My therapist calls it the Random Happiness Cure. RHC sounds more clinical. My doctor’s got me on an RHC program. So far, so good.
He asked what made me spontaneously happy, and I said I didn’t know. Wasn’t that why I was in his office? He quizzed me until we landed on a popular song I would never admit I liked. But he mentioned it, I smiled, and he leaned forward in his chair, pointed his pen at me and said, “That’s it. That’s a trigger. It created an instinctual smile.”
Whenever the song comes on, I am supposed to stop what I am doing, and sit next to my wife on the couch, hold her hand, and just listen. I am doubtful, but I am a rule-follower.
Our backyard is an orange soup when it rains, so I begin to dig a French drain, a diagonal slash across the backyard. My wife comes out and says, “That song is on again.” I follow her in and lock the door, close the shades.
We begin as we should. Holding hands, listening to the vapid song that somehow delights. It is terrible, but I tap my feet, and my wife smiles, sits closer. Around us the den is a mess of collapsed boxes, piled books, tables and shelves littered with bubble wrap and styrofoam peanuts. Our first house. A cul-de-sac in a suburb.
The last two times the song came on the radio, we ended up naked on the den floor. This time is no different. Our baby is due in eight weeks, and so we have become creative. Pillows have new significance.
“Dr. Corbin will want to know how it’s working,” I say.
“It really is a pretty good song,” my wife says. She is on her back rubbing her belly.
The cemetery was not a problem when we first looked at the place, and I don’t think it is a problem now, but I stare at it each time I step out onto the porch. I don’t know what I’m looking for. A tall, wooden fence separates us, but the land gradually rises on the other side so all you can see of the first few rows are the tops of headstones, but beyond that they stretch out in full lockstep view. And whenever I look over there, I quickly look away as if I am afraid someone may catch me staring.
I know a lot of dead people. My grandparents are dead. My father is dead. My wife’s grandparents. My best friend from high school. And in the past year we have scattered the ashes of two dogs. But it is not of these people — and dogs — that I think about when I look at the cemetery. It is my mother. She lives alone in the house I grew up in. My sister recently confided that she cringes whenever her phone rings.
“I just know it will be about mom. A neighbor, the fire department, some stranger with news of some disaster.”
“Nothing we can do,” I tell her. The statement offers guilty comfort, but comfort just the same.
Without Dad, Mom has not done well. She drinks too much, smokes too much, lies about both, and she recently called to say it hurts a little when she swallows food, but not to tell my sister.
Dr. Corbin asks about the Random Happiness Cure, and I tell him it’s working.
“How can you tell?”
“I am genuinely happier when the song is finished,” I say. “So is my wife.”
“Has she been suffering like you?”
“No,” I say. “She’s always been more positive than me. She didn’t grow up in my house.”
“How do you measure success?” he says.
“I don’t really think about it all that much.”
“Are you happy?”
“So you think success and happiness are linked.”
His office is tucked in between a sandwich shop and a tanning salon in a strip mall just off the highway. I want to ask if he looks around and sees success.
“I think achievement and happiness are linked. I’d like to try something new, along with the Random Happiness Cure. You can only do it once, but it’ll help with your sleeping issues.”
The 24 hour cure: make an impossibly long to-do list, watch It’s a Wonderful Life, and then stay awake for twenty-four hours, filling the time with the to-do list items and George Bailey mindset.
Not long into the twenty-four hours, my mother calls and tells me she has esophageal cancer. I am in the backyard digging.
“Don’t worry about me,” she says. “There’s options. Plenty of options.”
“What are you doing right now,” I ask her. “Where are you in the house?” There is a pause. I know she’s drinking. I know what she will tell me. I should hang up.
“Cleaning,” she says. Of course.
In the cemetery a city worker fires up a weed whacker, and I stand on the picnic table and watch as he swings the machine between headstones, the family ones that are too close together for the giant riding lawn-mower.
“Did you tell the doctor about your drinking and smoking?”
“He knows my history,” she says.
I stoop to a knot hole at the fence and watch the guy with the weed whacker. I will not tell my sister yet, and I don’t know about my wife, either. I will tell Dr. Corbin.
My wife is not there when the song comes on again, but I sit on the couch, think happy thoughts, and the happy thoughts that sashay into my head are those of my naked, pregnant, beautiful wife.
John Baum’s fiction has appeared in Booth, The Saint Anne’s Review, Blue Mesa Review, Whiskey Paper, and elsewhere. Aside from fiction, he occasionally writes about beer. He and his wife live in Atlanta with their two dogs. Visit him at johnpbaum.com and @johnpbaum.
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