There’s an ambulance with active siren ramming into the sides of my skull while a sunburnt diver stands ready but unable to leap from the sand trap that is my tongue. We know each other all too well.
I flop out of bed while groaning. Walk to the front room, where I grab a rope that dangles from the rafters, toss it loosely over my head and then kick the chair out from under myself.
Everything was so much easier as a high school kid on spring break. Lying on Daytona Beach while reading the first of Salinger’s Nine Stories. Having been lulled to sleep by both the book’s cover and the sun reflecting off of it when — bam! — what was that? Seymour Glass’ surprising, self-inflicted gunshot making the same sound as my personal compass as it was forced from mediocre jock towards mediocre writer. Soul chiropractics of a sort.
It was easier, too, while wearing Doc Martins and a raincoat, somehow rationalizing the trade Joy Division’s Ian Curtis seemed to have made: obscurity for some renown, questions of authenticity answered indubitably. Such a trade made sense to me on some level; in fact, mirrored the story of sacrifice I was being fed — if not taught — in Catholic school. Only in this case said sacrifice was performed in the name of something that made sense to me: a continued conversation, an artist genuflecting before his or her art, head bowed.
It would hit closer to home not long thereafter: Piling into carpool, the radio announcing, “An unidentified student was found dead inside Elder High School early this morning, an apparent suicide.”
“Well, I hope it wasn’t me,” I said to the others, some of whom chuckled uncomfortably. It was a long, somber commute.
Once there we discovered Mick Spiering, the odds-on favorite for valedictorian, perhaps indicted the entire school by snuffing his light out in the science lab where he volunteered. As vulnerable as he was gifted, the memory of a recent short story of his — wherein an astronaut in deep space who found that he enjoyed the tranquility of being alone to such a degree that he willfully cut his tether to the mothership — juxtaposed with myriad crocodiles whose jeers had only now turned into tears.
Flash forward a few years.
That someone would turn out to be Dan Fluegeman, Class of ’88 — the same guy who turned me onto Love and Rockets, among others bands.
Elder, are you being sinister or is this some kind of game?
Nor do we even need to mention ’94. That one, for some, is our own personal Amsterdam, in the sense of the hundreds of American ghosts standing on street corners there, incapable of returning home. We never got out from under it. We’re still with our head leaning against a post, air-guitar in hand, fingers circling around the phrase all and all is all we are...
None of which even began to prepare us for the recent loss of our beloved Tony Ballard. You knew the guy: the Englishman with the ready smile to share along with each pint. Tony would remind me, “Flanigan, you do realize that, where I’m from, softball is reserved for sissies.”
Then, this past summer, while watching one of our games, Tony was pressed into action by the other team. Obviously not knowing how to handle a bat, I cheated in just prior to him hitting a frozen rope that took a bite off my knee, an injury I’m reminded of on damp days while Tony feels nothing.
I still have the Keillor book he gave me. It’s title?
Happy to Be Here.
For many, the most difficult aspect of Tony’s suicide seemed to be the fact that he was the father — and by all accounts, a terrific one — of two beautiful children, said fact in some ways eclipsing the long shadow of his sudden self-destruction. As if somehow parenthood is a deterrent to suicide, or a panacea for depression. If that were true, how do you explain my mother?
As unsavory a thought as it might be, it nonetheless rings true: Suicide always remains an option.
Which reminds me: I can’t seem to keep it together. I look to my nearby bookshelf and, though not one of my manuscripts has a cover, I still recognize each by name:
Wrong-Way Poems for One-Way Streets
Not Necessarily God Stories
Next to Nothing
Like an unfed fish entreating its lazy master to just pick up the damn food, my books call on me to harness some focus, fire and determination. And I must.
Because, being a writer or an artist or — by extension, I imagine — a decent human being, no matter what you’ve accomplished, nor how well you have done it, how one feels about oneself hinges solely upon what one has accomplished lately. In short, I am forever a day away from hating myself.
And today I’m not unlike a male porn star without erection. A slugger without wood. A tractor-trailer without a load. A joke without a punch line.
A sailor without a ship. A ship without a sea. A bird with oil-soaked wings. And if I can’t fly, well, today at least I don’t mind so much dying.
And To Think All That Time I Thought My Heart Here
Exiled on Main Street
Salvage the Night
Which I guess shouldn’t be that hard a thing for me. After all, I ain’t got no kids.
CONTACT MARK FLANIGAN: firstname.lastname@example.org