(Bal’s note: despite the title, this is not some trite motivational crap. This is first-rate mindfuckery)
Ten Things to be Grateful For
by John Shirley
In this fickle world…
In this coy and cloying world…
In this the best – can it be true? – of all possible worlds…
One must butter one’s bread on the sunny side of the street. One must keep a stiff lower grip. One must…
One must remember: there are things to be thankful for. We have so much to be grateful, to be thankful for.
Here are ten things to be thankful for.
Be thankful you are not strolling through a park on a pretty spring day, minding your own mind, and thinking about whether or not to call the corporate head-hunter back, when you find that you have to pee, you have to pee badly and there’s nowhere to go within a quarter mile, and it’s a big park, a bushy park, and you’ve taken that liberty in the park’s bushes before, and you sort of enjoy the occasional outdoors pee, so you step off the path and pee off an embankment, through some ferns, watching them bob with the impact of the stream, and you finish and turn and see two men standing there blocking your way and they tell you that you’ve just peed on their home, their mattresses, because there’s a homeless encampment under the embankment, and you complain of entrapment but it’s not applicable and it’s no good and you try to feint to the left and dart to the right but they are used to people trying to dodge past, they’re not your average homeless joes, they’re predacious street people, and one of them grabs you and so does his smell, the smell of a whole cattle-car of people in one man, and you can see the lice squirm in his beard an inch from your face as he bear-hugs you, and you can look into his eyes, one of them skyblue and the other the color of spat phlegm; and the second guy who’s lean and blue with tattoos from the waist up, he kicks you at the base of the spine again and again as you try to scream but the bear-hugger stuffs his beard in your mouth and with a strangely high-pitched giggle, says he always does that, as you struggle amazed not at his strength but at your own feebleness, and then the telling crack with another practiced workboot kick, the meaningful crack of your spine and the pain that in your mind is like a picture of jagged radiating three-dimensional arrows made of rusty iron, pain with weight, and the bearded one falls on you as you fall back and there’s more cracking and crackling as you hit the hard ground of the ravine’s lip and your head is hanging over the edge of the embankment, and the other guy grabs onto your neck and jumps off into the ravine, and that feeling is like a spin-painting with only the colors black and green, and the vertebrae come apart, and he swings from your head and neck as the other guy, drooling with laughter, holds on and the vertebrae pull farther apart and you remember when you were in kindergarten you drew a picture of a bear jumping over a fence only no one could make out what you’d drawn, and now other tramps come laughing, hooting, to swing on your head and neck as the vertebrae part completely and when they get bored they kick your body like a bean bag amazed that you’re still alive, but you’re not alive for long. That could happen to you. Be grateful that isn’t happening to you. It could be. It’s not. Be thankful.
Be grateful that you’re not a child in Thailand who’s sold by his parents to a Bangkok child-brothel, and you’re amazed that your mother kissed you goodbye as if you were going to visit a relative, as if you would see her again, and you thought that they would take the money from the man and then tell you to run away with them but they didn’t even look back as you are led weeping, the weeping bone-dry, up the creaking wooden stairs in the narrow alley in back of the building, a squeezed building that would fall over but for the buildings on either side, and then they beat you the first time just to introduce you to beatings and to initiate you into the magnitude of your subservience but really it’s a half-hearted beating compared to the second time when you refused to let the fat American fuck you in the ass while his friend, a tall skinny man who coos at you in an undertone as if convincing himself he’s being tender, shoves his stubby thick member in your mouth and makes circular motions with his hips and, though you stomached that, when you felt the penetration from behind, you wrenched free and ran to hide under the bed and wouldn’t come out till Kimaritchul, squat and strong, flipped the bed to one side and began – with a strangely anomalous look of patience in his eyes, like a horsetrainer – kicking you in the soft parts, very expertly, so as not to break anything but so as to introduce deep, deep bruises that hurt with your every movement all night long, each stab of pain speaking with Kimaritchul’s unspoken voice, as you let the two men do what they wanted with you, after the skinny one made noises as if he disapproved of what the guard had done to you, and then goes on to fuck you till you choke and lose consciousness, but unfortunately you don’t die, not till two years later when your kidney ruptures and they throw you in the canal. That’s something to be grateful for: that’s not happening to you.
