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"We need to make books cool again. If you go home with someone & they don't have books, don't fuck 'em."--John Waters

I'm the author of more than twenty novels including SHADOW SEASON, THE COLD SPOT, THE COLDEST MILE, THE MIDNIGHT ROAD, THE DEAD LETTERS, and A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN. Look for my next one THE LAST KIND WORDS due out May '12 from Bantam Books. Contact: PicSelf1@aol.com

Monday, March 26, 2012

Now I'm Going to Explain to You that I Love My Plum Tree, Fish, Dogs, and Work as Much or Even More Than You Love Your Kids, and Why You're Going to

Now I’m Going to Explain to You that I Love My Plum Tree, Fish, Dogs, and Work as Much or Even More Than You Love Your Kids, and Why You’re Going to Take it the Wrong Way

I don’t have kids. I have step-kids, I have dogs, I have fish. I have a plum tree that I planted when we first moved into this house. Our pug Criswell is buried next to it, and we call that small corner of the yard Criswell’s Garden. The step-kids are taking care of themselves. That leaves me to take care of my dogs, my fish, and my tree. They’re my responsibility. They need me. I need them. Yes, I do. I need Criswell’s tree.

These are the things that I have to nurture. Maybe they’re not as fulfilling as your newborn, your five-year-old, your college kid, or maybe they are. My dogs are pretty cool. My fish have personality. They hang around the shallow end of the pond soaking up the sun. Criswell used to get in on hot days and just sit there with water up to his shoulders, sleeping, with the fish swimming around him. It was funny as hell.

I nurture my words too. I tell my life lessons to my fiction and through my fiction and I raise my fiction the way I’d raise a son or daughter. The way I raise my plum tree. From a seed, in the sun, through rough weather. I put my time and effort there the same way I work my ass off to keep the fish alive. It’s a struggle, sometimes, especially in the dead of winter. I’ve got to climb down into the freezing water, haul up the filter, clean out the muddy netting, reconnect the hoses to the waterfall, clamber back in over slick algae-covered rocks and lining, and try not to break my fucking neck or ass. And we’re talking about a seriously fat ass here too.

My fish think about my struggles about as much as my dogs do, about as much as the plum tree does, about as much as my step-kids did when they were fourteen. About as much as I thought of my mother working when I was that age, and even older, much older. I never thanked her for knocking out the mortgage, providing the food, keeping the heat going. I had a lot of rage. I could barely see her sometimes through the red.

I’ve been discussing some of that rage with my wife lately. It’s still there, in its way. My mother passed away ten years ago this past March 12th. I was there at her hospital bed and I watched a million dollars of machinery gauging her death moment by moment, inch by inch. It’s a hell of a thing. I watched the blood pressure monitors and heart monitors slowing, slowing, slowing slowly, mind you, so subtly and slowly that it felt like my own pulse was fading throughout the night. Even after she was dead the machinery kept pumping air into her lungs, forcing her corpse to jerk as if she had suddenly taken a deep breath. She used to do that sometimes when she had nightmares. Her whole body would flail. She’d whine in a voice that sounded nothing like her: childish, frightened, hysterical, crazed. She had recurring nightmares where all her dead family and friends would drive up in a bus and park outside the house, beckoning her to get on board.

Eventually she did.

My recurring nightmare isn’t nearly as interesting. It’s more thematic. Maybe because I’m a writer. Maybe because I’m a fucking nut. I don’t know. Maybe one of your dream interpreters can explain this shit to me. It’s been going on since I was kid.

I dream of corridors. I dream of lengthy hallways with many doors. I dream of hotels, apartment buildings, and schools. I don’t know if I’m lost there or not. I’m just aware of all these passages, all these rooms.

There’s no rage in the nightmares, and no real fear. Just a vaguely unsettling sense of vividness. I’m startled when I wake up and realize I’m here and not there. That’s when I get scared. You know those movies where the dream world is the real world and the real world doesn’t exist? That’s what happens. I wake up micro-traumatized. It takes a moment for me to drift back into myself and for my memories to return. I’m not in the hall of doors, I’m in bed. I’m not in the school, I’m in the house. The house with the wife and the dogs and the fish and the plum tree planted in Criswell’s Garden.

The rage comes, at least partly, from the thing that has become my marrow. It’s the thing I write about constantly in my work, in my essays, in my head from second to second. It’s the thing that is always there, it’s the thing around which all other things revolve. If you’ve read me you know what it is. If you’ve read interviews with me you know what it is. It probably bores you as much as it does me after all this time. You have the birth of your kids as the focus of your life. If anyone asks you what day stands out and you say when little Horatio was born. When little Wilemena was wrapped up and stuck in your arms. That’s what you say. And it’s just as boring as what I say, again and again.

When my mother died I forgot how to speak. At her funeral I could barely nod to others when they approached. The words wouldn’t come. They wouldn’t come to my throat or my hand. I couldn’t write. For six weeks I didn’t write, the longest period of time I didn’t write since I was sixteen. The words returned when I wrote a piece about her death.

My first spoken word as a baby was probably "mama." No one has ever confirmed this, but it’s a fair bet, no? And my first word after her death was mama, or at least about my ma anyway. It feels like that’s the way it had to be.

I talk more to her now than I ever did when she was alive. At her funeral there was an old-fashioned picture of her taken when she was a baby. She died at seventy-one so the oversized photo was that old, with tears and punctures, printed on cardboard like some of those big old pictures were. There was an array of photos placed around her coffin, but that’s the one I wanted.

