An aging, ex-musician working inside the incinerator chamber of an old 19th century hotel discovers a locked room that contains a Book of Souls of tenants of the past century. A soldier returning from the Iraq War meets a beautiful and enigmatic girl waging her own military campaign, as darkly terrifying as the one he left behind. The son of a New Orleans mobster hit-man receives a beyond-the-grave message from his once-abusive, now-dead father that changes everything he thought he knew about their lives. A homeless man, collecting cans to survive, finds himself being followed by a stranger he is sure is the reincarnation of Dick Tracy. A woman who has lost her Texas ranchman husband and any further meaning to her life, is suddenly contacted by a young runaway cousin whose parents are also dead, and is now in hot pursuit of her own aimless existence.
From tragic to comic and in-between, these and other tales journey and explore the zeitgeist, the spirit of our age, which was the late twentieth century. (Short Stories)
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
These are short stories and the inspiration changed with the creation of each story. Some of these stories were eventually turned into novels, but the initial inspiration came from some point in my life that just had to be captured in my fiction. It could have related to someone I knew or something that happened. But whatever it was, it was a strong enough effect to bring about that particular story. Hopefully, the readers will have fun reading them and deciding what was so important to me to bring this story to life.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
What came first, the chicken or the egg? In some cases an event inspired the character; in other cases, the character created the event. In some cases, I wrote about people that I saw from a distance, did not know personally, but just saw them, or something they did or were involved with, and created their story. Once or twice, as I recall, the character and story just seemed to appear from nowhere. Maybe my subconscious. For instance, the story “Swanny” in the collection. I can tell you, I’ve never known anyone like that, or what she did in the story. However, the collective background details in the story did come from a period in my past, so maybe that was enough.
GEN H PSYCH
By James Snyder
The moment she felt her consciousness seeping back inside her, she knew where she was. She didn’t have to look. Or listen. No one had to whisper in her ear. She could smell it that far out, returning. Something she learned near the very beginning, or at least after the first year or so: When you wake up, don’t move so much as an eye muscle. Smell first. Quietly. That is, don’t sniff. Don’t dare flare a nostril they might see. Just let the odors come to you, as they always do. Establish your surroundings. Your boundaries. Then, if it passes the smell test, you can take a peek. So she lay there, motionless, and let it come inside her…those smells…the rancid, rotten-cabbage attempts at sterility…the blood-and-pus-soaked gauze…the metallic, needle-sharp tinge of stainless steel…the stagnant, stifling, incredibly compressed air of depression, threatening to crush and blow apart her skull all at once…and, of course, (at least according to some funny-at-the-time name-game she’d overheard somewhere) that noxious chemical war between Sergeant Shit and Private Piss and those two ranked and spiffy overachievers, Captain Clorox and Lieutenant Lysol. This was an easy one. Just another cashew clinic, she guessed. Another psych ward was all.
And she opened her eyes.
In the beginning, it was the quiet room they kept her. Or, at least, their version. She knew that. Where she could be alone, away from the others, while they admired their latest freaky-deaky on display.
The quiet room.
But like those other rooms, she could still hear the yelling and screaming and the strange mix of voices beyond the walls, so she didn’t think it was that quiet. But she didn’t say anything. She didn’t talk with them at all, in fact. She lay on the bed, or she sat in the chair they placed her, as they came and did what they always did.
Someone—one of the nurses—waved a hand before her face, and she blinked.
“Well, she’s not catatonic,” the nurse said.
Someone else said, “I guess she just doesn’t want to talk with us.”
She didn’t. She knew who they were. And she knew they wouldn’t do anything, except talk. But now she was through talking. Besides, she was so tired now, she didn’t know what, except that she wanted to be alone. So she sat there, seeing them come and go, but not ever looking at them, their eyes, like they wanted, and never saying a word.
They called her Sleeping Beauty, trying to ingratiate themselves. Trying to make her react—some way, any way.
As she stared somewhere out beyond them, at that faint red-pulsing light—fading away and returning—just above the steel-doored entrance.
After what seemed like a week, they removed the restraints and replaced the major dressings, binding her sutured wrists, with minor ones. She was healing. She was getting better now.
Then he came and sat beside her. He had a clipboard and a bedside smile.
“I was wondering if we might have a conversation.”
She thought, Oh, you mean one different from those thousand-and-one previous conversations I’ve had?
