Part One: What People Say About a Passing Bullet

Sam Price

It sounds like a bad job interview answer, but it’s true: I never realized my weakness was not admitting weakness. I carried the outdated notion that strength was forged from stoicism, causing me to measure it in rigidity, not flexibility. Maybe fear kept me from voicing my emotions to the people who’d listen or—a more terrible thought often struck—this group had whittled to zero as I’d withdrawn.

I’m sure there are plenty of ways to become indoctrinated to harmful notions of masculinity but I don’t know how I internalized it beyond anxiety-born cowardice. I can’t blame my father, who raised me the same as my two sisters, giving me equal parts love, opportunity, and freedom of expression, nor can I blame the cultural artifacts I consumed. As a kid I didn’t like action movies (except for Speed, everyone loves Speed), I wasn’t allowed to watch “risqué” material like The Simpsons until high school, and my heroes were hippie rock stars and authors who preached mind expansion and free love like Jerry Garcia and Ken Kesey. As I grew older, I started to love Westerns—thanks to my dad handing me a beat-up copy of Lonesome Dove—but I always gravitated toward the ones that dismantle or complicate the trope of the lone cowboy who, by passing through town, ends up saving it.

In the prefatory note to Warlock, Oakley Hall’s 1958 Western novel based on events that happened in Tombstone, Arizona, in the late 19th century, Hall writes, “By combining what did happen with what might have happened, I have tried to show what should have happened.” Hall sees the job of a fiction writer to be on “the pursuit of truth, not facts.”

Even though Hall’s note places him firmly in the position of novelist, this statement about “truth, not facts” may seem jarring and even dangerous to our modern screenburned eyes. We loathe not only media that purposefully twists or omits or falsifies to satisfy the biases of their audience, but also the media illiteracy that allows conspiracy theories to thread themselves throughout our culture, often times more capably than a story based on well-documented details. These oft-spoken platitudes service nothing, though, since gossipy or titillating stories prove more readable and shareable the same today as they did in the 1880s.

The climax of Part I of Warlock is a fictionalization of the shootout at the O.K. Corral, a famous shootout in Tombstone during the autumn of 1881. The gun fight included the Earp brothers Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan as well as Doc Holliday. In Hall’s version of events, not long after the feud, news stories begin appearing in national magazines. Warlock registers awareness of the celebritization of the event and all involved through the personal journals of Henry Holmes Goodpasture, whose entries are used as a narrative device that both help push the story forward while simultaneously de- and re-constructing past events. (Further complicating matters, it’s more than possible that Goodpasture harbors novelistic aspirations of his own, lending another reason to read his ostensibly more accurate passages on these national stories with a wary eye.)

The image accompanying one magazine story about the shootout bears no resemblance to the reality Goodpasture knows. The hero of the story, the diminutive Clay Blaisedell—fashioned after Wyatt Earp—is drawn as an imposing physical presence. Goodpasture muses, “No doubt the artist knows better than I the correct heroic image to present to a republican mentality.” The imagined audience who was not party to the scene deals best with archetypes, lest they might miss the point. Truly, can you blame them, if they are fed the same story repeatedly regardless of the characters and events?

When my first serious relationship fell apart, a few years after college, I tried to remember the good that came before it, but those memories had been soured by the later ones; a small bit of contamination had turned the whole thing rancid. Still, it took me some time to remember how to be alone so I tried to keep getting back together, thinking that a life spent with someone—even someone who did not respect me, which seemed fine since I did not respect myself either—outranked a life spent alone.

I kept thinking this way until my father got sick and died over the course of one summer. As this happened, I found myself pretty OK with being alone. I told myself solitude could be informative, that it was the only way to understand my true attitudes and feelings without the crutch of companionship, but I imagine the true cause lay in my depression unfurling from the depths like some demented kraken. I did my best to prod it down, as I always had before, with booze or drugs. I spent days self-medicating or in bed recovering from my rambunctiousness while telling myself it was normal to sleep until dusk if I felt like shit, which was in and of itself a symptom of trying to escape that very same thing.

Moving beyond the illustration beside the magazine story, Goodpasture comments on the text. “It is a strange experience,” he writes, “to read an account such as this, where an occurrence one is closely acquainted with is transformed into something wild, wooly, and improbable...Will this cheap and fabulous account in this poor excuse for a magazine not become, on its own terms, a version much more acceptable than ours?”

But the audience in the town works the story over like a piece of chewing tobacco, too. They set right to work laying narrative. In Warlock, any incident has its own meaning depending on who is taking it in. It’s like the observer effect in physics, where the mere existence of an observer disturbs what is being observed. Events widen into a multitude of tellings that hold contradictory facts depending on the parties discussing them, influenced by their aims, alliances, and personal histories.

When something happens that digs into the wider consciousness, “everyone [is] talking it over and over and over, changing and fitting and rearranging it to suit themselves, or rather making it into something they could accept, angrily or puzzledly or sadly.” No event takes place outside what has happened, what is happening, and what someone thinks will happen, both causally and not, which means almost every incident ends up nestled snugly into an individual’s personal narrative. The truth, to them, must fit into the stories they tell themselves, or else the rest of what they believe might be called into question, too.

While westerns may hold their place in the American imagination as a genre obsessed with masculinity and violence, Hall is less concerned with showing the gore than exploring how meaning is derived from its fallout. A town does not deal with an event such as a murder like a modern detective might, soberly gathering evidence in the hopes of fully uncovering one rational story. No, rather than narrowing in, the event immediately begins spinning outward like a centrifuge, bursting with potential. In this dispersal, the audience steals the objectivity from the narrator. Only from a mess does a community start to make sense of something.

