March 2004, St. Paul

Choppity chop goes the axe in the wood, you gotta meet me by the fall down tree . . . Moonlight slings through the windows. The hardwood floor is ice. A shovel of dirt upon a coffin lid . . . Blinding, the stars are rips in the sky. And I know they’ll come lookin’ for me boys. I know they’ll come lookin’ for me… In the bathroom, I yank out the earbuds, set the iPod on the dust-caked toilet tank, and turn the faucet on. Pipes groan on and off like dogs trapped in the duplex’s walls. It’s four a.m. and I’m twenty-four years old. I am Frankenstein’s monster. I can’t remember the last time I slept through the night. I drop a towel, stopgap it against the crack below the door so I don’t wake my housemate, Jonny, and then snap the razor on. Over the sink, I squirt oil onto the blades. Rub the steel teeth with my thumb. I let the machine hum for ten minutes, then clean the gunk off with a T-shirt. My brain swirls when I scrape my scalp with the vibrating blades, again and again until I’m dizzy, palming the mirror so I don’t fall down. After I’ve finished the top, like I do each morning before I shave the back of my skull, I fingerpick the bloody rubble and pus off of the leaky scar. My brain surgery was over three years ago.

And then I work slow, shearing nubs of hair away for a half hour, clippering everything a second and third time, a fourth to shake it all up. A fifth to feel the buzzing, cicadas chewing through my eyes. Just this, just this, just this. The apartment window fogs when I blow across the coffee mug. I trace fingers through the condensation, drawing eyes and a grinning, oblong face. While I sip, the portrait melts into Francis Bacon’s screaming pope. Through the filthy glass, I watch the street below thicken with morning light. A slow brightness envelops the elms. Daybreak weaves Dayton Avenue with a rich, stirless luxury. The Volvo, the old Ford pickup, a tricycle on the sidewalk, rakes and a spade in the neighbor’s overgrown yard—all of it shines. The first time I wipe my hand through the steam I hardly notice the parked car. The window fogs again while I breathe. When I swipe again, I double take, then clean the glass with a sock that someone’s nailed to the wall. On the street, a hatchback Escort blisters with orange light like its insides are on fire. A green wellstone! bumper sticker sits in the rear window. The sun hoists, and, inch by inch, the glow peels away. The backseat is down. The end is loaded with art supplies: two-by-fours and branches and doll parts, bottles of water and books, a blank canvas and a circular saw. Magazines and seed catalogues and gardening tools. I stare confused. The window glazes white as I exhale. Curled in the car seat, Ma is sleeping inside.




Excerpted from HAPPY by Alex Lemon. Copyright © 2010 by Alex Lemon.  Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Buy Happy: A Memoir


So, going outside to fill up the bird feeders, you just walked through a spider web. You looked like a mime, practicing being on fire.

Well, I itch all over, especially my neck. Felt like I was being mummified. And my ankles. They’re pretty bad, too.



Yeah, I suppose. But it happens. You got to do what you got to do when the birds are ravenous and the cactus need repotting. You know? I wish I knew more about mimes. Have you seen that commercial for Pepsi and Major League Baseball? The one where Pepsi is advertising how they’re giving away tons of money to great ideas? CC Sabathia tells his pitching coach that they should build an organic garden in the bullpen, and I think Evan Longoria tells Johnny Damon that they should have a senior prom for seniors?



They should have mimes defusing mines in war torn areas. Or what if when they called in the bomb-squad robot, a guy doing the robot (the dance), robotted their way out to the bomb.


That’s not funny—those are sad and serious situations. What if your skin looked like a lemon rind? Would that be funny? I think not. Anyway—do you like yard work?

Yeah, I really do. Especially when I’m out there early—before anyone else is up. Just birdsong and occasionally, the singular clap of a car door closing as someone goes to work. When I water the plants out front, it seems like I see the same elderly couple each time. They teeter down the street, a tiny dog straining at the leash. The woman is always a yard or so ahead of the man. He looks like Boss Hog, just taller. And no hat.


Boss Hog?

You know, Dukes of Hazzard?



Skeeter? Roscoe?


Sorry. Didn’t watch much TV growing up. We didn’t have one.

What, did you grow up in the Middle Ages? Work on illuminated manuscripts all day?


I did make collages on my ceilings. And in high school, I painted my room a blindingly bright, turquoise. It was so bright you could taste it. I had a trap set in there, books and CDS and mounds of dirty clothes. My mother called it “The Dirty Laundry Landfill.”

