Short Fiction — Modern American Boy

Today’s creative writing lab was heavily influenced by Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl, which I highly recommend. The imperative style is really neat, and I had fun with this one.

I’d like to revisit this at a later date and flesh it out more. It hits a little too on the nose for my taste, and I’d like to imply more with contextual clues instead of spelling out this father’s advice.


Modern American Boy

Boy, take your time and absorb what is around you. Your impulses will get you in trouble. You can be a few minutes late to work, you don’t need to speed. Make up for it by leaving a few minutes earlier tomorrow. Be early. Respect the system, be on time, work hard, earn your keep. Don’t rush. Mind your manners; be strong; be in touch with your emotions but don’t share them. Don’t stare at girls too long; don’t put girls down; don’t objectify them; appreciate their form, their figure, their mind, but don’t make crass remarks. Girls will be there later, tomorrow, and the next day. Focus on what you need for the future, not what makes you feel good right now. Pay attention to instructions; follow the rules; be patient; be a good student, be a good worker, be a good son, be a good spouse, and be a good man. Be mindful of your impulses and don’t jump in feet first. Don’t start fights; finish them. Stand up for what is right; pick and choose when to act. Don’t jump in feet first if you can’t see the bottom. I heard you. Don’t misbehave in class; don’t smoke in bathrooms; don’t go out drinking when you have a test in the morning; don’t arrange dates with two women on the same day; don’t date two women with different names at the same time; don’t fall for the grass being greener; don’t ruin marriages, don’t ruin families, don’t ruin your son. I am not ruined. Be there for those that need you. Be strong.

 

Short Fiction – Avoidance

As work drew to a close, he thought about the awkward encounter awaiting him at home. For the last week and a half, he and his wife had grown distant. They slept on the far edges of their side of the bed, and recoiled when their skin grazed one another’s. Their conversations were short, close-ended exchanges of one or two word answers. There was no compassion, there was no attraction, there was just empty space. And that’s what he wanted. He’d grown tired of the incessant attempts his wife made to rekindle the passion. “I can’t stand her dumb questions about my day,” he mumbled to himself as he slowed his work pace. “If I’m a half hour late, so be it. It’s another half hour of not dealing with that bullshit.”

She sat at home, anxious. Unfortunately, her thoughts were spiraling again. She couldn’t pin exactly when her anxiety became so unmanageable, but it reared its ugly head all too often. Her only distraction at this point was seeing that the clock was nearing 9:00 pm, and he would be home soon. Asking him about his day was her way of trying to escape the reality of how little she accomplished battling her anxiety. It was her escape, and often, it was her only contact with the world outside the house.

At 10:45, His phone rang. He lost himself in paperwork that didn’t need to be finished, and lost track of time. “Of course it’s her. She just can’t do anything on her own.” He sent the call to voicemail. “I’ll go home when I’m good and ready.”

“I wonder why he’s not picking up. He must be with another woman. One that isn’t crazy. One that doesn’t drive him nuts with her fidgeting and panic.” The phone call kicked to voicemail. “It has to be it. He can’t bother to answer the phone, and he’s an hour late. Of course he’s with another woman.” She had memorized the voicemail at this point, as every call she made to him went unanswered. Her message, too, had become rehearsed. “Hey, it’s me,” she tepidly began, “I guess you’re stuck at work again… Give me a call… Please.

Turning Point

When looking into the potentialities of change, the immediate gratification you seek can make looking at the present difficult. When things are bad, you’ll focus on them, because negativity is infectious. It rewires your mind and turns the world dark.

Things suck because they have to.

Why do things have to suck?

Your attempts at change and reconciliation have gone nowhere.

I want to keep trying. Things were great once, they can be great again.

If there’s no indication of a possibility of improvement, why bother repeating yourself?

Because maybe this time it’ll sink in and progress will be made.

The little things can’t be fixed. How do you expect to change the big issues?

By starting small. If I can have a picture of where I want to end up, I can decipher the smaller steps required to reach that point.

There’s way too much to take on. Think of all the shit you need to tackle just to take your first step.

