(Here are two more chapters from my 2010 manuscript of The Madness Trip: A Surrealistic Pornobiographical Phantasmagoria)
gotta get out now out of Cincinnati yes but first out of this goddam bathtub stinking of piss lying in urine like a terrified animal so long I can still hear the piss streaming in my ears feel it in my eyes raising my eyes above the rim of the tub to stare like a Kilroy at Zoe sitting on the toilet pissing noticing me and stopping the sound
Did you finally come down Major Tom?
My head hurts
reaching out to stroke my hair she says Take an aspirin Doctor Leary
my feet on the cool bathroom tiles blue as policeman’s uniforms water droplets dribbling down my legs like sweat as Zoe’s stream sparkles golden in the patch of sunlight between her thighs and trickles into shadow
Didn’t I kill you?
You better fucking hope not
bedroom carpet dries my feet wind through the window blows me clean I notice my nakedness in the closet mirror rip the giant American flag from my bedroom wall wrap it round me like a toga grab my keys and go
in the livingroom Danny calls out from his smokecloud Dude dude you’re wearin’ a flag but I’m already in my car a big white squeaky-doored 70s Cordoba with Mr. Fantasy Island’s fine Corinthian leather bleached by sunlight and spillage but he remains Mr. Roarke my Host and I raise a mental glass in toast pulling from the drive as a police car turns slowly onto Warner two blocks up the street a close escape since Zoe’s still lying in the river dead by my hands and that Zoe in the bathroom a pure hallucination play of eyes and light and mind the only explanation pissing out the Ohio River between her thighs because she’s drowned QED logic is my friend and brother get the fuck out of town
flying down Ravine to bottom out in Over The Rhine with an ugly screech like sharpening knives turning all the corner boys’ heads white boy gotta white car now an’ that crazy muthafucka wearin’ the red white an’ blue somethin wrong with that boy no business today fellas sorry gotta run past Central Parkway through downtown pausing for a quick energy fix at a stoplight pop the glovebox bow down like a prole before the Emperor to snort white powder from the inside door and onto route 50 River Road heading west while the water passes peacefully beside me in Huck Finn pastoral and the darkly windowed Cincinnati skyscrapers shrink below Lego size in the minimoviescreen of my rearview mirror as a peeling roadside billboard welcomes me to Indiana the Hoosier State whatever the fuck that means
through cornfields the color of late Van Gogh I cruise like an errant streak of white leaves fall saffron and curling to the roadside and bounce in the blow of my breeze green harvesters chop great swaths of wheat and smokescreen fields in summer dust closing my eyes holding my breath I drive through 1930s dust emerge to blue sky sunlight straight black road silver mirages of water floating across in the always receding distance golden tassels top them blowing in the breeze green cornstalks tower above my car until I rise with road to hop a highway descend again tingling in my testicles while sunlight cooks my hands and face and shines in orange corona around the shade’s flipped-down eclipse Welco e to Ill nois Land of Li coln Abe’s tophatted Parisian silhouette on another weather-wearied billboard EAT AT DENNY’S evening and the red light on an oil well pumping in the far corner of a furrowed field as I feel a crash coming on
to snap awake behind the wheel doing 80 down an empty highway far past midnight location unknown signs unreadable flashing by in headlight glare speedometer needle trembling under greenlight glass gas gauge edging onto E as an exit lane swerves me into daylight Denny’s I order country fried steak and baked potato halfway through the meal I’m not surprised when Elvis Presley slides into the booth across from me my gas gauge said E after all so why not logic logic he’s not the bloated bejewelled tourist souvenir Elvis of Vegas 76 but the handsome matinee star of late 60s comeback era in a black leather jacket matching his hair he tells me You broke this here mustang baby now you gotta ride ‘er all the way to the end You listen to your King son Now you’re goin’ in the right direction west like Wayne an’ Shane an’ all them good guys ridin’ into the sunset But you gotta keep goin’ and just don’t stop and don’t turn down that ol’ PCH to El Lay an’ start makin’ no movies neither It’s eyes on the prize son You git yer butt to that Golden Gate you hear Drive to the second tower climb that baby all the way to the top an’ fly off jus’ like a little ol’ seagull man That’s my advice baby make a big splash an’ always leave ‘em wantin’ more You gonna eat that tater?
No But I don’t want to kill myself
Nobody wants to son but somehow we seem to find a way There’s a song in that but it ain’t makin’ no Top 40 so it ain’t for me Damn good taters they got in this place
But I don’t want
Damn son wantin’ ain’t got nothin’ to do with it You’re already playin’ the game I’m jus’ tellin’ ya the score Waitress Hey waitress baby Can you do a favor for your King darlin’ Bring me another one of them there taters an’ put some a them bacon chips on it ya know an’ no sour cream Sour makes me sour an’ cream don’t make nobody cream ya know what I mean? The King don’t do sour cream baby An’ hey why don’t you come on down ta Graceland this weekend darlin’ I’ll putcha in a movie yes I will
You’re saying I’m going to kill myself
Now that’s what I been sayin’ son Good to see ya got two good ears on ya It’s that stuff in between that’s givin’ ya the problems Just blow that shit out an’ don’t worry about it Hell if I had my doc here he’d fix ya up with some pills do the trick lickety split man
That’s what happened to you isn’t it?
