The old man knocked tobacco out of his long-stem pipe. “I would like you to solve the mystery of happiness,” he said, pointing his white eyebrows at me.
The only thing I hoped to solve was finding my way out through the labyrinth of corridors in my uncle’s estate. Hell, I barely graduated from State three months ago. And the only thing my Creative Writing major did was land me a waiter gig at The Ram’s Head Steakhouse in town. Solve the mystery of happiness? I knew Uncle Clarence was some industry titan—but really?
He kept right at it though. “I’d like you to write a book. Call it, Happiness Found, or something. You’ll figure it out I’m sure.” My uncle reached for his cherry-wood tobacco case, filled his pipe, struck a match, and drew in a few breaths on the flame. Trails of smoke drifted through the oak paneled study; bookcases lined the walls with leather bound volumes.
Taking in the scent of both cherry-sweet smoke, and a job, I asked, “Are you retaining me to write a book?" (I learned the word ‘retaining’ senior year in Book Marketing 405).
My uncle stretched back in his desk chair. “No. I am offering you an opportunity, Jack.”
“You won’t pay me?” My voice broke with a squeaky sound on the word ‘pay’.
“No. I will cover your expenses. You will need detailed receipts. I will open any door you need. ANY door. You will report to me every six months here at Kingmoor.”
He gave me a steady gaze for near forever, then said, “Think about it. And Jack?”
“Yes Uncle Clarence.”
“Give my regards to your mother.”
“You can leave now.”
I did find my way out through the labyrinth and my green Prius was in the circular drive where I left it. I drove out by the winding drive through the park-like wooded grounds, and when the road looped, Kingmoor came into view. The gray stone mansion, forty rooms or more, dominated the top of the hill, with stables to the north, gardens, and the winery beyond; all wrapped in fall reds and yellows, chestnut trees, purple rhododendron, and the blue sky.
Pulling the Prius over to the side of the road, the wheels crunched on the gravel as I came to a stop. Sure, I was thinking, why not write up some reports, do the interviews my uncle set up? Besides (if I wanted to be honest with myself), looking at Kingmoor, maybe someday there'd be an inheritance.
The problem, of course, was no pay. But I worked on it anyway, and interviewed over the phone twenty-two captains of industry, as Uncle Clarence called them (Uncle Clarence introduced me), including Warren Buffet (I couldn’t believe it). I cataloged their answers, looking for patterns of consistency, a lot to decipher, a lot to write about—and it was a lot more work than I hoped it would be. In the mean time, a year went by at The Ram’s Head, and in my off-hours I wrote short stories, and tried to submit to the trades, which resulted in nothing but aggravation and rejection letters. But I put my writings together from the interviews, and started calling the too-thin stack, The Happiness Papers. I wasn't really doing much, and then it seemed in no time I found myself back at Kingmoor under the grips of Uncle Clarence’s white bushy eyebrows.
He was not a man to waste time on inconsequentials. “So what did Warren say when you asked him my question?”
“He said regards, but he’d drink all the Cherry Coke he pleased, thank you very much.”
Uncle Clarence gave a good chuckle, then asked, “What did he say about the secret to happiness?”
“He said all he cares about is the game, and the money is just a way to keep score.”
Uncle Clarence tapped his pipe on the desk, thinking, then said, “It’s been a year; all you’ve got is ‘money and possessions are not the secret to happiness’ from all these successful people?"
“Jack, that’s a platitude. Almost everybody says that. They just don’t believe it. But either way, your instructions were to find the secret of happiness, not to find the things that aren't. Have you dug as deep as you can?”
“I could work harder on it.”
“There you go! I’ll see you in six months, not twelve Jack. Six. Say hello to your mother for me. Martha can cut you a check for your expenses on your way out.”
The next time I saw Uncle Clarence it was two years later and in all that time Uncle Clarence didn’t push me. Truth is, I’d pretty much given up on happiness, both for the book, and myself. I was still at the Ram’s Head, working now as an under-paid (in my opinion) assistant manager. My writing was sporadic you might say, to be polite, and the one beer after hours turned into three, which turned into five, which was then replaced with Jack Daniels.
As I came in to his paneled study Channel News was on Uncle Clarence's wall monitor and he motioned for me to take a seat. This was January 6th, and the TV trembled that day; men with American flags breached the stairs of the US Capital, pushing their way up the granite steps, and on to the porticoes. The heat of it was full-on, and Uncle Clarence’s monitor pictured crowds of men fighting and shoving, beating and crying; it was a mess.
My uncle was riveted to the screen and I don’t think he noticed me much, or cared, but after some time he turned the sound down on the TV. He shared some quick pleasantries, as was his nature, and then asked, “So where are you on the happiness study Jack?”
With the interviews completed, stories transcribed, I felt confident Uncle Clarence would buy my answer. “The research I’ve done seems to prove positive thinking is the secret Uncle Clarence. Many people say the talk you have with yourself will instill a positive mindset.”
