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Confessions of a Drowned Man

“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.

Before
Before

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.

After
After

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.

So… drowning

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.

Life is a series of tradeoffs.

Happiness. I’ll take it.
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Twitter: twitter.com/explosivedecomp
Website: www.johnlsheppard.com

Old Shep

Don’t shoot me, Elvis.

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.

Sentimentality

This enlargement shows hookworms, Ancylostoma caninum, attached to the intestinal mucosa. Barely visible larvae penetrate the skin (often through bare feet), are carried to the lungs, go through the respiratory tract to the mouth, are swallowed, and eventually reach the small intestine. This journey takes about a week.

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.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/smalltownpunk
Twitter: twitter.com/explosivedecomp
Website: www.johnlsheppard.com

5 Hints about Explosive Decompression

Explosive Decompression, a new novel by John L. Sheppard, will be published on Sept. 4, 2016 by Paragraph Line Books.

1. Why we’re on the brink of mass extinction (The Daily Beast).

2. A molecule of water can exist in six places at once (Vice). 

3. Bio coding language makes it easier to hack living cells (New Scientist).

4. Frankie Yankovic, “Pennsylvania Polka.”

5. Dalai Lama: Religion without quantum physics is an incomplete picture of reality (Vice).

Available Now: He by Jon Konrath

We’re proud to announce Jon Konrath’s latest book, He. 6x9-frontcover-he-180-20150804

According to Konrath:

It consists of a hundred short microfiction pieces. Each piece begins with the word “He.” Like my book Atmospheres, the pieces are related, but if you flipped the book open to any random piece, you could read just that and read it and then LOL and put the book back next to the toilet and finish your business.

The links:

The book is on Kindle Unlimited, so if you have that, you can read it for free and appease Jeff Bezos’s race to the bottom of authors being a worthless resource lining his coffers. It is also on Kindle Match, so if you buy the paperback from Amazon, you can download the book on Kindle for free.

Summer 1994: Getting Pierced By Fiona Helmsley

Here’s another short story from Fiona Helmsley, this time about the indiscretions of youth. Make sure to check out her new book, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.

Chelsea pierced my clitoris with a piercing needle she got secondhand from a boy she’d met at a hardcore show. She’d pierced her own with it the night before, and the needle’s tip was coated with a thin layer of black soot: afterward, she’d sterilized it by flame. The year was 1994, before the piercing/tattoo craze had really taken hold of the youth community, and having a piercing anywhere besides your ears could still cause quite a stir. Though my new adornment would be hidden by clothing and mons veneris, its existence alone would make for an interesting addition to any conversation. I looked forward to the challenge of concocting the segue.

We did some heroin and Chelsea told me to lie down and spread my legs. She got to work, reaching in, pushing my fleshy girl parts aside. I felt a quick, tearing pinch followed by a threading sensation as she moved the hoop through. The soot from the needle’s tip left a flaky residue that we wiped away with witch hazel, leaving a sickly, piscine scent. Chelsea was my best friend, and we joked that our matching piercings were our version of the half- heart friendship necklaces that they sold at Spencer Gifts at the mall.

Only the skin of my clitoral hood rejected the piercing that night as I slept. I woke up in the morning and the hoop was gone, lost somewhere in Chelsea’s bed sheets. Chelsea, who had no schooling in proper piercing procedures, hadn’t done the piercing far back enough, and the skin around the puncture site had split in two, forcing the metal out. I felt like a child who had been given a coveted toy only to have it snatched away before I could play with it. I was too impatient to wait until we got more heroin. Chelsea would have to pierce me again without it. I had taken the pain so easily the night before, I had no doubt that I would be able to do it again.

I was intensely wrong. As soon as the needle cut into my flesh, my body was like a cannon ball, and I was hurtling through space and time. The quick pinch from the night before had morphed into a monstrous, burning rip–the kind of pain that invigorates you, reminds you that you are alive only because you want to die, or kill its causation. Operating on a mix of autopilot and adrenaline, my body flung itself away from Chelsea and towards the other side of the bed. Still, in a feat of grace and agility, she had somehow managed to get the hoop though. I was re-pierced and had a newfound respect for the medicinal qualities of heroin. I felt that I understood how it had earned its moniker in the trenches.

As Chelsea readied herself to go to work, I prepared for another day of loafing. My mother had kicked me out of the house for the second time in a year for using drugs. The first time had been during the school year, and the school day had taken up a good portion of my time. Once the school year was over, there were just that many more hours in the day to fill.

