Wilbur Doyle and the Walking Distance Mysteries
Here's a short-story based on my whacky, real-life neighbor Wilbur Doyle. We often ignore the strange realities that are just next door.
The drills have been spinning for several days straight. I have no idea what's hiding inside of my neighbor Wilbur Doyle's backyard tarp structure, but I need to break in and find out. Whatever's in there, it's bound to make a great essay.
THE COSMIC MYSTERIES
I used to be a daydreamer, and maybe I still am. But for as long I can remember, I've been dreaming about the wrong things. The big things. Life's most unanswerable riddles. You know: God, time travel, Paul McCartney, the Bermuda Triangle, Bitcoin, if dogs go to heaven, the future of The Writing Studio, and whether or not I'm living inside an eternal supercomputer that spawns 240 universes per second.
I thought it was noble to ponder the cosmic Mysteries with a capital M. While I did gain superpowers in patience and paint-watching, it caused me to ignore other mysteries that were much closer to home.
For the last 18 months I've been living in a town called Big Finger with my wife Danielle, and my mother-in-law, Pearl. I've paid so little attention to the town that I'm not even sure it exists. All of the houses, neighbors, events, and gossip; all of the feuds between my mother-in-law and my neighbor, Wilbur Doyle; they’ve blended together into elevator music. Tasteless, invisible jazz.
The sounds of the suburbs acted as lo-fi background music as I dove deep into my new life as a shy (but soon-to-be famous) internet writer named "Delirious Dean." But last week I started seeing the town differently. I've had my first proper “break” since the last time the trees were dead, and it's like I’ve screwed on a new head.
THE WALKING-DISTANCE MYSTERIES
As I walk around Big Finger with fresh eyes, Danielle, and our oversized Doberman Pinscher named Dobe, I notice how this little town is much stranger than I thought. A once-dead town is now glowing with "walking-distance mysteries." Unlike the Mysteries of the cosmos, the walking-distance ones are only a dog's walk away. Regardless of the path that "black Clifford" takes us on (around the block, around the watch factory, or the long way), familiar scenes shine with a new light. Rarely do I finish a walk these days without seeing something odd. It keeps me up all night, wondering, as if I thought I saw a Sasquatch.
Forget QAnon. Forget the Singularity. Forget Malaysian Flight 370. Those are the lamer mysteries. Five minutes outside of your front door is an alternate reality that is stranger than you can suppose. I'm certain that a special kind of "unknown" dwells somewhere in between my neighbor's homes. It dwells in their living rooms, and basements, and attics, and backyards too. There's nothing stopping me from turning off auto-pilot and knocking on a stranger's door.
"Nice to meet you Wilbur, can I check out what's in your tarp structure out back?" I need to know.
Unlike the mysteries that live in the clouds, forever untouched, walking-distance mysteries are apples you can pick from a tree, if you have the balls. You can see the apple, bite it, and then experience the shock of it's taste, whether it's pleasure or poison. No one can or ever will taste a cosmic Mystery.
We shy from the truth: that life is an evaporating lucid dream; it’s ours to craft. Why don’t we seize these walking-distance mysteries? Why are we tangled in a track record of safe and rational decisions? You and me, we’re just one bold walk away from something unforgettable. If we had the courage, we could step out the front door of our ordinary life, and into a bizarre fiction novel.
I could sign up for the senior-citizen pool club and listen to Holocaust stories. I could follow Kitty past midnight to learn where and when those nasty street cats host their fight clubs. I could track down the source of the dead-birds and that one random horse skull. I could knock on the door of the one guy in Big Finger who drives a Tesla, and ask him why there are pages from an Edgar Allen Poe novel scattered all over his front lawn. I could meet the other dog-walkers too! Maybe one of them writes pseudonymously on the Internet, just like I do. I could befriend anyone and everyone, including the neurotic child who marches around town with a noisy whistle, to figure out what the fuss is about. To get paid for all this, I could apply for a job at the watch factory, just a stone's throw away, to understand why there are no windows on the first floor, and to dig for rumors about the explosion last summer that caused everyone in Big Finger to open their front doors in unison like choreographed ice ballerinas.
The answer to any one of these questions is more relevant to my life than the mainstream mysteries of age-old empires. Who am I to ponder the death of a Nazareen? If I don't solve the walking-distance mysteries of Big Finger, surely, no one ever will.
Out of all the strange things going down in Big Finger, there's nothing that puzzles me more than the existence of my neighbor, Wilbur Doyle. I would trade my entire afterlife just for an hour in his backyard.
