Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Life After Death in the Boundary Waters

After college, Alex Theoharides (@Minne_Pop) moved to Minnesota, where a stranger taught him about death.
Editor's Note: This is a piece that Alex Theoharides contributed to The Puddles of Myself Reading on September 7, 2012.


The first Europeans to settle in the North Country believed in vard√łgers, shadowy spirits who floated along the periphery of lakes, waiting for unsuspecting people to move past them. When this happened, the vard√łgers captured an essential feature of their victim (most often their scent, footsteps, voice, or demeanor) and then moved through their life, always one step ahead, creating the impression that everything the person did had already been done.


From above, the Boundary Waters look like footprints left behind from another time, an era when gods and glaciers still moved across the earth. The cool lakes sparkle in the sunlight; the land is evergreen. In the summer, the air smells of pine sap and morning dew. Lupines dot the sunny side of the lakes. And wild blueberries grow in the shade. As night approaches, a stillness envelops the land. Luna moths cling to the moonlight and fireflies hover in the dark.

On the rock where I sit, I can hear voices slipping across Burntside Lake. Voices that remind me I am not alone and life is never still. On the northern arm of the lake, there is a tourist lodge and a boyscout camp; and just a few dozen yards down the shoreline, there is another cabin. The voices slip beneath the mournful wailing of two loons crying out to each other, and to the moon and to the gentle purpose of their lives. I close my eyes, pretending for a moment that there is no else here but me. Then I open them again.

I am here for one purpose and one purpose only.

According to The Ely Echo, Henry Held drowned while vacationing in Ixtapa, Mexico. There was no official announcement of his death. Mexican authorities never filed a police report. His body wasn’t recovered. In fact, the only witness to Henry’s death was his second wife, Florencia, who refuses to tell anyone what happened to him.


I met Henry five years ago. I had just graduated from one of those colleges back east, where terms like “intellectual curiosity” and “shades of gray” are bandied about like words of truth, and the whole experience feels like attending a perverted summer camp. 

Slowly, the reality of my graduation was beginning to sink in.

I was employed as a fact checker at a lifestyle magazine in Minneapolis and living in a small apartment with my girlfriend. Every weekday, I took the bus downtown. Then I put on my headphones, listening to Paul Westerberg’s sloppy vocals on Pleased to Meet Me, as I walked side-by-side with lawyers and businessmen, beneath the silver skyscrapers and arching skyways of Minneapolis. “Give me a little stinkin’ fresh air,” Westerberg sang. The city was cold and busy and beautiful. “Ninety days, night and day in the electric chair.” I watched the sun rise in the reflection cast off of glass buildings. “Step right up son/Gonna show you something ain’t never been done.” Men and woman moved past me. Their arms brushed against my arms; their lives intersected briefly with my life. “You’re all fucked,” Westerberg reminded me. Then I reached the U.S. Bank Plaza, turned off my music, pushed through the rotating doors and rode a glass elevator to my cubicle on the fifth floor.

Hours floated by without me talking to anyone or doing anything of worth. Then, seemingly by their own volition, half-finished articles with ASAP scribbled in red ink along the margins, would land in the 8.5 by 11 inch basket beside my desk and my workday would begin. “Do you actually sell dog ice cream?” “Is your name really spelled with two Ts and one E?” “Do you still allow guns on your premises” “You do? Terrific. Would it be possible for you to shoot me?”

Every day at 5 o’clock, I’d slink away from my cubicle with my tail between my legs. Then I would ride the elevator down to the first floor, and walk beside the same men, beneath the same skyscrapers and skyways, until finally I was back in my neighborhood. Back in my apartment. Back beside the only person I loved in the whole damn state of Minnesota.


That August, I escaped Minneapolis for Ely, a small town hidden on the edge of the Boundary Waters. My plan was to work on a collection of essays, intended to illustrate my juvenile belief that life after death is a grand experiment and that there are infinite hypotheses to explain what happens to us after we die.

Ely seemed like the perfect place to research my theory. I had noble intentions to interview local dignitaries, shop owners, lonely priests. Instead, I wandered the streets of Ely in search of a belt to keep my jeans from falling down while I chopped wood and performed other manly tasks around the cabin. Anything to keep me from writing.

