Doomed in Nashville

On a whirlwind book tour, Monica Drake fights to resist the pull of an emotional — and physical — abyss.

Monica Drake | Longreads | March 2018 | 19 minutes (4,778 words)

 

When my second novel came out, Chuck Palahniuk invited me, along with best-selling thriller writer and friend Chelsea Cain, to share his book tour. We’d make a joint venture of it.

Chuck is established, the author of the novel Fight Club, of course … “and 15 other books,” as he says. We’ve workshopped together for decades. A tour with Chuck would be a roving literary rave! My only hesitation? At 8 years old, my daughter was still young. She wasn’t a baby; still, I was her daily support.

Her father spent long days earning an hourly wage, leaving our house mid-morning and coming back too late to manage her life. A 40-minute commute on public transit added to his workday. He regularly stopped off at a bar before he made it all the way to the house.

When my first novel, Clown Girl, came out, she was a toddler. I’d brought her along on a homespun, couch-surfing road trip of a tour. She and I darted every which way in an old Nissan sedan, sharing bags of chips and sleeves of Oreos, driving between small towns. We met fabulous people. In other words, I juggled indie lit and parenting, and managed without childcare because as a family, we ran on a very slim budget.

Consequently? She attended 43 readings in 52 weeks, pre-kindergarten. It was boot camp; she learned to sit quietly and color while grown-ups did their thing. She learned patience.

This round, my daughter would stay with her grandmother — and she’d be fine — but still I had a clutch of apprehension. If anything were to go wrong, I’d be across the country, reading stories, tipping up a drink, laughing with strangers. The mother-guilt was thick and ready.

Hesitantly, I released myself, temporarily, from the obligations of daily parenting, and went, joining the team.

Chuck’s crew lined up iconic spots built for good times in cool cities. We had a dream gig scheduled at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, a place soaked in music history. In Tulsa, we were booked in the hallowed halls of a closing public library, the last gasp before a massive renovation. Every place was rich in charms, ghosts, and quirks.

Our shows sold out fast.

It was a “Bedtime Stories” event — meaning we performed in pajamas — and we invited the audience to come in pjs too, bringing stuffed animals, blankets, and tons of love.

Chelsea is tall, exuberant, and brilliant. She’s a gorgeous woman who flashes the social media tagline, “I murder people for money.” She’s a burning sun. Sometimes her energy grows so radiant I glance away, absorbing her genius through my skin, as though in the heat of a southern beach. Chuck is intense, too. The three of us traveled along with an amazing man, Todd, from Random House. Todd was our center of gravity, a stabilizer, a rock. He was our balance, safe space, kind guide, organizer, coffee procurer. I wanted to hold Todd’s hand forever, soaking in his calm spirit.

Chuck Palahniuk invited me, along with best-selling thriller writer and friend Chelsea Cain, to share his book tour. Hesitantly, I released myself, temporarily, from the obligations of daily parenting, and went, joining the team.

One detail unnerved me though, once we were in the air and on the road, far away from friends and family.

I wasn’t shaken by the massive boxes of realistic severed limbs, complete with flailing, deep-red arteries, that met us at each stop. When I found a bloody, severed arm tucked behind a stage curtain in a dark, dusty corner, it caused only a momentary jolt.

Stage fright wasn’t my thing, either. There was a time I’d have had a coughing fit, if asked to speak in public, but I’d left those days behind. Being on stage is a kick. Each night, I walked out in a white, diaphanous nightie, red lipstick, and giant pink curlers in my hair, and let the party roll!

The one hitch? It was not my idea to call it THE DOOMED TOUR.

Doomed?

That’s pure Chuck. Doomed was the title of the book he was promoting. Those became the large letters, all caps, that accompanied us, printed on every itinerary and notification: DOOMED.

DOOMED flight info.

DOOMED hotel.

DOOMED venue.

Maybe I’m superstitious. When I get on a plane, kissing loved ones goodbye, trusting fellow passengers, jostling along in turbulence thousands of feet over the Earth, I prefer to travel under positive terms. But I was traveling with Chuck. We were DOOMED.

It could’ve been worse. His previous novel was Damned. This round we weren’t DAMNED, but still we were DOOMED.