But I want more.

Do you?

Yes.

Then what are you waiting for?

First steps are dangerous. This is where your love of baseball comes into play. The all-time greats fail seven out of ten times. They keep stepping into the batter’s box. You can handle setbacks, your life has been littered with them, right? Yeah, that’s true.

Disappointments flood your mind and it’s easy to only focus on the times you’ve faltered. Especially since your most recent history has been nothing but let-downs. It’s easy to lose focus on the accomplishments you’ve made.

You lost two full years to depression. You were worthless and she carried you.

I wasn’t worthless. I was just a little off.

A little?

Okay, a lot. But relationships ebb and flow. Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down. Thankfully, it’s been one of us at a time so we can support each other.

What support did she give you?

I had a place to live, and she let me figure things out, no matter how long it took.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to get a push?

Emotional support is a tricky subject. There’s things you want to hear, and things that you need to hear. When you’re in a committed relationship, you need to hear the difficult things. You need to be reminded of what made you great, and how you’re far from it. That isn’t demeaning or insulting; it’s a jump-start to your reservoir of achievements and positivity.

With enough reflection, that reservoir stops being a stagnant pool of the past. It becomes a flowing river of motivation, trying to get you back to the point of being able to tackle any challenge in front of you.

You sat there for two years and did nothing.

Yeah, but before that I made a career out of web-design, on nothing more than my own will to make it.

You faked it enough to get by. You were never successful at it.

I had clients as big as the NFL and Casio.

You got lucky with contacts in the industry.

That wasn’t luck. That was a testament to the quality work I produced.

So start over. Get to that point again.

When reflecting on what you’ve always wanted to do, you’re reminded of the complacency that manifested itself in the field in which you became passionless. You can do it again, because you did it before. But do you want to do that?

You’ve always wanted to help people. Why not do that?

Because all I’ve got is a decade of mediocre web design work. No one will hire me to work with people.

Your sister got that job with the Center with no experience.

Yeah, but she wants to be a nurse. You’re an out-of-work web guy. Can you imagine doing all the things she does? You can’t even clean up a hairball without retching.

Right, but she sounds so happy. Even through dressing MRSA wounds, and people dying, she still raves about how great it is. There’s got to be something to it.

I can’t help myself, how can I possibly help someone else?

By trying.

Success builds upon itself. You’ve long mocked the PMA (positive mental attitude) sub-culture in hardcore. Yeah, right, like thinking positively is all you need to do. As you put effort into an application, set up an interview three hours later, and visit a house the next day, your anxiety is through the roof.

How can I do well on this interview? I haven’t had an interview in over a year and a half…

You ran your own business, negotiated deals, managed sub-contractors. You can handle an entry-level position in a new field.

But it’s scary. I don’t want to fail and wind up where I was.

You won’t.

Of course, you get the job. Your charisma carries you through the interview, and your quick wit lets you come up with acceptable answers to questions meant to throw you off guard. No one even gives you a funny look about the old-man blazer you bought for your grandmother’s funeral at a discount store in Florida.

You clean up shit for the first time, and get through it. Now, a year later, it’s no different than scooping soggy food out of the strainer in the sink. Remember when you couldn’t do that without a glove and gagging? 

You’ve been promoted, since your work ethic translates across fields. Your experience cross-pollinates, and you regain your full confidence. You’re sassy again. Your sarcasm is piercing. Your humor returns and you find things funny that you mocked bitterly while depressed.  Passions rekindle anew, your recreational hobbies are interesting again, and you’re looking forward to the challenge of learning new skills.

If you’re enjoying helping the people at work, imagine how many lives you could touch if you pursued psychology.

That was just a kid’s dream because you picked up on what your therapist said to you as a preteen.

You absorbed it because it’s awesome. You’re logical, reasoned, and observant. Those are good qualities for a mental-health professional.

I sucked at school, and I’m in my 30’s.

Right. So after you graduate, you’ll still have 30+ years to practice and make people better.