Wilbur Doyle is a half-gremlin who I've never had the pleasure to speak with. I only know his voice from the way he screams at my mother-in-law when her plants grow over his property line. His voice is mean and forceful. He curses the wind, waddles, and collects large heaps of metal in his backyard.
His face hides beneath a fuzzy beard and faded beanie. Every day, he wears the same exact flip flops, high socks, short shorts, and sweatshirt. I don't know why he doesn't change or if he biologically needs to shower. His clothing only changes in the winter as he layers on additional sweatshirts, until he's as wide as he is tall.
Stranger than Wilbur's appearance and cordiality is the junkyard behind his house, outside my office window. There is some obsessive hoarding going on. I'm talking piles and piles of raw materials, some up to five feet tall, including dozens of translucent milk cartons filled with syrup, and dust, and gasoline, all spaced between three and a half rusted cars, each with clamp locks on their wheels. At the back of his property is some kind of fortress. It's a tent constructed of pipes and brown tarp. He's constantly going in and out, in and out, carrying strange-looking tools, as if he's some kind of machine surgeon, in and out.
What the hell is going on back there? The funny thing is, my neighbors to the north have a mysterious backyard too. Every year, on the morning of my wedding anniversary, they reliably hang around five-dozen dead bats, upside down, on a clothesline. It shocked Danielle and I the first time we saw it, but we both agree, it's not even half as weird as what's going down behind Wilbur Doyle's house.
I wish I could understand what he's building and why. What's he hiding? I have to admit, as monstrous as Wilbur seems from the outside, I feel a deep resonance with this strange man. Inside his brown tarp castle, he leads a secret life, just like I do on the Internet. Has Wilbur Doyle ever used the Internet? I can't find him on Facebook. He’s stalk-proof. A mystery. Under the radar, more than anyone will ever be. It’s possible that Wilbur Doyle never leaves his house, and I might be the only person on Earth who finds him worth knowing.
OTHER PEOPLE’S BUSINESS
Down in the kitchen, in a cloud of classic aromas, I lob a familiar joke: "What if we just knocked on Wilbur's front door and invited him over for dinner?" I ask the question once in a while to Danielle and Pearl just because I get a kick out of their reaction. "You mean that fucking caveman?" Just the thought of Wilbur scrunches Pearl's face and turns her voice into a razor. To her, Mr. Doyle is a brute, a Neanderthal, the epitome of an uncivilized human. Danielle turns sour at the mention too. When she was a teenager she leaned on one of his cars and he took her to court.
"What's the worst that could happen?" I asked, earnestly, again. I was told I don't know what I'm getting into. Despite sixty years worth of evidence, I was convinced Wilbur was like that misunderstood character from Home Alone. Terrifying from the outside, but a sweetheart if you got a chance to know him. There's nothing stopping me from befriending him and writing his life's biography except for the fact that I'm a half-coward. Despite my weird desire to connect with Wilbur Doyle, I can't pierce the invisible boundary that keeps me off his property.
"You have no business getting in other people's business." Other people's business... The very fact that everyone in America keeps to themselves in their own little plot of heaven is exactly what makes the walking-distance mysteries so irresistible.
THE "WEIRD WONDERS" SECRET BLOG
Every morning, before I meditate, make coffee, take a shower, or check my 15 email accounts, I tilt open my window shades just enough so I can peak into Wilbur Doyle's backyard and see what's new. I have a reasonable explanation: I get woken up by the sound of his drills. Machine surgery? Every day? First thing in the morning? Excuses aside, I feel like the main-snooper from Alfred Hitchcock's classic, "Rear-View Window."
The upside to my sleep disruption is that it's led to a boon in my writing output. I keep a small notebook by my window and take notes on Wilbur every morning. Endless material waits outside my window. A writer’s dream. Thank the Gods of Big Finger that I can write. I've been shaping my notes into short-stories and publishing them on a micro-blog called, "The Weird Wonders of Wilbur Doyle." I don't make any effort to promote it, but it somehow amassed a small following through Reddit.
Today I'm writing about the mysterious tarp structure, again. It was an irregularly warm, but breezy day in mid December. The two entry flaps blew in the wind, exposing more of the inside than I've ever seen (still, barely anything). Storyworthy! I saw the ends of a wooden work table, with shelves that had spheres resting on them. The spheres were metallic, head-sized, almost computer-looking, with detailed interface panels on them. Strange. I could use writing to exaggerate the situation and make out Wilbur Doyle to be some kind of robot surgeon. If only the truth were that wild. Still, I’m hooked.
