The Jennie Hackman Memorial Prize for Fiction, 2nd Place
I’ve been a writer for 25 years and haven’t finished a single book yet. I write all day, every day, and have practically nothing to show for it. I don’t really know why I write, although I surely do enjoy it; all I know for sure is that I haven’t made a penny from what I’ve written so far. I usually write in spiral- bound composition notebooks. By now I have so many of them filled up with fragments of stories I’ve long since lost count. Sometimes I’ll only write the beginning of a story, and then move on to a different one—only to write an ending. Other times I’ll write the middle of a story, and then get distracted by another idea and write something else. Sometimes I’ll start, restart, re-restart, and even re-re-restart the same story over and over again, changing minute details each time.
Just the other day, I had a thought cross my mind. I was filling a bathtub with black ink. I closed my eyes as I poured bucket after bucket of ink into my pearly white bathtub. I watched the ink slowly make its way across the bottom of the tub, gently rolling over itself and covering up every inch of the whiteness below. I then stripped until I was naked and slid into the bathtub, covering myself—every inch—with deep inky blackness, slowly descending deeper and deeper below the surface and into the substance of writing. I quickly jotted down my thoughts into a fresh notebook and continued on with my morning.
25 years ago, before I became a writer, I was tormented by thoughts—terrible thoughts which were driving me crazy and causing me to pull out my hair. Back then, there were tufts of hair scattered throughout my house: on the floor, under the rug, on the table, between the couch cushions, and between my sheets. There was hair in my coffee pot, in my tea kettle, in my refrigerator, stuck to my towels, adhered to the ceiling, and even fixed to the windows. There was hair everywhere, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. I was in no state to deep clean every inch of my home, but that was what was required to clean up the mess. The task seemed so big and daunting that I avoided it entirely. Plus, it seemed like the more hair I pulled out, the faster it grew back—and thus the cycle continued over and over again, and more and more hair accumulated throughout my house.
Over time, I found that it became comforting to be surrounded by my own hair. Being in my house felt like an extension of my own mind. I’m not quite sure how else to describe it, but it felt like being a baby kangaroo inside its mother’s pouch—a warm solace that I eventually became accustomed to.
During those days, 25 years ago, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror without thinking of a hairless cat—a wretched little creature and a demon to be sure. To cover up my pathetic appearance, I began wearing a hat—a deep black fedora—to avoid the appearance of balding. At first, I loved my deep black fedora as it fulfilled its purpose reasonably well. It covered up my head and hid my shame. However, it tended to fall off at the least opportune moments. There were times when I detested the damned thing and wished never to see it again.
This happened one day when I had company over: a total stranger who had knocked on my door asking if I wanted to learn about Latter Day Saint theology. When I answered the door, he presented himself to me as a nice and reasonable young man, who was incredibly passionate about Mormonism. I was eager to talk with him and invited him into my home. This young Mormon, so used to receiving the cold shoulder from housekeepers too busy for their own good, readily accepted my offer. Thus, he came into my dining room and I prepared tea for the two of us. It was all set to be a wonderful afternoon. However, in my excitement, I forgot that the interior of my house was much hairier than the average, and the young Mormon was so impassioned and eager to share his faith with me that he didn’t notice.
As I was preparing the tea, the young Mormon sat down at my table and began telling me about his community. I listened eagerly because this young man was clearly zealous and passionate about which he spoke, and I loved a good discussion just as much as anyone else. After a few minutes, I brought him our tea and continued to listen. I sipped passively as he spoke. This charming young Mormon engaged me in conversation with a great ferocity and intensity which captured my full attention. His mannerisms conveyed a sense of confidence and grace. His words were like a warm blanket wrapping my soul in a layer of calm and tranquility.
As he continued speaking, his eyes widened to capture my full being. It felt like he was hugging me with his perception. I wanted nothing more than to give myself entirely to this young Mormon. I nodded along with his words as I finished my tea. He paused periodically to sip his. Beyond all else, I felt enraptured and continually impressed by this young man; his elegance was unparalleled, and he seemed cultured—more so than anyone else I had ever met. There was never a dull moment or an awkward pause for the entirety of our lovely conversation.
Everything was going perfectly until, all of a sudden, this young Mormon’s face became crooked, and turned a shade of green, then of violet; he was suddenly choking fiercely. To my dismay, he got up from the table and started pacing around my dining room, trying to cough up whatever was blocking his esophagus. I felt cheated and like an afterthought; I wanted his attention back! To this end, I produced a glass of water for him and waited desperately for his choking to stop. After several minutes of agony and retching, the man had coughed up a hairball—a hairball of my hair. I never felt more embarrassed in my entire life.
