You got it wrong, son. You exaggerated the wrong things and failed to exaggerate the right things. I know you’re supposed to know your business, but you wrote your story from a long way off and tried to make it sadder than it was. In your story, I shoot myself. I know you meant well, but you’re young and your life has been different than mine, so maybe your imagination isn’t mature enough just yet. The other problem is that you don’t believe in luck. You don’t believe, more specifically, that bad luck plays favorites. But it does, and it has, and that’s the story I mean to tell—again.
Three weeks before Christmas (not Christmas Eve), I was sitting up late at night holding a handgun. I’d been into a bottle of bourbon, and I was marching along inside a self-loathing campaign to end self-loathing. I was 61, broke and jobless, eyes and feet failing from diabetes, and no family to speak of except for a son who disliked salesmen. The only reason I was still alive is that your mother let me live in the backyard studio apartment she’d converted from a shed—“the condo,” as she called it. It’d been five years since I pulled into her yard with everything I owned crammed into my car, fresh from leaving my fifth wife. I’d driven eight hours from the Carolina mountains to the south Georgia flatlands, gambling your mother would take pity on me. I was grateful. Even with the slanted ceiling I bumped my head against, even with pecans smacking the tin roof like bombs all through the night. I was grateful to have a single friend who had a spare bed, and I told her so.
But you left out five years. It screws up the whole timeline, and your story amounts to one crazy night with no underpinning. You ignored how hard I tried. Every day for five years, my phone machine called a thousand numbers between Savannah and Jacksonville, targeting senior citizens who needed final expense insurance to offset burial costs (I bought some for myself, by the way). Every day, people waited for the end of my one-minute message just so they could record profanities and threats. I was happy to get one lead out of a thousand calls, lucky to sell one a month, and grateful if my commission check arrived a month after that.
I added water to the soup. I survived. Pretty soon, your Mom asked if I ever intended to pay rent. I wanted to, believe me, but every few months, I got further behind and things got so bad that I asked her for small loans—fifty dollars here and there for groceries. I felt guilty every time I asked, and the guilt never went away. On that night in early December, I reached a new low. I called to see if you could spare a loan.
“No problem,” you said.
I knew I’d interrupted something. I heard music and voices and silverware clinking on plates, and then I felt worse. Here you were, about to bring your future ex-spouse home to meet your parents, and here was your father, calling up to advertise his problems.
I said, “I’m embarrassed to have to ask.”
“No problem,” you said again.
“Yes it is,” I said. “I was married to a teacher once; I know what you make. The father is supposed to help the child,” I said. “Not the other way around.”
“I understand,” you said.
“No you don’t,” I said. “I hope you never do.”
There was a pause. Music played. Forks scraped plates. A woman laughed.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said. “Sounds like you’re having a party.”
And you said, “Are you okay, Dad?”
“Thanks for sending a check,” I said. “I’m grateful.”
When we hung up is when I reached for my gun. A hundred dollars wasn’t going to solve anything. In a few days, I’d need another hundred. My license plates were expired, I had no car insurance, my phone bill was three months behind, and I couldn’t afford the gas to get to the Savannah VA clinic. Earlier that day, I’d emptied my one-gallon Lord Calvert bottle of saved up pocket change to buy two frozen pizzas and a pint of bourbon. So yes, I was in a serious funk.
But the problem with your little story is that you’re in too much of a damn hurry for me to shoot myself. You must believe I’ve always been poor. You know, your mother married me because I was talented and ambitious. A month into our marriage (after I lost my license) she drove me door to door so I could sell vacuums. Three months later, I was managing the office and training the salesmen, and taking business courses at the community college. Six years after that (three years after your Mom left and four years after I graduated from the Dale Carnegie Institute), I was sharing a stage with U.S. Presidents. Where the hell is that story?
The college president had hired me as PR director after I graduated, so it was my job, in 1976, to warm up campaign crowds and introduce the candidates. President Ford was arriving by helicopter—so when I saw one approaching, I whipped the crowd into a frenzy to welcome him. It was the wrong helicopter. His campaign staff was leading the way. And the crowd deflated. But I revived them, kept them energized, and by the time President Ford’s helicopter landed, they were louder than before. Afterward, President Ford wrote me this letter: Your charisma was most appreciated on this exhausting campaign trail. If my stay in the White House should get extended and you find yourself in need of a position, please let me know. A month later, a newspaper photographer shot a picture of Governor Reagan (campaigning for Ford) with his arm around my shoulder, looking up at me. I know you’ve seen it. Reagan wanted me to move to California to work for him. I had my picture taken with Carter, but I never framed it. Point is: I was once on course for a successful life.
