Tearjerker: A Novel
by Daniel Hayes
Published by Graywolf Press
224 pages, 2004
His writerly dreams of fame and recognition having stalled, Evan Ulmer takes matters into his own hands. He kidnaps a renowned editor, Robert Partnow, and cages him in a basement equipped with a television, a treadmill and a Port a-Potty. While Evan shares his sense of failure, Bob reveals his own unsavory secrets, and together they watch the media spin their situation into a lurid tale of abduction and infidelity. Blurring the boundaries between fiction and real life, cunning and sincerity, flirtation and true love, Tearjerker unfolds in startling directions that make the reader wonder along with Evan, "Was abduction a difficult and gutsy endeavor or, instead, the predictable last resort of the desperately stupid?"
In this darkly humorous debut novel, Hayes explores the human reality behind the tabloid headlines and the pathos of failure and yearning in a culture of high-stakes celebrity.
Until I bought one, I'd never touched a gun, never stood in front of a full-length mirror pointing a gun at myself. Bang, bang. Mine was a Magnum .357 purchased in New Jersey, much more handsome than I'd imagined a gun could be.
A gun was tantamount to a secret, I realized soon enough; it required the right coat with a pocket roomy enough to provide a hiding place. A gun was also an instrument of illusion; it had a way of fudging the difference between appearance and reality. In the small town of Sandhurst, New York, where I lived, I probably seemed like just another man taking an evening's stroll through the neighborhood, wearing a long, olive-colored gabardine coat. But was that really the case?
I made a habit of taking such walks, working against the initial trepidation -- the fear that danger might approach if only to create a situation apropos of my secret. There was also a worry about the gun going off and sending an excruciating shot toward my groin. But eventually, as I went walking past the lit windows, peering in for a peek at the familial bosom of my anonymous neighbors, fear gave way to courage. I found myself falling into an almost dreamy state -- just this side of serenity. It made me think of prayer, meditation, afternoon naps. It made me think of the attractive nurse who gave me too much codeine for a third-degree burn to my hand when I was seventeen.
There were nights when I'd return to the house and stand in my kitchen and stare down at the gun, asleep in the palm of my hand. It lay there like some solemn bird with one eye shut, feigning death -- quiet and yet very, very powerful. It held its breath with the best of them. Who knows, maybe I was fooling myself, but I sensed -- in the sheer weight of the weapon -- a gravity, an authority beyond my own. Was I wrong?
How's the bed?
Robert Partnow lifted his head and looked in my direction. Fine, he said.
I see you've chosen the lower berth, I said. Smart choice.
Should I be expecting company? he said -- his eyes rolling upward.
No, no. IKEA just had a fantastic deal on bunk beds. I couldn't resist. You slept well?
I didn't sleep well. I barely slept. I have a headache.
And this when you can afford to sleep, I said -- shaking my head. How many hours do you usually get, Robert? On a weeknight, I mean.
Can I have something to eat?
Of course, I said. I cleared my throat -- a habit of mine, and not the kind of habit I can easily ignore. What would you like?
I get a choice?
It's not a restaurant, Robert, but I've got a kitchen upstairs. I even bought a few items I thought you might like. I bought eggs. I never eat eggs myself.
I don't eat eggs. And don't call me Robert. It's Bob.
Everyone used to eat eggs, remember? Then I gave him a smile -- big, toothy -- but I don't think he saw me. He was looking down again, running a hand through his sparse hair. Obviously, despite my best efforts, he wasn't a happy man.
What about some oatmeal? he asked -- still looking down.
You got it, Bob. Maple syrup, brown sugar, cream, milk?
Nothing else. Just oatmeal.
Sandhurst, a small town fifty miles up the Hudson from New York City, didn't seem like a particularly dangerous place. Certainly not in comparison to Alphabet City, the neighborhood where I lived in Manhattan until my parents died and I came into a bit of money.
But until I had a gun in my pocket I'd never realized that danger was always lurking in the shadows, toying with my imagination, screwing it up. I'm somewhat ashamed to say it, but the gun loosened my imagination. After those evening strolls through the neighborhood, I wrote most productively, even fluidly -- no small feat in the meager world of my psychology. Yes, for once I wrote feverishly. Sentences came out of me like stray bullets.
What is a gun, after all? It's like an umbrella on a cloudy day. You tend to look up less. And so my mind had the luxury of wandering. Like a zone outside myself, it entertained wild notions -- including ideas for putting the gun to some higher purpose.
You can scream, you can holler, I said, but no one will hear you. I've soundproofed the basement. Twice. Sound won't travel up, down, right or left. Sound doesn't travel. It gets to the wall or ceiling and stops right there.
You're very proud of this, Bob said.
Do you have any idea just how difficult it is to soundproof a basement?
Personally, I haven't had cause to find out.
Well, it's not easy, I said -- and I began to pace along my side of the chain-link fence. I was feeling a little proud to be finally sharing my secret accomplishment, even if Robert Partnow wasn't the ideal audience. He was still in his mood of recalcitrance, defiance, or what at times I took to be feigned indifference. The Port a-Potty is brand-new, I said -- pointing to the polyethylene booth in the back without breaking stride. Use it at your whim.
I cleared my throat, once and then twice. Your cuffs, Bob, are made of indestructible plastic.
Bob nodded. What's your name? he asked me -- and it seemed odd, right then, that he hadn't asked before.
Evan. Evan Ulmer. | October 2004
Copyright © 2004 Daniel Hayes
Daniel Hayes is also the author of Kissing You, a collection of short stories. He lives in San Francisco, California.
Excerpt from Tearjerker by Daniel Hayes. Copyright ©Ý2004 by Daniel Hayes. ÝReprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, ÝSaint Paul, Minnesota. ÝAll rights reserved.