INTRODUCTION: PUTTING OFF THE INTRODUCTION
At the beginning of 2019 I gathered together a complete (at the time) but not necessarily awesome collection of not quite great tales featuring Citizen Jim. (It was called An Awesome Collection of Great Tales!)
I knew I was long overdue to write some kind of introduction or preface or something for the book, but I’d been putting it off. I even began to wonder if a book I was self-publishing (what else was I supposed to do with such a pile of stories [besides printing out all 500 or so single-spaced pages and wallpapering my bathroom with them]?) needed an introduction, especially one written by me.
I decided it did, and on this day I also decided that working on an introduction to An Awesome Collection of Great Tales was near the top of my list of things to do after:
- refreshing my memory regarding how much Lord Lucan’s top hat had fetched at a 2018 auction in Oxfordshire (I think it was between £2,000 and £2,500, but I had to be sure, didn’t I? Because it was so important to know for sure?)
- using cotton swabs to clean a vintage mirror ball I’d purchased at a thrift store for two dollars
- creating a Spotify playlist called Cleaning Up to Boogie Down
- re-watching the first two seasons of “Killing Eve” without skipping over the boring parts (i.e., scenes that don’t feature the goofy-deadly-sexy-crazy assassin)
- rearranging my mixed-up books, shelving them alphabetically by last name of dust jacket designer
- poring over the Twitter feed of Kate Winslet to see if she might be thinking of getting a divorce around the time I plan to visit England in 2020 (I’d been dreaming of catching her between husbands since 2001)
- breaking the lead of the pencils on my desk and re-sharpening all of them (times two)
I wanted to get at least the first paragraph written, so I started typing: What can you say about a 20-year-old habit that refuses to die?
I was suddenly notified of a Face Time call from Citizen Jim. As soon as I answered he said: “Egad! You know you can’t just rip off the first line of Love Story and get away with it, right? Why put a fine meal into the mouth of some asshole copyright attorney?”
For one thing, I had a feeling that the estate of Erich Segal wouldn’t see me as a threat to his popularity or legacy (I’m almost certain the tepidly received Love Story sequel, Oliver’s Story, had done that for him). For another thing, the sentence to which Citizen Jim referred had been consciously (and, I thought, obviously) worded in a way that suggested parody. Finally, as a writer who makes an average of $3.25 per year from her work I was sure I could (and would: no question! Ha ha!) get away with it.
I ignored Citizen Jim and kept typing.
That it started as a lark, continued as whimsy, and sometimes veered into Serious Territory before being yanked back into landscape more inclined to celebrate levity over gravity, bathos over pathos?
“Stop it! Just stop this foolishness!” Citizen Jim said. “Serious Territory? There’s no Citizen Jim story—not a single sentence of a Citizen Jim story—that could be called ‘serious.'”
I wanted to think he was wrong about this. “What about my political commentary during the eight years of Bush and Cheney? And trying to describe my desolation after Miss Crabapple ripped out my guts and fed them to Crazy Pants?”
Over time, any number of solemn topics had slid inside the wonky CAT scan of a Citizen Jim story: in addition to the erosion of American democracy and the hell of heartbreak, I’d explored the themes of homophobia, religious matters, conspiracy theories, racism, ageism, sexism. Not only that, but years before the internet and a critically acclaimed movie called The Kids Are All Right told the world, I let people in on the biggest lesbian secret ever: that a lot of us watch guy-on-guy porn.
Just as I knew he would, Citizen Jim screwed up his face at the mention of guy-on-guy porn. He said, “Ah, jeez. Who gives a shit about that? I’ll tell you who: nobody!”
That, on the other hand, was probably truer than I wanted to believe. And why shouldn’t it be? Sure, I’d tried to make a few points about Big Issues here and there. I guess maybe I shouldn’t have turned them inside out laid a farcical, cartoonish filter over them?
“Now look here: did you really just start on this introduction?” Citizen Jim asked me.
I said, “Yeah, I did. I haven’t been able to settle down and just get it done.”
“Am I supposed to be surprised that you and your monkey mind can’t settle down?”
I didn’t have the energy or the inclination to suppress a combined shrug and a sigh and an eye-roll. I threw my hands in the air and started tapping my feet to the song playing on my iPod at that moment, “Get a Move On” by Mr. Scruff.
Hearing that song made me wonder whatever happened to the girl who introduced me to Mr. Scruff, a chick named Wendy who lived in Oakland and who I’d met online (but not on a dating site, as they were still looked down upon then). Might we have met on some type of gay site that had chat rooms where gays could communicate with other gays? I’m becoming so feeble-minded that I don’t even remember, now, how I became acquainted with Oakland Wendy, only that she and I liked the same music and before we drifted out of contact she sent me some awesome mix-CDs, one of which had a couple of songs by Mr. Scruff on it.
