“Enter Augustus Sweetbriar”
A remarkably unremarkable whisper asked Augustus Sweetbriar to leave his planet.
It came to him on three separate occasions, each more assertive than the last. While he never had plans to travel to deep space, he’d readily admit it was an intriguing idea.
But when the voice first pleaded, Go, Augustus did his best to shove it away from his normal-sized eardrum resting inside his above-average-sized ear.
And he walled off that entrance, so nothing could reach the moderately-limited processing power of his moderately-sized brain. It’s purely a matter of perspective on what’s big and what’s not.
At least that’s what he liked to tell himself.
But he remembered his mother’s incessant yelling and badgering and how he’d always wall off his brain when she’d want him to do the dishes (or anything productive, please!), and when she’d finally break through that damned wall guarding his brain, he’d make sure the noise would go right out the other side.
The wall would discriminate from time to time—it’s true!
But the unusual and remarkably unremarkable whisper made sure to repeat itself enough to annoy Augustus, to bring him to the very edge of rage and despair, where he’d finally be forced to listen.
Just for a moment.
It was rare that anyone cared to bother Augustus Sweetbriar, after all.
Before I delve deeper into his experience with this quasi-mystical entity, I feel obligated to touch on the nature of the whisper itself. It wasn’t demanding, or intriguing, or intellectually persuasive, or even sexually persuasive.
It only seemed to be a whisper—a faint noise.
It could’ve easily been mistaken for a gust of wind, drifting across the Ohio River to downtown Louisville on a fairly calm morning, whistling through the leaves of a bur oak (they’re common in these parts, or so I’m told!), eventually making its way back across the same river, miles and miles away.
Hmph—how Augustus loved that river!
It was reliable, and never tried to fool him like all the others. It was a muddy-brown, the same as his post-breakfast shit, and he appreciated its unforgiving mediocrity and its humbleness, never trying to be something that it wasn’t.
And it was a damn river and he was a damn person so why should he be anything more.
Yet the whisper, on every occasion, acted as something much more. It surpassed its mediocrity and morphed itself into the unknown and the terrible. Because of its lack of familiarity, and its utter uniqueness, it scared Augustus.
He had never heard a sound like it before, even though in its simplest form, it was just a whisper softly piercing the Kentucky air—a whisper that sounded no different than any other whisper in his life.
And that’s counting the whispers in church when his mother would sternly scold him to stop picking his nose.
The preacher is watching.
But the unfamiliarity amplified its normality, to a point where it eventually took on something much more, and he’d finally relent and follow its demand.
Yes, but it seemed to resonate through him, touching his bones and tissues and nerves, but most of all his heart.
His aching and all-too-ordinary heart.
I believe there’s an antiquated saying that has to do about big ears. It must relate to the bigness of his heart, right?
I don’t know—.
When he finally came to accept the voice, he knew it surpassed miraculous. It was real but still so unbelievable, and as beautiful as a child watching the sunset at a baseball game for the first time, during the seventh inning stretch, as it paints the city skyline a blood-red. The sun continues to dip beyond the left-field wall and beyond the bleachers and, further, beyond the city’s bridge.
If it bothered to have one.
But if it did, its rays would pass through the metal beams and wires until it disappeared and wouldn’t be seen again until the child would rise in the morning and step out the front door and follow that same sun on the early-morning walk to school.
Even though that sunset may go unnoticed by many, one kid will surely appreciate its beauty and serenity, even at a young age, if only for a short moment.
And that one kid could’ve very well been Augustus.
The first time he heard the faint whisper, he was bent over a toilet with a seemingly endless stream of yellow-gunk pouring out his mouth, acknowledging that he brought his death upon himself, while regretting all the alcohol and all other forms of self-destruction he too often practiced.
Just another Wednesday.
I’m also aware that he never cleaned that toilet. It still remains in its same spot, dirty and forever forgotten:
247 Turnabee Place
Louisville, Kentucky 40205
United States of America, Earth, Milky Way
And since he was in a violent struggle against his own demons the faint whisper never stood a chance.
