The Legend of Sleepy Ishpeming and the other stories in The Sketch Book


by Ron Riekki


US-41.  Heading east.  The Seney Stretch.  Paul, estranged, is passenger side.  Paul’s famous.  Infamous.  You’ve probably heard of him.  I’ve only met one person in my life who’d never heard of him—a girl in Shanghai.  But she’d also never heard of Barack Obama.  So I have a feeling she was lying.

He even dresses famous.  Black leather gloves.  Double-knit polyester black vest with black satin sleeves.  Cape.  Lace ascot.

Yes, an ascot.

He’s a rock star.  Except he’s not a rock star.

He’s a legend.

Paul’s real name is Paul Elmer Schmidt.  We sometimes call him Schmidty.  But he’s better known as the Headless Horseman.

The actual Headless Horseman.

He hates that name.

Imagine if you were only known for two things and those things were riding a horse and not having a head.  There’s a lot more to Paul than that.

If the paparazzi or whatever narrowed me down to two things, it’d probably be Masturbating Pittsburgh Steeler Fan.  And I’m so much more than that.

We’re on the way to see Katarina Van Tessel who is now Katarina Van Wrzesinski, although on her facebook page I saw her recently wearing a homemade T-shirt that said KATARINA VAN HALEN.  She’s a housewife in Ishpeming, Michigan, who, also according to her facebook page, is headed straight for divorce and Paul wants to see if we can do some kind of zany romantic comedy stunt where he’s just going to bump into her and act like it’s a coincidence they’re both in the same small town in the central Upper Peninsula.  This whole stunt is headed for failure.  And that’s not a pun.  You try to avoid that word.  It’s tough.  It just pops up.  I’m heading out.  Keep your head up.  He’s head over heels in love.

Paul’s been in counseling, so I think he’s doing better.  Less explosive.  More Tao Te Ching.

He’s not using heroin anymore, so that’s good.

In some ways, I wish he could drink alcohol, but that requires a head.  Same with pot.  He can’t even ingest pot brownies.  But he does have an arm.  So he shot up.  Way too many times.  He wears those long sleeves to cover up long track marks.

But he’s really mellowed out now.

His counselor told him heroin’s the most sinister drug out there and that it was a perfect fit for him because he had gotten all caught up in his sinister persona that he truly isn’t if you get to know him.

Sure, he’s an equestrian.  He’ll admit that.  And yes, he has no head.  But he’s not some stone cold killer like gets written about, the way that Washington Irving Jr. completely made him out to be.

Paul had an obsession where at one point he’d ride around and scare the hell out of townspeople.  But I had a phase where, to be honest, I did some drunk driving.  I feel horrible about it and I’d never do it again and at the time I thought I’d never hurt anyone and thank God I never did, but when a guy like him comes to you and says he wants one chance at true love, well, you drive him.  You ask questions later and for now you drive.

And so we’re driving.

I have classical music on.

There’s not much else on the radio in this remote of a location and I’m not risking putting on any music station with lyrics.  Something like “Cannonball” by The Breeders can come on and then there’s this awkward moment where you’re riding in a car with a guy who, if you know his past, was actually decapitated by a cannonball during the American Revolutionary War and that can get pretty awkward.  It’s like when “Rooster” used to come on and my uncle was in our old pickup.  He’s a Vietnam vet.  Mention the Gulf of Tonkin and he’ll start weeping like an old-born baby.  But two notes off Alice in Chains’ Dirt and you have to come up with a new verb for “cry.”  Something that’s a combination of “tears” and “drown.”

Beethoven’s 4th symphony is symphony-ing.  Nice and forgettable in the night.  It isn’t as good as his 5th, but to be honest I can’t tell the difference.

And we’re both sitting in the midnight dark, the road ahead of us all Satanically boring, and we’re thinking about Katarina.

To be honest, I’d walk the length of the New York subway just to get kissed on the mandible by her.

Lately—if it’s safe to go by facebook photos (and it is)—she looks a bit like a cross between an older Anna Nicole Smith and a younger George Washington.  I’m talking about the sexy parts of George Washington.  And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re a homophobe.

And the sky above us looks like it’s a cross between an ocean ready to swallow up some British fighter planes and a skating rink made solely for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

I think it’s Four Horsemen.

It’s Four Horsemen, isn’t it?

I think so.