You hem and haw past the point of no-return for the fall semester. The deadline for the following spring approaches, and you decide to procrastinate no longer. You enroll in school, and remember just how much you like the environment. You like sharing your strong opinions, and you revel in the opportunity to have them challenged and changed. You like showing the kids in your class up. You’re smart, say what you think, and absorb the information like you always do.

Why are you okay with being grumpy all the time?

I’m not grumpy all the time.

You sure seem it.

Nah, it’s only at home, but I’m giving her time to work on things.

How much is enough time?

The epiphany cuts like a knife. You talk to your best friend, and he reminds you of being at the point of wanting to end your marriage nearly five years ago.

How much longer does she need?

I needed time, so does she.

Right, but you’ve given her time. You’ve recovered, and this is the last vestige of depravity in your life. It’s the last thing to fix.

You feel guilty, selfish. You think that you’re focusing on yourself too much. What’s the line between selfish, and self-care? How can you live without being happy in all aspects of your life? What needs to change?

You make connections with new people. With someone in particular, you relate on a multitude of topics. Your conversations are salient, and the for the first time in a long time you hear a phrase that cements your thought process.

Keith, you deserve to be happy.

The new and exciting is incredibly enticing. Conversations last for hours, and even at your darkest moments of the day, an ascii smile in its own text brightens your day. It’s the little things you realize that were missing. Appreciation. Gratitude. Encouragement.

The feelings have been missing for so long that you become instantly enamored by this person. You spend waking moments fixating on them and hoping for their happiness. You drift off to sleep thinking about them, and you wake up to their name on your brain.

It’s enticing because it’s new, and we’re only seeing the best we have to offer each other.

Yeah, but what if your connection is so strong that it just brings the best out of each other? It’s worth exploring.

It will be months, maybe years before you find out for sure if it was just the perfect storm of emotional connection that led to these feelings, but you’re patient now. You’ve been through a lot, and the energy you’ve invested in the other parts of your life has returned in spades. There is something here, and you’re willing to wait to find out what it is.

It doesn’t matter as much where any of these paths lead. School, work, dating. You’re in it for the experience. You want to risk again. It’s not scary to fail. It’s a turning point to try harder next time.

You’ll be fine. You have been before, you are now, and you will continue to be.

Short Fiction – The DMV

One of my classes this semester is an English course focused on short story fiction. Each week, we spend an hour in a computer lab writing drafts, and I’m pretty happy with how a couple have turned out already. I’ll be sharing the ones I like and my goal is to flesh out these short drafts into full treatments.

First up, is my venture into writing in second person point of view, about a trip to the DMV. After years of personal story telling on my blogs, the creative license that fiction adds is really enticing.


It’s Thursday, and you’ve got two hours between class and work. You got stuck at work late last night and only got three hours of sleep, so the day’s off to a great start. It’s pretty typical lately, burning the candle at both ends, trying to divert energy equally to all of your obligations, and that’s where you fucked up. Today’s the last day your car is registered; gone is the easy option of mailing in the card they sent out four months ago, and there’s some archaic restriction on the web site that won’t let you renew online if it’s on or after the day it expires. Your ability to drive is paramount to keeping your job, and paying out-of-pocket for school is your only option, so you make this renewal a priority because so much hinges on having a car to drive.

You’re distracted through your three hours of class, anticipating the worst. The DMV is known for taking forever, with long lines, and apathetic tellers that are less than helpful. You could be like your father, and let the registration lapse. Which, in turn, invalidates your insurance. Which, in turn, suspends your license. Which, in turn, leads to your car loan being invalidated. Which, in turn, leads you to parking the car around the corner in a buddy’s garage to keep your car from being repossessed. He drove a car like that for four years before he got caught and played ignorant to it all. Remember that time your car was uninspected for three days and you got a ticket over it? Let’s not risk your job and school over a half-hour visit to the DMV.

You get through class, get out of the parking lot, and make it to the DMV. It’s on a one-way street that doesn’t have enough parking, so you start to worry about your two-hour window. It took twenty minutes to get there from school, and of course, there’s no parking. You need to circle the block another ten minutes to snag a space. It doesn’t have blue lines, but it feels like a handicap space. More stress. Imagine your car gets towed as you’re trying to renew the registration!

