Before I can write a book, I have to create a playlist. It’s part of my process.
When I was a youngster in Sarasota, Florida (former Spring Training home for the Chicago White Sox), before I developed my current musical taste, I obsessively listened to WKXY, the local top 40 AM station that played the same ten hits every hour.
Latch Key Kids, one of two planned prequels to my only semi-successful novel (Small Town Punk), takes place in the mid-1970’s. It features proto-punk Buzz Pepper and his prematurely world-weary sister Sissy Pepper. These two characters are based on me and my sister. Most of what happens in the book happened, in one form or another, in real life.
Why write a novel then? Why not write a memoir? Because, as we’ve all learned in 2020, real life makes zero narrative sense.
Most of the secondary characters in Latch Key Kids are composites of real life people. Most of the events in Latch Key Kids happened in real life. But they’re all rearranged and compressed into a coherent narrative.
“He had been hurt doing everything he had ever done. He expected it, even wanted it. Nothing centered a man like pain. Nothing drove the irrelevant bullshit out of your mind like the taste of your own blood.”
— Harry Crews, All We Need of Hell
One of the best things that ever happened in my life was a motorcycle accident. My motorcycle accident. It happened in September 2014.
I was visiting an old Army buddy in Texas. He lent me his ancient BMW motorcycle, which was a mistake–a mistake by me, that is. I had no business being on a motorcycle, much less an honorable old gentleman of a motorcycle like that BMW. There was nothing modern about the BMW… nothing to help out a rider who was a rank amateur, and a slow learner.
We rode out into the Texas Hill Country. At some point, we stopped so I could drink a pop. It was hot, and I was wearing a leather jacket and helmet. So at least I had that much sense. Or rather: My Army buddy did.
Out in the hills, amongst the cattle, we rode. I enjoyed the countryside, another mistake. Following my buddy down a hill and across a bridge, I saw the deer much too late, braked, and flew over the handlebars, landing on my left shoulder and bashing the left side of my helmeted head on the road. I was stunned. As I flew over the handlebars, I thought, “So this is how I die.”
I didn’t. Die, that is. Didn’t even see a blue tunnel.
On the side of the road, I somehow was on the side of the road, my Army buddy unzipped the jacket he’d lent me. We saw part of my clavicle sticking up near my throat.
I don’t remember a lot. There was a woman behind us in a car who came to my aid. We somehow got the jacket off. The helmet had a large crease on one side. The BMW was not injured. It was an indestructible old gentleman.
I went to one hospital, was scanned, and then was sent to another hospital, where I was also scanned. My shirt had been cut off at some point. I was brimming with morphine, and blasé about my condition. My clavicle was shattered. They checked me into the hospital.
I drifted in and out of consciousness for a few days. Occasionally, I’d wake up while someone took my vitals, or encouraged me to eat. I was in the ICU, I realized. I woke up as other people screamed their lungs out. I was moved to a regular room, and was told that I could leave if I wanted, but first I had to stop clicking the little button that administered morphine to me via an IV. I had them remove the IV.
The clarifying pain
That’s when the pain set in. I think I stayed with my Army buddy a few more days. I can’t recall.
I took a flight back to Illinois, saw my doctor, who referred me to a surgeon.
A good friend, who had given me shelter when I left my wife, agreed to drive me to my surgery and then see me home afterward. The surgeon, with the help of a power drill, placed a plate and nine screws into my shoulder, reassembling my clavicle by force.
In a sane country, I would have stayed overnight in the hospital. But I don’t live in a sane country. I was sent home immediately after I woke up in the recovery room. My friend made sure I picked up my Tylenol 3, and made it home to my apartment. I slept that night like a dead man.
The next morning, and the next week, I wished I was dead.
My mother, while she was dying of the breast cancer that had reemerged out of remission and had metastasized into her bones, told me, “Bone pain is the worst pain.” While passing in and out of a sweaty stupor, I remembered her last days.
My mother is my role model in life. She taught me everything I know about being a human being, and I miss her tremendously every day, even more than my murdered sister, who had been my best friend before her death in 1992.
I wept thinking about my mother being in this kind of agony. “I’m sorry, Mom!” I shouted out, over and over. The pills, which barely cut some of the pain, ran out after three days. The whites of my eyes turned piss yellow.