At first the young Mormon looked confused. He stood there, dumbfounded, holding the hairball, breathing deeply, unable to make sense of what had just happened. Then, he began looking around him: at my walls, ceiling, floor, table, and everything else. He finally recognized the hairy nature of what he had initially missed. The wet hairball dropped to the floor with a deafening plop. He looked down, horrified by the hairball which now lay pathetically between his feet. After several moments of silence, the young Mormon began asking about what kind of terrible person I was to let my dog shed indiscriminately around my house.
I was relieved at first; at least this terrific young Mormon didn’t realize that it was my hair he had just been choking on—he thought it was just pet hair. Thus, I began assuring him that indeed, I have a dog who sheds everywhere, but that this dog happened to be outside during the course of our conversation; after all, she likes it so much better outside. I also admitted that I have been needing to clean up all the fur for quite a while, but that I have been so busy taking care of my wonderful dog that I didn’t have any time. I began to pat the young Mormon on the shoulder and reassure him that it was indeed just dog hair, and that we should continue on with our afternoon as it was before. I gestured toward our chairs and offered to make him more tea.
Just as I was doing this, I leaned forward and in an act of clumsiness, brushed my jet black fedora against the young Mormon’s shoulder, causing it to become lopsided on my head and then tumble onto the floor. My balding scalp and miserable appearance were thus revealed. The young Mormon looked at my miserable scalp, and his face suddenly became white. He looked at my hairless head, then down at the hairball, and then around him at the hairy surfaces within my abode. He put two and two together and let out an ugly shriek. He flung my hand off his shoulder and ran out of my house, faster than I have seen anyone run before. He ran so fast that he even forgot his book on my dining room table.
One day after this incident, 25 years ago, I decided to take a shower and didn’t come out for three weeks. Day in and day out, I laid on the floor of my shower and cried. I cried and I cried and I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. And then I cried some more. I periodically wriggled around the floor of my shower like a worm in a pot of soil. Sometimes I slept, but mostly I was awake. The feeling of water shooting onto my body made me feel restless. I kept pulling on the feeble remains of my hair. Above all else, I felt ashamed about what had happened and what I had become; he slipped right through my fingertips!
The three weeks I spent in the shower were the longest of my life. The water pressure and temperature were inconsistent, and thus the water kept switching from too hot, to too cold; too hard, to too soft. Back and forth, and back and forth; it was pure torment. That’s not to mention that my intrusive thoughts were as bad as they ever were. For some reason, it seemed like my mind was under a lot of stress back in those days. This caused me to keep pulling out my hair. And when I ran out of hair to pull, I would pull on my scalp and pull it hard; the constant flow of water made my skin soft and easily damaged. Patches of skin on my head were raw and red from the ruthlessness of my own attacks. Flaps of tender and peeling skin hung down my face and got stuck under my fingernails. Instead of fighting my demons I became them.
Eventually, after three weeks of showering, the water level began to rise. For some reason, the water wasn’t flowing down the drain properly. The water level rose slowly—first it went up to my thighs, then to my chest, and up my chin. Soon enough I could taste the water in the corners of my mouth, and it slowly made its way up my face. Soon, only my nose remained above the water level, and eventually that became submerged too. I remained under the water for as long as I could manage, but eventually I rose to the surface and stood up.
Standing up from my prolonged marine hibernation made me feel powerful. I could feel energy flowing through my body. I sauntered through my shower, which was by now overflowing with water, and heroically turned off the spigot. I stepped out of the shower and splashed water all around the floor of my bathroom.
Still dripping wet, I turned toward my shower and assessed the situation. The drain to my shower appeared to be clogged, and I need a way to unclog it. I searched through my bathroom drawer and searched for something—anything that could be used to unclog my drain. I ended up finding a pack of wooden popsicle sticks and grabbed one from the package. I got on my hands and knees, still naked, and began examining the underwater drain before me.
It was a complicated procedure to unclog my drain, since it was completely underwater. The only way to see what I was doing was to stick my head underwater, open my eyes, and try to jam the popsicle stick down the drain. Then, I would press it to the side of the pipe and pull upwards. At first, nothing came up. Then, I began pressing harder and harder against the pipe as I pulled upwards with the popsicle stick. Eventually, the popsicle stick snapped in half, and I had to reach into the package for another.
After going through six or seven popsicle sticks, I began to get into a groove. Insert, push. Press on the side, pull upwards. Repeat. It was all about getting the right motions and pressures dialed. I began unclogging my drain. I pulled out the hair, and lots of it. The hair I pulled up came in all sorts of varieties. Long, short, thick, skinny, and so on. There was one common denominator between all the hair I pulled out, however—it was all mine.