We were happily DOOMED. We were wildly DOOMED. We were boisterous and ready.

***

We landed first in Tulsa. There, I found myself with an hour alone. Chelsea was in her hotel room using nail polish to transform a baby doll into a bloody zombie. Chuck was off doing pre-event details, which probably involved signing, personally, five thousand copies of Doomed in a few slim hours. Shaking out the plane ride, I picked up a map from the hotel lobby and headed out.

The sidewalks of Tulsa were broad, flat, and bright under a blasting October sun. Those sidewalks? They were empty. Vacant. I was a tiny person far from home traversing an empty, gleaming sidewalk on the face of the Earth, surrounded by nobody until, at some distance, I came upon one sign of life: There was a bright red wooden kiosk set up on the hot, white expanse of concrete. The kiosk looked homemade and was drenched in thick, red paint as clotted as any windowsill in an ancient apartment. A sandwich board on the sidewalk read: “The Doctor is In.”

I moved closer, drawn down long blocks.

There was somebody inside the kiosk in a Lucy costume, the character from the cartoon “Peanuts.” Lucy sat alone behind a display of pamphlets fanned out on the table. The costume was basically a giant paper mâché Lucy head, like a piñata, on a human body.

There was somebody inside the kiosk in a Lucy costume, the character from the cartoon “Peanuts.” Lucy sat alone behind a display of pamphlets fanned out on the table. The costume was basically a giant paper mâché Lucy head, like a piñata, on a human body.

Lucy waved one normal-sized hand.

I glanced over my shoulder, then over the other shoulder, and when she waved again, I pointed to my chest: me? She nodded, and bobbled her big head. Flight-tired, sun-hot, in strong need of a cold drink, I moved closer, scanning Lucy’s fan of pamphlets. They were materials on suicide prevention.

I leaned in to ask, “Any idea where I might get a sandwich?”

Lucy moved her big noggin forward and back again under the blinding heat, her head seemingly ready to tumble off her human shoulders. A man’s voice emerged, with a muffled, hollow sound. He said, “Great place. Five blocks down,” and pointed one pale, skinny arm. “Ham on rye,” he said, then gave a thumbs-up.

I nodded back, moving my head as Lucy’s had done. Mr. Psychiatric-Help Lucy held out a pamphlet: You Matter, it read, on the first page of the tri-fold literature. I took it, folded it in half, and tucked it in my jeans pocket.

***

That night, in the condemned library, a library stripped bare of books, we dimmed the lights and asked the audience to inflate a sea of giant, translucent white balls, the size of beach balls — balls the size of Lucy’s head — then asked them to fill the balls with glow sticks. The audience wrote questions in black Sharpie on the balls. Throughout the event, at punctuating moments, the audience was invited to activate the space: Chuck would shout, “Balls in the air!”

Music kicked on!

Then the library came alive with the gentle sound of inflated plastic being pummeled, over a samba or a party tune. Each white ball, glow stick glowing inside, was a firefly in action. From the stage, in my nightie, I laughed at the beauty and revived a few old volleyball moves, bump, set, spike! Beneath my diaphanous gown, I wore a full bodysuit of muscles, skin, and bones. The body, in all its layers, is always with us. I like to be reminded that all that is sensual is also functional, our bodies serving our living needs. We are sexy skin and functional organs and brains and words and ideas.

Chuck wore a satin smoking jacket, pajamas, and slippers. Chelsea was gorgeous in drifting red layers and devil horns.

In the spirit of constructive destruction, Chuck invited the crowd to write on the library’s walls with a Sharpie. The crowd roared back! This was all going to be torn down! Write your secrets, he said. Write what you’d like to let go of, forever.

A library without books is still jammed with stories of the human heart. That repository of words would go down, singing songs of tormented humanity.

The audience became authors – scrawling amazing things and horrible, heartfelt things over the walls – of stories and details they never wanted to see or hear again.

It was transformative.

Though, as with so many gestures of the human spirit, there was a hitch: it turned out, later, that a group of shareholders, investors, or buyers was coming through to assess the pretty, pretty building. Our audience? They probably shouldn’t have spewed their sexual deviance, graffitied their hot passion and trauma, high hopes, deep pain, obscenities, and just plain old freak flags flying high, on those hallowed walls.