Two years earlier, I’d left my wife and had gotten divorced. I was alone, and felt alone. Lonely. It was my own fault, the divorce. The doomed marriage was my fault, too. I’d met my wife around the same time that my mother’s cancer had come back. It was loneliness that had driven me to ask a work friend to marry me. It was her terrible marriage that caused her to say yes, I think. I was a drowning man, and then for a short while, I wasn’t. The marriage was a life preserver for a few years. So there I was, mostly underwater, but my head was above it. You’re okay, you tell yourself, knowing that it’s a lie. I think we were happy at first. I hope we were. But the thing was, I never opened myself fully to her, and she knew it. And I knew she knew it. We made some bad financial decisions together and ended up in a tiny condo with her sister, and after that I was never alone.
I need solitude. I need it to write, which is the one constant in my life. Married, I couldn’t write anymore. I tried. The writing was coming out shit. I became resentful.
I am my writing. I am my books. If you think you’re my friend, but you haven’t read my books, I have news for you, bucko: You’re not my friend.
So without anything like solitude, I felt more and more trapped, and more and more resentful. I stopped eating and lost 50 pounds. I broke in November 2011, and finally left her in January 2012, and we divorced in August that year. Our marriage lasted eight years. It was like someone had died all over again. I drank. I obsessed about it for two years. At times, my heart raced for no discernible reason. I’m told that’s called an anxiety attack.
I was a ten-car pile-up of a human being.
The summer I was ten my mother arranged for me to take swimming lessons at a community pool in Tampa via the American Red Cross. There were A, B, and C groups. You started out in C, in the shallow end of the pool, and worked your way up to A, in the deep end. I managed to make it up to A fairly quickly.
My first day in A, we received a lecture from the instructor about lifesaving techniques. The instructor said something along the lines of “Never try to save a drowning man without bringing along a life preserver.”
The idea was that instead of trying to pull the person out, you would throw him or her a life preserver attached to a rope and that person would cling to the life preserver instead of clinging to you. You then give that person a tow to shore.
A drowning man, in his desperation, will cling to you in such a way as to drown you as well.
I raised my hand. “What if you don’t have access to a life preserver? What do you do then?”
“Call the authorities and wait for them to arrive,” I believe the instructor said. “In other words, let them drown.”
By this time in my life, I liked to argue with instructors, probably to test the limits of their knowledge. More probably, because I liked to get a rise out of them. A person will show you his or her true self when angry.
This is why I got low marks in “Citizenship.”
Later on, at my Catholic high school, I also received low marks in “Moral Guidance,” which was a half-hour class in Catholic religious indoctrination. My line of questioning in that class implied that nearly everything that Catholics believe about life and life after death is half-baked nonsense, or worse.
The swim instructor threw the question back at me. “So are you saying that you’d swim out and drown?”
I said that anything would be preferable to watching someone die. I stopped arguing, got up and walked toward the shower area and promptly stepped on a pyramid-shaped chunk of brick, which, if it was a piece of candy, would have been called “fun-sized.” I stood on one foot, leaned against a wall, and looked at the bottom of my foot, which was bleeding nicely. I walked back out to the pool area on the side of my foot, showed the instructor, who, angry with me, suggested that I should go “rinse it off in the shower.” I did. I came back out leaving bloody footprints behind me on the pool curtain and showed the instructor again. This time, her anger having cooled, she ended up wrapping my foot in gauze and called my mother to come pick me up early.
I ended up having to take yet another trip to the emergency room (I was a frequent flyer as a child) and received a lecture from Mom during the drive to the hospital about being “a little jerk.” The instructor apparently gave her an earful.
Back to the clarifying pain
In the months of physical pain that followed my surgery, I found that I could finally put away the things in my life that I had unnecessarily carried with me. Who had asked me to carry these things around? Who said that I had an obligation to continue to tote around my guilt over my mother’s death, my sister’s murder, and the death of my marriage like it was a 70-pound rucksack?
It was me. I was the only one. I was making myself miserable. Physical pain taught me that I shouldn’t carry around any pain that I manufactured myself.
As anyone who has read my books since 2015 will tell you, my writing is now funnier than ever, and far more free-wheeling, too. I’m comfortable with being around myself for the first time since I was 12 years old, and it shows in the books I write.
I like being alone now. I love my solitude. When I come home, I’m relieved that there is no one here. I’m happy, which is something I haven’t been able to say until recently. I sit in silence sometimes. I listen to the clock tick, and smile.
On the minus side, I have had problems remembering things since the accident. Names, faces. At times, I wonder if someone actually spoke to me about something, or if it was a dream. I think it was the blow to the head. Or maybe it’s my age. Or carbonated beverages. Or allergy medication. Whatever.
I also found out that I have dry macular degeneration, so I’m going to go blind at some point, possibly. I take vitamins to try to stave it off.