As I pulled out the hair, I could see the water level in my shower begin to decline. It was working! I kept going with greater intensity than before. I kept pulling up hair, and pulling up hair, and eventually all the water went down the drain. I couldn’t stop, though. Even though the drain was sufficiently unclogged, I kept going—I had to. Just as from my scalp, it was as if the more hair I pulled out from the drain, the more hair would appear. I kept pulling and pulling, and soon enough I had a pile of hair beside me which rose taller than my toilet seat—all from my own shower drain. After I was sure that I got every last piece of hair from the drain, I sat there, aghast, admiring the hideous pile which lay beside me. A masterpiece.
Before I became a writer, 25 years ago, I was one day watering the plants on my balcony. I was humming a tune, admiring the morning, when suddenly I became overcome and started thinking about being beaten by a French Baptist on Christmas day, with a crowd of elderly folk eating bread and watching for their amusement. The thought crept up on me like a doe being stalked by a lion in the savannah and strangled me until I was twisting on the floor of my balcony in agony—a victim to the invisible gripping my soul.
I writhed around the ground of my balcony and desperately tried to take back control, but the thought was too intrusive, too powerful; I was defenseless. Try as I did to fight back, all I could do was roll around my balcony and scream. I screamed and twisted myself into all sorts of contorted shapes—accidentally knocking over a few plants in the process.
When this occurred, 25 years ago, it just so happened that my neighbor who was watering her plants across the street saw me, and thought I was having a heart attack. She called an ambulance on my behalf. Although I knew she meant well, to this day I still despise her for doing what she did. When the medical team arrived, they stood around me as I writhed on the ground like a fish out of water. They ran all their fancy medical tests and soon became puzzled—despite my chaotic behavior, it was clear that I was in no physical medical emergency of any kind.
Eventually, the thought naturally left my head, and I began to calm down. The medical team then called for the psychiatric team to try and make sense of my situation. For over an hour I had to endure terrible embarrassment as I explained carefully to the psychiatrists that I was a victim of a terrible disease—a disease with no name—a disease from which I suddenly became gripped by thoughts, terrible thoughts which would creep up and consume everything, and drive me so crazy that I would pull out my hair.
After I finished telling them about the French Baptist and the crowd of elderly folk watching me and eating bread, they had nothing to say. They shrugged their shoulders and left just as quickly as they had arrived. Eventually things quieted down, but to this day, everyone in the neighborhood refers to this incident, not as a heart attack, but as a baguette attack.
Before I became a writer, 25 years ago, everyone thought I was crazy. Or maybe they were all crazy and thought I was sane. Either way, I felt like a stranger in my own neighborhood. The solitude was peaceful and lonely. I enjoyed the fact that, so long as I stayed inside, I no longer needed to cover up my naked scalp with a jet black fedora. After all, I always hated feeling the necessity of refining my appearance for others. Still, I began to detest the way I looked. One day, I stopped making eye contact with the miserable man looking at me in the mirror. Next, I stopped looking at the man in the mirror entirely. Soon enough I dragged the mirror to the curb in front of my house next to the trash. Problem solved.
Now that I no longer had to witness the damage I was inflicting to my scalp, I began pulling out my hair with greater ferocity and zeal than ever before. I became extremely efficient at pulling hair and could probably do it better than anyone else in the world. I took pride in this realization. Over time, my discarded hair continued to pile up on my floors, and it eventually formed a homogenous carpet of sorts. Soon enough, I couldn’t tell the difference between my hardwood floor, tiles, and rug; they all felt and looked the same. It made me feel like I was a lice living on the scalp of a giant.
From time to time, I would consider and even try to sweep it up, but it was too burdensome. For one thing, every time I grabbed the broom, a terrible thought would come across my mind and incapacitate me until it passed. Then, I would be too tired and fall asleep on my now extremely comfortable and warm floor. In addition, since the hair stayed on the flooring for such a long period of time, it began to form a hard and crusty shell, entrenching it on and within the lowest surface of my rooms. It was as if my hair didn’t want to be moved.
One benefit of these living conditions was that I didn’t have to wear socks or slippers, even when the weather turned cold. My hair served as a natural insulator and my feet stayed warm the whole winter. I saved money on heating too, since my house would normally lose heat, especially through the hardwood flooring. However, the main downside was that my head was constantly cold. I was used to having such a luscious bob of thick black hair, that I was surprised to feel cold where I normally felt warm. This posed a serious problem. Thus, I decided to go out to the store to buy a warm winter hat. I purchased a jet black beanie for myself and was pleased as I made my way back home. I was pleased, not only because I could now keep my bald head warm during the colder months, but also because I completed the entire outing without becoming gripped by any terrible thoughts.
25 years ago, I spent my days with warm feet and a warm head, but suffering still from those ominous thoughts. One clear afternoon I decided to write to my sister, who I had not seen in several years. I grabbed a pen and a piece of silky white paper and began writing.
