Nonfiction Essay: Philip James Shaw’s “when i’m having a difficult time maintaining my concentration with regard to certain aspects of my most immediate surroundings”

Nonfiction: Philip James Shaw

when i’m having a difficult time maintaining my concentration with regard to certain aspects of my most immediate surroundings

when i am away to work.
I can work. I can even go away to work. I work as well as I can. Even though it changes, I am keeping up.

A hotel room is a cleanser of sleep, of my life. Devoid of attachments, I splay myself out on the King, in less than boxer briefs, and I leave the drapes wide, with no concern. In these cities, where I know no one, no one looks into seventeenth floor windows of high-rise hotels. Or if they do, they will not notice. I am not much to notice.

Most of what I am is somewhere else. There are portions of me in a case at the foot of the bed. And I call her to tell her.

I say, There’s this other thing.


when i met her.
I promised myself two things when I met her. I will love her, was the first. I will tell her, was the second. The problem with telling her is where to stop. The problem with telling her is that telling isn’t enough.


when i first learn about frequency.
I can tell you of all my Forms. Forms is what I call them. Not a single one of my Forms has to do with heredity. A therapist would tell her, tell anyone, had told me, that I am right about what my Forms can lead to. They tell me you are right, and they say these things to help us all forgive.

She says, Nothing has changed with us. You’ve told me you would talk to someone. Get some more help. I say, Everything changes. We have added new things. She says, Remember when you came at me from behind last week? Yes, I say, I liked that. She says, I loved that.

I begin working on the words inside so I can get back to her, so I can respond to her. If only she could see how hard I am working. Then, for a little while, we could not have this conversation. I need to not have this conversation for a little while. It is like engaging in a prayer. I pray to not have this conversation for at least a couple of weeks, a month or two if possible.

As I work on the inside to find the words that will get back to her as my reply, I know they will never be as good as an answer. Then she catches me smelling my fingers. This Form is new. All of these smells on my fingers are the smells that inhabit our bodies. There is one from having touched her hair and scalp. There is one from using my pencils, or the smell a keyboard’s keys leave behind. There are other ones that come from her, like the one from her vagina, a different one from her ass. There is her truffle salt that she puts on everything she cooks and, while I hate it, I will never tell her that. There is also a smell of iron from when I pretend to have cut myself. This one is also new. I draw my own blood from a machining of my own skin, on my own legs, on my own neck, on my own stomach, all places others won’t see. I have worked to define all these smells as accurately as I can. And, there are now some more words, a reply that will never be as good as an answer.

That’s why I made time for us again this morning, I say. She says, I know. And in the kitchen, on Sunday, I say, how I came at you from underneath. She says, That was last week. But I loved it more the first time. I ask, Does it need to be different every time?

I always ask. But I don’t want to stay for answers. It is better for me when I leave.


when the confidence shatters.
I can tell you of all my Forms. Forms is what I call them. The Behaviorists call them behaviors. The first Form was the Light Switch. When I needed to turn on the lights, I had to turn them on–then off–then on. When I needed to turn the lights off, I had to turn them off–then on–then off. I did this by toggling the switch as fast as I could.

My father would always say, Why’re you doing that? It wasn’t a question.

My hand slipped. It just happened, I’d say.

He would never say, You always say that.

He would just say, Why’re you doing that? Never a question.

I never came up with a better answer than, My hand slipped. Which is the same as saying, I don’t know. But I didn’t.

I knew that he knew that it couldn’t be happening how I said it was. And, I became tired of knowing. I got tired of not having a better response. So, if I was the last to leave the room I would just leave the lights on. If I was the first to walk into a room I stopped turning the lights on at all. I would wait for others to turn them on. I would wait for my father to turn them on. I would stand in the dark and wait for him to turn them on. I would just stand there, out of his way, waiting for him to turn on the lights. Unless I was alone. If I was alone I would turn them on, then back off, then on again. Then, because I became tired of all of this, I changed.


when his watching wasn’t enough shame to stop.
My father had been there for the first Forms. He had a frame of reference. He had to know that anyone who saw me for more hours of the day than he saw me would wonder about my Forms even more than he did. They would watch me as I watched my shirt, looked at my pants, looked at my shoes, for more hours of the day than he could watch me. Watch me finding a detached sliver of thread. Watch me finding the place where the fabric bunched or was worn, where it could not hide the fact that I only had four shirts, two pairs of pants, four shoes or what you’d call two pair. Sometimes I had to consider the shoes as pairs and sometimes I had to consider them individually. Because when they counted as four I felt like I had more. I also had one vinyl windbreaker. It was too large for me. If I did not want to have to look down, did not want to say what needed to be said, I would wear the windbreaker to hide all of what I had to wear underneath and had to look at and had to talk to.

