Monday, June 12, 2006

I'm not exactly sure why I'm posting this.

I guess I just feel like I should, I've been working on it long enough. I don't know that I want criticism as much as to get away from it and put it out for other eyes. I'm not sure if the tone meshes, and I want to fiddle with it, but here's an early draft of something. Sorry if you're faint of heart or short of time; it's long and dark.

-------------------------------------------------

After long and careful deliberation, I’ve decided to kill myself.

There. I always leave that little pause; you never know when you could be talking to one of those people who still cling to a belief in the sanctity of life, and the kidney stone fairy.

I’ve been in this wheelchair for nine years. It happened when I was 29 – surrounded by the props of the assumed pinnacle of life. New baby, great wife, lousy job, mounting debt, a sense of complete entitlement – I had everything.

That was March 12, and the second Sunday in 10 years I’d gone to church. Like all my friends I quit in college – I because of discovering Eastern mysticism, a terribly elitist intellectual collegiate quack liberal thing to do, them mostly because their hangovers were never in time with the choir. Unlike them, fathering a child failed to spark my paternal fire, the one that nudges men back to the flock with dancing visions of becoming the comic strip good-guy dad. Sure, it crossed my mind. But I thought I’d just get Owen the complete “Fraggle Rock” on DVD, and assume it’d raise him better than I ever could.

My wife, however, felt the tug. She came from a pack of by-the-book Lutherans, so of course my boy had to be immediately baptized into the church. OK by me. I was totally satisfied with being that family who stepped into a church for baptisms, wedding, funerals and Easter, with wild card once-a-year guilt trips. Not so for Jillian, though. Her mother in her always felt guilty about being unequally yoked. And with one look at her face after that baptismal service I knew she’d never settle for “Fraggle Rock.” As something like the scales of reality fell from her eyes, white-robed cherubim pranced across her eyes, and she daydreamed of Owen growing up to the perfectly straight teeth and prescribed amount of vanilla sensitivity for a straight man – not his father’s emotional unavailability and prescribed amount of alcoholism for a writer.

My heart sank. But we all know the holy institution is held together by compromise. And with Jillian having recently, finally accepted the finer points of swallowing, I folded.

To my great shock, it wasn’t so bad. Despite American churches’ architectural red-headedness, I found a plain charm in the dingy shag and cracked stained glass Gethsemane, like motel room still lifes imbued with Prairie Home Companion theology. Secondly, while Jill could drag me to God’s house, she could not make me wipe my feet or make eye contact. So I doodled a fighter jet on one of the offering envelopes and became 7 again. While the old people gnashed their teeth over prophesies of Ichabod Crane and the New Jerusalem, I rediscovered true meaning in the just-right look of the propellers. In the back of my mind I heard my faint adult self again, cackling, “jet fighters don’t have propellers, you dumb shit.” I silenced him, and remember thinking, “yes, this place will do nicely for my boy.”

Jillian actually listened, and was drawn so much in she decided to stay for young adult group after the service. They were to be having a discussion of the subtle Christian messages and allusions in popular (they use the pious slur “secular”) music. I was excused, locked Owen in his car seat and raced home to start my Sabbath ritual: turn on TV, soon regret opening this masses’ modern opiate, storm off toward the study, realize I really do care more about the Chiefs and Steelers than the life of Trotsky, and hand myself over to rum. Jillian, bless her heart, figured me out a long time ago and stuck a trashcan under the stand next to my armchair. Our guests think it’s for Starburst wrappers.

The driver of the 1993 Ford F350 did not see me turning across Winter Wood Lane, nor did he notice his own red light. Impact crushed the car in around my legs. I never walked again. Owen was not physically injured, his car seat staying put. It was one of the few times I’ve not regretted getting the name brand.

I always hated cars, long before they conspired to kill me. As a humanist I decried the auto revolution’s effects on the souls of drivers – locking people in a co-dependant abusive relationship with a steel partner who’s only going to hurt them again. Automobiles also seemed to me vehicles to drive over social harmony, as you don’t have to deal with people face to face. Outside his hull of anonymity, I doubt the truck driver would’ve just waltzed over and broken my legs in full view of my newborn kid.

In face, I’m sure he wouldn’t have. Dave Peters had the moustache of a man who could be reduced to tears by no less than paralyzing a stranger. In the weeks to come, and to his credit, also the months, he continued to check in on me, or send cards.

