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FICTION

Any Idiot Can Feel Pain

by Matt Cashion


from: brightside7@hotmail.com
to: dominiquejd@ekcc.edu
date: Mon, Sep 30, 1:35 a.m.
subject: Gratitude (with an invitation!)

Dear Professor Dom,
             Six months ago, my twenty year-old daughter, Gabriella, was afraid to leave our house, but I’m writing now to thank you for making your televised classes available at the library because I believe they have saved her life. She prefers not to watch your face, but she loves to hear your voice. When we got the DVD’s, she put her father’s old tape cassette player next to the TV and recorded your voice, then carried your voice around the house. At night, she leaves it on her bedside table because you help her get to sleep, which I’m eternally grateful for.
             Though Gabriella prefers to listen, I have enjoyed watching. My favorite part is when you yank the purple beret off your head and throw it into the waste basket and pour lighter fluid over it and set it on fire, and then right after that, I love how you put on your welding helmet and say, “Let’s stop dreaming and get to work, people!” (Episode 1). And I laughed when your student-assistant came running out with her fire extinguisher, wearing her safety goggles and toy firefighter’s hat, then engulfed you in smoke while you kept talking. Some people might not approve of your methods, but I get the feeling that you don’t care all that much, which is something else that makes us love you.
              Two years ago from next week, Gabriella’s father died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that came out of nowhere. It happened while Gabriella was in her first month at the state university on a full music scholarship. She plays piccolo. Nine months later is when she suffered her nervous collapse. I’ve attached a picture of her with our poodle, Carmen. Behind her is a portrait I painted of her father, Bill, who was a roofer. Over Gabriella’s other shoulder is a portrait I painted of my mother, now confined to a wheelchair. She never complains and constantly prays to the Virgin Mary for all of us to keep getting better. I took up painting when Bill died. I’m no Picasso, but I stopped caring about “the product” when I heard you say “the process” is much more valuable (Episode 2).
              Gabriella’s favorite place to listen to you is when she’s sitting on the kitchen floor putting together puzzles. The other day, while she worked on a 2,000 piece puzzle of Cinque Terre, Italy, I heard her laughing (such a rare and beautiful sound!) at this quote you attributed to Erica Jong: “Beware of the man who denounces women writers; his penis is tiny and he cannot spell.” Another day, we both appreciated the quote from Dorothy…I don’t remember her last name…who said, “Fear is a chasm to swallow his (the writer’s) hope.” I also smiled when you said that Jesus said, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” My other favorite moment is when you interview the young man from Lexington who got out of prison and enrolled in college and then decided to devote himself to helping people (Episode 6). I cried at the end when he gave you a hug and thanked you for being such a good role model for him. And then I laughed when you asked him to loan you twenty dollars.
              I’m writing in hopes that you might be interested in meeting Gabriella so you can see for yourself how truly special she is. She loves to learn. She looks up things on Wikipedia about great inventors, scientists, musicians, writers, mathematicians, and dancers, and she is constantly asking me to get her books and music from the library. She loves listening to Cecilia Bartoli, the Italian opera star, and she is obsessed with everything by Puccini and Verdi. I get the idea that she is most drawn to Italians as those she admires, which I’m beginning to think has something to do with a previous life, though I’m normally not one to believe such ideas. She also listens to “classes” on the public access channel (imagine—out of all the channels to choose from) and that is how we first found you, though all we saw at that time was the very end, when you present a diploma and a carrot to your student-assistant who looks very bored, though I’m betting you told her to look that way for comic effect (Episode 15).
