A Nihilist with Many Reasons  |  David Stockdale

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             I have a habit of being very productive through the act of procrastination; that is, when I don’t want to do something, I pursue very elaborate means to put that something off and avoid its very necessity. So, when I was handed divorce papers a couple of months ago, I found all sorts of roundabout ways not to sign them. I cleaned every bit of my apartment. I sorted out my closet and donated all of my unwanted clothes. I took cooking lessons, and then karate. I began reading to the elderly.
             I should point out, however, that none of this was done out of altruism or self-improvement. At that point in my life, I believed in neither. But I did schedule and attend an appointment with a psychologist. All of these actions were originally intended to distract myself from the divorce. I think shrinks are amusing. As a child, I regularly saw them. Though, I’d like to think that I had problems because of an unusually high intellect (that may or may not be a factor), my parents’ main concern was my innate lack of tactfulness and my inability to make friends. I still have no real friends other than Ray, who is only friends with me because he sees me as one of his causes, so I don’t think the doctors really helped me.
             I’m gone, the note read. It was in the form of a Post-it on the refrigerator. From a distance, I had figured the note pertained to some errand she wished me to complete. But nope. I’m gone. What kind of thing is that to write on a Post-it note?
             I knew something was up when I woke that morning, and no coffee was made. The woman always made the coffee. And I always put the whiskey in it and referred to it as ‘Irish Coffee.’ Add the word ‘Irish’ to anything, and it implies that you have augmented the beverage with wonderful alcohol—which I was drinking a lot more of, by the way, now that she was ‘gone.’
             You miss the little things more than the big. Like, how she would put some spice that I can’t pronounce in my eggs for breakfast, and it gave them this extra little flavor that I could never quite place. Of course, had I asked her about it, I would know. Should’ve asked her more things. Should’ve talked more. Funny thing is, when actually I wanted to talk, there was no one to talk to since the woman was gone. Figures.
             I kept the Post-it note. There was this lingering feeling that maybe I could figure out why she left. It was about, say, a week after she left, that I crammed the Post-it note in my desk and tried to stop thinking about it. Out of sight, out of mind. Isn’t that what they say?
             There were mice in my building, and after a day or two of depressive mulling, I contrived a rather unorthodox method of getting rid of them: ultrasonic waves. The sound editor on my computer is capable of creating tones beyond the detection of human ears. But according to my findings, mice can hear much higher frequencies than people, and they’re quite disturbed by the noises. So, after creating this little sound file, I blasted these high frequencies all throughout the apartment. Guess what? No more mice. It drives them out.
             I relayed this whole escapade to the doctor.
             “Strange how something can be undetectable to me; I’m completely oblivious to it, and yet the mice are driven mad by that very thing—so mad, that they are driven out entirely,” I said to the doctor.
             He nodded. He didn’t talk much, but something about him made me feel at ease.
             I don’t know what happened between the time I considered myself an unbridled idealist and now—my present state of mind. It seems like I’ve been dealt a series of unfortunate blows in my life, but who hasn’t? That’s not what it is. I’m not bitter. That’s not why I feel this foreboding, sinking sense of emptiness. It’s all of this damned artifice I see everywhere. Billboards. It drains the life out of me. I’m overcome with the futility of it all. Everything’s predictable. So fucking predictable. I hate high-definition television, by the way. My god, do we need to see every sweaty pore on Oprah’s face? Do we need to see the mucus dripping from peoples’ noses? You know what my real problem with the world is? There’s no movement in life. Anything that appears to be movement is an illusion. The world remains the same sad, arbitrary rock it has been since its inception.
             So, why am I saying this? Why do nihilists do anything, for that matter? I don’t have an answer to that, other than it is human nature for men to strive toward achieving a kind of agency in their little worlds, albeit in vain. If the world is a stage, and life is a theater production, I certainly wouldn’t be the guy operating the lights or handing out the playbills. What I would do, though—I would work against the play, to illuminate the artifice of it all. Show all the pulleys and sandbags. I’d be the sneering critic in the front row, throwing spitballs at the cast.
