Welcome! Charles Dickey
[Today we welcome to the fold Charles Dickey, author of The Sentiments, and mastermind behind one of the oolest Indie hangouts, Fiercely Interdependent, a place for independent-minded creatives who aren’t afraid of the social issues that go hand in hand with culture.]
Mullwiler, part 2
At age 15, like all boys in small cities in Carolina in 1991, Henry was given license to drive. He didn’t have to request it; it just was, at least to Henry that’s how it seemed. The world seemed to move around him like scenery being shuffled past him while he ran on a treadmill. He didn’t find anything particularly invigorating about the run.
Given a car and keys and license, Henry drove from county to county, but by this point in his life the thrill of trespassing in other people’s domains had dulled. What had started as an accidental thrill had disintegrated into nothing but going through the motions.
At school, he slammed his books into his locker. The classes weren’t doing it for him, and like it had been that night in 1988 when he stood in front of the mirror, teenage Henry was frustrated and alone. The aloneness flashed around him when he least expected it, or more like all the time, even in the crowded school—especially there. Something had gone wrong in his wiring, he began to suspect.
It began to occur to Henry that perhaps, unlike the other students, he was a robot. He clung to this theory secretly for the better part of a year, even checking himself for data loops, batteries, logic circuits, or strange wires poking out of cuts, microchips hidden under toenails. Of course, he found none of it, but none of that kept Henry from believing. He remembered that earlier, when he had been, what, seven years old, he had repeated his name so many times internally—Henry Alan Mullwiler, Henry Alan Mullwiler, over and over like that so many times—that he had seriously begun to doubt not only the reality of the name, but the reality of reality. He began to have panic attacks.
It was hard to say when the panic attacks truly started, or whether they could even be separated from other, perhaps later, neuroses that developed. But then he didn’t like to think of all of these problematic aspects as neuroses, but think about them he did, and when he did, he invariably labeled them. And this was the problem with running his internal monologue: it was that it invariably led to crisis.
The crisis came to a head one day. It’s not like he hadn’t been expecting it. He was driving along, listening to the tape deck, dimly aware that his life was one drawn-out catastrophe dotted with others, and wondering where along the map of its ultimate unwinding towards demise he actually was. And that is when the crisis actually came to a head.
Henry was trying to come to a point, he was trying to reach a destination somewhere on the other side of the state, but kept getting turned around. He could no longer hold conversations with anyone but himself, and had recorded long, introspective monologues that he would listen to on long trips like this, something like books-on-tape, but custom made for his own tastes and concerns. And he was trying to get to the point with these tapes, but they kept cutting off or rewinding, or something else always happened to keep him from reaching the end, and then on long drives like this one he would end up having to either improvise the ending or turn the tape over and start another one of his pre-recorded programs, hoping that this next one would turn out better.
And so where was he going with all of this, he wondered, at age 18 when he had grown to his final height. He was beginning to grow facial hair, which was his first real physical clue that there was a world of shit out there actually waiting for him, a world of shaving and work.
Truth be told, the boy was lazy, and he was beginning to realize that it would just be in his own best interest if he went ahead and got that out there, squared with himself, even steven. “Henry,” he said one day when he was 18 years old, looking himself in the mirror, “You’re not a robot, you’re lazy.” And suddenly he felt vulnerable without any excuse.
But was it laziness, really? he would later ask himself, in a moment of compassion. Because after all, wasn’t he human just like the rest of the gang, and was it his fault after all if everyone else was caught up in the cultural neurosis of looking busy all the time to earn money? And there was the crux of it, though; he just couldn’t fake it anymore. Like he ever had been able to. And then he was back to his first conclusion of the situation: the world was actually hell, a place of punishment for wayward souls, or if not punishment, then just some kind of lost cause, like a bad thought let go and untended.
Just to prove he wasn’t lazy, to himself, Henry threw the mirror across the room, where it shattered. To his credit, he thought about punching it, and even saw it break in his mind’s eye as his fist smashed it and became bloody, but then one of two things became apparent to him as he opted out of that and threw the reflective surface across the room: “Either I’m a coward,” he thought, “or I respect myself too much to break my own reflection with my fist.” But then the mirror was broken, on the other side of the room. At least then it reflected the rest of the room with its broken fragments, and not the lonely island of a self that Henry was beginning to respect.
One July day, Henry wandered through the cobblestone streets of his hometown, looking for work. He wasn’t exactly sure what kind of work he wanted to do, but he knew it had to do with the words and ideas rummaging around in his head, keeping him up nights, pestering him with their unanswerable questions about the state of the world, about dichotomies and how things could be and how they should be.
It was a beautiful summer day in the south. The sky was wide open, salted with occasional clouds, looking for all the world like a heavenly sea strewn with cotton balls. He made a note of it. Henry sat down at a picnic table and chewed the cud of his thoughts. Nearby, a river made laughing noises, sending goosepimples over the grass, making the Earth blush. He exercised his mind in times like these by writing poetry that made little sense. The poems were just automatic streams of linked thoughts, associated words. This, according to Henry, was how the world was created: it was not premeditated, not ordered together like unto a carpenter god, but it bubbled up from nowhere, or more precisely, from under the fingernails, from under the running brook, from the madness of clouds it fell, and it grew, and then it grew again after it had died once for the season, and it kept building, not according to plan, but simply for the sake of building. He was on to something, he told himself.
He wrote his name on the cover of the notebook, in all caps: HENRY MULLWILER, and on the inside front cover, he wrote his name again, and his address, and his phone number, and his e-mail address, and then he wrote: “If found, please return this notebook to:” right over his name and address and everything else, and concluded the whole advertisement with “because its contents are important to me. Thanks a bunch,” and under that, he signed his name, Henry, except it was more like a capital H and some inarticulate, unpracticed squiggles. He had seen how some important people signed their names that way, and thought he would try it today, but it didn’t really work out for him, and the signature ended up looking like barf, or so he told himself.
Here he was, in his 16th year, sweet 16, spending his long summer morning down by the river, and really, did it get any sweeter than that? The day was warm and hot, both, and the water was pouring by, replenished by so many afternoon thunderstorms that had come before. By mid-day, those cotton ball clouds would have amassed into something more foreboding, armies of thunderstorms waiting to happen. Henry frowned at the predictability of it all. That was the problem, he thought, with summer days. As awesome as they were, they held onto their archetypal patterns too well, and rarely strayed from the mold. He found himself feeling disappointed in them, and surly, and dissatisfied. Henry chewed on the end of his pen, then sighed the beleaguered sigh of a poet who had already seen too much in his 16 years on the cruel Earth, and he put everything of his away with a flourish, shoving the pen and the notebook into his backpack, which he dramatically donned, strapping it over both shoulders as if it were his own particular, earned burden, which it was, and he took off madly towards the river, leaving the civility and tameness of the picnic table behind him. He shot off into the wild, intent on finding an antidote to the staid and encrusted patterns that surrounded him on all sides, smothering his intellect and wisdom and curiosity with their damned fool routines.