Suddenly, a wild pack of boys and middle-aged men poured out of a ramshackle shop and swept through town. Where were they going? What was the rush? Why on earth were the men dressed like park rangers? These were questions that needed answers and in a fit of clarity, I strode through the front door of the shop and demanded to see the owner.

“You’re looking at him,” the proprietor said, grumpily peering up at me through a pair of thick bifocals. “I’m Henry ‘Jew of the North’ Held. Now what do you want?”


Five years later, I leave my rock at Burntside Lake and drive back into Ely in search of answers as to what really happened to Henry Held. When I reach town, I park across the street from Henry’s shop. In the storefront window, I notice a glass jar filled with beach sand and broken seashells. Keepsakes from Henry’s final resting place.

I walk west on Sheridan in the direction of the Ely Steakhouse. It’s a warm evening and tourists stand by the entrance to the Northwoods Company, chatting about the weather and the lakes and the grand experiment of life in the North Country. Distantly, I hear the voice of Trader John, the evening host of 94.7, End of the Road Radio, declaring his intention to play a full Talking Heads’ set. As the music comes on, the tourists stop talking and the street lights dim. Same as it ever was, David Byrne sings. Same as it ever was.


I stared at Henry in confusion. I didn’t know what I wanted. And, for several seconds, Henry and I engaged in a high stakes, staring contest.

“I need a belt,” I finally managed.

“A belt?”

“Yes, do you sell them?

“What do you think?”

I looked around Henry’s shop, slowly realizing that dozens of belts were hanging from the rafters.

Henry clambered off his workbench and began to pirouette around me, taking my measurements. When he was done, he leapt into the air and seized hold of a belt. “How many holes do you want?” he asked.

“Excuse me?”

“Now, let’s see,” Henry said, licking his lips, and by proximity his unkempt mustache. “While most men prefer the one and others can only live if there are two, I’ll tell you, I’ve been in places where men demand much more than that.” He slapped the belt against the side of his workbench and looked up at me curiously. “Are you that kind of man?”

Before I could answer, Henry began to punch holes in the thick leather. Desperately, I tried to find a neutral topic to discuss. “Those are nice,” I said, indicating a pile of ugly throw rugs in the corner of his shop.

“Nice? What’s nice about them?”

“The way they look. They look nice.”

Henry glanced up from his work. “Did I tell you where I bought them?”

Cautiously, I shook my head.

“I was in Ixtapa, Mehico visiting my second wife’s family,” Henry said, his voice slipping into the rich timbre of a practiced storyteller. “I spent the day with her hermanos, drinking every shot of tequila they put in front of me. Sometime past midnight, they abandoned me at a tiki bar on the beach. For a while, I sat there, listening to the fat bartender tell stories to a group of his amigos. Then I must have blacked out. Next thing I know, I’m lying in the bed of a pickup truck, racing into the mountains.”

Henry glanced up from his work, making sure I was fully appreciative of his predicament. Dutifully, I raised my eyebrows.

“Now, I don’t rattle easily but I was sure as hell I’d been kidnapped,” he continued. “Then I heard the sound of running water behind me. When I turned over, I saw the fat bartender pissing off the side of the truck.

“ ‘Where are you taking me?’ I asked him.

“The bartender held his hands in front of his chest mimicking breasts and said, ‘We go to the women.’

“A few minutes later, we turned down a dirt road leading to a shack in the middle of the woods. Other than the fat bartender, I didn’t recognize a soul in the place. While he disappeared with a scantily-clad senorita, I sat on the ground, trying to sober up. After a few minutes, this old gal came over to me, pushing a cart full of rugs.

“ ‘You okay?’ she asked.

“I nodded. Then I tried to explain my situation. Just when it seemed like she finally understood me, the fat bartender stumbled out of the shack and slapped me on the back. “I take Mama to town now.’ he said. ‘Do you need a ride?’

“A few hours later,” Henry said, handing me my finished belt, “I was standing outside my hotel room, carrying this pile of ugly rugs and praying to whatever god looks after drunkards that my wife wouldn’t divorce me.”


