If You List Your Fears You Will Vanquish Them
Once he started he couldn’t stop. He filled pages. He couldn’t believe how many. He was afraid of bees. He was afraid of tall people.
When he thought about it honestly, he admitted he was afraid also of police officers and overbearing mothers, of garrulous men named Chuck, of condescending waiters in restaurants.
It was in a restaurant, in fact, that he confided his fears to his girlfriend (she tested safety nets for trapeze artists, traveled to circuses everywhere). He told her about the list. Confessed his surprise that it went on and on. Said he couldn’t stop writing it. That he was afraid to stop. That he was afraid it would go on forever.
She thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. Laughed and laughed. Kicked off her shoes and tried to rub his crotch under the table with her foot.
He was afraid his supervisor would ask him to appear before the steering committee and deliver a report on the status of his division, so he quit his job.
He was afraid of airborne pathogens, ultraviolet rays, and angry young men of color cruising the streets in lowriders, so he stayed inside his house.
He was afraid of surprise visits from neighbors in need of assistance, missionaries, poll-takers, and sly burglars scouting the premises, so he moved downstairs to his basement.
(His girlfriend visited his basement once. It was very damp. She laughed when she discovered poisonous mushrooms growing on the carpet behind the toilet.)
He was afraid of poisonous mushrooms, mildew, rain when it falls in sheets, spiders.
Cats scratching at the window at night.
The pit of despondence, the well of despair.
The gradually unfolding devastations of the seasons as they pass.
Ink as it bleeds into the minute interstitial spaces in paper.
Noise. Silence. Crowds. Solitude.
It was overwhelming.
It was illuminating.
It was curiously gratifying.
(The girlfriend drifted away, married a man who shot himself out of cannons.)
Note: Originally published in Fall 2014, Mid-American Review.
For years I’ve been fascinated with lists and often warm up in the morning by composing them. This one arrived in a rush and filled several pages. And it pleased me. It had that tension between the expected and the unexpected, the intentional and the random, that can make a list interesting and that always makes me think of Donald Barthelme’s delight in “the combinatory agility of words.” I started playing with the list–trimming and sorting, combining and discarding–and at some point it made the jump from wordplay to story.
Jerry Dennis is the author of 12 books, most recently A Walk in the Animal Kingdom (Big Maple Press, 2015) and A Daybreak Handbook: Prose/Poems (Alice Greene & Co, 2014). His short works have appeared in such varied publications as PANK, Michigan Quarterly Review, Orion, Smithsonian, and The New York Times. He lives in northern Michigan and maintains an online presence at www.jerrydennis.net.
FF.Net Editor Commentary (Randall Brown)
There’s a man, making a list that once started cannot be stopped. Pages are filled. Imagine yourself writing such a flash, a man with a list of fears. What fears would you list? In what order would you list them? I fear I’d fail at making such a list work. I wouldn’t include the girlfriend, and if I did, I’d surely not get her job right: “she tested safety nets for trapeze artists, traveled to circuses everywhere.” But where I’d really fail, I fear, is in that listing of the fears, in making “defamiliar” what might instead sound trite. But consider the fears listed here. Each one feels perfectly sound, surprising, & scary good.