Earl Olsen was the wisest kid at my high school. Not the smartest. That title belonged to either Sophie Connor or Daniel Redman. No one could say for sure which. They were both straight-A students. Sophie was creepily gifted at public speaking; she captained the debate team and was always giving speeches at assembly. Whenever important people visited the school, the principal introduced them to Sophie. I get it. Daniel, on the other hand, would have been considered a weirdo if he were not so brainy. He was in my grade. He spoke little, and awkwardly, but always something worth saying, apparently. The teachers were always impressed. One of his physics projects won a national prize. He received a letter signed by the education minister. See? Smart. But wisdom is something else. And neither Sophie nor Daniel had the wisdom of Earl Olsen.
Earl was bit odd. It might have been expected, naming a kid Earl in an age of Matts and Ryans and Bens. Earl was an old man’s name. Then there was his physical appearance. Adolescence brings tremendous change, but it was particularly merciless to Earl. At age thirteen he shot up to six feet, two inches tall, and then grew not another inch the rest of high school. He was noodle thin and had a noodle-ish walk. Pimples, oversized glasses, a squeaky laugh and no athletic ability. While the rest of us boys were checking to see if we had any chest hair, Earl already had a thick black patch covering not only his chest, but his shoulders as well. His five o’clock shadow appeared by noon. Only Mr Henley, our history teacher, was hairier.
Our biology teacher, Miss Shiner, used to always say life was about adaptation and balance. “Life finds a way,” she would say. She was quoting Jurassic Park. She loved Jurassic Park. Despite flunking biology, I did learn something from Miss Shiner. Life is about adaptation and balance. Nowhere more so than high school. Blend in. Say the right thing. Like the same music everyone else likes. And—unless you are cool or the class clown—do not draw attention to yourself. In Earl Olsen’s case, inconspicuousness was never an option. He was a bright blue zebra with a flashing light strapped to his head. The tigers would eat him alive. (Do tigers eat zebras? I’m not sure. Like I said, I flunked biology.) Poor Earl, it seemed, was created as a target for bullies. Surely scorn and ridicule would drive him to a nervous breakdown. But that did not happen, for nature had bestowed balance. Life found a way.
Earl had a protector of sorts—his smoking hot older sister, Jodie. Not that Jodie displayed any fondness for Earl at school. But her looks spared him enough to give him a fighting chance. Because every guy in school fancied Jodie, none of them ever bullied Earl too much. They called him names, pushed him around a bit, stole his lunch occasionally, and had a couple of vulgar nicknames for him, but no one ever punched Earl or goaded him to fight. No one ever tried to make him cry. Because no boy in school wanted to snuff out what speck of a chance he imagined he had of going out with Jodie Olsen. She was really pretty.
Anyway, while Jodie’s angelic face spared Earl a worse high school experience, the bullying he did receive had an unexpected effect. After enduring all the nicknames and jokes and shoves and stolen sandwiches, Earl didn’t care. I mean, I’m sure the bullying still hurt, but he just stopped caring what anyone thought. Anyone. About anything. Earl Olsen was perhaps the only person I have ever met, aged older than six but younger than sixty-five, who truly did not care what people thought of him. I should have recognised his wisdom right there.
Without this rare self-assurance, I suspect Earl would not have grown a moustache in grade ten. Moustaches were not in style. A couple of the more macho older boys attempted beards, but they were soon shaved, with the boys unable to produce more than an Errol Flynn-style sliver of fuzz on their upper lip. When fifteen-year-old Earl Olsen, however, set about growing a moustache, a fat, dense scrub sprouted beneath his nose. It took him all of four days. Most people attributed the unfashionable facial hair to Earl’s weirdness. I did too. But not long after, I noticed something about Earl. I was sure it had not been there before. He was the most content person I had ever seen. It was no longer that he just didn’t care, but now he seemed to enjoy, well, everything. He was always wearing a little grin. Not the big fake smile Sophie Conner put on when she gave a speech, but a real, involuntary, unavoidable grin.
This continued for weeks. The moustache grew thicker (our P.E. teacher, Mr Muller, gave Earl the nickname “Boonie”, after the moustachioed Australian cricketer), Earl was no less of an outcast, and yet he seemed constantly satisfied. Curiosity overcame me. I asked Earl why he was so happy. He told me his secret. It began with an empty bottle of Flex body wash. Flex was the scent every boy in school wore. Body wash, shampoo, aftershave, but especially Flex spray-on deodorant. Somehow—effective advertising probably—Flex had become the most popular deodorant for teenage boys. It was cool to use Flex; it was uncool to use anything else. Was it a good deodorant? Well, it was good in that you did not notice teenage boys’ body odour when Flex was used. It was not so much that Flex eliminated odour, but rather it overpowered it, the way the annoying sound of a dripping tap can be remedied by starting up a lawnmower in your kitchen. So many boys used it, though, and in such copious quantities, that you kind of got used to the smell. It could still sting your eyes though. In the boys’ locker room after P.E. class, with all that Flex being sprayed about, you had to get changed quickly before the pungent fog had your eyes tearing up with the scent that, according to the can, “Drives women wild!”
Anyway, Earl had taken a shower one night, and, of course, reached for his bottle of Flex body wash. The bottle was empty. So, he looked around for a replacement and found his sister’s mango body scrub. With great excitement he told me the body scrub really did smell like mangoes. It was the middle of May and mango season was still months away, but Earl had the smell of mangoes right there in a bottle. So, he showered with Jodie’s mango body scrub and got thinking—how could you smell mangoes all the time? My jaw dropped. He nodded. The moustache. That son of a gun. Earl grew a moustache so he could rub mango body scrub in it every morning and have that sweet aroma wafting up into his nostrils all day. No wonder he was happy all the time! Sophie Connor could debate all she liked; Daniel Redman could be the next Einstein—meaningless! Gangly Earl Olsen, with his spotty face and gorilla-hairy shoulders, had come up with the most brilliant thing I had ever heard. If only I could have grown a decent moustache. I tried.
I only saw Earl once again after we left high school. It was at a party at my friend’s university. Earl had grown out of his awkward adolescence and was a good-looking young man, though still noodle thin. We chatted briefly; we were both drunk. Earl told me he was studying economics. I remember thinking any company would be lucky to have a genius like him coming up with ideas about money. He no longer had a moustache, and I asked him about it. He smiled a big smile and winked at me, then shouted above the music, “I don’t need it anymore.” He laughed and slapped me on the shoulder then went off to join his friends. I laughed too and nodded as if I knew what he meant by that. But I didn’t know. I wish I knew why he didn’t need his moustache anymore. I wish I had asked him.
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