Crazy Henry


The inside of Henry's head was like a cavernous, hollow bell. A noisy place where echoes and voices mixed and muddled together in an uneasy stew. Sometimes he could hear the words clearly but most days not so much. The words confused Henry.

William also lived inside of Henry.

A long time ago he had been William before bad things happened. When Henry remembered being William, his head hurt.

William stood in front, back to the whiteboard, speaking words to a room full of young students. Henry could say the words out loud if he remembered the dream.

Then: a throng of students rushing to their next classes, a convergence of wet tile floors, rain. Head banging steps four times.

Darkness.

Henry couldn't remember exactly, and he didn't like it. It was better being Henry. Henry's needs were met if he could find things to eat and stay warm when it got cold. Henry could eat anything. Some things made him sick, garbage things, dead things. He would throw up or shit for days but he'd be okay again. He tried to recall what made him sick but it would get lost in the swamp of his head.

 

The truck rattled along the mud hole of a road, bouncing, and shaking me inside the cab like popcorn. The ruts gouged by previous trucks were deep enough to cause both differential cases to drag along the dirt like broken legs. The furrows snaked along the ridge until they ended in a flat patch of bare earth sliced through the tree line to make space for the gas wells.

Well maintenance isn't astrophysics or brain surgery but it's not simple either. It is fitting work for a man who is more comfortable with the solitude of his own thoughts rather than conversations of people. It suited me at this crossroad in my life. Cheryl walked away from ten years together on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. It started as the kind of day with bright blue sky and puffy clouds that makes you think nothing can go wrong and ended with me staring at a blank TV screen through the night. I thought I adjusted to the changes but with two years gone, I was still grieving for what might have been. The jury wasn't in yet on whether working alone was a good or bad thing for me. I was buried in a rut and wasn't ready to move on yet.

Natural gas lurks beneath the hills of Wetzel county but the methane wealth isn't for those who live here. The adjoining counties might as well be as far away as Russia or Mars to those who make their homes along the packed dirt and gravel roads. Those towns bordering the county are places far distant and foreign, not understood and not trusted. The company's well work kept me coming back here, blowing through like a wind from the south, holding still for a few moments and moving past. I never stayed long but after a couple of months, I learned to slow the truck on the way up to the wells, give a small wave of the hand or nod as I pass by the taciturn people at the foot of the hill. Next time through, stop long enough to say, “Nice day” or “How is it going?”

In the passing of a year I learned names and histories.

The county is rural by any definition. Houses are scrappy, thrown together patchwork things of worn boards, shingles, and rusted metal. Some started as trailers, towed up a dirt road and set in place with a porch added later across the front and covered with roll shingles.

The topography of the land enforces a separation of houses by awkward distances and placement. The infrastructure of half paved roads are victims of budget cuts and a worn out economy. Shuttered coal mines left families with no income and no way to leave. They eke out solitary lives grasping for independence like a drowning swimmer reaching for a branch. They hold on to the land—it's all they have. With little to be said, conversation devolves to a nod or wave at the grocery store or gas station.

Henry Smith lived in an exhausted tar paper shack along the naked ridge. A hundred years of clear cut timbering left the shack sitting in the midst of a lunar landscape of stumps and dirt where the rutted well road cut through the ridge like a half-healed scar. The flattened hilltop hovered over and gazed down on a long valley of twists and turns snaking through the bottom of the hills. Henry's shack stood like a dark eye rising up above and fifty yards from the road. As I passed by the shack early in the morning Henry was sitting on a bucket on the porch, his head leaning back against the wall, shotgun resting across his lap. When I navigated the return from the well, he was sitting in the same position.

I stopped the truck.

Henry didn't move.

I walked toward him up to the porch. Flies buzzed around his head. Henry was dead.

Eighteen months ago when I first saw Henry, he waved from the upper bank of the road as if signaling me to stop and then slid down the dirt path on to the road. “Got gloves?” he asked. I reached for a pair on the seat, and handed them through the window. He took the gloves, walked around the rear of the truck eyeing the tool bins as he slipped along the mud. A blink and his reflection disappeared from the mirror up the bank on a smudge of a path.

Those isolated well sites are like the mouth of a strange vortex pulling in misanthropic residue from rural societies. They haunt the sites like lost wraiths, but Henry was one very odd ball even among that kind. No way to describe Henry without the words, weird, and scary. Everyone I met related a bizarre story about him. He ate dogs and cats. He kept skunks as pets. He stole chickens. How he survived up there, especially in winter was a mystery to everyone. He was uniquely without history—came out of nowhere and began living on the ridge. Henry interacted with people when he was in need of something. Look up from a chore and you might spy him sauntering down road, across the field or lawn with a peculiar robot-like, stiff, erect gait. Henry's movements were linear and purposeful if a house had what he needed. Mothers pulled children and dogs inside.