What, Me Worry?
We’ve all experienced it, that terrifying, heart-stopping, pit in the stomach moment when you realize all is not well in the universe- your car isn’t where you thought you parked it, a valuable item rattles around in the sink for agonizing moments before it disappears down the drain, an empty pocket where your wallet should be. Henry’s traumatic moment hit him like an earthquake. He was stunned, dazed, shaken, and he would soon undertake the long, painful journey through the Five Stages of Grief.
“Honey, I’m home!”
After twenty-three years of marriage, one should not expect confetti, cheers, or a marching band.
“Oh, there you are, Susan.”
Perfunctory half-hug and a peck on the cheek.
“The garbage men came for that special pickup. I can finally park my car in the garage.”
“I told you I was having the garage cleaned out. They finally showed up today.”
“You did? I don’t remember…”
The first rumblings of the earthquake…
Henry’s heart rate picked up, blood pressure climbed, breathing came to a halt. Henry’s eyes opened wide as his thoughts flew out to the boxes on the shelves at the back of the garage. He walked slowly, afraid of what he might discover. The longer he didn’t know, the longer he could retain a sense of normalcy in his life. It wasn’t possible, too horrible to imagine. Nothing that bad could happen. They would only take the junk and clutter and not the boxes. Susan would have supervised the cleanup. Or would she? She always thought the whole thing was stupid. Oh, my God, maybe she paid them extra to haul the boxes away!
Henry opened the door cautiously. His eyes started at his feet and fearfully moved across the garage floor to the far corner, and then slowly up the wall to the …empty shelves!
No, no, no, please God no. He closed his eyes, hoping he hadn’t seen what he just saw. His eyes slowly opened, but the picture remained the same. Henry inched his way to the shelves, touched them, and ran his fingers across the bare wood. The shelves were as empty as his heart. He surveyed the entire garage. No boxes. He ran outside and circled the garage. No boxes. Henry’s thirty-five-year collection of Mad Magazines- gone.
Henry staggered back to the house, hanging on to the sliver of hope that Susan had the boxes moved to the basement.
“Susan…my…my…magazine collection…do you know…did the garbage guys…the boxes…in the corner…”
“I don’t know. They probably took them with the rest of the junk.”
Stunned, paralyzed by the enormity of the moment. Thirty-five years. Henry got his first Mad Magazine when he was ten. He started collecting them because he was too lazy to throw them away, so they just accumulated under his bed. He loved “Spy vs. Spy”, everything Don Martin did, the fold-in pic on the back cover, and of course the persistent message of the carefree lifestyle advocated by the great philosopher, Alfred E. Neuman.
Mad Magazine was with Henry every step of the way. Henry flashed that gapped tooth smile as he went begging for treats three Halloweens in a row. It took his mother an hour to get the hair and freckles just right.
Sixth Grade- Sister Agnes had her class prepare a “Me Box”. Students were to put items reflecting the most important things in their life in the box. When the box was opened at Parents’ Night, Henry’s dad was chagrined to see the Pee Wee Herman issue of Mad Magazine on top. As the good Sister gave his parents a skeptical look, Henry’s dad could only offer an enthusiastic, “Look! He’s reading!"
The day after the latest issue arrived in his mailbox, Henry had his copy tucked inside his textbook during his morning high school classes, and his subscription followed him to college. If any of his friends borrowed his copy, they had to sign for it.
After he had “grown up” and became gainfully employed, Mad Magazine still provided Henry with much needed moments of R+R. He would regularly re-read old issues, thoroughly enjoying them the second time around.
Susan never understood the sophomoric, stupid humor presented by the “usual gang of idiots” at Mad. She would shake her head as Henry sat in his E-Z chair chuckling to himself as he flipped through the latest issue. And then doomsday. The local newspaper announced that Mad Magazine would be closing shop, the last issue to be published in October of 2019. It was like reading the Death Notice of a dear old friend.
But Henry had his memories…and his treasured collection of thirty-five years of issues. And now they were gone. He would later say it was like getting the wind kicked out of him (once in a high school football game), a hard slap in the face (once in a drunken stupor at a college bar after suggesting an amorous adventure to a girl he didn’t know) or getting hit with a taser (an event yet to be experienced, but he knew it would hurt). He shuffled his way back to the garage and stared at the place where his collection once resided.
Maybe the magazines weren’t lost forever. Maybe the garbage guys realized their value and stashed them in the basement despite his wife’s indifference, or perhaps even her encouragement. Henry checked. No magazines.
Someone at the garbage company probably peeked inside the boxes and appreciated their priceless contents. They would have set the boxes aside and placed them in a safe place. A quick trip to U Call-We Haul proved otherwise.
Henry went into full Columbo mode. He would trace the route of his beloved monthlies, find them, rescue them from the ignominy of a garbage dump, and return them to their rightful status. He imagined himself sitting in his E-Z chair, the soft tones of Andy Williams floating through the living room, enjoying a Don Martin four-panel rib-buster. It will be ok. God wouldn’t allow such a thing to happen.
Four days at the garbage dump proved otherwise. He toiled under the hot sun in search of his lost treasure. He did find and claim ownership of a number of useful items- a bowling ball that was his exact fit, a perfectly good though outdated travel alarm clock, and a Green Bay Packer pencil holder…but the motherlode escaped him. His precious magazines were gone…forever.
“How could you possibly let this happen?!”
“It’s not my job to keep track of your stupid magazines.”
“I had those magazines since I was ten!”
“That’s the point, Henry. That crap is for ten-year-olds.”
