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The Unknown and the Unknowable

By Mark Flanigan · April 10th, 2012 · Exiled From Main Street
alan sauer the unknown 1Illustration: Alan Sauer
Because it is my lot in life as a writer — however anonymous — to speak of things that are entertaining and/or truthful, I find myself often torn. Especially now that I am post-40, going on 60.

But I’m an open book, if nothing else. The only remaining question is whether said book’s ending is good or bad.

My life has become the rare movie that should have held your attention enough that halfway through it you are still intrigued if not sold on it — waiting for the other shoe to drop — one in which your review capsule hinges solely on how things end.

A few months ago, I noticed in a vague way that the left side of my neck felt weird. It became something I was aware of while remaining altogether mystified about. That area of my neck felt numb, but I would poke and prod at it ad nauseum without ever finding anything to hang myself on.

I had recently started doing yoga when this happened and chalked it up to a pulled neck muscle because of this fact. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was writing while resting my hand on my chin when I felt it: a swollen lymph node just under my left jaw the size of your thumb if you cut it off at your cuticle. My immediate response was to pace around the room and break out in a sweat, my Rimbaud-like life having obviously caught up with me in a real way.

Writing the above, the thought occurs to me that I am not Paul Daugherty or Laura Pulfer: I don’t necessarily write about things that you want to read about; I write about the things you need to think about.

I am the literary equivalent of the thing in my neck, which might explain all the hours I’ve spent at crappy jobs during the last two decades-plus.

Back in 2002, I had a similar experience. I was working in the warehouse 50 hours a week while trying to make it as a columnist in my “free time.” I rarely slept, and one night while at my desk I suddenly felt a lump in my left arm.

The thing grew to the size of a golf ball before I knew it.

My doctor had a suspicion it was lymphoma, and thus cut it out. He then called months later and left a message on my answering machine: “We’re not sure what it is, but at least it’s not cancer,” he explained.

In the meantime, I have made very few changes. There is a reason, after all, that my posthumously published reader should be called Dying to Tell.

I made a doctor’s appointment. And the night before it, I found myself drinking at the computer and listening to iTunes on shuffle when this track called “Right Where it Belongs” by Nine Inch Nails happened to play.

I was immediately reminded of a couple of years ago, when I was jogging in Atlanta with my iPod while visiting my mother, the first time I had really heard this unlikely but haunting song. She was on oxygen, at the end of the line after 60-something years of thoroughly beating up her body in ways I’ve never even aspired to. Surely, an apple here and there, some yoga, jogging and a semblance of restraint would allow for a similar lifeline for me?

Hearing said song the morning of my doctor’s appointment brought all the feelings of that day and her subsequent death back, and, coupled with my own sudden sense of mortality, I soon buried myself before I was even so much as diagnosed. Putting the song on repeat, I soon became as maudlin as a character in a Smiths song, crying my eyes out as I threw dirt on my still-alive body.

This lump, at the very least, was a game changer. If not the end, then at least the beginning of the end. Which, I’m sure we can agree, is closer to the end than anyone ever wants to be.  

Nonetheless, my largest fear wasn’t the possibility of my demise. It was this: that my best jokes would become a source of sadness instead. 

My entire life’s work could be boiled down to the idea that I only longed to prove to everybody that not every good-time Charlie has to prematurely end up Chuck Roast. That, and I needed to write such sentences.

In the end, maybe the end doesn’t matter at all. Maybe it’s this very moment that is of greatest import.

And if you don’t like that ending, here’s the alternate: Does not the sprinter’s medal shine just as brightly as the long distant runner’s?

contact mark flanigan: letters@citybeat.com



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