Like many who I’ve come to love and adore, for some reason or another, I cannot help but agonize over their flaws, and Augustus Sweetbriar had many, many flaws. But who could blame him? Or anyone?
He never seemed to hear much. Partly because of the wall he liked to imagine he built, to keep out family and foe alike, but also because he liked to believe he was above following others’ advice and suggestions. I’ve never understood why he would think so, because he never displayed any sort of talent or natural intelligence that should put him apart from the rest of humanity.
Perhaps he thought all humans are the same, so why should one tell the other what to do?
But he loved to talk. He droned on and on, never truly expressing a well-reasoned and logical thought.
The whisper picked the most unresponsive person to reach, so it’d have to knock on Augustus’ eardrum at a more convenient time.
The second time he heard the whisper he was at the local watering hole.
Frankie’s to be exact.
Frankie’s owned by Franklin Lewis to be more exact.
Frankie’s owned by Franklin Lewis: a portly, middle-aged, clinically depressed, bald-headed man married to the first woman he ever had the nerve to ask out on a date to be even more exact.
I think this is as exact as I care to get about this man named Franklin.
Augustus sat at the end of the bar staring at his half-empty pint of an overpriced pale ale, wondering why he came back for another drink when he was on death’s doormat just the morning before.
But the beer looked beautiful.
It was a golden-yellow, reminding him of his mom and her long, golden hair, the same golden hair that he held atop his own head.
He despised his own hair. His eyebrows were a darker shade, close to black, and he was relentlessly made fun of this miss-matching as a kid.
But he loved his mom and her hair until the end.
I’ll do my best to limit my digressions and ramblings, because it’s the story that’s important, after all.
But I did love his mother. She was an incredibly confident woman, yet she had no faith in Augustus to keep the name Sweetbriar in good standing.
At the time of her death, who’s to blame her?
If only she knew.
Augustus owed everything to his mom, and appreciated the smallest details:
He loved the way she made him eat his peas before potatoes; and shouted at Henry, the mailman, the very moment she heard him approach, to make sure he slammed the mailbox shut; and covered him with the warmest of blankets whenever he would sob at the moments in movies that really weren’t all too sad.
Most of all, he loved how her body always seemed to move slower than her mouth even when she wasn’t speaking. There was an unusual, unexplainable grace about her that was forever lost.
Again, I agonize.
He dropped out of school in the ninth grade after some of the nastier classmates made fun of his clothes, and the way he talked, and the silly notes his mom left, and his oddly placed mole slightly hidden under the lobule of his right ear.
His mom took up the home-schooling after, but it was heavily skewed towards home.
So he never learned much, even to your own standards. I wouldn’t call him stupid, though. He was educationally ignorant, of course, and a moron.
But he had a natural intelligence.
Again, to your standards.
He took to entrenching himself on the couch. He would be as close to a literal potato as he could in his formative years, and this potato would grow year round. Ben & Jerry’s was his manure; grape soda was his water; nineteen-eighties action flicks—his Sun.
Inevitably, he developed socially agreed upon bad habits.
Nowadays, he wasn’t funneling pale ales down his throat every night, but maybe every other. His physical health was far from perfect, and free from toxins, but he’d at least try to trick his body into thinking it was.
That’s how he thought about it, at least.
The whisper knew there was a fifty-fifty chance it could catch his attention.
So it beckoned: Go! Please, go.
But Augustus again didn’t notice it. He was too busy slouching over the bar focusing mightily hard on an exceedingly drunken discussion over the prospect of mining for gold in the continental United States.
The year was 2007 AD.
“I don’t think they found it all. The gold I mean,” slurred Augustus.
The sound of his voice always hovered between formal and informal, between intelligent and idiotic.
It was as if his vocal chords were playing a constant game of copycat with itself. He directed his comment toward anybody that would listen.
Hal Holloway picked up the torch, however badly lit that torch might be. He was also a drunk, but leaned more toward the intelligent side, although in a place like Frankie’s the data set was undoubtedly biased.
Yet Hal took pride in his locally agreed upon wit.