“Crap?! You take that back, Susan. Don’t you dare talk about my collection that way.”
“Whatever?! Thirty-five years of the greatest publication known to man!”
“Look. I just didn’t like that pile of boxes cluttering up the garage.”
“I’m not fond of your mother coming here for a week every summer, and I don’t call the garbage guys to come take her away.”
“Henry! Don’t talk about my mother that way!”
“They’d probably have to bring their double-wide trailer to haul her fat ass out of here.”
And so it went. Henry stewed for days, weeks, months. The hostility ebbed and flowed with Henry’s ability to move his mind to other places. He tried all means of distraction. He endeavored to read a book, but it only brought back memories of turning the pages of a Mad Magazine. He only made it to page three of War and Peace. He bought a Build-A-Birdhouse kit, but he gave up halfway through reading the directions. In a last-ditch effort, he lugged his “new” bowling ball to the Windup Lanes but turned in his bowling shoes after just six frames, having posted a forgettable score of twenty-seven.
In the end, anger proved to be Henry’s best distraction. The more he focused on his ill will (closer to rancor, wrath, and rage) toward Susan, the less likely he’d be to mourn his loss. It was certainly the greatest test of their marriage, far eclipsing other notable events such as Henry forgetting their first anniversary, or his spending a night on the sofa at the Moose Lodge after a late-night poker game fueled by vast quantities of alcohol.
Henry didn’t think he could withstand the rigors of an hour-long Mass, so he began making regular visits to St. John’s 24 Hour Chapel.
“Dear God, you’ve probably heard about my magazines. I’d like them back. I know you’re all-powerful. Yes, I’m a real believer, yeah, a big fan, so I know you could do it. I need, you know, a miracle, like what you did with wine and the fish, and those loaves. You brought Lazarus back, so getting my magazines back should be a slam dunk for someone like you. Maybe have the garbage guys could find them in the back of their truck, or in a warehouse someplace. Thanks. I’ll be waiting.”
Three such visits- nothing.
“Dear God, it’s me again, Henry, the guy with the magazines, actually the guy without the magazines. Uh, they’re not back yet. Yep, I haven’t heard a word about them. So, I was thinking. I’ve heard how you sometimes work your will through people, so here’s my idea. I’ll go back to the junk pile and look for them myself. You see where I’m going with this? I’ll start sorting through the garbage again, and you kind of steer me in the right direction, even if it’s just telling me if I’m getting hotter or colder.”
Henry spent the entire weekend at the dump. It rained all day Sunday. Susan made him hose himself down in the back yard before she’d let him in the house. Great effort, no guidance, and no magazines.
“Dear God, it’s me again. I think I’ve realized my mistake- all asking and no giving, so here’s my offer. I give you, I mean the church, a dollar for every magazine I get back. That could be a pretty hefty sum, God. And… I’ll hit mass once a month.”
“OK, mass twice a month and two dollars per copy.”
“Alright, mass every Sunday and one weekday a month, and $2.50 an issue. Now that has to be my final offer.”
No magazines, but Henry could now spread the Anger around- half for Susan, half for God.
Diminished appetite, trouble sleeping, irritable at work. Henry was slowly sinking into the abyss. In the mode of a highway crash site, Henry placed balloons and ribbons on those empty shelves in the corner of the garage. On especially troubling nights, Henry would set a lawn chair in the garage and reminisce. He was headed for a dark place.
“So, you say you’ve suffered a great loss? What kind of loss?”
“No loss of a loved one, no financial crisis?”
“No, Doctor, just the magazines.”
“What kind of magazines?”
“Isn’t that a child’s comic book?”
“Oh, no, sir. Very creative, sophisticated humor. It’s for all ages.”
“Hmm. So, you are battling depression over the loss of some comic books?”
“Yes, Doctor, now we’re making some good progress.”
“Uh, why don’t you just go out and buy some magazines to replace the ones you lost?”
“It was thirty-five years’ worth of the magazines. Every issue.”
“You collected Mad Magazine for thirty-five years?”
“Boy, you are nuts.”
Like all good members of the medical community, Henry’s shrink had developed a severe case of writer’s cramp prescribing meds as the remedy for all of life’s problems. Henry would now face his crisis heavily armed with sleep aids, uppers, downers, and a few specialty items that would provide sideways emotional swings.
Drained. The initial shock, the fruitless searches, the energy lost on anger, the sapping of life from depression, the effects of a rollercoaster diet of meds, Henry was a shell of a man. He was no longer sad or angry. He just was.
Susan showed pity. She purchased a few old issues of the magazine and brought them to him as he sat in his rocking chair covered with a warm blanket. One look at the cover, the smiling Alfred E. Newman with his finger up his nose, and Henry wept openly.
Friends came over. They brought him some of his favorite snacks. A hot fudge sundae from Dairy Queen elicited a smile. Soon Henry was talking with them, exchanging stories about old times, and analyzing the play of their favorite sports teams. A few jokes seemed to lift his spirits.
And then Henry remembered. He understood. It wasn’t the magazine, a single issue of Mad Magazine or thirty-five years of it. It was the message, the idea, the philosophy of his hero, Alfred E. Newman- “What, me worry?” Henry had betrayed all of it. He had worried to the max over his lost collection. He suddenly realized he didn’t need the magazines. He needed the message. He didn’t have to revisit the stories or the artwork; he only had to remember the philosophy of his fictional, yet impactful, mentor. His collection was lost, and the publication had ended, but he would pick up the flag and carry on. He would no longer be consumed with his loss, for he was Alfred E. Newman, a man with no worries.
All was well again in Henry’s universe.