Everything is still

The first human voice I heard on New Year’s Day was a cry for help.

I live in an apartment complex which looks, especially in winter, like a Siberian outpost. The walls are bricked high, the single balcony black iron and glass, the outdoor lights flat and harsh. A playground, a few trees, and some potted herbs are situated in the courtyard as a clumsy acknowledgement of the building’s human purpose, but they are incongruous, like flower petals sprinkled over the treads of a tank. The hallways are bright and sterile, almost forensic in their lack of warmth. Despite its starkness, though, I’ve liked living here. Until very recently my friend A lived across the hall from me, and though her moving away diminished the welcome of the place, I still find solace in the proximity of other people. I’m very much a loner, and yet the nearness of human activity — even of strangers — robs the occasional loneliness of some of its sting.

I left that morning to walk down to Clingman Cafe, where I like to have coffee and do some reading as the day begins. I heard the cry echoing through the hallways. I thought at first that it was someone still drunk, bellowing outside someone’s locked door. It pissed me off. I started down the hall to tell whoever it was to shut the hell up, that there were people who lived here and to have some goddamn respect. But as I got closer I realized that it was a call of distress.

One of the tenants is an older black man paralyzed from the waist down. I often see him in the foyer of the building, either waiting for someone in particular or, like me, finding some steadying peace in the flow of strangers coming into and out of the building. My guess is that he’s in his late fifties or early sixties, maybe 300 pounds. I knew, before rounding the corner and seeing his open door, that it was him.

He was lying on the floor by his open door, calling out for help. His wheelchair was across the room, by his window. He had dragged himself to the door, a process which must have taken a long time and which left him clearly exhausted. “I fell,” he said. A little sob escaped him. He blinked away tears, frustrated and ashamed.

I put my hand on his shoulder and told him it’s okay, I’ll get you back in your chair. I wondered how long he had been lying there. My apartment is on the other side of the building, and I’d been awake for an hour or so before leaving. There were doors, though, lining each hallway. His voice had echoed loudly. On this side of the building, anybody would have been able to hear him. Where were they?

I maneuvered his wheelchair over to him and leaned over to take him under his arms. He kind of laughed. “You won’t be able to do it yourself,” he said.

I tried anyway. He was right. He’s a big man, but it isn’t just fat. He’s dense with muscle too, as I discovered when I felt his upper body. This was going to be impossible without help. I told him to hang tight, I’d be right back. He nodded. He’d regained his composure by now.

I went up and down the hallways, knocking on door after door on all three stories of the building. There was no sign of human life. No music, no footsteps behind the doors, no mutter of a television set or clink of dishes. The whole building seemed deserted. I had all but given up before someone finally opened his door to me. I told him what happened. “Yeah, I heard someone, but I thought it was just somebody drunk,” he said. He came down to help me, and together we got him back in his chair. I stayed and helped him find his phone, made sure he was situated. I gave him my phone number so he could call me if something like that happened again.

None of which is special. Any reasonable human being would have done the same. What struck me, though, was that there had been no one around. Even accounting for the fact that it was early on New Year’s Day, and that some people would be sleeping off the previous night’s binge; or that there are people who really will not extend a hand to help another person in distress (I’m reminded of Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” here); somebody would have heard him. Somebody would have come.

Since then I’ve been paying more attention to the building. Coming home at night, I notice how many dozens of windows are dark. I noticed how many doors I never see opened. How many faces I used to see that I don’t anymore. Yesterday I came home from work and there was one child in the playground, busying herself with some mysterious, singular game, the first gusts of the evening’s snow whirling in the air around her.

The building feels abandoned.

My apartment is clean, and warmly lit. Mia is home now, so there is life in it again. I cook food for her, and when she goes to bed I write in the lamplight by my bed, and then I read, and finally sleep. It’s a peaceful place, and I’m glad for it.

But I’m suddenly more conscious of its isolated nature. The faceless companionship I felt with my neighbors is cast into doubt. I wonder now how many are there at all. I wonder about the implied human contract I have been counting on, and which the old man in the wheelchair was also counting on. The contract that assures us of aid from strangers in the face of calamity, the contract that comforts our loneliness with the simple closeness of other human beings.

One of the most affecting ghost stories I know is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Kairo, or Pulse. It is, at its heart, about loneliness and isolation. About the quiet disappearance of each isolated soul. I still can’t watch it without feeling a profound sadness, a grievous disquiet. It seems prophetic to me, as though something in the world is revealing itself to us.

