Journalist | Essayist | Novelist | istist

Chartreuse and Short Truths

This creative non-fiction essay, by Benjamin J. Gohs, was a finalist for the 2018 Iowa Review Award for Creative Nonfiction.


There is a midget with a switchblade on the loose in my head. I’d thought perhaps of referring to him as a homunculus or Lilliputian to avoid offense. But I trust in his forgiving, fictional nature.

And, frankly, the little sonofabitch doesn’t deserve any of my respect.

Because, just when I get to thinking about puppies or ice-cream or how I should send money to Third World children or that you should never begin a sentence with “because,” that little pot-licker goes to work slashing synapses and stabbing brain cells, all the while smoking his smelly little briarwood pipe and shrieking with maniacal laughter.

“That’s the best I can describe it, Doc. So, what’s wrong with me? Cognitive dyslexia? Attention deficit? Paranoid schizophrenia?”

“No. No. No.”

He said I suffer from nervousness.

“You mean like stage fright?”

Shrug.

This was before panic and anxiety disorders were widely understood. Still maybe not-so-widely and not-so-understood.

In the old days they would have called me “yellow” or “disturbed” and jabbed a steel tine into my frontal lobe and put me to work rolling cigarettes for the Foreign Legion and shitting my pants with even greater regularity.

Prefer to think of myself as chartreuse … an elegant coward.

Head doctor prescribed pills. Couldn’t take them. Med-phobic. His frustration obvious.

“It’s like you don’t want to get better.”

“Hey, why didn’t I think of that?”

Then on to the shrink. Told me keep a journal. Place to put all the negative thoughts—a garbage disposal for my worry.

“What should I write?”

“Anything which seems to preoccupy your mind.”

“That’s everything.”

He laughed.

I did not.


Began the most recent entry in this Encyclopedia Nonsensica by wondering if the gluten-free ketchup would give me cancer, and why was I even shunning gluten since I didn’t have Celiac Disease?

And how many kinds of cancer can a person get at one time?

And how much ketchup is too much ketchup?

And how would this affect my undiagnosed cancers of the toenail, eyebrow, navel, scrotum and tongue?

I definitely eat too much ketchup.

Probably too much.

Who’s the fucking arbiter of ketchup consumption anyway?

I eat ketchup on crackers, chips, toast, mashed potatoes, and oatmeal.

Least I could do was be sure it was gluten-free.

Wait, lemme make note of that in my journal.


Thinking of eating strange things made me think of the time when I, maybe five or six, was discovered sitting a windowsill, munching happily away.

When questioned as to what I was doing with all those dead flies, I replied with good cheer, “Eatin way-zins.”

While writing this, I could smell the raisins in my mind’s nose, and wondered if everyone picks up that same medicinal scent.

See, thanks to med-phobia, I don’t take anything for year-round dust and pollen allergies, either.

Being constantly congested makes everything smell off. Ironically, I’ve a compulsion to sniff everything I come into contact with.

Nose is a eunuch humping table legs but still I persist.

  • Brewing coffee stinks like fresh baby shit.
  • Parmesan cheese on hot spaghetti sauce smells like throw-up.
  • My dog’s fur smells like scrambled eggs.
  • Her farts smell like mildew.
  • But the mildew does not smell like farts.
  • Wife’s makeup smells like ground up pickles and bologna.

My children laugh because I constantly complain of phantom cigarette smoke.

Or is it that little cocksucker’s pipe?

“I smell your sweet after-dinner treachery, midget with a switchblade!”


Kids are grown now, off on their own adventures. Find myself reminiscing about their youth … and mine.

Kindergarten.

I had no friends.

To stave bus ride loneliness, I sang “Away in the Manger,” which mother had taught me.

I sang it to myself and cried because I missed her.

That was the closest to religion I’ve ever been.

That song still makes me cry deep down in the crumbly burnt umber crayon of my infidel heart.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking of this book I read as a child.

“My Side of the Mountain” is the story of a boy who runs away from home and lives in the hollowed-out trunk of a great big standing tree.

He survives on acorn-flour pancakes and fruit of the forest.

The kid whittles fish hooks out of widdle sticks and gets high on nature in the dizzying romantic solitude of Thoreauvian lore.

I read the book and it made me want to run away from home.

Needed to get away from my crazy family.

Read the book and I loved it so much it made me hurt inside. But I was too young to run away from home.

Thirty years later and I’ve thought about reading the book again.

I don’t.

I can’t.

Afraid that wonderful pain might return.

And I’m too old to run away from home now.


Reminds of the old man who wished to run away but said he was being held captive in his house by a cult.

When I worked as a newspaper editor way up north in Michigan, I used to get calls from a guy, usually late in the afternoon, that he was trapped in his apartment complex by a family of Satanists who forced him into ritualistic orgies.