Good old Oakland Wendy!
Well, I say “good,” even though she once made me feel like the dumbest person alive because I—having no knowledge of horses or horse riding (and by “no” I do mean “zero,” as in none, not one bit)—because I didn’t know the different types of saddles for horses.
She actually said, “How can you not know the difference between Western- and English-style saddles?”
As if I’d mixed up cantaloupes and tomatoes. As if I’d mistaken a hamster for a tire iron. As if every person on the planet is imparted knowledge about English and Western saddle horseshit at birth and is responsible for keeping it locked tight in their memories for later recall.
To be totally honest, I’m not even sure if I’m recounting the story correctly because I can’t remember if I was being stupid about horse saddles or just horse riding styles in the eyes of Oakland Wendy. Maybe both, if there’s some fundamental difference, which I wouldn’t know (see above). Either way, it has never ceased to befuddle me, her weird assumption that everyone knows a little something about horses (or at least about horse saddles).
I still don’t know anything about horses or horse saddles. And I still don’t care. All I knew for sure was that I’d grown tired of thinking about Oakland Wendy.
Citizen Jim said, “I think you just made up Oakland Wendy. To waste more time.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Then why wasn’t she ever in a Citizen Jim story?” he wanted to know.
I couldn’t really answer that question, and being asked made me wonder myself.
In the last 20 years I’d been involved—both barely and deeply—with few women who didn’t somehow make their ways into a Citizen Jim story (for good or ill). Sometimes even a fleeting crush might introduce an imaginary version of a woman to the Citizen Jim oeuvre in order that I never forgot about her or the fleeting crush I’d had on her.
“You’re starting to creep me out,” said Citizen Jim
Believe me: it’s a lot less creepy than it sounds.
There was one fling in particular who made it into a story or two, but the tales didn’t survive our parting. She was a closeted teacher in Pittsburgh who had a tattoo and smoked a lot of pot and eventually got her Ph.D. and became Doctor Pothead. Weirdest of everything was the fact that after our fling ended I found out she worked for a brief period of time with the actual Great Love of My Life (who tripled as the One That Got Away and the One Who Never Knew How I Felt About Her Before She Died), about whom I have never written in any story. I’d put Dr. Pothead into a couple of Citizen Jim stories but then we broke up (can a fling produce an actual break up?) and so I destroyed those stories and I will always be sad about that because they were actually pretty funny.
But Dr. Pothead wasn’t funny; she barely had a sense of humor. And she dumped me very callously one Friday afternoon via phone while she was driving to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware (again: if it wasn’t a real relationship, can I honestly say that she dumped me?), and so. I excised her from my creative output (and have regretted it ever since).
As for Oakland Wendy? Even though we didn’t have anything even remotely like a fling, I still have no idea how she never ended up in a story until now. With her love of Apple products verging on a sort of religious mania, a ceaseless, unrequited crush on one of her close friends, and the whole English vs. Western horse saddle-thing, she really was a Citizen Jim character just waiting to be written.
“I guess I didn’t put every girl I dated or was in contact with into a Citizen Jim story,” I said.
“But you almost did,” Citizen Jim said. “That’s why you’re never going to be able to sell this book to anyone. Well, that’s one of many, many reasons you aren’t going to be able to sell any copies of this book.”
“Do you think I give a shit if I make anybody mad?” I asked.
“Sure I do,” he said.
“Well, I don’t,” I said.
“Yes you do. You care more than you’ll ever admit. This would probably be a good place to apologize, in fact.”
“Apologize? Are you kidding me? For what?”
“For trying to take your worthless, impotent revenge on those poor women.”
He had to be kidding. “You have to be kidding,” I said.
“Oh? So you get to decide that, now? Just because you’re writing this?”
I said, “If I wrote anything bad about anyone, he or she deserved it. Do you even remember what happened between Miss Crabapple and me?”
Citizen Jim nodded, eyes closed for a moment. “Fair enough. But you’re still not going to be able to sell this book to more than five or six people. Not with the violence, misogyny, and female objectification splattered all over it like menstrual blood in an office full of women.”
I let a distracted “Mmmm…” escape me to create the illusion that I was busy trying to write; what I was actually doing was thinking how unlikely it would be for any male character in a story to mention menstrual blood—even in a story by me, with a stand-in of my male friend Jim standing in as my id and my super-ego while a stand-in of my ego tried to keep the peace.
Citizen Jim went on, continuing to be unlikely: “Or maybe you’ve never heard of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements?”
Of course I had! I said, “Of course I have!”
More eye-rolling from me. It has to be said: he wasn’t really helping me out.
Citizen Jim said, “You haven’t been a very good steward of your talents, have you?”
There was a chance he might be right, depending on how you defined the words “good” and “steward” and especially the word “talents.” But.
