He did not own much, nor did he care to. His life was what he thought suited him. He lived in a one-bedroom walk-up on the north side of Chicago, conveniently unclose to shopping, entertainment and transportation. He did not own a car. He did not have a real job. He was medically retired from the U.S. Army after an unremarkable career that was punctuated, at the end, by the murder of his wife by a next door neighbor, who was also an unremarkable soldier up until the moment he decided that Yermilov’s wife had to go.

Yermilov preferred not to dwell on this, but did so anyway.

His possessions included a record player that had set his father back $50 in the 1950’s. He also owned a collection of jazz and pop records from that era that his mother had collected. He considered one of these records irreplaceable, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, which was almost always on the spindle, ready to go. He placed the stylus on the record. The music warmly washed over him. He turned the volume down and poured himself a cup of coffee.

“Time to not write,” he said to himself. He booted up his laptop.

After the first of his three suicide attempts, Yermilov, a man who did not think of himself as artistic, found himself in front of a typewriter in the VA nut hutch. Someone had left an IBM Selectric out, alongside a slab of typing paper, in hopes that one of the busted-up war veterans would clack out his heroic life’s story. Instead, Yermilov sat down and began writing a science fiction novel.

In it, NASA had built a massive space station that filled the night sky, aimed at a place that SETI had discovered to be emitting signals. This space station was meant to give us the ability to communicate with the beings there. Part of the structure was a dish that also acted as a transmitter.

What humanity found was heaven itself, along with the Lord God who asked humanity why it was pestering Him. Humanity answered back that it would like some questions answered. The Lord God said, “Why? You already have my representative on Earth—the Pope.”

The hero of the novel was Lieutenant Colonel John Hardwood Dash, an astronaut, Army chaplain, amateur physicist and nuclear engineer, gun enthusiast and Catholic priest. He was large, muscular, square-jawed, brutally handsome and gung-ho about his celibacy.

Yermilov based him on the chaplain who came to visit him in the stockade after his wife had been murdered. This chaplain urged Yermilov on a daily basis during his month of internment to confess to the crime he had not committed.

Much more nonsense happened in the novel, all of it reflecting how little Yermilov cared for the Catholic Church and for the United States Army. It was meant to be satire but, people being what they are, it was not received as such.

Yermilov sent the novel, The Mystery of Faith, on a whim to Being In Light, LLC, a publisher of Catholic religious tracts in Squareville, Iowa. Instead of the hearty fuck-you he’d been hoping for, he’d received a gushing letter of acceptance and a five-thousand dollar advance.

To his shock, the paperback sold 100,000 copies.

The publisher then told him that the book could be made into a trilogy. And gave him an obscene amount of money in advance to do so.

He was on the third book of the trilogy now, and was running out of ridiculous science fiction tropes to lean on. In the course of the first two novels, Lieutenant Colonel Dash had led humanity to victory after an invasion by a wicked planet of lizard men, and then invaded that wicked planet, which was led by an Amazon lizard woman named Zorga the All Powerful, with a division of cavalry/Jesuits and had converted the grateful lizard people to the One True Faith (after destroying their cache of rectal probes). He had a robotic sidekick named Sparky, who envied every human for their soul. He was tempted by purple, bare-breasted women in loincloths, and had successfully resisted. He confused, with logic of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the writings of Saint Augustine, an all-powerful computer (Monolith One) that had threatened to take over the world. Dash survived being zapped by shrink rays, slipping into other dimensions, an alien bursting out of his chest, and removing a mind control chip from his brain using only a heretic’s fork. Dash developed the ability to become invisible, leapt into a black hole to fight one of Satan’s minions, and invented faster-than-light travel after ten days of wandering through the desert in the aftermath of a spaceship crash (caused by an unrepentant Lutheran). Dash was the only crash survivor—and dropped to his knees and prayed to Saint Anthony of Padua for strength.

Actually, no—Dash did not invent the hyperdrive. Saint Paul appeared to Dash and handed him the schematics, written in Aramaic on papyrus.

But Dash could take credit for inventing Barber Shop Quartet mass as a healthy American alternative to Folk mass.

So here was Yermilov, on book three of the Mystery of Faith trilogy, shit out of things to mock.

“Why the fuck am I awake?” Yermilov asked the dog.