             And in that spirit, let me tell you a story. Well, it’s more of a series of minor disasters than an actual story. This is no tale of brave Ulysses. There is no greatness to my Gatsby. I am, as every creature on Earth that has managed to walk upright eventually becomes, a soulless menace. Dead-eyed, a quantum fluctuation culminated from a series of unlikely probabilities. We call it life. Nothing more.
             Despite this, I was once a bright-eyed college student, my heart set on going into the Peace Corps, or perhaps climbing Mount Everest. I had ambitions toward something altruistic and epic, and also—I now realize years later—naïve and, ultimately, fruitless. Maybe it had something to do with my mom telling me, every morning as she drove me to school, that I was put in the world for a special purpose.
             “God has a plan for you,” she used to say.
             Due to the unlikely circumstances of my birth, it seemed plausible at the time. See, I was one of those premature births you hear about. You know, the babies that you can hold in one hand. Of course, I don’t remember being that small, and I can’t begin to imagine the hell I put my parents through. I was sick often during my childhood. At age four, I developed a nasty case of pneumonia and nearly died. And that’s my earliest memory: Resting in a hospital bed with my father sitting with me. Dad was reading the paper, and my sister was playing tic-tac-toe with me. And then the doctor came in, pulled my father out of the room and closed the door. I couldn’t hear them talking, but the look of dread and worry on my father’s face said enough. I survived, despite the doctor’s ominous predictions. And my mother had ingrained in me a sense of purpose, though this sense has since atrophied.
             I used to say a broad liberal-arts education was criminally underrated in this day and age. Bullshit. I hated math. I didn’t know what else to do. So, I majored in, of all things, English. The respective ugly looks I got from my parents were alone worth the tuition. And, after all, I read. I have a creative personality, whatever that means. I spent most of my childhood with my head in the clouds, idly wandering between dreams of taking it to the hoop like Michael Jordan and the considerably more-divine aspiration of becoming a Buddhist monk. That was more about karate, in hindsight.
             Life has an unfortunate way of siphoning out the dreamers, though, until all that is left is the crusty, mundane remnants that one might call the silent majority. I, myself, seemed to have lost my drive somewhere between freshman year of college and, well—it gets hazy after that. They say adolescence is a time when you’re supposed to find yourself. It’s supposed to be a point in your life where the world is broadening, and you’re beginning to realize what you can do. My experience has been, for the most part, the antithesis of that sentiment.
             I’ve had a problem for the past few months, and it’s beyond the point of concern. Concern both for my career, and perhaps more disconcerting, concern for my mental welfare. I am, as you may have guessed by now, a writer. Short fiction, mostly. I do many things to pay the bills, though most of it not interesting and not relevant to the story at hand. Here’s my problem, though: As of late, all of my stories have devolved into suicide notes. All of my characters end up killing themselves. I don’t mean to do it; it just happens. The natural course of the story ends with the protagonist committing suicide, and I can’t seem to help it. I wrote a story about a rock climber. Before I knew it, he jumped off the very summit I spent 14 pages getting him up. I wrote a story about a dentist, and after going on for ages about how his life wasn’t so bad, I had him overdose on nitrous oxide. Through an elaborate farce at which I, myself, would have cringed had it not been my own creation, I arranged for a provincial-but-sweet beekeeper to allow himself to be engulfed in a swarm of his own nurturing, thus killing him. They were cheap endings, really. But I couldn’t seem to justify any other way.
             I tried writing a story about a man with terminal lung cancer. Hah, I thought, I’ve written myself into a corner. The guy’s going to die anyway, so why would he kill himself? I’ll just have him try to enjoy the remaining few months of his life, and let the story manifest into a thoughtful meditation on the frailty of human existence. Critics will rejoice at my hypothetical genius.
             Of course, then, I thought about all the pain this guy must be going through and all those people Dr. Kevorkian put down. I suppose that had always been in the back of my head. So, I had my cancer guy end up going into remission. There we go. He’ll have a new lease on life now. It left a bad taste in my mouth, though, having everything end hunky-dory like that. So, I had the guy’s wife leave him, taking the kids with her. On top of that, there was the massive debt from his hospital bills. Eventually, I had him explode himself with one of his old oxygen tanks.