Who has time for regrets!

We were off, and we were DOOMED.

***

In Houston, our show was at the legendary Firehouse Saloon, a historic venue seriously owned and managed by firefighters, of all cool things. After the plane, before the show, I took another meditative wander. I walked in Houston, away from our hotel — the Dreary, as Chelsea called it, because it was — and I went under an overpass, along the freeway, then out into the blasting sun. I saw a Target, in the near distance. Anyplace would work in terms of a destination. It was air-conditioned, with a drinking fountain near the restrooms.

I strolled.

I followed a sidewalk that looped around one side of a parking lot and through a line of trees locked in a cement median. As I cut through those curves, somehow Target moved farther away. Target was like an old friend at a crazy party, disappearing into the crowd. I waved, hello friend! It was a mirage of a Target. I walked toward it, still. Cars crashed past. The Dreary moved farther away behind me, but Target didn’t get any closer. A truck passed on the freeway overhead, screeching its brakes and honking.

Trucks aren’t meant to be overhead. Humans aren’t made to live in industrial parks. Too much cement is suffocating. My feet were heavy, my steps mechanical. It was blasting hot out. The sky was overpowering. Where was I, anyway? I was nowhere. I was a flea on the back of a lost dog, a slim, vulnerable collection of organs and skin, with a brain driving all of this forward. I belonged near my family, my child, our home. If I were to faint, nobody would know where I was, or who I was. An anxiety attack washed over me, out of the very blue sky. This anxiety shouted DEATH! — MYNAMEISHOUSTON! IWILLKILLYOUSOUNDLESSLY!

I couldn’t breathe.

There are so many ways to die. Culturally, collectively, we’re fans of the brutal-murderers show, but isn’t the body itself the stealthiest murderer? A person can die for seemingly no reason: electrolyte imbalances, allergies, toxins, heat, panic, illness. Natural causes, they say. Target warbled on the horizon. My steps took me nowhere, as though on a treadmill. The expanse of crowded, polluted emptiness reigned supreme in a Hell of human making at the ragged fringe of a city that could be anywhere. I was debris. I was a fast-food wrapper. I was a lost sock. Every human face belonged to somebody locked inside a speeding vehicle. My corpus and future-corpse was alone in this wasteland. I’m sure Houston has pretty neighborhoods. This wasn’t one.

I glanced over my shoulder, then over the other shoulder, and when Lucy waved again, I pointed to my chest: me? She nodded, and bobbled her big head. Flight-tired, sun-hot, in strong need of a cold drink, I moved closer, scanning Lucy’s fan of pamphlets. They were materials on suicide prevention.

I texted Chelsea, “Hey. If I die, look for my body on the side of the freeway. I’m halfway to Target.”

“Hahaha!” she wrote back.

I texted my daughter, “I love you!”

I texted my mother, “All good?” My last words …

Mortality clung to me, as surely as my own shadow, in a world of cement and the violence of an unrelenting sun.

But I had an advantage: I was familiar with surreal waves of anxiety. I’d felt this before. Life experience let me call it by its name: Panic. This, I told myself, was a panic attack, a bout of anxiety. Holding the word “anxiety” in my thoughts, like rolling a smooth rock under my tongue, pushed the actual sense of a threat away. I kept walking.

I would be fine. I’ve always been fine. The world can be Hell and it can be Heaven, and in that wasteland of both I put one foot in front of the other, never reaching that elusive mirage of commerce, until I turned around and walked back.

When did I grow so fragile and resistant to the world’s noise and heat? In my 20s, I’d traveled through Europe and by sheer luck avoided first a bombing in Brighton, at the Brighton Hotel, and then another on a train through Italy. I’d been on the train and stepped off, randomly, guided by whimsy. The news reported severed limbs, scattered in the snow in the hills of Italy. Back then, though I’d been shocked at the deaths, I was also thrilled to be alive, not scared at all.

The audience at the Firehouse Saloon was the perfect mix of raucous and rapt, absolutely silent, listening when stories were read, shouting back when shouting was the right thing to do. People were happy, lovely, and fun. I met people there who I still hold, in memory, close to my heart.


