IT BEGAN on a dirt road off Highway 40, when the paranoia began to shape him, indenting his mind like long digits kneading clay. He was convinced someone was entering his home when he wasn’t there. He had his suspicions as to who it was.
“I’ve got something for them,” he said. “You can’t see it on this side, but they won’t pick this lock more than once.”
We made our way around back into the dark through cobwebs under the house, stepping up onto empty wooden crates and opening a hatch in the floor he had sawed out.
“It’ll be the last time they come in my house,” he said, pointing to the front door.
A clear line of fishing string ran from the doorknob to the trigger of a loaded shotgun.
When I was 25, I wrote a novel titled Sleeping Birds Do Not Sing as part of an assignment for a seminar I was taking under Jennifer Wicke at the University of Virginia (“The Road in American Literature”).
Except, what I wrote was not a novel at all.
It was memoir — every last line. The only change I made to the narrative was swapping out the names of the main characters to something fictional: Ezekiel (“Zeke”) and Jackson (“Jax”).
I was Jax.
The story was about a close friend—a guy I considered one of my best friends when I was 15-19 years old—who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. The narrative involved the day he returned home to say his goodbyes. It was a day in which I’d never been more terrified of another human being in my life.
I don’t remember the exact details of the assignment now, but the two options went something like this: (Option 1) Write an 8-10 page critical essay on one of the books we read that semester; or, (Option 2) write a 10-12 page short story with “the road” as a central theme.
I chose the latter. I went home from class that day and found myself writing with an enthusiasm that forgot hunger, thirst, and sleep. Writers who have experienced what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as a “flow state” will know exactly what I speak of.
Over the next two days I wrote 88 pages of material from a story I didn’t know existed in me other than a single paragraph I wrote when I was 21. I emailed Professor Wicke my final project and apologized that my 10-12 page short story had turned into 88 pages and was still growing. She responded:
I cannot even begin to tell you how impressed I am by your final project–it is extraordinary! You very much have the beginning of a brilliant book here–I’m so glad you realize it. I feel honored that the roots of your book will lie in the final project for the road course! I have so admired you in both classes you’ve taken from me: your intelligence, commitment, professionalism, wit, imagination, and wonderful receptivity to life, literature, culture and people is exceptional. You’re inspiring and magical and I wish the best of everything on life’s road. Do keep in touch–I’ll be eager to hear!
Nothing ever came of the story publication-wise. I never shipped it off to an interested literary agent. A single query letter was ever written. Sometimes I look back at Professor Wicke’s email to me and think I am a failure for stopping the story dead in its tracks. Here was an individual, an author herself, with a PhD from Columbia and a BA from the University of Chicago, one of the top destinations for literary minds, giving me high praise and yet, nothing ever materialized further on my end.
The story haunted me in ways. It was too close to me, too raw. It was, if anything, a meditation on mental illness, on friendship. Eventually I morphed the story into actual fiction, creating additional characters and a plot that drove the story in new ways. I wrote a new beginning chapter which foreshadowed the climax. The new chapter was based off what I actually thought was going to happen to me the day he returned to say goodbye. Then, in 2009 when my dad got sick then died shortly thereafter, I put the story away in a desk drawer and never looked at it again—until last week.
He doesn’t exist anymore in the flesh, my friend. His heart no longer beats. He can no longer love or hate or feel the rain on his face.
My understanding is he took his life but it was never confirmed. Maybe it was cancer or a car accident. The cause of death has always been a mystery, but the origin of his death I knew. It began many years before.
I tried to get in touch with someone in his family, anyone, and failed. I ended up leaving my condolences on an online obituary page with my name and email address for someone to contact me. It’s been over six years and I’ve yet to hear from anyone.
We weren’t always friends. It just happened one day when he walked into town. I didn’t know him until we became friends. As quick as he appeared, so, too, did he disappear like some sort of apparition.
Eventually he moved back to New Jersey to be with the rest of his family. We stayed in touch for a while. He would call me on the phone and tell me all sorts of things that raised the red flag of mental illness.
The government had tapped his phone
there was an attempt to implant a chip
in his skin on the back of his neck
while he slept but the attempt had failed
they’ll keep trying he said
he had seen [such and such] from back home
Jeremiah Kelly Gary
He hadn’t of course.
I’ll have to call you back he said
someone is watching me right now
I tried to tell him none of this was true and to seek help, but there is only so much reasoning you can do with someone with a severe mental illness, particularly paranoid schizophrenia.
Sometimes he would cry uncontrollably as he told me these things. Sometimes I would cry after the phone call was over. I’d sit and stare at the white wall in my bedroom, helpless. I’d think of the beautiful person he once was. I wanted to fight his demons for him, but his demons had no interest in me.
One evening he called from a payphone using a calling card and told me he would no longer be contacting me from the landline at his house. “It wasn’t safe,” he said. “The phone line could be tapped.”
Occasionally I would see a missed call from a New Jersey area code on my phone, but when I dialed the number back no one ever answered. Someone answered once.
“Can I speak to [ ]?”
“Who is this?” the voice said.
“Jeff. Is [ ] there?”
“This a pay phone honey. I’m about to call somebody.”
“Okay, thank you.”
Eventually we lost touch completely.
One day in August 2010, I was sitting on the front porch at the house my wife and I had bought only a few days earlier. My friend had died two months before in June. It had been a good eight years since we last spoke. The postman drove up and delivered the mail, and I, in turn, got up from my seat and walked to the end of my driveway to collect it. It was the first bit of mail we received at our new residence.
As I glanced down at the envelope in my hand, it struck me. The name of the street where I lived now. It’s a combination of two words, the first feminine and the second masculine. It was the name of my deceased friend’s sister and brother.
Life is weird like that. It’s full of subtle and not so subtle signs if you’re paying attention. It’s as if the universe is speaking to you.
An 8×10 black and white photograph of my friend sits framed in my workshop where I do most of my writing. It’s a picture I took for a photography class in college when I was 17. He’s popping an ollie on a skateboard in front of The Cutting Post on Main Street in Phenix.
It’s a photo of a happier time,
before the demons came.
I think of him sometimes,
this ghost from my past.
Sometimes we talk over a beer
about this crazy universe,
what it all means,
how it’s all inter-related—
just me and him.
Just like we did
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