Hell we all find our own way out son Bennies barbies boobies burgers bottles or baubles baby it always ends the same So why not go off the bridge man Beats old age or smashin’ up a car like that ol’ Jimmy Dean You know the name a the fella Jimmy hit? Turnipseed I swear to God A man named Turnipseed I go to my reward it ain’t gonna be ‘cause a no damn turnipseed I tell you that Thank ya darlin’ Oh whoa ho ho baby come on back here now I told ya no sour cream on this here tater an’ there ya go an’ put sour cream on it You are a naughty little thing ain’t you? Your King’s gonna hafta give you a spankin’
opening Denny’s restroom door I step onto the sun-scorched parking lot of a derelict drive-in movie theater and see the white Cordoba coming quickly toward me from far back on the lot accelerating over the frozen sea of landscaped rises and troughs and sounding a rebel yell every time the front end goes airborne and rear wheels throw up a speedboat wake of gravel the car crunches to a stop in front of me and Elvis steps out of the driver’s seat and whoops at the sky until the dust clears and I see he’s the Vegas Elvis now shoehorned into a jewel-encrusted jumpsuit that would embarrass most matadors Hot damn I love Seventies cars my man! This ol’ sumbuck came out ‘round the time I died didn’t it? Thought so You can’t fool the King son Aw man I love this movie Kinda weird though following his eyes I see projected faintly in daylight on the giant screen a film of myself masturbating in a white room intercut with footage of the murder of Zoe filmed from a low angle camera at water level my rod-wielding self monstrous and deeply shadowed against the light splattering the lens with semen and blood obscuring the action transforming the screen to an enormous abstract mural in bloody motion
Always the same ending but I still love it man Thumbs up from the King In case I haven’t mentioned it I love your threads son Very Patriotic and I become aware for the first time in hours of the flag I’m still wearing it’s a sort of poncho now my head sticking through a hole in the center Elvis says Man I’m so hungry I could eat a whore Jus’ kiddin’ son You hungry? Well hop on in baby I’m drivin’
I open the passenger door and slide into a shiny plastic booth at McDonalds where Elvis sits across from me fitting his toothless mouth around a cheeseburger and older now than he ever lived to be Ancient Mariner old with unkempt white hair trailing past his shoulders long stained beard grizzled Willie Nelson face fingernails like a mandarin and cracking voice droning Now you jus’ listen to what I say son an’ head west an’ git yer butt on that bridge now it’s the only way to go only way I love all them ol’ westerns baby you ever see Duel in the Sun that little ol’ Jennifer Jones blowin’ ol’ Greggy Pecker away now there’s a blowjob he’ll never forget you ever see Charro? nobody did coughing he returns the gum-stamped burger to his plate Damn I’m tired son You mind if I lay down here? he’s already down and snoring and when I rise minutes later he’s silent with a face the pallor of death a mask of itself chiseled from gray granite and a trickle of blood runs from the corner of his mouth to pool movie-like on the floor perfecting the death of the star
speeding away I push the Cordoba past 90 into a mythical western sunset straight out of Duel in the Sun a sunset that screams out for technicolor panavision cinemascope and the palette of Monet fiery yellow at the horizon a band of orange that shifts to red farther up and high above in darkening blue the undersides of clouds glow impressionistic salmon pink and it feels like the end of my movie
until night swallows it all and as my needle hovers over E I pull into a roadside convenience store its aisles bright and gaudy with a thousand spots of color none by Monet and discover the severed head of Ernest Hemingway sitting in the beer cooler on an eye-level shelf between two cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon and when I open the door with a rubber suction kiss the head says
If I still had arms I’d clean your clock, bub
Shut up and be a man Do you know what a man is? The bullfighter Manolo Corazon now there was a man a real man not a good man but a man I remember the day he was gored in the Plaza de Toros in Madrid back in the good days before the rich came He lifted the cape with a flourish and the bull charged as mean as animals are and the cheeks of Manolo’s ass twitched in that tight costume and it was a small movement but enough to make the women’s hearts flutter and the men’s pound in admiration The bull did what bulls do Manolo was gored in the upper thigh and the horn took part of his penis but not his balls Manolo always had balls And a good tight ass I’ll you a story even if you don’t want to listen It’s a story I know about a woman named Amarita Martinez who thought she loved a matador named Pedro Dominguez who thought he loved a rich bitch named Dolores who knew she loved no one Amarita stabbed Dolores and Dolores shot Amarita and Pedro was killed by a bull named Zelda Fitzgerald and they all died like men even the bull Like men Not like you You make me sick
What should I do Papa?
Don’t call me that Only men can call me that Men and Ava Gardner Ava had the balls of twenty men If Ava fought Joe Louis I’d lay it on Ava for a KO in round one–
What should I do?
Shut up and be a man Kill something That’s what men do Kill yourself if nothing better is near But kill something
I killed Zoe
To call that bullshit would be an insult to the bull
What’s that supposed to mean?
It was all in your head, jackass You’re still stuck in your head Get out of your head and start living from the body Live from the balls Liberating my body with both barrels of that Boss is the best thing I’ve ever done Even better than “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” In that story I said Nada with my head but with the good Boss I did Nada with my body Right now my body is the meat on an Ava Gardner - Ingrid Bergman sandwich And that’s the only reason my head can bear talking to a sexually disordered little freak like you god you make me sick
Wait a minute I’ve read The Garden of Eden Didn’t you–
I was drunk when I wrote it, bub My one regret is not burning that botch of a book before I picked up the good Boss It’s a mess An incoherent mess Should never have been published Corrupts the morals of youth–
But the sexual stuff in there That was you–
The bitter fantasies of a sad drunk in dire need of electroconvulsive therapy Don’t believe it I never engaged in the forbidden proclivities No matter what those pervert critics think You need to forget about books and concentrate on the active life Via activa I always modeled myself after Teddy Roosevelt there was a man who knew how to kill Lions tigers bears Filipinos it’s all the same Kill something and kill something big an elephant or a whore something indestructible And stay away from Mommy’s underwear drawer You know where that gets you Now close the door you’re making me rot you weak pathetic piece of shit–
the door slides shut and Hemingway’s mouth moves in angry silence behind breath-fogged glass
halfway down a long aisle of bulging glossy potato chip bags I encounter Jerry Springer standing with hands on hips and looking seriously pissed off definitely not in the mood for a calm cool collected Final Comment What the fuck is your problem, asshole? he says
You listen to me, you worthless motherfucker Jerry says and slams his fist into a bag of chips that bursts in a shower of barbecued shards and from the ruined bag he extracts a shiny black automatic pistol lovingly fellates the salt off the barrel and offers it to me in the palm of his hand saying You see that cocksucker over there behind the counter? (overweight sallow-faced 30 year-old with shaggy hair likely the bassist for a local bar band playing Led Zeppelin covers and rock n roll dreaming three nights a week) I want you to take this gun and put a bullet right between that motherfucker’s eyes Don’t give me any of that Why? Why? shit Just do it you cocksucking asshole
Jerry, why are you so mean?