Up until my 30’s, I was known as “Shep.” Outside of my family, people rarely called me “John.” I am an American Catholic, went to Catholic school, and was born in late December back in ’63. Every third boy I went to school with was named “John,” after President Kennedy, who’d been shot in the head about a month before I was born.
This was the beginning of the end of America, if you listen to a certain subset of Americans, and I missed witnessing it by a month. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe I monitored it from the womb.
When my brother and I played Little League baseball on the same team in Tampa, we were known as “Big Shep” and “Little Shep.” Tom was a terrific catcher, and I was an incompetent occasional right fielder. The sponsor for our team was Village Inn Pancake House, and we had garish purple shirts and purple hats.
One time, when a kid from another team tried to run home on him, Tom blocked the plate. He was an immovable object. Tom got the out, and the kid was out-out. He was carried off the field on a stretcher. Tom was promoted to the senior level league after that.
I set a record for number of walks in that league because I was short and had adopted Pete Rose’s crouched-over batting stance. I rarely took a swing. On one occasion when I did, the ball dribbled along the third baseline, and I stood in the batter’s box frozen in shock. “Run, Little Shep! Run!” the kids chanted from the dugout. I did, and to my further shock, I stood on first base with a hit.
I pitched batting practice for the other kids. I had many books on baseball, and one of them featured various methods of gripping a baseball. So, at some point, I started using them and the kids on my team flailed. I’d made myself into a self-taught junk-ball pitcher, in other words.
The manager of my second team, Eastern Airlines, decided to use me in a game. The first time out, the other manager became upset enough that I was pulled. It was unfair that some kid was throwing knuckle-curves in a Little League game. There may have been rules against this. My second time out, I was shelled. That was the end of my pitching career.
I played Little League ball for a total of seven years. I was uncoordinated, half-blind, undersized and generally a bad ballplayer. I still love the game though. I was known as “Shep” throughout all of it.
In the Army, for four years of active duty and a couple more in the reserves, that was my name.
I think nicknames make you approachable.
I had a buddy in Germany who was in the same predicament that I’d been in when I’d first arrived. He was in possession of a college degree, but was enlisted. If there’s one thing an enlisted soldier hates, it’s another soldier putting on airs. Other soldiers rarely spoke to him. And then I nicknamed him “Slice.” After that, he was awash in buddies. Army buddies.
It’s an ephemeral thing, being an Army buddy. I haven’t seen or spoken to anyone from my unit in Germany in over two decades. Not that I have an itch to talk to any of them. I don’t have honey-colored memories of my time in the service. It was miserable, and about a third of the soldiers I served with were clearly psychopaths.
The first time I was called “John” outside of my family was when I was getting my MFA, shortly after getting out of the Army. “Good to meet you, John,” an affable fellow MFA-er said at a beginning-of-the-semester picnic. I looked around for this “John” and realized he was talking to me. “Oh,” I went, and shook his hand.
Later on that year, another MFA-er called me “Shep.” By that time, I’d grown used to being “John.” I gave him a look and went, “Shep?”
That guy ended up being a TV producer on shows like “Mad About You” and “The Goldbergs.” He’s probably the most successful MFA-er in human history. Most of us end up teaching college and writing books that sell about 4,000 copies.
After my MFA, I ended up writing nonsense for a junk mail firm in Pompano Beach, Florida. As I drove to work each morning, I’d pass by strip clubs, gun shops, pawn shops and eventually the Broward County Jail, where the live standup for “America’s Most Wanted” was filmed most weeks. I reverted to being “Shep” at that place. It was my last tour of duty being “Shep.” I didn’t last long there. I didn’t fit in.
I took a job in civil service working for the Navy about 20 years ago, and became “John” for some reason that I don’t fully comprehend, and have been “John” ever since.
Nobody’s seriously called me “Shep” for years and years. I miss it sometimes. There’s an easy familiarity in being “Shep.” A “Shep” is an affable dude. A “John” is a toilet, a book in the New Testament, a frequenter of prostitutes.
The thing is: People call you what they want to call you.
I can’t help thinking that something changed in my character in my 30’s for people not to want to call me “Shep” anymore. Perhaps there’s an iciness in me that was brought on by certain events in my life. I don’t know.
Could I ever be “Shep” again? I won’t insist on it, that’s for sure. It would have to come naturally. You can’t force being a “Shep,” after all.