Called the cops.

A disturbed individual, they told me.

But harmless.

He continued to phone, and I continued to listen.

Sometimes he’d talk about the Satanists.

Other times he’d warn that the chem-trails were particularly heavy that day, or to beware of the mind-control dust clouds rolling through town.

I let him talk as long as he liked, me editing press releases or laying out sections of the paper as he did so.

I think we were both pretty lonely.

Nowadays, I work from home, editing and designing and writing for a small community newspaper.

It’s lonely work, and sometimes I wish a Satanic cult would invite me to their orgies.


I’d even like to have another pen pal to keep me company.

But, at this point, anything would be nice: death threats, sexy letters, even pictures of your mom.

Until then, I’ll have to continue exchanging angry homoerotic love notes under the pen name of an 18th Century English Dandy with my brother.

Our wives and mother are flabbergasted by the correspondence, but it keeps us out of jail and it’s a lot of laughs for the price of a postage stamp.


Best piece of hate mail I ever got was a dirty sock.

The article preceding it featured a priest accused of assaulting his secretary.

Our big story came out packed with comments from disgruntled parishioners.

The town was aghast.

The dirty sock, written upon in permanent marker—I assume permanency as I have not dared wash the now framed trophy—stated: “Put this in your gossip column about St. Mary.”


Another lonely fellow was the Vietnam soldier who sent a letter to be printed on Veterans Day some years back.

In his lengthy, disjointed screed, the war vet said he goes out to his barn once a year and digs up a box containing military memorabilia.

Among the medals and empty bullet casings are, he alleged, some black, shriveled ears and fingers from the enemy soldiers he killed.

The newsroom had a longish discussion about whether human body parts were legal to possess.

We talked about calling the cops, but journalists are notoriously lazy.


Speaking of crime, I had to write a story about the death of the nicest guy in town.

He was. Nice, that is. Everybody said so.

The generally accepted version of events was that this fine fellow perished in a freak auto accident.

Then I talked to the police.

Mr. Nice Guy had recently been caught in a federal sting operation for child porn movies.

Some really sick stuff according to the sheriff.

On the day Mr. Nice Guy was to turn himself in at the jail, he “accidentally” drove his minivan, at a hundred-miles-an-hour, without a seat-belt, into a stand of trees.

I wrote the real story.

After all, you can’t libel a dead man.

Again, the town was aghast.

Next thing you know, I was getting dirty looks all over the city.

One night, guy a few bar stools down cursed me and said, “How could you do such a thing?”

I told him his pal was a goddamn pervert—with court documents to back it up.

“Yeah,” he said, all dejected, “but he was such a nice guy.”


When I was a kid, I was pretty good friends with someone who turned out later to be a —-.

He was not the nicest guy in town.

Cops finally nailed him a few years ago for some pretty bad business but he got away on a technicality.

He did not have the good taste to drive really fast into a stand of trees.


Oh, the guilt.

I seem to remember every dastardly thing I’ve ever done.

Well, it feels that way sometimes.

And I do a fair amount of obsessing over each misdeed.

There are a couple big ones I’ll never tell anyone.

And then there are the smaller ghosts who knock around in the dark halls of my shame.

When I was a kid, I found five dollars in my best friend’s driveway and pocketed it.

“I had it and now I can’t find it,” he said later in the day.

“Haven’t seen it.”

A thief.

A liar.

Sold my soul for five lousy bucks.

30 years and still ashamed.

Sometimes I think about sending him the money.

But then I’d have to explain.


Not everyone has trouble with guilt.

I covered the story of a man accused of murdering his brother with an ax.

“Goddamn, I’m good,” boasted the prosecutor.

“I got a conviction without a witness, without a confession, and without a body.”


Only thing worse than guilt is fear of rejection.

I keep having this recurring day-terror—usually while on the toilet—concerning a New Yorker cartoon I’d considered drawing.

There’s this one farmer sitting on a throne of eggs.

He’s holding a gun and wearing a sash which reads: “King Cock.”

He’s surrounded by prostrating chickens and, off to the side, another farmer has his hands on his hips, looking all kinds of upset, and he says: “No, Clem, I said a ‘coop’—a coop!”

I’d draw and send it, but I don’t think it’s clever enough.

Or maybe it’s too clever by half. Sometimes

I think the midget with a switchblade has connections in the publishing industry.

Always one step ahead of me.

One angry little step.


There is a special place in hell for those who are too clever by half.

No, that’s a lie.

There is an ordinary place in hell for people who use the phrase, “too clever by half.”

Disdain, I think it is called.

Disdain is ordinary hell.