You notice how the door always sticks as you go inside. How old is this damn building? After the foyer, your nose scrunches at the musty, moldy smell. Your eyes squint at the dated manila paint job, and flickering fluorescent lighting. The sign says there’s an unemployment office upstairs, and the DMV is to the right.

Your eyes widen as you round the corner to the DMV’s hallway. There’s a line out the door. Of course there’s a fucking line out the door.

I’ve pushed enough. Let’s wrap this shit up.

This is (hopefully) the final installment of the Push series. Maybe it’s time for pulling? Pause.

Why at 3am on a Saturday of a week where I’ve been burning at both ends on four to five hours of sleep each day? Because my creativity likes to say “fuck you” to common sense. Let’s write a two-thousand word blog for two and a half hours! Sure thing, brain.


I started an office job with a local company in the summer of 2011. I was scraping by on my own accord for seven years, spending 60-70 hours a week grinding to find and finish work, chasing down payments, and barely making good on my bills. It honestly wasn’t all that bad — I made two of my closest friends during that time period — but I felt vindicated that my hard work paid off when I got that job. I was salaried with excellent benefits, and I was being valued as part of a team, and I did it all without a fucking college degree. Take that society!

For the first year and one week of that job, I felt accomplished. I was solving complicated problems that I probably didn’t have the correct skill set to complete, but I made everything work. I was a legitimate hacker, just researching and iterating code snippets to rush out finished products. It took its toll on me, and I fell into a period of burnout, which coupled with my perfectionist-OCD-side convinced me to run from the job without anything else lined up. Smart.

The ironic thing about leaving a job that way is that you’re confident you’ve made a wise decision, but instead you were irrational and put yourself in a very bad head-space. You became convinced that you weren’t good enough for the job to begin with, and you were quitting before they found out you were a fraud and they fired you. Obviously I was doing quality work because my 30-day, 90-day, six-month, and one-year reviews were stellar (receiving what were described as atypical raises at each meeting). What I learned to be true about depression also applies to burnout: your default mindset changes and you fall into a perpetual cycle of defeating yourself.

I had money saved up for bills for a couple months, so I wasn’t entirely worried about it. I just had a year of experience with a real company, with real results, and I left on good terms. They told me I was eligible for rehire during my exit interview and wished me the best. I was going to be fine. Six weeks later Gram died.

There’s multiple posts in my head about my relationship with Gram, but you just need to know that she was my rock. She was my number one. Her death took a big piece of me, less than two months after quitting a job in an emotionally distressed state. It was the first time dealing with grief in my adult life, and I was woefully ill-equipped. That’s when I switched from burnout to depression.

During my deepest depressive states, I pushed the people closest to me away. This was a point of contention with my mother, and we experienced a long estrangement. I offended her by not meeting an arbitrary level of communication that she considered necessary for a healthy relationship, and she shut me out. Counter-intuitive, right? She thinks you’re not talking to her enough, so she decides not to talk to you at all. Welcome to my complicated maternal consanguinity. Anyhow, around Thanksgiving, I really pissed her off by not being thankful enough for a box of candy or some shit, and she stopped answering the phone and responding to emails. I’d still get notifications from her asking for help on Farmville though! Gotta love that passive-aggressiveness, right Punk?

In January 2014, I called my aunt and talked to her about how annoyed I was with mom. She confessed that Ma was saying much of the same thing, but hers was more dramatic. She kept saying I must hate her, and that she was sending me messages on Skype and I wasn’t responding. To her credit, Skype wasn’t open, and she did send me some emoji once in a while.

I got off the phone and poured my heart and soul into an email, bearing my depression to another human being “out loud”  for the first time. It’s still in my gmail’s sent box, and I have it open in another tab. Reading this is pretty interesting. Here’s an excerpt describing what I was going through, because this is way better than any retelling I could muster now.

