• Short Story: “A Few Quirks of Surrender”

    by Ken O’Steen

    Suicide was his breakfast cereal, his tuna sandwich, his pasta primavera, his aperitif. Thinking of it got him through the day, and it came punctually.

    He regularly tried to kill himself, and I encouraged him. My agenda was not so malignant, or so callous, as it may seem at first glance. I had a larger purpose, though in fairness the sacrifice was his alone.

    Attempting suicide was an avocation. In this sense, my encouragement was only salutary. If he ever succeeded, the project itself would terminally suffer. It was his ineptness that made him so invaluable, recommended him so very highly. Not to mention his doggedness despite the failures.

    And he was my brother.

    Occasionally there was collateral damage. One evening after a bitter night of drinking he mixed up a concoction of Seconal and various liquids and put it in the blender. He poured it into a glass and left it on the kitchen counter. He went back into the living room to booze some more, and then he fell asleep. In the morning, our cat was dead. The liquid had been enticingly milky.

    My brother had named the cat Bukowski after the local poet. We buried him solemnly, if appropriately, in a dumpster in a dingy alleyway.

    While unattached, competent adults normally could afford to live alone, we could not. So we shared a house. We combined our failures and their attendant miseries. His were by far the worst, the most inexorable and inconsolable. My own predisposition for resignation spared me.

    Incentivizing suicide is an art form, you can take it from me. The fact that he was a writer made it considerably easier, I concede.

    My own failure was less dispositive. Still a practicing musician in every sense, I was relegated it seemed to a permanent purgatory of L.A. clubs and festival events in the outdoors. Hectored by bees while properly executing an open guitar chord isn’t so glamorous as it seems. I had always loved the sound of a single voice accompanied by a lone electric guitar. As such, performances were normally stripped down, only vocals accompanied by the Stratocaster.

    It was two years since our mother had died, two and a half since our father before her. Something in me had changed in the aftermath, which doesn’t make me unusually sensitive necessarily. Before that, death was little more than an event that, if it came early enough in life, glamorized your biography nicely, and little more. It was simply there. Since then, my brain had struggled to comprehend it, and worse, obsessed itself, perhaps clinically, with whatever followed death, everything to do with the mysteries of consciousness, the complexities of our origins, and their place in the physical universe.

    Indeed, over time my enthusiasm for music was largely supplanted by this curiosity. Whether this was a kind of solace for failure or a replacement calling of sorts, I couldn’t have said, but it definitely was where the passion lay.

    As a writer, my brother couldn’t get arrested. Perhaps it was a genetic thing, but his production was as idiosyncratic as mine was. I was a reader, and I thought rather highly of most of what he wrote. But what did my opinion matter in the grand game of life and literature?

    Unlike mine, his rejection turned to despair. Rejection had made him fragile, and with the fragility he was more persuadable, more suggestible as a matter of fact. This is where our purposes coincided: his passion for killing himself, mine for a glimpse into the world beyond.

    As a writer he was adept at description, and all that his reconnaissance required to be reliable was the most fleeting and momentary absence of breath and a heartbeat. There was a sweet spot between a successful suicide attempt and an infelicitously executed failed attempt. There was no expectation on my part of an affirmation or a revelation. Only an insight, a lead or a clue.

    Living together was crucial. I was nearly always in proximity at important moments. We had talked about his self-destructiveness and had formulated a set of ground rules. He concurred that it was best to avoid the maudlin public display or any exposure to the public whatsoever. Likewise, I convinced him that any grisly aftermath was inconsiderate to me, as well as to others. In this regard we had ruled out certain methods: gunshots or leaping out of windows. This was critical. It inhibited lethality of the instantaneous kind, and for my purposes nothing was more important.