When I was a child, I remember sitting with my mother as she hate-watched The Waltons. Mom twirled the ice cubes in her Manhattan, and took a moment to note that the Great Depression was uncheerily named for a reason, and that reason was that everyone (save rich people) was poor. She liked to point out that being poor was not fun. Also, that all that barefoot walking around that the Walton kids indulged in probably led to hookworm infections. The hookworm is an intestinal parasite, which meant that even if the Walton family had enough to eat, they’d starve. Etc.
But what stuck in my mother’s craw about The Waltons mostly was the sentimental tone of the show. Like there exists a magical past that was filled with happiness that we could time-travel back to.
Mom wasn’t merely unsentimental–she was anti-sentimental. She believed that people should be clear-eyed about their pasts, otherwise they were bound to continue to make the same mistakes over and over.
Anytime I find myself indulging in any form of sentimentality, I hear my mother cackling at the Walton family (“Good night, John Boy!”) as they wished each other a good night at the end of each episode.
I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but my family moved around a lot, mainly because my father, like a lot of Americans, confused movement with upward progress. He thought that he could chase down happiness. This is an American trait. We ended up in Florida, which is filled with happiness-chasers. Florida attracts immigrants from all over the damn place, most of them confusing boiling heat and a lack of winter with paradise. And paradise equals happiness. Got it?
My childhood was better than the one the actual Waltons lived, I have to think. Polio had been cured by then, for instance. Indoor plumbing took care of hookworms. Also: shoes. There was no Great Depression. We had hyper-inflation and WIN (Whip Inflation Now!) buttons. We had a series of incompetent or corrupt presidents, and a slow drain of money from the working class to the wealthy that continues today. Such is life. You can try out voting if you don’t like that. See if that works out.
Think of memory as a barn door that opens wide when you’re experiencing times of extreme joy or fear, and nearly closes up during ordinary life, or when you’re bored. Your brain is designed that way by God. Blame Him. Your brain wants be able to either recreate that extreme joy, or figure out a way to prevent whatever was causing your fear. It wants to suck down every detail during extreme times… and create a map to joy or away from fear. Rollercoasters take advantage of this. So does 24-hour network news. These memories become cement. They’re stuck in there. As time goes on, they are often sweetened a bit, or a lot, to make them palatable. Sure, it’s an ugly blob of cement, but if I plant roses all over it, I’ll be able to stand to look at it, and after a while, I may even enjoy having to look at it.
I sometimes run into people from my past who invite me to be sentimental about a specific time in my life. I was in the Army, for instance. The Army is designed to be memorable thanks to heavy weaponry and sudden death. Old soldiers take those memories and, because they’re stuck with them, turn them into something better… something nice, even if they aren’t nice. The old soldiers want you to indulge in the niceness fantasy with them. Like: Wasn’t it all fun? Didn’t we have the best time? Because you don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of unfun memories, do you?
I went to a small Catholic high school in Florida. My graduating class had maybe 90 people in it. About 15 years ago, I made the mistake of moving back to Florida for a couple of years. My mother was dying. Florida was too-too familiar and horrifyingly alien at the same time.
I ran into someone I’d gone to high school with. He was offended that I didn’t recognize him, or his name, which he repeated to me several times, each time more incredulously. I’ve since reforgotten his name. I was working as a newspaper editor/reporter and he was a cop. We had lunch, and he named a bunch of people from high school. I didn’t remember their names either. He gossiped about them for a while. He invited me to remember the good times I’d clearly not had in high school.
“You really don’t remember any of this stuff, do you?” he asked, shaking his head.
“Nope. Should I?”
I’d learned enough about civility by then to wait until I got into my car, safely out of earshot. And then I cackled.
According to his latest bio, Jon Konrath is a failed musician, former dishwasher, and horrible human being. His newest release on Paragraph Line Books is Vol. 13, a twenty-story collection of absurdist near-future post-apocalyptic ruin. In this interview, John Sheppard talks to Konrath about his new book, writing, and life.
Tell us about Vol.13.
Vol. 13 is a a collection of twenty stories. A few were already published at Strange Edge, Horror Sleaze Trash, and in Mandatory Laxative #14. It’s been a while since I’ve done a story collection — the last one was Thunderbird, in 2013. This is my thirteenth book, and the cover is a rip-off of the fourth Black Sabbath album. I like short stories that are a little longer than flash and are about personal experiences, but completely run through an absurdo-surrealist filter, twisted around and broken. It’s hard to describe it any more than that, which I realize is stupid when I have to sell the thing, but it’s more about what the book feels like than what it’s about, if that makes any sense.
Is there a specific time of day that you sit down to write? Any rituals, or quirks? How long does it take you to write a book?