“What’re you crying about?” asked Hal.
“I know, but what about it?”
“I don’t think they got it all. Out west and such.”
Augustus was referring to the Great California Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a hopeful and desperate time. Perhaps Augustus could relate?
But who am I to judge? As someone in an important book during Augustus’ time once said:
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
I see no benefit in speculating on Augustus’ psyche and its relation to American history.
Hal had grown accustomed to Augustus’ antics, but now he was flabbergasted.
The only drunk in Frankie’s that would complain about the lack of gold the miners dug up in the Great California Gold Rush would be Augustus. Most people think they did a pretty good job picking it out of the ground.
But, instead of arguing, Hal still decided to play along.
“So what you goin’ to do about it?” asked Hal.
“Well—well I’m going to get it…and whatnot,” replied Augustus.
“It’s a long way to California.”
“Is that where they left it?”
“That is a long way.”
“You think there’s enough gold out there to make up for your troubles?” asked Hal. He thought this would get Augustus going again, but oddly it didn’t.
Something entirely different did.
Augustus finally heard the remarkably unremarkable whisper. It had to repeat itself a few times to break through his mental wall fortified by miners, pickaxes, and gold.
But it got through.
“Now I’m not going to sit here and be made fun of for sport!” shouted Augustus in a flash of drunken anger.
Everybody in the bar stopped gulping down their cocktails and lagers and turned to look at Augustus.
A few chairs said, in rude unison, “Creeeeaaak.”
“Nobody’s trying to make a sport out of you, Augustus. Why would you get that in your head?” asked Hal, attempting to soothe his drunken acquaintance.
“You told me to Go—you told me to please go,” he spat.
Some foam from the pale ale dripped down his chin.
“No I didn’t.”
“I think you did, and while I appreciate the ‘please’, I don’t feel too much like leaving this here seat. I pay for drinks and food just the same as all of you! I tip a fair amount, generous even, and that’s speaking objectively! Objectively, Hal! That’s all you ask for, right Frankie? Objectivity?”
Frankie shook his head, as if giving up, and walked back to the kitchen.
“I swear on my mother’s life, Augustus,” said Hal.
“I swear on my mother’s life against the swear on your mother’s life,” retorted Augustus.
I understand Augustus is considered fairly mature and adult, and has just over thirty Earth years of experience, but sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s not eleven.
“Your mother’s passed, Augustus.”
“Well—I know, but I still swear it.”
“Augustus! I was asking you about the gold.”
“That he did,” chimed in an old man behind them.
The old man was petting his chin hair that resembled cat whiskers, enthralled by the entire conversation. He was the kind of old man whose only remaining pleasure was to chime in, most often when nobody even asked for his thoughts.
“Oh,” said Augustus.
He now remembered about the gold and how there just might not be enough of it left in California to make up for his trip out there and everything that came with it. The thought was almost as bad as someone ordering him to leave, which he wasn’t feeling up to doing at the moment.
He motioned to Frankie for more mind-numbing liquid.
“I don’t really know how much gold there might be. Just know they left some out there.”
“That’s an awful big risk to take. California’s pretty far away. Costs more to live there, too,” replied Hal.
“Well—well I wouldn’t live out there too long. Just long enough to get the gold.”
“Do you got a car?”
Hal shook his head.
Messing with Augustus wasn’t going great.
It’s like fooling a kid. Sooner or later the Big Man in the sky is going to look down through the clouds and ask: What’s your deal, pal?
“I think you should just drop this whole gold thing, Augustus.”
Frankie set the pale ale down in front of Augustus. Frankie never liked to get into the quibbles of his customers, even the regulars. They won’t remember what he’d say anyways.
In truth, nobody cared what Frankie had to say at all. They just thought he ran a slightly above mediocre bar.
Augustus picked up the pint and chugged away, foam dripping down his chin.
“You’re probably right,” conceded Augustus.
“Yes,” said Hal.
Augustus took another gulp of the pale ale and slammed it on the counter, and looked Hal dead in the eyes.
“What about whaling?” he asked.