Fred’s pops used to call everyone “old sport.” Fred’s pops drank soda and whiskey, or whiskey and soda, every night when he got home from work. Fred’s pops had a loud voice that boomed through rooms like a stereo system. Fred inherited nothing from his pops. He did not call people “old sport.” He did not drink whiskey and soda or soda and whiskey. He did not drink at all. He was allergic to alcohol. He tried drinking when he was in college, but threw up after having had four or five sips of anything, no matter what it was. He wasn’t the sharpest needle in the sewing kit, but he figured out there was something wrong with him and quit drinking entirely. Later, a doctor called his decision a wise one and confirmed that Fred was allergic. Fred’s voice was not loud. It was thin and wispy and went well with his thin neck and poet’s sensibilities.
Fred was what you’d call an aspirant. He aspired to many things. He aspired even when there was no logical reason for him to aspire. Working in the corner store that sold gumballs, candy-bars, coca-cola drinks and girly magazines, Fred had long passed the age at which this kind of job was seen as a stepping stone to bigger, better things. Everyone in town who knew him had already figured out that he was going to be a perpetual local, and they accepted this with gladness. There was nothing wrong with Fred. Helluva nice guy. Not a chip off the old block, people admitted, his pops had had more spunk in him, but still, nothing wrong with a soft-spoken, mild-mannered, effeminate guy like Fred. These days, people said, you had to accept all sorts. These days we’re all really equal, and if we, the people said, don’t want to know how come Fred hasn’t got a girlfriend, well, that’s just letting him mind his own business and us minding ours, isn’t that right?
Fred didn’t know what people said about him. His mother did, because she was a superb listener, trained by the best and brightest of the University of Chicago, where she had attended graduate school and received a Master’s Degree in psychology. She was everyone’s therapist, in such a small town, and she was very good at her job. She never mixed up Bertha from the pharmacy with Bertha who worked at the diner. She never told Todd that his best friend Joshua, who was also a client, was sleeping with his teenage daughter. She was ready for everyone with the same sagging cheeks punctured by her lips curving in a smile and always had a fresh supply of Kleenex for everyone.
Fred wasn’t anything like his mother, though. He often lost his concentration when other people were talking to him and would focus on what he perceived to be the exquisite features of a mulberry tree across the street or the epiphany-inducing colors of the sky. He claimed to love nature, but he didn’t really get out in it. He preferred the tamed version of the town to the muddy, smelly, stinging reality of the countryside.
But why natter on about Fred? All this is merely exposition to what is truly important, which is the day that changed everything for everyone in Fred’s town. The day in question was a windy Wednesday in October. There was nothing at all special or different about it, except that Fred looked around the shop he was working in and, instead of feeling contentment and pride and endless possibilities, as he apparently felt every other day, he felt a sudden melancholy. It seemed to him as if something was peeling off the shelves, as if the candy-bar wrappers were losing their sheen, the gumballs leaking of color.
And for the first time in years, ever since he had come back from a thoroughly mediocre college career, Fred felt dejected.
It was in the afternoon that he was found hanging from the ceiling fan of the store.
It was in the evening that his mother was notified.
It was the morning after that the local newspaper ran the story and an obituary was written out by a man who had been Fred’s friend in high school.
It was a week later that the police department leaked the letters found in Fred’s bedroom. The rejections were cruel and numerous, and his mother claimed never to have seen any of them, as Fred always visited her, never the other way around.
It was four weeks more until the idea to publish everything Fred had ever written and had rejected.
It was a mere six months after that that his mother had managed to crowdfund the project, find a book designer, a product manager, a lawyer and a publisher.
A year after Fred’s very timely death, his book came out. The reviews were mostly terrible, but there was a subset of men and women who believed in his poetry as in nothing else, and, among the literati, Fred became an interesting and divisive figure. He became a new-age Emily Dickinson, a rebirth (and redeath) of Kafka. He became a standard according to which writers everywhere compared themselves, positively or negatively.
If Fred had been alive to see any of these, not as himself but as an observer, he would have scoffed and accused himself of having succumbed to the cheapest and easiest of marketing tools, of being a Sylvia Plath, of being horrendously on brand.


7 thoughts on “Branded

  1. xxxo. I often imagine being found dead and all of twitter very fashionably mourning my tortured misanthropy, and my digital & hard copy scribbles will be published in a series of volumes and I’ll never know. My mother the English professor will buy more books with the royalties and give my boyfriend a very generous allowance because I was too neurotic to stop pushing back the wedding date, so he never became part of my estate. He will release a mixtape about not throwing himself on my pyre, and will get a new, better girlfriend who will marry him in a timely fashion and bear him children and be a good listener rather than make extravagant trifles every night to prove that she loves him because spoken words are far too arbitrary, and she would not wish that he just read her blog so they could analyze film in silence, holding hands. My brother and father will not care. I will have a ghost that visits the handsome boys with the sexy brains from the English department who never slept with me. Those boys will invoke me like a muse.

  2. I wanted to tell you that I incorporated this into a piece that I read at a thing last night, and “Branded” got very distinct gasps and applause. You’re amazing.

      • No, it’s totally fine if it happens, and I really DO appreciate your praise. I enjoy your writing as well (and the comment you left on this piece originally made me smile). But I’d simply feel better about my work being used if it had been requested first.

      • Why? Reblogging my content is totally fine, it’s part of this website’s setup. You said you’d read it aloud somewhere was what I understood, and if I misunderstood, I apologize. I’m sorry if you were insulted, because I wasn’t trying to be unappreciative. I just believe that it’s more courteous to request permission. I would have asked you if I’d wanted to use something of yours. I’m really sorry if anything I said came off as offensive. I didn’t mean it to be.

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