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During the show, I went into the crowd to pass out Sharpies, tripped on a nail in a floorboard in the dark of the club, and ripped open my knee. By the time I climbed back on stage, that white, drifty gown was torn and marked with blood, laying down a new riff in the style of the whole big bash.

Balls in the air! Bump, set, spike!

Chuck talked to families who said he’d changed their lives. He’s fond of sending gifts to readers. He’s sent gifts to suicidal teens, who — seriously — had since come to realize that life is worth living. He’d sent gifts to estranged families who were brought back together again, emotionally connected as they opened random surprises in endless packaging and bows. More than one young man raised a shirt to show Chuck a badge of honor in a bruise shaped like a fist, over his ribs. I heard Chuck say to one fan, “I hope you get past that, soon.”

In every venue, we filled the space with those inflated, clear plastic balls, flying and glowed with the magic of fireflies, fleeting and gorgeous. For this, boxes of uninflected balls awaited us, on our arrival, and every cardboard box was marked with a scrawl: DOOMED.

We passed out Sharpies and let the audience write and raise questions, speak up, and be fabulous.

***

From Houston we flew to New Orleans where I was granted a room inside a glass castle of a hotel so sprawling and well-equipped that it was as though a second city were housed inside its walls. I traveled escalator after escalator, first up, then down again until I found a door that actually opened onto the real world. I took one fast night walk down Bourbon Street.

We went to Baltimore, then Milwaukee, and wrapped up on a stage in Nashville. After events, every night, we’d find a late-night dinner, still dressed in pjs and robes, and Chuck always in his satin smoking jacket, me in my blood-stained white gown. Mornings were about getting up under a night-black sky, four in the morning, packing, catching a Town Car to the airport, finding our way to another show.

That beautiful, luxurious, human tour; it was simultaneously, exhausting. Frying. I was frazzled. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, I came to realize must be every touring writer’s mantra.

There are so many ways to die. Culturally, collectively, we’re fans of the brutal-murderers show, but isn’t the body itself the stealthiest murderer? A person can die for seemingly no reason: electrolyte imbalances, allergies, toxins, heat, panic, illness.

I was increasingly sleep-deprived. At all times, I reserved part of my brainpower for my daughter and called her before shows. I missed my family, our routine, and our little rescue dog. At home, I generally spent a lot of time alone, thinking, grading papers, or walking through the tall grass of our backyard, where stray Asian pears dropped quietly to the ground, and blackberry vines eased their way in through the fence line, bees buzzing under a gentle sun. Climbing onstage each night was a high, but it was a high-pressured high: I wanted to get everything exactly right.

For me, a subtle stress ran like a gentle hum through the trip, broken only by laughing, and talking to each other and to the kindest of strangers.

***

In Nashville, our final stop, Chuck and Chelsea stayed at The Hermitage, in rooms where the lighting was complicated, graduated, and gentle, and mini fridges were lavishly stocked. On a lower budget, I stayed down the road.

The Hermitage is a landmark, an iconic, historic site. My hotel was a landmark too, though of a lesser sort. It too was both historic and renovated. When I checked in, the woman at the desk assured me, “This hotel is the best of both worlds.”

That’s exactly what she said: Both worlds.

What does that mean, both worlds? Are there other worlds? If I were to slip through this lifetime, would I find another world, waiting? There’s the light and the dark, the high and the low. The living and the dead.

Exhaustion coupled with stress had a hold of my mind. The woman had meant nothing of the sort. She meant only that architects had preserved the bones of the building, while bringing comfort up to modern standards.

She smiled and slid a brochure of Nashville over the glossy counter.

“Enjoy … your … stay,” she offered, in measured tones.

I took a magical glass elevator to my room, and watched the mechanism of the elevator itself as I rose through the atrium in the middle of the hotel. Rooms were situated around the outside of the hotel’s structure; every room had windows overlooking the city. The center of the hotel was wide open on all floors, welcoming in sunlight from a skylight far above. I got off on the seventh floor and paused just outside the elevator. There, I took a photo of the glass and steel that made up the glittering, open atrium. Lights reflected against mirrored and metal edges, as beautiful as a Christmas tree.

The architecture was sparkling. It was dizzying. This was my life!

I don’t need to own much, ever. I’ve only ever asked the world for experience.