The windbreaker had the symbol of a Masons’ Temple silkscreened on the breast. It was my father’s. I wore it so he could be proud, and so I could hide and he wouldn’t have to ask me the questions that weren’t questions. The symbol looked mystical, but the windbreaker looked cheap. In our new home we had driven so far to get to, kids would start to come near me when I wore the windbreaker. They wanted to know about my windbreaker, because it looked mystical. I was a strange new kid. This could have been a badge of pride, the kind of thing a kid in a strange new place could build on. If I hadn’t been crippled by facts.


when we corroborate the existence.
She catches me looking at my hands. This is also a new one. I listen to her and look at my hands at the same time. This frustrates her. She can help me. She has helped me. But she wants me to look at her. That is how she feels connected and I know this. I am paying attention, but I still have to look at my hands and I have to count the hairs on each hand. I can do it pretty quickly. The total varies. You’d be surprised. The hairs that are the first to be counted are the most obvious ones, the long ones, the kinky ones, the off-color ones, and the ones where multiples grow out of a single follicle. They are strong and they are there day after day, they are the ones that hold on. I start with those because I know them. But then there are the ones I don’t know, that show up each day, and they add volume and complexity. I briefly consider naming each of them because I have come to hate most numbers, at least more than half of them. But every day it changes by several dozen in one direction, or the other, and giving them names would seem like going backward. Besides, I can complete the whole count in less time than it takes for her to tell me something that she hopes will help us work more.

Recently, I would pull out some of the really strong hairs that never seem to leave on their own. Alone, in the bathroom, so she won’t see me pulling the really strong ones out so the total number of hairs will equal a better total. I like 737. I even like 715. I don’t like 742.

When I come out of the bathroom she says, I found a really great place for us to get away. She says, Because, you know, we aren’t having enough sex. We can spend the whole time having sex.

I didn’t ask her if it was a certain number she wanted. I just stood there, looking at her.

She repeats, You don’t fuck me enough.

When people repeat themselves it is hard for me. I have to work through their words again, inside, in a different way, even if they don’t need me to.

She says, It’s only been once a week. I ask, What’s enough?

And then everything changes.


when feelings are meant for feeling not for talking.
Sometimes I dream about the thud. The thud is the sound a large book makes when it slams into a wall. I also dream about your rifle, about how it tore into your head.

I didn’t see firsthand what was left, but she had said, Not much left. I didn’t see you firsthand but the words, Not much left, came from the first hands that had to handle what was left.

I dream of your rifle, after the thud, lying next to the not much that was left of you.

I dream of the last bit of your spit that remained on the barrel and whether it would have tasted the same as it did when you used to embarrass me by kissing me on the lips in public, the taste of coffee and cigars on your breath.

I used to have to watch to see if other fathers kissed their sons on the lips. I didn’t even know you owned a rifle.


when i cannot do for you.
We live in small quarters. Small places mean less things. Less things mean I work better. Our place is so small that I can listen when I shouldn’t. I can even hear the voices coming from another end. I am listening because I am worried that I am hurting her after I vowed that I wouldn’t. Vows take policing and that is something I am good at, even when I know that I am insulting her.

But does he fuck you? her friend asks. She says, Yes.

Enough? the friend asked. She says, Yes. What’s enough? the friend asks.

I shouldn’t be listening.


when the mantras began.
I’m having a difficult time maintaining my concentration with regard to certain aspects of my most immediate surroundings. I’m having a difficult time maintaining my concentration with regard to certain aspects of my most immediate surroundings. I’m having a difficult time maintaining my concentration with regard to certain aspects of my most immediate surroundings. Three times. Each time. No more. No less. I have to wait at least seven minutes until I can use it again. Because I have to work. Because I need to focus. When I need to focus, I have to say the words that have become the Form that helps me work, I’m having a difficult time maintaining my concentration with regard to certain aspects of my most immediate surroundings. Three times. Each time. No more. No less. And with an exact seven minute interval in between. I do this inside of myself. It takes me eleven seconds to say it in succession three times. These words came a long time after the other Forms like the light switches, Forms that I had forced myself to ignore because I became tired of making excuses. Because I want to work, I had to create Forms out of words for my inside. I decided to call them, Mantras.


when there were different words for different forms.
Before constructing the inside Mantra there were several other Forms with words, trying to operate inside, but they also leaked outside. There was, Fuzz and lint and lint and fuzz and fuzz and lint and piles. This one was for helping me accept my clothes and their condition. My clothing that couldn’t be replaced at the same rate as my peers’ whose parents could afford to replace theirs.

He would say, What’re you mumbling? But it wasn’t a question. Just a song, I would lie. Excuses are always little lies. I was just beginning to work.