[Laughs, and then smiles, shaking his head] Hilarious. Reminds me of Mike Davis’s book Planet of Slums, have you read it?


Scary stuff. Thousands of people living in sprawling communities built amidst waste and rot. Sad. Did you read Matthew Power’s essay in Harper’s about one? Amazing stuff. What about the people in Turkey that live in towns built in cemeteries?

Being surrounded by all the ghosts probably helps with loneliness, though.


Yeah, but I bet it smells. OK, let’s get back to yard work. It’s muggy out there today. I could see your glasses fogging up as you worked. What do you think about when your glasses fog up like that?

My hair. Just kidding. Depends. Yesterday, it reminded me of traveling in Asia. One morning in Nepal, I woke up in a small building high in the Himalayan foothills. It was so foggy, I couldn’t see two feet in front of me. Emerald green steppes appeared now and again when the wind drifted the clouds below me. There was no sound except for wind whistling through this enormous valley I was staring down into. The fog was thick—like the most beautiful soup. When it’s not a specific memory, most often I think about music.


I want to ask you a question about music, but first—you look like you have a very round head.

This is true. A very round head. And big, too.


What’s the best haircut you’ve had?

I had a Mohawk for a while during high school, but I also grew it long and then braided it. Dyed it with bright turquoise—same color as my room. Hmmm. In college, I feel like my baseball coach wanted us to be trim and clean cut looking—but this might be a false memory—so I had short hair.

After my brain surgery it was greasy and blood-flecked. I started shaving it—daily, almost. It became a very important ritual for me—a way for me to not only start my day, but make me aware of myself and the world I was entering. I shaved it like that for a couple of years, and then grew it out surfer-long.


You grew up with just your mother, correct?



She was OK with all your appearances?

My mother was amazingly supportive of me, in everything except for violent sports. She didn’t like football much at all—and I think she came to one of my wrestling meets—and afterward, distraught, she kept talking about how I wouldn’t “stop beating on the back of the kid’s head.” I don’t think she came to another one.

She loved my hair. Loved the art I was into, my music when it wasn’t too loud. Probably the only challenging thing was sports—but I think that has more to do with larger cultural/social things—and how sports are often opposed to the arts. As an artist, I think it was difficult for her, and should be difficult for anyone who cares, to see so much funding and emotional and cultural investment go to sports instead of the arts. I say that as a die hard sports fan. That imbalance is depressing.


She sounds very important to you.

(Snort/laughs) Did you read my book?


Well, I’ve been meaning to, but there have been….

Yes. She’s one of the most important people in my life. A person so filled with love and life and wildness. She’s one of the smartest and most compassionate people I know—I hope just a smidge of all of that rubs off on me. If I get an ounce of it, I’ll turn out OK and the world will be lovely.

And when you read Happy, you’ll see that it’s really an homage to her, a love story if you will. Too often in memoirs, authors reframe themselves as misunderstood, or wounded to elicit sympathy—I wanted all of those puzzle pieces there for a reader—but I wanted the reader to make those connections (causality, sympathies, etc.). To stay true to my personal truth, I worked against those writerly techniques that would have made my character more sympathetic—because the book, in so many ways, is about her. It is about how a mother’s love and vibrancy can help a person that has been repeatedly wounded by the world (and no longer knows how to act in it) find ways to love (first themselves and then the world around them). The book is about her. Yes.


Are you pleased with it?

I love it. I couldn’t be more thrilled.


And who influenced you musically/artistically?

She did. We had thousands of albums in the home—and for many years she was a musician, so we had instruments around the house.


Play anything?

I played coronet in band, and then drums in HS. Before that I played electric guitar and trap set. Because I caused a lot of trouble, I ended up getting the shitty parts. Like triangle, or gong—something where you actually play once or twice during the entire piece. Played a lot of cowbell, though. I’d hit the bell so hard with the drumstick that woodchips shot through the air like I was a cartoon beaver and the band teacher (I think it was Mr. Sandersfeld), would have to stop everyone. He’d very politely say I needed to tone it down. Ten minutes later I’d be doing it again—and, once again, he’d ask me to rein it in. He was so kind and sweet.

What are you up to these days?

I’m working on a fourth collection of poems, a book of essays, and another memoir that has to do with the idea of fatherhood.


And what are you listening to?

The Black Keys’ new album Brother—I love that song “Everlasting Light,” The Kings Go Forth and Madeline & the Machine.



Supa. Check out “Dog Days Are Over.” I’d sing it for you, but I bit my lip last night. It feels like someone chewed half my face off. In fact, I have to go, I have to get a popsicle.