After our event that night, we went to a dining room in the Cloisters for one final pajama-ed meal together, with a sense of relief and celebration. We sat around the table and ordered lovely, overpriced bites. This was, to me, the good life! Though I was exhausted by the good life, the week, and the two drinks, went to my head fast, making me a little tipsy.

Chuck would go on to Europe; I was headed home.

In that moment I saw, with a rush of gratitude, how these friends of mine, Chuck and Chelsea, were such eccentrics, with their strong personalities, quirks, and quick minds, beautiful in their humanity, dreams, and hard work.

Chelsea and I wandered the streets that night, roaming Nashville. Her worldview and mine shared a lens then, looking out at the world, taking photos.

Eventually, Chelsea went off to her hotel room to crash amid her zombie baby doll-land, in the toxic scent of nail polish, and clutter of props. I entered into the glittering atrium of my hotel, where I took the glass elevator to the seventh floor.

Everything beautiful can turn on a person.

The world is deadly. Life is fragile. I stepped out of the elevator and paused in the exact spot where I’d taken a photo hours before. Earlier, I’d looked over the edge there, admiring the view. Now, the atrium was the same; nothing had changed. It was as brightly lit as it had been at midday, with no sign of night even having fallen, other than the darkness of the skylight.

I had the best of both worlds …

I saw that atrium for what it was: an open pit. It was a glass and steel canyon that ran the height of the hotel. I could look up, and see more floors. I could look down, and see death. Every floor was an opportunity for unstoppable suicide.

There was a waist-high wall around the glittering open pit of death. What would it take, to tumble over? All a person had to do was lean …

I felt the sickening pull of possibility, and backed away from the edge. The threat of gravity revealing itself as a murderer didn’t lessen in my mind though, no matter how much space I put between me and the edge.

I saw that atrium for what it was: an open pit. It was a glass and steel canyon that ran the height of the hotel. I could look up, and see more floors. I could look down, and see death. Every floor was an opportunity for unstoppable suicide.

Then a hand pressed against my shoulders, and pushed me forward again. A physical hand …

I whipped my head around. There was nobody behind me, nobody else at all in that hallway, or in any of the other hallways down below as far as I could see.

I was alone.

The doors in that endless ring of rooms were surely locked. I couldn’t trust myself, my footsteps, my body against gravity. The drinks had gone to my head, but the buzz had worn off, and I was left blinking under the bright lights. I threw myself against the wall and slid my body along the solidity of that wall, toward the door to my room, refusing to get any closer to the giant, pretty, glittering, gaping hole. Holding one shoulder to the wall, to stay far away from the glittering pit, I slid and navigated my way over the doors of other rooms one after another. The canyon of death was immovable and taunting. The possibility of death lurked outside the door of every single room. It was insane. That space invited a quick trip from any floor to a brutal demise. To design a hotel with a space like that seemed suddenly as negligent as leaving loaded handguns or cyanide pills outside the door, alongside that standard copy of the USA Today.

It was inescapable. How had I not noticed this earlier? And still, something or someone invisibly pulled me toward the edge, pushed me toward it. I had to assure myself, with each step, that I would not trip and fall over a waist-high wall.

Obviously, one wouldn’t!

Even as I protested internally, it seemed horribly possible, probable, more likely than standing still.

Is this writing? I thought. Is that what writing is — finding an edge, and not falling over?

The call of the void was shouting.

I shouted back, in my mind — I wanted to live! I enjoy life! All I’ve ever asked for is experience … I thought again.

A voice in my mind asked, How many suicides actually want to live? Answering itself, the voice said, All of them. It said, This resistance, you’re putting up? There’s nothing original in resistance.

A book tour is fabulous, and taxing, and humanity is welcoming and hard, and filled with beauty and insecurity and we never know how long we’ll be here, do we? I was in love with the world.

I fought my way into my room, then locked the door, sliding on the extra security lock, not to keep anyone out so much as to keep myself from somehow sleepwalking into that nightmare corridor, as though to keep myself from picking up a loaded pistol.

The best of both worlds … it was the murmur of a ghost. Was the receptionist even real? The veil was thin, as they say. I climbed into bed, and used the covers as though to help hold myself down.

***

A few hours later, when I woke again in the dark and threw my clothes in my suitcase, a memory of the impulse left the experience feeling entirely absurd.