People always ask, “What can I do?” when they know there’s nothing. Nevertheless, it’s important to provide a tangible activity – hands have only so many wrings in them. So I told Dave, “Unless you’re hiding a neurosurgeon from the future behind that Fu Manchu, just start taking the bus.” Never, to this day, have I held the even the rudimentary elements of a grudge against Dave’s person – it was his chariot of conspicuous consumption that tried to kill me.

The testy twitch in his crow’s feet told me all this bothered him. Dave wanted to make right with the universe, but not if meant sacrificing his bass boat. So I pulled Isaac off the altar and told him to spend more time with his kids. Months later I saw him at a red light behind the wheel of an S-10, and wrote him a letter of thanks, the transcript of which follows:

Dave,

Saw you around town the other day and noticed you’d hurdled the 20 miles-per-gallon barrier. Well played. Someday, despite the best efforts of pompadoured pundits and campaign strategists, my son and yours will live in a world where fishermen and environmental activists realize they’re after the same thing. Till then, continue to tell stories.

I’d love to tell you that I came through all this with sardonic hegemony unchecked. But the truth is, pain and mortality are fantastic equalizers. I, for a time, became intellectually average, and blissfully happy.

Don’t get me wrong – the process was the worst suffering I can recall. My time in that temple of sterility consisted of physically excruciating days and nights of stone cold reality. At least drug addicts in rehab get to see things while they’re jonesing. In my case, it was the other way around – lifelong daydreams of soccer stardom interrupted by the fact that I’d never play anything fast than wheelchair basketball again. For some solace, I existed in the custody of an army of physical therapists oozing with pep for life. With a little determination and the miracle of modern medicine, I was hourly assured thousands of people just like me had gotten back on their chairs and rolled to a fulfilling life.

Sure, I thought. Pep talks pep temporarily. If you really want me to improve, get cuter therapists or better medicine.

At the outset, I learned only later, the workers put me on an informal sort of Suicide Watch. Reading my temperament from bitter remarks and cruel philosophizing, they concluded I was not, in fact, among the Elect handicapped, whose character and courage would steer them to recovery with Hallmark precision. For the record I found my foundation in familiarity – being a jerk. Unwilling to fight the battle on behalf of anything else, I found a vindictive purpose in recovering the fastest with the worst possible attitude.

My recovery pace accelerated to half the usual time. But something was wrong. I don’t know how to explain it to you, but the Holy Hippocrates Spirit of that place got into me. Smug as I was in my victory over positive thinking, the logic circuits in my head couldn’t ignore the fact that the optimist club of other patients, despite its slower recovery, contained people who were universally happier than I. For the first time in a long time, I yearned to be happy rather than correct.

I found all these peculiar notions climbing into my head, notions for which I’d often judged other people, like spending more time with Owen in case it’s all over soon and telling my wife that I loved her.

So it was when I at last emerged from reverse metamorphosis in my rolling cocoon. As I figured out the operating procedures for life in permanent decline, I felt the vanilla warmth come all over me. I told Jillian I loved her, and I meant it. And contrary to all previous expectations, I took an interest in the community at large. Eager to repay the optimists for borrowing their perspective, I used my free time to volunteer at a soup kitchen, and kept that warm feeling going.

Things continued this way for a while. Away from the hospital, I could feel the missionary zeal receding, but I kept at the charity work. A few months later the local paper called and wanted to write something about me – you know, the mold-ready overcoming adversity feature story triumph. Apparently a reporter overheard something about my great work that turned on the neon “scoop!” sign is his brain. Two-and-half-month-old stories typically don’t make the Bugle’s hallowed pages, but you know papers – just like the Academy Awards, they can’t resist retarded kids and paraplegics.

Jillian wanted me to do the story, if not for me, then to inspire other people to believe they can overcome adversity and get the best of life. In the end, though, I decided I didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. As a young person, the whole world lay out prone before you, but when your legs and your dick don’t work so well anymore, all you can do is inspire people.

I told the Bugle no.

After Jillian got off work, we met that evening at the midtown tavern we used to frequent in our mid-twenties. I kissed her with airport ardor. She made small talk about her day and coworkers, but then it happened – I resented her. I resented her for spewing drivel, and I resented the fact that my existence as a family man finally came down to vacant interims between precious moments. I was resurfacing, my nature battering the buttresses of my pleasant veneer.