Be grateful that you’re not recovering from your third diabetes amputation, leaving you one limb, your left arm, while the nurses, especially the one with the harelip and the dyed-blond with the long neck and slumped shoulders, give you filing looks, they’re mentally filing you as human detritus that hasn’t been picked up yet, filing you under hopeless and meaningless and simply a bothersome fulfillment of duty, that duty dwindling, on no one’s instructions, day by day, the sponge-baths going from once a day to once every two days to once a week, the turning for bedsores following precisely the same declension, as if by clinical planning, the kindly remarks and encouragements and inquiries falling off to almost none, the eye contact vanishing entirely, the visits from the doctor also down to once a week, then once every ten days, the food which, after all, you can feed to yourself if they’d bring it, since you have one limb, even if you can’t reach every part of yourself for a sponging without falling off the bed: the food coming only twice a day now and if you start whining about anything it comes only once; the television left on a channel that has gone off the air for good and then they say the TV is broken when it’s not, and the talk about the lack of available beds, oh if only one would open up, within your hearing, their skill at indirectly conveying a sense of some imagined personal injury, their indifference to your tale of the night orderly who comes in and holds down your remaining arm and slaps you with a look of slack-mouthed concentration, four or five times before hearing footsteps and hurrying away, the nurse outraged when you try to tell the doctor she’s forgot your insulin, the coma creeping up on you just as you smell the decay growing in your remaining limb… Something to be thankful for: that isn’t happening to you.
Thank your particular deities that you are not completely convinced, utterly convinced, granite-pillar and steel-brace convinced, that there is a large parasite growing in your intestines, a parasite that is a mutated variant on a tapeworm, but stubbier and thicker and intelligent, a wormish thing with jawparts like human fingers only translucent, rubbery, capable of grasping, and it’s pushed its grip through the tissues of your intestines to grab some inner organ, sometimes your liver, sometimes your spleen, lately you suspect it’s moved to squeezing your bladder shut because you can’t urinate, and your ankles are swelling and somehow this pleases it, and you can even hear it at times, as it can take words from your mind and give them back to you, to persuade you not to fight it, that’s one of its survival adaptations, to whisper there are many parasites within all people, as everyone knows, flora the doctors call them, micro-organisms, and there are mites living in your eyebrows, and they eat dead skin and the fellows in your intestines help release trapped electrolytes from food and think of me as just another step, another kind of benign parasite, for if you relax and let me move freely I’ll love you, I’ll push in and out of you, and I’ll reach out of your ass to caress your genitals, but only if you’re quite still and trusting, you must surrender completely, and you must not scream when you see me. It whispers such things to you, but you’re contemptuous of its sluggish efforts at persuasion, it is a thing of lower orders and cannot persuade like a TV commercial can, or not as well as some commercials anyway, perhaps, and it cannot be trusted, and as the doctors are in denial, out of sheer ineffable horror, refusing to acknowledge the presence of the thing, you must, of course, cut yourself open with what over-the-counter topical anesthetic you can manage, and fight your own arm which tries not to cut any further as you penetrate to the layer of membrane over the intestines, but which you, in the unshakeable determination of your absolute will, overcome, triumphing as, laying in the bathtub naked and trying to staunch the blood with towels with your free hand, you cut with shaking fingers a long jagged rent in the large intestine, for a full fourteen inches, and lay the intestine open, and find the parasite within…is gone, is somehow gone, and as you bleed to death you think you hear it whispering from the drain. Be grateful that isn’t you. Be thankful.
Be thankful, too, that you’re not trapped in the rubble after the terrorist bomb has reduced the building to a shuddering clinker of ragged stone, two days now, and the sounds of rescuers are very, very, very distant, eloquently distant, and you’re in a chamber that was not made for habitation, under many tons of rock, with your arms and legs angled – unbroken! – in odd Jerry Lewis postures, like a dancing Keith Haring drawing, only you’re losing sensation in your legs because circulation is cut off by a stone that presses just hard enough, but your arms are aching with sensation, and, when you move, the rocks above nudge a little closer, a little lower, and small scavenging beetles begin to appear, you can hear their rattling legs on the stones, feel them brush past your mouth, your ears, and you can’t feel them begin on your legs, there’s no circulation there, but there’s a sense of something flowing out of you down there, a coldness that seeps up from your calves to your knees, to your thighs, as you hear the child suddenly wake up and begin screaming for its mother, and you open your mouth to try to speak words of comfort but something chitinous climbs into your mouth and chokes you and… Be grateful, thankful, that isn’t you.
