The Happiest
by Jason DeYoung


Lapping but crestless. Water.

There is no hurry.
There is no hurry left.
James and Helen both know this, but Albert doesn’t.
They have come to the mouth of the cave again.
This time they have brought Albert with them.

James and Helen found baby shoes and a swivel chair the first time they came here, another time two men canoodling, and still another the body of a boy holding a pair of binoculars. The boy had been in the cave for a long time. The binoculars were mineral stained; the large objective lenses were blackened over with once-shiny black paint. They took the binoculars before reporting the body. After that, whenever they returned to the cave, they brought the binoculars so they could look into the oily lenses at happiness.

“And why did we have to come here?” Albert asks.

James shrugs his shoulder.

“Ritual,” Helen says, exhaling smoke.

“We couldn’t have done this at your house?”

“We could’ve.”

The two men sit on large rocks, half-submerged in gently slapping lake water. Small motorboats are in the distance, and they send wakes and ripples of water to the shore. The boats are too far out, and no one on shore waves to them. Debris and pollen swirl and wrinkle on top of the dark green water. It’s too cold to swim in. A limb of an ash tree stretches over and dips the tips of a few branches into the water. Beyond the ash is an unkempt, bewildering, stubborn, and wild forest, choked with ferns and rhododendron and briars and crosswise limbs. To see someone walk out of it would be surprising. On the other side of the cave—just a recess actually, a carved out place—is a tiny path that’s not known by many. Helen had found it searching for the ‘divine’—a word James believes she uses to the point of meaninglessness. But since she found the binoculars, he hasn’t been so certain about things as he once was. There is something about coming to this spot, something about its landscape; it is similar to a painting or a scene or a tableau. He can’t find the right word. Time becomes funny here, James thinks.

They are all three in their late thirties.

A bottle of wine is between them, along with Helen’s bubbler from which she smokes instead of drinking the wine Albert has brought.

Her eyes are cratered into her face.
She is clearly ill.
All three of them are ill in some way.

Atop Albert’s head is a hiker’s hat with an excessively floppy brim and hard-to-manage strings. He’d bought it new for this outing, and James thinks it’s dumb. The hike to the cave is short and well-shaded. Albert would have been better off with a thicker pair of socks to shield his legs from the chiggers at which he scratches. James suggests Albert put his legs into the lake to smother them. Albert is reluctant, his face paling at the trash and withered insects atop the water.

He’s lost his child.
His own health is worsening.
On the walk, he’d revealed the number of pills he’d taken to make this hike.
He had talked of what he hoped this trip would be about.
James and Helen had given no indication that they had heard Albert’s desires.

Helen scratches at the rear of the cave wall with a bone from some unknowable animal. The mark shows the number of times they have come here. She turns and mumbles something. She is pale and unhealthy-looking. Her small, thin frame only makes her appear more doomed. The veins of her neck show through her skin. James looks no better. Once a strong, tan man, he is now bent over. His hair has fallen out rapidly. He’s lost some teeth. Albert thinks they look ghoulish—sicker than he is, yet undiagnosed. He can’t imagine that these are the same people he once completed triathlons with, the same couple who bragged about ascending the Grouse Grind in under an hour. Albert’s declining health has been certified by doctors, but as far as he knows, James and Helen haven’t seen a physician about their obvious maladies.

With the binoculars in hand, Helen steps into the water and muck and approaches Albert.

He thinks he sees the blood in her foot moving before it disappears under the dark water, but decides it’s a trick of light.

The light is odd here. It’s brighter than it should be, and yet there are angles and pocks of shadow that seem out-of-sync with the sun’s direction.

Weather is amassing behind the swaying, green skyline. It’s deep afternoon. “It’s a fucking pleasant as hell kind of afternoon,” James had said when they arrived.

Albert mentions to James how odd it is not to hear any birds or insects.

“It’d be a good idea to review Newton’s law of motion,” Helen says, lifting the binoculars toward Albert.

“Don’t be coy,” James says, turning to face his wife. “It’s nothing Albert can’t handle.”

Helen sighs.

“Look at us,” James says.

“They’ll make you sicker,” Helen cautions. “The binoculars will.”

“How does it work?”

