This is me, John Sheppard, not some writerly pose. This is me talking, so listen up, take a knee. I have something to say directly to you, without the mediating booze called fiction.
Twenty years ago today, on May 27, 1992, my little sister Nancy was shot dead in a Pizza Hut in Brandon, Florida along with a co-worker. That day was my mother’s 54th birthday. I’d moved in temporarily with my mother in between stints at grad school. I remember a lot about that day 20 years ago—and the weeks, months and years that followed.
I remember answering the door and the uniformed male cop accompanied by a plainclothes female cop who asked to speak to my mother. I remember my mother’s scream. I remember calling my brother Tom up, he was at work, and having to tell him that Nancy was dead.
I remember Nancy’s husband. I remember him being acquitted by a jury of his Florida peers, and seeing a breakdown of how his attorneys managed to do it on “Eye to Eye with Connie Chung.” I remember Nancy’s three kids, who I hope have somehow managed to grow up to be like her.
All of this I’ve written about, over and over and over, hoping each time that I write it, this will be the last time and somehow I might achieve this closure guff I hear people talk about. Closure. That would be some kind of all right.
But there is no closure when you write about death, about the absence of someone who was…
I don’t even know where to begin to describe who and what Nancy was, and continues to be, to me. We grew up together as a matched set of two people. She was my best friend. I didn’t make friends as a kid because I didn’t need friends. I already had one, and one was plenty. All that either one of us had to do to communicate with the other was arch an eyebrow, or cluck a tongue. She is the measuring stick that I use to judge other people. She was…
I hear a joke and I think, she would think that’s funny and I want to tell it to her. I ache to tell it to her here in the now, twenty years later. I write because of her. Everything I’ve ever written is for her entertainment, even though the intended audience is no longer present. Before her murder, I never could have imagined life without her, and I still can’t, and yet here I am living that life with her absence lingering nearby, always.
It’s not just her absence, it is also my failure to protect her. A big brother is supposed to protect his little sister. What could I have done differently? Shouldn’t I have known that something was wrong?
Since what should have been Nancy’s 45th birthday last November 1, these thoughts, that I had kept mostly hidden from myself, became more aggressive.
So what do I owe her, she who is absent but always nearby? How do you honor the dead, if you are the one who has to go on living? I tried to answer that with Small Town Punk, by painting a portrait of her as a living, breathing, completely alive and complete human being. Snarky, funny, flawed. Even people who hated the book loved the character based on Nancy: Sissy. I always have a copy of Small Town Punk nearby because she is inside it. I press that book into people’s hands not out of egotism, but because I want them to meet her, my sister… my best friend. I want everyone to meet her. In that way, she can live on in their minds when I am dead and gone.
I wrote Small Town Punk ten years ago, finishing shortly before the tenth anniversary of her death.
Since then, my mother Rita died a horrible, painful, prolonged death from cancer.
I entered into a doomed marriage.
Near the end of that marriage, I had become overly sensitive to sounds, especially the canned laughter that comes out of TV shows. It unnerved me. In the tiny condo where we lived with my wife’s sister and her cats and our dogs, the TV never went off. I felt caged, trapped. I wrapped pillows around my head. I took ungodly amounts of Tylenol for my cluster headaches, which were almost a daily occurrence.
I need silence. I need alone time. I need to be sequestered within myself.
People and their nervous constant talking got to me, too. In the basement office where I work, there is incessant chatter all around me all day long. It’s a sensurround of logorrhoea—it’s not sane or right to continually have a stream of words and sounds vomiting from your mouth. The weather and comic strips and braggadocio and sports and senseless vendettas and golf tips and singing along with the radio and random bird-like noises… it’s endless. What I hear in their voices is a deep fear of what might happen if they don’t fill the silence with their nonsense. It’s that fear-tremble in their voices that grinds on me more than the noise itself.
I lost thirty pounds on purpose in 2011. At the beginning of 2012, I lost another twenty. Not on purpose.
A friend from work and his spouse took me in after I left my wife. I lived in their basement for a few weeks before I rented my apartment. They fed me, washed my clothes, lent me money, bought me an inflatable bed, lent me household goods. Their kindness touched me.
Shortly before I left my wife, a woman I knew from my job and respected as a hard worker, befriended me. She was going through her own horrors at the time, both medical and personal, but decided to reach out to me because she is a kind and decent person. She talked me through all of this. I don’t talk to people, but she somehow pulled the talk out of me. She made me forget, in the times we were together, that I was supposed to be sad. She is much younger than I am, but wise in ways in which I am unwise. She helped me realize that I am a better person than I think I am, and that I owe myself a good life and that starts from the inside. Circumstances intervened and she left here about a month ago.
I want her to do well—more than anything. I think she will.
Those few who actually know me know that I am someone who keeps the tender emotions—joy, sadness, love—hidden. I find it unseemly to display them, even though they are in there, waiting for their moment.
Another thing: I could be on fire, the flesh melting off my body, and I would tell people if they asked, “I’m fine.” It’s my automated response to any inquiry about my well-being.
That said, I’m fine—really. I feel pretty good about myself and about the future.
This Sunday morning here in Chicago, there is the sound of the L trains clacking, my neighbors arguing, birdsong in the predawn hours, music blasting from open car windows… but mostly there is silence. Wonderful silence.
It is not lost on me that this is Memorial Day weekend.
I took my mother to lunch at the Palmer House downtown once many years ago. This was before Small Town Punk came pouring out of me, before I got married, and, obviously, before Mom’s fatal fight with cancer. Mom, while getting sloshed on Manhattans, said, “Look around you. Look at all these people. Who knows what they’ve been through? Who knows what they’re going through right now?” She always made me imagine other people’s pain, even if that pain was only in her imagination.
So, to get back to my question, what do I owe Nancy—my sister, my best friend? My life. If she is not here to live then, damn it, I’ve got to do it for the both of us. I don’t know what this means, but I’ll figure it out.
Now that In Between Days is finished, I’m done with all this death stuff. I am giving up writing about dying and cancer. No more nervous loners. (Only confident loners!) No more Army, either. I will no longer mine my misery for stories. That vein is tapped out. I am leaving it behind.