Be thankful for what you have; be grateful: You might be a child of ten and you might be that child in a leather bag, tied shut, hardly any room, a bag with holes punched in it, listening to the two men talk about police pursuit, feeling the van lurch left and right as they turn corners, hearing one of them say, with the joy of a lottery winner, ain’t nobody coming after us, was nobody there to see the license number, no pursuit, Joe, we’re home free…as you hear that the implications come alive in you and make you claw at the bag and try to scream through the tape over your mouth and one of them slams you through the leather with that two by four you saw just before they pushed you in and it knocks all the breath out of you and as you’re getting breath back, each breath stabbing now, he says something about you better hold still in there, you better be glad you’re in that bag there and not out here with me you little peter-pusher, and the other one says don’t scare him no more’n you have to, I don’t want to have to gag him after we take him out, I want his mouth free after I take that tape off. But they’re taking some kind of drug, you can’t tell what, you hear them say crystal, and after they make those snorting sounds you can tell from their voices they’re losing what control of themselves they have and you feel an icicle become part of your back and realize it’s that sharpened screwdriver the red-headed man had, he’s sticking it through the bag at random here and here and there, into you, just a half inch in here, and an inch there and it scrapes off your shoulderblade and he’s laughing and his friend says wait, wait till we get to the woods, and when they do, when they take you out of the bag their faces hurt more than the tools and soon you beg them please, please kill me, but you don’t quite die before they shovel the dirt over your eyes. But then you do. Be glad that’s not you, be grateful, be thankful. We have much to be thankful for.
Be thankful you’re not running on legs that are losing their bones; that’s how it feels, as you run, as if the bones in your legs are melting, you’re sinking as you run into the street, because you’ve been running this way for two miles and you’re fat and you’re not a kid anymore as the truck chases you across the open desert, under a sun that never takes a breath, never relents, the pickup just ten feet behind, driving you ahead of it, with a man and a woman and three children in it, the children laughing loudest of all, as you fall in the cacti, naked in the cacti, and get up and run on, and on, stumbling and running, your feet ribbons of flesh, your heart almost louder than their voices and the gunning engine and they are calling you Mexi-nigger, Mexi-nigger you’d better get up but your bones have dissolved completely now and you can’t get up and Dad lets the kids, even the girl, practice with the .22 on you, they shoot you in the hips and buttocks and you don’t feel it much because of the exhaustion and the fear till one of the slugs hits your pelvis and splinters it and then there’s nothing in all the universe but those splinters chewing out of your hip, nothing, anyway, till they lock the chains to your ankles and begin to drag you behind the truck, talking about how those ol’ boys in Texas going to be startin’ a fad, here, now son I want you to see what a fat Mexi-nigger’s guts look like, whoa look at that and his shit too-
Consider: that’s not you. It could be you. It’s not. Be thankful.
