The Hat on Someone Else’s Head

On the west side of Road 74, about a quarter-mile south of my great-grandparents’ house and vineyard, there lived a German known in the neighborhood as Happy Weiss. Happy, my father said, was given his nickname because the man was just the opposite, with a superiority complex thrown in. Over the years, every time Happy’s name would come up, a derisive smile would appear on my grandfather’s face. “Happy Veiss,” he would say, as if stressing the name’s German pronunciation somehow revealed the man’s rotten character.

Happy, you see, didn’t like Armenians. But in all fairness, he probably didn’t like Mexicans either, or the Chinese, and he certainly wouldn’t have tolerated the Greeks or the Italians, just as he would have despised the San Joaquin Valley’s indigenous tribes, such as the Tules and Yokuts. But of course being superior to everyone, that was his prerogative. I can only guess what that superiority must feel like, and what simultaneous joy and suffering it must bring.

I never met Happy. I’m fairly sure our lives overlapped, though, because I think I remember seeing an old man standing in front of the screened porch of his house, with his pants held up by suspenders and riding high on his age-thickened middle, and with a brownish felt hat on his head. But this could also be an image I cooked up years ago to accompany my father’s and grandfather’s descriptions of him. Indeed, this is a fascinating area, because I am not always able to discern between so-called real people and those I have imagined, especially those in the latter category that I have gone on to write about. Long after a story is written, I find myself wondering what the people in it are up to, and how they are getting along. Meanwhile, some of the people I have known, I now think of in an almost fictional sense, as if they are characters I once read about in a book. I suppose this is natural for someone who spends as much time denying reality as I do — or, rather, someone who is not always suitably impressed by reality. To me, reality often seems a little too convenient, as if it were a splendid retreat for rich people, or people afraid to contemplate an alternative. That I have achieved this state without the aid of mind-bending drugs is equally fascinating. Just being here is amazing enough — being here and talking about Happy Weiss, a man I never met and know next to nothing about.

His old two-story house was square, or roughly so, and white, or approximately so. You’d think I would remember exactly, having ridden and driven by it hundreds of times, but I don’t. Between the house and the road, there was the stump of a big tree that had been cut down — eucalyptus, probably. Or there wasn’t the stump of a tree. It’s possible I moved the stump from someone else’s yard, just as it’s possible I took the brownish felt hat from someone else’s head and put it on Happy, and borrowed another old man’s suspenders, which means that somewhere, there is a man having trouble keeping his pants on, and another man with a sunburned scalp — because surely the man I took the hat from was bald. In fact, I am certain of it. Poor guy. Then again, he’s probably dead by now, just like Happy — but not like my father or grandfather, because their eternal absence is obviously far more significant, and will remain so as long as I’m around.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Road 74. Happy’s house was just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Avenue 400, also known as Conejo, which is the Spanish word for rabbit. For a number of years during the Sixties, there was a message posted on a series of signs beside a vineyard on the north side of the road: The man who drives / while he is drunk / should carry his coffin / in his trunk. I used to think how dangerous it was to be blazing along on a heavily traveled two-lane road and to suddenly have to read four signs in quick succession as you were rapidly approaching a blind intersection. Once you’d seen them a few times, it wasn’t so bad. But that first time could kill you. As a matter of fact, there were several accidents there, because the first row of vines was so close to the road that it was hard to see Road 74, and if you were on Road 74, it was necessary to creep past the BB-dented stop sign almost to the middle of Conejo to see if there were any oncoming cars, the drivers of which were sure to be reading about the dangers of drunk-driving.


Between my great-grandparents’ house and Happy Weiss’s house was the Vukovich place. And across from the Vukovich place was the Torigian place. The Torigians did have a eucalyptus tree. It towered over their graveled driveway, and periodically dropped limbs and bark. Directly across from my great-grandparents’ house was the Busick place.

Well. I could go on and on about this, but I won’t, because it occurs to me now that not one of the people I have mentioned in this epistle is still alive, with the possible exception of Paul Vukovich, who must be well along into his eighties by now, and who, if my finely tuned memory serves, had suffered from heart trouble. Not that there is anything wrong with talking about those who have gone on. The thing is, I see them in my mind, and in my mind they are still alive. I see the narrow country roads, and the simple houses scattered on either side by a lonely god who will soon be looking for a place to spend the night. If I were there, I would take him in.

July 27, 2005

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Also by William Michaelian

Winter Poems

ISBN: 978-0-9796599-0-4
52 pages. Paper.
Another Song I Know
ISBN: 978-0-9796599-1-1
80 pages. Paper.
Cosmopsis Books
San Francisco

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