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The Little Wretches: Music


(Robert A. Wagner +/- The Little Wretches)
June 27, 2010
Robert A. Wagner
THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY BLOWTORCH is a series of fictionalized anecdotes based on my experiences with my friend, John Creighton.

This particular episode, though I take great liberty with setting and circumstance, is based on a story that John told me about his feelings of guilt after a botched suicide-attempt in which he really did attempt to overdose on codeine, he really did plan to make a dramatic exit by dying in the school cafeteria, and he really did awake to discover that one of his friends had died, and HE REALLY DID FEEL LIKE AN ASSHOLE!

When John graduated from high school, his parents assumed he was going to go to college. They’d been saving since before he was born. That’s how responsible parents did it. This was in the days before a college degree was something you took for granted. They didn’t know about grants, student loans or any of that. It cost a lot of money to send a kid to college, and when the time came, they planned on being ready.

When they sat him down for the big talk, senior year in high school, they thought they were going to die. A monastery? You mean the priesthood. What KIND of monastery? You’re getting carried away with an idea, an IDEA. This is REAL life we’re talking about. A monastery? This is a decision than could ruin your life.

Rites of passage? Wonder years? That’s all bullshit. Why do you think people cling so desperately to their teenage memories? Adulthood is death. You allow yourself to be convinced that it is time to grow up, and nothing is ever the same again. You throw the switch. Lights out.

Adults fill the void with work, family, mortgages, car-payments, life insurance, responsibilities that dictate your every move. An adult’s moves are programmed by necessity. I HAVE to go to work. I HAVE to pay the bills. I HAVE to fix that sidewalk before someone breaks their neck and tries to sue me.

A teenager’s only concern is: “How can I prevent myself from turning into one of THEM?”

Teenage suicide freak you out? Teenage murder? Rampages? Death pacts? Well, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

What do you do on graduation night in Hempfield after your parents and aunts and uncles are gone and now it’s just you and your friends, face-to-face with the future? Maybe you drag an old water heater and a sofa from the dump down on to the tracks as a train rounds the bend. Or you’re speeding through farmland after dark, leaning out the window with a shotgun, blasting the No Trespassing signs. Later, you’re sitting around a bonfire watching your best friend try to chug a fifth of Southern Comfort. Hey, why not? Got anything better?

And John figured there’s GOT to be something better. And it isn’t the Army, and it isn’t college, and it isn’t marrying the girl next door. All he really wanted was to become a part of something with a purpose, but that perpetual undertone of “Please don’t disappoint us...Please don’t disappoint us...,” unrelenting, subtle pressure. It wore him down. He settled on a small, liberal arts college in Ohio. Hiram. Oberlin. One of those. Far enough away that his parents aren’t breathing down his neck, but close enough to visit.

Now, his parents had their doubts about John. They didn’t really trust him to fend for himself. What kind of boy wants to go to a monastery? The boy was missing something. They’d failed him somehow. So they conspired to make sure that he wasn’t really alone.

They convinced the parents of John’s best friend that it would be good for BOTH boys if they went off to college together, share a room in the dorms, take some classes together, take turns driving home for the weekends. And it made sense to the boys, too. Even if everybody in Ohio is an asshole, there will be one cool person to hang out with.

Well, two cool people, actually. The boys didn’t tell their folks that they were smuggling a girl along for the ride. John’s best friend, whose name I never did learn, had his girlfriend living with him. She wasn’t taking any classes. She was just happy to be with her man and be away from the myopia of Hempfield Township.

So he’s away from home for the first time, stuck at college with his two best friends, and you know three's a crowd. Every time he comes back to the dorm, he finds them making out so he has to sleep on the floor in the hall. He hates his classes. He tries to practice his saxophone, but everybody's pissed off because it's too distracting. He tries to meditate, but everybody makes fun of him. So he’s miserable. Agitated. Depressed.

