In the Time of Paternity and the Volvo 240 Wagon (An excerpt fromSHAME) BY GRANT MAIERHOFER

I believe Proust has been overly esthetisized, aseptisized. I would like to return his aggressive thrust to him, to restore his violence. His “Jeunes filles en fleurs” are in effect “Fleurs du Mal.”

Serge Doubrovsky


I had a habit of staring at other men and women and obsessing mildly about becoming them. They were often thinner people, thinner at least than me. They’d often have paler features, darker hair or clothing. They looked a certain way, fixed and something about them drew me in. The women were what first alarmed my wife. It seemed curious to want to become someone with a different genetic makeup than yourself, or at least a different physical one. I couldn’t explain. I read about individuals who were trans, say, and it didn’t quite register as the same thing in my head. I saw, I thought, a person’s essence, and preferred it to my own, and believed there were changes I might make that could eventually result in a shift in my fundament that would make me feel complete. I also think that these concerns never really revealed themselves in other circumstances because I never kept anybody around me long enough to address it. When I lived in Chicago I sort of experimented. I spoke with older men and settled into a sort of frustrated bisexuality that I’m still processing and experiencing on a daily basis. I tried to embrace my draw toward becoming various women by allowing myself to become emaciated, eating stuff only bought at the Dollar Tree, mostly candy, and smoking a lot of cigarettes and masturbating multiple times a day so that the pleasure center in my brain was more concerned with that stuff than with the satiety provided by a large meal. I wrote Postures in that. I let my hair grow. I let my beard grow. There’s a femininity to letting your beard grow a little wild that I don’t think enough people really appreciate. Melville said it had always been one of the lesser ambitions of Pierre, to sport a flowing beard, which he deemed the most noble corporeal badge of the man, not to speak of the illustrious author. Find a picture of a male with a large beard with flowers in it, for instance, and it becomes pretty clear. Or Oliver Sacks. His beard was always something I greatly admired, and I think it spoke to the fluidity with which he was able to embody the patients he wrote about as well as to his eventual realization of his sexuality. I went to see films all the time, constantly. I wore uncomfortable leather shoes that I’d buy at secondhand shops that had a small heel to them and I’d take my writing classes and my other classes and I’d write about things and I’d try to figure things out and I’d go for long walks late into the night past where I’d see people exchanging sex for money and there was something beautiful about those months and years I spent there.

This in turn meant I purchased too many clothes. I purchased too many pants that were similar, really. I purchased too many shirts with slight, only slight, variations between them. I purchased too many pairs of black boots, or shoes, or tennis shoes, always black. I had all of these in an office that was overfilled with stuff. I had too many books in there that I never read. I sat in there idly thinking and scrolling. I sat in the office thinking about other writers or artists and watching videos with them. I’d see someone there and feel myself pulled toward them. I sat on this uncomfortable leather chair which gave pain to my tailbone and I looked at videos of people accomplishing things and I’d stop and fixate on a person in the background of one of these videos, a looming presence, and I’d fixate on becoming the person, or taking that person into myself, their entirety into the whole of me. I hadn’t asked doctors about this. I’d asked doctors about things mostly related to happiness. I didn’t necessarily think this sort of thing was the kind of thing which might be medicated away to create more happiness. I thought of things like intrusive thoughts and suicidal thoughts as the kinds of things which might be medicated away to create happiness. I thought of days when I felt like I’d rather just stay in bed as things which might be medicated away to create happiness. This, though, didn’t seem like the kind of thing for which I could be prescribed medication which in turn might create happiness.

Going to the store was a nightmare. Going to work was a nightmare. I’d see the way someone’s jeans fit and immediately have the sense that my clothing was completely fucked up and wrong. I’d watch somebody getting into their car and the way the wind grabbed their hair at just the right moment to create something novel and I’d go into the bathroom and stare at my own hair knowing how inept and fucking stupid it was. I would start to talk to my wife about these things and she was always good about knowing where I probably needed to stop. She would be good about finding something funny to it, or saying something outrageous that set me right again. Once when I was walking into a store she randomly opened the door and yelled “CAN YOU GET ME SOME VAGINA CREAM?!” and I fell in love with her there all over again. I like to kiss my wife, to hold her and sometimes to dance a little. For all my mental rot and spitting I can be very traditional. I’m lucky, and I’m a cliché, sure. 