Cut that shit I’m talking about survival here dipshit yours and mine Either you blow that motherfucker’s head off or he turns us both in You for murder and me for everything else you understand? That fat fuck already dropped a dime on your ass because you just spent half an hour talking to a fucking case of beer for Christ’s sake Drunk and disorderly Public lewdness Indecency Whatever the fuck Our only ticket out of here is for you to take this gun walk to the counter point it at his head and squeeze the trigger That’s all there is to it Even a dumbass like you should be able to handle that Go on if you have any brains left I should’ve beaten the shit outta you when I had the chance.
Jerry becomes my father and is yelling at me now Take this gun and blow that motherfucking cocksucker away! I am not going to tell you again!
I push him aside and he collapses falling like a ragdoll against a crunching shelf of chips
running from the convenience store I see past the cashier’s bulbous belly to the back room where my mother stands in bloodsmeared apron meat cleaver in hand chopping red raw meat amidst flying blood at a long table endless rows of beef carcasses hanging on hooks behind her and she’s cackling like a melodrama villain as the blood spatters her face
outside screaming into the car onto the highway engine racing lights off barreling into deeper darkness and my night is broken by sirens flashing lights spotlights like a roadside sun burning purple circles in my eyes and back of my head a cop’s voice amplified mechanical mad
STEP OUT OF THE HANDS WITH YOUR CAR ON YOUR HEAD
easier said than
YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN FACEDOWN ON THE PAVEMENT
two uniformed arms pull me from the front seat and toss me into the empty corner of a bright white booking room where I slump to the floor sore and overhearing
Well well well What we got here?
What does this thing call itself?
Big eastern drug dealer looks like
Drivin’ a big ole nigger car Thing’s fulla residue
Uh huh What I tell you about that language, son?
Huh? Oh-uh, Ahm sorry sir
What’s that he’s wearin’ there? Some kinda hippie outfit?
Looks to me like a flag sir
That’s what I was thinkin’
It’s a real flag Sheriff See this here?
Well I’ll be damned
a steel toe hits my ribs and the older man suddenly angry yells at me in my darkness Wake up son! Open those goddam eyes! I didn’t walk through a goddam Nazi winter to Bastogne so a buncha goddam hippies can shit on my goddam flag!
and in a voice as suddenly calm Charge him with flag desecration
Is that a crime Sheriff?
It sure as hell is in my county
Git ‘im in the system an’ see what pops up These outta staters you never can tell We mighta just got the next Charlie Manson thrown into our laps you never know
my fingers are smeared with unreadable ink my head is photographed for reproduction on icons and coins and I’m locked inside a one-man cell 5 by 12 feet rectangular brick walls painted pissyellow concrete bed with the hairiest thinnest scratchiest blanket in the world and above it constant light and cold air blowing from a ventilation duct into the nonsleeper’s face the stainless steel toilet has defied its first adjective to become a Smithsonian of drunken stains conserving at its lowest level of salty encrustation the dried urine of the earliest permanently intoxicated English settler on the American landmass Ezekiel Freke (1575-ca.1640)
I stare at the yellow brick walls for an hour before my hallucinations begin mild at first almost pleasant a triumphal procession of miniature Romans crossing the wall in an animated frieze togaed Senators passing in a rain of roses under the arch of Septimius Severus to the accompaniment of music from the Cleopatra soundtrack and prerecorded plebeian cheers but the fasces quickly turn fascist the axe drawn out to sever heretical heads the rods unbundled to beat disobedient backs and the cell walls become the mural of an artless Hieronymous Bosch a medieval panorama of tortures rack wheel pincers head crusher intestinal extractor forehead tourniquet red hot poker and the ever popular crucifixion in a number of variations from Christly upright to Peterish inverted to forward at an angle on a tree on an X on a boxcar on the skin of a grizzly bear
I cover my ears against unbearable screams squat in the middle of the cell and squeeze out a turd so long I nearly faint before it ends and see behind me a three foot-high spiral mound of fresh shit like a coiled brown snake and to stop the screaming I smear shit all over the walls in thick fibrous clumps and painterly swaths covering the howling pictures until a clatter of locks in the celldoor and footsteps rushing into silence push me to the floor beat me with nightsticks boots fists and beat me harder when I raise hands to my face or try to conceal my erection
finally the sheriff says That’s enough boys Don’t wanna wear yourselves out ‘fore tomorrow You wanna be fresh an’ chipper on the day of a hangin’ you know If we’re gonna send Mister Manson F. Bundy here to his maker we gotta do things right the ol’ fashion’ way a good ol’ hippie-whippin’ an’ a fine hangin’ an’ a pro-fessional burnin’ all right on the ol’ tree You got any coal oil over your place Roscoe?
