Once there was a Man, and he was the happiest Man in the world.
He had a beautiful house and three wonderful barking dogs, with a doghouse his whole family built together. A garden lined the perimeter of his backyard, and sprouted fresh with tomatoes, zucchini, and bells. His front lawn sloped down in curves toward the street, and the grass was kept short and green by a man he paid to keep it. His house was a house of three stories, on a pretty little cul-de-sac, with neighbors of other joyous, wholesome families, and he was the happiest Man in the world.
He had a beautiful wife and four little boys who went to a private school, and before his wife drove them off each morning, he made sure their neck-ties were tied tight and their jackets were squared just right, and he was the happiest Man in the world.
The Man’s job was that of a doctor, and he was a happy doctor.
He did what other doctors did—eat at expensive restaurants with tables with white tablecloths, go on extravagant cruises—and sometimes, travel to Dubai and lounge at the high-rise restaurant in that tall building over an expensive truffle-topped pasta dish and a view of the big lake below. But he always did these things with his family, and he was the happiest Man in the world.
He was a giving Man. He was not a bad Man.
On Sundays he went to church, he sang for God and gave his money to the poor. Once a year he went to the Catholic Charities event at his country club, where he raised his white paddle for a thousand dollars, and he was the happiest Man in the world.
He was a Man who lived for others, and others knew he was good. In public, he could always be seen as giving and unselfish, and when people saw him thusly, they nodded and said, “That Man is a good Man, he puts others before himself always, as it should be.” He was a good Man, and he was the happiest Man in the world.
The little boy opened his mouth, the tongue depressor went in, and the doctor checked the throat.
He was a lucky Man, to have the life he lived. He had money, and he had earned it all on his own, and he used it to live well and expensively. He could buy whatever he wished and go wherever he liked, and he had not a single worry.
Into the boy’s ear went a skinny device, and it studied inside his head. Behind the boy’s eardrum was a brain whose gears were turning.
This Man had a successful life, with a beautiful house, a lovely wife and his four little kids. He had his money, and he used it for his family and for others, and that was as good as life could get.
This is what the little boy saw, and what the little boy wanted. He wanted to be like the happiest Man in the world. So, his mother at his side, the little boy asked the doctor,
“How can I grow up to be like you?”
And the doctor, the happiest Man in the world, looked at him with tired eyes—for he was also a sleepy doctor—and then at his mother; and then, smiling tiredly, he looked back at the boy and said,
“By following the example of others.”
The doctor looked at the mother, and she smiled approvingly.
And then the little boy and his mother said thank you and were gone. In that little doctor’s office, John was all alone.
He looked down at his watch. That was his last appointment. He was free to go.
Through the empty lobby, he raised a wordless hand to the receptionist. She didn’t see him. He kept on walking.
John went down the stairs, one stair at a time. He reached the second floor landing. He looked in through the glass doors at the near-empty lobby and the remaining patients. On all their faces were scowling looks of impatience and wretchedness. He spotted one pair: an aging mother and her son. They were both fat and she held her child on her lap. He was sucking at the straw of a milkshake. She had one arm around his belly, and the other arm resting on her big thigh, her hand vigorously tap-tapping her phone laying on her knee. John had more money than them; that’s the thought that came to mind. He probed searchingly for more, but no other thought came. He turned and continued down the stairs.
He exited the hospital through the two sets of automatic doors and came out into the cold. It was four o’clock but already a dim, shadowy haze permeated the air, making it darker and turning it into a small room of low light, a room that was raining. He moved through the hard, heavy drops to his car, subconsciously noting the absence of life; everything seemed dead. He stepped into a deep puddle and water splashed into his shoe. He stopped in aggravation, shaking his foot, then gave up and continued on. He got into his Mercedes and studied his face in the rearview. He stared and stared for a full minute—the unkempt beard, the wrinkles, the bags, the sagging mouth, the heavy, despondent eyelids—and drove away.
John pulled up his driveway, the rain still a pounding torrent upon his car. He parked it, unfastened his seatbelt and opened his door—and muddy paws assaulted his legs, clambering up the black pants and smearing his shirt with filthy brown prints.
“You stupid fucking dog!” he cried at his husky. He threw her off and she bolted towards the house—she was whining and panting feverishly; she must have dug a hole in panic from the rain—he got out, slammed the door and went for the soaked, excited dog. She was waiting for him, halfway to the door, panting and wagging in excited anticipation of being let in to the warm, dry house.
“You think you’re gonna be let in then, is that it? After this shit—” He quickened his last few steps up to her and kicked her hard in the side. She cried out in pain, limping awkwardly sideways and falling to her stomach. She stayed that way, walking low to the ground towards her master, whimpering, her body in the most submissive form it could be in to placate, her tail stiffly wagging; and John spat disgustedly and kicked her again, this time in the head. She shrieked loudly, her ears went flat and her eyes squinted, and her snout inched toward her master’s leg, her tongue licking out timidly. With his foot John pushed her head away and drove her to her feet; she limped to the front door where she lay down and cowered, her mouth opening and closing in pain, her body shaking terribly.
“Dirty mutt,” John snarled. He looked around his cul-de-sac; he spotted the young child of one of his neighbors; the boy was running around the yard and through the rain, yelling and whooping, quite a happy child; and his mother came out, scolding, grabbed his arm, and pulled him crying back inside. John turned back to the dog, scared and whimpering; muttering, “Someone else can deal with her,” he passed his small husky into the house, leaving her to shiver on the porch, to be cold, pained and terrified, to be a forgotten nuisance somewhere where he wasn’t.
