Portrait of a Writer as a Recluse
By Dennis Thatcher
It’s two o’clock in the morning on a hot summer night in July and I’m sitting across from aspiring writer Christopher S. Bell in the lower-level end of these here United States of America, otherwise known as Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The location is the back booth of a local dive that my assignment claims is a hometown tradition. Coney Island, where the weak and weary go to load up on artery-clogging agents and recover from whatever direction their night is currently spinning in.
For the twenty-two-year-old Bell, such a recovery is beyond necessary, his mouth drunkenly chewing animal product when its not exhaling white clouds of smoke from the cheap cigarettes he consistently buys and smokes. This night alone, the two of us have stopped at four different convenient stores spread throughout Johnstown, searching for what the writer refers to as “The perfect way to kill yourself.”
I try my best to ignore all of my subject’s addictions, as I stare down at the empty white page in my red notepad sitting next to the two gooey hot dogs that Christopher insisted I order. With each loud click of his jaw (Bell rudely chewing with his mouth wide open as if he’s inherited such a privilege from his forefathers) I contemplate why exactly my editor has sent me on yet another wild goose chase. Actually that’s a bit of understatement, considering that I don’t think many wild geese fly over these parts anymore.
The town located in the Western part of the state is infamous for floods and steel production, both of which managed to swallow all the residents and buildings whole in the late 70’s. The inhabitants of Johnstown are an odd mix of upper-middle class hill-dwellers, and those living in the searing underbelly of the town, or on its outskirts clinging to their shotguns and one-sided points of view. We run into one type or the other all night as I follow Bell around on his lackluster search for answers, and more importantly, material.
“Have you ever seen anything more beautiful than this in your entire life?” He asks me holding up his fully loaded chilidog a moment away from consumption.
“I can’t say that I have,” I reply sheepishly, before attempting to flip through the night’s notes for a logical starting point.
Such a task seems beyond difficult at that very moment considering every place we’ve already been to, and furthermore the overabundance of exchanges that have occurred between Christopher and what he refers to as “an odd blend of old friends, enemies, acquaintances, masturbatory fantasies, and ones that got away.” I think about all of them in ways I’m not sure I’m supposed to, the distinctive line between reality and fiction instantly blurring the second I stepped into this writer’s quaint little world. I clear my throat and find my footing, only to once again be interrupted.
“And ya know, that’s the thing I think a lot of them have lost a long time ago.”
“What have they lost?” I ask out of curiosity.
“Just everything, ya know? I mean, it’s not like any of them will say they’ve changed. They don’t like to think of themselves as people who look down at me and my chilidog with some sense that I’m weak-willed. They call it evolution now, I think, or maybe a conscious decision to help make the world a better place, but the truth of the matter is that they wish they were like me.”
“How do you figure?” I say without much thought.
“Because assholes like you are following me around, asking me questions.”
I laugh out loud before taking a bite from my own plate, and once again trying to find my bearings. Bell seems comfortable in his own appropriated titled hole, despite his still lingering intoxication. I wonder if such a night is normal for him, or rather if it was all an act for the dim-witted journalist. I try not to steer too far away from either possibility as I lean back in the booth and begin.
So let’s talk about tonight.
- What, are you serious? You’re not gonna ask me about my childhood or something? Start with an icebreaker?
Do you wanna get into any of that stuff right now?
- No, not really. Actually, if at all possible, I’d like to avoid the dirty little tidbits of information you or someone like you has dug up on me.
I was unaware that any such information existed, Christopher.
- You’re right. It probably doesn’t, but in any case, I’m just not sure if I’m ready to talk about tonight just yet. I mean, I don’t think you should be either.
Yeah, maybe you’re right. Okay, well how bout your book?
-I don’t wanna talk about that right now either.
Ya know, you’re not really giving me too much room to breathe here.
