Downbound Train by Ben Tanzer

Editor Carrie Ivy, Editor's Choice, August 11th, 2014

Phil is dead, they found him hanging...

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I am in high school and I am required to take a creative writing class. We keep a journal and we are expected to write in it everyday.

Some days we receive prompts, such as “write something inspired by your favorite poem,” and I choose a piece by Ogden Nash, or the Eagles song “Hotel California.” Other days we are expected to write entries based on something that has inspired us in our daily lives, and one time I quote myself from a college application essay I am writing about “personal transformation.”

More often than not, the teacher is as embarrassed for me and my lack of effort as I am for myself.

One day though, I write a short story inspired by the Bruce Springsteen song “Downbound Train.” In the song, a man loses his job and then his girl. It is intended as a pointed, and poignant, commentary on the recessionary 80’s, and the failure of America to support the working class.

In my homage, however, which is simply titled “Joe,” it becomes something else. While Joe also loses his job and his girl, there is no rumination or political intention, instead, the pressure builds in Joe’s head until he decides to blow his brains out with a shotgun. He doesn’t die though, despite the graphic descriptions I added of the gray matter and pieces of skull wedged in the wall behind him. Instead Joe feels a wind blow through his face, which is followed by a sense of relief, as the pressure in his head finally lifts.

Joe is amazed about how good he feels, how clear his thinking is, and how much promise the world now holds for him.

And with that, he goes out for a beer.

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“You never think about death?” my now wife, then girlfriend, Debbie asked me shortly after we first met.

“No, why would I?” I replied.

“Because you’re worried about what the world will look like without you in it and whether anyone will notice you’re gone regardless?” she said.

“No, sorry, never,” I said.

And I meant it.

What does it feel like before you step off of a ledge? What is that moment like? Do you teeter or plunge? Is it a culmination of steps, moments of constant despair and pain leading to that moment? Or is it impulsive, sudden and volatile, grabbed with ferocity? What does it sound like after that step? Do you feel the wind in your face? Do you wonder if in fact you can float, or fly?

I thought about all of this when the author Ned Vizzini leapt to his death while home visiting his family on the East Coast, a place that was ostensibly safe for him, a harbor, but in this case, and at this time, was not. Was it easier for him to jump while visiting a place he knew and had roots in? And was it easier for him to know that his wife and child wouldn’t have to find him because they were home on the West Coast? That it would all happen at a distance, thus not quite as real for them? Removing the ongoing reminders that it happened where they live, even while being no less jolting, or painful. Can the victim of suicide even clearly think through these things? Is it possible that this may be the only moment they feel they’ve been able to clearly think in some time? Or is this kind of thinking only available to those left behind?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and I didn’t know Ned Vizzini. I also don’t know how often he thought about his death, or whether the possibility of it seemed like a gift. Not an end to life, but an end to what seemed impossible to him, living how he was living and had been for so long. But I did listen to an interview with him not so long before he died, where he joked about death constantly, and I wondered later, whether that was his way of coping, and distancing himself from his past attempts at suicide, or whether these comments were the seedlings of what was to come.

I don’t know suicide either, not the hold that the idea of it must have on your brain once it clenches, or at least I didn’t until Ned Vizzini took his life, and I had to re-order my thinking about all of that.

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“Oh no,” my friend’s mother says, her face contorting, then collapsing, into something almost too sad to look at, as she covers her mouth and steps away from the phone in the kitchen where we are sitting.

I am twelve years old and have never in my life seen a face like that.

“What?” my friend, her son, says, as we stare at her.

“Phil is dead, they found him hanging off of his back porch,” she replies as she begins to collect herself, her face returning to its normal dimensions.

“He killed himself?” my friend asks.

The quiet lingers there in the air as his mother pauses, and then squares her shoulders.

“What? No, they say he was playing with a noose, for fun, and it was an accident,” she replies sternly, back in control, before walking out of the room, the conversation over.

Phil was the first suicide I knew, though I really didn’t know him. He was a year older than me and he was a god. The best athlete in our school, with the hottest girlfriend, and the coolest friends. None of which I had, all of which I wanted. I only spoke to him once, by the side of the track. He was putting on his running shoes and he wished me luck in my race. It was a recognition, and an affirmation that I existed, but that was it. Then we were both off to our respective events, and soon after that he was dead.

It was called an accident, but I can’t imagine anyone believed it was an accident. Regardless, it was also an event that no adult ever mentioned in my presence again. No teachers, no counselors, no parents, not mine or anyone else’s, no one. Maybe no one knew what to say. Or maybe it was summer, and so maybe none of us were anywhere anyone in authority could gather us to speak to. Then again, what do you say when the most popular kid in school hangs himself? It gets better? Because it does, we know that as adults, mostly, usually, but what if the kid who killed himself already represents the better to so many of us. What do you say then?

And what do I say then about Ned, and my incessant ruminations about his death? Ned is someone, who was open about his struggles, and who also represented a certain kind of better as well: famous friends, television work, best-selling books, movie options, and both the recognition, and affirmation, that his books meant something to a large number of readers. Any or all of which so many of us want, though even some small taste of any of that would suffice.

There is nothing I can say to shedgreater light on Phil or Ned’s death, but there is a connection between these two suicides for me, something personal and small. Like Phil before him, Ned seemed to have what I really want. But what does that mean? One thing it means, is that I have to admit that despite what I said to Debbie when we first met, it isn’t true that I never think about death. I think, about Phil all of the time, his smile, how cool he was, our one conversation, what happened, and why, and what he might have become. I also think about another kid from my neighborhood who hung himself not long after Phil. That kid had not been as cool as Phil, or good-looking, he didn’t have a hot girlfriend. He would have been considered a “burn-out” in the parlance of the times. But he was the king of PAC-Man, which was cool in its own way, and then he was dead, found by a friend of mine, hanging from a tree in his backyard.