The curiosity has been building each day, and it's driving me nuts. I considered the idea of hopping the fence at four in the morning to solve this mystery once and for all, but I have nowhere near the guts required for that. If I time it wrong, I'd find myself in the crosshairs of a shotgun. So here I am, stuck, writing this stupid blog from my perch.
The drilling sounds continue all through the morning. They're the only sound in Big Finger that's high pitched enough to break the lo-fi forcefield of my noise-cancelling headphones. At least it cancels the sound of Wilbur's radio, which replays the same baseball game from 1986 where the New York Mets win the World Series, over and over.
Just a few minutes into my writing flow, I realize I left my notebook on the window sill, which contained all of my delirious observations on the mysteries of Wilbur. I walked over to grab it. It’s gone. A wave of dread shoots down my spine. I open the blinds and look down. Shit. I left the window cracked open because of the unusually good December weather. I never imagined the wind would suck my notebook, backwards, into Wilbur's abyss, and force me to face my mystery, head-on. Devious Gods!
Luckily, Wilbur Doyle didn’t notice. The Mets and the drills drowned out the “kerplunk” sound. My notebook was camouflaged in one of his piles of rubble. Still, I needed to get it, as soon as I can, if not, right fucking now. He can’t read what’s in there. If he does, he'll learn three shocking truths: he's being spied on, he's Internet famous, and some lunatic is classifying his everyday existence as a "walking-distance mystery." I felt guilty too. I painted this man as a monster before I knew if he was one.
I stepped out my front door and watched my ordinary life evaporate. The browns, and greys, and blues of the trees and the sky shone with a new hue. Reality awaits. After walking down 3 steps, past the bushes, down the path with no railings, and down 2 more steps, to land on the sidewalk, I always make a right. Today I made a left. Twenty feet later, I made another left, and marched up Wilbur Doyle's garbled driveway, through a narrow chasm, past a broken chimney, and into his backyard junkyard.
My plan was dead simple. I'll go into Wilbur Doyle's backyard and admit that I dropped my book. It's an honest mistake, and surely, even a monster could understand. I convinced myself how simple this would be. Maybe this could even lead to an interview. I could convince him I’m a famous writer looking to write his life biography, a.k.a., infinite material for “The Weird Wonders of Wilbur Doyle” micro-blog.
Despite my fantasy of meeting him, I also secretly hoped I could sneak in and out without him seeing me. There’s a chance he could be distracted in his tarp-structure. He wasn’t. His back was facing me, and he was using a shovel to re-organize his piles of crap.
Luckily, I brought Dobe with me, known locally as "Black Clifford," he’s a beast trained to guard its owner from the deadliest of foes. Time to make a move. I knocked on one of his rusty propane tanks, and squeaked a, “Hey, Wilbur?” Like the acrobatic cowboy I never expected him to be, he levitated, rotated a full 180 degrees, and yelled, "Hold it!" Showdown. Dobe freaked out. He jumped backwards and sprinted away. Even the one dog scarier than the Sandlot dog is scared of Wilbur Doyle.
I recited to Wilbur the script in my head. I was his neighbor, I dropped my book, and I'm here to pick it up. Wilbur paused. I don’t know if he understands English. His brows sharpened. "What's in the book, boy?" His voice jingled like a box of nails. I told him I was a famous writer, but he quickly cut me off. "Bullshit, I've seen you at your window, peakin’ out like a god-damn creep. You trying to steal my designs, boy?" Wilbur clenched his shovel.
“You’re drills wake me up every morning. That’s why I look...” Designs? He thinks I’m stealing his designs? At that moment, my bowels released. I shit my pants, and got swallowed by the walking-distance mystery I was here to solve.
Designs. Wilbur Doyle isn’t a monster, he’s a designer. A designer of something. Pearl and Danielle’s caveman theories were wrong. Mr. Doyle is just like me. He’s an architect of machines. Perhaps the Da Vinci of Big Finger. I looked around and saw his piles of rubble in a new light. His cartons of syrup, dust, and gasoline, and his three and a half broken cars that glowed in the light; this was the “paint” of some machine-artist. It's as if I jumped out my window and fell into a strange abyss.
A frigid December wind caressed my cheek and turned my head to the left, towards his tarp structure. The entry panels flapped open and stayed open, suspended by the wind, as if the Gods of Big Finger were revealing a cosmic truth to me. And cosmic it was. I had a straight shot view into Wilbur Doyle’s tarp structure. There it was, a person.