Don’t rightly know, Sheriff Got sumpin’ jist as good though Gotta ol’ acetylene torch
I suppose that’s good enough for this hippie That good enough for you, hippie? He seems like the agreeable type Now all you boys get a good night’s sleep ya hear the door closes behind them and I crawl painfully onto the stone bed pull the blanket over my face and lie there like a corpse
Zoe comes to my cell ex machina in the night and wakes me with a kiss a cascade of rainbow hair falling around our faces
What are you doing here? I whisper
You set me free so now I’m setting you free
The celldoor stands open to an eerie silence from the station room beyond but I’m too weak to rise until Zoe crouches over my hips, guides my dick into her pussy and moves slowly along it up and down with increasing tempo until I take her in my arms and she pulls me down on top and I thrust into her legs wrapped around me and when I’m about to come I notice a dark line like a part in her hair or a badly healed scar running back from the middle of her forehead a suture a seam a crack my hands atop her head I dig fingers into it into her scalp my fingertips bloody and she screams Rip it! And beginning to come I pull down hard and Zoe’s flesh rips away like a rubber mask revealing Jenn’s head underneath with an identical seam across the top coming I tear the flesh away again and peel Jenn to find Nina smiling inside her like a Russian doll and as the spasms of pleasure run through me I tear Nina open from forehead to throat and shouting and shooting inside her see my mother’s face looking up at me and laughing
I run like a doped olympian out of the cell through the deserted station into my car and hit the highway heading east thinking the west has taken me far enough and I need a place to trust
after St. Louis my heart slows down and I drive all night on the monotonous highway blurry with rain and tears and the sightless glare of oncoming cars until next morning driving into sunlight I descend to Cincinnati in lifting fog and spend the day sitting in my car in an empty and filling and emptying parking lot of a white anonymous suburban shopping center my hands on the wheel mind as blank as the calm lake of pavement stretching around me
evening falls with the light and when Venus sparkles above the horizon I hit ignition transmission gas and cruise on Clifton past the lawns of UC down Ravine to Warner and entering the livingroom see Zoe Danny Abby Annie sitting on the floor around the TV Danny says Dude where’s your flag? And realizing I’m naked I sit down behind Zoe put my arms around her kiss her neck and see on the television a gathering of ordinary-looking people partying atop the Berlin Wall one of them chipping away at it with a pickaxe You hear the news dude? Danny asks
The wall came down Zoe says smiling It came down just like nothing god this is beautiful she has tears in her eyes
I reach out and press my hand flat against the TV screen letting it float over the tiny Germans tearing up the wall I try to will myself into the picture into the celebration into the joy
It’s a new world Annie says
I could use a new one I reply
To be or to cap myself, that’s the only fucking question.
On the night the Eighties become the Nineties I sit in the Cordoba outside my parents’ house and place the barrel of a pistol in my mouth. I learn the sour taste of gun oil, the cool of pressed and molded steel, the scratch of the pointed sight against my tongue. I bought the gun four days ago at a shop by the highway with a 50-foot sign reading, succinctly, GUNS, that rises in a grove of Burger King, McDonald’s and Union 76 signs as if to complete an American trilogy: fat, fuel and firearms. The pistol has only been fired thrice: once on the shooting range behind the store as a pointless demonstration of aiming and accuracy, and twice by me in the woods west of town, sending the loose gray bark of an ancient oak tree flying. And now the fourth shot, end of everything... When cheers go off at midnight in houses up and down the street, I tell myself the countdown is for me. Do it now. Squeeze the trigger until a leaping, deafening bang and a flash of lightning in my mouth send the gas-powered slug tunneling through my brain, ripping out the rotten core of everything I am. Three, two, one. Now.
The suicide note of Daniel Douglas begins: “I have decided to die. This is a rational decision taken after extended consideration of the various options. It is not an act of ‘insanity’. I have never been more sane, more self-torturingly lucid, than at this moment. My decision is neither the product of a fit of belated adolescent angst nor the result of sentimental lovesick Wertherism. I have enumerated my options and found all of them wanting. Videlicet: 1. continuation of my engineering education leading to a life of dismal conformity enforced by the disciplinary structures of a multinational corporation; 2. a life lived entirely outside those structures: impoverished and therefore alone and therefore unbearable; 3. some sort of bourgeois bohemian compromise, a corporate-supported noncomformity (e.g. ‘popular’ art) that because constructed on a foundation of bad faith can lead only to self-loathing. The fourth and best option is to put a period to this pointlessness with a single bullet...”
All around goodbyes are spoken, car doors slam, brake lights flash and pull away. Happy New Year. I sit behind the wheel with the gun in my lap and watch my parents’ lights go out–living room, kitchen, basement, bathroom, bedroom–try to guess their silhouettes, imagine their reaction to the bloody New Year’s present they’ll discover in the street tomorrow morning. My father, wide-eyed, backing away from the car, one arm restraining my mother as she screams on the lawn, waking the drowsy neighborhood. Exactly what the two of them deserve: a bloody pietá on the brown winter grass, horror displayed to every eye, the truth outside the house at last. If only I could live to see it. Aye, there’s the rub-a-dub-dub, as the hammy-man might say. The worst thing about suicide: there’s no real pleasure in it. For the act itself eliminates the possibility of deriving delicious pleasure from our victims’ pain. Suicide is anti-sadistic, anti-joy; it is puritanical death. But not entirely. Nothing is one hundred percent. I put the barrel in my mouth again and run my tongue along it, tasting metal, remembering the tingling terminals of a nine-volt battery against my nine year-old tongue on Christmas morning. I feel the current running down my body to a stiffened aching in my groin. I seal my lips around the barrel, slowly suck it in. Consummatum est. Do it now. A splash of blood and brains on the Chrysler’s ceiling. The spent slug lodges in a lump in the roof. Lug my guts into the ambulance and siren them away.
