Adults Told Me
1. My science teacher told me that life was slapdash. I talked to him after class sometimes; science was one of the few subjects in high school I was interested in. “God’s plan my butt,” Mr. Burke said, slurping coffee. “Evolution is flukier than the weather. Would a divine plan really include cockroaches or alpacas?” I laughed uneasily. Slapdash didn’t sound so great.
2. My mom told me that alcohol was bad. That drinking was okay for upbeat adults like her but not depressed fifteen-year-olds like me. I said I wasn’t depressed. “You poor dope,” she said, tousling my hair. “Of course you’re depressed! Your father abandoned you. You live in the shadow of your sports-star brother.” I winced; I hadn’t felt abandoned or overshadowed until that moment. She gulped her drink and kept talking about my problems. Her breath was like a bioweapon. My brother and I regularly snuck scotch from her liquor cabinet. We usually got away with it but not always. My stepdad Burt, a drug abuse counselor and recovering alcoholic, constantly threatened to put us in teen rehab. The marriage baffled me. Why would my mom, a cheerful heavy drinker, pick an irritable teetotaler? When I first met Burt as a kid, I felt the full, crushing weight of my parents’ divorce. Burt stank of cigarettes and had a sleazy pot belly and a sneering smile. My dad’s leaving had left the door open to monsters.
3. The rehab psychologist told me I had scattered thinking. Say what? But I didn’t really pursue it. Rehab was devastating. I felt like a boozy loser. I was enraged that my boozy mom had signed off on it. And that my boozy brother had dodged it simply by being older and away at college. I poured my rage into a pool tournament with the other teen patients. But the psychologist, a short, meek, whispery man, kept bringing up the scattered thinking. I soon realized that scattered thinking was code for schizophrenia. Fear swallowed me. I lost the pool tournament. Years later, I thought about tracking him down. But I’d forgotten his name. The internet isn’t magic. You can’t just search for “Psychologist who told me I was insane.” Ultimately, though, the whispery fucker conceded that I wasn’t fully schizophrenic yet. I was sent home and went back to school, to rehab jokes and a cloud of constant, festering shame.
4. Mrs. Janse, my history teacher, told me that I was bright. Her face was a freckle storm. She called me sweetie once. It felt like soothing warm water. But Mrs. Janse didn’t actually know me. She didn’t know that I sucked at football, or that I’d been to rehab, or that I cried every night. She didn’t know that my mom and stepdad were reading a book about mental illness.
5. The psych ward therapist told me the mind evolved over time. “You’re not insane now,” he said. “Will you ever be? Who knows. I mean, you’re only seventeen.” I lifted weights in the rec room. I played cards with a bipolar woman. Unshaven men in reeky robes wandered the halls. Nights were fearsome. I lay awake in my scuzzy room. My ears felt plugged, my head tingled evilly. The darkness felt like it might at any moment unleash sinister voices and visions. I fantasized about suicide the way I used to fantasize about Mrs. Janse. I imagined disintegrating in smoky, scalding lava. On my last day, I asked the therapist if God punished people who killed themselves. “I’m an atheist, kid,” he said. “I don’t believe in that stuff.”
6. My stepdad told me to kill myself. “Just do it already,” Burt said, lighting a cigarette. “Stop whining about it.” For a brute, he was conspicuously wimpish and lazy. The couch was his kingdom. His stomach bulged, his limbs were ghoulishly frail. Burt watched sports but couldn’t have jogged more than a single wheezy block. His hearing was hilariously delicate. He liked soft jazz. He wouldn’t let me shower before school because it would wake him up.
6a. Burt told me I wasn’t abused. I told him I never said I was. “Maybe not,” he said, “but you sure act like it. Wah wah, I don’t feel well, my head hurts.” Big talk coming from a guy who constantly griped about his heartburn. Burt was the only person I ever considered killing. I pictured choking him until the skin broke and blood spurted out. Now graduated, I lived at home and worked at a drugstore. At Burt’s funeral a decade later, I said kind things that I instantly regretted. Death makes us too forgiving. Sure, Burt had a mellow side, and could be fun to stream movies with. But his monstrous side was fucking massive. He once locked me out all night for getting home ten minutes after curfew. Over the years, he had called me a punk, a pussy, and a freeloader. He had flung green snot at me and viciously stomach-bumped me. In his old age, he started drinking again, blithely saying that he didn’t believe in alcoholism anymore. If I could subtract one person from my life, it would be him. Or me.
