Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
If I need to get away I know how to.
If you’re from a family familiar with death you’re always waiting, in some way, for the next one. But if you’re from a family of suicide—suicide as a tradition— you grow up waiting for it, like a rot-winged inheritance, for reckoning.
The sweater was red, unreal red, rim-of-the-volcano, dirt-of-mars red. The stripes smeared across the sleeves and abdomen (royal purple? Byzantium?) look hand-painted, rendered in faux haste—painstakingly made to look messy. It’s too long in the torso, too long in the sleeves (distorted this way by haute design) and would imbue the wearer with the much sought after insouciance of the elite avant-garde; a hint of unkemptness, a lugubriousness which surfs the waves of existential angst, rather than thrashing around in it; a deep resentment for being alive, but not a full-on self-immolating vibe—rather, built into its vogue ambitions is the self-awareness of its own ludicrousness, such that the wearer connotes the confidence of the nihilist which (only the lizard brain knows why) is so sexually appealing. Relatedly, why is it I only want to fuck sad things?.
Made in Slovenia of 70% acrylic and 30% alpaca; cost: $599.99. Briefly imagine: the alpaca in question, hairless, naked, its camelesque face of blank disdain munching on stale root vegetables, perhaps rubbing its pink ribs on the ashen pines to relieve the inner prickling of its coat, now ingrown from shearing; imagine, of course, all possible cruelties involved in the cropping of the alpaca’s coat, the brutal shepherding, tickling (in a bad way), and then, the feeling of having those huge knees shaved.
I was folding a new shipment of designer sweaters, arranging them on an onyx tabletop in funky, broken-arm poses, as I’d been trained to do in order to garner maximum shopping intrigue. It was one year since I moved to New York City from the Wal-Mart pocked valleys of South Carolina. The first and only job I’d been able to get was hocking designer menswear at a boutique in SoHo for $12 an hour. They hired me because I looked gaunt and forlorn, and because I was. I wasn’t anything I’d dreamt I’d be. I wasn’t rich, wasn’t famous, I hadn’t been ‘discovered.’ I had begun to daydream in order to escape this new sub-optimal city-life. I was doing exactly this when Mom called.
"Hellooo Mother!" I said with the usual sarcasm.
She breathed once, and by its length and measure I knew someone had died.
Who was left that mattered?
"It's John," she said.
Our last man. Damn. The only man on Mom’s side who hadn't killed himself. I hoped he hadn’t, but I assumed he had.
"He's been burned," she said.
"It was an accident. He's alive."
John is my mother’s brother, the youngest of six. Both of his older brothers killed themselves when I was a kid; Jim with a tank-top in a Texas jail, and Bill at a party with a shotgun. “He would’ve had to use his toe!” my mother once wailed to me over the phone, sort of laughing between sobs.
My Grand-pop, John’s father, sent a .22 caliber slug through his skull when John was 22. I had just turned two.
My Dad was always threatening to kill himself. His first attempt, when I was thirteen, almost totaled our ‘92 Nissan pick-up (the only vehicle not yet repossessed). But he staggered home with a moon shaped bruise across his chest and a new kind of shame. The second attempt was during what the cops call a ‘domestic dispute.’ He was in the garage, holding a yellow Stanley box-cutter to his wrist, threatening my Mother and me with his violent absence, and calling it mercy. I wasn’t sure he was wrong. When the cops showed up—two good ol’ boys—my mother was yelling “Just do it already!” and their first instinct was to draw their guns. I stood there, dumb and plump in boy-puberty, between the cops and my Father. I was slobbering and shrieking, snot and tears falling from my chin and cheeks in thick streaks. I remember the feeling of my bare feet on the dusty cement. A calm fall breeze. I was pleading—for what? I can’t remember. Maybe God, the universe, or just plain old fairness.
There is a sublime validation of life in traumas like these. I’m sure in a way I was overdosing on the drama, the death-drive and blood lust peaking in the same instant. Anyway, for the bored and poor such scenes are everyday. In the end my Father was convicted of “domestic violence,” his fourth charge of this kind.
