“An artist always carries death with him, like a good priest his breviary.”
—Heinrich Böll, The Clown
This whole place stinks. All of it. It stinks of her. It stinks of Elsie. Everywhere I go, with each step taken, I feel her inside me. I feel it—as a cruel wind brushes against me. It feels like her breath—sending me into a dizzying despair, sending Hell straight to me. My entire body, my whole damn being, all of it, starts to burn. It is violent. It rattles and breaks me—which doesn’t take much, I’m afraid.
Christ, all that stink! I can’t even breathe, it is so thick. I keep searching for some kind of air, but the air is all bad. She has polluted me; I am Elsie’s waste dump, her trash heap. Even the mention of her name freezes me up, makes the old belly turn and howl. Elsie. Elsie. Elsie….
I’ve been in this town for only a few months now, and yet already I hate it. Every fiber. I hate it because of her. In fact, I’m led to believe that people are capable of doing only one thing: poisoning one another.
Seriously. You haven’t really lived in a town till your heart has been broken in it. That is some sad-honest truth, right there. The street lamps look different. The streets look different. Even the faces—if there are any worth mentioning—look different. Everything different. Everything crummy. A car could run me over right now and it wouldn’t make a shred of difference to me. That’s how crummy.
The nerve of her! Breaking the heart of an artist like myself? Ha! What a woman! Surely there must be some charge I can press against her. No? Well damn. She’ll get it all right—oh yes—when they are digging up her grave… in order to mount a statue of myself: Branko Gianni-Sheldon III—only the greatest literary personage of our time. A Mecca!—a glorious statue—for birds to shit on, for angels to piss on. And what flowers! Ho-ho!
My, how lonely it is to dream. Especially when your homecoming consists only of crummy walls—crummy walls you’ve built round yourself.
Whenever things go bust my first instinct is to run and hide, to flee: a coward’s ambition. But I can’t do that this time—no—I haven’t anywhere to go. The more you run from your past, the less you have of the present. The only place left for me to go to is my new room: a crummy rented room on the same crummy street I’ve been living on since my cursed arrival—a piss-poor circus.
And so I stagger towards this room—drunk, maddened, crushed like an empty beer can—beneath an orange a.m. glow from the street lamps above. It looks as though you are walking on the backs of wet reptiles. It is a destination of nothing. An orange nothing.
I know that soon I will bump into Elsie again. Yes, I will. This town is much too small for that not to happen. Surely she will be with others—somebody new, perhaps? Christ, the thought! Don’t know what I’ll say or do if that ever happens. It’ll be bad, though. It will be a funeral, a massacre, I promise you. And I dread it worse than death. I do. With all honesty. The thought alone is almost enough to do me in right now—still might.
But I must first find my new room. That I must do, firstly. It is ridiculous to die in the street. For that, you need walls: a sad bastard’s tomb.
And I promise never to leave the tomb again, let alone whatever hovel it is I’ll be staying in. Not as long as she is still breathing, still capable—quite willingly, in fact—of loving another. The thought of someone touching Elsie in all the places I used to touch her is too much.
Hmm, I wonder where one obtains a gun at this hour….
So here we are, friend—you mind me calling you that?—a new room, like all the others—a second-story room, with four walls I will have to get used to: “Hiya, walls! It’s nice to meet you! You’ll be seeing a lot of me now, I’m afraid. Oh, don’t be so sore about it….”
What a room: nothing in it. An unfurnished room—for me to die in. As good as any. Oh, look—there’s even a window! I can watch the circus from up top, the other busted up idiots walking by—mumbling heartbreak and disparity to themselves, no doubt.
It is an empty room, a dying room—a dying, empty room—and in it, I watch the string attached to the ceiling-fan. I watch it for a long time. I study it. It swings back and forth, beautifully, like a golden beaded lasso—a shame there is not enough of it to hang myself with.