Soon after that, the Carolina Eye Bank recruited me (with a hell of a raise, believe me) to head-up their PR department. I flew across the country giving speeches and raising money. I booked Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Ronnie Milsap for a charity concert, but they pulled out after I got fired. Why do people defeat themselves? I hope you never have to ask yourself this question. Two decades blurred by. I drank, my second wife divorced me, my mother died, I drank, ran for public office, forgave my father, remarried, lost the election to a crooked incumbent, my father died, I sold (a lot of) real estate, got divorced, remarried, drank, became an award-winning auctioneer, divorced, remarried, drank, divorced, owned my own business (which was very successful very briefly), remarried, poked a needle into my stomach four times a day, drank, divorced, moved.
What I’m saying is that I’ve been reaching for that gun for thirty years. And if you give one good shit about the truth, you should include this in your story: I lost my stomach for sales. I spent entire days driving around south Georgia and north Florida (paying for my own gas), tracking down leads provided by an art instruction correspondence school. I went to trailer parks and government housing complexes and followed dirt roads deep into the woods. When I saw how these people lived, I didn’t have the heart to hard-sell anyone. You made it seem like I was pressuring people to make bad choices. You portrayed me as deluding a single mother into believing that her retarded kid was going to be the next Van Gogh. Your story is dishonest. When I was younger, sure—I persuaded people to spend what they couldn’t afford on what they didn’t need. And it would still come easy for me—I’ve been the best salesman everywhere I worked—but I came to realize, while selling art instruction, that I could not sell something I didn’t believe in. And since there was nothing I believed in (except for final expense insurance), I saw no point in selling anything.
For three months, I managed a topless restaurant off I-95. Your mother called me the boob boss. It was a sleazy joint and I hated every second of it: 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., baby-sitting the girls. If it looked like one girl got special treatment, other girls accused me of getting special favors. What you imply, again, is dishonest. I promise you—I never laid a hand on any of them. I spent most of my time in the kitchen, dropping frozen patties on the grill. My diabetic feet couldn’t tolerate standing for twelve hours at a time, so I walked out one night at midnight, just as two girls got into a hair-pulling fight over a table of cash-waving men. The owners still haven’t paid me what they owe me. Three days later I was standing behind a convenience store counter. You should appreciate the pride-swallowing this required, since I once owned a convenience store, “Grand Central Station,” but I did not, as you suggest, inform every customer of this fact. I told no one. Believe me, I’ve heard enough of those kinds of stories to know how pitiful they sound.
I drove a cab for a week after that, mostly for dope-heads who popped the door and ran, sticking me with the fare. And yes, some crazy man stuck a knife against my neck and got all the money I had, including seven dollars from my own wallet, but there was no dialogue like the kind you must’ve gotten from television. There was no talking. I took the cab back to my boss and left it. He said I owed him for that night’s fare. I told him to kiss my ass and then went home. I was more depressed than ever. I started to under- stand—I mean really understand how desperate some people get, and I started thinking of doing something desperate myself.
So I called you. An hour after that, I was staring at the end of a gun. No offense, but I couldn’t think of a single reason not to shoot myself. So I took my gun and drove down to the Winn Dixie and parked in the alley behind the store.
I said, “Goodnight, Irene,” and it made me laugh. I told you about her—Miss America, but you don’t believe how close I came to moving with her to Lake Tahoe. We attended high school together in Asheville and met again at our 40th class reunion. Even though I didn’t graduate, the organizers sent me an invitation, so I said what the hell, maybe I’d sell some final expense insurance. And she came up to me, said she remembered me from my night shift as a rock-n-roll DJ, 1957-58. We talked all night, danced, traded phone numbers, met after that in Charleston for two different weekends. She’s a classy and intelligent lady and we liked talking to each other. And she’s humble—one time I asked a waitress if she had any idea who she was serving, and Irene asked me never to do that again.
When I confessed the truth about my finances, Irene broke it off. I don’t blame her. You slandered her as a shallow person, but that’s unfair. She was used to a certain standard of success, and I didn’t measure up. How would she have introduced me to her friends? How would I talk about my life to them? I wish her well. But sure, I was heartbroken. For a while, I imagined I might live out the rest of my life closer to how I envisioned it forty years before.
It was a clear and soft night, not raining and thundering, the way your story had it. It is true about the putrid smell of grease coming from the Winn Dixie Deli—at least you got that detail right—there was also the smell of rotting garbage coming from the dumpster ten feet away. After a couple minutes, I pulled up to the dumpster and threw the gun into it. Then I reached into the glovebox for my other gun, and tossed it in the dumpster too. I didn’t stumble upon any epiphany about the value of life, nor did I think of any good reason for living. I just knew I wasn’t thinking too well, and I didn’t trust myself with guns. In your story, classical music was playing while I shot myself. But there was no music. In fact, the radio in my Chrysler stopped working four years ago, about the time my air conditioner quit.