At least it’s more certain than last week’s method: jumping from an overpass onto Interstate 75 on the evening of an unbearably dismal Christmas day. The roar and shush of traffic passing below me, I stand atop the concrete barrier, one foot behind the metal handrail, the other already across it, hovering half-over the void. A west wind blows heavily at my chest, bending my body back toward the bridge (If there had been an equally powerful east wind that Christmas, I surely would have died.) as I stand there for several minutes, arms outspread like a parka-ed Jesus to keep me balanced on the edge. I tell myself, as I will a week later: Now, do it now. Close your eyes and lift your other foot. Step over the bar and hop off, leap into the wind. But something beyond the terrifying thoughts of survival, paralysis, disfigurement, less-than-instant death, keeps my left foot behind the railing. I cannot move my leg. It stands immobile as though carved from the bridge’s stone. My left leg will not let me go. I step down, turn away from the icy wind, and walk home feeling even more dejected by the unignorable fact of my survival. (Only a day later, when the immediate urge subsides and my mind turns to guns, do I reflect that a simple stroll to the other side of the overpass would have solved my problem. The wind at my back would’ve done my traitorous leg’s work and tossed me into the arms of death at a rotary 9.8 m/s/s. This is the suicide’s version of ‘wit of the staircase.’)
Turning headlights cut across my car, and I lower the gun. No sense alerting the world to my intentions. The barrel wet with saliva leaves a dark, rectangular stain on my thigh. The stain curves over my jeans like a section of dome to intersect the steering wheel’s arcing shadow where it passes into my crotch before climbing the other thigh. Fascinated by this geometry of light, I raise my hand and with the fingers of its shadow touch the stain, shadow fingers stroking my thigh while flesh and bone caress the air. Air that feels surprisingly cold now. I turn on the heater and know without thinking it that I will not kill myself tonight. Tears welling in my eyes, I watch the windshield breath-fog burn away in twin hemispheres of clarity growing slowly from dash to ceiling. It has begun to snow outside. Icy white pellets stream through the streetlight and bounce against the Cordoba’s hood. My gun sits in the passenger seat while I watch suburban lawns turn magically from black to white under invisibly falling snow.
On page 9 of his suicide note Daniel Douglas writes: “...these false starts and hesitations in no way diminish my determination to achieve the goal already decided upon. They are more in the nature of accidents than acts of will. Some die by accident, others survive by it. A strong wind, a temporary psychosomatic paralysis, a play of shadows, a snow shower. These are the factors that sum to my continued existence, a risible lot to build a life upon. Given a warm summer evening instead of New Year’s Eve, I would have blown my brains out as insouciantly as all the other Richard Corys who have succeeded where I have failed. Meanwhile, this posthumous life continues...”
June 16, 1992 is the date on the newspaper I pretend to read while fingering a plastic pack of razorblades in the supermarket check-out lane. Bloomsday, I muse, an excellent day to die. It’s two and a half years since that suicidal New Year’s Eve, and whenever I remember sitting in the car I wonder what happened to time. Two years and more. (The intervening time is a period of blankness, an unmarked calendar, day fading into week into month as I sit alone in a cheap apartment atop an old house in a rundown section of the city, staring at the peeling walls. Failing to live, failing to die, I soak in the shame of failure until shame becomes as familiar as my skin. Two years to make amnesia redundant; two years of
, a series of sentences served sequentially in a parenthetical cell.) Two years of what a doctor would surely call severe depression, always on the brink of another suicide attempt, seeing death not as deliverance but release, annihilation to end the pain, blackness to blot out the blank. But today it will end. Today is finale. I will razor my wrists and let the blood flow freely, killing myself with my heart.
On page 47 of his suicide note, composed in the vaulted Dickensian reading room of a 19th-century public library on a weighty oaken table laden with the works of Joyce, Eliot, Kafka and Proust, Daniel Douglas writes of “the pointlessness of continuing a life that is already like a car spinning its wheels in the muck and weeds on the other side of a DEAD END sign, a life as senseless as a sentence running past its period, as useless as an unwritten book, a broken Byzantine bowl no restorer can repair...”
The gun is on the floor, hidden in shadow; a dust of snow gathers on the hood; I sit behind the wheel staring at my wristwatch: the needle-thin second hand’s tiny, servile hops, the statelier minute hand’s steady, courtier’s jumps, and the fatter, slower progress of the hour hand, glutton king of the dial. I stare unblinking until my eyes ache and water, trying to capture the hour hand’s motion, to see the subtle, steady, constant curving of its arrow tip slipping from dash to dash around the dial. I follow it three times round in what seems like a minute, and by the fourth circle daylight has broken and I’m sitting red-eyed, tired and sore, every muscle stiffened, but not with death. My numbed arm falls limply to the seat. I turn the key and drive away, cutting twin black tracks through the virgin snow of another unbearable year.
On the afternoon of June 16, I drive past suburbs, subdivisions, track malls, shopping centers, endless Wal-Marts. I see a middle-aged woman walking her shaggy chokered collie along a sidewalk laid across the ends of identically manicured lawns dominated by houses stamped from the same half-dozen cookie-cutters. I see a ragged-looking man in a badly-mended tweed jacket standing atop a bench at a bus stop informing passersby of the coming of the Lord. I see a Highway Patrol officer in his stiff blue hat momentarily forgetting to grimace as he steps out of a Subway into sunlight clutching to his chest a phallic sandwich. I see three teenage girls laughing hysterically as they playfully strike each other with bulging shopping bags in a mall parking lot. I see a Marlboro Man modeling a brown cowboy hat beside the door of his record store and carefully raising and lowering his cigarette with gestures practiced before a mirror. I see drivers in blandly painted cars and trucks, their faces impassive as they pass me by. I see my eyes reflected in the rearview mirror, looking for the perfect place to die.