I would look down at all of the pilling on my sweater, down at my threadbare cuffs or elbows, as I held my arms away from my body to get a better look. It was either my arms that gave me away or the mumbling that was leaking outside. I had to hold my arms away from my body as I looked down at them, trying to say inside, Fuzz and lint and lint and fuzz and fuzz and lint and piles. Or sometimes the words had to be, Dusty. Dirty. Dingy. Dingy. Dusty. Dirty. Soiled and stained. In that order. Every time.

Because I had just learned to do this instead of the light switches, instead of lots of other things I once had to do, I would have to say the words a lot. I also had to look down while saying them. I also had to hold my arms away from my body while looking down and saying them. Which meant that I could never really believe others wouldn’t notice even if I was too young to know what it meant to believe anything. I would mumble and look down at all of the pilling that was piles and the lint that was lint and the fuzz that was fuzz on my clothes, with my arms stuck out in front of me, at a distance from my body that I believed always needed to be exactly the same.

He would say, What’re you looking at? It wasn’t a question.


when comes an in-between-time.
After we had been married for a year, I had to tell her some more.

In the time between Light Switching and Mantras, I said, there was Counting. I had to have odd numbers of items to carry on my person. Five was best. Three was minimum. Seven, too many.

I had said too much already. But I went on telling her.

I worked to keep it simple, I said. I would have to start each day by making the choice of which items I would count, I said. At first I had to recite them aloud while touching them to assure their existence on my person. I would say belt buckle, pocketknife, handkerchief, shoelace left, shoelace right. After I left home for the day I did this in restrooms, or other places where I could be alone. If they were public restrooms I would make sure to check that I was alone, or wait until I was, then say them and touch them always in the same order.

I would try to say them quietly but I had to say them aloud. Belt buckle, pocketknife, handkerchief, shoelace left, shoelace right. Then I could leave. Usually I hadn’t even used the toilet, I said.

I didn’t tell her that when I began to mumble instead of saying them aloud that I had hoped I could stop finding restrooms or closets or empty rooms. The problem with telling her is knowing where to stop. I told her how hard it was to keep up.

It became complicated, I said. Simple solutions were small items in my pockets, like a marble, a keychain, a pencil-sharpener. The smaller the items, the less I needed to say them aloud. The touching of them then became a patting down of myself, a rummaging around in my pockets with my head down while under my breath I would mumble pocketknife, marble, keychain, pencil-sharpener, then I’d do a quick tap at my belly, to count my belt buckle.

I told her all of these things because I was afraid to tell her everything.

She said, You’re so vulnerable. I love that about you.


when this was the way that i could talk to you.
Because my father worked a lot I didn’t want him to have to drive me long distances. The long distances to where the educators told us, He needs to go. I didn’t want him to have to drive me to the places where they told us, He will fit in, and where they said I could, Be a part of something. Part of something we couldn’t afford. I would never have let him drive me to the places where I could, Normalize. To the places where there would be, Others like you. He didn’t completely understand the words that were told to him by the educators. But I understood the words because they were about me. I assured him they didn’t matter that I did not need to go. And he believed me. Or he pretended to believe me. This was me beginning to work.

Ever since it had become just the two of us my father had begun working the kind of long hours the other kids’ parents did not. And still he would insist on making time to drive me other places. Just anywhere a teenage kid would want to go, he’d say. And I’d let him. Ever since it had become just the two of us, we had driven together, long distances. Gas wasn’t cheap, but he liked to drive. He had driven us the longest distance for it to be just the two of us. When he would drive he was mostly silent. I was mostly silent. He said he would always make time to drive me places, Just anywhere a teenage kid wanted to go, he’d say.

I didn’t have places I wanted to go, but I found places to want to go so I could be that teenage kid and he could be that father who drove me to those places. I’d pick movies. Whenever he was driving me to the movies he would notice.

He would say, What’re you looking at? He would say, What’re you mumbling?

Not questions. But he wanted to know. We couldn’t really afford for me to go to movies, or the gas it took to drive to and from the movies, but I would pick movies that only I would want to see and he wouldn’t. I told him that other kids would meet me there. The movies were good because it was dark and I was not in charge of the lights or the words and the sounds that were so loud they hid my own. But I could only stay to watch if I could find a seat in the back row. If I wasn’t in the back row someone could sit behind me where it would be easy for them to pour disfiguring chemicals on me. My father would not be able to afford my disfigurement. If the back row was full I had to leave. I would walk around outside the theater until it was time for my father to come back for me. I found this to be better than not sitting in the back row. It was work, and it felt better than sitting in a row where I could not pay attention to the movie because all I could think about was being disfigured.


when i don’t hate you for how i am.
Some of the physical Forms are coming back. But she is still sweet with me. She catches me looking at the reflection of myself in the car door window. I pretend to struggle to find the right key, she knows I am not struggling to find the right key. Instead of just waiting for me to finish unlocking my door, which also unlocks her door, she comes around the rear of the car to take the keys from my hands and she unlocks the doors while blocking me from the reflection of myself in the car door window. She learned on her own how to break me free but it doesn’t mean I am not embarrassed. She is sweet. And she is patient with me. Patient for someone, who before me, was not a patient woman.


when the last thing changed for good.
Because I came to manage some Forms, and force myself to ignore other Forms, I did come to work. Work is to function. Enough worked that I was able to move far away from what my father and I had come to call a home. Then my father died while I was far away.