I know there’s some rule about a gun going off at the end if it shows up at the beginning, but if the story had ended with me shooting myself, it wouldn’t be much of a story, if you ask me. That’s too easy of an ending. Where you really screwed up is leaving off what happened the next day. “What happened next?” Isn’t that supposed to be the main question?
The next afternoon, I was reading the classifieds from Jude’s morning newspaper, and I saw where the police department was buying guns off the street for fifty bucks each, no questions asked. Nice timing, right? Story of my life. I went back to the dumpster. No one was around, so I pulled my car right up against it, climbed on the hood and looked over the top down into it. It was about half full, and I couldn’t see much except for bags and boxes and scattered shit, so I swung my leg over the top and climbed down in there. You ever been inside a dumpster? I wouldn’t recommend it. Two dozen flavors of shit. I moved it all around, covered every square inch, gagged a few times at the smells. Couple minutes later, I heard someone open the back door, so I stood up and saw a man carrying out a bag of garbage. He saw me too, and stopped. It was the same man I’d seen inside the store a dozen times putting up groceries. Maybe you’ve seen him. Stick-skinny man, wears thick glasses that make his eyes look too big, high- water pants, red windbreaker? I’d asked him a few times where to find something your mother had asked me to pick up, and he always led me to it, nearly sprinting, and I’d thank him, and he’d stand there and smile, and I’d thank him again, and he’d smile his rotten-toothed smile again like he’d just saved my life. But just then, while I was in the dumpster, and he was on the other side of it holding a bag of garbage, he didn’t recognize me.
He said, “Hey, you ain’t supposed to be in there.”
I agreed with him. I wasn’t supposed to be in there
“But people do throw away some interesting things, don’t they? You won’t believe what I found in there this morning.”
I already believed it.
“I found two guns in there, and both of them was loaded with bullets.” He nodded, persuading me.
I put my forearms on the side of the dumpster and looked above his head toward the sky, bright blue and soft—pleasant for December.
“You won’t believe what else?” he said.
I knew what was coming
“I took them to the police station and they gave me a hundred dollars. I was just going to turn them in, you know, in case they was murder weapons. I told them I’d found them in a dumpster, and they said it was my lucky day. You believe that?”
I believed it. I watched a few sea gulls swirl above the dumpster and waited for one of them to drop a shit-ball into my eye.
The guy said, “I got it right here in my pocket.” Then he pulled out the money and waved it at me, laughing without any sound coming out.
He said, “I figured I’d go to the Jacksonville flea market. Somebody’s got a big truck down there full of cheap movies.”
I looked past the sea gulls toward the sky, thinking that some years from now this might be funny. Just then, it wasn’t funny at all. I looked back at the man with the thick glasses whose eyes were too big. I said, “You guys hiring?”
He said, “You’d have to talk to Richard about that. You want me to get him?”
“No,” I told him. At first I thought I should go home and take a shower, change clothes, come back ready for an interview. Then I looked at this man and thought better of it. “Maybe you could just lead me to him,” I said.
So I climbed out of the dumpster, brushed myself off, and followed the guy through the back door, past a kid wrapping grapes, and down the dairy aisle to the manager’s office. When we got there, Richard wasn’t in. The assistant manager gave me an application.
My new friend said, “You can use me as a reference. Name’s Lonnie. L-o-n-n-i-e. I live over yonder.” He pointed to the frozen food aisle. Then he shook my hand and walked off.
I went back to my car and drove home. Your mother was moving all of her flowers inside because it was supposed to freeze that night, so I helped her carry them. Probably a hundred damn plants. When we finished, she asked if I was hungry. She’d made too much soup, she said. We sat at her table and talked of how we looked forward to your visit, and how we hoped you’d have more success with your first marriage than we had with ours. Then your mother asked me to promise her something.
“Please,” she said. “Do not offer our child any advice about relationships or money.”
It was an easy promise to make.
When you did come home, I was happy to see you. I was happy we got to talk alone one night. I told you this story that you made into your own version. But it reminds me now of what my father said whenever someone told a story that he suspected was mostly bullshit. He’d say, “Nothing ruins a good story like an eyewitness,” and then he’d be off and running with his own version of the story he claimed to know better because he’d seen it himself, but his version was mostly bullshit too.
So, I don’t mean to ruin your story—it’s your business to tell it the way you want to, and I realize that you’re young and you’re still learning, so screwing up is a natural part of the process. I hope the next time you’re home, we can talk about endings. I want to sit in the condo facing each other in my fine plastic furniture, and I want to ask whether you could imagine a story that ends more painfully because the hero continues living. Then I’ll pour us another round and tell you this story again.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Matt Cashion from Last Words of the Holy Ghost