He walks into a small convenience store on the corner of his neighborhood between two buildings that look like offices but are actually apartments for unlucky immigrants, mostly. While in there he looks at roughly forty-six items with anything like actual attention. Maladies such as attention deficit disorder never seemed to strike Henry as worth entertaining and yet he couldn’t deny the occasional foray into that world of chronic disinterest. He’d leave the public library with several highbrow films under his arm and every intention to come home and start his own Cahiers du Cinema and all that happened was more TV. He’d masturbate and suddenly hate everyone within five-hundred miles of the town he lived in. he’d do all sorts of things and suddenly be taken with doing all sorts of other things and the point is it led him to that convenience store on that day where he currently looked at roughly forty-six items with something like attention but was really more like a quick premeditated assault via staring at those things he knew he didn’t want. Because he knew what he wanted.
He wanted a Coke.
People in Henry’s time were quick to forget the simple pleasures of Coca Cola, considering its relative inefficiency at putting anything like health into the human body, the incessant advertising, all of it left the general public a tad averse to the whole idea of cola as anything more than cola; and yet for all of this—and there was certainly plenty of it from Henry’s sister—the romance and allure of cracking open an aluminum-silver-topped can of that heroin-esque red container and allowing the first bubbles to dissipate before taking a long swig was enough to fork over any amount of money on a semi-daily basis and enjoy one of the few small comforts he still gleaned from life.
And this is what he did.
Not working anymore, he said again to himself.
In the beginning he was doing something completely inside his mind that didn’t quite compute as real possibility but happened nonetheless. He was impaling the inventor of Prozac in the center of a city not knowing that Prozac wasn’t in fact the first of the antidepressants but behaving in such a way because he was under the impression that it was Prozac first and the rot of behavioral therapy second and hence, impalement. It was in his mind but it seemed to help. This circling sort of thought that begins in bed and begins with a flare of emotion and ends with clear sight of the death of those who’ve caused you pain. The inventor of Prozac has caused him more pain than he’s really able at the moment to consider in clear-cut terms. Hence the impalement in the center of a city. If he were merely angry and it was straightforward and there was one individual directly responsible that he could confront about this he’d either reconcile his anger and go on off to bed or address said anger with said individual face-to-face—unimportant and immaterial here but will be mentioned anyway as the fact that he would’ve chosen the former route and bottled it up until taking it out someday in an abstract moronic sex act—but he isn’t merely angry and faces are terrifying.
His decision came rather quickly in the night and hence he hadn’t slept but all the same the real ramification of not showing up at his TA job to peddle literary tropes and Hemingway-anecdotes to groveling miscreants had yet to set in completely. To stay up Henry often masturbated through the night, sometimes five or six times until his cock beat a glowing red radar of discomfort and he was forced to resort to ulterior means of staying awake. These worked, and they didn’t. Masturbating seemed to enliven Henry, let him breathe and smell and actually feel wide awake, whereas coffee or water or healthy snacks or some sort of vitamin just put him in an immediate state of alert that never went anywhere.
This was staying awake the night before.
The day was filled with something like a nursing pallor that disenchanted his immediate world and created what he’d probably describe to an onlooker as a ‘gray cloud’ that kept everything at bay.
Henry was prone to things like that.
Henry did not have pets.
Henry’s sister came to live with him as a result of a failed relationship and his nightly insomniac-masturbation was afflicted miserably of late.
He’d avoided it mostly, but something last night—as I said—enlivened him and suddenly it was time to avoid the sleep, avoid the dark, avoid the world of dreams.
He buys a water along with his Coke and it probably strikes the vendor as funny although noticing humor in the smirks of convenience store vendors ranked rather low on Henry’s treatise of the day.
Leaving he scratches his balls.
To do this is to accept a connectedness with not only the bum and the rat but the animal in man. Henry seems comfortable enough and does not look around wary and freaked and all that because frankly speaking he is beyond low and ready to accept the sweet death apparent after that awakening.
Henry was, as I understand it, raised under the yawning wing of Catholicism. Apathetic parents for the most part would only become enflamed or disciplinary when God was put into question.
And god was put into question.
Henry believed not in god, but nothing, or perhaps art.
Early on he showed great talent as an artist but refused to do anything beyond simple pen drawings, typically on napkins with pens stolen from hotels in the area where Henry liked to walk when everyone was fast asleep.
Your week is consumed with an unwritten biography that will never exist, the biography of Suzanne in all her radiance, etc. Your son begins providing distractions but the notion of it causes your stomach to retch and soon thereafter you find yourself lost on the internet chasing away vomitus with pornography and ever more pornography and the night is so black when you step outside that you can’t see your hands.
Doctors say things, “There are no answers now, only time. You stop holding onto life, stop worrying, and let me take it on for an hour. You let me believe, so that when you go home tonight and your son cries you can hold him, not simply stare.” This happened once, Frederick cried and it wasn’t until your neighbor (the duplex walls are thin) knocked to wake you from the stupor it was real. You answered the door first and Sheila from next door rushed past you to hoist Frederick above her head and make him laugh. You couldn’t quite remember if you’d ever made him laugh.