             After this, the thought that I might have a problem entered my mind. My friend, Ray, was no help.
             “Just stop making your characters kill themselves,” he would say.
             As if I had a choice in the matter. My stories write themselves. I merely act as a vessel. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s how I work.
             “Jesus, just stop being so fucking morbid,” he would say.
             I’m baffled by such criticisms, because I write what I see. If my stories are morbid, it’s because the world is a dark and lonely place. Despite all this, I knew something needed to change. I couldn’t have all my characters going around blowing their brains out and jumping off buildings. I was running out of suicide methods, after all.
             I had a long talk with Ray in an effort to expunge the reason for my protagonists’ shared suicidal tendencies, though I had an idea what he would say beforehand.
             “You know, people aren’t as miserable as you want them to be,” said Ray. Stoic, noble Raymond. He always fought for meaning in his own judgmental sort of way.
             “Perhaps they’re more miserable.” I was immediately ashamed of my own glibness.
             “If the truth is that there is no truth, then why do you say it like it’s true?” asked Ray. The glare in his eye gave me the impression that he was serious.
             “Well that’s just swell,” I said. “I like that.”
             “Really, come on.”
             “You’re a piece of work, Raymond. You really are.”
             “I’m just asking because, honestly, I don’t think you can make sense of it yourself.”
             “There’s nothing to make sense of. That’s the whole point.” I felt our conversation was headed in a circular direction, which was precisely what I figured would happen. And I’ve gone over it in my head more times than there are pores on Raymond’s nose. He doesn’t understand that.
             I started to think outside of the box. I tried writing a story from the point of view of a rock. A rock is an inanimate object. By definition, it does not have the capacity to commit suicide. It doesn’t even know it exists, for fuck’s sake. Furthermore, it’s not like you can just destroy a rock. They’re built Ford tough.
             Unfortunately, I have a friend who happens to be a geologist. Over a beer, he explained to me very glibly that rocks, when exposed to extreme heat, do, indeed, undergo transitions comparable to what one may call their destruction. At the very least, he suggested, they undergo a dramatic transformation. In fact, things like that have been going on since forever. Fuck.
             I immediately put the rock story on hold. It wasn’t going anywhere, anyway. I figured I’d stop writing for a while, clear my head. Some people say you need to take a break and live your life. You know, let your thoughts stew around and simmer or whatever.
             So, that’s what I did. I got a part-time job as a cashier in a grocery store. Ah, the glamorous life of the out-of-work writer. It was an experience, to say the least, with a few peculiar eccentricities. My supervisor was a doddering old loon named Doris who reeked of cigarettes. There were anti-union posters in the break room. Among my peers was a homely, teenaged girl named Carla, whose existence seemed apparent only when there was a spill in aisle four. There was a guy named Lewis, around my age, who also worked the registers. He was the type who wore oversized Buddy Holly glasses and itchy sweaters and donned an inappropriately wild beard. I felt an immediate disdain for him. In fact, I felt an immediate disdain for everyone in the store, even the customers. Especially the customers. The way they waddled up and down the aisles in an aimless, wanting sort of way, not once looking where they were going—it made me want to go postal sometimes. Instead of calling it “going postal,” they should call it “going to the grocery store.”
             Homicidal urges aside, there were times when I was proud to say that I bared it all. I would often stand at my register, lost in the sterile fluorescent haze. The radio never relented, save for someone using the PA. Adult Contemporary, as if there were anything contemporary about it. Or adult, for that matter. I wish somebody could explain to me how society came to be this way, because I don’t get it.
             What I do know is the look on Carla’s face when I caught her crying in the break room. Despite my callous demeanor in the words I display to you now, I do try to present myself with a certain empathic grace. Maybe it’s a reaction to my unfeeling surroundings. Young Carla was sniveling, her right hand covering her eyes, and her left clutching her blood-red smock.
             “What’s the matter?” I asked.
             She jumped, apparently not realizing that I had been there to see her cry. “What the fuck do you want?” she asked.
             I suddenly felt as though I had walked in on a woman giving birth, or perhaps, undergoing a painful dental procedure. “Why are you crying?”