He sat there, waiting.
OK then—where would you like me to begin? Perhaps, when I was six—that would be, let’s see, ten years ago—when my parents were burned to death in their old gray Toyota somewhere down on Highway 1? Or maybe the relatives the courts first placed me with that took turns probing and examining my so young, so previously unavailable body, until I just couldn’t help myself and ran away? On second thought, Doc, I don’t really feel like having another conversation right now. I really don’t.
“I think it would help if we talked.”
That’s not what she was thinking. What she was thinking was, she wished there was some way she could take all those soul-searching, so-called care-givers—every psychiatrist and psychologist and psychotherapist and counselor and social worker and know-better-than-thou government lawyer that had ever put her through their maddeningly invasive, mind-numbing routines—and make them actually hear themselves.
“Perhaps we can talk about what makes you happy. What things you have an interest. Why don’t we start there and see where it leads us, hmmm?”
They finally let her leave the quiet room.
She heard someone say, “Maybe if we let her mingle with the others, she’ll feel better.”
So they sat her on a chair in the hallway, where she could see the things going on around her. The odd parade, passing, which, after a day or so, she began to notice.
Co-ed, she saw. They were all mixed together—men, women, and her. She realized she was the youngest there, except for the boy, she knew, in another one of the quiet rooms. When the door to his room was open she could hear him screaming: “They’re coming inside me! Get them out of me! Get them out!”
It was a boy’s voice. But she never saw him.
One of the women reminded her of Agnes, from one of the women’s shelters she’d passed through, calling for her dead daughter, her Margie; except, this woman called for someone named Tom. “Tom? Tom?” she said in a quiet monotone, wandering back and forth before her along the hallway. “Tom? Tom?”
The woman was tall and hideously thin, with streaks of gray in her dark hair, and sores covering her arms and legs. She stared at her face once as she passed, and the woman looked like she might have once been very smart, very different. Like a doctor or lawyer or some other kind of professional woman. She still had that glimmer of fond intelligence in her eyes; and she stopped before her now and looked down at her. “Have you seen Tom?” she asked.
She shook her head.
“Tom fell out of a tree, like Humpty-Dumpty,” a man said, passing. “He had a great fall.”
“He fell off the wall, you moron,” said another man going the other way. He was a tall, slender black man, wearing a sort of shiny green turban; and he winked and smiled at her as he went sashaying by, saying, “Queen LaSheen knows all.”
She and the woman exchanged glances, when the woman turned and began to follow the man in the turban. “Tom? Tom?”
“Oh, Lord!” said the man, stopping and stamping his feet, his hands like honey-colored flames, flickering up on either side of his head. “Now she thinks I’m Tom.” He turned to the woman. “Mrs. Leon, Tom is not in the building at the moment. My name is Rupert, not Tom, Rupert Bates; otherwise known as Queen LaSheen, in those more discriminating venues of entertainment, in parts of the city that shall remain anonymous at the moment.”
The lady stood there, unmoving. “Tom?”
She watched him reach up with both his hands, gently embracing the woman’s arms. He said softly, “Sweetheart, Tom is not here. Now it’s time for General Hospital in the Day Room. Would you like to go watch General Hospital with me?”
The woman gave no reply, and he began to lead her toward the Day Room. Then he gave off a high-pitched squeal. “What kind of shit is this? We’re all in General Hospital, Mrs. Leon.” And he gave off another high shrill laugh, as they disappeared around the corner.
One day she saw a man grab a nurse’s writing pen from her hands and stab her in the face. The nurse screamed and pushed him away, the pen still dangling from her cheek; and attendants came from everywhere, grabbing him, dragging him to the ground and holding him there. People were running away everywhere, screaming, hiding their heads and faces in their hands, in corners, wherever they could find. She sat there, watching everything happening around her, until someone was there, grabbing her arm. It was Rupert, now without his turban, but with a chic cinnamon-and-avocado-colored scarf wrapped tightly about his head. He escorted her into the Day Room, chastising her.
“You can’t just sit there like Sad Sadie, little beauty. Around here, violence begets violence. It feeds on it. Some of these crazies see something, and it gives them ideas, and, of course, they always go for the weakest among us; the least able to defend themselves, like you and me, for example.”