His face lit up red electric mad. “Positive thinking! So you’ve discovered the the secret to happiness is positive thinking? I’d have to think on that, and I’ll admit it does help for some, but that’s the biggest crock I’ve heard in a long time. You mean to tell me some single mother, say living in poverty in Duluth or Ipswitch, can gain happiness through positive thinking as the missing ingredient of the happiness recipe? People are smarter than that Jack, and they know hardship when they’re in it. It's true a positive outlook is a good thing, but every time I’ve been around some knucklehead who spouts, with that fake delight, over the top positive thoughts, in the face of real facts, I’ve run like a man on fire.”
“It seemed to make sense,” I said.
Uncle Clarence nodded to the TV. “Seemed to make sense? Do you see what’s going on at the Capital son? It’s lies that drove those people. Lies that all their problems have simple causes. But it’s a lie also that everything’s going to be fine if you just tell yourself it’s all good. There’s enough lying already and… and…” Now I don’t know your politics, and its not mine to judge, but Uncle Clarence then put his hand to his head, and his face fell with discouragement, and he was somewhere else, and I thought he was going to cry. On the TV monitor we both could see the doors to the Capital Building break down, and the mob force their way in. More to himself and not to me, he said, “Remember this day. It’s the day you realized how much you love your country.”
“Are you ok Uncle Clarence?”
He came back to our time and place and nodded to me. “Well, work harder Jack. Come back when you have the secret.”
“And do it quick Jack. I don’t have a lot of time.”
The following summer I made one last final effort to put something together, but Uncle Clarence rejected my bullet points and stacks of research with a flick of his hand, one after another. What a waste of time, I thought, all for the hope of being included in an inheritance someday.
REJECTED. I had statistics, and had written stories on how lowering expectations increased happiness because the likelihood of failure was less. He said we should raise expectations. Failure and the lessons learned by failing when looked back on was a good thing, not bad.
REJECTED. An easy reject, pleasure was not the secret to happiness. Does a drug addict have the secret of happiness? Pleasure and happiness were two different things.
REJECTED. I wrote pieces left and right on social media. Social media causes unhappiness by depicting unrealistic images of beauty, popularity, and model human beings; the reversal being a lack of social media would be the secret to happiness. No. Social media, as bad as it is, if taken away, is not the secret.
My uncle’s funeral, not many months later, was an elaborate affair with no less than one-hundred eighty black vehicles, a sorrowful head lamped line from the town to Everette Lawn Cemetery, where large white tents were set up. The largest funeral ever in Tabit County, if not the state, they said. The eulogies were made and stories of a good man told. Even Warren Buffet arrived on a Lear to honor his friend. But now with the crowds gone, the speeches made, and the maneuvering for the places in the will and inheritance begun, I took a moment alone with my uncle by his graveside, and with a special purpose, for my mom that day had slipped me a letter. I opened the embossed white stationery with a blue wax seal in the image of a crown, my uncle’s mark. I sat back against the gravestone in the misting gray afternoon, a headstone simply reading ‘husband, friend, entrepreneur’ beneath my uncle’s name, year of birth, and death.
You know by now I’m gone. What you don’t know is Kingmoor and all my assets have been given away to the state, created into a historical designation for touring of the premises, a park, and a non-profit charitable organization.
I also owe you an apology. I’m sorry Jack for setting you out on a mission to find the secret to happiness. I promised your father I would take care of his lost son and my only goal was to keep you writing.
As to happiness, there is no secret. Happiness is not something that can be bought with a check. Or even achieved. It just is. Happiness comes to you in a murmur, a whisper, and when you least expect it. And when it does come, its temporary and fickle. It’s an emotion, a side effect. You cannot strive to be happy. Happiness comes from apart, not within. It comes making a step toward who you want to be.
Jack, your ideal self, whether you know it or not, is to be a writer. Your happiness will come as the side effect in the still of the night, the rushing of the clock to get back to it, the turning of a phrase. So step to who you are Jack, go to work, and pick up a pencil.
See you on the other side. I love you son.
It looked like the drizzle might go to rain, and I put the letter away and made my way to the cemetery entrance. I was more than a little out of my mind, and had a long way to go, but I was done with the Jack Daniels.
A kid on a bike almost hit me when I reached the sidewalk.
“Watch out boy!”
He pulled to the side and gestured to the cemetery. “That big shot was buried today. Did you know him? Are you a big shot too?”
“No. I’m a writer.”
“What’s a writer?” The kid started getting on his bike to peddle off before it rained.
“It’s someone who writes,” and I thought, maybe I’m the one who would have complete happiness, if it weren't for that one thing holding me back—not being true to myself.
The boy looked curious. “You’re crying mister. Are you sad?”
“No, I’m not sad.” And then, right then, I knew why I was crying, and I knew who I wanted to be, and I knew I was ready—and it was like Gabriel’s horn sounding to the high clouds, blowing it out, letting it free.
Like I said, I was a little out of my mind that day, but I looked at the kid straight on, picked him up with my heart, shook him with my soul, and declared, “You’re looking at Jimmy Stewart yelling Merry Christmas in Bedford Falls! You’re seeing a man clicking his heels three times—going home!” I said. “I’m a man whose gray sky is blue, and it’s raining butterflied sunshine!”
The saucer eyes of the kid on the bike stared back true. “You’re a nutty loon! Why’re you so… so … just what are you anyway?”
I was already gone, but shouted into the sweet air so both the kid and the angels could hear. “I’m happy is what I am! Just happy!”