- I started writing for real, during my last year in the Army, when I was stationed at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas.
- Every Friday night, after my company was released from duty, I would run up to my barracks room, grab my laptop, and then head back downstairs to the quad. Then I would call a cab and have the cabbie drive me to the local Extended Stay.
- I wrote a short story in my hotel room every Friday night. Saturdays I edited the stories, and Sunday mornings I submitted them, after which I would take a cab back to the base and get ready for Monday morning, and a return to duty.
- I was part of an Air Defense Artillery battalion, and I spent my days walking beneath the hot Texas sun, between rows of missiles and radars, thinking about my year in Iraq, and also about ideas for more short stories.
- I checked my email slavishly for messages from publishers. I got a ton of rejection slips, some of them mean-spirited and discouraging; others were indifferent, and obviously form letters not meant to be taken personally.
- One day I checked my email and there was an acceptance letter from Underground Voices. “This is good,” was the subject line of the email, and the body of the email read, “If it is still available, we would like to purchase it for $30 and run it in our November online edition.” It felt like my heart had stopped beating in my chest, and though it’s obviously impossible, it felt like my heart didn’t start beating again until November 1st.
- November did come, and with it, a check in the mail from Underground Voices. I remember walking to the PX on-post, my desert suede boots crunching over sand and dirt, until I reached the bank and cashed the check. I don’t remember anything about the bank teller, except that she was an attractive woman, and that I desperately wanted her to look at me and not see another war-shattered boy, but rather, a writer.
- I bought myself a steak dinner that night, and, as I was eating, I kept thinking to myself, I paid for this meal with my imagination.
- Of course I read my story on Underground Voices (here it is, if you’re curious: http://www.undergroundvoices.com/UVHirschJoseph.htm), and I was proud to bursting, walking under the sun on those long, hot, Texas days, speaking to the missiles around me, silently shouting, I’m a writer!
- The problem, though, was that my story was not the best to appear in Underground Voices that month. I am, as the writer John Fante once said about himself, “a master at being spellbound by my own prose,” but not even I could convince myself that my story was better than one called The Screenwriter, by some guy named James Brown (here it is, if you’re curious: http://www.undergroundvoices.com/UVBrownJames.htm)
- I read the story with mounting jealousy, and thought back to what Stephen King had once said about being a young unpublished writer, and the first time he discovered he was doing better than a hack whose work had seen print. He described the moment as being akin to the loss of one’s virginity, the sober, objective instant wherein one realizes that, despite the doubt and insecurity, they are in fact good enough to be a professional writer.
- I had realized before that I wasn’t the worst writer in the world, but encountering The Screenwriter, still high on the wings of my first sale, I had to privately admit that there were some writers I would never equal. James Brown took my literary virginity, which might be an odd statement for a heterosexual man to make, but there it is.
- Some years later, I was no longer in the Army, and, though I had sold a short story here and there (and even a novella), I had pretty much given up on life, and writing.
- I read somewhere that men think about sex once every eleven seconds, but it seemed that, the further and further I got from Iraq and the Army, the more I thought about the war, and that my sex and suicide wires had somehow gotten crossed. It would not be hyperbole to say that I thought about suicide every eleven seconds or so.
- One night, having given up on life and writing, I found myself watching TV, as people who have given up tend to do.
- There was a movie on the tube, a quiet Western about two boys out west who were on the run from the Union Army. The movie looked to have been made in the seventies, and I didn’t think it took a genius to realize that it was an obvious analogy for dodging the draft during the Vietnam War. It was what the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once called an “acid Western.”
- One of the two boys running from the Army was a young and beautiful Jeff Bridges. The other was a young and beautiful man with big brown eyes whose name I didn’t know, but whose face I couldn’t stop staring at. I wondered what it was about this quiet Western-with boys scrounging on the prairie for food, screwing whores, shooting rabbits, and dodging Indians- that held me in thrall.
- I also wondered why I had never heard of the brown-haired boy, who was acting circles around a very talented and very young Jeff Bridges. I watched the movie until it ended, on a freeze-frame of the boys brandishing six shooters in a Wells Fargo bank. Beautiful ragtime piano music played, and the credits rolled.
- I found out from the credits that the brown-haired boy’s name was Barry Brown. Curious, I stood and went over to the computer which I had been treating in my depression and isolation as little more than a glorified porn machine, since I no longer used it for writing. I went to Wikipedia and discovered a few things about Barry Brown.
- The director Peter Bogdanovich had said that he “was the only American actor you can believe ever read a book,” and that Barry Brown had committed suicide in Silverlake, California, in June of 1978.
- I knew why I wanted to commit suicide. I was a failed writer, an ex-soldier whose short stories had netted him about $500 over the course of his short career. But why would a beautiful and talented young man like Barry kill himself?
- I kept reading the Wikipedia page, and discovered that the actor Barry Brown was the older brother of James Brown, the same James Brown who had written circles around me a few years ago, when my first short story got published and I still believed in myself, and in life and writing.
- I read James Browns’ books, The Los Angeles Diaries and This River. I discovered how Barry had committed suicide (with a shotgun, if I remember correctly), and I also learned that James had to clean up the mess after his brother took his own life, soaking up brain matter with a sponge and putting bloody clothes in a trash bag, or something to that effect. I also discovered, in the course of reading James’ books, that his sister Marilyn had also tragically taken her own life some years after Barry’s death.
- There are a lot of reasons that might explain why I didn’t commit suicide, and why I started writing again, but much of it comes down to thinking about myself and my younger brother (who just had a son, making me an uncle), and a lot of it comes down to the books James Brown has written, and the ghost of Barry Brown.
1. How did that cat get in here? Goddamn it, Phil, I paid a lot for that couch. It is NOT your litterbox/scratching post, you fucking shitbird.
2. Phil, you will never kick that other cat’s ass. Especially not at 2 in the morning.
3. No, Phil, the dead bird on my welcome mat is not going to pay me back for my lost sleep/fucked-up couch.
4. This is the third computer keyboard I’ve had since Phil decided that it’s a proper place for a nap.
5. Cheez-Its, Phil? Seriously? It’s not a proper snack for a cat. If you want to eat something, try out the goddamned mouse who’s also been eating my Cheez-Its.
6. Cat hair on everything. Cat hair inside my mouth.
7. Did I mention I’m allergic to cats? Or at least to Phil.
8. I haven’t met the woman who supposedly owns Phil, but I hate her. That voice! “Phi-i-i-l! Come get your kitty yum-yums!” When she shouts, I can see the hair raising on Phil’s back.
9. The claw marks on my shins/forearms are finally healing. So… yeah.
10. Phil… is my only friend.