Then again, I should have known what was coming; I am, after all, a prophet in these matters. Your gutted boy—in the center of some strange-sick room in some sick-strange town he never wanted to be in, in the first place. Some special education: a strange-sick room to die one thousand or more sick-strange deaths—a room where it is always night.
And when I die here—a bitch possibility, yes—they will say things—terrible things, God knows:
“Oh, that Branko—alcoholic, coke head, misogynist…. Well, his poetry was quite strong, and his prose was humorous at best, but other than that….”
Damn them all. Damn them all for being right. It is much kinder to be wrong, I think. But let’s clear the air once and for all, shall we? Let’s all clear the stink. Shall we? Friend?
I drink a lot, yes; and my destructive tendency to latch onto other dubious substances is quite evident to those unfortunate enough to know me… but I do not hate women! They are wonderful creatures—a bit fickle and short-tempered, yes; but wonderful, just the same. I know and respect a great deal of them, in fact; a lot of my favorite artists, coincidentally, have vaginal parts, so am I really a misogynist for calling out dip-shits regardless of whether they inhabit male or female skin? If I really detested women, how could I’ve been prone to falling in love with so many, again and again, after most have treated me rather poorly? And why must I go explaining myself to those finger-pointing bloodsuckers… those critics… those wanting only to pick fights?
To create art isn’t easy. Trust me. There is a hell of a price to pay. To create art is to make yourself an easy target for hypocrites to expel their petty grievances upon you; to create art is to feel the wrath of all the herd-mongers, those too weak to stand on their own principles; to create art is to constantly shrug off the attacks of lazy, hateful critics, those paid to judge others for what they themselves cannot do; to create art is to have to continually explain your art to those who know nothing about art! Yes. To create art is to get your ass killed, little by little. But go ahead—kill me; you’d only be doing this artist a noble favor.
I adjust my body to the cold wooden floor. It is all I have, and already I’ve spilled beer on it. Sad, stupid beer. A holy christening. This is an empty, dying, bed-less, beer-drenched room. But the pillows are soft—a miracle it is to still have pillows. Something to wrap my arms around while dying, I suppose.
Welcome, friend, to my world, where scribbling down sorrows will make no difference. My dumb broken world. My dying world. My idiot world. My—pardon—dying idiot world?
Creation is funny like that.
You jot off a poem or a play, a song even, and eventually you look at it as though it were a big pile of turd with tiny pieces of gold in it. And even then the shine never lasts; it all turns to rot. Rot, rot, rot. Yes, that is what creation is. Creation is a person rotting inside four walls, waiting to make the next grand statement; creation is the smile on the dog’s face—right before a bus hits it. (Actually, I am not sure whether dogs can smile… I guess you can tell when one is happy, and getting run over by a bus is never a happy thing for a dog; it is not a happy thing for me, either.) Sad. But that is how it works: the orgasm before castration.
At times I, Branko Gianni-Sheldon III, feel as though I am nothing more than a shell of something. That is all a person can really aspire to be: a shell existing solely as some kind of hardened coating for fleshy things to pump blood and expel waste. But, friend, if it were only that simple! In each shell there lies an ambition, a dream, a longing, a weakness, a cross to bear, a memory.
And I must remember.
Yes, I must do that. But what?
Ah, yes! Georgia! Remember wonderful Georgia. Remember the trailer—not even a trailer, but a room inside a trailer. Unfurnished? Quite. Then again, it wasn’t even Georgia. It was middle-of-nowhere Georgia. The cantankerous, ill-beating heart of Nowhere, GA—land of clay dirt and pine woods.