The beginning of the summer had held a different vibe. The freedom provided by my homelessness had been all adventure. I’d traveled across the country, done drugs, had sex, and lived the punk rock dream, free of parental intervention. But now that the summer was almost over, I was in crisis. Could I make a life out of doing these things without being the drummer of a hair band? Did I even want to? If I did, I could have been doing them much more comfortably with a stable place to lay my head at night, not the rotation of Chelsea’s house, my friend Clem’s, and the outdoors. My friends and I had always held a disdain for the people we’d known who had made a big show of leaving town, only to come back. I was turning into one of those people. No matter how embarrassing it was to be homeless in the town I grew up in, my friends and family were here, and I kept coming back. And there was Chelsea. A year younger than me, she still had to finish school.

Unbridled freedom hadn’t always been my life’s goal. There was an anti-drug PSA on television at the time that claimed, “No one says ‘I want to be a junkie when I grow up.'” Whenever it came on, Chelsea and I would talk back to the TV that the voice-over person should speak for themselves. The whole trajectory of my life had changed since I’d first tried heroin the year before, sniffing it off the floor of a Subway sandwich shop bathroom. College plans scrapped, family relations scrapped, and the constant thought always there, lingering: Let’s get some drugs. Today would be no different.

Teachable Moments by Fiona Helmsley

Make sure to check out Fiona’s new book, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.

I grew up across the street from an old cemetery. Sometimes, when he was feeling motivated, we’d go there, and walk. Round and round we’d go, making loops past the rows of neglected, moss-covered gravestones. Near the north side of the grounds, bordering the woods, a small scattering of crumbled stones faced west. Suicides, he told me. Back when the cemetery was active, they weren’t allowed to be buried on consecrated ground.

We’d grab walking sticks. I think of them now as staffs. We wouldn’t talk much as we walked, but we weren’t solemn or sad. When I think of his body, I think of sailors, probably because he bought most of his clothes at the Army Navy store. He’d wear t-shirts commemorating marathons he hadn’t run in, and shorts like Carhartt’s, with deep pockets and hooks. His legs were tight and muscular, like mine. I have my father’s legs, only sexy.

Some days, the little boy would come, and then the whole dynamic would change. The things my father and I did free of undercurrent became competitive. “Teachable moments” –just not for me. Even something like picking out a walking stick. For a young girl, any stick would do, but for a young boy, it had to be near-mythical, like everything else.

They’d go to the woods, near the suicides, and look for impressive ones. A lot of dads carry pocket knives, but in the pocket of his shorts, my father carried a truncheon. It protruded like an angry table leg. He’d hit at the overgrowth, and when he found a stick fit for a prince, the little boy would help to break it loose.

Because my stick wasn’t important, I’d wander ahead. One day, while they were off being men, I ambled over to a group of family gravestones. The dead patriarch had been commemorated by an oblong pillar that time had taken the luster from, and turned dull. Next to the pillar was a gravestone shaped like an angel, its hands clasped in prayer. A pair of woman’s underwear had been knotted around the angel’s wrists, and a bra had been tied around its head like a blindfold.

I called to my father, who emerged from the woods. He freed the bra from the angel’s face valiantly, hooking and dragging it with his stick, making swooshing motions with his arms as he lunged with his legs. Removing the underwear from the angel’s wrists was a challenge: the knots had been baked in by the sun. A pocketknife would have done the job easily. With a truncheon and stick, he could only poke and bash.

He ripped the underwear from the angel’s wrists. Using his stick like a slingshot, he tied the underwear to the bra, then used their elasticity to fling them into the woods. The little boy and I watched as the undergarments flew through the sky. My father was the liberator of a gravestone angel.

Years later, I worked with a woman at a video store. It had been torn down in the mid-1990s, but she remembered the house I’d grown up in: when she was younger, she and her friends would hang out in the cemetery and get drunk. One night when they’d all been wasted, an older boy suggested they dance naked in the moonlight. It was summer and he’d called it “Skinny Dancing,” like Skinny Dipping. She didn’t know why she’d done it, but she knew I’d gotten into hijinks as a kid, and wouldn’t judge. After she’d taken off her bra and underwear, she’d used them to gag and a tie a gravestone. The gravestone was in the shape of an angel. She hoped it hadn’t been a child’s.