Pushcart 2014: Stephen Dixon, “The Dead” (non-fiction) from Boulevard, Spring 2012

Bartok’s dead. Britten’s dead. Webern’s dead. Berg’s dead. Górecki’s dead. Copland’s dead. Messiaen’s dead. Bernhard’s dead. Beckett’s dead. Joyce is dead. Nabokov’s dead. Mann’s dead. Bulgakov’s dead. Pinter’s dead. Ionesco’s dead…. So what am I saying? Soon I’ll be dead. My last brother will be dead. My two other brothers are dead. Robert. Merrill. My last two sisters will be dead. Madeleine’s dead. My parents are dead. My wife’s dead. Her parents are dead. Their relatives in Europe are long dead. My two best friends are dead. I lie on a hospital bed. I can’t get up. I can’t turn over. I’m stuck to the bed by wires and tubes. I can’t get comfortable and I feel so hopeless and I’m in such pain that I almost want to be dead.

People who’ve experienced trauma love to tell their stories. One of the advantages of being a writer is having the chance to tell your story in a unique and interesting way. A five-page single paragraph of one’s hallucinations, defecations, and medications in a hospital, beginning and shot through with lists of dead people famous and not, is one way to be unique and interesting. It certainly conveys a state of mind, and gives some idea of what the experience was like. “Hellish” comes to mind.

Thing is, I don’t know if this is fiction or non-fiction, or, given the state of non-fiction, if it matters in terms of whether or not it really happened. It’s available online from Boulevard but the Table of Contents isn’t so there’s no classification. Pushcart indicates “Fiction by — –” for each fiction piece but doesn’t include “Nonfiction by — — ” or “Essay by — —” for those so I just assume, if it’s prose and there’s no “Fiction By” that it’s nonfiction. Using that as a rule-of-thumb got me into trouble in the past with a prose poem. There’s no indication for this in the story entry itself. It could be a long prose poem; it’s 5 pages, short for an essay but longish for a poem, especially a prose poem, which are usually very short. Yet when I look in the cumulative Index at the very end of the volume, it’s listed as Fiction. I still remember when they listed Taiye Selasi’s “The Sex Lives of African Girls” as non-fiction in last year’s “Special Mention” list. Maybe they’re trying to confuse me. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe it doesn’t matter; serious literati certainly seems to be adamant that the line is blurred at best. Maybe I’m discussing side issues because I’m having trouble talking about the piece itself. Not because I didn’t “like” it, whatever that means in this case – I liked it enough to be very curious about his other writing, which I’ve somehow overlooked. I’d like to remedy that.

The doctor the other day, who was just a resident making the rounds and not even my regular doctor, who said he read my X-rays and I might have to have a bag outside my stomach to collect my shit. If I’m to die, and I’d want to if I had to have one of those bags put in, let me die in my own bed with a big overdose of whatever we got there or they send me home with. And if I’m to live, I need a less frightening room.

Reads like truth to me.

Yes, I have my own story, complete with hallucinations and defecations and medications. I didn’t have dead artists; I had characters from The West Wing, a talking IV pole, an imaginary gang rape, and a nurse who, due to a funding scandal involving a drug I was taking, hid me from the White House Press Corps in a basement and, later, in her house, placing my bed at the top of a steep spiral staircase to keep me from trying to get up. This is what happens when your electrolytes get messed up. I had to work hard to get mine messed up enough to land me in a hospital, where they worried about the threat of heart attack (never missed a beat) but it’s the delirium that made me the horror story of every nurse and CNA for miles.

I ring for the nurse. Usually someone responds. This time no one answers. I wait. I don’t want to antagonize them. I ring again. What will I say? “Make me dead?” “Yes?” “Pain medication, please.” “I’ll tell your nurse.” “I need it badly.” “I’ll tell your nurse.”

So I felt this one, in a very personal way. The pleas that fall on deaf ears. The sense of being alone. Helplessness. Humiliation. The wish to convince everyone, yes, you are a real person, not a child or an idiot, and you aren’t making up pain or the need to use the bathroom just to inconvenience the people whose job you’re supposed to be. Who have their stories, too.

We all have our story.

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