I definitely must remember Grandma. Oh, lovely Granny… with the thick red hair. Irish. What a lady. She was sick, you know. Alzheimer’s. Terrible, terrible thing. I remember her waking me in the middle of the night, every night, to tell me of all the ghosts she had seen in her bedroom. Yes, ghosts. Very scary things, those ghosts…. Remember Mother? Mostly remember her handcuffed to a door handle, after the neighbors, thinking she was out to murder poor Granny, had phoned the police. Can you believe it? Oh, and the tears that Mother wept—real sad ones. Yeesh! I’ll never forget it: Mom handcuffed to a police car; the flashing of blue and red in broad Georgia daylight; a long, tear-soaked cigarette quivering from her lips. Looks like you’ll be going to jail real quick, Mama! I’ll write…. Remember the step-daddy. Can’t forget the drunken step-daddy who beat me…. OK, OK, fine—he never actually beat me. That was a lie. But I sometimes wish he had beaten me. Not only would my hate be irrefutably justified, but a much better book would have been written because of it: the abuse of genius makes for great copy. But no actual physical violence to speak of, I’m afraid. Yet the things he’d say to poor old Granny and me were rather violent, yes. Horrendous things he’d say, none worth repeating, but real ghastly stuff, things that made me want to spit in his ugly face. But I was too cowardly to do that: the three-hundred-pound monster would have surely taken me out with one quick, deadening blow…. Then there was the girl. Remember her? Yes, of course: the girl! Always a girl. The one before Elsie. The one named Marcella. Ah, Marcella! My long-distance lover, the one who stopped answering my phone calls and letters—fell cleanly off the face of this strange earth, that one, without a single trace—far too much woman for this world to handle, I presume…. There was a job, too. Oh yes, the job I remember. The job of selling vacuum cleaners door to door…. No, wait: I quit that one early on. It was the other job… the job of having to unload hundred-pound boxes of raw, lifeless flesh off a delivery truck. And once winter came I did the same job in the snow. How nice—snow! Yes, snow is rather nice—especially when having to lift, I repeat, 100LBS. BOXES OF RAW, LIFELESS, STINKING FLESH OFF A DELIVERY TRUCK in it! Clearly you must remember doing that, you crazy asshole! And why? Oh, yes—no friends, limited job opportunities, bad personality, yes, yes, all of those. Especially no friends…. Remember the camaraderie I’d found amongst all the empty wine and liquor bottles (spirits, they call them), Mama’s prescription painkillers, anything to make the razor blade seem as though it were nothing more than a laughing matter—HA HA HA! There were many nights like that—yes—games lonely, deranged people play to help pass time…. Remember, also, those reoccurring nightmares I had—ones of feeling as though I were trapped somewhere, stifled, as if locked inside a coffin. Christ, how bad those dreams were—and so many of them I had! Dreams from Hades, you say? Yes, dreams from Hades, indeed….
Take it all in, friend. Yes, take it all in—the passing trains that wobbled and shook the contents of my bedroom; the orange muck caked on the bottoms of my shoes; the flies hovering over the dumpster behind the warehouse on smoke breaks, hovering over my life; the dead animal décor aligning the roads; God’s country.
Forget it. I can’t remember anymore. I have a headache… and the tears are starting to come….
Yes, this is a pity-party. A party for one. A party for Branko. But I invite you. Maybe you can relate. Perhaps not? It’s true that I am much better at disgusting people; most critics will tell you that. Hell, one critic wrote that my writing was like me saying, “If you don’t read me right now I will climb out of these pages, tear your intestines out with a plastic fork and then hang you with them because I really hate your fucking guts…” Isn’t that the nicest thing you have ever read, italics and all? But it’s not entirely true, no. Granted, I may be a bit of a morbid ass—real fucked up—but I would never hold a person at gunpoint (forkpoint?), especially if it was just to read my nonsense. Really, I’m an easy guy to get along with; and I harbor very little, if any, pretense. It is only I in which any extroverted frustrations are bestowed upon. With all honesty.
So, friend, it’s true that I had the title of this book written down before anything else herein. And trust me, this isn’t Hemingway or Sedaris or T.S. what’s-his-face, but screw it: I never wanted to be any of that—never wanted to be anything, really.