    Like machinery, literary agent after literary agent refused to take him on. After one rejection I reminded him that he possessed not a single useful connection, no resume, and was being thwarted when he tried to compile one, all relevant catch-22s operating against him at every turn. Shortly thereafter I caught him with an electrical cord wrapped around his neck, seconds after he’d kicked away the stool beneath him. It was indicative of the charm of his ineptitude that the stool had loudly banged against a humidifier when he kicked it over, bringing me into the room immediately.

    I called him an idiot, then quickly asked what he had seen or experienced. He was bluish by the time I loosened the cord from around his neck, and his breathing croaked and cracked to life again.

    “As if things were going on above me,” he said.

    “What kind of things?”

    “Like arms reaching out, yellow and blue lights, maybe a little red. Everything was swirling around. It was busy, kind of.”

    I helped him sit himself against the wall to get his vitality back before he tried to stand. I sat down beside him so that we could talk.

    “Busy in what way?”

    “Busy in the sense that there were a lot of people there, and a lot was happening.”

    “What was happening? Who were the people?”

    “Any chance you could bring me a bottle of water?”

    “Sure, sure.”

    I brought the water back from the refrigerator, and he drank nearly a quarter of the bottle.

    “Anything or anyone you recognized?”

    “Not really. I think I ought to take a nap. I’m hungry.”

    Seeing how disoriented he was, I helped him off to bed. He had the flatness that ensues coming off a drug. I decided the best thing to do was run to Ralphs nearby in Marina del Rey and get him something to eat.

    It was approaching sunset when I left the house, a few strands of cloud layered above the horizon, the sky rosy and turquoise, as it often is that time of day in Southern California. The Ralphs in Marina del Rey had the most congested parking lot anywhere in greater Los Angeles. The cars were all new and expensive, and the people themselves looked as though they might as well have been outfitted in legal tender. I got him some pasta salad from the salad bar and some fresh soup.

    In fairness to him, he had a passion, an indefatigable passion to write. And in fairness to him, his regard for suicide never would have been so keen without it.

    The onslaught of rejection was relentless though. He’d begun to focus his attention on writing stories, no longer willing to exert himself for the length of time necessary to produce novels, not while two of them were going begging.

    He wrote the stories, and then he sent them away to the journals and magazines. They were boomerangs. You could almost see them go whizzing out, turn around in midair, and sail back. After one he particularly liked was blown back into his face unusually quickly, it was an opportunity for me I couldn’t miss.

    One evening, while we were in the kitchen, waiting for our respective dinners to cook, his bubbling away in a saucepan and mine in the microwave, I addressed his latest rejection, which had seen him cursing it much of the afternoon.

    “If they pick up something out of a slush pile, the stigma isn’t washing off,” I told him, sitting across from him at the kitchen table. “Stories aren’t all that different at the very beginning, even the whole things, so it isn’t like even the best of them is going to jump up off the page and bite them on the nose. Any story that did that would probably be an annoying one anyhow, not the kind a normal human being would want to read.”

    “I’m sure that’s true. But it isn’t within my control, is it?”

    “Not really.”


    “Well, besides that, what do a bunch of kids and graduate students know about literature, or history, or living in the world, or anything? You might as well be sending them to Smurfs or aliens.”

    “Students do a lot of the day-to-day at literary journals, that’s true. But again, that’s how it is. Nothing to be done about it.”

    “I guess not.”

    The microwave began to ding, and I got up and took my dinner out, continuing to talk as I pulled back the film.

    “I mean, really, it’s all perception: you pick up a story by a famous author and you think, This is pretty good. Pick the same story up by a nobody and you go: Meh.”

    “Those are just excuses.”

    “But excuses count.”

    He shook his head.

    “Though you’re right,” I said. “That’s the way it is. If it happens to be futile, what can you do about it?”

    I went to his room a little after ten to check on him, and sure enough, there he was lying on the floor with dry cleaning plastic tight against his face, tied off with a belt around the neck. He looked like a kid pretending to be an astronaut.