I struggle with when a story is mine to tell. Stories that I took part in, I fear the listener will think I am exaggerating my own actions to look heroic or interesting. Stories I observed, I worry people will think I am painting myself as passive when I really had an influence on the occurrences or the outcome. Stories that I heard second-hand, well, can’t I just tell them as if I was a passive observer, even if I saw the scene through someone else’s eyes?

The day my father passed away, my youngest sister posted a memorial on her Facebook wall. By then, it wasn’t unexpected. In fact, the doctors had given him four months to live four months prior, so we were as well-prepared as one can be for an event so final and jarring. He was in hospice, unconscious, dosed with morphine. His hair was gone. His head had grown in areas and shrank in others. Each breath rattled in his chest as he gulped for air until he could no longer. I held his hand as if I was a young child and we had a busy road to cross. A nurse, summoned by the machines, entered the room to prepare him for another journey, one we couldn’t join him on.

We left the hospice center and went back to my parents’ apartment. I wrote the obituary with input from my mom and sisters and I put some of my dad’s books and clothes in boxes to donate. It helped pass the time I wasn’t sure how to pass.

My mom found out about the Facebook post somehow. Finding it vulgar, exhibitionist, she screamed at my younger sister for oversharing. She didn’t understand how the internet had morphed intimacy, how people my sister’s age interacted with their peers (though if it happened today, she’d probably post a picture of him on Instagram instead). I watched the argument happen from across the room, watching my mom yell and cry and my sister yell and cry. I looked at my own dumb phone to try and escape the situation playing out in front of me, and saw that people I knew who were also friends with my sister had reached out to me with kind words of condolence.

And yet, if I would have had to choose a side that day, I probably would have picked my mom’s. My brain had not yet entirely succumbed to the elusive pull of the internet. I did not understand that yes, of course, it was a bit ridiculous to blast moments of grief into the ever-scrolling feed, but it was also an effective way of letting people know you could use words of comfort or support. Later that night, I texted a few close friends to let them know. Most of them had probably already seen my sister’s Facebook post and only pretended to find out from me, as I often do when I’ve already learned about something online now, not wanting to reveal that I’ve spent my time refreshing feeds.

The next day, when we called up our hometown paper about placing the obituary I wrote, they wanted like three hundred or four hundred bucks. No, thanks, we answered. So at least he got a Facebook post.

I only looked up the post to write this. I went to her Facebook page and held page down until I rewound time to the day where I lost my dad. She’d chosen a short video of her and my father dancing at a relative’s wedding. I’d never seen that video of him and my sister dancing before. Or maybe I’d had but, since I wasn’t in it, I’d forgotten it. I didn’t scroll any further into the past.

I hadn’t avoided searching out the post to save myself from tears or grief, only because I didn’t want to relive that argument. Which, all these years later, I ended up just learning what it was really about. Or wasn’t about. I don’t think my mother was mad at my sister as much as at a loss, lashing out because her grief hadn’t had time to even be hers yet before it went public, before it had to be shared. There was still so much unraveling it needed to do: spaces to fill, experiences to shade, sleepless nights to obsess over it.

Some months later she told me that she’d thought she’d have more years with him. Years later, after I’d moved to her house so she could take care of me at thirty-three, she told me she’d had panic attacks after my dad died, brought on by being in bed alone, everything dark and quiet.

Before we meet Blaisedell in Warlock, he’s been given a pair of gold-handled guns by a writer who has spun a few yarns about his previous braveries. In giving this gift, the writer is no doubt hoping for a fetching image for a future story. Though a writer’s hand usually isn’t on the scale this blatantly, it would be foolish to think they are merely a vessel. Not only does the writer notice what they’re inclined to notice, with their eye shaped by experience, bias, and imagined audience, but they tend to focus just as closely on details that trouble them as the gold-handled ones they might cherish.

What troubles me one day may not trouble me another, or at least that’s what I thought. In some ways, fictions are a journal of the worries that consume us at a specific time. I’ve used it, time and again, to approach my fears that I don’t have the guts to admit outright. Recently, I returned to some projects that have been hiding away in folders on my desktop for a few years. In these remnants of my recent past, I see not only a troubled mind, gnawed at by depression, anxiety, and addiction—one whose troubles I knew were not new but, at least, I thought were manageable—but, almost more alarmingly, I see a stagnant one. My stoicism, which I had thought lent me sturdiness had done nothing more than anchor me in place.

Blaisedell seems to think his gold-handled pistols are really a debt to live up to someone who carries gold-handled pistols. And, with persistent-enough thinking, they become that. His belt sags for it, all the way out of town.

I always thought depression was something I did to myself. I started drinking too early, I started smoking pot too young, my brain chemicals were altered as I ingested more and more. Two alcoholic uncles drank themselves to death, but everyone had alcoholic uncles. Another uncle hung himself but he suffered from MS, and his physical ailments were bad and getting worse.

As far back as I could remember, anxiety tinges my memories. I do not remember events as much as I remember anticipating them, dreading them. Baseball games, presentations at school, trying to get the courage to ask a girl to dance in eighth grade, but never the game or dance itself.

Yet, I still harbored this before-time. This notion that I was happy then. I didn’t remember it, but I could be sure, almost. I was happy. At least until I fucked things up.

I don’t know where this belief sprang from or how I mythologized a part of my life that would not fit in with the evidence provided to me of the rest. Perhaps I needed to believe it. I needed my false memory so I could believe it would one day return.

Sam Price

Sam Price lives in Pennsylvania.

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