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Flash Reprint: Jerry Dennis’s “If You List Your Fears You Will Vanquish Them”

If You List Your Fears You Will Van­quish Them

Jerry Den­nis


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.


Author’s Note

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.


JerryDennisPhoto.jpgJerry 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.

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