I don’t hate you. I’ve had this problem where I fall into myself and I lose track of time since I’ve started working at home again. It happens when I just sit in the same space for hours on end, for days on end, without any change. I get into this rut where I just sort of exist without really doing anything, and then something snaps me out of it, and I’m sad with how much time has passed without me knowing.
I know you’re going through the same feelings, and I’m sorry that I’m not more attentive and on top of reaching out to you so you have an outlet. There’s no conspiracy to leave Skype off so you can’t call me, it either crashes or I forget to open it when my computer restarts when it installs new updates. It’s one of those things that until I realize it’s missing it’s not missing.
There were times in the past where Gram would have to call me a few times a day for a couple days in a row to snap me out of a funk. Now that she’s gone there really isn’t anyone doing that. It just fixes itself organically, and it takes an indeterminate length of time to do so. I’m working really hard to catch it as it happens, but it’s not like there’s a flashing, light-up sign that goes off when it starts to manifest. I know it hurts you when you reach out and I don’t respond immediately, but I need you as much as you need me. So I really want you to pester me to the best of your ability when you feel like it’s gone on too long. I’m not doing it on purpose, it just spirals on me and I don’t realize what’s happening.
I’ve asked Dorena to be harder on me about pushing me to get into a routine to regulate myself, but she has her own problems and she’s totally imperceptive to when I’m having problems. I’m hoping, in some small way, that putting this into writing, and sending it to you, makes me focus on the warning signs more.

She didn’t even respond, and writing that email didn’t do much to help my progress. C’est la vie.

Reading this email again, and knowing what I do presently, I was surely depressed at the time. I didn’t self-diagnose it as such until I spent a lot of time researching the condition and trying to get past it. Trust me when I say these two things:

  1. It is incredibly difficult to self-diagnose your mental-health problems. Your mind biases itself against exposure, often times convincing yourself that you have different problems (or no problems at all) to steer you away from what is really happening. It’s hard to notice the nuances of your condition, where professionals are able to accurately assess your issue through analysis. Ignoring any medical condition is dangerous. You can miss something physically wrong that’s masked as an abstract description of an ailment on WebMD. Always seek professional help. Do not do it alone. No matter how minor you think it might be, do not do it alone.
  2. All of that said, I am not a typical person. I am extremely self-aware, and I’m very logical. I can recognize and ignore my own biases, so I was not flippant with the term “depressed.” It took me over two months to come to the conclusion that I was actually depressed by collecting data on myself and comparing it to various scales. Yeah, I was doing just enough bullshit web work to pay for full-text medical journal articles to research my own condition. I’m that crazy.Fun fact: my therapist was able to determine I suffered from persistent depressive disorder within ten minutes. It took me two fucking months. Stick with the people that do it for a living.

I kept reading papers on depression and treatments, and formulated a plan to get out of it. I first chronicled that I was making improvements in April 2014, speaking about my depression publicly for the first time. Look how confident I was that I had it figured out! I titled the first post about it “The Final Push.” I thought that writing and sharing that would hold myself accountable. The issue with accountability is that it only matters if you’re vested. Putting something out there for more people to see doesn’t do anything more than get you a little attention for it. The only other boon is that your mother will read it, breakdown, and reach out to you for the first time in over six months. Oh wait, no she won’t, she’ll hint to your aunt that she’d like for you to call her, then rip you apart for half an hour about how much you’ve destroyed her heart. Good times.

That conversation was an entrance into reconciliation and we worked hard on our relationship through June. Weekly Skype calls… Nearly daily emails… We were going ham.

Then it fizzled out again in July. My distraction from my depression was spending money on ValleyCats tickets, and I had a few games in a row, so I didn’t have availability for a Skype call on Independence Day. I figured I just pissed her off and said “fuck it” at that point. We put a lot of effort into it, but it was her turn to suck it up and move on. She could reach out to me when she was damned ready on her own.

A week went by, and my rationality restored. I started to reach out again. I started with Skype messages and emails, and she’d respond inconsistently. Sometimes the messages were aloof, but I didn’t make much of it. Then there were two weeks of radio silence. I was defiant and called my aunt. My plan was to get her to sink her teeth in and get Ma moving again. I’d fucking guilt her into talking to me, damn it!