I would give anything to have my father back. I would give anything to have hugged him that night before he went off to bed. I have never been very good at expressing myself in a manner that makes sense. I get sad and become obsessive, or mad and become indirect and quiet. My father came to stay with my family in Idaho with my younger brother. They stayed the week and I was anxious most of the time. I said goodbye and I felt myself closing up in sorrow. At the door it was clear he was sad and I was brief and didn’t say much of anything at all. We went inside and my wife couldn’t understand my reaction, and then I sat down on the couch and started to cry. I felt broken in half to have my father and brother leaving for the Midwest. I would have my wife and my children but being there with my family I felt opened up. I wish I’d simply cried in my father’s embrace, but my wiring is shot. I wept on the couch and felt so much pain. I miss him every day in some manner or other. The kind of raw pain I feel about it is reserved for only a couple of things in life that I’ve noticed. One is regret. Thinking about the past is often a very useless thing, but sometimes the sting of regret will force me to linger in those moments I wish I could change, or take back, and I cannot. Another is my daughter, A., for whom I think I feel the rawest anxiety and fear because she was my first child. This doesn’t mean I don’t feel the exact same about her as my other children, in fact I do, but because I felt it first about her there is a stronger sense of it as I have felt it far longer than I have yet for my son, H., or our other daughter, E. Another is my wife. Sometimes my wife and I will have ugly fights, drawn out things that usually result in us too tired to quite make up until we can. During those fights I will often consider the notion of divorce, as I don’t know what else a person is to consider during those moments, and once we start to make up the sting of having thought like that and the fear of actually losing my wife is just too much to take. I’ll usually shift to thinking about killing myself, as I guess that’s become a sort of mental escape, but really it just takes some time of things being relatively normal for everything to eventually feel O.K. Another is my son, but not in the same way as my other children. My son has cerebral palsy. When he was born we didn’t know anything was different, and then some time passed and he got sick, and he had meningitis. When he got meningitis, my wife was rightly concerned about fevers he was having, and I was aloof, or insisting things were the same as they were with our daughter. We went to sleep one night and my wife woke me up saying his fever had spiked, and so we went to the hospital, and he had meningitis. That led to two weeks of traveling to and from hospitals and my wife was torn apart by all of this. Then that subsided, and then we started to notice him favoring a certain side, and first we were given the diagnosis of a disease I can no longer remember. We got an MRI and nearly half of my son’s brain was dark. We met my father, mother and younger brother outside of Glacier National Park in the first summer of my son’s life, and my dad looked over those results on a computer in our hotel. Some more time passed, and we got the clearer diagnosis of cerebral palsy, and it felt like things were going to be swept out from us for the rest of our lives. And then time passes. My wife knew someone who had a child that was in the PICU at the hospital for basically his entire life, and yet if we tried to draw comparisons it didn’t help. Life became impossibly complicated, and I don’t think it’s stopped being impossibly complicated, and I think that is marriage, and parenthood, and a career, and all of it. You can’t wallow in any mood too much about it. Even writing it here feels rotten and I’m torn between blacking it out or removing it. I love and adore my children, my wife, and that’s it. Bolaño said my only country is my two children and wife and perhaps, though in second place, some moments, streets, faces or books that are in me…