On page 93 of his suicide note, Daniel Douglas writes: “...As everyone secretly knows, the most important question concerning suicide is not ‘Why?’ but ‘Why not?’ Why don’t the millions of people equally trapped in this vacant lot of a life, this empty yard of stones and weeds and shards of broken bottles–why don’t they their own quietus make with a barren bullet? Why not forego the Frosty miles and fall asleep now, final exiting with a bottle, bag and bath? Why not? Religion is no answer. That dumbshow’s deader than Adorno, deader than the Nietzsche who correctly diagnosed our present crisis a century ago: although god is dead we still must kill his shadow. Is fear the reason why not? It’s better, but not quite good enough. Cowardice? Closer, very close. They (I cannot say ‘we,’ not yet) lack the courage to defy not their morals but their bodies. To cut the skin and drain the heart and flood the lungs–this is the ultimate defiance...”
The truck comes from nowhere into the corner of my eye, plows over a STOP sign, slams into my car and sends it spinning. Hands white-knuckled on the wheel I watch helplessly as snow-covered fields and distant trees do a quick 180 across my windshield and circle even faster again. I scream and two thoughts rush through my mind, pressed tightly together like two coins in a roll: ‘This is the last thing I will ever see’ and ‘What total fucking bullshit!’ The vertical black rectangle of a telephone pole slides toward my side window and shatters the glass as it crumples my door and I close my eyes for death.
On page 121 of his suicide note, Daniel Douglas writes: “...According to the Noah whose printed ark saves us all, the word ‘suicide’ derives from the Latin sui, ‘of oneself,’ akin to suus, ‘one’s own,’ added to the Latin cide, from caedere, ‘to cut, kill.’ (The etymology provokes visions of Stoic Romans opening their veins like Frankie Five Angels at the end of The Godfather Part Two.) Caedere is also a root of ‘concise’ (something this note is certainly not), so suicide is a self-editing of one’s life, the definitive cut. Suicide can also be defined, in an etymologically justifiable way, as ‘a death of one’s own’ (visions of Virginia oozing into the Ouse), a death one owns and shares with no one, the only authentically ‘free’ death...”
Stunned, disoriented, double-visioned, I slump against the seatbelt strap. My car (no longer the Cordoba, a tiny Geo Metro now) has been smashed like an angry child’s toy: windshield buckled and webbed with cracks, distended dash vomiting fuses and wires and dials, broken plastic and pebbled glass lying everywhere. My legs are trapped between the bulged-in door and the transmission hump; the downturned steering wheel presses painfully into my thighs. From my mouth and throat I’m spitting tiny crumbs of shattered glass.
The siamese twins who hit me appear framed in the wavering hole where my window used to be, and it takes several seconds for my brain to fuse them to a single clueless hillbilly who says, “You alright man?” When I cannot reply, his tone turns frightened, “Aw shit...Ahm sorry, man...This is all my fault.”
Another out-of-focus man leans down to the window. He’s older, a witness. “Are you OK?”
I find my voice. “That asshole hit me.”
“Yes, he hit you. I saw it all. How do you feel?”
“I feel fine. Just tell that asshole to get away from me.”
Faintly: “Why don’t you go stand by your truck over there?” Louder: “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yeah...No...Why? Am I bleeding?”
A pause and, “Yes.”
“The back of your head.”
I put my hand there and feel an unfamiliar furrow in my scalp. Taut skin pulled back from the gash feels like a pair of wet lips. The back of my head, if I could see it, would resemble an excited pussy orgasmically discharging blood. Inside the gash I feel dented hardness and a sharp bony ridge. I bring the hand around to my eyes, see the shiny blood on my fingertips, and all the weight of my body seems to fall into my turning stomach as I say, “My skull is fractured. I’m bleeding to death.”
In the middle of the weedy, graveled parking lot of an abandoned drive-in, I sit for an hour in my car, staring at the giant screen, wind-peeled and stained greenish-blue by several seasons of pigeon shit. Through three large holes spaced like irregular windows across the bottom of the screen, I see a glowing yellow wheat field waving in the wind. This is the right place, the best place, abandoned and alone. I’ll be discovered this evening by teenagers who come here to make out. Give them a night they’ll never forget; liven up their terrible teens. I crack open the packet of razor blades, carefully extract one, and hold it up to the light. I see my reflection twice, two views of myself: the blade’s front reflects my face directly, and its back reflected in the rearview mirror reflects my mirror reflection. Angles of incidence multiply. Physics. Optics. Science of sight. My reflected face is impassive, a spectator at a boring game. It’s almost summer now, so there’s no need to roll my sleeves. It’s a shame to ruin a perfectly good T-shirt with indelible stains, but in a few minutes that won’t bother me anymore. I close my eyes and swing the blade down to watchless wrist. A jet of blood shoots out of my arm and lands on the passenger seat, staining the front page of the Toledo Blade for June 16, 1992.
Stop the movie.
Because I look at the blood on my fingers against the whiteness of snow-covered fields seen through the fine weave of cracks in my windshield, and I want to live. Four simple words define me: I want to live. (Later, when irony returns, I will refer to this as my ‘Susan Hayward moment.’) Four words and a feeling now, a convulsion of rage. I want to live long enough to grab the tire iron on the backseat, claw my way out of this car, run over to the guy who hit me, and beat him so severely that he pisses blood five times a day every day for the remainder of his miserable fucking existence. I want to live–so I can kill that motherfucking son of a bitch. I throw my body against the smashed door, trying to open it but succeeding only in sending a spray of blood through the window to faintly spot the footprinted snow. I tear at my seatbelt, try to lift my pinned legs, punch at the windshield, all to no effect. “You’re lucky I can’t get outta this car, motherfucker!” I bellow at the pickup trucker standing with hands in pockets beside his Ford. The witness tries to calm me, but mortal fear sends an overdose of adrenaline careening through my veins. Slamming my fists against cracked and floating pieces of dash, I direct an unbroken stream of invective through the broken windshield, accusing my Marlboro-capped nemesis of murder, baby-raping, bestiality, Limbaugh-listening, Republicanism, and any other gross insult to truth and beauty that comes to mind, until sirens drown my voice and expert hands from an ambulance press together the back of my head, and I relax into life.