“You just look through them.”

“That’s it? And they make you sick?” He still did not believe them, that the binoculars could show you your happiest moments, that you could relive them—“in a way,” James had said, months before, over bourbons in Albert’s backyard one night. On that night he wasn’t drunk. He was just in the mood to talk. James and Helen had told no one about the binoculars. They had kept it a secret for two years. They told Albert about the dead boy they found and how the binoculars had been next to him. James was still angry that Helen had taken them, but somehow all that didn’t matter. “In a way,” James said to Albert, “they show you things that make you the happiest.”

Perching on the rock, Albert doesn’t want to take them, thinking of the dead child they had belonged to.

The boy cannot help but wear the face of his own son.
He looks at his two old friends.
Every once in a while, he sees a shudder pass through James.
Helen’s nose has gotten larger, her hair grayer.

Albert thinks of his ex-wife. Not yet forty (but close), she still looks very young. They were around the same age, but James and Helen look decades older. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches James looking at his Garmin sports watch. “I thought there was no hurry?”

“There isn’t.”

“Do you want me to do it first?”

Albert looks up to Helen and nods his head.

All three go up to the cave and sit down on the coarse blanket.

James picks at some berries in a bowl and finishes his cup of wine.

Helen reaches for her bubbler.

Watching her pull smoke, Albert remembers the first time he tried marijuana. Seated on the floor around a stained and rickety coffee table, a guy named Roland packed a bowl, talking the whole time, giving an impromptu how-to lecture on caring for and smoking weed. At the time he’d thought Roland was a pretentious prick, but really the future doctor was doing Albert a favor, one that James and Helen weren’t.

That night, he felt his personality was peeling off.

He wondered if this current experience would be similar to that night’s when, shaking, he clutched Roland by the sleeves and whispered, “I don’t think this is how it’s supposed to be.”

Albert wants more reassurance.

Helen puts her back to the cave wall. She looks with hollow eyes at the two men. She smiles at Albert. Slowly, she puts the binoculars up to her face.

James pours another cup of wine for both himself and Albert.

They watch as Helen slumps, relaxes. Her breath quickens a little, and she moans. Her grip on the binoculars quivers. Her hips rise and fall.

Albert glances up at his old friend.

“It’s best we not watch,” James says. “Sometimes they show you sex. Mostly it’s childhood scenes, though.”

“I’m here to see my son,” Albert says.

James nods his head. “Maybe you’ll get what you want.”

“Maybe? You said they show you the happiest moments.”

“Yes, that’s what they do. But it’s random as hell. Sometimes I don’t remember what they show until they show me.”

“But.”

James has nothing else to say. He’s tired.

“But I don’t want to see sex. I don’t want to have some wet dream in front of you two.”

James doesn’t answer.

“You said…”

“It shows you happiness.”

They are quiet for a few moments. They listen to Helen moan. Her breathing increases. Albert takes a quick glimpse back. The binoculars shake in her hands. It might be the least erotic thing he’s ever seen. He feels sorry for her. James looks back too, and begins to tell Albert a little more. He tells Albert that once you look into the binoculars you’re locked into the vision. That it’s as if you cannot leave—“you don’t want to leave”—and then, toward the end, the vision begins to fray. “It all gets fuzzy.” A comparison to dreams is made, but James shakes his head. “It’s real but it isn’t. You know it’s your life, but it isn’t. There’s no control to it, and there’s no waking up from it until it’s over.”

“And it’s always happy memories?”

“Yeah, happy. The happiest. Joyous. You’ll feel exhausted from the bliss of it all.” Albert can’t help but notice the sadness of James’ recounting.

Albert sips from his cup, eats from a bag of chips, and listens to his friend orgasm. He hears her head and hips grind in the gravel of the cave floor. Thoughts about the nature of reality pass through his mind, but he worries he doesn’t have the mental horsepower to make sense of what’s happening here. Soon she is done, and it’s surprisingly silent in the cave given that three adults occupy such a small space. Water is what Albert hears the most, slapping water, the dip of small branches and leaves in water, short lapping water from the waves of faraway boats. Sometimes he hears the faint drone of out-board motors. There is the sound of birds too, distant, nearly like the chatter of a radio set at a low volume. Somewhere, someone on the lakeshore is calling a name that sounds like JJ or Kay Kay, and it’s nearly like a bird’s call in its clip-ness and strength.

