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Wanna See a Dead Body?
On living and not living, on writing and emptying.
It’s been a while. No excuses.
My novel THE LAST KING OF CALIFORNIA will come out next week in the UK. If you’re in the US, you can order it from The Book Depository or Blackwells for what seems like an outrageously low price to me. Just before the release I’ll do a special issue of the newsletter with a little taste of the book.
Meanwhile, the January release of EVERYBODY KNOWS in the US is picking up steam. I’m really excited to unleash this bastard onto the world. I’ve started working on a follow up, and it’s been going okay, but I knew something wasn’t quite right. And I kept going, until this thing happened that made me realize what was wrong.
The woman was standing in the middle of the street, holding a cell phone, sobbing. She saw me turn the corner onto her street, just on a walk, talking to my friend JDO. She came up to me fast. She said, “You have to help me. I think my neighbor is dead.”
“I have to call you back,” I told JDO.
The woman had a crust of warts on both of her top eyelids. It feels cruel to include this detail but there they were above her wide and teary eyes. She told me that her and her husband take her neighbor’s trash bins to the curb for him each week because he is old and needs the help, but that today the bin was empty. She told me she thought she could see him lying in the front hallway.
Her neighbor had one of those security doors that is a sheet of metal with little holes drilled in it so I could see vague outlines a pair of legs lying in the front hallway.
She told me that she was on the phone with 911 and that someone needed to go inside and give the old man CPR. From the fear and pain in her voice it was clear that she was not able to go through that door.
I didn’t know how to perform CPR, and I didn’t want to perform CPR on a stranger, but I thought maybe there was some help I could give. So I went.
I opened the door; I looked down at him with nothing between us. His legs were swollen like something dragged from the water, and green. Thick ribbons of purple bloat ran through the flesh. I saw him for a mere blink of time; I will never not see him.
I turned to the woman and said, “He is very dead.”
It wasn’t me who turned around and closed the door. It wasn’t even my subconscious. It was something as deep in us as impulse can go, talking in a very simple language, telling me that there was death in the room and I was not needed.
I talked to the woman a bit, asked her her name, told her mine. Sirens rose in the distance. A firetruck rolled up, followed by an ambulance. We pointed the paramedics into the house. The system took over. I said goodbye to the woman. I called JDO back. I walked down the hill. I saw two landscapers leaning against a truck, talking and laughing, like death wasn’t squatting just up the hill from them. I got home and I told Megan what had happened, but first I sat down and I texted myself notes about what it had been like, because I am what I am.
And then life went on. Only it didn’t. I didn’t write anything for a week and then one day I missed two meetings for no reason and it took me until then to figure out that I was fucked up. It fucks you up to be taking a walk and with no warning have the rude and brutal fact of death shoved into your face. And so I let myself be fucked up for a little while. It’s over now.
And as shameless and self-centered as it felt, my part in this man’s death and discovery made me realize that there was a part of me that had been emptied, a well of experience and feeling and plain living, and that it was time to refill it. I had written EVERYBODY KNOWS mostly during the pandemic, emptying all of my Los Angeles into it, and that in those two years of pandemic life I hadn’t refilled it. I needed the rude and brutal truth of life shoved in my face. Living is a vital part of writing, and writing is a vital part of my life, and for two years the only way I have been refilling my tank is by taking in art. And I know now that has to change.
I’m writing again. I’ve added a new POV character to the book, the type of person who seeks out things like corpses and violence and chaos. He’s just what the book needed. I ordered a police scanner yesterday. I’m going to listen to it and follow the chatter and see what I can see. And maybe I’ll see things that will fuck me up, but that’s much better than seeing nothing at all. There’s plenty of time ahead for nothing.
Okay, party’s over.