I said nothing. The suppression tension tapped my fingers – an old bad habit Jillian recognized at once. I could tell. She said nothing, but she took note. I talked about day, but in the middle of a sentence I trailed off and stared deep into my chai.

“Oh, honey,” she finally picked up, “did you set a date to meet that reporter?”
“Come again?”
“The reporter from the Bugle. You remember; he keeps calling to do a story about your work with the kitchen?"
“Yeah. Well…”
I paused. She’d caught me in regression, but I didn’t want to say it.
“I’m going to pass on the story.”
“Are you serious? Hon, I think you should reconsider. This would be really good for the boys. And for you, too. You’ve needed a pick-me-up lately.”
“A pick-me-up? Did you actually just say that?”
It had been two years since I mocked my wife’s choice of phrase, and this time she paused.
“Oh, don’t do that.” She said it with a short laugh, as if trying to convince herself this was a blip on our sea of domestic tranquility and not full-fledged recidivism. Unable to call off the curiosity, however, she circled back.
“Why won’t you do the story?”
“Oh, come on. You know what a formula hack job those always turn out to be. I just don’t want to be their crippled saint who gives muse to the masses. Let me sit in peace.”
“God, I haven’t heard you talk like that in a while.”
It was challenge – an assertion that the domesticated nice guy had won total victory. My former glory swelled with rage. Still, I slow-played her.
“What do mean, ‘talk like that?’”
“You know exactly what I mean. This brainy bitterness, this hunger for intellectual superiority.”
“You’re overreacting. I haven’t changed.”
“Like hell you haven’t,” she shot back, still half-chuckling but deadly serious. “I love you, honey, but you were always a bear to deal with. When you got off on your high horse, I wanted to hide in a corner until you grew up. After your accident, you did – into a good father and a good husband. Don’t go backward on me.”
I didn’t want to utter my ultimate reply. I really didn’t. But my sensibilities in this regard receded, or perhaps put more aptly, were bullied aside. I had to say the stark truth, as I saw it.
“Well, Dave Peters’ attention lapse was a big fucking favor to you, wasn’t it?”

That was seven years ago. Here I sit, 38, and I’m going to kill myself. Now, don’t get all weepy on me, because you don’t know what to say. All the anti-suicide exhortations in the popular vocabulary are built for people emotionally driven to self-loathing – “No, don’t do it! You’ve got so much more to live for!” and so forth. They came spewing forth from my therapist the day five years ago when I told him I had thoughts of such a deed. What maddened him, however, was that they were utterly ineffective. Dutifully, I went home and considered what he said, but it just didn’t apply to my situation, having logically concluded that life is pointless. For the last five years, I’ve reasoned it through over and over, and I can only conclude that I’m correct. Perhaps continuing to live for no particular reason actually would be the best testimony to my opinion of the world. But I’m no saint.

Saturday was when I ought to do the deed, I thought. At my core, beneath the layers of battery acid and coffee grounds, I’m as much a spiritual symbolist as anyone else, so I figured matters of death and resurrection were best left to the Sabbath. But the Christians and Jews disagree about this, you know, so to save trouble I’ll aim for the weekend and hope for the best. The universe tried to kill me on a Sunday, I’m finishing the job on Saturday – bases covered.

I’m also in the market for a taller building. The 6th floor of the downtown Ramada has a nicely arranged common area fixed up with some tulips and pencil sketches of struggling local artists and a bay window that overlooks the street. You want a good feng shui feeling when you’re trying to take that last step in your conquest over life, so that was my initial choice. I don’t know the odds of surviving a 6-story fall, which can’t be good, but suicide is something you’ve got to get right the first time – if you fail, they’re heal you up and then stick you in a re-education community until you admit life is worth living. The Roman Army always waited for its moment, never entering battle until overwhelming odds fell in its favor.

I’m not taking any chances with re-encountering the Holy Spirit. Know any good skyscrapers?

29 comments:

chaviva said...

You know, I don't believe I've ever read your fiction. And by jove, I quite like it.

If you ever need an editor, of course ...

Elissa said...

I wanted to let you know I read it. It always takes me a while to come up with anything more meaningful to say than "it looks good". Just ask Chris; he's been waiting a year for me to read that thesis of his...

Vanessa said...

Wow, I really liked that. I know what it's like to put your work out there and hope others like it. I really, really liked it. You had a way of keeping your audience captivated and that's what always keeps me reading a story. Now I want to know more!

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