Helen turns her back to the men, whose backs have been turned to her since the start. “Sorry.” Her voice is small, and perhaps they wouldn’t have even heard it except for its bounce off the rear of the cave. She lies in the dirt for longer than Albert thinks she should. “It’s okay,” he eventually says.

She rolls over and crawls to Albert, taps his shoulder with the binoculars. James takes them instead.

“The first time I looked through them I saw my father and mother and brother,” James says. “We were all at the table, eating roasted quail in gravy. My father was telling jokes like he used to. I could hear the buckshot pellets hit the plate when he spit them out. I could hear all of us laughing.”

The same person who called for JJ or Kay Kay calls again.

“The first time I looked through them,” Helen says, softly, “It was a bonfire at my cousins’. I could smell the toasted marshmallows and feel the heat. It was crazy. The heat. I was lying here in the cave, and it was February and cold, but…”

“Was the boy still here?” Albert asks.

The couple is silent. Their silence answers yes, they had looked through the binoculars with the dead kid perhaps between them. When Albert imagines it, he is between them, as if he, this unknown, unknowable boy, were their own.

Albert finally looks Helen in the eyes.
The word husk comes to mind.
She has changed in just this short amount of time.
Her skin looks dehydrated and loose.
He thinks of the cancer in his own colon.
Would this hasten it?

What is this, anyway? It seems simple—look into a pair of war-era binoculars, have a vision of one of your happiest moments, come away happier(?) yet changed, sickened by it.

James takes a turn with them.
He smiles broadly.
He is silent.
Helen holds herself.
She seems cold despite the heat.

On the lake, a boat sails past. The passengers toss something into the water. Their laughter can be heard. There’s a dog on the boat, and it’s clearly happy too.

Sea-Doos zoom by occasionally. The riders are ecstatic.

The contrast is almost too much for Albert.

The couple that brought him here is declining in health and thus they are sad unless they’re looking through a pair of magic binoculars.

Is that right?

Magic binoculars?

Albert looks back at James, who is giggling and laughing deliriously. Otherwise, there is silence underneath these rocks. A lot of doing nothing, of watching the water.

Listening.
Daydreaming.
James calms.

Helen smokes and digs up handfuls of muck and sand from the shore, examines it.

Albert feels tired.

Thoughts of taking a nap occur to him.

He stretches his hands and leans back on the cool ground. Sleep reaches out to him and Albert senses the slowness of the afternoon. It surprises him that he wants to sleep so much. It must be the wine, he thinks, because it’s otherwise strange and stressful here with James and Helen. Visions, odd and erratic, pass before his mind as sleep pulls him closer. He has a barely-formed dream of a faceless person offering directions. He dreams of peculiar and colorful shapes. Orange and green. Red and purple. Just barely on the edge of going deeper, he sees a garden.

“Hi,” and then, “Sorry,” and then, “I’m looking for my dog,” and then, “But I see.” Helen and Albert look up to see a man standing beside the cave’s mouth with a dog leash in his hand.

“What?” Helen asks.

“That he’s not here,” the man says, trying not to look at James, but unable to look away. His eyes dart back and forth between Albert and James and Helen, and then back to James. Albert knows Helen must look like a meth-head. What a strange looking crew they must be.

“Private party, pal.”

“Sorry,” says Albert.

“But.”

“No buts, man. Private party.”

He doesn’t say anything for a moment and then asks, “Have you seen a dog?”

James hoots.

His laughter grows.

The man with the dog leash surveys the scene again.

“What?” Helen says.

“Have you seen a dog?” he asks, again, this time with nearly no feeling.

“No,” Albert says. “No dogs have come this way.” Unlike Helen’s throaty contralto voice, Albert sounds trustworthy, respectable, undamaged.

James laughs louder.

Albert can see the man’s concern is increasing.

“Drunk,” he says. He lifts up the bottle of wine. “He’ll be okay. Probably.”

The man with the leash squints and turns, murmurs something under his breath.