When I walk through this depleted building, hearing in memory the old man’s echoing cry for help, I feel that disquiet again. Our links to each other are so tenuous. The love we have for each other, or even the belief we have that we are noticed, recognized to be alive, is all that keeps us from the abyss.

I’m writing this in my room, in front of my window. The blinds are up, and snow is blowing outside. There’s a train yard across the street. Nothing is moving there. Everything is still.

Black dog

Two days ago I was crossing the southern border of North Carolina, coming back from a trip to Georgia, where I’d handed Mia over to her mom to spend a week with her. I was driving up an unlit road; the mountains were ahead of me: huge, black shoulders, spangled with light. I was listening to the kind of music that lets something loose inside me, like some dark wing. I hear music like this and it has an almost physical effect; it’s as though atmospheres of pressure are lifted, and suddenly my lungs can fill deeply.

Normally, I would have let myself slide into an easy depression; it would have been comfortable and familiar. It may seem strange that I would describe depression as comfortable, but human beings can acclimate themselves to just about anything. There is a familiar rhythm to it, a cycle of emotion and thought that is as true as an ocean current, and as powerful. It is an easy thing to surrender yourself to it, and to let it pull you along its courses. You know where you’re going. You know how you’ll feel along the way. There are no surprises. There is pain, yes; but it’s pain you know. It’s pain you can prepare for. And pain, at least, is something. Sometimes, you think, it’s all you can get. And so you’ll take it. You might even get greedy for it.

But a few months ago I finally got tired of it. I started taking antidepressants, and it’s hard to overstate the change. What I think is best described as a steady spiritual deliquescence has stopped. Some measure of self-regard is returning. The impulse to work — by which I mean to write — is back in force. And I haven’t felt that in years. Depression was, I think, the chief reason for my small output over the past few years. My thought was, very explicitly, that there are too many writers in the world anyway — we’re drowning in pablum, and seem to have lost the ability even to recognize it — and one less would make no difference at all. It might even be a small good.

I still believe that most writers would serve us best by surrendering the pen forever (yeah, I’m an asshole), and that we’ve become so inured to mediocrity and small ambition that we celebrate that which should be condemned for its miserliness of spirit, but the drag on my own intent has been removed. I feel a drive to work like I haven’t in years. Shortly after getting on the antidepressant, I finished writing a story that has been languishing on my laptop for months, and submitted the collection to a publisher at last. It was work that could have, and should have, been done at least a  year ago. But the will was crippled then. And now it isn’t anymore.

I say this because even though the social stigma against depression is fading, I think there still exists a strong personal aversion to admitting one is afflicted. I know I had that aversion. I denied it and its severity for years. It damaged friendships, may have ended relationships, and slowed my advancement in my chosen career. Throughout my life I’ve seen it happen to people I know and love. It’s deadliest trait is that it makes you believe that there is no point in fighting it. And the kind I had — have — was so subtle that I barely noticed the breadth of its effect. There was no sturm und drang, no self-annihilating impulse; only the steady, creeping rise of cold water in my brain.

I still love this music. As I drove into the mountains, letting it fill my head, I was still lifted. I still find beauty in the desolate. I still have a melancholy soul. Those things are characteristics of me, and will not change; nor would I want them to. I like them. But I can love this music now, I can love the poetry I see in pale bones and cold nights, without the accompanying despondence that had all but frozen me. Antidepressants did not dull my feeling for all of this, as I’d feared they might; they enabled me to more fully engage with it.

I debated putting this up. I was afraid it would come off as fishing for sympathy, which is certainly not my intent. I can look back on it all with a fairly emotionless cast of mind. But I think some of you will feel some measure of recognition. I think we waste too much time trying to construct a social image of ourselves as characters from television commercials: clever, funny, unbeset by loneliness or self-horror. Fuck all that. That’s what leads to all the shitty writing I was talking about.

Tell the truth. That’s what this is.

Three notes

1. I answered a few brief questions over at the website dedicated to Creatures, a retrospective anthology collecting great monster stories from the past 30 years. I’m pleased and honored to have “The Monsters of Heaven” included alongside contributions from Jim Shepard, Clive Barker, Kelly Link, Laird Barron, and many others.

Here’s one of the questions, to give you an idea of what they’re like:

If you could be a monster, which one would you choose, and why?