This is my life dragged through the mud, left to die alone. And I know that from now on my life will be crummy—till the very end it will be crummy. There is no way around it. Either you are dead—physically, mentally, or emotionally dead—or you are suffering, which is to say you are still alive. Luckily most of us, from the get go, are armed with the knowledge of this grief. And with said knowledge, I prepare myself for death. But first, I must leave a little something behind—for you. (Never let it be said that Branko was a selfish person.) I leave with you my pain—no sense in taking it to the grave with me, now is there?
What’s that, friend? Yes, I’d rather you laugh. Go on, don’t be shy. It is all very comical. But wish to place a safe bet? The gift I leave will never be considered for a Nobel or Pulitzer or Pushcart or Oprah Book Club prize. The gift I leave is a murder trial, for this is a work of sadness—a burning sadness; a black sadness; a white sadness; a red sadness; a purple sadness; a yellow sadness; a goddamn rainbow of sadness!
(You know, sadness can be pretty funny if you look at it a certain way… but it can also be quite sad, too.)
Jesus! Now look at me: on my knees, hands clasped, praying fervently to no God or Heaven, just a cloudy white ceiling garnished with tiny hooks (???), hoping that the inspiration it takes in writing a book such as this will leave, never to return again.
Oh, but there has and will always be books like this. And why shouldn’t I, Branko, be the one to author a few? This book is my bullet—and I assume it will reach all potential targets, because as long as there is still poor people, rich people, wars, eviction, rejection, deception, loneliness, bad weather and unfaithful lovers, the world will go on reading about tragedy.
What else is there besides death, really?
This is not a “concept” book. Many think that a “concept” anything—be it a book, a record, a movie, what-have-you—serves as some highly masterful undertaking for an artist to achieve. Yet anyone who really believes all that is, well, being a foolish oaf!
There is no genius in conceptualization. A “conceptual” artist is, more or less, a lazy artist unable to create outside of his or her own sordid box. I, my friend, am a lazy artist. I am one of the laziest, in fact—and therefore, one of the best.
With this book I have perfected the art of redundancy. Yes. Yes, I have. This book is lazy and redundant because the person who wrote it is also—coincidence?—quite lazy and redundant.
What I am trying to say—friend, you still with me?—is that writers distort the reality of their own life experiences. (That or we “borrow” the experiences of others.) But tell me, is it really my fault that my life, that of which belonging to the artist so generously calling out to you now, has been drowned in muck? I merely capture pictures, folks. I’m in the picture-capturing business—truly I am—except circumstance has dealt me, time and time again, the same crummy frames. But as crummy as mine are—and, oh yes, they are damn crummy—I will continue working with them for as long as necessary. And I will whine about it, too. (Oh yes.) And you will hear about it often. And you will love it!
Perhaps, by default, this is a dreaded “concept” book—an “anti-conceptual” concept book. If that is the case then, please, tell people how pretentious and lazy I am for writing it—and then gossip about how much of a no-talent, piece-of-shit hack I am.
Crazy, you say?
Well, congratulations: you have acquired the golden ticket to my art. Just don’t ask for your money back—I never got it to begin with.
Please, though, send me stuff. Naked pictures will do; that will prolong my life for at least a couple more days.
Actually, no, scratch that—naked photos will only bore me. Send letters of disgust, instead: I am hungry; I can feed off those awhile. Then again, if my dear old mother no longer writes, why should you?
However, there was once a letter. A rather nice letter. It came to me from a stranger, in regards to my previous book. I share it with you now, in its entirety:
I liked the overall gloom-and-doom feeling of your book. I gravitate towards things of that nature and many of the entries left me feeling depressed and hopeless. Some of what you wrote was just downright disturbing! I liked it. Anyway, take care and don’t go crazy staring at the walls in your room.
Isn’t that nice? Lovely Evelyn. A lovely letter from lovely Evelyn.
I bet you think I had the damn thing framed, don’t you?
Well, I didn’t. I tossed it to the floor—for that is where anyone whoever feels the need to be a part of my life will end up: on a dirty floor—amongst all the broken bottles and broken lighters and broken manuscripts—a broken Branko—a caricature of my own silly bullshit….