And you have to understand how John's mind worked. Back in high school, he’d been reading Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard. You know, senior year, college-prep classes, courses for the “advanced” kids with the young, hip teacher who’s supposed to be able to “relate” to the kids. The teacher knows kids hate to read, so just in case they didn’t do their homework, he’s going to sum it up for them, explain it in “ordinary” words.

Pay attention because this is going to be on the final. Are you taking notes? Write this down. The Existentialists believe that life is absurd. What does the word ABSURD mean to you? Come on, ABSURD, what does it mean? Yes, you’re correct, this very lesson may be absurd. Absurd means ridiculous. And if LIFE is ABSURD, then the only solution is suicide.

That’s right. Write it down. Life is ABSURD, and the only solution is SUICIDE. What do you think of that? All intelligent people who consider the meaning of life must consider suicide. Depressing, isn’t it? Good news, though. Since suicide is, itself, absurd, there is no need for the noose, the razor, or the gun. Just live in the moment and revel in the glory of the futility of it all.

This is an amazing class. You know, I can't teach this stuff to ordinary students. Teach this stuff to ordinary kids and we'd have an epidemic on our hands. Call the paramedics then call the counselors. There's another wrist-slashing in the third floor girl's room.

I'm so proud of you. You're the advanced, the thinkers. You're capable of carrying on these discussions without misunderstanding the motives of the authors. Sartre wanted you to LIVE, not to die pointlessly.

John raises his hand, “Oh? But it’s OK to LIVE pointlessly, is that what you’re saying?”
See how John’s mind worked? He wasn’t going to fall for this bullshit. The Existentialists are a bunch of cowards. If suicide is the only solution, then KILL yourself. No excuses. To fail to act on one’s beliefs, that’s hypocrisy, laziness, or cowardice. And nothing is worse than a coward except a lazy coward. So he’s painted himself into an intellectual corner.

He will NOT be a coward. He’s got this little bottle of codeine pills, had them since the ninth grade when he and his buddies first started “experimenting.” He gulps the whole bottle and walks down to the Student Union at lunch time. He figures he’ll drop over right in front of everybody at the busiest time of day.

He hadn’t bothered to compose a note. He hadn’t said any good-byes. He didn’t go around dropping hints. Unlike most suicides, this was not a cry for help. It was a STATEMENT, a COMMITMENT. Here lies a man who STOOD for something.

Well, he gets to the Student Union. Nothing. From there, he goes to the cafeteria. Still nothing. His stomach’s a little upset, that’s all. He’s puzzled. Why isn’t he feeling anything? Isn’t he supposed to start getting woozy? Then, he’s pissed at himself. Can’t even kill himself right. How inept can you get? Maybe it’s all for the best. The more he thinks about it, he’s relieved.

So he goes back to the dorm. Might as well get his books and get ready for class. He gets to his room, and the pills finally hit. He wants to call somebody or create some kind of disturbance to draw attention to his predicament, but he’s too weak. Can’t get to the phone. Can’t get to the door. He’s, like, paralyzed on the bed. He passes out, conveniently, with his head on a pillow, just like he’s taking an ordinary nap on an ordinary day. And his last thoughts before he passes out are, “Shit, I didn’t really want to die.”

As it turns out, the codeine was, like, six years old. Lost most of its potency. So instead of killing him, it only knocks him out for a week. Seven whole days. You know how groggy you feel after you’ve slept for twelve hours? Imagine sleeping for a week.

When he wakes up, he’s wet, either from sweat or he’s pissed himself. His whole body has the equivalent of diaper rash. He smells, and when you can smell your own body odor, you know you reek. And when he finally figures out what day it is, he’s angry with his friends. Why hadn’t they tried to wake him? Why didn’t they take him to the hospital or something? The evidence seems to indicate that they haven’t checked on him at all! Bastards! Traitors!

Well, as it turns out, his friends were joyriding on the interstate, speeding, didn’t notice the brake-lights on the semi in front of them. They rear-ended the semi at ninety miles per hour, the bed of the trailer precisely the height that results in their decapitation. Takes their heads right off.

By the time he wakes up, he’s missed the funeral and everything.

Didn’t he feel like an asshole after that?