The dog, a Pomeranian named Bad Ass Motherfucker, or Bam, puffed and wagged his rear-end in reply.

His first suicide attempt occurred on the fifth anniversary of his wife’s murder. He’d decided that morning to go for a walk. The walk turned into a trip on the El, which turned into another walk, which turned into him diving head first off the end of Navy Pier into the clear, blue waters of Lake Michigan.

It was Christmas Eve. He could see vapor trails from passing jets crosshatching the high sky above him.

He figured that it would take only a few minutes to freeze to death. At least that was what he hoped. The thought going in was that freezing to death would be pleasant. He didn’t get to find out, as an off-duty firefighter leapt into the frigid great lake and, with the help of like-minded good Samaritans, helped save him. He should have known better than to try to kill himself on Christmas Eve in the Midwest. He was quickly wrapped in a space blanket, as was the off-duty firefighter. Both were whisked to the nearest hospital, where the firefighter was interviewed by a dozen members of the press.

Yermilov was interviewed by a shrink, who quickly checked off a box that said he was a danger to himself, but not others. A city social worker discovered that he was a veteran, and off he went to the VA nut hutch.

The VA shrink, having read his history, asked Yermilov why he felt the need to kill himself.

“I don’t think I need a reason to kill myself,” Yermilov told the shrink. “I think I need a reason why I should endure my continued existence.”

The shrink pointed out that Yermilov was thirty-five and had his whole life ahead of him.

“My point exactly,” Yermilov replied.

The heroic firefighter made a habit of calling him every Christmas Eve, now five years running, mostly to congratulate herself for saving him. Yermilov attempted to be gracious, but he was not good at it. He sat staring at the phone, waiting for her call. Call number five. Here it comes. Ring-a-ding.

“Mr. Yermilov,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “It’s me! Cathy!”

“Hello, Cathy,” he said.

“Just wanted to make sure you’re okay,” she said.

“I’m fine,” he said. “And you?”

“Just super,” she said. Her voice grated on him with its relentless good cheer.

“That’s great,” he said. “Thanks to you, I have another year under my belt.”

“You’re welcome!” Cathy said. “I read your books again this year! They are inspirational!”

“Thank you,” Yermilov said. He hung his head. The dog bounced around him, thinking that he was talking to him. “Down, Bam,” Yermilov said.

“What?” Cathy went.

“Just calming down my dog,” Yermilov said.

“Aw, that’s sweet! What kind of dog do you have?”

“A furry football,” Yermilov said.

“I’ve never heard of that!”

“It’s a joke,” Yermilov said.

“Oh! Ha, ha!”

“Yes,” Yermilov said. “So, anyway…”

“Merry Christmas to you!” Cathy the firefighter said.

“And to you as well,” Yermilov said.

The day after he walked out of the VA in the wake of his first suicide attempt, he took another run at self-murder by swallowing all of the pills that had been assigned to him. With his stomach crammed with happy pills, he crawled into bed, pulled up the covers and closed his eyes. He imagined himself dying in his tiny, one-bedroom apartment. He imagined that the only way he’d be found would be by the scent of his decaying corpse wafting through the building. He felt no need to write a note.

He was disappointed when he woke up the next morning. At least he felt refreshed, he thought. He found the beginnings of the manuscript he’d begun while in stir, read it, and then typed it into his computer. After that, he continued working on it. It was like building a ship in a bottle. It kept him busy. Within four months, it was complete. He printed it out and mailed it off. It was accepted for publication, which was not what he’d wanted at all.

While looking over the galleys for his first book, he decided to turn on the gas in his apartment. Twenty minutes into his third suicide attempt, he decided to turn off the gas, open the windows and turn on a fan. He didn’t want to kill everyone in the building. He didn’t know any of them, but then again, none of them had murdered his wife, so it seemed like bad form to take them all with him.

He skimmed through his book again, now compiled in a near book-like format. He didn’t want to change a thing, and sent an email to Chet, his editor, saying as much. Chet was enthusiastic to the point of being unnerving. Yermilov had no intention of ever meeting him face-to-face and hoped that Chet would not decide to drive to Chicago from Iowa. The thought made Yermilov consider packing up his few possessions and the dog and moving, possibly to an island.