Yes be thankful, you’d better be absolutely grateful that you’re not in the bus when it goes off the bridge and fills with water and your little girl, eight years old, beside you, is looking at you with amazement because somehow you’ve made this happen and you’ll never have time to explain that, despite pretending all her life that you could prevent things like this from happening, in fact, my little love, I was lying, all this time, something like this could happen anytime and only some perverse and unmappable grace prevents it from happening more, it’s amazing when we’re barreling along by the millions at sixty, seventy, eighty miles an hour on our steaming, tarry freeways that it doesn’t happen more, it’s amazing that cancer and plane-crashes and murder and war don’t happen even more than they do, given that people are just mandrills with clothes on, my little sweet, so you should not be surprised, and I’m sorry I didn’t prepare you for this; all this passing through your head in a split second as you see that look in her face right before the bus hits the estuary, slams the both of you off the ceiling of the bus with bone-cracking force, and since your left shoulder shatters you have only your right arm to try to get her through the one open window within reach as water fills the bus, but there’s a ferret-faced man, the one who said he was a lawyer, who’s pushing your daughter out of the way so he can swim through, who’s kicking you in the face to keep you from jerking him back from the window to let her through, and both of you are fighting underwater and beyond him you glimpse more than a dozen pallid faces with bubbles surging up from their mouths as they flap their arms and you claw at him to try to get him out of the way so you can get her through that window but she is clawing at you in desperation, clawing at your eyes, your own child without knowing gouges out one of your eyes in terror, and then the darkness closes down on you both and it has nothing reassuring, nothing restful in it at all, but just a shattering emptiness and… Count your blessings, because that could be you: be grateful that isn’t you…
Be grateful, thank your ancestors, thank your stars, that you’re not being strapped down in the metal chair, that you’re not seeing those two distinct sharp-edged expressions, either one or the other, on the faces of the people watching through the glass, either studied indifference or a fascination that’s less than pornographic but not so very much less, and there are people murmuring to you just as if they care that you’re about to be choked to death with chemicals, but they don’t, not really, they don’t actually care and they won’t think about it after tomorrow or the next day, and the fact, the unblemished, untarnished certainty that you and only you have, that you’re innocent, you really are innocent, not “they all say they’re innocent,” but authentically innocent, and that not only will it be believed that you raped and strangled two women whom you never saw or heard of till you were arrested for supposedly doing it, after someone stole your car and used it in the crime, someone who looks a little like you; not only will it be believed by the public, by history, that you were a murderer, but your wife, your children, your father and mother will believe that you are guilty, even though they made cardboard protestations to the contrary, ultimately they will believe it, and so the children will blame you for abandoning them, and no one will ever be truly sorry, except maybe the children, who will also hate you, no one will be sorry that you are now hearing the sound of the chamber door clicking shut, the last time you will hear a door shut, that you are hearing the sound of the cyanide capsules hitting the bucket to release the poison into the air; no one will really, not really care that you have only one last clean breath in your lungs as you shake and choke and shake and die knowing you are innocent and being killed for nothing. Be grateful, show some gratitude: that could have been you. And it’s not.
Be thankful, breathe a sigh of relief and nod your head in humble gratitude that you’re not a neurotic fan of perverse dark literature, horror or crime or dark fantasy, a reader, at least today, of the obsessively-etched stimuli that is one of your few releases from the smothering sense of is-this-all-there-is in your life, that you’re not that sort of person, reliant on occasional corrosive chemicals or puerile graphic images for relief from the inarticulate and undefined and never acknowledged knowledge that you are being hunted, something just out of the circle of your perceptions is hunting you: a fear; a fear of your own meaninglessness, your own irrelevance, your trappedness in a dead-end, soulless, monkey-masturbatory, mazelike civilization that you mock like a bad videogame even as you sock in another quarter, as your brain turns slowly, slowly inside your skull, scanning for an exit in an exitless world, as you lurch onto the next half-satisfying stimulus like the dying cocaine rat that pushes the lever; as you realize that your understanding of the unknown sculpture is really only the chisel-scrapings at the foot of the sculpture, and you never have seen the sculpture, and that you’re really truly trapped in a culture that, despite your arch commentary, your well-honed irony, your media-fed sardonicism, has conditioned and programmed you just as thoroughly as any shopping-channel-fixated Tennessee housewife; that despite your creative conceits you’re probably going to degrade yourself for the opportunity to die in an upscale old-people’s home instead of an SRO hotel, probably of a painful and under-medicated cancer, after your youth is burned up in media dreams and gossip that has a life of its own and relationships that jar and sputter and circle blindly like bumper cars, and the loneliness of the long distance consumer, a hollow life in a hollow society of equally hollow people-
Be glad and grateful that’s not…that it’s not…not…
Oh. I see.
I wasn’t thinking. Ah. It is? Well…I…
Well anyway. There are, you know, other things…to be thankful for.
(originally published at Gothic.net in 1998)