Dear Sister, how pleasant it is for me to write to you about my current whereabouts and doings, dear sister. Oh dear sister, how I miss—
My stream of consciousness was suddenly interrupted by an image of a preacher dancing naked on fresh autumn leaves, penis swinging around madly, flopping onto his thighs merrily like a wacky waving-arm-inflatable-tube man. I shuddered, shook this disturbing thought from my mind, and returned again to reality. I continued.
Oh dear sister, it would certainly be quite lovely if, so long as it is not too much trouble or too burdensome for you, for you to grace me with your presence and join me one fine afternoon for some tea and—
The naked dancing preacher appeared again before my mind’s eye and danced with greater vigor and zeal than before. I became agitated and reached under my jet black beanie and used my fingernails to dig out a final short piece of hair from the top of my head. Nonetheless, the image of this preacher persisted, but I was determined to continue my letter. Trying with every effort of my being to squelch this foul man from my imagination and finish my correspondence, I lifted my pen and wrote.
The member bounced, back and forth,
dancing with the rhythm.
Right to left, side to side,
the gonads moved right with ‘em’.
I lifted my pen, shocked by what had happened. Just as quickly as I had written these words to my dear sister, the horrid image of the naked preacher disappeared from my brain. It was as if my thoughts had quite literally been sucked out my noggin and transferred onto the page. I gaped at my pen, bemused and intrigued.
This is how, 25 years ago, I became a writer. I quickly filled up my main notebook, and then a second notebook. I then moved on to other, random surfaces and pieces of paper in my house. Eventually, all my walls and furniture were filled with the most random figments of my imagination. My house soon resembled nothing but an exquisitely refined graffiti museum.
After filling up every possible spot to write in my house, I went out to buy notebooks. I walked into my local supply shop and spent every penny I had—I knew I would need as many notebooks as possible. I first grabbed one shopping cart and piled it high with as many spiral bound notebooks as it could hold. I filled it up until it began to flex under the sheer weight of paper. Then, I went and found a second shopping cart and filled that one up too. I finally obtained a third cart and filled it up with pens and ink. All three wobbled feebly back and forth as I wheeled them over, one at a time, to the cashier.
At first, the man behind the counter refused to sell me what I needed. He told me to scram, to beat it, to get out of the store; he said he had no time for pranksters. He was strong willed for a cashier, and I quickly became irritated. I tried to assure him that I was in fact not a prankster and that I intended to buy every single item in my carts. I told him that I had my own reasons for purchasing over a thousand spiral-bound notebooks in a single purchase, and that it was none of his business to question my consumerism. Eventually, I spoke to the manager. Our conversation was short, however, as not a single objection was uttered after I produced the money needed to furnish my notebooks and ink.
Ever since that day, 25 years ago, my walls have been stacked, from floor to ceiling, with notebooks. Since I go through them so quickly, I always make sure to get the most value I can from them. I write in small font and fill up every tiny portion of every page. I even write on the front and back covers, and in the margins. I make sure to keep the notebooks separated between the old and new, so that whenever I run out of space in my current notebook, I can quickly find a new one and continue my writing. And writing is all I ever did or ever now do—for the past 25 years, that is. All day, every day, I write.
After my first few months as a writer, I noticed that my hair began to grow back. I was delighted and would run my fingers through my thick black bob whenever I had the opportunity—that is, whenever I wasn’t writing. However, it quickly became apparent that, with my new hair and my jet black beanie, I was much too hot. I began taking off the jet black beanie from time to time, when the heat became so intense that it was unbearable. I quickly began to detest the jet black beanie, as it was a reminder of my old hair-pulling ways, and so I set out one day to try and return it to the store from which I had originally purchased it. I marched into the store, proudly showing off my thick black bob, threw it onto the front counter, and demanded from the employee my money back. My thick black bob shined in the store’s light and intimidated the poor man who sat there, cowering. He stammered and tried to persuade me that the jet black beanie was definitely worth it, and how I should keep it for next winter—but to no avail. I powered through his feeble attempt at persuasion, and decided to take what was mine. I reached into the store’s cash register and took my money.
After becoming a writer 25 years ago, I had an incident where, due to the sheer number of notebooks I had piled in the corner of my kitchen, the floor gave out and hundreds of notebooks violently crashed through it. This particular instance occurred in the middle of the night when I was fast asleep. I remember waking up with a jolt to a loud, crashing sound.
The next morning, I read the newspaper—scientists were quoted saying that a low magnitude earthquake had occurred. Several witnesses were interviewed, and they concurred. I read these accounts over and over again, each time feeling a greater sense of pride swelling in my chest. Everyone thought that my notebooks, my writing, and my thoughts had caused an act of God to occur. This was the moment when I realized that my writing could have real effects in the world beyond myself. Pure delight.