              Do you know Rosa, the math teacher at the college? Gabriella audited one of her online classes. After that class, Rosa called Gabriella once a week and came by our house for regular visits, always bringing a book or a math-related puzzle or game. She was very generous with her time. On her last visit, she brought some of her own Math-Art pieces, which are these wonderfully detailed drawings of lines and shapes that connect in various patterns that “entertain the eye,” as Rosa says. She gave Gabriella a piece called “Habitat” and helped us hang it on the ceiling over Gabriella’s bed. Gabriella’s confidence soared under Rosa’s tutelage, reaching a peak three weeks ago when she walked out to the mailbox to get the mail. But that came to a crashing halt yesterday, when Rosa called from Madrid to tell us she was taking a year off to travel across Europe before beginning a new job in Montreal. She apologized to Gabriella for not being able to tell her in person that she was moving. Gabriella handed me the phone and went to her room and started crying, leaving me to talk to Rosa. She said she’d divorced her husband and left the country just to get away from him. She said it had been a hard year. I told her I knew something about hard years. Gabriella spent the rest of that day in bed, staring at Rosa’s “Habitat” while she listened to your voice. She did not respond to my voice or my mother’s voice at all, refusing meals, rebuffing every attempt at consolation. I lay on the floor to keep her company while you talked about so many things, like the difference between coherence and unity. One part she kept rewinding was when you played your bongo drums very loudly (and very badly!) just before you talked about dependent clauses and independent clauses and conjunctions and semicolons and how we should use all four sentence types (1. simple, 2. compound, 3. complex, 4. compound-complex) in various sequences so we’ll be “less monotonous-sounding than professors.” She also liked when you talked about using punctuation (or no punctuation) like music notation. She stared at the ceiling and listened like it was the most fascinating thing she’d ever heard. Without your voice to latch onto, I think she’d still be in bed, grieving over Rosa’s departure.
              This might seem like a weird question since we’ve never met (but you never know without asking, right?), but we were wondering if you would be interested in attending Gabriella’s birthday party this October 10 (a birthday she shares with Giuseppe Verdi, b. 1813 in Le Roncole, Italy), at 6 p.m. I’ll make her favorite dish, Eggplant Parmesan, a specialty of mine, my secret being to select the most purple eggplants completely free of bruises and to add roasted garlic and caramelized onions and dry bread crumbs, and to salt, dry, and drain each piece prior to cooking; this removes the bitterness and causes the eggplant slices to “sweat,” which reduces the water content and results in less oil absorption. If you don’t like eggplant, I can modify.
              You probably get many requests like this from strangers who have certain ideas about you because you’re on television, but my invitation has nothing to do with wanting to “rub elbows” with the famous. After all: “Fame means that millions of people have the wrong idea of who you are” (Erica Jong, Episode 15). Frankly, I think meeting Gabriella could do you some good, Dr. Dom. I have a secret. I’ve seen you in the grocery store, and it always shocks me to see how sad you look while you’re trying to pick out the right cantaloupe. (Helpful hint: try sniffing them to see if you get a sweet flowery-type smell, then squeeze them to make sure they’re not rock-hard, look for a golden/orange type color on the rind, then give it a knock to check for a “dull thud.” If they’re all too green, get one and leave it on the counter a few days, but make sure it’s not too soft, which means it’s overripe). I’ve seen you slink around the store with your head down and shoulders sagging from some kind of sorrow you don’t want to burden your viewers with. But you always perk up in the checkout line. You smile at the cashier and say something that makes him/her smile, along with the bagboy/girl. Then you walk slowly across the parking lot, get in your old Toyota (identical to what my husband drove, btw!) and go home to your upstairs apartment which is always dark because you turn on the light and close the curtains, which makes me think you must be very lonely.
              Please don’t misunderstand: I’m no stalker. I only know where you live because it happens to be in the same direction I take home from the grocery store, but please believe me: I have been very careful to respect your privacy and I have no intention of invading it. Maybe I’m completely wrong, but I think that someone with your gifts for being such an inspiration to so many people might also benefit from being shown some appreciation every once in a blue moon. If you could see Gabriella’s face while she is listening to you, it would recharge your enthusiasm and renew your sense of purpose for doing the good work you do, which maybe is something you don’t get to hear too often.
              I suppose I’m not doing so well with being “concise,” which is what you say good writers are good at (Episode 14). I apologize for any grammatical errors or improper language usage. I have written this letter carefully and painstakingly over several days with countless revisions and I have proofread it many times, but I am no professional like you, and I feel like I should send this now because to keep piddling would just be another form of procrastination, right? But please don’t feel any pressure. If we don’t hear from you, it’s perfectly fine. Really. I just wanted you to know that you have already made a very dramatic difference!