His third and final attempt at suicide was in the middle of our soon-to-be foreclosed upon house. His blood ruined the living room carpet, but still he survived. He called himself a failure and so did I.
A few years later, on Father’s Day, my Father called to tell me about his new found reason for living— “You, son! And your brother, and Mom!” He said he was sorry, for everything, that he was sober again (for good this time) and that he loved me. He said the actual words, “I love you,” outright and bold. I hated him for that. I hung up before he could say goodbye.
Two days later, he died of septic shock. A cough he had been ignoring (he “couldn’t afford the hospital”) had turned to pneumonia. I was seventeen.
It’s the summer of 1981 in Texas, and the boys from Austin High School have gathered at the sandlot to play football. John, being the new kid, wants to make an impression. So, during kick-off, he charges the biggest and toughest looking guy, and plows him into the bleachers. Unbeknownst to John, the 6’1” 200 lb boy he tackled was the infamous linebacker, nicknamed “The Caveman.” His violence was fabled. Famous for banging his head bloody on the lockers before each game, The Caveman, Ken, is my Father. After a stare-down, John lands a hook across my Father’s jaw. According to legend, my Father doesn’t even blink before he breaks John’s nose. After the hospital, they drank pitchers of beer and eat pizza, their respect for each other palpable. Soon after, John finds out my Father has been dating his sister, and the bond between them solidifies.
John wrote the eulogy for my Father, as he had for his brothers:
Ken was not the best of men
He was not the worst of men
He was just a man
Flawed and insecure…
His athletic prowess was the stuff of legends
He was renown for his intensity, power, and ferocity,
Yet secretive and almost embarrassed of his intelligence…
Imagine a man’s man with an intellectual’s wit, a wolf-pup’s face, and the magnetism of a third-world dictator. This is how I remember John. In a world where my male role models drifted toward death and obscurity, John thrived. He was a god to me.
When John joined the ARMY they sent him to Special Intelligence, where he become a ‘strategic de-briefer’—an interrogator. During visits home I remember his briefcase with the spin lock combination 007. I remember Russian swear words, how to order a hooker in German. I remember hearing jokes beyond my comprehension, but laughing along anyway. I remember flexing biceps, and lessons in how to take down a man. I remember oceans of booze.
After the Army, John became an executive for a major pest control company. He had a knack for making fun of rich men to their faces, and having them love him for it. Through the suicides of his Father and two brothers, and the sudden death of my father, John’s tragi-comic grasp on reality only grew more attuned, more visceral. Eventually, though, his self-destruction caught up to him.
At a party to celebrate his own promotion, John puts a Vice President of sales in a guillotine chokehold and is fired shortly after. He gets a DUI. He loses his home, his family, he loses everything except, somehow, his sense of humor. He manages to fight back. Seemingly stronger in mind than ever, he eventually gets a similar position in a similar company, and wins his family back. To me, he was seemingly invincible.
Yesterday, before I sprinted from the store like a racehorse out of the gate, I bought the red sweater. At the time I thought money be damned and now was preparing myself to ignore the Over Limit Notice waiting in my inbox. To further enhance the psychodrama, I brought a large hardback copy of The Divine Comedy as my ‘personal item.’
My red sweater blared in the economy class cabin. Once the plane reached its cruising altitude of 40,000 ft., I flipped down the tiny table attached to the passenger seat in front of me, opened the tome, and leafed through the illustrations: bat-winged daemons crouching on boulders, feet of sinners flayed like flowers, a tarantula-leggéd lady, grayscale Satan brooding in his ice bath, chin in palms.
One illustration depicted trees composed of human torsos, surrounded by harpies, grinning and plucking the fruit from their limbs. The trees are arched in throes of classic agony. (Later, in the hospital, his face dripping with green goo, John will tell me that this is a depiction of the Forest of Suicides, located in the seventh circle of hell, the circle of violence.)
From The Inferno’s first Canto:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
I start to laugh. Loud. Louder than is socially appropriate in economy class. My red sweater blaring, I burn with something above embarrassment. Guilt. I suspect I am traveling to John to write a story about John’s death for my own benefit. I am desperate for somebody to say something. Ask me if I am ok. Hey, I love your sweater, but could please keep it down? But everyone is quiet. They are getting even quieter.