Chet did set up Yermilov with an agent, a Chicagoan who was the only person from the literary world to ever meet Yermilov face-to-face. Sandy the Agent advised Yermilov to keep it that way. “You’re terrible in person,” Sandy the Agent told him. “Skip the book tours. No one will want to buy your books after meeting you.” Sandy the Agent was the one who advised Yermilov not to put his face on the cover of his books. “Get a nom de plume.” Yermilov skipped that advice. Sandy the Agent took him, on occasion, to indie rock shows at the Empty Bottle, Schubas, the Double Door, just to, as Sandy the Agent said, air him out. With enough beer and weed in her, Sandy the Agent seemed like a fairly decent woman. She may be pretty, he decided on more than one occasion. Yermilov couldn’t tell because he refused to look at her in that way. He filed her away in his head as: Nice, But Do Not Get Too Attached.

He peered into the mirror at himself after the gas evaporated and blew away. His unremarkable face was still young, but his hair had gone patchy gray. If he dyed his hair, he could probably pass for someone in his mid-twenties instead of thirty-six, he thought. He decided not to dye his hair.

Seemingly overnight, but really a year later, he became one of the most famous living American Catholics who was not an ordained priest or Mother Angelica.

Five years later, Yermilov had not yet met Chet, and Chet was not nearly as enthusiastic as he had been at the beginning. Chet, in fact, was a bit annoyed with him over his inability to finish the final book in the trilogy.

A dedicated coterie of fans who actively hated Yermilov gathered online on a message board called, “I LOVE MYSTERY OF FAITH, & HATE WILLIAM YERMILOV.” Yermilov perused this message board, simultaneously digging the hatred and hating the haters for being wrong-headed about his books. The fans of the series called themselves “Mysterions.” They all thought that he was dragging his feet on finishing the final novel. Some suggested that Yermilov himself was not qualified to be writing the series, that someone else should finish it, and that maybe Yermilov should be quietly put out to pasture if-you-know-what-I-mean.

Winky face. Smiley face. LOL.

 

Yermilov lived in an apartment building situated next to a massive Catholic cemetery. Troops from the Civil War were interred in there, alongside 21st Century corpses. Their souls danced the hokey-pokey together on the head of a pin.

At the other end of the street, a diamond-shaped sign, yellow with black letters, declared “SLOW AUTISTIC CHILD.” Slow Autistic Child lived in the apartment adjacent to Yermilov. He could hear Slow Autistic Child making his experimental moaning noises every morning through the wall he shared with his neighbor, usually 8-10 a.m. Yermilov’s assumption was that Slow Autistic Child was then delivered by Long Suffering Mommy to a holding facility with other Slow Autistic Children, where a Well-Meaning Person sat with them and attempted to turn them into facsimiles of functioning people. Yermilov imagined Well-Meaning (and Thoroughly Underpaid) Person going slowly insane. Normal children were bad enough, with their self-absorption, borderline psychopathic behavior and continuous incoherent babbling. Yermilov could not imagine—

If he lived in a shitty novel or movie, he thought that he’d end up meeting Long Suffering Mommy and Slow Autistic Child in the hallway one day and eventually learn to love again. “Over my dead body,” said Yermilov, chuckling.

Some days, like today, he did not bother to shower and shave, dress himself, brush his teeth. On these days, he tossed a wee-wee pad on the floor and let Bam tinkle and shit there instead of walking him.

Yermilov experimented with attempting to write. He sat in front of the computer, listening to the hard drive whirring and clicking, typed a few words into a document titled, “Book Three (Last One),” deleted those few words, looked at pornography online, weighed whether or not he had the drive to masturbate, decided against it, and passed out on his bed.

He awoke in the dark.

He realized that he was hungry, and that he’d neglected to buy food yet again. He’d whittled down to 135 pounds. When he’d been in the Army, he weighed in at a healthy 170.

He found a bag of ice inside his freezer and crunched on the chips, and then went back to bed.

John Sheppard served four years in the United States Army as an Illustrator (MOS 81E). He was honorably discharged after Gulf War I. He went on to receive an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Florida, where he studied under Padgett Powell, Marjorie Sandor and Harry Crews. He has worked as a grill cook, web site designer, junk mail writer, small town newspaper editor and civil servant. He lives in Chicago.

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