He shut the door, and felt the air of the house; no one was home. He would’ve been able to tell just from the absence of any other car in the driveway if he hadn’t been distracted by the assault—his wife picked up the kids before coming home—but he didn’t have to. Where on other days there might be screaming kids and a screaming fucking wife, there was now only silence, and it was a dead silence. Everything in the house—the TV, the fridge, the furniture—was just a thing; but when people were here, these things were alive from the energy put out by the minds of those people, they seemed to vibrate and bounce with joy and activity, to be aware of and to see everything with the eyes graciously lent to them. But when the people left, they took their minds with them, and the things just became dead things with no eyes and no meaning at all. John did not have that kind of energy. The things he saw were still dead, and were not aware of him. He did not have that kind of energy. He did not have that kind of anything.
Oh yes, he remembered, he had money. He always seemed to forget that. The thought went through his head and left as calmly as it had entered.
He walked to his back slider glass door, a slow twenty-five second walk from his front door. He looked out. In the distance he could see the doghouse in the corner; it was one of his sons’ idea to build it, and his wife had put it into motion. It took several hours. Not being very handy, she had begged and begged John to help them, to join the family, but he had refused, and instead elected to remain inside, watching them bitterly through the window, a Bloody Mary in his hand.
He could now see his two other dogs inside of it; they were calmer and did not care much for attention; this suited John well. They were his dogs. The third one was chosen by his wife, was needy and friendly, freaked out about everything, and he often wondered what kind of convincing story he could come up with if he broke her neck one day.
On either side of the doghouse he could see the garden. The ceaseless rain swamped the dirt into mud, creating what looked like a cesspool. But the plants were still young, and were thus far fruitless. Again, this was his wife’s endeavor, and he’d asked her many times what was wrong with making a quick trip to the grocery fucking store.
He had to remind himself again: he was loaded. He was a doctor, and he was a happy doctor.
He put his hand to the glass and pushed himself away.
He went downstairs to his basement.
He turned on the hanging light. He kept his head down.
With time-enhanced familiarity he blindly found his way to a cabinet of drawers.
He opened one of those drawers. In it was a pile of picks. Guitar picks.
He pulled one out, turned and indifferently studied the room. It was filled with countless guitar cases, old PA systems, speakers, amps, mic stands, keyboards, boxes and boxes of crap and cords and pedals; cables, mics and beer bottles were strewn around the floor, and several guitars were mounted nakedly on several multi-stands. John trudged over to these uncased guitars and quickly chose one. It was a dingy old Music Man from the 80s, a StingRay II; its body was a light brown—the wood stood out nakedly, unpainted—and its electronics were gutted save for the volume knob. It looked like a piece of shit, but it was John’s favorite guitar. He plugged it into a random amp, turned it on and started playing.
The reason it was John’s favorite soon stood out. The way he played was rough, and as a versatile guitar, it could take a lot. He played the songs he’d written over the years—including songs from high school, the ones he could remember—and had never done anything with. Good little diddies that had never amounted to anything, had just remained where they’d been created, inside his wretched head. The music he wrote was good—others had told him this with no bias—and he had been in several bands in his youth, but when he reached his late twenties, he realized how little of a chance he had with his music, the thing he loved beyond words; he was fearful he was of falling behind the rest of the world, of failing at life. He knew what really mattered was being stable and living well. He’d always gotten good grades in classes like chemistry and biology, though he’d hated them, and his parents had always urged him to pursue a stable career no matter what. So he’d finally said enough, brutally suppressed his strong musical self, and gone to medical school to become a doctor.
He’d fallen in line with everyone else. The only difference is that he had money to spend. But this didn’t mean anything. He was still just a person living how he was told to live. Now that he was older, he could see things for how they truly were. No kind act of charity could make up for what he’d thrown away, for what he’d done to himself.
He studied his guitar; the finish was cracked and peeling. He remembered when he got this guitar new decades ago; it really had been a beautiful guitar in its simplicity.
But those years were gone, and it was all too late. He was stuck in the life he’d made for himself.
John placed his guitar back on the multi-stand. He walked purposefully to the cabinet, opened a drawer and pulled out a knife.
He flipped the knife open as he walked. He brought the knife up to his face, scratching his beard with the serrated edge like a comb. He reached the multi-stand, grabbed the neck of one guitar—a flame-red Gibson Les Paul—and in continuous motion brought the knife under the strings and yanked violently upward with a resounding twang, snapping the strings free, and he threw the guitar to the ground with a sickening crunch. He did this to the rest of his uncased guitars, twang, crash—breaking the neck of one of them—and finishing off with his StingRay.
Breathing heavily, he stared down at his mess of broken guitars amid the dirt and trash-covered floor, and a peculiar thought came to him, I’m a doctor, but I don’t live for the well-being of others, I live for their opinions. How funny is that?
He stared and he stared, and he ended up wishing he had just told the boy at his office what he’d really wanted to tell him: You don’t want to be like me.
He said aloud, “You don’t want to be like me,” and then he brought the knife to his neck and ripped his throat open.
Blood sprayed from the doctor’s neck in a high-pitched hiss, covering the guitars, covering the floor, flowing up and out his mouth. He slumped to the floor calmly, dropping the knife and falling back on his hands, his knees bent and up. As he lost his ability to breathe with blood filling his lungs, he looked calmly about the room, at the artifacts of his dying, forgotten passion, the remaining reminders of what he had truly been meant to live for. It was here he was to expire, among friends, and for that he was tranquil; for that, he was the Man who was happy. The flow of blood from his neck slowed to soft little pumps, drenching his shirt, covering the muddy paw-prints. Then his vision went hazy, his elbows buckled, and his legs fell sideways like butterfly wings; and as he died, he knew that somewhere out there, in the middle of a beautiful life, was truly the happiest man in the world.