We moved to the northeast for Renni’s internship and rented an apartment in a New England-style home in Winooski, Vermont, a suburb of Burlington. Excited about the first snowfall, we sledded on a piece of cardboard because we didn’t want to miss the opportunity. We didn’t know so much snow before Halloween wasn’t unusual. It wouldn’t melt for another five months. They piled all the snow into a corner of the church parking lot across the street, and the icy mountain remained all winter. I even learned a new word: “windrow,” which the natives called the snow pushed to the sides of the road. We didn’t use that word in New Mexico. We used words like “tumbleweed” and “dust storm,” which weren’t necessary in Vermont.
Renni spent most of her time at the hospital, and I isolated myself in my so-called “garret.” Didn’t Kafka write in a garret? I wanted to be Kafkaesque. Actually, it wasn’t exactly a garret, but a second floor, 550-square-foot apartment. A resident in psychiatry occupied the actual garret upstairs. But I liked to view myself as the mysterious writer in the old house across from the church. Perhaps children spied on me from the grassy knoll in nice weather, or from behind a snowy windrow the rest of the time, hoping to catch an eerie image as I passed a window. Maybe the only Trick-or-Treater I’d get would be a Marsden doppelgänger on Beggar’s Night. I fantasized that someday tours would wind up the stairs to our apartment. The English majors, voracious readers, agents, and editors on leaf peeping tours would detour to run their fingers across my battle-scarred desk and imagine me sitting there like a hologram. That’s what I did when I visited Mary Baker Eddy’s apartment in Lynn, Massachusetts where she wrote The Science and Health.
The average temperature in January that year was negative two degrees, which gave me a good excuse to remain indoors. The more socially isolated I became, the more I wanted to pull away even more. It fed on itself. These days I’d call it “negative reinforcement,” in that taking something away reinforced me, like a rat leaping off an electrified grid. Taking away social stress—real or imagined—caused my thoughts to run loops without anything to distract me other than the made-up world I wrote about. There wasn’t much external input to disconfirm whatever I imagined, no way for me to reality test against other human beings. I didn’t know anyone in Vermont with whom to measure myself, to quiet my fears, or to ground me. So, I ruminated: What were people from my past thinking about me? I obsessed: What were the locals thinking about me? My inner-voice screamed LOOK OUT they’ll judge you! I related to the protagonist from The Shining, the writer Jack Torrance. All work and no play makes Tim a dull boy. My isolated situation gave space for the old OCD to reassert itself. I thought it was an ideal situation, safe inside, writing, warm and alone, pretty much the exact opposite of my army situation when I was forced to join in groups—except it fueled my neuroticism. I assumed everything I thought was real, when in fact they were only real thoughts. So, when anyone asked if I got lonely I just shrugged and didn’t even try to explain how liberating it was not to have to put up with other people. Did they whisper to each other after I told them I was a so-called writer? Isn’t the logical follow-up question, “What have you published?” Did they conclude that calling myself a writer was just a euphemism for unemployed? Didn’t “writer” mean I was unsure if my car would start? In Vermont no one knew me as anyone other than a reclusive writer with zero publications—unless I counted that poem in high school, that race article that was heavily edited, or my master’s thesis (Leftovers Again), none of which I figured mattered much.
Remember, in theory I understood that isolating a human could be torture, how one could go mad. But I liked it. My isolation wasn’t torture, and my “madness” was so subtle as to be confused as mere introversion. I was reinforced not to endure the judgment of others, plus I got to write all day again like I had in the Knick-Knack house with Gigi the agoraphobic cat. I wanted to place aluminum foil on the windows and hunker down inside.
Finally, in September, I crawled out of my hole for three weeks to become a wild game meat-processer. I flew to Douglas, Wyoming, “Home of the Jackalope.” My relatives had a plant in Douglas called “Tom’s Wild Game Processing,” named after my cousin. Dad had recently retired as a brigadier general, one star. He worked as a distraction while in the midst of an ugly divorce from his second wife, who sometimes became suicidal and fired off guns inside the house in the same bedroom in which my mother had died thirteen years previously. So, for three weeks, Dad and I were “Freezer Boys.” We put antelope meat into the huge, scary cold, walk-in freezer. My goals were to experience the gore of the plant and connect with my father. But when it was slow Dad found things to do, like policing up the parking lot. If someone had to hire either Dad or me they should hire Dad, because he’d get the job done and then find more to stay busy, whereas I’d probably just get the job done and then sit around connecting with people. So, when Dad policed the parking lot again, I got to know my cousin better.
Cousin Tommy was a sweet man who sometimes became psychotic, crashed cars, and generally concerned his elderly parents. But most of the time he was sane, and hunters brought their kills to us, the guts already pulled out on the prairie. Tommy taught me how to weigh the animal, skin it, wash it, butcher it, add a little lard for flavor into the portions we ground into hamburger, and make the rest into steaks. I guess the thing that freaked me out the most was when little boys, eight or ten years old, out on their first hunt, presented us with dead fawns. I greeted them in my orange hunting cap, gory jeans, and a full-length apron like Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Sometimes the boys’ fathers were apologetic. “I dunno why he wanted this ’un,” they said, pointing to a small body about the size of a Schnauzer. There was almost no meat and not enough horn or cape to mount. The boys smirked and looked down at their hands.
I didn’t know why those boys on their first antelope hunt killed the youngest, smallest, and most vulnerable of the beasts. I wasn’t a psychologist yet, and just thought that it was mean-spirited, something I might’ve done at their age, except I drew the line at grasshoppers tossed into barbeque coals. Now I wonder if the boys projected the loathed parts of themselves onto those fawns. Did they hate their own vulnerability so much they wanted to destroy it in other beings, feeling it would somehow raise themselves up? Or did they feel competitive towards the other youthful species, and killing them was their yearning to win their father’s admiration? Was that what I did when I slaughtered other boys in foot races? I don’t know, maybe it really was just mean, something society needs to identify sooner and intervene better, you know, make killing not so fun or necessary for them, or just encourage their fathers to listen to them.
I wanted to help my cousin Tommy more than just listening to how he survived with paranoid schizophrenia. He said not to worry, that he was fine so long as he stayed on his meds and his parents remained vigorous. But the thing was, everyone aged, his dad died, and his mother grew feeble and had to lock away Tommy in long-term care. We need to find better psychotropic medication for people like Cousin Tommy. I experienced him as very authentic. Sure, he lost his mind every now and then, but when he was lucid he was just who he was, with no pretense, which I liked. I mean, here I was entering his world of fresh kills and meat, pretending to be like him, and then I flew back to my pseudo-writer’s life in Vermont. Tommy’s life became an anecdote to mine, and it made me wonder who was crazier, considering I returned to my isolation and neuroticism and decided to try out vegetarianism.