“Should we leave?” Albert asks.

“Naw. The lakeshore is frequented by freaks of all sorts. We’re not really doing anything wrong.”

A low thunder pushes through the afternoon. It has been threatening to rain all day. There are birds in the distance again. Albert wonders why they don’t come closer. He no longer feels sleepy. Had he slept at all? Yes, in a way. Helen walks away from the cave’s opening, into the thicket of briars and limbs. James is still inside his vision. He makes odd, babyish sounds. Helen comes back after a while, wiping what looks like blood onto her pants. “You want to see something?” she asks.

In the shallows, there is a bicycle and a shopping cart and a statue of an Eastern god.

Albert looks at Helen. He doesn’t know what to make of it. He doesn’t know what she would make of it either.

“You have to wonder how these things end up here,” Helen says. “Who looks at these things and says, I’ll just throw it in the lake? Not just the statue, but the cart too. And the bike.”

Out on the lake, a crack of lightning zips down out of the clouds.

Helen’s discovery cheers Albert. This is who Helen has always been to him. She was a searcher, an observer, someone who gave comfort through her belief in a larger universe. She found the divine for him and James and made it a more interesting world. They ask each other who the statue represents, and neither of them know. It is golden and multi-armed and completely meaningless to Albert, other than being an oddity in its current condition.

Behind them, James approaches, walking slowly and clumsily. He looks over into the water. “Hi,” he says to the statue. No one laughs or reacts. The statue doesn’t move. It’s very settled into its place at the bottom of the lake. It looks like you could almost reach it, but they know it’s too deep, even though each thinks retrieving it would be nice, would satisfy something they desire.

The three turn to look at one another.
The first few raindrops begin to fall.
James lifts the binoculars and pushes them to Albert’s chest.

“Still up for it?”

James’ skin is ghostly in the pre-storm light.
His head cocks at a too-odd angle, and a vein in his neck pulses fiercely.
He seems in a good mood.
Albert shivers from the change in temperature.

Helen sways. “A little dizzy.”

The binoculars change hands once again.
This is the first time Albert has held them.
They are heavier than he thought.
The large lenses are blackened over.
The small lenses are oily and shimmer with a greasy rainbow.

“I need to sit.”

The oncoming storm begins to die down.

“It’s small weather,” Helen says, coughing drily.

She closes her eyes and inhales, but it’s a shallow breath and it makes her cough again.

Albert takes a seat where Helen and James both sat previously. It is a place that has held them, a divot in the ground. He brings his son’s face before his mind and dwells on it for a few moments, while James and Helen talk on the rocks at the water’s edge. Albert remembers happy times and hopes that this is what the binoculars will give him. A second chance to see his son.

“Don’t try to game it, bro,” James says from the shore.

“It doesn’t give you what you want,” Helen says, sitting next to James.

They both look like apparitions.

“It’s like sleep,” Helen says. “Just let it pull you under.”

James nods, but his expression says to Albert, Get on with it.

Albert lifts the binoculars to about an inch before his eyes, takes one more peek at the couple who brought him here, sees the ash tree limb dipping in the water, and then remembers there are others around, the man with the dog leash, for instance. He says a little prayer that he won’t have a wet dream in front of these people. And then he presses the lenses into his eye sockets.

At first he sees nothing, and then faint images gather. It takes his mind a few minutes to attune to the vision, like when he first saw the Northern Lights. He didn’t quite know what he was looking for or at. It is gentle. Emerging out of the darkness is his grandfather and not his son. But he doesn’t care—he is, maybe, a little relieved not to see his son. Somewhere, from some outer realm in his mind he remembers some grandmotherly wisdom—Suffering is the rule, joy is the exception.

The old man is holding on to the tailgate of his pickup truck. In the back, in the bed of the truck, is a snuffling, yapping puppy.

On the rocks, Helen faints and falls under the water.

James watches her through the cloud-reflecting surface as her mouth opens and closes, fishlike, and then stops.

Albert giggles and says aloud in a squealing, innocent voice: “Tecumseh.”

James patiently lifts and holds Helen’s head out of the gently breaking water while Albert laughs, childlike, inside the cave.

There is no hurry.
There is no hurry left.

 

 

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