    I unwrapped him as quickly as I was able, his face now his customary shade of blue. I put my ear to his chest and wasn’t sure if I could hear his heart or not. Having watched many a YouTube CPR video for occasions such as this, I went to work. After a couple of minutes he opened his eyes.

    “Welcome back,” I said. “Close, but no cigar.”

    He pulled himself up, and rested his back against the dresser. I had no way of actually knowing if his breathing or his heart had stopped, but I began the questioning anyhow.

    “How are you feeling?”


    “Need some water?”

    “I don’t think so,” he said slowly.

    “What was it like?”

    He said nothing for thirty or forty seconds, appearing to give it some thought, and then he said, “Amazing.”

    “Amazing how?” I asked excitedly.

    “I went somewhere, I was somewhere else.”


    “I don’t know. It wasn’t identifiable in any way.”

    “What was it like?”

    “All the natural surroundings were full of color. It was lush. There were rows and rows of ridiculously shiny machines, with hundreds of moving arms performing functions… I don’t know what kind. There were automobiles made to resemble animals, the exotic kinds, like camels and giraffes and zebras. The air was filled with bubbles. But the bubbles were them. Inside the bubbles there were tiny objects. The objects were mechanical instead of natural. They were talking. All of them were talking, though not to me. And everything was understood.”

    “Understood how? By whom? By you? By them?”

    “I feel exhausted. Completely exhausted. Help me onto the bed.”

    I did as he asked, and seconds after he was on the bed his eyes were closed. I returned to my room, and as the night wore on I could think of nothing else. I pored over every detail of what he had told me over and over again. I extrapolated from each detail countless variations of the larger picture, the larger world.

    I awoke in the morning thinking about it, but with some troubling thoughts. Was it possible he was making it up, either toying with me, or perhaps even incentivizing me to further incentivize his continued attempts? Maybe it simply was his natural tendency as a writer to conjure stories up, and he was gratified by telling me tales that galvanized me so. But it didn’t feel that way, not at all.

    Weeks went by with little discernible change in his temperament or his outward demeanor, both of us on a rather even keel, or a plodding one. Then the flood of rejections commenced, forty days and nights of Thanks , but no thanks. Day after day they came, more than one a day at times. As fast as he could write them, they sent them back, and he had written a lot. For my part I could barely sleep at night, so anxious had I become to know more of the world my brother had glimpsed on his previous journey. Timing was everything.

    “Everybody knows they never read the damn things,” I said, “not more than a cursory glance. Slots in those publications are lined up far as the eye can see. They’re reserved for friends, for acquaintances, for friends of acquaintances, for stepsisters, half-brothers, somewhat recognizable writers, office managers at fellow magazines, fuckbuddies, and even fuckbuddies of their sister’s agent.”

    He was sitting at his writing desk with his head in his hands. Standing in the doorway of his room, I said to him, “You know all of this is rigged. In the end, all that matters is who you know, no matter how often or how strongly any of them deny it. Everybody knows that’s the way it works.”

    I reminded him that in large part this reflected the degree to which much of life was rigged, restricted or preordained.

    “I know. I know,” he said, all but shriveled in his chair and nearly whispering.

    I went hard, laid it on.

    “There’s an occupying force, a literary-industrial complex of vast writing programs, agent and journal and publisher conspiracies. Resistance will get you swatted down like a refusenik in the Soviet Union.”

    “I could self-publish,” he offered unenthusiastically.

    “Hah,” I said, causing him to hang his head again.

    Afterwards I took a stroll around the marina. The day was splendid, boats chugging up and down the channels, out to the main waterway and toward the open sea. It was something of a distance, from our modest house in our modest neighborhood to the promenades around the spiffy apartment buildings adjacent to the marina. How people amassed the largess they amassed in Los Angeles you literally didn’t want to know, lest you gouge your eyes out in horror at the banality of it.

    When I returned to the house, he was well into his bottle of Ketel One, scrunched in a chair watching television. I spent the evening playing guitar in my room, alternately plugged and unplugged. Before I went to sleep, I looked in on my brother in the living room, where the bottle of Ketel One was the only thing expiring. His position in the chair was only slightly changed from earlier.

