By the Dawn’s Early Light

In which Citizen Jim arrives just in time to witness a heinous act of destruction, while continuously failing to say the name of author Virginie Despentes correctly.

At four in the morning on 4 July I was in the front yard digging a hole four feet wide, four feet long, and six feet deep. I was hoping to finish before the sun came up so my landlord wouldn’t see that I was destroying her property.

I was also trying to finish before it started raining so I could avoid the feeling I was stuck in a lesser play by Shakespeare, waiting for a major character that I’d then have to amuse with a pithy comment or some other form of comic relief.

And thanks to the brain fog of menopause, I was, in addition to all my other endeavors, desperate to finish before I forgot why I was digging the hole. God knew the reasons were becoming less clear with every shovelful of dirt I tossed from the pit to the ground surrounding it.

Then I heard a voice. It was directly above my head.

“I see you decided to finally end it all. But you do know it’s nearly impossible to bury yourself alive, right?”

It was Citizen Jim! And I was trapped like a rat! Which meant I would be forced to let myself be hit by whatever bullshit he was going to sling at me on this day! 

“Or did you finally wise up and decide that you need a bunker to escape from all the antifa and socialists and cop-haters after all?” he asked.

Citizen Jim knows good and well that I love anyone who hates fascists and that I’m a socialist myself and that I was saying “fuck the police” before NWA ever dropped Straight Outta Compton way back in 1988.

How did he always forget these things when it was most important to remember them? Was Citizen Jim also going through the menopause somehow (though I wasn’t sure how)? What kind of holiday weekend was this turning into?

Citizen Jim hunkered down and peered at me from the edge of the hole. “Oh, I get it,” he grinned, nodding slowly. “You’re trying to dig your way to China like you used to do in the backyard when you were a kid.”

I stared at him, my mouth a straight line, nostrils flaring. He didn’t surprise me by reading my body language and backing off. “It’s okay, Stimpy, we all need to hark back to simpler times every now and then. Especially these days.”

“I’m not digging a hole to China. Nor am I building a bunker,” I said. “And I’m not trying to bury myself alive! Help me out of here, you idiot!”

I offered my smooth, hairless hand to facilitate my rescue, but it remained untouched by Citizen Jim’s hairy, ape-like hand. He just kept laughing and laughing above my head. “You insult me then you want me to help you out of a hole of your own digging? You haven’t changed in 30 years!”

I started sobbing. “Please!” I begged, thinking my misery might satisfy him.

“Dry it up, Sister Kristy! I wouldn’t help you out of that hole even if you said you were going to pay me five hundred dollars in cash or a thousand buckets of salted chicken lips from KFC.”

Despite what he said, he did finally help me, but only after pulling me halfway out and letting me drop back down into the hole half a dozen times.

“What are you even doing in Fairhope? Am I supposed to believe you didn’t want to go to South Dakota to ignore social distancing and not wear a mask and cheer for your Dear Leader?” I asked.

“Couldn’t. They won’t let me on the reservation,” he said, then closed his eyes and mumbled, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

I shrugged. “Good,” I said, knowing he would definitely talk about it if I acted like I didn’t want to hear about it.

“Yeah, I tried to join the Lakotas after Janet Jackson kicked me out of the Rhythm Nation. She said I was ‘too grabby.’ Why does she get to decide that?”

“Well, my Irish friend Bridie O’Feckoff-McSlappy would say it means you’re a cunt,” I said.

“Normally I’d tell you that you better never speak to that foul-mouthed Irish slag again. But I’ll let it slide since I know those Irish people are all the time making you cry because you love them so much,” he said. “Anyway, I got kicked off the Lakota reservation after I tried to organize a riot to protest the fact that I couldn’t run for Chief of the tribe.”

“Wow,” I said.

“Who cares? It’s their loss,” he said. “Now, are you going to tell me why you’ve dug this hole or am I going to have to knock on your landlord’s door and ask her?”

I definitely didn’t want him to do that. People are never understanding when you’re destroying their property, even if you’re doing it for a very good reason.

Aye, here was the rub: did I actually want to tell Citizen Jim the truth? I knew telling the truth was also risking his pushing me back into the hole I’d just dug and covering me with the mounds of dirt all around it.

I decided I’d just dip my toe in the water. “Well, as you know, it’s Independence Day—” I started, but he immediately cut me off.

“If you’re about to say that you’ve decided not to write any more Citizen Jim stories because it’s distracting you from writing other things, save your breath,” he said. “We’ve sat in this car at the drive-in before and watched this same movie too many times for me to take you seriously if you say that.”

