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Excerpt: 'One More Theory About Happiness'

by Paul Guest
May 27, 2010

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Paul Guest

The night before I broke the third and fourth vertebrae of my neck I lay in bed imagining what it would be like if that ever happened to me. If there would be pain. If I would die. I was twelve years old. My mother had checked out a book called Joni from our Methodist church's sparse library, giving it to me when she finished. I had ignored it for months, choosing instead the tattered Hardy Boys mysteries I loved, the comic books I kept in a cardboard box, or magazines like BMX Action. But that night, after my parents had put the newborn twins, Bo and Clay, down for sleep, after my seven year old brother Chan had gone to his own room upstairs, I turned to the book, thumbing through it. The story of a teenage girl who was paralyzed in a diving accident gripped me, at first, the way cheap horror movies on late night cable did: the suffering seemed fiction. But when she wrote of awakening in a cold green room, her body naked except for a sheet that covered the body she no longer could feel or move, I could barely stand to read more. As the sheet began to slip away from her and into the floor, revealing her breasts, her nipples prickling in the cold air, shame scalded her and I put the book away. I didn't sleep for a while.

The next morning I woke early and dressed, excited. The day before I had graduated from the sixth grade, walking across an old stage in my school's cafeteria to receive my diploma. I was excited because one of my teachers had invited me to her home for a graduation party. Her name was Jody Benson and I had been her student since the first grade. Dark haired, young, she had come to my classroom, asking for me before leading me to a room in the oldest wing of the school. The room smelled like old books, like binding glue and dust. The floors were wood and high windows let in light that scarcely seemed to fall to where I stood beside a desk. She asked me to sit and placed a book on an easel before me.

"I've brought you here to test your reading skills," she said, smiling. "Do you know what I mean by that?"

I nodded. I had learned to read early, before beginning kindergarten. As a child, I'd demanded my mother read book after book, over and over again. Neither of my parents had attended college, marrying soon after graduating from high school. My father managed a grocery store in a local chain, having worked in the business since his early teens, and my mother claimed to hate school, to see no sense in most of it, all the while pushing us to do our best. I tried.

"Ok, then. We'll start off with easy words, words you won't have any problem with, and go from there."

The book was spiral-bound across the top edge of each page, designed to be flipped over. We began with words, then passages of text. They were easier for me than what I was reading at home. Books about the space shuttle, a history of the robot, mysteries, comic books — almost anything that I could find I opened up. Designed to measure a child's vocabulary, her book grew ever more dense each time she flipped a thick, time-stained page.

After a while, Jody stopped, putting down the pen she had been making notes with. "We can stop there. You've read plenty."

I was disappointed about not finishing. "I can keep going. It hasn't been hard at all." I wanted to please her. To impress her. I knew who she was and the classes she taught. I wanted to be a part of them, to be recognized, to feel special.

Jody looked at me carefully, trying not to smile. After a moment, she flipped the page and picked up her pen. She motioned for me to continue reading. I didn't stop until the book did.

At Jody's house I found my best friend Adam waiting for me on the back porch. Joy was beginning to grill burgers and hot dogs. Inside, Christina, Gwendy, Missy, Lana, and Michelle, the other members of our gifted class, were playing with Jody's newborn baby daughter. Adam and I were not much interested in that, sitting stoically on the bench while Jody cooked for us. Before long we grew bored, antsy, unwilling to join the girls inside. For five years, we had been the only boys in the class and Jody knew well how much we loved bicycles, riding, racing. She asked if we would like to borrow her and her husband's bicycles until the food was ready. We jumped up, running to the garage.

I should have been wary. An adult would have known better than to ride those bikes. Leaned against the wall, festooned with cobwebs, skinned in dust, the ten speed bikes had not been used in quite some time. Adam took the first and pedaled a few feet forward, stopping. The tires were flat. I looked down to see that mine were flat too. Back inside the garage, we found a pump hanging on the wall. Adam inflated his tires quickly and then was gone. I began pumping mine back up.

I climbed atop the bike, feeling awkward from leaning out over the handlebars. All my life I had ridden single speed bikes with twenty inch wheels, dirt bikes, BMX bikes with lightweight steel frames. I felt unsafe but pedaled on slowly.

Jody's house sat at the top of a long, steep driveway. To either side, green lawns sloped down to the road. I didn't see Adam anywhere ahead. Already I was afraid I would wreck. The bike was getting away from me as it coasted down the long incline. I squeezed the right caliper handbrake but it was only mush, a sensation I had felt before on my own bike when the brake cable that ran down to the wheel had frayed or torn entirely. It was a problem I could fix myself but not in motion, not then. My fear began to grow.

I was resigned to the inevitability of crashing, and in those few seconds I had before the bike would be dangerously fast I decided it was better to crash on grass than to land on the asphalt.

I steered to the right, not into Jody's lawn but the grass between her yard and her neighbor's. I tried the useless brakes once more. Nothing.

Maybe I can lay it down in the grass, I thought, though I'm not even sure I knew what that meant. I was rolling over the smooth grass, frozen. I never tried to do anything but ride it out.

What I did not know, what I could not see, would be what changed the rest of my life. At the bottom of the slope, a drainage ditch ran beside the road. Overgrown with weeds and thick tussocks of grass, I hit the ditch still traveling at speed. I was thrown from the bike, over the handlebars, catapulted, tossed like a human lawn dart into the earth.

Excerpted from One More Theory About Happiness: A Memoir by Paul Guest. Copyright 2010 by Paul Guest. Excerpted by permission of Ecco.

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