Driving along a field of yellow wheat in the dark blue Oldsmobile I bought with the accident settlement, I pick up the unopened pack of razorblades lying atop the newspaper and hurl them out the window in a long arc, a tiny dot rising into clear sky until it stops, hangs motionless for a split second, and falls, curving downward to disappear in the field. A mile on, the crackle of my wheels startles three young deer drinking in a roadside creek. I slow, and they run in the grass alongside my car, sticklike legs pumping, agile bodies taut, all muscle. They turn as one into a field of young corn and rush across the moving green, their three white tails swinging in unison like windshield wipers. They leap as though weightless, bouncing in the air. I brake the car to watch their golden bodies frolic in the sunlight, describing circles, ovals, lemniscates as they wind their carefree way across the open field. After a moment an SUV screeches to a stop behind me and honks. The deer turn and bolt for a distant woods. I watch them vanish one by one into the trees as the guy behind me lays on his horn. I flip him an indigenous North American bird and cruise on.
On page 167 of his suicide note, composed in the glass-walled Modernist library of a once-distinguished Ohio liberal arts college, Daniel Douglas writes: “...There is much to disagree with in Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, but the last line is truly the last straw. Sisyphus happy? What bullshit! What vile glorification of false consciousness! What a steaming load of self-satisfied crap! Sisyphus is a roiling, fire-spitting ball of pure rage. Sparks of resentment strike at his every step up the mountain. We must imagine Sisyphus angry. We must imagine him mad as hell. We must–” At this word I stop writing and draw a horizontal line across the page. I gather the suicide note together, stuff it into my backpack, and open a tattered, heavily underlined copy of Ulysses to the ‘Hades’ chapter.
I have finished Paddy Dignam’s funeral and am deep inside Molly Bloom’s monologue when I glance up and catch him looking at me. He’s standing at the end of the modern lit stacks with a book open in his hand, pretending to read. When his eyes travel over the book’s top edge and see me staring back, the corners of his mouth curve to a grin, dimpling his cheeks. He’s thirtyish, I guess, and dressed like a professorial caricature: tweed jacket with elbow patches, turtleneck, Dockers. I wonder what’s under the Dockers.
He mock-casually strolls over to the quiet corner of the library where I’m sitting. It’s my favorite place to read: a plush chair surrounded by a colorful background of autumn leaves on the other side of the glass walls.
“I see you’re reading Ulysses,” he says in a probably unintended tone of condescension. “You like Joyce?”
“Are all of your first lines that obvious, or am I special?” Not an original line, but not delivered unkindly either. I show him my own dimples.
He sits in the next chair and places his book on the table. “Harold Ertegun,” I read on the spine. “Who he?”
“As Sam Beckett might have asked. The Mad Turk, we call him. ‘We’ meaning ‘I.’ He’s the head of my department.”
Still on the spine: “The Heresies of Modernism: Joyce, Kafka, Artaud. Sounds interesting.”
“It’s not bad. Harry wrote it a long time ago when he was still a scholar.”
“What is he now?”
“An unimaginative bureaucrat.”
“I’m guessing you haven’t shared this opinion with him.”
“So you’re an English professor.”
“Oh no,” he sounds alarmed, “I’ve yet to experience the apotheosis of tenure. You see before you a mere lecturer, the lowest of the low, or very nearly so. One who kisses the hem of Harry Ertegun’s robe and prays for his favor. I was just doctored a couple years ago. But enough about me. What do you like about Joyce?”
He seems genuinely interested, so I attempt a genuine answer. “When I’m reading Ulysses, everything in the world seems heightened. It’s like my senses have been turned up several notches, and I see more and better, more clearly. Like if I walked out of here and down the hall to that drinking fountain by the restrooms, as I bent down to drink I would notice the shape of the parabola the water makes as it shoots out of the faucet and how it changes and wavers with the building’s water pressure. I’d notice the sparkling reflections of the hallway lights in the stream of water and how they look white on the upward arc and blue on the downward. I’d see the patterns made by the water as it splashes in the pan, the droplets and streaks and zigzags like cartoon lightning. And I’d notice the letters on the knob, Greek-looking runes that resemble EBCD but have all kinds of weird lines through them, and I would wonder what they mean. And when the fountain’s motor or pump or whatever kicked in, it would sound like an airplane engine starting up, and that would bring back a bunch of memories. Stuff like that.”
“My god,” he says softly, smiling. “Joyce meets Proust, eh?”
“Oh, Joyce wrote all of Proust’s work. Didn’t they teach you that in grad school?”
“I must’ve been sick that day.”
“No, I’m absolutely serious. Marcel Proust was a French socialite and very minor literary pasticheur who died of tuberculosis in1906. Joyce, hearing of Proust’s death from one of his students at the Berlitz school in Trieste, convinced this student, a Frenchmen who bore a passing resemblance to the dead man, to return to Paris and impersonate Proust while he, Joyce, wrote the long novel Proust only dreamed of writing. It began as a café amusement and then got completely out of hand. The impersonator came to believe that he actually was Proust and grew contemptuous of this scribbling Irishman upon whose remittances he continued to live and whose work he published as his own. That’s why when Joyce and ‘Proust’ met in Paris years later they had nothing to say to each other. Joyce considered the sham Proust a colossal ingrate, and the faux-Proust reviled Joyce for taking everything from him: his real name, his status, his life. When ‘Proust’ threatened to go public in the early 1920s, Joyce called in a few old favors, and an IRA hit squad was dispatched to Paris. They terminated ‘Proust’ and made it look like natural causes.” We are both smiling broadly now. “Think about it. It’s the only theory that makes sense.”