    That he continued to write reflected a certain resilience. But his psyche was battered, or his confidence was at least. He wasn’t as ornery as me, naturally contemptuous, his armor could be weakened, his defenses easily compromised.

    I found him in the morning splayed across the sofa, empty pill bottles cluttering the floor of the living room like a child’s toys. I could feel his chest moving, though only barely, and his heart was weak but I could hear it. Under the circumstances, whatever he might report to me later would be of little use. It was doubtful he had even briefly reached the other side.

    I did what I had done before to revive him. After trying for more than twenty minutes, it was clear my efforts were to no avail. Alive or not, nothing I did would cause him to open his eyes. There was no alternative but to phone the emergency service.

    I accompanied him on the ride in the ambulance. They were taking him to the local hospital in Marina del Rey, more than capable of finishing the job he had failed to complete. Like an expensive restaurant with mediocre chefs, they were snooty and incompetent simultaneously.

    A part of me believed he could never die. It was the same part of me that once had retained the conviction our parents too were impervious to death. Indeed, it was the inability of my whole brain and my whole heart to comprehend the essence of our parents’ departure that had fired my curiosity about the other side at the very start. There in the ambulance I must have traversed the boundary between disbelief at the possibility of my brother passing on and belief.

    After several anxious hours, a doctor came and informed me that he was in a coma. He was stable, and they were admitting him, but with no idea how long he would remain in his current state. He could awaken in hours, or days or months, or never.

    In the beginning I visited nearly every day. Would he have tales to tell from his time in the coma, a surprising, otherworldly detour he could report upon? His saving grace and his consolation was attempting to snuff himself, and in this sense, my companionship had been a benevolent kind, even if I had not, technically speaking, been an angel of mercy. Unquestionably my quest for illumination and his suicidalism, which had seemed so collaborative and interdependent, suddenly felt regrettably one-sided. It occurred to me of course that I had been slightly dishonest with myself rationalizing the mutuality of it. And for that I began to feel the sting of remorse.

    On the other hand, his commitment to suicide was hardly less strong than his commitment to writing. The unfortunate paradox of attempted suicide as an alternate avocation was that succeeding would bring it to an end. If there is truth in the cliché that there is greater joy in the doing than in the results, it was doubly true for this.

    I had the house to myself for as long as I could afford to keep it.  Gone was the excitement and anticipation of the next potential glimpse of The Mystery. It was a kind of purgatory, and I was stuck in it with him now. I was assured by doctors he was not in what they called a persistent vegetative state, but an actual coma, and the possibility remained he might return. Unfortunately, he would awaken to find a pile of accumulated rejection notes.

    The months seeped away. Slowly I accepted that the chance of him returning was rather slight. There was hope. Yet hopefulness was not among my gifts. His coma freed him from the despair and the abnegation and the self-laceration of rejection and failure. If he never awakened, his suffering was at an end. If he did, he could continue to write, and attempt to make a name for himself, and even continue his career as a suicidalist if he so desired.

    My life bereft of his companionship, it eventually became apparent, would be a considerably starker and lesser one. As with our mom and dad, the absence could only be real after the passage of time, when the irrevocability of it could truly register. It was a piece of me gone, even if he had literally embodied it.

    Yet, if he was gone for good, his whereabouts were certain to become as confounding to me as our mother’s and father’s were. Already, there was a kind of consternation that soon all three of them might be onto something that I alone would be excluded from.

    I knew the brain generated electrical energy and that energy is never destroyed. Perhaps when energy from the brain was converted, consciousness went along for the ride. Was that what was going on?

    And who among the living now could assist me in peeking around the veil? Who could be so reliable and predictable a suicidalist as my brother had been? It occurred to me I had never told my brother in what high regard I held him as a practitioner of the art of suicide, and for that I will always carry regret.

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