Could I help it if I never knew the bulk of my artistic output would end up being this collection of over 100 stories about a fictional version of my friend Jim and a fictional version of myself and a fictional version of our friendship and fictional reactions to the all-too-real world that couldn’t stop being a dick for five minutes?
“I’m not sure why I keep putting it off. But I can’t keep putting it off. Can you help me?” I asked.
“How do you want to do it?” asked Citizen Jim.
“I don’t care. I guess this is just as good as anything.”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“Because I was kind of hoping for an origin story. Like a comic book superhero?”
I pressed my lips together and just stared at him.
“What? I know you hate comic books and I know you don’t think of me as the hero I definitely am, but. I mean,” he said. “Come on. What would you have been writing for the last twenty years without me?”
I kept staring.
He wasn’t going to give it a rest. I knew this. “Don’t you think anyone who reads these stories—if there’s any such creature out there—might want some context for them?”
Though I hated to admit it, he almost had a good point. I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him that, though.
“Maybe?” I said, wincing and shrugging to hide the fact that I knew I would now have to write about the origin of the Citizen Jim Stories. Ugh.
THE ORIGIN STORY
For a decade or so I was in almost constant contact with Real Jim, who became the model for Citizen Jim. We became fast friends in the checkout line I manned at a local grocery store and soon found ourselves coworkers at an independent bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama.
Jim worked in The Back of the store, ceaselessly checking in newly arrived books and returning older, unsold inventory to publishers. I passed my day at The Front of the store, helping customers and shelving books. On most weekdays we worked together for a standard eight hours.
After work one of us would call the other and we’d spend at least forty-five minutes (sometimes as much as an hour) talking on the phone. More often than not, before hanging up, Jim or I would say, “You wanna come over and watch TV?”
Because we lived maybe three hundred steps from each other, we would. But what could we have talked about all evening after being together all day?
A wise and famous writer once said that they way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives. So I guess our conversations concerned Stuff About the Back and Stuff About the Front, mostly. The lulls in the conversation, though, would usually produce the real meat of our phone calls.
That’s when we would start…making shit up. About people we saw that day, people we saw that week, people we’d seen ever in our lives: weird customers, our boss, our coworkers; people we barely knew, people we knew well—all of whom would be horrified if they’d ever heard the thoughts, words, and deeds we’d dreamed up for them to think and say and perform in our version of the universe.
Real Jim was a fabulist extraordinaire, and I wasn’t too shabby at picking up a thread and letting it unfurl in myriad directions. Any person who caught our eye was in danger of becoming a weirdly renamed character in a never-ending tale that remained devoid of plot, point of view, or volition.
To this day I have no idea why we did this, let alone why we did it every evening. Surely, I want to imagine, it was because we were both writers who hadn’t settled into our material and not because we were just immature stooges who’d found each other at a time in life when neither of us had anyone else to be completely stupid with?
As far as writing went, Jim produced more than I did, and his work was what I considered real writing, serious writing: meditations on relationships, stories about things that actually could have happened in a world very similar to the one we inhabited. His vision was a little off-kilter, but rang true when all was said and done.
The stuff I wrote harked back to the stories I was infamous for writing when I was a teenager who craved attention but who wasn’t brave enough to act out and wasn’t prodigious in any way. I cured my obligatory adolescent ennui by using the people in my life—barely disguised, with character names that almost always rhymed with their real-life names: eesh…—to move through slapstick episodes of my invention.
In 2000—finally safe from the Y2K tragedy that never happened and with a few months left to prep for the start of the 21st Century—I moved back to my home state of West Virginia. There were an untold number of things I was glad to leave behind me but my close, sibling-like relationship with Jim and all the antics it entailed was not one of them.
To think that Jim wouldn’t be around to run across a room and tackle me? Knowing that I could no longer anticipate his waiting for an eye witness and then putting me in a headlock and pretending to punch me? All of this was inconceivable to me.
And, so, after going back to live with my mother until I found a new job, a new life, I wrote “Gentlemen Callers,” which is the first Citizen Jim story I ever wrote, and the final story in An Awesome Collection of Great Tales!
“Gentlemen Callers” mixes Jim’s pretend violence, pseudo jealousy, and non-existent pettiness, while also exaggerating many forms of pseudo-crazy-talk. The story does mention a girl I was involved with at the time. Because she was right there, I had to mention my mother, who really did love Jim despite her misgivings about how “rough” he treated me. (She’d witnessed one of his tacklings of me in the first moments of her acquaintance with him. She was not impressed.)
Then, of course, there was the story-version of Jim that would grow more violent and mean and indispensable to the narrator. The story was, in essence, a twisted wish-fulfillment as I tried to cope with missing my best friend.
The fake book review written in the style of Forrest Gump that made up the second half of the story was like one of our old after-work phone conversations times a thousand, written solely for the amusement of Jim.