Other doctors say other things, “You’ve lost an immense amount of weight, Jim, and frankly I’m concerned. For today we can give you IV fluids but what’s most important right now is remembering to eat in spite of your moods…I’ve heard some things…I don’t want to cross any lines but…You’ve just got to eat, Jim.” You sit there all afternoon with needles sort of drifting off your arm and if you bend you know they’ll be removed and beeping will start and you’ll be cursed for bad behavior but it’ll all be lighthearted, Never. Really. There.
The street this time of day when everyone’s working and nobody’s focusing is something of a marvel, rampant even.
It began months earlier when the prospect of hope or moving forward was clipped away by the loss of work. Loss of work is not uncommon in this time period in the United States of America but tell that to the individual who’s just been fired from a nightshift job at a rather decrepit-looking gas station and you’ll soon likely be spat on and told to eat shit. We don’t expect lofty political terms related to the economy and various markets to affect us until we find ourselves being told by an individual half our age that there’s simply not enough justification to stay open these extra hours and thus we must be let go. We then come home and rest and though said rest is nothing if not profound it’s shortly followed by hour-after-hour of screenings of various Charles Bronson films from the Death Wish series to Ten to Midnight and by the time Lisa Eilbacher’s walked happily offscreen and he remembers she’s the girl who Axel Foley knows in Beverly Hills Cop and once every second of credit-roll has been exhausted he’s left merely with his thoughts and the firm realization that he’s no longer fit even to pick up after the likes of individuals that don’t even seem to register he’s got a pulse. It began then.
Locations that still exist for renting videos are few and far-between indeed. The widely-held-forerunner of them, Blockbuster, now largely stripped dry for its bones had left a bubble in its wake of streaming online video and the potential for in-house movie nights to extend into on-couch movie days and in-bath television weeks. Loren both appreciated this—and indeed himself occasionally indulged in days or weeks or sometimes just a few hours of strolls down the memory lane of narrative television—and rejected the reality that so many Americans had come to accept as the best possible hand they’re likely to be dealt. As a result of this rather atavistic tendency regarding entertainment, he made it a point to spend at least thirty minutes once every two weeks actually looking through the shelves of a local video store that most had forgotten existed, attempting to choreograph an evening of more subtle and challenging entertainment that would drive most modern attention-spans to suiciding. The reason he felt a certain conviction about this, to be sure, had to do with his grounding first as a scholar of cinema and second as a—(n admittedly second rate)—professor of English in Northern Wisconsin. Whether this would add up in more rational brains remains to be tested, but to Loren the idea of watching movies—always translated in his mind into something more conceptual like “witnessing films,” for instance—always carried with it some physical component of moving from one space to another and actually converting the absence in your hand to the presence of one, or several films in various-sized cases, etc. Images sped through his mind of professors walking into rooms not only with DVD copies of Capra’s Black and Whites but books of scholarship in tow and typically bright yellow Legal Pads to jot down any potentially interesting divergences from the discussion of classic cinema yet to follow. He thought of going out to browse the shelves in Insta-Video—retitled after the onslaught of online streaming sites made immediacy something to be desired for the entertainment-starved public—the way most individuals think currently about shopping for groceries. Before: you are starved, you have yourself a paucity of the necessary means of bringing yourself to ideal human levels to sustain your existence (i.e. “sustenance”). During: you live amongst the shelves to consider which foods/films will most enrich your experience here on earth and only once you’ve exhausted the lengths of the store several times and are certain you haven’t overlooked anything can you reach the After: wherein you’ve physically moved from one location to another, the FILM location to the LIFE location, to pursue the reward of cinematic wonderment. It was something to be earned, not merely clicked-at, so to speak, for Loren.
He couldn’t comfortably discuss his problems with any one person and hence the mental effects of losing work were confronted with his mother; the physical and economic circumstances that would inevitably result were discussed with his father; and the more abstract emotive elements apparent when dealing with this sort of loss were addressed with complete strangers on the internet while either masturbating to pre-recorded videos on various porn streaming websites or chatting with individuals he’s too frightened to meet in person before they realize he’s too frightened via websites like Craigslist where he can present himself as a sex-hungry frequent-user of the site with no STDs or problems physically to speak of and thus can converse and exchange images until an hour or so goes by and they realize he’s never actually had any interest in physically meeting them, but simply wants to talk and feel less alone.