Very truly yours,
Susan Gilchrist

p.s. Even a phone call would cheer up Gabriella. Every time the phone rings, her eyes light up thinking it might be Rosa, but it’s usually just a doctor’s office calling to confirm one of her appointments or one of my mother’s appointments or now, one of my own appointments as I’m having some tests to see about chest pains and flagging energy. When Gabriella discovers it’s not Rosa, her eyes go dark again. But then she turns to your voice and brightens up with life. It’s a remarkable thing to witness.


from: dominiquejd@ekcc.edu
to: brightside7@hotmail.com
date: Mon, Sep 30, 1:35 a.m.
subject: auto-reply

I’m away on emergency business. For immediate help, contact the English Department.

Yours,
Dr. Dom


from: brightside7@hotmail.com
to: dominiquejd@ekcc.edu
date: Wed, Oct 2, 1:47 a.m.
subject: any idiot can feel pain

Dear Dr. Dom,
              Please disregard my previous email until you have settled the more important matter you are attending to. In the meantime, I hope you will find it uplifting to know that the only solution to Gabriella’s emergency of last night was the sound of your voice. I heard a whimpering/howling from her room, so I went to check, thinking she was having a nightmare, but her eyes were wide open and the first thing she said (after I turned on her light and assured her that no one was outside her window) was, “Dr. Dom.” So I played your voice and we both listened while you “put on” your exaggerated German accent and talked about subject/verb agreement, pronoun agreement, parallel sentence structure, ambiguous, misplaced, and dangling modifiers, apostrophes, lie vs. lay and who vs. whom and which vs. that (Episode 5). What’s funny is that I remember how much I enjoyed watching this because you got into character with your fake mustache and your army uniform (with one stripe!) and your WWII army helmet and boots and yardstick, but Gabriella truly enjoyed listening. Very soon she was sleeping peacefully.
              The next morning, she took your voice to the bathroom and listened to you talk about conjugating verbs while she completed her hygiene rituals. When she came out of the bathroom, you were at the end of that episode and were talking about the three P’s: Patience, Perseverance and Persistence. I wish the same for you now, Dr. Dom. Sometimes I wonder if it’s hard for you to remember employing the same techniques that you prescribe to others, so I hope you will put yourself first for a change in order to resolve whatever emergency you’re facing. You closed that class with another inspirational quote from Erica Jong, who said, “The trick is not how much pain you feel—but how much joy you feel. Any idiot can feel pain. Life is full of excuses to feel pain, excuses not to live, excuses, excuses, excuses.” That’s so true isn’t it?

Very truly yours,
Susan Gilchrist

p.s. Here’s hoping you’ll resolve your emergency in time to join us for family fun on Oct. 10!


from: dominiquejd@ekcc.edu
to: brightside7@hotmail.com
date: Wed, Oct 2, 1:47 a.m.
subject: auto-reply

I’m away on emergency business. For immediate help, contact the English Department.