I think this moment is important to me in putting everything together because it was the first time I’d really considered finally buying a 1990s Volvo 240 Wagon. I had hassled my wife about wanting to wear a dress or to exclusively wear vintage sorts of perfume. I’m not sure. I’m also not sure about the political climate. I think that things had grown progressively more racist then, perhaps, and it was on everybody’s mind, and nobody was responding to it all that well. Everything was falling apart constantly through the years in which all of these disparate things were happening and we were trying to make sense of it. I took more medication, believing it might bring happiness, where in the past I just took drugs and spent days on end looking at videos on my phone made by people in little quiet rooms either doing horrific things or talking about the ways in which the world was being manipulated by a cabal of racistly caricatured ethnic group. This was a dark point in time. I became obsessed with those cars because they seemed like the perfect machine. I never understood males who wanted to buy cars that needed fixing up. I’m mediocre at most basic tasks. It’s an issue for me too. I wish I could simply go out and accomplish something complex under the hood of a car but I cannot. I try. I do my best like anybody, but it was always something that made me feel less male, less masculine or interested in masculinity than my fellows. The Volvo 240, though, gave me a sense of comfort because I’d seen them driven by certain people over the course of my life and I became very obsessed with the idea of having one of my own that I could work on and engage with for a prolonged period of time. I started to keep public domain images of them nearby then constantly. I wanted to have one to drive for the rest of my life. Another time, I think undertaken because I wanted to try and force myself to shut up for several weeks to get some work done, I set fire to a coal and I opened my mouth as wide as I could. The coal was made for grilling. They’re coated in something that makes them catch fire easily. I was in my backyard and as far as I could see everybody around had gone to bed. My wife had gone to bed. My children were asleep. The dog was running around between my legs. I had the coal in tongs and I held it until I could see bits of orange shining through the black. I’d wanted to do this for weeks. When I wanted to do something, something like this, it always started in thoughts and they came up whenever something was wrong. With my pinky I was feeling depressed and sitting in my father’s basement and I remembered the saw he had. Ryobi. Bright green. I helped him remove some staining on his fence for a couple of days before that and eventually I found myself in his basement there, a piece of wood in front of me, the saw turned on and rotating, and I shoved my pinky into the blade along with the wood and felt it cut clean through the meat of me. After I cut the finger off I covered it in cloth and went to the bathroom to flush the remainder of my pinky so that reattachment would be impossible. I took a long cold shower and felt the pain of it and slowed the bleeding. I was able to go about my days for a good while before anybody noticed. My wife saw it eventually and I admitted that I’d cut it off on purpose one day awhile back. It wasn’t infected, thankfully, and I promised her I wouldn’t do this sort of thing again. Years before I remembered staring at the blurred male on the cover of Jernigan, and the moment when he shoots himself in the hand. I’d opened a collection of stories called Marcel with that moment as an epigraph. I’ve always been drawn to people taking something out on their body. For a long time I dreamt of it. I wanted to do it. I had wanted to do it. I wrote another book called Clog about a murderer who’s determined to murder himself, cutting off his limbs with a saw in a shed and burying it in the surrounding forest. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I hope it isn’t an ego thing. That’s all I can hope for. I like it when human beings take whatever violence the majority of humanity projects out into the world and directs it inward. Not suicide, not really, but this long slow process of fighting with oneself, remaining at odds with oneself, at war with oneself. That’s what’s important to me, I think.

Then, so, the thought came of the coal, this violently hot object making its way down to my gut, removing the hatred that I felt existed there. I would look at the profiles of people I hated on the internet and stoke this anger, and feel disconnected from the world, and want to do something about it. My response, then, was never to feel violent towards another. I would always get violent towards myself. I knew that I was the problem, that my hatred was the problem, my jealousy the problem. Knowing this, I fantasized, the nasty object opening my throat and blistering the skin of my open mouth in the cold night. I opened my mouth and the cold world entered in as I lifted the object up and felt its warmth at the edges of my lips. I saw the orange of it and I opened up and lifted the tongs until I mustered up the energy and separated the tongs with my other hand and the coal dropped into my waiting mouth. It burned me at first and it felt like a quick shot of cold. I must have passed out because I awoke on the ground with the coal burning the outside of my cheek and I hadn’t screamed much or made too much noise because nobody had come outside but the feeling that was in my throat was like I’d swallowed a burning cup of hot coffee and it tasted like I’d inhaled a massive gasp of nasty chemicals and held it after the burn. The outside of my cheek on the ground was already blistering and I crawled over to the hose and ran the water over my open mouth and face for what must’ve been half an hour. I didn’t stop until I could mumble without a heap of pain. I laid out there crying until the sun came up, cold and shivering.

Back in a house filled with people and everything was happening right in front of me and all of it was slowed and I don’t think I accepted then the death of the man. He had been such a large presence in my life. I had lived such a puny little life. I don’t know if I wanted to accept it. As always, since the kids were born, I wanted to go somewhere alone and sleep for a month, then come back and deal with every problem. You get a minor dose of it each night. They sleep. You use your phone until you can’t open your eyes anymore, and then you sleep.