I’ve been thinking about their suicides for over thirty years now, the triggers coming often, and they crush me in the process. River Phoenix’s death especially, which wasn’t a suicide, not exactly, but it was something just like one, or David Foster Wallace, then Ned, though any loss of anyone too soon will get me ruminating about those earlier deaths.

It may be more accurate then to say that over the years I never thought about my own death. Or more specifically, taking my own life, that yes, I thought about death all of the time, it’s just that I only thought about other people’s deaths. Which is actually a lot like thinking about death, just called another name. Which might be a defense, or a deflection, but I don’t know, I don’t.

When I heard Ned had killed himself I was profoundly sad, and what I did know, is that I had already been feeling bad for some time, though I wasn’t sure why. And what I now definitely know, is that his death didn’t offer me any insights into why I felt as I did at the time, but it did suggest to me that there was a way to rid myself of the feeling I could not shake or unwrap from my brain. Suicide as an option, would only later become clearer, though I don’t know whether that is because I wouldn’t allow myself to identify it for what it was.

What I knew, is that I had been feeling despondent for days, or maybe weeks. It wasn’t always present, but it was lurking, waiting for me for when I slowed down, took a break, wasn’t working or chasing kids, watching Breaking Bad, hadn’t gone running, or was tired. What I also know, is that I wasn’t sure how to shake it, or address this feeling that I couldn’t begin to name in the first place.

The despondency I felt passed, fitfully at first.The mood lifted, and the feeling became a memory, and a ghost that had drifted off into the past. This didn’t answer the why though, and even with a clearer head, and lighter mood, I wasn’t sure what had gone down, or what had prompted it.

It was then that I listened to another interview with another writer, this one about suicide itself, and the expert talked about many things that resonated with me, but none more than the idea that one cause for suicide is the victim’s need for affirmation. It was only then that the origins of the despondency I had felt became clear to me, and the why became illuminated.

My novel Orphans had been released in the fall. It had gotten kind reviews early on from major publications, a first for me, and I was sure it was the start of something. But soon there was nothing, and that’s the thing with books, whatever is or is not, eventually stops. It’s gradual at first, but soon no one is reading or talking about them. It’s hard enough with any book, but I was hoping for more after those reviews, calls from agents, options, something. But it didn’t happen and there’s nothing you can do to control it.

Is it selfish and shallow of me to feel this way? Yes, of course it is. And am I embarrassed to feel despondent over opportunities that didn’t materialize when there are so many horrible and violent things happening all the time? Unbelievably so. But did I want more anyway? I did. And did I now see how much the lack of perceived affirmation for Orphans left me feeling so despondent. I did. Why is this important? It isn’t, not for the wider world, but it is for me. I have another book out now, Lost in Space, and hopefully there will be others. I will want things all over again, and I know they may nothappen, and so I must be prepared for the inevitable dark shroud that will wrap itself around my brain. I must also remind myself that things will change, that I will feel better, that Ned, and even Phil, seemingly had all of what I want, but that it wasn’t enough, and that most importantly, I haven’t always told those around me, much less myself, the truth about how I feel.

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There is this young guy, he is wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, his hair is cut short, and he seems happy. It’s sunny out, placid. The young man walks-up to a police officer who has his back turned to him as he talks to some other people on the sidewalk. The young man is clearly focused on the police officer’s gun and I’m not surprised when he removes it from the officer’s holster. He takes a moment to admire the pearl handle, which is gleaming in the sun, and seems odd for the kind of gun I expect the officer to have. No one seems bothered that the young guy has taken the gun, and I soon realize that he plans to shoot himself with it. I also realize that I know this young man because he is me, and I become alarmed that I want to shoot myself. I am also equally relieved however, that I know I am dreaming, and unlikely to have to watch myself die, because everyone knows that you never see yourself die in a dream. I am surprised then when I aim the gun at my face and pull the trigger. Except that I don’t die, but instead feel the universe blow though my head and beyond as I find myself traveling through space and time. Or maybe I do, because maybe this is what death looks like, a blowing wind, and then nothing. Something that didn’t occur to me when I awoke this morning, only now, as I am writing this down and adding it to this essay that is already in motion.

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If I submitted my high school story “Joe” today, it would call for an intervention of some kind.

A school counselor would be contacted. My parents would be asked to come in to school. And I would definitely be required to meet with a therapist. But none of that happened at the time. Instead, I was celebrated for the story, receiving a level of affirmation for it like almost nothing I had done before.

I’m sure it’s why I write today. I am chasing that feeling over and over again.

I also still think about suicide, but not just because I want to make sense of why others see it as their only option. And apparently this was always the case, I just didn’t allow myself to realize it until now.

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Header Image is “Anti-Gravity” by Julien Pacaud. To see a whole gallery of his art, go here.

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ben tanzer writerBen Tanzer is the author of the books My Father’s House, You Can Make Him Like You, Lost in Space, Four Fathers, which he co-authored with Dave Housley, BL Pawelek, and Tom Williams, and Orphans, which won the 24th Annual Midwest Book Award in Fantasy/SciFi/Horror/Paranormal, among others. He also directs Publicity and Content Strategy for Curbside Splendor and can be found online at This Blog Will Change Your Life, the center of his vast, albeit faux, lifestyle empire.

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Carrie Ivy

Carrie Ivy (formerly Carrie Seitzinger) is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ivy is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.