The two hours after work every day are blocked out for writing. I have to write in those two hours, and I have to get in at least 500 words. When I don’t do this every day, I become extremely irrational and intolerant of everything in my way. There’s nothing I hate worse than some idiotic eye appointment or whatever that requires me to skip a day.
The only real ritual is music. I usually find something that goes with the book and listen to it repeatedly to the point of absurdity. Like when I was writing Atmospheres, I was listening to the Sleep album Dopesmoker, which is a single 63-minute song, and I’d play it twice a day, every day. I also started recording my own ambient music in Logic Pro with a 99-dollar keyboard, even though I only know about 15 minutes of music theory. But I listen to that repeatedly, and maybe someday, I’ll release it, even though I have no idea what I’m doing and maybe it all sucks. (There actually is one track of it released, which I used for a short movie called The Internal Dementia of Atmospheric Uncertainty, which you can see here: https://youtu.be/RmuBhwF61Eg)
Vol. 13 was actually culled from a larger book project that’s been going for about a year. It’s just over 40,000 words, but the bigger volume is another 140,000 words, and makes absolutely no sense at this point. I originally wanted to make it a three-volume thing, but ended up pulling the twenty most story-like things and releasing that. I think when I know what I’m doing, I can finish a book in about six months, but I never know what I’m doing.
What would you say is your favorite part about writing? What was it about writing that made you think, “This is what I do”?
A lot of writing for me is the worry and tediousness around the “scaffolding” of actually writing, like the plotting, structure, editing, marketing, and everything else. When I’m actually writing, without that distraction, it’s very meditative and makes me forget everything else, which is like the perfect drug for me. It took some time to get to this point, but I think when I first hit my stride during my second book (Rumored to Exist), I knew that’s what I’d do.
There’s always a lot of self-doubt in writing, like when something reviews poorly, or doesn’t review at all, and there’s always sales numbers, comparing your work to others, and all that garbage. It’s especially bad when I finish a book; this heavy post-partum depression always sets in, because I’m sick of the last book after re-reading it a million times, and I have no idea what the next one will be. And those are the times when any sane person would question why they are a writer, and maybe consider quitting. And I never can, because I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t a writer. Even if the books didn’t sell, even if they passed some law banning writing and I had to hide these manuscripts in my basement, I’d still be writing, still chasing that high.
Do you feel that there are certain subjects or genres that you will not write in or about? (I’m trying to imagine a Konrath romance book and am failing.)
While I’ve done some autobiographical creative nonfiction, I don’t think I could do it again, for a few reasons. One, I think when you write about yourself, the popularity of your work is really about the popularity of you, and I’m a horrible person, so I can’t market myself. And if you run out of material, you have to leave the house and go live life, and I’m too old for that shit.
There’s also the issue of writing about family or ex-girlfriends in the era of google, and I don’t want to deal with some ex suing me for libel because I wrote about the time she broke into my house and lit my clothes on fire. (Not a true story.) I have an 800-page manuscript that’s maybe 60% done that is creative nonfiction about college, and there’s no fucking way it will ever see the light of day, because it’s about 37 lawsuits waiting to happen, even if I change the names.
I wouldn’t rule out romance or cowboy fiction or anything else, but I wouldn’t do it straight, and I wouldn’t do it to sell copies. It would have to be totally fucked up and fit well within the Konrathian universe.
Do you ever try to write books that don’t sound like Konrath? The Memory Hunter, for instance, is the least Konrath of the Konrath books. Did writing that book help you grow as a writer? Would you ever want to try writing something that tightly plotted again?
The Memory Hunter was a fun experiment to see if I could write a completely straight book that followed the typical plot used in every book south of Chandler. After Atmospheres, I got some shit about the whole nonlinear, plotless thing, and I think the assumption was that I couldn’t write a “real” book. And I did, and some people liked it, but it didn’t sell, and it was ultimately disappointing to me.
I think I could write something that plotted again, but I think the process showed me that anyone can. Go buy the book Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, get a pack of index cards, and if you’ve passed freshman English and can devote a few hours a day to it, you can write a book like that in three months. But something plotless like Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing, good luck. I’d rather do something hard that nobody will read than something formulaic that sells.
What do you do when you’re not writing or working? Do you find yourself writing in your head when you’re doing your extracurricular activities?
I’ve always got some stupid hobby that I do for two weeks and then give up. Right now, it has been playing guitar, and I’m horrible at it so far, but it’s a good distraction. I like to travel when I can, and I walk every day. Sometimes the writing pops into my head when I’m walking, and I jot down notes on my phone, but I wish I could do that more.