“—they call it poutine in Canada, I call mine poon-tang”
“..gotta be crinkle-cut Ore-Ida, gotta use Canola oil”
“—nah, just store-bought pork gravy, throw some mushrooms and onions in a skillet, then add the gravy, voila”
“—coconut flavored vodka over ice with a Yoo-Hoo cuz it tastes like Almond Joy”
“I was home early because of the boss’s niece’s accusation—no fucking way…”
“I was making a second batch, just fell asleep…”
“…well, the microwave was already catching, so I pulled the rug out..”
“—No shirt, just gym shorts, and flip-flops”
“…screaming: MY ARMS ARE MELTING! HELP ME!”
“…managed to throw the little dogs out…”
“…arms were dripping like wax sort-of, no pain just terror of seeing yourself…”
“…walking out the back with the crock pot when I was hit with a bucket of sand from neighbor’s kid’s sand box”
“…an old guy with crew cut and mustache hit me with the morphine, woke up two days later…”
“It was a weird thing. I felt lucid, fine. But I had the catheter.”
“The only time I felt like that was when I woke up in jail when I was seventeen. Your Dad, Henry and me got in a fight and kicked his ass— we jumped in to win the fight. Then went joyriding. And when the cops caught us they thought it was—“
“I was wearing a size 38 jumpsuit but I was a maybe a 28—I was looking young, white, and tasty…”
“It felt like a dream, a motherfucking dream”
“I realized I was older now than my Mother was when Bill died.”
“Derek, I thought he was a giant! Using scissors, scalpels, tweezers …”
“…he said‘this is going to suck’ extracting grains of sand from my third layer..”
“…the ghouls that come in and searched for the veins. The suckiest bitches in the world were like Ishmael.”
“I remember trying to let everyone know I was sorry.”
“—but I was going to live. I could not be morose. Could not be sad. I was going to live.”
“I told her ‘you’ll be knocking apples out of trees with my bones.’”
It’s almost 3 a.m. in the lobby of the hospital and I am studying a vending machine where you can purchase last-minute bouquets. I listen to the hum of the big the stile as the flower spin, their soft colors glowing underneath the fluorescent lights. I note the empty holes where the most expensive ones have sold.
At this moment John is sleeping, though he wakes every 20 minutes. He’s been having that same nightmare where he’s floating in the air through a desert, while his mother tries to smother him him with a pillow.
Every time he wakes he convinces me to walk the burn ward with him—they’ve cut huge rectangles of skin from his inner thighs for skin grafts and manipulated these around his arms and hands. The doctors say that movement will help the new skin attach and form natural bonds to the remaining muscle tissue.
We count the Do Not Resuscitate orders on the doors as we pass: nine of twenty-four. We trudge through a swamp of physical pain, sleeplessness, and medicinal hysteria—passing by the ward’s huge cartoon-y ocean mural, which can’t be anything but condescending. We laugh about it anyway. He refuses to let his ego break him. Somehow the smiling cartoony dolphins and crabs help, and I think the intention of the mural’s artist just might’ve been perfect. After three laps he tells me we’re going for another.
One year later, the red sweater is hanging on a rack in a Goodwill somewhere.
John is baking Lemon poppy seed muffins with blueberries for his employees, a ritual he started every Monday morning after the fire. Over the weekend he’s told me all he can remember about that day, and we went on to reminisce about my Father, his brothers, and his own father.
I ask him if the scars hurt. “It’s like having 10,000 paper cuts on your cuticles if your entire body were a cuticle, and there were hangnails in those papercuts. And that’s when I put the lotion on, which is seven times a day. And yes, I’m doing better than I ever have.”
I told John I was originally concerned about writing this story, unsure if I just wanted to capitalize on the trauma of what happened to him. “So what?” he said.
We might as well make something of our horror. I told him that if he had died, I would have tried to write a eulogy with as much compassion and respect as the one he had written for my Father. To this he replied, “Do me a favor: don’t aspire to write any eulogies.”
Corey Page Spencer is a candidate for an MFA in poetry at Columbia University's School of the Arts.