Tag Archives: death

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.


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.

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

Coming soon from Paragraph Line Books

dove and crow cover

Coming Soon, from Paragraph Line Books, The Dove and the Crow… a new novel by Joseph Hirsch…

Meet the Crow: He’s been around for hundreds of years. He took scalps in the time of Cortez and Columbus. He skins men and makes rugs of their hides, lassos of their intestines. Right now he’s angry, and out for blood.

Meet the Dove: Matina’s a whore at the Maison de Joie, with more mojo than you can shake a stick at. It’s been said that, with just one bat of her eyelashes, she can turn pennyroyal tea into tincture of opium. 

Meet the Tracker: Dognose Jones, the adopted son of a Cherokee medicine man, has a special gift. He can smell his prey like a bloodhound scenting its chase. 

Welcome to the Wild, Weird West.

Your Doom Amuses Me

“Come on, CNN! Bring me there!” Elroy said, flipping to channel 742, CNN-Plus-Plus, which was entirely devoted to plague and pestilence. The week before had been Bubonic Plague Week, which was approximately ten times better than Shark Week. The old tube TV glowed and hummed. It was ever-so-slightly too green and he couldn’t seem to fix it, no matter how much swearing and slapping he applied to the problem.

Beside him, on the TV tray, was Allow Me to Cough Gently Into My Closed Fist: Selected Emails by Jonathan Franzen, a book created by Franzen’s Internet provider out of confidential emails he’d sent to his closest friends, other writers, and his editor, mostly trashing his closest friends, other writers, his editor, and his Internet service provider. Michiko Kakutani from the New York Times called the book, “…a triumph!” and “a cautionary example for all of us who blindly click on ‘I agree’ when installing software.”

He sat on an overstuffed, plaid-cloth Sears Barcalounger left over from his bachelor days. It reeked of spilled beer and piss from that time he fell asleep in it and his old college roommate–a business major who’d answered an ad on Craigslist for a quiet, studious student (he was none of those things)–stuck Elroy’s hand in a bucket of ice water. He woke up to drenched pants, a wet hand and a shirtless group of post-pubescent boys wearing tighty-whities on their heads and making devil’s horns with their hands, tongues lolling out joyously. “Got you, motherfucker! Got you!” No amount of cleaner could get the smell out, so his favorite chair was consigned to the basement after his marriage.

“Elroy! Your supper’s getting cold!” Liddy shouted from upstairs. Didn’t she realize that basement time was sacrosanct? That the annoyances of the day should remain upstairs? “Supper”! Who still said “supper” anyway? When would they ever have sex again? he wondered. It was up to her. Why was it at her discretion? She caught him jerking off in the shower the day before and wept in front of him, leaving the shower door open so he could witness all her despair over the state she’d placed him in.

“You’re not even thinking of me, are you?” she gurgled through all the tears.

The sad fact of the matter was that he was imagining Discovery iD correspondent Tamron Hall wearing a leather bustier, cracking a whip, in stiletto heels, hollering, “I know what you’ve been up to in your basement! Our cameras were on the scene!”

CNN-Plus-Plus did not disappoint. Somewhere in the third world, some brown people were vomiting up their own entrails, crying tears of blood, some yellowish stuff oozing from their foreheads. This was new. This was definitely new. Elroy sat up involuntarily, in a position that was sure to give him a slight backache later on. Somewhere in his subconscious mind he knew this, but he was mesmerized by all the wonderful death on screen.

The florescent tube above his head flickered and emitted a strange hum. Without taking his eyes off the screen… actual dead people, stacked in a pyre, kerosene was being applied… he picked up a broomstick next to his chair and used it to poke the light box overhead, which temporarily stopped the hum. He’d fix the thing one of these days. It was on a list that Liddy kept upstairs, tacked to the refrigerator with a magnet she’d bought at that tacky resort they’d stayed in during their honeymoon in the Dominican Republic. The best part of the holiday was walking along the chain link fence at the edge of the resort where the ragged children begged for food and change, pustulating boils raised on their limbs and faces, wearing t-shirts for championships that never happened.

“It’s going to get cold!” she shouted from the top of the stairs. Ugh. It was like having another boss. His boss at work kept catching him on his Samsung Galaxy looking at MassMurderWatch.com, his favorite news aggregator. He couldn’t work all the time, could he? Jesus H. Christ! His boss would give him this whole tsk, tsk business, how he should only look at that shit during designated break times. Fifteen minutes every two hours, and forty-five minutes for lunch, was hardly enough time to enjoy anything like a break, especially when he had to come home to Liddy, who was doing some sort of nesting bullshit now that she was preggers.

He thought about having to deal with the fucking kid once the little bundle of joy popped out of Liddy’s uterus. It was a girl, too, (thanks ultrasound, you killer of surprises!) so his daughter probably wouldn’t want to watch The Government Is Hiding Serial Killers in Secret Labs in Abandoned West Virginia Coal Mines with her old man. Of course not.

Elroy often contemplated his misery. The wallowing felt good in its way.


“In a minute!” he shouted. He turned back to the screen. The pile of bodies was on fire. He’d missed the moment of the lighting. Fuck! And no DVR down here in the funky basement either, so he couldn’t go back ten seconds to see the flames’ initial bursting upon the disease-ravaged carcasses. Goddamn, his life!

The light box buzzed again. For the millionth time, he bashed it with the broomstick, this time more violently than ever before. The broomstick smashed the tube and crystal particles rained down upon him. It was lovely. But he wasn’t alive to appreciate it. The broomstick jammed in the socket once occupied by the tube and an electrical pulse ran down through it into his body, electrocuting him and setting the old cloth Barcalounger ablaze, the cleaning chemicals saturating the cloth turning the fire as hot as a kiln. Poof!

From behind the washer/dryer combo, the ghost of Rod Serling appeared. “I love irony,” the black-and-white apparition said. “Consider this… a man… ah, fuck it.” He lit a Pall Mall using the flames off Elroy’s burning corpse, and then warmed his transparent hands over the body. It was cold being dead. Cold and lonely.

The tiny wisp of soul that Elroy’s body once contained flew up and away like a bottle rocket, off to haunt Tamron Hall.

In the years that followed, Elroy’s death was written about extensively in The Journal of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

Liddy remarried a few years later. And their girl didn’t turn out to be a jerk. Liddy was finally happy. So this story has a happy ending, right? Right.