He found them seats in the corner where they watched everyone catching their breath and calming down. Rupert adjusted her hospital gown, which was open behind her. He retied the string around her neck, tucking everything neatly about her green pajama bottoms. Then he picked up a movie magazine and began flipping the pages, making occasional little gasps and squeals of disapproval. “Taste is certainly not a God-given right among the rich and famous. Just look at the cheese and boloney on that sandwich!”
He showed her the picture.
They sat there.
After awhile he leaned toward her and said in a confidential tone, “Little beauty, if you ever wish to talk to me about anything, I am, indeed, widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost listeners—so you go right ahead, any time, any topic you desire.”
They sat there, and finally she said, “Are you a dancer? I heard someone call you that.”
Rupert gasped, dropping the magazine in his lap. “She speaks.”
She lowered her head, and Rupert reached over, taking her hands in his. “Yes, little beauty, I am a dancer, of sorts; although I prefer the term female illusionist. That is, I seek, in the grand forum, to defy the very precepts of biology itself. To denaturalize all notions of gender and femininity. To ultimately destroy those accepted beliefs concerning not only the boundaries of sexual provocation, but the very essence of the species’ protoplasmic effect.” He stopped and sighed, as she continued only to sit there, staring at him. “Actually, I am most known for my strip and lip to J.Lo’s ‘Si Yo Se Acabo’ that borders on the more indiscriminate edges of egregiousness.”
She waited and said, “So why are you here?”
He again squeezed her hands and fell back in his chair, seemingly exhausted, picking up the movie magazine and fanning himself. “Better living through chemistry, sweetheart. I’m bipolar. That is, one moment I’m riding the manic wave of omnipotence—I truly believe I am capable of any feat I set my mind to, and, even more, people will admire and applaud the exhibition—and the next moment I have sunk to those depths of despair, I shall not even attempt to describe. Ironically, the mania is Queen LaSheen’s engine she uses to drive the entire reeking manifestation. But eventually the engine runs out of gas, or collapses in on itself, or whatever engines do, and I come here to Gen H Psych. You see, dear, I’m what’s known as a Frequent Flier; except, instead of points or miles or bags of peanuts, these good people give me Clozaril to shave the waves, and Prozac to fill in the valleys, and Zoloft to send me down that happy highway again.”
He sat there smiling, again flipping magazine pages. He glanced at her. “Now it’s your turn, little beauty. Tell LaSheen all, or at least wet her wick with a little gossip. Hopefully those tranquilizers I’ve seen them give you haven’t turned that pretty head into a soggy sponge, or robbed your identity, or maybe there’s some awful Jack Nicholson-Nurse Ratched mind-fuck thing going on. Oh Lord!” Now Rupert leaned toward her again, taking up her hands again, a little urgently. “Tell me, baby. Can you remember and tell me anything that happened? I mean, how can someone like you—so beautiful and so young—end up at this place? Do you even remember?”
She looked into Rupert’s eyes and then away. What could she say? What could she possibly say that could be understood in any sense how it really was? The true nature of it. Of the way it was and would remain. Or would it change now? She wondered. Still, people liked hearing things. That’s how you passed the time, when there was nothing else you could—She looked back at him and sighed. “I was staying at this real shitty youth house in Brisbane, when someone tried to burn it down. One of the freaky guys staying there. So the firemen came, and the cops, and then Family Services; and they sort of doled everyone out around the city. The cops drove me down to some ratty-ass trailer park in South San, over near this chemical plant. It was raining, and I was soaking wet in my pajamas, and really cold, and they were having a party there—at the trailer. The lady was bitching I was getting her carpet wet and told me to go to bed. So I did. And some time during the night her husband—I guess he was her husband—got into bed with me. I tried to fight him and he hit me. So I lay there. Then, in the morning, after he was gone and she was in the kitchen having her coffee, I went into their bathroom, got one of their razor blades out of the medicine cabinet, sat down on the floor, and cut both my wrists. Then I woke up here.”
Rupert stared at her a long moment, before opening his magazine again, sighing now himself and resuming flipping pages with his taunt little jerks and snaps.
Meanwhile, she sat there, gazing about the room, until the aide came and told them it was the next mealtime.
Because they got along so well, the office let her move “upstairs,” to the seventh floor, the Gay Focus Unit, where they always placed him when he came to visit. She liked it there. There was a patio they could go sit in the sun, the breeze blowing her hair; and there were actual birds that flew into the trees, looking down at her with their little cocked heads, and airplanes high in the sky, going—she wondered where?
