I dabble in reality the way other people I know dabble in fiction. Those other people write an occasional piece of fiction but they spend the majority of their writing time solidly entrenched in the real world. I, on the other hand, spend most of my time—not just writing time, mind you—in a world that exists only in my head. I find that world, even with its cast of demented characters who sometimes do unspeakable things, more serene than the one I view through my eyes. I have imaginary friends, imaginary enemies, imaginary lovers (don’t tell my wife), and imaginary solutions to problems that exist only in my imagination. It’s quite nice, actually, because when things begin to get too intense, I can slide back in to the real world. There’s a risk, of course, that I might slide back in at precisely the wrong time and step in front of a moving automobile but that’s a risk I am willing to take. On the other hand, some of the characters in my head tend to be so dark that I have to leave them alone and lock them away for a time while I visit with unicorns, leprechauns, and English-speaking bulldogs. By the way, this paragraph is my way of dabbling in reality.
Just this morning, I was tromping through a fictional place with a fictional character. I’ll take you there for a few moments.
I wake early almost every day. I used to think it was a curse from my time in Afghanistan, but now I consider it normal. On those rare occasions when I sleep past 5:00 a.m., I worry that I might be coming down with something. Ach. That’s not really true. I don’t really worry. I hope. I hope my late awakening is a sign. A symptom of a fatal disease that will end my life. I once made the mistake, after waking late one morning shortly before my annual physical, of telling my doctor about the experience and how I felt. He said he thought I was depressed and prescribed an antidepressant. He was right. I was depressed. I’ve always been depressed.
When I slip out from under the covers and sit up on the side of the bed, my wife moves slightly, but doesn’t awaken. She won’t be up for several hours. I pull on a pair of sweat pants and slide my favorite threadbare sweatshirt over my head. I listen to her soft breathing, synchronized with the rhythmic crackling patter of the white noise machine next to the bed.
I step out into the living area and close the bedroom door behind me, taking care not to let the latch set click. My eyes are adjusted for the darkness, so I maneuver the room with ease without turning on the overhead light. The dim blue light from the thermostat and the pale green light from the clock above the oven door and the red glow from the power strip next to the television are like beacons for me. The house is cool, the thermostat set at sixty-two degrees overnight. Even at 4:00 a.m., the quiet hour, the house plays a nocturne. The gentle buzz of the refrigerator. The noise machine, like rain, behind the bedroom door. Creaks from the wood floor. Wind jostling the screen on the back door. I make my way to the kitchen counter, flip on and under-cabinet light, and drop a pod of French roast into the coffee maker. I wait until the machine spits and sputters the last drops of liquid into my cup.
The under-cabinet light is sufficient to illuminate my way from the kitchen to my office on the other side of the house. I sit at my desk and stare at the black screen. Staring back at me is my reflection. My hair is screaming for a comb and my face and neck are too plump and pasty, testament to my recent habit of eating cinnamon rolls for breakfast. Mottled black and white whiskers hide my skin, despite the fact that I shaved eighteen hours earlier. I stir the computer awake with a movement of my mouse, and open a document. A heading on the first page reads, “Here’s Why.” I’ve been working on this document for almost six months. When the time comes, I want my wife to understand why I committed suicide. I want her to know she was not to blame. I want to explain my reasons in sufficient detail that she will come to the conclusion that my suicide was the best, most logical course of action for me to take. Over the course of the past six months, it has occurred to me that my suicide note, now at two hundred and thirty pages and growing, is perhaps too long. But I to say too much for it to be any shorter.
Carolyn Stafford learned of her husband’s suicide while shopping for groceries. She had arrived at the store only fifteen minutes earlier after driving half an hour across town, when the intercom interrupted her shopping.
“Carolyn Stafford, please come to the customer service counter for an important message.”
Carolyn wheeled her shopping cart to the front of the store. Two police officers were standing at the customer service counter.
“Yes. What’s wrong?”
“Let’s talk over in the manager’s office,” one of the officers said, as he gently took her left elbow in his right hand and guided her behind the counter and into an office.
The next several days were a blur to Carolyn. Thinking back to the week of his death, her memory was foggy except for the day she listened to the tape of her husband’s call to the police.
“My name is Gregory Stafford. Your officers will find my body in the woods about fifty yards behind the parking lot of Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 750 Eastglynn Road. Please have officers go inform my wife, Carolyn Stafford. She is grocery shopping at the Publix on Crescent Parkway. Tell her I’ve written a very long explanation and she’ll find the file open on my computer. And tell her I love her and that this was for the best.”
The dispatcher tried to talk to him, but he didn’t respond. He simply said, “Did you get all that down?” When she replied that she had, he hung up his cell phone. Officers found his body a few minutes later, exactly where he said. Next to his body was his cell phone, the gun he used to shoot himself, and a sheet of paper, the text of his phone message printed neatly on it in sixteen point type.
The officers who found his body asked the dispatcher to send someone to inform Carolyn.
Like most of my writing, I have no idea whether this will lead anywhere. I own literally hundreds of vignettes that never turned into full-blown stories. Some days, that bothers me. Other days, like today, it doesn’t matter a whit. I like to write, so I start to write. I just don’t seem to like to finish.
Yesterday, I was unhappy with myself for jumping around between poetry and fiction and travelogue and stream-of-consciousness story-telling and political rants and just being an emotional fire hose. Today, I am perfectly comfortable in the role I described. Which means, I guess, I’m psychotic. So shoot me. Not really. I think I’ll entitle this post “Hiding Behind Rainbows with a Machete in Hand.”