“You’re not a student here, are you?”
“Is it that obvious?”
He nods. “This college has a little bit of a reputation dating from decades ago when a few of the old New Critics taught here. I think we should call them the Old Critics from now on, or the Dead Critics, just to eliminate confusion. Anyway, nothing much has happened in our English department since John Crowe Ransom left, but the reputation remains. And because of that rep, we’re a dumping ground for rich kids so dumb their parents couldn’t even buy them a spot in the Ivies. Consider how dumb that is.”
“Yeah,” I gesture at the empty chairs and study carrels, “I’ve noticed the library doesn’t get much use.”
“In one of his rare moments of near-wit, Harry Ertegun remarked that our student body comes from the nation’s finest prep schools–and Choate. Unfortunately, most of them come from Choate. Let me tell you something: my doctoral dissertation blew people away. Well, it blew away the four people who read it, let’s put it that way. It was a Derridean deconstruction of the rhetoric of race and racism in Melville in which I turned the usual situation around and used Melville to deconstruct Derrida. I used Moby Dick and The Confidence Man to perform a systematic Melvillean dismantling of the rhetorical structures of Of Grammatology and Dissemination. Do you know these books?”
“I know of them,” I half-lie. “I’ve read Moby Dick.”
“Of course. Well, that’s the kind of thing I should be doing. I spent years preparing myself to write all this high-powered criticism and teach classes in theory and Modernism, and then I graduate and the only job offer I receive is from Boonie College here, and what am I teaching? Freshman Composition. I’ve spent the last two years telling dead-eyed students the difference between a comma and a semicolon. And they all look at me like they’re thinking, ‘Yeah, prof, whatever. I can hire a lawyer to do this stuff for me.’ I’d say eighty to ninety percent of our students are just doing their time in college to placate Mommy and Daddy until they turn 21 and the trust fund kicks in. They don’t care about anything because they can afford not to. Fitzgerald knew these people too well.”
“Couldn’t you find a better job somewhere else?”
“Better how? Students are the same all over. And besides, what they’re paying me here is, well, for a lecturer position it’s pretty outrageous.”
“This college is endowed like a pornstar. Speaking of which,” he leans close to me, places a hand on my thigh, “would you like to continue this conversation at my place?”
We sit close together on his sofa, our legs touching as we drink white wine in his book-lined living room. Through a doorway I can see a section of book-walled den. I thumb through a copy of Ellmann’s James Joyce that I discovered among the books on his coffee table. “It’s a good biography, if a bit credulous,” he says. “Ellmann seems to have believed every stray rumor every stray Irishman told him. I wrote an article about Ellmann’s Joyce a few months ago when I was still ambitious. I called it ‘Ellmann’s Joyce and Bildungsroman: The Phallocies of the Form.’ Phallo-cies, get it?”
“I got it.”
His hand moves up my thigh. “I bet you do. That’s how we have to title these things if we want them to be taken seriously, believe it or not.”
“I know,” I say automatically, although I know very little about it.
“I’m through with all that now. I came to the conclusion back in April that wearing myself out writing articles no one reads in order to impress people I hold in contempt is no way to live a life. I just turned 31 and I’m looking for a new way. Call it an early midlife crisis. I’ve always been precocious. I’m looking for a new life.”
“As long as it doesn’t involve a pay cut, huh?”
“Oh, you cut me. You cut.” He’s rubbing my cock and balls through my jeans and I’m hardening quickly. “Here’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to suck your cock. Would you like to suck mine?”
His eyes close for a second in thanksgiving. “And then if you want to we can go to bed. But I don’t want to fuck. I ‘d like to hold you for a while. Is that OK?”
As soon as I say ‘OK’ his wineglass clicks onto the coffeetable and he crouches to the floor, positioning himself between my legs. He slips off my shoes, pulls down my jeans and shorts, and confesses, “When I saw you in the library, the first thing I said to myself was, ‘Please God, let me suck that boy’s cock.’” He runs his tongue around my tip and kisses it with a loud smack. “I guess this means there’s a God.”
I am forced to forego framing a refutation of the future professor’s Penile Proof, because his mouth quickly sends me rocketing through fleshly heavens of pleasure. This guy is a virtuoso, a Paganini of pipe, the tip of his tongue dancing on my cock like fingers along a violin’s neck. The steady speed and power of his lips along my shaft are matched by a mouth that seems to mold itself to my dick, his tongue wrapping around it, his cheeks and the roof of his mouth caressing the head. At one point, flicking his tongue quickly against the underside of my tip where it meets the foreskin, he almost causes a premature eruption. But he senses this and stops, takes me into his mouth again, runs his tongue across the tip while rolling it in his cheek. He takes me to the edge several times before he finally lets me plunge into that river of light–throw my head back and send a cry of pure joy through the silent house as I flood his mouth.
Compared to his performance, mine is rather lackluster, like Victor Borge following Glenn Gould. We switch positions and I catch his cock in my mouth for a standard suckjob, mechanical and perfunctory, a favor returned. He whispers encouragement and instruction–“Oh yeah....oh god yes...do that with your tongue again...ahhhh...”–but when he pushes my head down, tenses his legs, and lets a short, quick burst shoot into the back of my mouth while a thicker wad dribbles onto my tongue, I sense that his experience is less than transcendent.
Exhausted, we go upstairs to the bedroom and I fall asleep in his arms. Halfway through the night, I creep out of bed, feel my way downstairs and pick up my scattered clothes. Dressed, I spend several more minutes squinting around the darkened living room before realizing that I’m seeking a souvenir. I spot Ellmann’s Joyce on the coffeetable and stuff it in my backpack with the 167 loose pages of my suicide note. If the lecturer is truly intent on changing his life, I rationalize as I go out the front door, he won’t be needing Richard Ellmann anymore.