It’s on my wall downstairs, in a corner of the living room beside another old photo, this one of my wife’s grandparents. Rarely does a day goes by that I don’t walk past it and say, "Thanks, ma."
It’s too little too late, but if she can hear me I hope she understands that now, at least, I’m grateful, and I want her to know it. I want to remember it myself. I’m not fourteen anymore, I’m not a dog or a fish or a plum tree. I owe a debt and I realize it now.

The rage comes from her love. From her need to protect me. I was a moody little fucker. I was hyper-sensitive back then too, same as now. I was seven. The old man had been dying for a while, bit by bit as the lung cancer spread throughout his body. My uncle leant my father a big leather recliner that he sat in wearing his dirty red robe. My old man was in and out of the hospital, not that I realized it, not that anyone told me. I remember him being gone for a few days and then returning. In my excitement I leaped up onto his lap as he sat in the recliner. It hurt him and he grunted in pain, a sound I’ll never forget. I spotted the biopsy scar on his throat for the first time. It was long and scabbed and raw, a sight I’ll never forget. It terrified me. I backed away and my father’s arms came around me telling me it was okay.

I had hurt my father because no one had told me anything.

They didn’t tell me when he died either. I thought I was off to my aunt’s just to visit with my cousins. They all went to the wake and funeral while I sat watching television with my grandmother. They were all in the know. They were aware. They understood. They dealt with their grief together. They shared. They bonded. They held each other. They helped each other.
The rage comes from my aloneness. My singularity. My childish ignorance which never ends. For forty years I’ve been grieving alone.

They thought it would be smart, the foolish amateur psychologists, to build me up in a bubble of happiness first. They gave me gifts for no reason. They taught me Monopoly in the basement of my uncle’s house. They let me win. I remember practically shivering with delight. My brother and my cousins circling the board, watching me, waiting. And at my happiest my brother told me my dad was dead.

You know what happens to stone or steel after it’s heated and then has ice water thrown on it. It becomes brittle. It shatters.

I cried in my mother’s arms for an hour, but it wasn’t just a venting of pain, it was the birth of the seed of rage that goes on and on. That is in all my pages and all my days. It is the event that makes me me. The one I share with you. I try to make you aware, I want you to understand, it’s how we bond, you and I. If you read my work. If you read this. If we sit for coffee, if we have a beer. If I talk to you on the phone, if you visit my FB page. If I tweet in your ear. If you pet my dogs, if you stare at my fish, if the leaves of the plum tree happen to ride the wind to your yard, where your kids are playing. Where they’re riding their trikes, where they’re borrowing your car.

You have your children and I have mine. Mine mean as much to me or even more than yours mean to you. This is why. Yours have voices. Mine don’t speak. Like me, for a time, they’ve lost their words. I provide those for them too. My books, my children, don’t slide out of me fully-formed. I have to build them with my hands, piece by piece, word by word, voice by voice. You need your kids to fulfill you because you’re parents. I need mine because I’m not.

12 comments:

Ben said...

It's a shame that essays like this can't find a home. My throat tightened a few times during the reading because I recognize some of the places you been.

I don't want to say we're similar or something, but when I read your essays it's like reading letter from my home land. I was moved.

Thank you, sir.

Ed Gorman said...

Fantastic piece of writing, Tom. This will go into your someday Best Of book.

Tim Niland said...

Haunting, heartbreaking and beautiful.

Anonymous said...

No matter how many times or in how many ways you tell some of these stories, Tom, they never fail to give me chills. This one did it more than usual. Maybe it was the details about your mother's death, I don't know. But powerful stuff here. Reading this gave me one of those moments when I know I can't write worth a shit, that nothing I've written or will write has been or will be as powerful as this short little essay. Thanks for sharing it, man.

Gordon Harries said...

Tom,

Have you considered a regular column about your writing life? Or some kind of memoir? Because, honestly, whether print or e, I’d buy it.

Gordon.

Ben said...

Ditto to what Gordon says.

Weston Ochse said...

About as fine a piece of work as I've ever read. You've whittled your rage into a precise point.

Thanks for sharing, Tom

Lee said...

Great post, Pic. Extremely moving. Your honesty always shines through even in your fiction and it's always been the reason you're my favorite writer.

Mike Dennis said...

Breathtaking piece of work, Pic. As always, the truth is your currency.

Anonymous said...

Tom,

You are, by far one of my favorite writers. i just now visited this page by way of looking up your work on Amazon because i havent been able to find and buy them in the few bookstores that are left... fuckin shame.

echoing one of the earlier comments, your style forces me to think about my own writing in a way that makes me feel like im half as brave as you. You're quiet way of setting off some sort of crudely fashioned nail bomb still confuses me and sets me on fucking fire.

i'll say that i can read any passage from any one of your novels and be ready to write for another couple hours just out of knowing that there are people out here that are this good, that are working this hard.

please keep up the amazing work. i need it... you inspire the hell out of me man.

thanks.

Tom Piccirilli said...

Thanks for all the generous words, guys. Appreciate all the compliments. So glad if I help in some small way to inspire others in their writing. My mentor Jack Cady always said to pass it on, and I try to do that in all I do. We all need to support one another. Art hurts, the work is gutwrenching, the act is painful, the product though gives satisfaction like nothing else.

Jess Legacy said...

This piece is precisely why I respect literary horror so much. Thank you for this essay. And thank you for being brave enough to compose your demons so that they can speak to your readers. This is absolutely brilliant.