Fitzgerald cracked up when he was, what, thirty- or forty-something years old? By then he was already established as a literary force (farce?). My books have sold barely a lick and already I am smashed like a loony egg!
Then again, Ms. Sylvia Plath wasn’t considered a genius till she baked her head in an oven: O Sylvia, you silly bitch! What insane beauty! I would have nibbled on those immortal fingertips of yours, tickled your feet until—finally—you would have had the good sense to laugh right in Death’s sniveling face! Ha!
But, yes, friend, it is back to this room, foolishly wanting more than I’ve been given… my lips touching Utopia that isn’t there….
Well, hey, sometimes you need this.
Sometimes you need a good letdown—perhaps several, if you’re me—HA!—to really get the juices going. Sometimes you need the person you love (Elsie, in my own sad case) to carry you around as though you were some hurt, half-breathing canary-like thing. Sometimes you need the empty walls to shake you and call out:
“Hey, dip-shit, remember us?”
It is hard, but you need this. You need it more than anything: truth snuffing out lies. You need it to remember the importance of unimportance, once all your many vices have left you to die. And it’s so simple: trust no one and nothing, copulate with all that is shoving you towards an early madness, and make artifice out of it. May as well create a bigger mess for yourself—call it “wreck-creation.”
Ah, Christ! I just got all holy again. Apologies. Let’s try again: Don’t create—don’t do any of it. You will only end up like me: a sad prick and his sad little book.
And so I, Branko Gianni-Sheldon III, get up to relieve myself. The toilet clogs. Then I die until morning… as the same old sun will show itself again… and the same old monsters of this world will go on licking themselves lazily—Amen!
I can’t leave you like this, friend. No, I cannot do that. There has to be some sort of light for you to read what lies ahead… something for you to stay afloat, to help buoy you up in this putrid bath of sorrow I’ve drawn.
So listen, friend. I want you to know something: I want you to know that I am not yet as despondent as I may seem. I know I have painted myself as some heavily disturbed person. (It happens to those who get lost while tracking some form of hidden logic—which is practically impossible to do, for it is like hunting Christ in a shopping mall.) Forgive me. This was, after all, a bad night for me. Yes, it was. And there will be other bad nights. But some of these bad nights end up, in a strange way, as okay nights. Yes, I—and many people for that matter—live in an unfurnished room where it is always night. But it doesn’t have to be a bad night all the time, does it?
The vignettes in this book serve as crude snapshots of a particular character—a particular character comprised of many characters, all sharing one important quality: they are different.
These characters have been shoved, either through self-action or circumstantial misfortune, into a world of confusion… a world of madness….
These characters are people. They are people without much of a place outside of their own physical and/or mental walls. Something bad has happened to them, you see—their pasts haunt them, and this continually muddles their present to the point where the future matters very little. Their future is to go underground, back into the earth where they came from and—figuratively speaking, perhaps—where they have always been.
These characters (“Dostoevskian” characters, some critics—or “critter-icks,” as I’ve now thought to call them—might say) are Earth people. They believe in no God or Heaven. They know only the earth—its many beauties, and its many horrors. These characters have sprung from the earth—they’ve spring like a wild patch of little embryonic pumpkins. The pumpkins, like the characters herein, may be a bit tainted; they do seem rather ugly and unwanted at times, but they still have the potential to grow, to become something more, something great.
Yes, friend, it’s true: Halloween is only once a year. So be it. This book, then, is their Halloween….
—BRANKO GIANNI-SHELDON III
BRIAN ALAN ELLIS’s fiction has appeared in such publications as Skive, Zygote in my Coffee, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Spittoon, The Big Stupid Review, DOGZPLOT, The Splinter Generation, flashquake, Conte, The Fine Line, Fiction Fix, Covalence, Curbside Quotidian, FLARE: The Flagler Review, Emerge, Asbury Pulp and NAP, among others. His work was also performed by the “Stories on Stage” theatre program in Denver, Colorado. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and is currently compiling a collection of stories.