In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away. — Stevie Smith
When I was a child, so long ago, I remember wandering the aisles of that vanished institution, the home video store. Blockbuster Video opened its first store in my hometown of Dallas when I was eight or nine, and I regularly begged relatives to take me there or to one of its many mom-and-pop predecessors.
I have such a clear memory of being in one of the little independent stores with my grandmother. It was a hot Texas summer’s day, and I was wearing flip-flops on my little feet. We were in the tiny, dusty town near the ranch where my grandparents lived. They were still together then, just barely.
Like much in the little ranch town, the video store was “rough-hewn,” as my grandmother liked to say, a favorite phrase of hers that she’d unkindly apply to people as well as places.
I was roaming the kids’ section of the store. The kids’ videos were thoughtfully located near the bottom of the displays. Less thoughtfully designed, though, were the tiny little picture-hanger type nails that stuck out below each video’s empty box. Hanging from each little nail was a nickle-sized disc with a number stamped on it. You’d take the disc from its nail to the counter and the clerk would retrieve the video you wanted.
I’d chosen my video, Where the Red Fern Grows, and was excited because, though I’d heard of it, I’d never seen that movie or read the book. I turned enthusiastically, and one of the little nails punctured the tender flesh just below the toenail of my big toe.
I wailed. I would have stopped, probably, as the immediate shock of the pain subsided, but the other patrons of the shop, only two or three besides my grandmother, turned to look at me in concern.
So I had both a reason to be upset and an audience, a combination I could not resist as a little kid. I began wailing and screaming at the poor clerk and the owner of the little shop, accusing them, as maybe only an affronted nine-year-old kid can, of being severely negligent in the placement of those nails.
I remember receiving the video rental for free, as a reward for my troubles, though I didn’t care about that — it’s not like I was paying. I was more pleased with the little paper sack of popcorn I was awarded, fresh from the old-timey popper on wheels.
The nail-under-the-toenail drama was only the beginning, though, of the Great Red Fern Incident, which entered into family lore after that weekend.
For that night, with my grandparents, I watched the movie, and at its sad ending I cried — and cried and cried. Cried inconsolably for hours, until, my child’s body entirely exhausted, I fell asleep, was carried upstairs to my garret two floors up.
The morning sunshine did not bring with it, though, the usual sunniness of my disposition. I was still so sad and couldn’t eat, didn’t want to ride a horse or go for a swim, wanted only to be in my tower by myself, all alone, with books and markers and maybe music — a time to reflect, regroup, recover.
My grandparents, distraught over my depressed state and bickering sharply about who was to blame, came up with an idea. Perhaps, they suggested, I could write letters to Old Dan and Little Ann, the two dogs whose great friendship is portrayed in the movie.
And so I did. I took up my markers and crayons and wrote separate letters, one to Old Dan and one to Little Ann, telling them how wonderful they were, how much they meant to me, and how much I’d miss them. In a solemn ceremony to which a half-dozen cowboys were summoned (cowboys, even then, who I thought were beautiful and strong and wonderful, their presence always a joy to me), I read my letters as Grandad held me, and I cried a little more, and started to feel a little better.
But the feeling better did not come all at once. For weeks, I felt sad about the movie, sad about my lost canine friends and their great love for each other. My grandparents bickered so much in those weeks that I asked my grandfather, years later, whether that video-store nail in my toe was also the last nail in the coffin of his marriage. Grandad, in his way, replied simply: “If so, Bri, I thank your toe for taking one for the team.”
Why do I tell this long-ago story? As a way of saying, for now — goodbye. Even as a nine-year-old “little prince” I exhibited extremes of personality. One moment, I could happily be haranguing a hapless video store owner; the next, I could, for weeks, genuinely grieve fictional dogs.
I’m a cheerful person, by and large, sunny and happy — but I also cry, often and a lot. I have trouble focusing, always.
Years after the Great Red Fern Incident, I found myself in a hospital of sorts, where I’d retreated to reflect, regroup, and recover. While there, I read as many “literary” accounts of mental health as I could. Among my favorite accounts was a series of essays by F. Scott Fitzgerald, his famous “Crack-Up” essays, in which he wrote: “I was always saving or being saved — in a single morning I would go through the emotions ascribable to Wellington at Waterloo.” I could relate.
But I digress, a bit — perhaps hesitant to say goodbye, even if the goodbye is not, maybe, for good.
Writing often helps me when I am blue. But writing — this kind of writing, the writing I am doing here and have done quite a bit of over the last nine months or so, is also — hard.
Just this morning, I was merrily writing something and in it I mentioned Fitzgerald, who just popped into my head. Or maybe not. Maybe he’d been lingering there, at the corners, in the shadows.
After finishing that story, I did a few errands, took the chihuahua for a walk, had a snack, opened my laptop to write a story I’ve been wanting to tell for some time.
And I started the story, and it was too hard, and I broke down, a bit. I was sadder, for a couple of hours, than I’ve been in a long, long time.
Brilliant essayist and poet Audre Lorde told us, wisely, that our silence cannot save us. I know that. But I also know that I, for now, need to be quiet for a little bit. Being quiet, being still, isn’t always easy for me.
When I was a little kid, people referred to my loquaciousness as “Brian Babble,” and my grandfather gave me a nickname: Buckshot. Buckshot, hunters here in Texas and elsewhere know, are cartridges for shotguns. The cartridges are filled with small “shot,” little balls that scatter on firing, covering a target with countless small hits. Brian was Buckshot because he was overwhelming (and overwhlemed, sometimes), scattered — a scatter shot, for sure.
He still is, sometimes. Scattered. It takes a great deal of energy, always has, just to keep my ship on an even keel. Much energy I might have spent on creative endeavors is dedicated, instead, to just keeping that keel even. I haven’t piloted much of an even-keeled ship lately, for several months, I’m afraid. Buckshot Brian, scattershot and scattered, has prevailed lately.
So what to do about it?
In the first of two sort-of hospital reposes I took (enjoyed, even, though I used to be embarrassed to admit that) as a very young man, I read Auden’s Age of Anxiety for the first time. Auden, my beloved poet, writing on the topic of my old companion, anxiety.
In it, dear Wystan, as I call him (shamelessly echoing Isherwood), wrote these words in his long, long, Pulitzer-worthy poem: “The world needs a wash and a week’s rest.”
All these many decades later, the world still needs a wash and a week’s rest. Buckshot Brian needs a wash too — and a rest. But a week won’t do. How long of a non-sort-of hospital repose will I require this time ‘round? I don’t know.
But I’ll find my way back, or, if not back, then somewhere — even-keeled, eventually, along another route, maybe.
Until then, lovely writers, vaya con Dios, amigos.
As I step away from this space for a while, I’ll be sad not to be reading the wonderful work of so many marvelous people — all of you! Thank you for your generous welcome here, your kind words, and your friendship. I value you, and your work, greatly. I’ll being seeing some of you on Twitter and elsewhere still, of course! Much love, Brian.