When I was younger I used to say I was going to die when I was 21 and I wouldn’t have read a book. I didn’t fully understand that until more recently. I understood the death thing. I would take any drug put in front of me. I would drink anything put in front of me. I became a type 1 diabetic when I was ten and I’ve never been very good about taking care of myself. I really didn’t care if I died when I was 21. Most days when I wasn’t on something I was thinking so much and so destructively that it’s a miracle I never killed myself. I still have those thoughts. I take a lot of medication. The book thing, though, only became clear more recently. I liked Darby Crash, a mess of a person who did not seem as though he read much. Lately I’m very uninterested in reading all over again. It’s not from a hatred of reading I just can’t see the point. Other things are easier to get lost in, and that’s something I value. If I experience aesthetic pleasure it’s usually more in catharsis, an occasional scream that literature’s never been great at providing. Sometimes, though. The large editions of de Sade that Grove used to put out. These massive mass market paperbacks filled with his writings and others’ critical writings about him. It was easy to get lost in those in a long bath, reading about sex and god and nature and darkness. If I’d known when young that this sort of reading existed I might’ve discovered it quicker. Even then, though, I can take or leave it. I don’t know that it matters and I don’t know that I’ll ever know. I don’t know where entertainment stops and art begins. They are similar, they are even maybe the same. I have no real position on the matter. I just think one should be honest about one’s interests and spend one’s life doing the things that bring you that sort of joy that holds no guilt. Do what you can to remove guilt from things. Open yourself up to your own interests and trust them. Find something in the world. It’s there. There is a world inside the world. I’m asleep. You know, like that? Do you understand what I’m saying, sir? Didn’t Iggy Pop say that, on TV? Didn’t he say this is serious business to me, do you understand? It’s very serious. I feel very strongly about what I do. And it’s not all that good. I’m not that great, you know, really. … I’ve worked very hard for a very long time to try and make something that’s beautiful enough so that I can enjoy it and so other people can enjoy it. And I will continue working at it because I haven’t nearly achieved it yet. He said it on TV, in 1977, the only year that really matters to me until now. He said it about what was happening. Right there. It’s right there.

Why would I write? Why would I write about it? Why would I write about my life? Why would I sit down and write something today? Why would anybody sit down and write anything these days? Why wouldn’t I just go for a walk? Why wouldn’t I just pee on someone’s car? Why wouldn’t I just have sex? Why wouldn’t I just put on a song? Why wouldn’t I just punch a hole in someone’s car? Why wouldn’t I just fight a stranger? Why wouldn’t I just lace up my boots? Why wouldn’t I leave earth? Why would I stay? Why wouldn’t I just find ten more writers to despise? Why wouldn’t I unearth their secrets? Why wouldn’t I read Kill List? Why wouldn’t I escape? Why wouldn’t I lay on the ample belly of Francis Ford Coppola? Why wouldn’t I hug the dog? Why wouldn’t I give my wife a kiss? Why would I write a thing? Why would I share the work? Why would I engage the internet? Why wouldn’t I go rollerblading? Why can’t I just leave? Why can’t I get my own cow? Why can’t I get a big cow and name her Jolene? Why can’t I fix everything? Why can’t I cushion my children from this stupid world? Why would I read? Why would I read a novel? Why would I listen to a podcast? Why would I vote? Why wouldn’t I go for a swim? Why wouldn’t I move to Iraq? Why wouldn’t I collect Norman Mailer’s hair? Why would I read the New Yorker? Why would I respond to the world? Why would I focus on anything? Why would I try? Why wouldn’t I put on the boots my sister got me? Why wouldn’t I wear some sweatpants every day? Why wouldn’t I listen to some music? Why wouldn’t I listen to the Sonics? Why wouldn’t I save some pictures to my phone? Why would I teach a class? Why would I get some degrees? Why would I study? Why would I endeavor? Why would I write a book? Why would I write another book? Why wouldn’t I be stuck in the 90s? Why couldn’t I drink some Kick? Why couldn’t I get a slice of pizza? Why couldn’t I listen to Joy Division? Why wouldn’t they cancel me? Why can’t I be dead? Why can’t I take my medicine? Why do I take my insulin? Why do I paint? Why do I write? Why wouldn’t I write? Why would I write? Why should I write? Why wouldn’t I sleep? Why wouldn’t I just eat a bullet? Why wouldn’t I watch the television? Why wouldn’t I follow sports? Why wouldn’t I invest my money? Why wouldn’t I have friends? Why wouldn’t I take a shower? Why wouldn’t I get counseling? Why wouldn’t I watch pornography? Why wouldn’t I eat a cheesecake? Why wouldn’t I stare out the window? Why wouldn’t I get my pilot’s license? Why wouldn’t I try and eat my car? Why wouldn’t I develop an unhealthy, illegal obsession? Why wouldn’t I go to prison? Why wouldn’t I join the military? Why wouldn’t I become a prostitute? Why wouldn’t I fight the air? Why wouldn’t I play music? Why wouldn’t I watch a film? Why wouldn’t I go to sleep? Why wouldn’t I become a professional wrestler? Why wouldn’t I be a janitor? Why wouldn’t I have some kids? Why wouldn’t I grow up? Why wouldn’t I make some coffee? Why wouldn’t I trust the directors of films? Why wouldn’t I trust the directors of art museums? Why wouldn’t I go for a walk? Why wouldn’t I take more antidepressants? Why wouldn’t I nurture my fear? Why wouldn’t I hold my fear? Why wouldn’t I walk? Why wouldn’t I burn myself? Why wouldn’t I set myself on fire? Why wouldn’t I go to the monastery? Why wouldn’t I be there in the morning? Why wouldn’t I mourn?