- See that’s where I think you’re wrong. I’ve been giving you room to breathe all night, allowing you the time to observe, to take everything in, to make mental notes, like ya know, us writers do, or at least I’m assuming that’s how you roll, and now that we’ve officially come down, allowed ourselves the time to dwell in the past and the future, I’m just kind of hoping we can cut all the bullshit.
So what is it you wanna talk about then?
- I’m not sure. I mean, I could write pages about this chilidog, and books about tonight; all the looks and subtleties having some kind of primordial effect on my mood, but I guess the truth of the matter is that I wanna know what you think of everything?
You want my opinion?
- Yeah, if it’s not too much to ask.
Ya know, journalism is supposed to be a subjective business.
- Yeah, but you don’t seem like the kind of journalist who really gives a shit about form, and ya know, all that other crap. At least that’s what I gathered when you were doing shots with those two sixteen-year-olds a few hours ago.
See, now you’re making me out to be the bad guy. You’re the one who said they were legal.
- Well yeah, but I’m a writer. I mean, how hard is it to figure out that I’m the biggest goddamn liar on the planet at this point?
Not too difficult, I suppose.
- Exactly, and that’s what I’m saying. It’s like the same everywhere, in any profession. I mean, despite the fact that you went to school and attempted to abide by all the rules, you still can’t deny that some things are inescapable.
I’m not sure I know what you’re trying to get at here.
- What I’m trying to say is that despite the fact that you might be coming into this as a professional journalist or whatever you wanna call yourself, you have to stop and realize that not only have I read the magazine you write for, but also I know that if some supposed “subjective” writer wants to make another writer sound like an asshole, then it’s really not too difficult for them to do so.
So what’s your point then?
- My point is, I’ve established the fact that we’re both assholes, now let’s talk about what assholes talk about as opposed to say, interviewer and interviewee.
Okay, what is it assholes talk about?
- Ya see now right there’s the kind of question an asshole would ask.
- Good, cause I think that means we’re finally getting somewhere.
I pause for a moment and try to put myself on the same page as Bell, who has magically managed to corrupt every one of my original intentions. I start to run back through the events of the night one by one, attempting to find some kind of common ground that hasn’t been lost in the thick of it all.
The two of us met for dinner at the City View Bar and Grill, Bell only briefly mentioning the eclipsing outlook before ordering us beers and then hitting on our waitress, who he claimed was only pretending not to remember him. A story of questionable content about the same long-legged blonde occurred before our meals, and then more shots strategically placed on his tab.
We then ventured away from the top of the hill and headed down to 709 Railroad Street, a local DIY music venue that Bell’s domesticated social circle frequents. It was here at a local punk rock show that I aimed to develop some sort of perspective on the writer as a person, his friends and fellow artists seeming like the type who would know him best.
However, following several sidewalk conversations and roughly a half-hour where my subject simply wondered off to some undisclosed secret location on the premises, I was at a complete loss for words and thoughts. It was during this time that I asked around, the majority of the youthful deviants spaced out in groupings, having absolutely no idea who I was asking about, and furthermore what my purpose for being there was.
As I perused alternative corners of the area around the venue, listening in for any shred of a varying point of view on Christopher S. Bell, his trials and tribulations in the written word, and the little pieces of his hometown that make him click, I regrettably found no answers to such questions. While there were those who knew the man or knew of his actions, for the most part everyone remained silently inept or lost in their own private little worlds.
Bell’s hazy return to the sidewalk and soon the inside stage area still left me with all the same blanks that needed filled. We stood off to the side watching a young punk band called The Nullifiers lose their voices and minds over some inaudible message, before I group of girls in their early twenties walked, and Bell, without hesitation, walked out and away from it all.
From that point it became a blurred clutter of sips taken from half-empty bottles, inhaled sentiments from sloppily-rolled joints, and conversations with faces that he seemed to know, but that I couldn’t come close to placing with my research, or the shadowed outline of characters from his first novel and upcoming book of short stories. We jumped from abandoned suburban mansions to cheaply rented city rooftops, each and every move he took seeming to be justifiably him, even if I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was about the situation that made it that way.