Yours,
Dr. Dom


from: brightside7@hotmail.com
to: dominiquejd@ekcc.edu
date: Sat, Oct 5, 2:15 a.m.
subject: punching bags/dancing

Dear Dr. Dom,
              I wanted to share another example of how you’ve helped us so it’ll make you smile. Yesterday, I took Mom to the doctor, and the report was bad. He said it could be anywhere from a month to a year, which is breaking our hearts. I worry most for Gabriella. Just when she seems to be making progress, I worry that Mom’s death would cause a severe setback. But here’s the uplifting part: yesterday, Gabriella started playing Episode 14, which I remember watching—where you stand next to the punching bag wearing your funny boxing headgear and your boxing shorts pulled up almost to your armpits and your red boxing gloves and your white tank-top t-shirt and you remove your mouthpiece to talk about metaphors, and how the punching bag is an example of one because it represents a person who takes a beating from all the hardships that keep pounding us over and over in an unrelenting fashion, then you insert your mouthpiece and hit the punching bag several times with your skinny arms and you explain how certain hardships like the death of a loved one will try to knock us out, or if it’s not the death of a loved one trying to knock us out it’s a cheating spouse teaming up with a custody battle or it’s the constant stress that comes with never having enough money, or it’s the long-term lingering effects of an abusive father you could never please or it’s a power-hungry “asshole-boss” who mistreats workers or it’s a group of gossip-mongering colleagues, or it’s a series of presidents like Reagan, Bush, and Bush and all their Supreme Court justices who keep pounding away at poor people and women and minorities who have no counter-punching power (you were on quite a roll), and you said we had to be as strong as punching bags and absorb a certain amount of unwarranted punishment and refuse to be knocked out, and then you explained the rope-a-dope strategy the David-like Muhammad Ali (who called himself “a boxing scholar” you said) used to defeat the Goliath-like George Foreman in their 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” which was Ali’s decision to absorb Foreman’s punches so he’d be tired when Ali decided it was time to dance, and I must say too that the way you slipped into your Ali impersonation was impressive, I should know, because Bill, who was also from Louisville (like you and Ali), used to impersonate him too. But Gabriella’s favorite part is when you grab your boombox and set it on the stool next to you and start playing Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing (yeah, yeah, yeah).” Then you put your mouthpiece back in and punch the bag while the song plays and you raise your skinny arms up over your head and do a little dance while you face the camera and wink. While the song played, I caught Gabriella in the kitchen DANCING with my mother (still in her wheelchair), which was a beautiful sight I wish you could have seen. I’m very grateful to you for that. So, keep on doing the rope-a-dope and keep on standing (yeah, yeah, yeah!). We’re in your corner!

Yours,
S.

p.s. I took the liberty of telling Gabriella that I invited you to her birthday party (Oct 10, 6 p.m.). I keep telling her there are no guarantees, that you might already have plans, but she was beside herself with excitement. It’s wonderful to see her finally looking forward to something. Just a 5-minute drop-in or even a telephone call could work a miracle.


from: dominiquejd@ekcc.edu
to: brightside7@hotmail.com
date: Sat, Oct 5, 2:15 a.m.
subject: auto-reply

I’m away on emergency business. For immediate help, contact the English Department.

Yours,
Dr. Dom


from: brightside7@hotmail.com
to: dominiquejd@ekcc.edu
date: Mon, Oct 7, 11:55 p.m.
subject: courage

Dear Professor Dom,
              Maybe you’re still absorbing punches from your emergency issue. Or maybe procrastination temporarily has you against the ropes. It’s always a battle isn’t it? I’m writing to give you an encouraging update on Gabriella, which is that today she went to the mailbox again. What allowed her to do it, I’m convinced, is that she carried your voice with her. You were talking about courage (Episode 7). You said to commit words to a page required courage and that every human being had enough courage inside herself to do it. You confessed that there were often days in your own life when it required plenty of courage just to get out of bed, eat breakfast, take a shower, put on clothes, leave the house, go somewhere, speak to someone. This is when Gabriella walked out to the street in her pajamas to get the mail. It was seven a.m. and too early, but she wasn’t even discouraged that nothing was there. She came back inside and took your voice to the living room, put on a CD of Luciano Pavarotti performing “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, and she also put in a DVD documentary on Renaissance Art, though she muted the TV and just watched the paintings and sculptures (Michelangelo was featured prominently, of course), and she turned down Pavarotti enough to keep listening to you (her recorder was in her lap) while you talked about the courage it takes to write a one-page resume, and the greater courage still that it takes to send that resume out to a hundred places and the courage it takes above that to wait “without hope and without despair” (Isak Dinesen) for results that may or may not pay off. I just wanted to share this news right away with someone, and I could think of no one more appropriate than you, since you have meant so much to Gabriella.