There is also an etc. for people who say, “There is a special place in hell for…”

This goes double for people who name their sons “Guy” or their dogs “Dog” or their cats “Chairman Meow.”

This disdain, I think, should be extended to those who opine with the phrase “I think” as if their opinions might mistakenly have been rummaged from a cereal box or a campground dumpster or stolen from the pocket of a sleeping hobo.

I think you might understand my chagrin when upon I discovered an aphorism can also be an idiom, a platitude and a cliché.

The implications were positively Brobdingnagian.

I know what you’re thinking: “Chagrin? What a pretentious ass.”


Words, words, words. Henry Miller is the only man who uses the C-word more than my father. My father is the only man who uses the F-word more than Henry Miller.

Arrivistes? Bon mots? Vecu? McLuhanite? Bartok? Good Christ it all! Will someone look these up?

Words have always bemused me, mesmerized and amused me.

“All day long, wearing a hat that wasn’t on my head.”

That’s what Jack Kerouac said.

I don’t know what that means but I think it’s beautiful.

I don’t know what that means, and I don’t want anyone to explain it to me. I’d rather think a hundred different things all my own.

And then I can, all day long, ponder poetry that wasn’t spoon-fed.


I’m sorry there’s so much poetry I don’t understand.

I’m sorry about a lot of things.

  • I’m sorry I didn’t punch your father in the face when he deserved it.
  • I’m sorry I canceled Easter on the kids.
  • I’m sorry I missed the concert—both times.
  • I’m sorry I didn’t kiss her when I had the chance.
  • I’m sorry I allowed nostalgia to make me vulnerable. Again.
  • I’m sorry most of them have died.
  • I’m sorry I let myself get so fat.
  • I’m sorry Charles and Julia couldn’t make it work.
  • I’m sorry I pretended to be collecting for cancer.

But the journal doesn’t judge.

And, so, on I write.

But the midget with a switchblade, he slices.

And, so, on he dances.


There are so many to blame.

One cut up his brother.

One stumbled drunk and drown in the icy pond.

One raped a baby.

One beat his wife.

One bashed her mother’s brains in with a lamp.

One stole a million bucks and lied about it.

One killed himself in the parking lot and told the truth about it.

One knocked the sheriff’s front teeth out.

One died in a plane crash.

One robbed the pharmacist of nothing.

One hid in the shadows and wrote about it.


Half of the job of journalism is powdering the asses of egomaniacs on the verge of despair.

The whole time they’re threatening to go over the cliff, I’m under my breath whispering, “Jump. Jump.”


Life is a lesson in non sequitur. No?

Getting drunk on mid-priced bourbon.

Screaming across the dinner table, echo-less, into marital wreckage.

Deflowering the babysitter.

Cuckolded by the mailman.

All on a Saturday night.

Just another rousing game of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Afraid?

Two great fears have long been dying on the toilet, like Elvis, or dying in the shower, like that other guy.

Got this nagging worry I’ll drop dead and the paramedics will find me naked.

One last humiliation.

What is the radio code for “soggy fatso” anyway?

However, I’ve found that reciting beat poetry aloud helps get through my ablutions without too much of a ruckus.

There’s nothing worse than being driven from the tub, mid-bath, by a panic attack; streaking, sopping wet, across the apartment while your horrified spouse and curious dog—and sometimes the also-horrified neighbors, if the curtains are open—look on.

Oh, death will get me in the end, no amount of wishing can stop that.

But, when I go, I don’t want to be shouting a stanza of Ginsberg from the bathroom floor.

Or do I secretly wish it?

“Father death … don’t cry anymore!!!”

See, I feel better already.


Wish?

Oh yes, I’ve lost count on the number of people I wished would die horribly.

I wished this one lady journalist to death so many times, unsuccessfully, that I was a little surprised when the old bag actually croaked.

She, for example, once screamed obscenities at a city clerk in front of the clerk’s kid because election results weren’t coming out fast enough.

They said it was some odd form of cancer.

Not rare but odd.

Part of me actually thinks she died of being an asshole.

Can you die of that?

Oh, God(s), I hope not.


Maybe the Universe was to blame for her demise.

Some talk of the Universe as though it’s a sentient being instead of what it is—a celestial junk drawer—unfeeling as an alcoholic mother, mindless as a coffee table, mean as a midget with a switchblade.

Can you imagine the credenza caring whether you get that big promotion? That would be one finely crafted piece of furniture.

Wait … what the fuck is a credenza?

Just thinking about all this makes me nervous.

But, as certain as God made little green men, the only cure for anxiety is death.

No number of pills or journal entries nor gallons of gluten-free ketchup are going to change that.

Shit.

I think I hear that little cocksucker up there stropping his blade.

I’d better write this down before I forget.

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