You’ve lived all over the country. How have specific places and times affected your writing? Do you ever find yourself wanting to go back to those places?
Pretty much everything I write has a location taken from my life. Some of them are obvious; my first book was set in Bloomington, Indiana. The Memory Hunter was set in a weird version of Seattle, where I lived after college. New York comes up a lot, almost by default these days.
Nostalgia is a horrible thing for me, and I waste too much time when I’m depressed going back to the past, which is one of the reasons I can’t do that creative nonfiction thing. For me, it’s less the place and more about the era of my life, if that makes any sense. So like I would not really want to go back to New York now, but I’d go back in 2002.
There are also places that are conducive to writing that aren’t necessarily backdrops for the writing itself. Like I’ve done a disproportionate amount of writing at this Applebee’s in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. It’s not that I want to write about greater Milwaukee, or that I choose to vacation there. It’s just within walking distance of my in-laws, and when I’m there in December, it’s a good place to hunker down in the freezing weather, shame-eat tons of bad food, and type away on the laptop.
What’s next for you and Paragraph Line?
We’re about done with 2016 – aside from this book, we released your book, which everyone should go check out. John Sheppard – Explosive Decompression – it’s a great sci-fi book, a dystopian future, moon bases, robots, and a cloned-brain protagonist from last year’s After the Jump. I had fun working on that, and now I’m regrouping and looking forward to more in 2017. I’ve also got cough syrup season starting up, so I’m going to begin training for that. And I’m getting into the holiday spirit, listening to the Mariah Carey Christmas album every day, as we all should.
Jon Konrath’s latest, Vol. 13, is available in print and e-book format on Amazon.com.
For the first time in your adult life, you’re happy. Instead of enjoying your happiness like a sane person, you analyze the hell out of it, because that’s what people who are not used to being happy do. Also, you were a philosophy major in college. Snicker all you want at that, but a philosophy degree is better preparation for life than that business degree some chumps were suckered into. Philosophy is about questioning everything. You were never a yes-man.
1. Jettison the friends who aren’t friends anymore.
Friendships (and romances) are like Wonder bread. You think that they are going to last forever, but they don’t. This is especially true of friendship/romance created under duress. Fear is not the goo that binds the bread pudding of friendship. Fear is a ticking time bomb of sticky toxic waste.
That college roommate? You were away from home for the first time and were deathly afraid of being alone. The woman you married because your mother was dying? Afraid of being alone. That friend who was so there for you when you left your wife? See the first two.
You hang on far too long, afraid of being ungrateful, as the fear that started the friendship/romance evolves into resentment, leaving behind a decaying relationship corpse that you are afraid to bury because then you’d truly be alone. The corpse seems better than the alternative. At some point, you realize that if you are actually grateful for the relationship, you should bury the corpse and let that person get back to living his or her life, and that you should go on with your life, too.
You also realize that these people all knew you at your worst–your worst case scenario you. That is all that they see when they look at you–a basket case. Even though they don’t mean to do it, they can convince you that you’re still a basket case by the way they treat you. You don’t need that. They don’t need it either. Pity generates as much resentment as fear.
And then one day you let go… you embrace being alone… the state you’ve been afraid of your entire adult life. You relearn a word you discovered when you were two: No. And it is fantastic! Those pitying eyes are gone. All those Wonder bread people who you thought you couldn’t live without? Turns out life is so much better without them. In your empty apartment, you let the dishes pile up in the sink. You sing along with Glen Campbell and are not afraid that someone is watching you, judging you. Eat hummus with a spoon right out of the container. Watch the Indians on TV in your boxer shorts and do pushups between innings. Experimentally eat the raisin that you dropped on the kitchen floor maybe a week ago. Who cares? No one. Not a single solitary soul. It’s glorious! All that worrying about people who didn’t give a shit about you was like a slow drip of acid into your soul.
There’s a difference between being solitary and being alone. It’s a secret that had been kept from you for a long time, but you finally whispered it to yourself.
When you come home to your empty apartment, with no one there to greet you (not even a cat), you are relieved and happy. A long, loud sigh escapes from your lips every day after you close the front door and deadbolt it.
Even healthy relationships expire and require burying. Not that Facebook cares about that. Facebook insists that you remain friends with people you’ve long since moved past. Facebook friends are not actual friends, by the way. Facebook is a vile scam preying on fear of loneliness. At best, it is methadone. You know that. You minimize your time there.