Very truly yours,
S.

p.s. Oct. 10 is fast approaching. If you can manage to come, please don’t feel any pressure to bring anything. Your presence alone would be the most meaningful gift for Gabriella.


from: postmaster@mail.hotmail.com (postmaster@mail.hotmail.com)
to: brightside7@hotmail.com
date: Mon, Oct 7, 11:56 p.m.
subject: Delivery Status Notification (Failure)

This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification.
Delivery to the following recipients failed.
dominiquejd@ekcc.edu


8 October
Dominique Adagio
113 Gentry St. Apt. 23

Dear Dom,
              I got worried, so I went to the college to find you. I was also still clinging to some hope that I could persuade you to attend Gabriella’s birthday party. I went up and down the halls looking for your name on all the doors, but I couldn’t find it. Then I went to the English Department and met an unpleasant man wearing a purple beret (ha-ha, I imagined it on fire!) who told me you no longer worked there. Then he said he was late for a meeting and scampered off with an ugly frown.
              So I went to the department secretary, a nice woman named Sue, who told me everything. She said at the end of the semester’s first week, you stepped from her boss’s office and handed her your keys and said, in a child’s pouty voice, “I quit.” She thought you were joking, but then she said you called yourself “a fraud.” Why would you call yourself that, Dom? Then she told me how just a couple of months ago your wife (a math professor at the college!) left you and moved away. I should have made this connection sooner. I’m so sorry. Still, the fact that Rosa once loved you only increases my respect for you, because I know Rosa chooses wisely the people she devotes her time to. And the week after Rosa left you is when, according to Sue, your dog died—the one you sometimes took to your office. Then, just a few months later, Sue said your colleagues voted against giving you tenure, apparently because some students had complained about your use of profanity, and that you once used voodoo-dolls as part of a teaching demonstration, and that you once imitated the bark of a rabid dog so well that several students ran from the room straight to the registrar where they dropped your course, while others complained that your class was “too entertaining.” I hope you find all these complaints as silly as I do. I wish Gabriella and I could testify on your behalf!
              But was there really some “domestic incident” the cops were called for that resulted in your being arrested at your house by one of your former students? Did you really spend a night in jail? Apparently these things made the local paper, including the online version, which prompted many immature comments. Even more malicious gossip was spread over the internet, but I never knew about it (Bill canceled our subscription long ago, and I don’t go online unless I’m searching for recipes). Regardless, I refuse to cast judgment on any of these things until I hear your point of view because I agree with you when you say, “There are always at least two sides to every story” (Episode 8).
              I’m imploring you now, Dom, to employ the rope-a-dope. You should face the mirror and sing “I’m Still Standing!” You should catch your breath between rounds and talk to someone who understands these things before you throw in the towel. That person is me, Dom. You’d be surprised how well I know you. One thing you should not do is beat yourself up. You’re a good person, Dom. Sue said you were the first person to greet her when she started there. She said you once helped her move a filing cabinet up four floors to her office because you didn’t believe in bothering the poorly-paid custodians and because not to help would mean that you would just have to go to class, which she laughed about. She also said you apologized to her for the extra work she’d have while she helped her boss find people to cover your classes. She said you told her to take whatever books she wanted from your office and to donate the rest to the library. She said you left her with a personal check and wrote down a couple of student’s names and asked her to see about setting up scholarships (to be anonymous) for those students. Then she said you thanked her for all she’d ever done, and you said goodbye and walked away, looking sadder than she’d ever seen you, which breaks my heart to pieces.
              I’m leaving my phone number at the bottom of this letter, Dom. And don’t forget: if you need a pick-me-up, Gabriella’s birthday party is just a couple days away. I haven’t shared any of these details with her. They are irrelevant to what you have meant to her. Please take care of yourself, Dom. Please know that we care about you!