             She pushed herself back against the wall and settled into an encumbered lean. “It doesn’t matter,” she said.
             I wasn’t about to press the issue, but I felt obligated to say something to show my concern. “Well, it’s probably not worth crying about. Girls like you don’t need to cry over silly things.”
             She looked up, her eyebrows coming to an insipid crux. I had seen this look before in other women and knew its implications well.
             “What do you know?” she asked.
             I hesitated. “I know that he probably isn’t worth it,” I finally said. “The guy you’re crying over, I mean.”
             The agitated expression on her face melted away, exchanged with something closer to ambivalence and confusion. I took it to mean the assumption I made had been at least partially correct. At this point, I felt as though I’d done my societal duty in consoling her, and walked away.
             There’s a different sort of cry that people have when they’re experiencing that kind of anguish. I know that cry all too well. That night, I wrote the beginning of a short story about a girl born with no face. She was fed intravenously through a series of tubes and breathed through a manufactured hole in her neck. She had no eyes, and thus, no conception of the way things looked; colors and shapes were mere abstractions. But very real in her mind—and more so than the average person—was the concept of hopelessness and death, because the two notions formed a whirlwind of threats since her unfortunate birth. I stopped there. Never did finish the story, because when I went into my desk to get another pen, I saw the Post-it note: I’m gone. I confess I was drinking that night. I always drink when I write. But seeing that note again didn’t have the same effect it did before; i.e. sobbing uncontrollably. I saw it as nothing. It had no context in light of a girl without a face. I threw it out.
             Somewhere along the line, I realized that maybe my characters were always committing suicide because I, myself, saw suicide as an inevitable outcome for my own life. I have no real home to speak of. No past, either—or at least, nothing that I can relate to my past. I have no face, really. All of these memories floating around in the back of my head seem irrelevant, provincial, and mediocre. I’ve allowed myself, through various circumstances, to become lazy and complacent, and thus, my existence has become meaningless. Maybe it was always meaningless. That’s the bitch about life: you never really know. I realized that my philosophy, or lack thereof, was reactionary. I’ve never been anything fully, but more a series of contradictions. Semi affluent. Quasi intellectual. Self-hating, but narcissistic. This had never occurred to me before, perhaps because I’d never had a shrink who actually made me confront the notion. They would usually just write me a script for that latest antidepressant on the market and have me on my way. Avoidance.
             “Now that you know what the problem is, why don’t we work up a solution?” the doctor asked.
             “I can’t change,” I said. “My brain is hard wired for misery.”
             “That’s nonsense. You don’t want to think you can change, because if that’s true, then it’s always been your choice to be miserable. And if it’s always been your choice, that means you want to be miserable.”
             “You think I like the way I am? You think I enjoy seeing the world this way? Look, I wish I could see the world through the same rose-tinted glasses that you do, but I don’t.”
             “I’m not asking you to be delusional. I know the world is a harsh and uncaring place. But it’s also beautiful. There are different ways of seeing things.”
             I sat there for a moment, not so much thinking about what he was saying, because I knew he was right. I was more so just sitting there, waiting for the moment to pass. But he kept prodding me.
             “I know it’s not easy to change the way you see things,” he said. “It’s a struggle every day, but you have to keep trying.”
             I said nothing, but sat back in my seat with a bemused expression.
             “Start small,” he said.
             And then, our time was up. No psychologist had ever had such a genuine demeanor with me.
             I had always taken to the idea that the world was a hopeless, uncaring place. But here I had myriad people helping me in their own peculiar ways: Ray, the good doctor, and even Carla. It was this realization that finally brought me to sign those divorce papers. I guess if you looked at life like a journey, or some trite shit like that, I’d have to say my epic really has yet to be told. Hope was always a luxury of which I never consciously wished to indulge, but it’s beginning to look as if it will inevitably indulge me. My characters don’t kill themselves anymore, by the way. I’ve even managed to stay alive myself.

♥ End ♥

David Stockdale is a writer from the southwest suburbs of Chicago. His fictional short stories have been featured in Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine, The Commonline Journal, Midwest Literary Magazine, and Behind Closed Doors Literary Blog.

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