She got the impression most of them there, in the ward, were Frequent Fliers like Rupert. They all seemed to know each other very well, and she enjoyed sitting there, listening to them catch up with each other’s lives. Her two favorites, besides Rupert, were Victor, who told her he had been schizophrenic since childhood, and also had an obsessive-compulsive disorder he was trying desperately to manage, and Manuel, who was an autistic savant, and became severely depressed when he couldn’t figure out, as he put it, “solutions” to the problems that kept forming themselves inside his head.
And the first time she sat with them on the patio she observed the fingers of Manuel’s right hand flaying the air beside his head, as if he were tickling some invisible spot there. Then he raised his left hand, slightly lower, and those fingers began to flay and flicker up and down, tickling the air, as well. First one hand, then the other, then the other again. It almost looked to her as if the two hands were talking to each other, back and forth.
“Enough with the damn counting, already!” Victor finally burst out, crumpling the newspaper, he was trying to read, into his lap.
“The damn counting!” Manuel repeated, equally frustrated. “Damnit, Victor, you almost had it.”
“Had what?” Victor said.
“Had what?” Manuel repeated again. “The solution. You almost had the solution, and then I stopped me.”
“Figure it out when you’re alone,” Victor told him. “I just want a little peace and quiet—is that too much to ask?” He crossed and re-crossed his legs three times and cleared his throat.
“Too much to ask,” Manuel said. “Then I have my fucking peace and quiet.”
Victor straightened out his newspaper and began to read again, when one of Manuel’s hands again offered a flicker of dissent, with three fingers rising and exhibiting a quick series snare-drum-like rolls; and Victor lowered his newspaper and glowered at him; and Manuel turned away, miffed and whispering, “I go to hell, Victor, and don’t ask you for rubbing my shoulders again.”
And Victor sighed, the calm resuming.
Another day they were sitting there, there was a trembling rumble and a movement, as if they were all sitting on a large floating raft on the ocean, rising up and settling back down. The trees swayed and the birds flushed from the limbs as if they’d been shot out.
She gripped her chair arm until the swaying stopped. She looked around the patio and saw staff members running haphazardly this way and that, while everyone else—the patients—seemed unaware anything had occurred. They were all sitting, reading, staring, faces with closed eyes pointed toward the placid sky.
Rupert looked up at her and said, “What’s the matter, dear?”
“Aren’t you afraid of them?”
“Afraid of what?”
“Earthquakes. Didn’t you feel that?”
“Earthquakes!” said Victor. “Sweetheart, I have mind-quakes doing triple-backwards somersaults off the fucking Richter scale. Earthquakes ain’t shit.” And then he crossed and re-crossed his legs three times and cleared his throat.
After a moment, she relaxed again. He was right, she thought. It was all relative, wasn’t it? Nothing was absolute in life. Nothing was finished. And because of that, sitting there in the sun, surrounded by her three new good friends, she suddenly felt a relevance about herself that was as overwhelming as it was fleeting. Because when you died, the life you had was the most irrelevant thing of all. Then, there was no relativity. And everything was absolute and finished. She had felt that—slumped and limp-armed—on that filthy bathroom floor, moving so close to scentless, sightless, silent death she almost reached out and touched it, if she could have only raised a finger.
Now, the calm returning, she leaned back and closed her eyes, feeling the sun on her face, listening to the twittering birds, the rustling leaves, the murmur of voices, and the drone of that distant unseen airplane going she knew not where.
James Snyder was born in Memphis, Tennessee and fell in love with the cadence and sound of storytelling as a child, listening to the meandering tales of his Southern grandmothers and great aunts. While still a child, his family moved to Napa Valley, California where he attended middle and high school, and began taking writing classes at the local college. He left after a year to join the military, and was a soldier with a tactical mobile operations unit in Germany when, pulling a Harz mountaintop guard duty one night during a snowstorm, he had the chance encounter with another soldier that ultimately became the genesis for his debut military thriller AMERICAN WARRIOR.
He is also the author of the suspense thriller DESOLATION RUN, the young-adult/new-adult trilogy THE BEAUTIFUL-UGLY, the short story collection TALES OF THE LATE TWENTIETH CENTURY, and other literary works.
“Berlin Diaries” is his occasional blog at JamesSnyder.net where he further discusses the backgrounds of his, and other, writings.
He currently lives in Texas.
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