The Saddest Man on the Mountain

Every year our town held a competition to determine the saddest man on the mountain and every year my dad would raise his hopes of winning only to have them dashed. For days after the contest was the most miserable my father, usually so stoic in his resignation to the downward course of life, ever allowed himself to be. He would lie lifelessly naked in the dark of his small bedroom, sulking and getting the crumbs of plain crackers over mom’s floral bedspread. If he’d been allowed to enter the competition in the week after losing he would have had a chance to win.

The day of the competition was always filled with festivity. It was one of the few days of the year (aside from Christmas and a summer holiday for an obscure saint) that the normally reserved townspeople cut loose. The adults began getting wine drunk as soon as they woke up and spent the rest of the day stumbling through the streets, toasting each other and spilling; as a kid it was the only chance to see the adults, normally a sober and terrifying presence in our life, embarrass themselves. Nobody worked the day of the competition. All labor was put into the competition and surrounding ceremonies, with special attention paid to the decorations. Balloons were tied to the gates in front of all of our small stone houses and colorful banners were hung from the fading archways that straddled the town’s narrow streets. The donkeys were allowed to wander unsupervised, and the kids were allowed to ride them. Parades were difficult in a hilly town whose narrow roads were so byzantine they seemed to be composed of nothing but corners, but that never stopped us from trying. At night, after the competition, there were fireworks.

The main attraction, though, was the competition itself. When we were kids we felt invested in the contest; my self-esteem, for a few weeks at least, rose and fell in correspondence with my dad’s success or failure. I remember one year, on the morning of the competition, I was sitting in the grass with Bruno Levi (who still runs the town museum, though it’s rarely visited). Bruno was bragging to me about his father’s victories. His father, a dissolute drunk and a cruel mule skinner, had won three times in my life and was the favorite to win again. This year’s crop of mules had caught pigeon fever, and the sores made their hides unsellable, ruining the Levi’s only source of income. The success of his father had gone to Bruno’s head. He was one of my best friends, but he was arrogant, and some of his father’s cruelty had rubbed off on him. He mocked me for my own father’s failures.

“Why does your dad even bother to enter?” he said. “He’ll never win. He’s no good. He’s not nearly sad enough. Not like my Dad. My Dad is the saddest man in town.”

My cheeks were burning, even if I didn’t quite understand what Bruno was saying. I didn’t understand the contest or what it meant, but I knew how much time my dad had spent preparing, what it seemed to mean to him. Before it reached the surface my shame had turned into rage and, without thinking, I jumped up to punch Bruno in the face. It was over before he had a chance to react, before I had a chance to stop myself. Blood ran down his face but he did nothing to wipe it away; he just let it run while staring at me in disbelief. Immediately I regretted what I’d done and to this day there is a crooked whistle when he breathes though his nose. He and I play cards every month; every now-and-then I’ll visit his museum.

My emotional investment to the competition didn’t last much longer though. A few years after that incident, a group, Bruno among us, skipped the festival to go dancing in the city at the base of the mountain. Most of us were embarrassed by the spectacle of the contest. We considered its provincial nature an affront to our pretensions of sophistication and seeing our fathers, so stoic for the rest of the year, put on a display like that made us all uncomfortable. We thought ourselves free from the embarrassing tradition, that we were free to go off on our own. In our approximation of the fashion of the time me and the boys wore colorful suits with an exaggerated drape. The girls wore brightly colored frill dresses and demanding heels. But when we arrived to the clubs of the city we found that the style in the city had already changed; men and women both had started wearing tight fitting black clothes with black boots. Our bright clothes outed us as obviously provincial visitors from the mountain; the city kids ignored us and we stuck to ourselves that night, humiliated.

By the time we returned the fireworks were over and the town was quiet. Shriveled balloons and broken bottles were strewn across the old cobblestone streets. As I stumbled home the embarrassment of our failures in the city was overtaken by anxiety over my dad’s reaction. For the first time that night I considered that maybe it was selfish to miss something so important to him; I braced myself for his anger, and wondered if I might deserve it. But the anger didn’t come. It would have been easier to swallow. It was familiar and impotent, and I hadn’t been truly afraid of him in years, if even I ever had been. All he’d do was grind his teeth and flick his tongue out like a lizard. Sometimes he paced, as if he was trying to make his body more imposing, but it just made him seem nervous, and when he yelled it was like an imitation of what he imagined an intimidating person to be like. But he wasn’t doing any of those things tonight. He was waiting up for me at the kitchen table in the dark, motionless and pale faced, when I stumbled into the house. I turned the light on, but he just kept staring straight ahead, as if he didn’t notice me come in. The light hissed. I greeted him quietly, barely sober enough to keep from slurring my words. Without response he turned to face me, looking like he was about to cry. When I asked him how he had performed in the contest he said nothing. He was staring at me but it was as if he didn’t he see me, as if he was looking through me at his own ghost. For the first time in my life he seemed old. The silence between us quivered, and then, suddenly, a moment of understanding passed through it. As we locked eyes, I realized that, for the first time, he was seeing his traditions through mine, where they seemed small and silly, where it seemed like his whole life was wasted. Guilt ate away at me. I asked again he did in the contest. In a weak and trembling triumphant voice he answered: “I won.”  

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