I’d actually clung to the wall?

My gawd!

I’d shied away from the railing as though an actual, physical person or force, an adversary or ghost, were there to make me to jump.

I’d felt a hand on my shoulder?

I’d been overtaken by a sense of the inevitability of self destruction, once a means is put in place. How could I trust anything, if I myself had thoughts so far from who I believe myself to be?

I’ve since learned this isn’t uncommon: It’s cognitive dissonance. It’s the brain, seeing the depths of an open space, trying to make sense of not falling by imagining the fall. It’s the mind solving a problem: The desire not to fall, coupled with visual details in the equivalent of a cliff, can lead to the urge to throw oneself over, to find that logical, inevitable truth. Other people have also apparently felt the physicality of an invisible hand on their back.

I’d been exhausted; that was a factor.

My diaphanous gown was a blood-stained, wine-marked rag. My spirit felt roughly the same. I threw the gown in the hotel’s trash. A book tour is a strange kind of hard, manic and demanding. It’s not like writing — a quiet thing you do alone, at home.

While I packed, I sorted through collected debris. I no longer needed the itinerary (DOOMED!) or the stack of maps: Tulsa, Houston, New Orleans, Milwaukee, and Nashville. When I pulled on a pair of jeans, in the dark room, I heard the crinkle of paper in one pocket. I’d worn those jeans on the first flight in. I slid a hand in my pocket and found the suicide prevention leaflet from Lucy, of the big head, back on the hot Tulsa sidewalks. Lucy, of the ham on rye recommendation. YOU MATTER, it said.

Well, I do and I don’t, I thought, engaging in a minor quibble with a leaflet over the meaning and value of existence. We all do, we all matter, and also we don’t. As humans, we are legion. We are singular. We’re here to make our own lives hold meaning, in stories and connections.

We’re here.

I always chose to live — hard, and deeply. I chose to live with my own awkward ambition and hope.

I dropped the suicide flyer with a stack of maps of cities, as one more place I would likely never be again.

***

Down in the lobby, I sipped a cup of coffee and waited for the Town Car. I told Chuck, Chelsea, and Todd what had happened so late in the night, trying to convey the intensity of the psychological nightmare.

The car arrived. We tucked in together side by side, breathing in the scent of each other in all humanity. In the dark, Chelsea’s face caught the headlights and taillights of cars passing, casting her in white light and red flashes. Her eyes were bright, fully awake. I was still groggy. She looked thrilled. She asked, “Have you googled it?” Her smile was stunning.

I hadn’t. I’d survived it, meeting my first goal.

A voice in my mind asked, How many suicides actually want to live? Answering itself, the voice said, All of them. It said, This resistance, you’re putting up? There’s nothing original in resistance.

She said, “Let’s see if anyone committed suicide there,” and nodded, brightly. Yes, yes, yes!

In a matter of seconds, we learned it was true: In those very same hours of the late night, the earliest hours of morning, from the same floor on which I had stayed, a man had actually fallen to his death. Maybe he jumped. The reports said he was “Found in the lobby, early the next morning.”

Found.

That’s a hard word. It implied he’d been lost.

Had he heard the same calling? Was he the first, or was he taken by a spirit of another, somebody else who jumped or fell, in a lineage of death? Was he on the road, in self promotion and human connection, maybe a singer, in Nashville?

We’re all walking in the spirit-space of each other, all the time.

The DOOMED tour was over.

Airplanes are improbable inventions, and flying through the sky is crazy. Freeways are inhumane. Sleep is a gift, the brain is delicate. I loved everyone. If we were doomed, it was only in that human way of mortality, as stalked by death. We were alive and mixing it up, in the most ethereal gut punch of a book tour I’d ever known. We were fireflies, we were humans. By the grace of being alive, every one of us, we weren’t doomed — we weren’t! We were blessed. That is all.

* * *

Monica Drake is the author of the novels Clown Girl and The Stud Book, as well as the linked story collection, The Folly of Loving Life. Her work has been featured in the New York Times (Modern Love), the Paris Review Daily, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Northwest Review, The Rumpus, and other publications. She designed and launched the BFA in Writing at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon.

Editor: Sari Botton