I lost myself in the night, and as I sat across from what I realized I would soon be telling my editor, was a failed attempt at a human-interest story, I slowly began to understand what he was going for, even though it didn’t seem like him, or at least the him that I thought I knew well-enough from his work. A first-person narrative usually rings true even if there are some lies buried within the mix. I clear my throat and begin again with a shitty grin.
So what have you been listening to lately?
- See now that’s a really good asshole question.
Yeah, I kind of figured it would be.
- Shit man, I don’t know. I mean, there’s the local stuff, but that’s something I hope you get well enough now that I don’t have to provide an explanation. But, well other than that I’m not sure what to say, cause there’s some choice cuts filtering into the mix, but I’m not sure if they’ll last, ya know? I feel like my musical taste is something that continually falls apart on me. And that’s not to say that there isn’t a solid foundation there. It’s just that shit gets weird sometimes, and I find myself obliging in whatever way feels right.
Well strangely enough that makes sense to me.
- Really, cause that was just a bunch of bullshit. Bob Dylan, The Pixies, and Pet Sounds.
Well okay, all three of which are mentioned in your work.
- You’re trying to get back on track now, aren’t you?
Call it journalistic intuition.
- Well okay, I’m gonna cut the shit with you right now. I don’t know how I feel about the books, that is to say the last one and now this new one, and I’m not sure I want to think about it anymore. I mean, part of me understands that any reader might possibly want to know what the author was thinking, but to be perfectly honest, sometimes I’m not sure what I’m thinking. Sometimes I write something to help me get through whatever it is I’m going through, and other times I write something because I hope that somebody will get something out of it. But it’s mostly all for me. I mean, isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?
Maybe. I mean, sometimes we have bigger purposes.
- I think I’ve given up on that notion at this point in my life.
Oh yeah, why’s that?
- Because most of the time they never seem to care.
Who doesn’t seem to care?
- All the same people you’re wondering about. All the people you don’t know, and all the ones that think it’s a bigger piece of them in the work than it really is. They don’t care about the bigger purpose, just whether or not they get enough airtime.
Well okay, fair enough. So who get the most airtime in your new book of short stories LEVEL UP AND LEVEL OUT?
- Well, I do obviously.
Yeah, but I mean, besides you, who does?
- Ya know, if you haven’t been able to figure all of this out yet, I mean, after following me around with a pen and paper the whole day, then I’m not sure I really want to tell you.
Why not? I mean, didn’t I put up the effort?
- Well yeah, but I really don’t think it’s that hard of a concept to grasp onto.
Help me out a little bit here.
- Ya know, I’m not gonna do that, but I am gonna do something else for you right now.
Oh yeah, what’s that?
- I’m gonna let you ask me your first question again.
What, about tonight?
- Yeah, about tonight.
Okay, so what do you have to say about tonight?
- Not too much. I got too fucked up, and then forgot to remind myself that I really need to stop pretending like I hate her, because she’s so much better at it than I am.
- Hey I only said I’d let you ask your first question. When we stop being assholes and start being drunken acquaintances, then maybe I’ll elaborate on the rest.
Soon we were both quiet, looking down at our empty plates and trying our damnedest to remind ourselves to forget about all the little things that happened in-between point A. and point B. that night. While I knew that I would be okay with myself; other articles, deadlines and assholes to interview coming in the following weeks, for some reason I wasn’t sure if Christopher would be able to do so.
Then I thought about it more, realizing that those little things I tried to figure out all night were exactly the type of material he was looking for, or possibly trying his hardest to avoid. He would find it difficult to venture out and away from them, as they were, like the town he lived in, so very much a part of the subtext. Nothing much felt like it was hidden passively between the lines anymore, and in that sense, I at least understand now why we didn’t talk about much of anything. Like everyone else, I too, had become a part of it.