Very sincerely yours,
S.

(812) 555-2133


11 October

Dear Dom,
              This will be my last letter. I suppose you won’t get it either, but it makes sense for me to write it. I drove to your house today (I admit it’s not exactly on my route to the grocery store). I summoned enough courage to walk up your apartment stairs and knock on your door, but I saw no signs of life. I wasn’t sure what I would say if you had answered, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I hadn’t tried to reach out to you.
              You missed a good party. My Eggplant Parmesan was a little off because I had trouble finding non-bruised eggplant and I had trouble concentrating, but Mom and Gabriella said it was fine. Gabriella asked why you hadn’t come. I told her you’d written a nice note of regret and that you explained that you had had to fly to Italy to be with Rosa, your wife. I’m not sorry for lying about this. She got very excited, so happy to learn that two of her favorite people could be happily married and live together in a beautiful place, happily ever after, etc. And right after that, she got fully dressed, she brushed her hair, she put on her good shoes, and she skipped out to the mailbox. At that point, I think she didn’t even think of carrying your voice, and I was glad.
              She found two pieces of mail—one thing was a postcard from Rosa, who had remembered her birthday. The front of the card featured a beautiful photograph of the Teatro alla Scala Opera House in Milan, and on the back Rosa’s note said, “Gabriella—you are a smart, talented, beautiful, and amazing woman, and you will go far!” The other thing was the last letter I’d written to you, marked “return to sender,” but I don’t think she could tell who the letter had been intended for.
              I learned about these letters after she came back inside, but just then, it was wonderful for Mom and me to watch her from the window, being so brave and looking so independent. She looked down the street, then up to the clear blue sky and down the street again like she was planning a trip. She looked back at us and smiled the biggest smile I’ve seen from her in years, and she waved her entire arm as if to say, “Take a good long look because pretty soon I’ll be waving from a place where you can’t see me!”
              I believe her. I wish, on your darkest day, that you could find some comfort in knowing that you (and Rosa) helped someone so much. Shouldn’t that be enough, Dom? Why couldn’t something so rare and precious as that be enough? And wouldn’t it help you to know that your DVD classes are available in the public library to help other people—for free? I would call that a successful life, Dom. Why would you call it anything else?
              I picture a day in the not-so-distant future when my mother and me will be gone and Gabriella will be alone, playing her piccolo, and I picture you somehow crossing the path of her music and I imagine that moment as a time when both of your hearts will move in sync because of what you gave her that she would right that second be giving back to you. I’ve decided to put down my pen and devote the rest of my good days to try and paint what that moment looks like. Maybe Gabriella will one day hang it on a wall next to Rosa’s “Habitat.” And maybe she’ll tell the story of how those pieces of art came to keep each other company. I hope she’ll find someone who needs to hear it as much as she’ll need to tell it.

S.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Cashion won the 2015 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in fiction for his story collection Last Words of the Holy Ghost (judged by Lee K. Abbott), to be published fall, 2015 (UNT Press). He is also the author of a novel, How the Sun Shines on Noise, and his second novel, Our 13th Divorce, will be published spring, 2016 (Livingston). Born in North Wilkesboro, NC, he grew up in Brunswick, GA, earned an MFA at the University of Oregon and is now Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (mattcashion.com).

Matt Cashion
Matt Cashion won the 2015 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in fiction for his story collection Last Words of the Holy Ghost (judged by Lee K. Abbott), to be published fall, 2015 (UNT Press). He is also the author of a novel, How the Sun Shines on Noise, and his second novel, Our 13th Divorce, will be published spring, 2016 (Livingston). Born in North Wilkesboro, NC, he grew up in Brunswick, GA, earned an MFA at the University of Oregon and is now Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (mattcashion.com).
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