2. Don’t travel.
You never thought you’d live in a country with a “Department of Homeland Security” did you? Oh, but you do. Now every trip to the airport is a dystopian nightmare of inscrutable (human-free) check-in machines, cold stares as you shuffle in line up to the body scanner, shoeless, and then the long shamble through corridors filled with people bumping into each other as they interact with their phones. You get to your gate and discover that you’re sitting in a middle seat because every flight you’re on is overbooked.
Driving isn’t much better. Hours stuck in heavy traffic add to your creeping guilt over burning hydrocarbons that are quickly killing off our planet. That road trip music list on your iPhone isn’t aging well either as you slowly inch forward. Should have made that list longer. Better songs. Urgh.
Once you get there, there’s the disappointment of being there. “There” is not that great. Certainly not worth the bullshit of travel.
So when it comes time to take a week off, you stay in your blissfully empty apartment indulging in your main hobby: writing books that no one reads. Ahhhh. That’s better.
3. Watch more TV. Skip going to movies.
You were brought up to believe that TV was as awful as candy corn, and that movies were high art. Gilligan’s Island, The Captain and Tennille Variety Hour, CHiPs, and The A-Team pretty much cemented that.
The movies had Nashville, Jaws, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blue Velvet…
And then one day you saw Twin Peaks. You shook excitedly in your barracks room, vibrating in your chair. And Twin Peaks begat The X Files. And then came The Sopranos. And then Mad Men. Now you spend your time waiting for the next season of The Americans and Orphan Black to hit the small screen.
Meanwhile, movies have become a massive billowing shitstorm of comic book junk, fucked dialog and plots, and cartoonish special effects. And admission is too much. You find yourself sitting in front of an old lady who carries on a monologue that matches exactly what you’re thinking about the billowing shitstorm you are currently, for no good reason, subjecting yourself to. The cantankerous old broad lets loose a loud popcorn-and-Coke gasser. Why am I here when I could be at home, blissfully alone, watching something good?
4. Pay off all of your bills and don’t create new ones.
Much of the stress of your daily life used to be bills. You grew up poor, so you compensated for that by running up insane credit card debt with the woman you fear-married. You owed so much fucking money it was maddening, and you were dizzy with nausea thinking about it every waking minute of every day. You went to sleep thinking about being broke and every morning you woke up… still broke.
But then, once you were alone, you lived like a monk… mainly out of self-hatred for having abandoned the rotting corpse of your marriage like a teenage mother ditching a prom-night-conceived baby at a fire station.
One day, you woke up and realized that all that monkishness had taken away one of the things you’d most hated about your existence: the feeling that you’d never emerge from debt. You’d paid everything off. Holy mother of fuck! You felt 20, 40 pounds lighter.
Now you wake up and wonder, “Exactly how much money do I have in the bank?” with an incredible sense of relief. Money has lost its grip on your life.
5. Don’t eat in restaurants.
You also wake up physically lighter. Why? Because one of your major indulgences used to be eating in restaurants. You used to work in a restaurant, so you happen to know the secret of “good food,” and it’s spelled F-A-T.
If you eat in a class restaurant, you can be certain that you’re eating a stick of butter mixed in with your order. If you eat in a not-so-class joint, you’re eating eight ounces of blended oil (best case), beef tallow, or Kaola Gold.
Now that you’ve stopped eating in restaurants, you aren’t eating artery-clogging, megadoses of fat. Suddenly you’re not feeling like total shit anymore. Funny how that happens.
6. Cut out alcohol. Exercise instead.
When you were first alone, you dulled the miasma of anxiety whirling in your chest cavity with plastic bottles of cheap, clear fluid purporting to be vodka. It only helped somewhat. You drank until you passed out, and then woke up the next morning with a massive hangover. Work dulled some of the anxiety, but only during work. Once you left work, you were right back in downtown Shit City, standing on the corner of Fucked and Main. So more drinking.
One day you came home from work and saw that you ran out of alcohol, and so did without it because the thought of facing the liquor store clerk after a day of dealing with people was too much. Then you forgot to pick up alcohol again. And then you didn’t pick up alcohol on purpose.
You mastered your anxiety through long walks, and then bicycling, and then a rowing machine. The exercise not only knocks out the anxiety, it makes you feel so much better than booze ever did. You actually feel strong, like you could handle anything.
7. Don’t give a shit that no one is reading your books.
The one constant in your life has always been books and writing. You read from an early age. You don’t even remember how it came about. No one taught you. When you went to kindergarten, you were already reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You could already write, too.
As you grew older, books were your salve. You could take your parents’ constant fighting if you could crack open a book. You loved detective novels and science fiction.