Joette told me that Ma wasn’t doing so well. She fell and hurt her leg going outside for a cigarette, and she was moving sluggishly, sleeping a lot, and avoiding her computer. She said it wasn’t anything serious, but she’d let me know how she was doing if she didn’t reach out to me soon.

A few days later, Joette was outside mowing her lawn. She saw Ma get dropped off from dialysis as she rode the tractor to the backyard. Ma’s routine was to sit in the garage and smoke before going inside to take a nap. Jo’s yard is pretty big, and when she came back around the front of the house an hour or so later, Ma was still sitting in the garage, unresponsive. Joette called the paramedics and sent her to the ER. Ma had a stroke, but the early prognosis was that she’d require therapy but it wasn’t earth-shattering.

I was nervous, but my instincts to help kicked in. I anticipated flying down and staying for an extended period of time to help with recovery and get her settled again. I wasn’t doing anything else, so why not? I’d get to be with her every day, we’d fix our relationship, and maybe it could get me out of my depression once and for all. Six hours later, Joette called and intimated that things were worse than anticipated. She thought that Punk and I should fly down that night to see her, just in case.

We couldn’t get a flight that night, but there was a flight at dawn the next day! Good luck trying to get any sleep after shit like that hits the fan. Our trip was pretty fucking awful, too, even outside of the reason for travel. The plane was delayed by about half an hour in Albany before takeoff, and we only had a 45-minute layover in Charlotte. More stress! When we landed, no one gave a fuck we were on the way to see our dying mother. Passengers on the flight wouldn’t move for us, and there was “nothing they could do” in regards to calling the gate and telling them we were on the way.

Punk and I were so fucking blown out we couldn’t figure out which direction to go. We wound up going down the concourse the wrong direction, and really freaking out. We were noticed by a great guy in a golf cart. He asked if he could help and when we told him what was going on, he waved us aboard warmly, and said, “Come! I will take you!”

There’s no horn on the airport carts. Instead, he made the beeping noise himself. He would start low, holding the long e, “beeeeeEEEEEEEP!” Then, he’d alternate the extended beep with a very rapid staccato version. “BEEEEEEEEEEP! beeeeEEEPPP-beep-beep-beepbeepbepbepbeeeeeeeeEEEEEPP!”

It’s a sound we’ll make to each other three years later and laugh like fools. It was one of few moments of levity that day. We made it to the flight right as they were asking for the last group of passengers, so we got to Jacksonville right on time, shortly after 8am. We went straight to the hospital, and spent the next ten hours there, with only a short break for lunch at McDonald’s.

Ma died that day, and I muddled through life for the next five months, much the same way I had the previous two years. I’d have decent days where I could function, but more than not I’d be a shell of a being browsing Reddit, YouTube, and 4chan for hours of useless distraction. I battled myself again, and thought I had figured it out for the second time at the end of January 2015.

I wrote another post detailing my efforts to get back out of depression. This time around, I knew exactly what I needed to do to get through it, but all of my hard work was shattered by Ma’s death, and I zoned out again.

This time it took me ten months to snap out of it enough to seek professional help. There were two months of soul searching to realize that web design was probably not a viable path for me any longer. He encouraged me to pursue an employment opportunity in the direct-care field, and it changed my life!

On January 25th, I will celebrate my one-year anniversary. When I first started I was faking my confidence. I overcame my squeamishness with bodily fluids, jumped feet first into an entirely new field and built my catalog of positive reinforcements back up, and became an assistant manager. I’m in school like I planned to be, and I’m working on getting my own car. I’m driven (heh, car puns) again, like I haven’t been in nearly six years.

It feels good, and this feeling will not go away again. Moving forward, I will provide the assistance people need to get their lives back on track. I am my own example, and I am proud of myself for coming this far. I know there is still a long road ahead of me, but I embrace the challenge and look forward to the day when I can call myself Keith J. Frank, Psy.D.