For a long time the daydreams I had about my death took place in hotel rooms I’d been inside of that I fantasized about when I thought I was probably nearing the end of my time on earth, sometimes the room first, a vague sense of anxiety and wanting to escape it, sometimes the rope first, the bullet, the pills. I tried to incorporate this into the death meditations then and found it was easy to lay back into these narratives about my death like easing into warm water. I was trying to use them practically, though. I was trying to use them to engage my past and my future and to really dwell deeply in the mood there, the feeling there. I’d imagine going somewhere to buy some drugs, somewhere else for some alcohol, somewhere else for some sort of tobacco or nicotine. I’d come back to the place and lay on the bed closest to the bathroom wall. Maybe I’d take a shower and masturbate and turn on the television and start to drink, taking a pill or two and continuing in this manner until I reached a deep lateness in the night. I’d walk outside then, barefoot, and wander around the city for a couple of hours, eating more drugs and taking drinks and hiding from the world. I’d stand there watching the people. I’d think about my father’s last night and the massive hall where we’d held his funeral ceremony where my former friend’s mother sang “Danny boy” in a strange falsetto and my sister and brother read things they’d written and my mother sat next to me crying and I didn’t read anything. I’d written something and it was included in the program for the funeral. I talked to these people from various stages in my father’s life and I ate food. I held my daughter or my son and I would never have guessed that we’d have another daughter soon. I can’t remember the order when all of these things occurred. I can never keep things exactly right. I want to but I can’t. I try to but ever since I was twenty-four or so my memory has been a series of vague electric twitches and long waves of anxiety rather than something clear and readable. The best the idle thoughts of death would bring me was some sense of stability that I was nearing a definite turning point, even if it was the end. I read about figures in ancient civilizations that knelt as their throats were cut, or their bodies were shot through with hundreds of arrows, then lit on fire and sent out on a slap of wood to die on the water. I read about the famous suicides, and histories of suicide, that attempted to put this universal thing in some kind of context, but there’s only more. A false perception of clarity soon gave way to more and more narrative.

I think I was drawn to Yukio Mishima because of his physicality. His death. Even now, the first thing I think about is his death, his body. It’s probably because he wasn’t straight, but married. Had a child. Believed in an ideology and made art. Participated in the final destruction of himself. His emaciated form in a government building bleeding out, communing with the corpse of Pasolini on the ground, murdered by his own car. A farmer in the city. Do I hear twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one? Mishima as Saint Sebastian. I carry his picture still. I had seen versions of death before. I kept the picture Man Ray took of Marcel Proust on his deathbed in my office. My grandmother had died and I still remembered the plasticky way she looked at her funeral, and surprisingly small for someone who cast an imposing figure in her life. Proust was interesting. The early pictures of him, youthful with a mustache, French, hair a bit shiny. The image of his death looks completely different. He’s got a beard and his hair is grown out a bit, and he’s laying there like a saint. In the older version of me there is a slew of disappointment that I have watched my entire life. I have watched myself fuck up all things. I have never stopped watching myself fuck up all things. My writing. My family. My marriage. My body. My health. My mind. My medication. My addiction. My alcoholism. My world. My war. My diabetes. My heart. My work. My talking. My trying. My teaching. My children. My dog. My family. My eyesight. My diet. My water intake. My experience. My happiness. My depression. My anxiety. My fear. My obsession. I try to fixate only on little totems along the way. The looming voice of Scott Walker, louder now that he’s dead. The simple Volvo 240 wagon. The watch my father wore. The boots my sister bought me. My wedding ring. These stabilize, help me to remember.

Grant Maierhofer is the author of Clog, Gag, Flamingos, Postures, and more. His work can be found via Egress, 3AM Magazine, LIT Magazine, and elsewhere.

© Grant Maierhofer. reprinted with permission from SHAME, published by fc2/the university of alabama press.

*Image credit: Paul McCarthy, ‘Painter’, 1995.