You wrote short stories and hid them under your mattress like they were pornography. Your mother found them and encouraged you to keep on writing. You even got a (completely worthless) graduate degree in writing.
Like every writer, you have a sneaking suspicion half the time that you’re a genius. The other half of the time, you’re certain you’re a charlatan and everything you’ve written is pure junk. But the one constant is that you love books and love writing. Now that you’re alone, debtless, and sober, you can actually concentrate on doing what you love. No one is reading your work, but that’s okay. You’re fine with that. You reach inside yourself and find all the things that you love (and hate) about the world and put them on the page. Nothing matters but the writing itself. This doesn’t mean you don’t want people to read what you’ve written, but if they don’t, it won’t stop you from writing.
For one thing, I’m not sewing together a bunch of Eggo waffles, or even the square kind. I need a big-ass waffle iron in the shape of the front panels of this waffle blazer. Back panels, too. And, of course, lapels and pockets. You need pockets in your waffle blazer. I need lots of batter.
So once I’ve got all the panels done, I’ll glue them together with maple syrup that has been boiled down into a thick gluey paste.
It’s a blazer, so it needs a patch on the front pocket. A coat of arms. I think I’ll carve up a few strawberries. Maybe make a tiny strawberry lion, extending his strawberry paws, with a little strawberry crown on his head.
I need a boutonnière. I’ll carve it out of a disk of butter so it looks like a tiny white carnation. I’ll put a couple of peppermint leaves behind it.
I need a pocket square. I’ll carve up and sand down a piece of pecan brittle and slide it into the waffle pocket.
I will wear my waffle blazer proudly. And when I am done wearing it, I will eat it proudly.
Yermilov lay on his back, staring up into the night sky. It was one of those rare nights in the city when the streetlights weren’t drowning out the stars, where the stars were stronger and more present than anything scrabbling along on or stuck to the earth. He was in the cemetery behind his apartments, a bookbag under his head, beneath the statue of a Union war hero whose name was MONTGOMERY. Montgomery had fixed his bayonet, stood at the at-ready position, the bill of his Civil War hat fixed over his squinted eyeballs. His little statue face said, “I am ready to kill.”
Montgomery was a source of endless fascination for Yermilov. Yermilov was a soldier who’d never seen combat. He’d joined after the Persian Gulf War. He was in Europe during the Yugoslav conflict, stationed in Mannheim, Germany with a demobilizing ordnance battalion. His wife was murdered shortly after 9/11, so the war effort in Afghanistan hadn’t yet begun, and the Iraq War was only a possibility. What kind of soldier would Yermilov had been had he seen combat? He was happy to not have had to find out.
Bam was off leash, wandering around, more than likely engaging in defecation atop some grave or other. While Bam was busy desecrating, or decorating—Yermilov couldn’t decide which word was more appropriate—Yermilov sipped gin out of a plastic sport bottle through a crazy straw. He didn’t know anything about astronomy, couldn’t name a single constellation, but the thought of billions of little suns out there in the universe blazing, lighting a billion little earths, made the center of his chest feel buzzy. He knew enough about astronomy to know that what he was seeing was the past, that what he was looking at when he was looking up was light that had traveled centuries, perhaps eons, to get here. “I don’t know anything about the stars and I’m a science fiction writer,” he said aloud. “I’m the shittiest science fiction writer alive.”
The cemetery closed at dusk, so he really shouldn’t be here anyway. He was usually very aware of rules, but when he could see the stars from his apartment window, he knew he had to get outside. He’d never seen any security patrolling, so he felt that it was okay to be here. Still, that little frisson of excitement over breaking a rule was tingling at the edge of his conscienceness.
Bam leapt atop his chest. “Ah!” he went. “Bam, you’re blocking the stars,” he said. He picked him up and placed him next to himself and absently scratched Bam’s head.
“Grr-puh!” Bam went, appreciatively. “Wuh, wuh.”
It was these perfect little moments that kept him alive, mostly.
[Note: this is part 2 of 8 of the complete text for John Sheppard’s book Tales of the Peacetime Army. To start reading at the beginning and for a full list of all parts, please go to the table of contents.
And if you like the story, please visit the book’s page and consider buying a copy!]
THE U.S. ARMY ART SCHOOL
My orders had me going to Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado, for my advanced individual training (AIT).
Colorado. Purple mountains.
The pass-in-review ceremony involved standing in formation in my class A uniform while a couple of dignitaries spoke. Maybe one of them was the base commandant. I think the dude was a general. He hopped into a jeep and drove around us, for inspection purposes. Then we passed in review, marching past the reviewing stand. Eyes right!