He had met someone after I left. He had been with her for years. He never told me about Charlotte until a few months before he died.

He had told me on the phone, Her name is Charlotte. I have been with her since you left.

He had Charlotte to finally care for him, instead of all the caring he had tried to do for me. Because I had come to work, I wanted to help Charlotte after his death. Except after she told me the details I couldn’t get rid of them.

I think I understand what you are going through, I said. Even though I didn’t.

Charlotte says, The way it sounded was like he had thrown a big book at the wall. He would do that when he was upset, throw things. Not at me. Never at me. I was never in the room. Jim would just go into the room alone and throw things against the wall. There was not much left.

I had never heard anything come from his bedroom. I ask, What kind of things?

Charlotte says, Whatever was around him, I guess. I’d just hear the breaking of things against the wall. She says, Jimmy never wanted me to come in and see what was broken. I’d figure it out later by what was missing. She says, what he really liked to throw was books. She tells me, Books always sounded different than a glass of water, or a clock radio, or a bedside lamp. Books made a thud. From his grunting I figured he was throwing them as hard as he could. Charlotte says, If they were big enough books, the whole apartment shook when they hit the wall. I could always tell if they were just paperbacks, or dictionaries, or if they were encyclopedias.

I had never heard any noises come from his room. I am listening to Charlotte, but I am thinking I had never heard noises come from his room. I try to imagine him sitting up in his bed throwing books one after the other, going through all the stacks that I do remember, covering every flat surface in his room but with most of them stacked within reach around the head of his bed. I always thought he read a lot. But I never knew he owned a rifle.

Charlotte was saying, He would always pick everything up on his own. She says, Jimmy would restack any books that could still be read, and any that were too messed up he’d put into paper sacks in the corner, so I didn’t have to. Your father would tell me not to look at what was in the sacks. If he’d been breaking other stuff he’d vacuum up all the shards. She tells me, When the vacuum turned off or if it was quiet for a while, I knew it was okay to go in and see him.

I remember how many dictionaries and encyclopedias he had kept. I picture him now in my head, raising hardbound Britannicas over his head, with both hands, and hurling them against the wall. I remember always wondering why he needed more than one dictionary. But I never even knew he owned a rifle.

I hurt from his leaving, but I am trying to feel more for Charlotte’s loss. My idea was if I could help her then maybe we could both be rid of this. But her memories increase inside me by squaring their proportion to my own, all to a point that the only thing I can think about is what will inevitably be my failed counsel.

Charlotte was saying, Whenever Jim came across big books at a garage sale he’d buy them. Replacements for the ones he broke up, he would throw them so hard. Charlotte was saying, That’s all I thought it was. Charlotte says, That was the sound I heard. She tells me, I went in because there’d only been one thud. That was the sound I heard. No breaking sounds like glass. And, no more thuds. And, then no vacuuming. There was not much left. Charlotte is telling me, there’d always been more. Charlotte was saying, after a while I got to wondering why there’d been just the one thud.

Charlotte could have just as easily moved on without me.


when I am away to work, again, there’s this other thing.
I have come to make this work. I go away to work. It works as well as it can. It has changed. All I am is somewhere else. A hotel room. A cleanser of life. No longer devoid of all these attachments. I have new ways to keep up. I will call her.

I still splay myself out on the King in less than nothing. I have left the drapes open wide without concern. In these cities no one looks into twenty-third floor windows of high-rise hotels. If they do, I am not much to notice.

In these high-rise hotels there are always thick concrete walls hiding behind wallpaper. I reach for the nightstand and pull open the drawer. No one can hear from one room to the next. Or if they do, they pretend they don’t. Or if they do, they’ll call the Front Desk first.

I grab the Gideon’s and raise it over my head. The Gideon’s is where I like to start. I hurl it as hard as I can against the wall, at the concrete that is behind the paper. Barely dented, the book falls to the soft carpet, with no sound.

All I am is somewhere else. An extra suitcase at the foot of the bed, full of bigger books that will fly harder and louder, placed within my reach. And, I will call her.

And, I say to her, there’s this other thing.

Philip James Shaw writes and directs communications on behalf of organizations working to advance education, equity, health, and the literary arts. He has visually documented his writing process for over a decade at:


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