Back when I was living someplace in Iowa I had the weirdest day of my life. I woke up and everything was good, nothing was missing, and there was this envelope in my mailbox. There was a single piece of paper inside, with a photo of my face (not a great photo, I thought) next to the words:
And there was an art deco arrow pointing to a button at the bottom of the piece of paper. So, even though I was new to the area and couldn’t think who might have set this whole thing up for me, I just went right ahead and pressed it (and now I think maybe I shouldn’t have done that, maybe the whole thing was some kind of ego test).
A kind of crackly, quiet voice sang the words: ‘South popular guy’, all in one high note, fading away on the word ‘guy’. I pressed the button again, and right there I felt kind of proud, even though I didn’t know what it all meant.
I went out of the house and a couple people at the end of my street turned and smiled when they saw me and sang ‘South popular guy’ in just the same scratchy way as the voice on the piece of paper. I laughed.
“Hey you guys, what’s going on?”
In unison they shrugged and showed me their pieces of paper – the same that I had received, with my photo on it and everything.
I asked them: “What’s with this ‘South popular guy’ thing already?”
They didn’t know so I decided to go to the cops. As I walked, everyone who saw me sang the little jingle and I started to get seriously freaked. I mean, what had I done to deserve this? I was just a regular guy – sure, I helped out a little at the soup kitchens and I once rescued a dog that was caught on a bramble, but that wasn’t anything special was it? Was I the only one? Was I in a book somewhere, a hall of fame, was my name in a star on a slab of a sidewalk? Was there a north popular guy too? And how long did the title last, would this go on for the rest of my life?
I had to walk through the main square – this was at a time when all towns in Iowa had an old market square – and I had to cover my ears against the noise.
I was nearly at the cops when I noticed that a couple of the people actually formed the words in the air above them as they sang the jingle. The words only lasted a second, then floated up towards the buildings. Things were getting out of hand. Luckily I had reached the police station. I paused a moment to see if they had been infected as well, but no one sang, at least not at first.
“I’d like to report a… a… uh…”
There were two main reasons for my hesitation. First, I didn’t know what to call this situation of mine, and, second, the officer had swiveled around to face me, and when he saw me, he sang: ‘South popular guy’. This time the words were very clearly defined in the air and lasted several moments before they detached themselves and floated up towards the ceiling fan, which then churned the words up. I turned and ran from the station, screaming a little, and it was only 11am, this would go on all day, and as far as I knew, all my life.
I tried the tourist office, the town ombudsman (this was back when every town in Iowa had an ombudsman), the priest, the doctor, the fireman, the butcher, the baker, the traffic cop, the psychic, and the gambler but no one could help me. In the meantime hundreds of these words had started to float up into the sky and knock into one another and I was worried that I’d be blamed for blocking out the sun because I felt kind of responsible for the whole thing.
Soon after lunch I had exhausted all my options; I saw nothing for it but to go into hiding. I got the hell out of town, I mean really busted my ass out of there, and went up to the caves and refused to come out. Even from there I could see this massive cloud of praise hanging over the town, but slowly, as I sat there, it started to fade, and by sundown it had virtually disappeared. Then I knew it was safe to go back but, even though I was cold and starving, I decided to stay in the cave for a little longer just in case.