I would be a werewolf. That may not be very original, but I don’t care. Werewolves have always been my favorite monster. I think they’re terrifying, for one. I don’t see them as the furry-faced muppets of the old Universal horror movies; I see them as great, bristle-haired beasts, their fur matted and filthy, their breath rank, their muscles trembling with rage. I love the idea of surrendering to rage, of giving in to the violent dream. So much of life is repression. So many words bitten off before we can speak them, so many deserving necks left unthrottled. The idea of letting that rage run rampant, of feeling bones break between my teeth, is a little intoxicating.

2. Here is a passage from an essay by Rachel Yoder called “Awkward Walks With Unavailable Men,” which can be found in the current issue of The Sun. It’s beautiful, and I think you should read it.

One summer morning when I was five, I walked into my grandmother’s bedroom unannounced. She was sitting in her spindle-backed chair, looking out the window at the cornfields. She had just taken down her hair.

Her hair. My God. You could write a whole bible about that hair. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen: my Mennonite grandmother’s pearl-white hair hanging down her back, unspooled and luminescent, long like a girl’s, with the fire of the sun in it.

Before she saw me, I stood there for a moment inside a thin skin of knowing and mystery, inside something I could not comprehend other than to think, Pretty, other than to think, I want. Oh, her silver-white hair. That beauty could be both so old and so innocent, so pure and so pulsing, so urgent it made me want to touch, to look, to feel, and then to run away and hide. That beauty was her hair and the sun and the cornfields but also the bed and her body, her skin and lips. That beauty was my grandmother then, but also my grandmother before, on the day she’d given birth; at her wedding; as a small girl. That beauty would die. That beauty began to slip away the moment she turned and looked at me.

3. I found this song online the other day. Royal Fingerbowl was a big deal in New Orleans for about five minutes, recording a small handful of albums, before the frontman Alex McMurray went on to a host of other musical projects. But man, this band knew that town. Their first record, Happy Birthday, Sabo, is the city distilled. This song recalls to me many a bleary morning, with the sky breaking into light, and the warm beauty of the recent night, of women and of friends, lingering like a good dream which turned out to be true.

Coffee and rain

It’s a little past nine on a Tuesday morning. It’s raining here: a cool, light mist. I’m sitting outside, beneath a small overhang, at the little cafe a block from my apartment building with a cup of coffee and the computer I’m writing this on. Across the street a freight train just rolled by; behind it the trees are beginning to show their autumn colors.

Coffee and rain. An absolute good.

For the first time in two years I feel a sense of quietude inside. Some long-absent peace is returning. It’s such a strange feeling I almost don’t recognize it, or know what to do with it.

But I do, of course, know what to do with it.

When I came here six years ago, after the divorce, I stopped moving somewhere inside. I was stunned to inaction. I felt the world had an obligation to right itself, and I waited passively for it to do so. I cherished my wounds like jewels.

But I think I have finally exhausted myself. Being that man gets you nothing. It makes life needlessly difficult for yourself, your family, and the people who love you. It drives people away. It calcifies you; it turns you into living bone.

And so I’ve been doing a lot of re-evaluation. I start with only two givens: I’m a father, and I’m a writer. My daughter is eleven, in a new and challenging school, and some of the issues attendant to those facts are already making themselves felt. Cliques she feels left out of, insecurities stemming from being challenged academically for the first time in her life, social awkwardness both generalized and specific. She needs her father to be entirely engaged.

With writing, I’m examining my own uneasy relationship with genre fiction. What it is that I love so much about it, and why it is that, when I want a visceral reading experience — when I want to be hit in the heart — I almost never turn to it. The fiction that moves me and stays with me is almost never genre fiction. I’m examining, too, my deep and abiding love for personal essays (what is now being called, with the dreadful, pallid literalness that can only have come from an MFA program, “creative nonfiction”); they’ve given me some of my most rewarding experiences as a reader, and I find the writing of them to be easy and cathartic. So the question of what kind of writer I am yet to be is very much in play.

Beyond that, and the small handful of people who are dear to me, nothing is a given anymore. It’s a liberating feeling, and one so easy to arrive at, after all this time, that I am more than a little dismayed. You just take everything you have, put it in a boat, and push it away from shore. Then you walk away.

The coffee is still hot. The rain is soft and cool and beautiful. The day is open.