He was pretty close to the truth but he hadn’t made a move to shove me back into the hole yet. So that was good. Still.

“No, that’s not where I was going,” I said. “Not exactly, anyway.”

“Wherever you’re going exactly, you better hurry up and get somewhere no matter where it is exactly because I don’t have all day and this story is already almost a thousand words and you’re still dithering around without an actual plot,” he said.

I reached into the pocket on the front of my t-shirt and pulled out a thumb drive. “This is what the hole is all about,” I said.

“If that’s a bomb you’re holding, you better throw it out into the street before it explodes because my wife will sue the shit out of you if you kill me so close to her birthday,” said Citizen Jim. “Especially since it’s only a month and two days away and I haven’t hidden her presents in the top of the bedroom closet because I haven’t bought her anything yet.”

I said nothing. This wasn’t my problem or my concern at the moment.

“This little piece of metal and plastic contains every Citizen Jim story ever written,” I said, holding the thumb drive aloft.

“Except for this one, right?” he asked, pointing at the ground.

I rolled my eyes. “Obviously,” I said. “And except for the ones I destroyed in a rage because I was mad at some woman or another. They’re gone forever.”

“What’s gone forever? The stories or the women?” he asked. “Stop trying to confuse me so that you can get away without telling me why you dug this hole.”

“Both,” I said. “The stories and the women are gone.”

“And? You’re still stalling and now this story is creeping toward thirteen hundred words and I’m tired of standing out here getting eaten alive by mosquitoes,” Citizen Jim said.

“The hole is for the thumb drive,” I said.

“You wouldn’t dare!” said Citizen Jim.

“I have to destroy all these stories, Precious Lamb, or they’ll come back to haunt me one day and probably at the worst time.”

Citizen Jim held his belly and laughed until tears slid from his eyes. As he wiped away these tears of mirth and ridicule, he said, “If ‘the worst time’ is supposed to mean the day you finally find a traditional publisher who will actually pay you money for your work—well, your so-called work, let’s be clear—then I think you can just drop that thing in your pocket and fill up that hole so you can get busy putting the whole Citizen Jim canon back on the Internet.”

“I can’t take that chance,” I said. “There are a thousand ways these stories could crucify me as a writer and as a woman.”

“Don’t stop there,” said Citizen Jim. “They could sink you as a gay, as a Catholic, as an American, and as an Earthling, too, but that’s no reason to get rid of them. Every writer gets chased down by a turd-hurling mob at some point.”

“Not every writer,” I said.

“Yes, every single writer since the dawn of recorded history,” said Citizen Jim. “But let me tell you, if every writer worried about it the way you’re worrying, there’d be no books for good people like me to toss onto giant bonfires.”

He had a point, but it wasn’t good enough.

I shook my head violently. “You can’t change my mind about this,” I said.

Citizen Jim sighed and scowled at me so hard that I was afraid his powers of concentration were going to wrest the thumb drive from between my fingers so that he could, once and for all, put an end to my plan to rid myself of the 150 Citizen Jim stories I’d written before this one.

Instead of making any snatching motions, he planted his hands on his hips. “Look, what about that French guy you’re so hot to read? Vertigo Dysentery or whatever the fuck his name is,” Citizen Jim said. “Everyone hated his books for a long time, and now he’s the new écrivain de l’heure, right?”

Actually, she was the écrivaine de l’heure, but I wasn’t surprised that Citizen Jim decided that any writer of the hour would have to be a man. I let it go. I was tired of the mosquitoes, too.

“I know, I know! Virginie Despentes proved once and for all with some of those characters in Vernon Subutex that you can write from the point of view of a racist or a wife beater or an entitled rich asshole without being one yourself. But—”

His arm shot out and cut the air to hush me. “I know what you’re going to say.”

No he didn’t.

“No you don’t,” I said.

“Yes I do. You’re going to say that the difference is that Veracity Doolollie is a real writer, but you’re just…”

He paused, squeezing his eyes shut and tapping his forehead with one finger as he tried to think of the most hateful, insulting thing he could say about me. He shrugged and shook his head, a silent admission of failure. “Anyway, you’re whatever a sad, worthless, washed up writer-wannbe-but-never-will-be is called these days.”

I had to hand it to him: when it comes to saying hateful, insulting things to me Citizen Jim is the best there’s ever been. “I guess you’re right,” I said, and smashed the thumb drive full of Citizen Jim stories between two bricks before throwing the pieces in the hole I needed to refill before the gleam of the morning’s first beam.