like every woman I no longer knew, even the one who had not quite yet gone. The elastic had cut into the waist of that waitress. The fabric had cupped her buttocks. I closed my eyes pictured her, and maybe what I imagined is how she looked. She was going, and in some way, maybe she could take me with her. For a little while, I believed. Maybe that’s all it is fair to ever want.
         They say every time you remember something, you are really remembering the last time you remembered it. I don’t see how anybody could ever know that. But how can I be certain about these memories in that vision of diminishing returns, stories that fill themselves in around points that are as real to me as anything else, that are as real as what happened yesterday, this morning, what is happening now?
         “How did you get the hook out?” Happy wanted to know.
         I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember it hurting, either. I remember those woods, but not the trees. We moved on to town living when I was six. The wilderness was a wonderland with dandelion seeds floating around. My father might lie on the forest floor with blue jays hopping around and pecking delicately at cracker crumbles on his chest. They looked to me like sharply colored angels on a fallen giant.
         Now, it was time for me to go. “Stay happy,” I told him. I expected him to offer me some sort of wisdom. It had been that kind of afternoon, that kind of friendship, and everything seemed to have built to such a moment. But he had moved on in the day, in his mind. He was ordering his next beer. He was looking at the waitresses, wondering if any of them could be talked into anything like what he had been doing with the last one. He was concocting new and better schemes for living in a world that had changed right beneath him. I don’t think they were really anything alike, but he did remind me of my father. Happy didn’t have all that many answers, either. He told me to stay who I was. I couldn’t help it. I did.

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