The Ely Steakhouse sits in a rundown building left behind from a poorer time in Ely’s history. An American flag flies above the doorway. The facade is painted dark brown. In the tinted windows, a neon red sign advertises Ice Cold Bud Light.

“Welcome to the Steakhouse,” a young waitress greets me. “Have you tried our Bucky Burger?”

I smile at the waitress for a moment, trying to think of something clever to say. Like all Ely women, she is beautiful. This is the same town that sired Jessica Biel after all. They grow them beautiful in Ely and always will. But nothing comes to mind, so I shake my head and slip past her.

In the dingy barroom mirror, I recognize the reflection of an old friend of mine. His hair is whiter than I remember it and his skin is covered in blotchy red patches, frostbitten memories of winters spent in the North Country.

“I thought I’d find you here,” I say, sitting next to him at the bar.

He doesn’t acknowledge me. A nearly empty glass of murky liquid sits in front of him.

I order a Makers Mark for myself and another for him. When the bartender brings our drinks, my friend finally turns to look at me.

“What have you heard about Henry Held?” I ask.

“I’ve heard he’s dead.”


“That he was out drinking the night he died.”

“That sounds like Henry. The man could drink like a fish.”

We both cringe at my choice of words.

“What killed him if it wasn’t the booze?”

“Well, you know Henry, after leaving the bars at one or two in the morning, he decided it was a good idea to go for a swim. Then, Florencia says, a riptide pulled him out to sea.”

“Do you think he’s really dead?” I ask.

My friend takes a sip of his bourbon, swirling the liquid around his mouth several times before swallowing. “Do you remember what Henry called himself?”

“The Jew of the North.”

“That’s right.” He picks up his bourbon and slowly stirs the ice with his right index finger. “I think Henry’s dead to us. I don’t think we’ll ever see him again and I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened to him. But is he actually dead?” He shrugs, then stares down at his drink in silence.

For a moment, I continue staring at my reflection in the dingy mirror behind the bar. Then I thank my friend for his time and leave.


During the past five years, whenever I visited Ely, I stopped in Henry’s shop under the pretense of getting a new belt. Really, I was there for the stories he told about his motorcycle rides into the Canadian wilderness and his son who he hadn’t spoken to in years; of his adventures on the Boundary Waters and his first wife who he’d driven away. Henry moved through my life; I didn’t move through his. I doubt he knew my name, but his was almost perfect. Henry Held. On to what? Life, I suppose. On to his stories and his listeners, and ultimately, he held on to the riptide that pulled him out to sea.


Most scientists maintain that nothing survives death, our lives end when we die. Christians believe in resurrection, the soul separating from the body and floating to the end of the world, where—by the divine grace of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost—it reunites with its immortal host. Pagans describe a shadowy underworld, populated by spectral figures, who drift mindlessly, whispering their memories of life until their voices go silent and their after-lives expire. Plato imagined the soul to be an eternal spirit that clung to the earth until its perseverance was met with either heaven or hell. My father secretly believes in reincarnation. Whenever he watches baseball, he sips his beer and dreams of coming back to life as the center fielder for the New York Yankees.

As I leave the Ely Steakhouse, I find myself contemplating life after death. I never had the chance to ask Henry for his opinion on the topic. My best guess is that he’d tell me that death changes nothing. There is no escape. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed. All of our questions, all of our answers, all of our theses for life after life, are an illusion, impossible to understand and therefore meaningless.

If that’s the case, why do we ask them? Why do I listen to a favorite song on repeat, trying to glean some meaning from the lyrics? Why did Jay Gatsby continue to stare out at the green light across the sound, even when he knew his love could never fully be reciprocated? Why, when he was deathly ill, did Leo Tolstoy decide to leave his family to wander alone across Russia? And why did Henry Held go swimming late at night, even though he knew full well the dangers of a riptide?

As I walk back through town, I’m struck by the sense that I have already taken this walk. I have already asked myself these questions. It’s another beautiful night in the Boundary Waters. The tourists have retreated to their cabins. Trader John has finished his last set of songs for the night. And for now, the answers to my questions lie somewhere between where I’m going and where I have been, in the cool and dark world of Henry Held. 

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