7. Sheila, the massage therapist at the free clinic, told me that we choose our lives completely. That our soul selects its path before our birth. I didn’t buy it. My life was like a losing poker hand that I had to play out. Why would I choose this? Even so, I wondered if it was all my fault somehow. Stability was still years away. I was nineteen and lived in my car. I cried and drank and hated myself to sleep. Sheila was great, though. Her voice was like pink roses. Her hands dug into my body as if my tension were her personal enemy. She put peace into me.
Mini-interview with Mark Benedict
HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?
MB: Music has shaped my writing as much as books have. I want to write stories that have the quality of songs. I want my stories, even the downbeat ones, which many of them are, to have some sort of pop kick or punk charge to them. I want them to be fast and dark and catchy.
The author David Hollander was one of my teachers at grad school. He really got my musical intent and really encouraged it. That was huge for me. Beyond that, though, Hollander is just an all-round awesome teacher. Enthusiastic, inspiring, awesome. More versatile than the typical MFA instructor. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve had a lot of good writing teachers, at grad school and elsewhere. Some teachers, though, seem to have a firm grasp on only a few kinds of stories, and if your work doesn’t fit their templates, they’re a little lost. But Hollander can roll with anything. His frame of reference is vast. He’s a campus legend. He reads the hell out of your work and gives you amazingly lucid feedback. And he’s an advocate for genre, for weird, for experimental.
HFR: What are you reading?
MB: Self-help articles. Essays about writing. My girlfriend’s excellent short story drafts.
HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “Adults Told Me”?
MB: This story is a fictionalized version of personal experiences. It’s fascinating to me, and alarming, how some people can say such nasty, sweeping, often predictive things about others. If you’re not actually clairvoyant, then maybe just, I dunno, shut the fuck up? Obviously, some troubled teens can benefit from an intervention. But when the interveners are inept, reckless, hypocritical adults, things are bound to get worse instead of better. It can be wounding instead of healing.
I recently took a really great horror workshop with the author Paul Tremblay. It was an influence too. Tremblay talked a lot about the elements of horror and also went really deep on the power of ambiguity. Afterwards, I read his novel A Head Full of Ghosts, which is filled with great grisly detail, but also leaves major questions unanswered. I love that. Horror excites me. Ambiguity excites me. “Adults Told Me” isn’t a horror story, although in a way it is. It’s about fear. The narrator is getting seeds of fear planted in him. And I tried to keep the exposition to a minimum. Does this kid have any friends? How does he go from living at home to living in his car? For me, it can be more enticing, and more unsettling, when not all the blanks are filled in.
My favorite song lyrics are often at once both specific and cryptic. They suggest really concrete scenarios but don’t supply much context. I’m always trying to emulate that. The Hold Steady, my favorite contemporary band, have all sorts of songs like that. They’re like old-school story songs, but with one or two expositional, stage-setting verses omitted. I love the mystery, the intrigue, of that. Neko Case writes songs like that too. She rules the world.
In writing “Adults Told Me,” I also consulted a few other numbered-list stories. One is Marcelle Heath’s “Nine Times Gretchen King Is Mistaken on July 12, 1980.” Awesome story! I’ve read it, like, six hundred times. Also, Karen Russell’s “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating.” It’s hilarious. But then, Karen Russell’s body of work is kick-ass all around. Her novel Swamplandia! is a classic of the new century. She’s the best fiction writer in the universe.
HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?
MB: A short story about movies and heartbreak and capitalism.
HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?
MB: America is a great country. But it’s deeply wrong that some citizens are supervillain-rich while others are barely scraping by or not even scraping by. Are we all brothers and sisters, or what? If we are, then that has to take priority over the profit motive and a pure free market. Listen: I’m all for personal wealth. Sincerely. If I ever get rich, I’m gonna hire the Hold Steady to play at my birthday party. There’ll be tacos and cupcakes and occult games. I’m gonna hire Karen Russell to lead the séance. It’s gonna be epic. If you’re reading this, you’re invited. But I’m against even the smallest degree of poverty. And it’s sort of built into our system. Vast income inequality has been there from the start. It’s disgraceful. We need to do better. We need to figure it the fuck out.
Mark Benedict is a graduate of the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. He has previously published in Columbia Journal, Hobart, Menacing Hedge, Rue Morgue, and Tor.com. His publications include short stories, author interviews, and book and movie reviews.