He’d go for walks occasionally after long hours of watching television and on these walks he’d talk to himself because the last media-playing device he’d owned was thrown into Lake Michigan some years prior and hence he was his only entertainment. This wasn’t actually quite as bleak as it sounds as he was quite partial to putting on little shows for himself and pretending to function as a sort of academic talk show host when ideas needed exhausting. He walked and walked and with each step discussed the merits of a group like Crass as balanced against the physical presence of an anarchist like Bakunin v. the presentation of a group like the Sex Pistols and the slogan-output of a Marxist like, well, Marx… These were poorly organized half-researched dissertations arrived at through a smattering of undergraduate semesters but if he’s honest with himself he can find no more flaws in his discussions than are apparent in the various podcasts he’d listened to when his media-player hadn’t drowned and free programs from the BBC were readily available.
Just for instance, or perhaps it’s posterity, or clarity, but never to date the work itself, he is not a British human male and is in fact American if the lackadaisical approach to narrative thrust did not already make this glaringly obvious. His preference for the BBC/British came largely from watching a program as a teenager entitled Young Ones which featured a house of punk rockers, hippies, mods, et al in Great Britain who he so admired that he developed a real fondness for intellectual debates in the King’s English and watched hours of interviews with Christopher Hitchens before discovering the aforementioned podcasts and taking them with for walks through Chicago—though of course, now that I think of it, this would’ve accounted for his Americanness on its own and hence this digression is entirely unwarranted—before, again, drowning the thing in a fit of pique and rejection of just about all technological presences after reading Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto on his iPhone via widespread (free) Wi-Fi in Chicago’s downtown stretch of universities and museums/media outlets.
The passing—pasture—of a loved one has been compared to nearly everything; expressed as all those things necessary to make it OK, to make it right. The passing is what ruins you, what tears you up, what makes the days turn into that foul gray malaise, the mornings more akin to three AM, the nights some cryptic Nowhere in which you fester like some walking wound, some negative ball of catastrophe. Watch your life transpire that way, watch the passing actually cut through you and happen over and over again. Watch the nightlight over your son’s bedroom grow dimmer and flicker, become convinced it’s ghosts, it’s something terrible; it’s blood, it’s pain, it’s hours of the most grueling work you’ve ever completely in your life followed by a car accident.
Fury, fiery hot and ever-looming through your veins like the blood that once informed of pleasant things like the weight of your eyelids and the sexual impetus causing your cock to bulge, now merely fire. All things fire.
The passing of a loved one is something like that. Acerbic days leading into empty nights and the clocks always read the same thing (12:34, in this case. The hour we were informed of her death). You try to get by, months under this spell of sickness and waking up vomiting and yet no matter how many hours you spend on your knees begging it would’ve been you there’s no reprieve, no reverie: all is simply gray, longstanding and impenetrable, as though it’ll never leave, a nightmare.
For six months straight you’ve had one single dream, been dissected by doctors with notepads and their only insight is you’re leaving something behind and you need to commit to that. You think of Suzanne, how she’d laugh at these people, how she’d hate these conversations about dreams and mourning, how she would’ve understood your plight and told you simply to eat pizza because it always makes your dreams a wild ride. Thinking this causes nausea, you leave the doctor’s office most days to spend thirty minutes vomiting in the bathroom before picking Frederick up from school.
“No pain exists in California…” These words echo through your mind as spoken from across the front seats of the rather militaristic family Mercedes from the late 80s with long thick metallic sides that never seemed to end in a rusted red, Highway 80 coursing over the hairs on your left forearm as it hangs out the window. Suzanne says it and you know it’s true. Nebraska and Iowa—both of your former home states—lay far behind you, in the back seat Frederick—then six months old—moans and smiles when Suzanne whispers to him asking “Who’s that? Who’s that man driving? Who’s that weird man?” and even as it runs through your mind you crack a smile before collapsing into the now-expected tears. You miss your wife, you miss that Mercedes, you miss that history.
Suzanne had been teaching two film/literature courses at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop when she got the news that a small indie production company in San Francisco had seen her shorts from the Marin Biennale two years hence and they’d love to discuss potential job opportunities with her. The company was called Flawed Glass Productions and they mostly financed documentary features about the San Francisco area after the turn of the 21st century, though more recently they’d taken on several budding young directors’ projects and done quite well.
She came home the night she’d received the email and told me with a mournful face that “it feels like there’s nothing holding us here anymore, and my sister knows all the schools out there for Frederick. I could finish up these classes and we could be on the road in two months, hon.”
I listened, and I agreed. My work over the past few years had been the development and monetizing of a website/small press publisher that gave young/up-and-coming writers a chance by presenting a platform on which excerpts from books were shown (each page split up by genre, writers paid a membership and chose their best work from anything published to be set next to hundreds of other writers) to sort of level the playing field: a visitor to the site would see pages of the books without titles, without the authors’ names, and if something struck their eye all they had to do was click to be redirected to our online store where they could buy copies of the books printed on recycled paper after they were approved by our editorial staff and a small fee was collected for each one.
Short story long, there was nothing keeping me in Iowa.
Grant Maierhofer is the author of Marcel (The Heavy Contortionists) and the forthcoming novel Postures.