Two people. Three. Four people. More. A gang of robots stood lifelessly under his tarp. They looked like C3P0 mannequins. My daydream was true. Wilbur Doyle must be a mad genius, turning maple syrup into synthetic consciousness.
My theory was right. Whether you have the courage to face your walking distance mystery, or you accidentally stumble into it, a single glimpse can give you resolution at the scale of the Grand Canyon.
At that moment, I was complete. I had my moment in the junkyard backyard, and Wilbur Doyle could have my after-life. A fair trade. As a slow smile came to my face, a fast shovel knocked me in the side of the head, and with a cartoon “doink,” I dropped like a squirrel and fell into a slumber.
INSIDE THE TARP STRUCTURE
I woke up to the sound of drills, again, but injured, inside the tarp structure, as if this day couldn't get any weirder. I was in a mystery inside of the mystery. Two layers in. The center of the action. I was giddish because I finally know what’s inside, but also giddish because I’m trapped in a real-life Saw movie.
I squinted and saw 14 humanoid figures across the room. They were grotesque. My notebook was on his table, opened. My first real glimpse was watching Wilbur Doyle do what he does best, machine surgery. Looking down at my body, I realized what happened. He was doing surgery on me.
The Earth and the tarp walls were splattered in blood. My organs were everywhere, and my limbs hung from a clothing line like button-down shirts. I don’t know how I’m conscious. Weird bolts covered my body, and it looks like I've transitioned into life as a half-cyborg. Pearl and Danielle were right. Wilbur Doyle is a fucking monster, and way worse than anyone could have supposed.
I tried to keep my pain to myself, but a murmur caught Wilbur’s attention. He turned to me and his garlic breath paralyzed my face. "I've been spying on you too, boy. I know your deal. I know your real name is Michael Papa-georgo-poulo-pousaki. You write under Michael Dean, you coward, and now you want to write under FIFTEEN alteregos? You’re god-damn crazy, boy, and now you’re my slave. You’ll never leave this tarp. You write till you die.”
I was impressed. Not only did Wilbury Doyle know how to use the Internet, but he’s pseudonym-writer, an RSS-ninja, and the first one to follow my “Weird Wonders of Wilbur Doyle” micro-blog. He wasn’t a fan, but saw potential in my writing style. He’s now harnessing me as a battery, and told me he would be my new manager.
Rotating my wrists, I discovered my new hands. No skin, just skeleton bones, but with a powerup. Bolted to each wrist was a half-keyboard. Wilbury Doyle may be an evil half-gremlin, and an asshole manager, but he’s making my dreams come true. I could write forever, with no distractions.
I had no idea how I was going to write under 15 alteregos at the same time. To be honest, the whole scheme was making me nervous. Thanks to Wilbur Doyle's machine surgery, it all seems possible now. I looked around, and saw crude versions of all my characters: Delirious Dean, Onionhead, Tango Borte, Matsuo Kasubi, St. Terence, Howie Silicon, Rhythm Reptar, Duke, Bobo, Googl Googl Voodoo Jet, Inspector Doink, Dick Matthews, Astral Ali, and an intern from Derby Records LLC. Each one, half-robot, half-flesh, with half-keyboards bolted to each hand. As they typed, glowing words appeared in front of their eyes.
As I typed, glowing words appeared in front of my eyes too. Who knew Wilbur Doyle was a pioneer in augmented reality? It took me a few seconds to process the opportunity I’ve been granted: eternal creation, identity exploration, and no distractions. At 5,000 words per day, with over 15 characters, I’ll be writing 27 million words per year, more than enough to train a neural network, granting me immortality. I’ll be the first human to live forever.
"Boy, I'm going to milk your brain for every ounce that it's worth. Each one of these critters is linked up to a paid Substack newsletter, and it’s all going straight to my Metamask wallet, boy!"
Oh dear God. Chop up my body and make me a slave, but please, Gods of Big Finger, please don’t lock my best writing behind a paywall. As my nose slid off my face, I explained to him that there’s no greater pain than a paid newsletter. I gave him the whole Creator Economy spiel, and how you need to build an audience before you monetize it. Wilbur Doyle didn’t care. He just laughed like the brutish monster he is and always has been.
He held the drill close to my face, pulled the trigger so that it’s high-pitched squeal would echo through my skull, and taunted me in a twisted voice, "Now give me your best Kurt Vonnegut impression!"