But we’re Two Men of the Pre-apocalypse.

Although I’m hoping that’s not what this is gonna turn into.  Some kind of love Armageddon.

I’ve been in one of those before.  It’s not pretty.  It’s not ugly either.  It’s just all Jane Doe stupid.  Like so much of life.  Example number 1:

I feel a pain in my shoulder.  From the driving.  But also an old wound from when some teenagers randomly attacked me when I was eight-years-old.  Shattered my collarbone.  For no purpose.  I didn’t even know who they were.  And now twenty-some years later I can still feel it in this moment, like a little tiny vampire inside my shoulder-blades kicking me.

Horror tends to last.  Sinks deep into your body.

And I can only think of what that means to Paul—

Everyday, the constant reminders of the American War of Independence.  The tidal memories of muskets, swords, and sabers.  The rise of the new independent nation, the United States of America.

And Paul was one of its great heroes.

And then to have that very country demonize you.

The pain of it.  I can’t even imagine.

(I’m guessing here that he fought for our side and not the Brits.  But it’s hard to get that kind of information from a mute.  You just deduce.  But either/or, a war hero.)

Him and my uncle would have some great conversations.  Or at least a great night of mutually sitting in silence.  Or, if my uncle was drunk, he’d share good old stories of coming back and being labeled a baby-killer.  And more stories about being a severe alcoholic.  And then perhaps end the night with a story about getting caught trying to buy a transvestite prostitute on Father’s Day in Pensacola, Florida.

When they’re taking your mug shot for attempted solicitation of a transvestite prostitute, they don’t think about whether or not you proudly served your country.

And that’s exactly like the Headless Horseman.

Like my good friend Paul.

A lot of servicemen give an arm or a leg for their country, but he gave a head.  An entire head.  Not a half of one.  One full, complete head.

And you only get one of those.

You get two arms.

Two legs.

Typically.

So we’re talking about the ultimate sacrifice.

And, as we’re driving, all of this is going through my head.  The one I so proudly still have because I never served in the military.

We drive into the mouth of the U.P.  Covered by this big fat thick shadow called night.

And in this drive we’re defying all possibilities of success.

But we do all this with a deep, brooding sense of American-ness.

Let me just google “Fox News ‘Americans are’” and give you some examples of what Americans, in fact, are . . .

Americans are currently struggling with an eating disorder.

Americans are eating more butter than ever.

Americans are miserable and broke.

Americans are battling an eating disorder.

Americans are migrating from less-free liberal states to more-free conservative states.

Americans are pitifully under-served for retirement.

OK, that didn’t go well.  For more than one reason.  A big one being that I was doing that google search on my cell phone and when I looked up I was heading off the road, so we were involved in a fairly major car wreck, but luckily it was with a tree.

The tree, unfortunately, looks like it will probably forever have scoliosis, but we, somehow, luckily, were able to back up and continue down the road, albeit at a much slower and louder speed.  So we now drive in a silence that isn’t awkward because it’s expected.

The lack of communication that comes from a person who is a chronic masturbator being in a car with a person who has no head.

The depth of sky and the death of road that falls out so far in front of us.

No, we’re not going to succeed.

And because of that, we will succeed.

We’ll successfully be arrested by the local town law enforcement for crimes we won’t get into (many of them newly created by the Department of Homeland Security in tandem with the American Veterinary Medical Association) and we will be successfully and publicly burned at the stake for the first time in over a hundred years for the region.  (The last time being roughly 1922.)

But, if you can, please do this for me right now.  Use the incredible Tony Robbins-like power of imagination that you have and in the cracks of your mind imagine a Masturbating Pittsburgh Steelers Fan and a Headless Horseman tied with short splice rope being burned alive with vivid watercolor reds and blacks crisping the air in flickers and the whole while knowing one thing—that we were as foolishly brave as you have always wanted to be, as foolishly brave as you need to be, for the very love of God.


Ron Riekki’s books include My Ancestors are Reindeer Herders and I Am Melting in Extinction (Loyola University Maryland’s Apprentice House Press), Posttraumatic (Hoot ‘n’ Waddle), and U.P. (Ghost Road Press).  Riekki has edited eight books, including Here (Michigan State University Press, Independent Publisher Book Award), and The Way North (Wayne State University Press, Michigan Notable Book).  Right now, Riekki’s listening to Ministry’s “N.W.O.”