When I wrote “Gentlemen Callers,” I had no idea there would ever be a second story about Chicken Sheets and Jim “The Cheeseburgler” Gilbert (who only became Citizen Jim later). But when the second story came to mind I let it come out. It gave me something to do with my creativity and made me feel better about not seeing Jim every day, and that was a good thing. A third story popped out of my head, then another here, another there.
I never knew when (or if) another story would come into my mind. Sooner or later, though, something would fizz and bubble inside me and I would start typing—or writing, depending on where I happened to be—that first sentence. The beginning of a story almost always mentioned the day of the week, sometimes observed what the weather was like at that moment before I would begin recounting some event that had nominally triggered the desire to tell a Citizen Jim story.
It was for this reason that I never, ever dated the stories when I wrote them. I thought each one I wrote was probably the last one, and who cared, anyway? Not even Jim, and he was one of the main characters.
If I started writing the stories because I missed Jim, I continued writing them because they flushed the creative sludge out of my brain and kept me “writing” when I wasn’t writing. Looking back, I suppose I’ve used the Citizen Jim Universe as a sort of writing lab and playground, a diary, and, from time to time, a zero-cost therapy session. Pretty much everything that has made me happy, sad, scared, angry, self-righteous, or belligerent over the last two decades had made its way into these stories.
If it could be called such, this body of work has evolved—over time, whether helpful or not, whether I like it or not—into a secret and precise point-counter-point of my endless self-talk. Even now, as I write this, I can almost hear the voice of Citizen Jim in my head revving up his disagreement engine, preparing to challenge every truth I feel I’ve told in the final 1,214 words of this introduction.
THE REAL INTRO: BY CITIZEN JIMBO
When Citizen Sheets called to tell me about the imminent publication of this long-gestating, epic biographical project of hers, with myself as the revered subject, my reply was immediate: “Well, I’ll be writing an introductory statement, don’t you think? Or would you rather be sued right down to the ground?”
“Whatever,” she responded (her way of telling me “I love you”).
Let me tell you, my spleen overflowed right then and there, so I went straight to work. After firing up the word processor machine, I marched into the daylight and mowed the grass.
Front yard, back yard, even around the mailbox where the hornets live (and why, I assume, the postman is steadily unreliable in delivering those checks Stimpy swears she’s sending – and let me be clear, I believe her, it’s the lying “government” you can’t trust; everybody knows Tang did not come from the Moon, jeez). While I was at it, I took care of my neighbor’s lawn; he’s damn lazy and his dandelions spread like wildfire (my suggestions of curing said dandelions with some wildfire of my own only result in visits from the cops every time, so I decided to be the Good Samaritan that I am, but I digress).
As you can see: like a lot of folks I do my best thinking when I’m distracted. I’ve tried to teach my buddy Citizen Chicken these kinds of Zen Yoga tricks, but I guess she’s what pulp fiction author Tommy Pynchon would describe a “yo-yo” in these regards, and I mean that in a good way; I tell her to take a Leap of Faith, next thing I know she’s just tripping over her own two feet, blames me when her shoes come flying off because she forgot to tie them, et cetera. Anyway, she always gets back up, and that counts for something.
(Seriously though, how many times have I dragged her drunk ass out of Wal-Mart at 2am, saving her from public arrest and pillory, and then guess what? It’s always moi who gets the blame! Always!)
But now Stimpy aims to knock the record straight with this here document, just exactly like a Boswell anointing his Johnson with sweet and slippery truth serum, so let me go ahead and Spoiler Alert: None of those old blasphemous “Citizen Jim” stories happened the way the internet remembers.
As a muse, I must say, sometimes I have to fetch the short end of the stick.
For example: this one time, I had the flu and made the mistake of saying I was “sick as a dog,” so Sheets took me to the local animal hospital because she “thought it’d be cheaper.” Well, it wasn’t, and let me tell you, no amount of Tamiflu will wash the taste of those heartworm pills out of your mouth.
Long of the short: I don’t know what my beloved Stimpy would do without me. Even though we no longer live in the same vicinity (there’s a lot of paperwork involved in explaining that, so I’ll just skip over, thanks), every year for my birthday I get a new rake and a jar of pickles. I mean, I have to buy them myself because the checks aren’t arriving, but you know what I’m saying.
What I’m saying is, Citizen Sheets stole all my ideas, then changed them completely to make them her own, and I got left buried in the cold, cold ground. But now! Retribution! Justice! Cheese plates!! The weightless, invisible tome you now hold in your hot little hands is all the evidence needed for my True Crimes, so help me gads. Chicken Sheets, I love you, too!
Anyway, I guess it’s time to get down on some brass tacks and finally scribble an introduction for this glorious biograph of which I am the starring role! Tally-ho!