Motherfucker: A Lesson in Ethics

Jared Alan Smith

My inbox has been flooded lately. Between publishing our latest issue, trying to dig up enough money to extend my residency this summer, and building a TV production program model at my school, there has been precious little space for anything other than work. I pulled up my email recently to work some more, and a missive from the address “tempest” sat at the top of the pile. The name that accompanied the address was unfamiliar. She said she was not blaming me, and that she had planned no future action. Her subject line read “from J.E.B.’s mom . . .”

J.E.B. has been dead for over a year.

He was the victim of an accidental discharge, uncontrolled carelessness with unconscionable consequences. I do not know where the shooter, Blue, or any of the other people in the essay I wrote about his tragedy are now. The last time I saw Chrome, he and Aggie had broken up for good, and their daughter Wiggles was being pulled back and forth between them with little regard for the impact it might have on her infant heart and mind. Wiggles is the one I hope is okay; my knowledge of the rest of them tells me they may never be.

J.E.B’s Mother was not in my essay, but my own experience with death makes me think she is still working through it, trying not to let the immense gravity of her son’s manslaughter remain an iron weight around her own neck and the body of her life. I avoided that fate through sheer luck, falling into a torrid love affair with a woman in a foreign country who was willing to unravel the numbed abyss I wrapped myself in after my own father’s death at the business end of a gun barrel. My Pops was compelled to blow a robot out of his brain, and he did it on purpose, which makes my experience less applicable to J.E.B.’s Mother in some way. I don’t think she had the luxury of escapism like my father and I did. Her letter said she only wanted to ask some questions.

IMG_0469

The “fly on the wall” next to me when I opened my email to see a message from my murdered friend’s mother. (Photo Credit: Jared Smith)

What answers could I possibly give her? I wasn’t there, and I had pulled away from everyone who was present at his death as they spiraled further down a road I have seen both the beginning and the end of.

“I am just testing to see if the email address I found in your book is still active. Please don’t hide,” the email read.

The book she mentioned was a chapbook I self-published at the outset of my MFA program, and there are still fifteen or twenty copies at the bottom of a drawer in my desk. I will not be distributing them. J.E.B.’s story was the best of the four I collected, all of which dealt with the pervasive nature of violence in our society. I had handed a copy to a mutual friend hoping that it would get to J.E.B.’s Mother. My inscription inside the front cover read “I am so very sorry.” The back cover was emblazoned with a spider tattoo J.E.B. designed for his birthday and the letters “R.I.P.”

The question of exploitation in writing and the lies that permeate it is being explored in more depth today than ever before, and investigations into libel and slander are as old as the publishing industry itself. I was not worried about any of those things. I only worried that I had hurt J.E.B.’s Mother, reopened a wound she’d been trying to close ever since it was forced apart. In the time between my essay’s publication and the message from J.E.B.’s Mother, I wrote a memoir trying to thank my ex-lover for what she had done to help my growth as a person and a writer. I failed, and instead hurt her so deeply that she can no longer stand the sight of me. She told me I was a liar, unwilling or unable to believe that I had told her what I knew, and that if there was a falsehood anywhere, it was in what I had been telling myself. It was very likely the most loss-filled lesson I have ever learned. The intent of an experiment becomes irrelevant very quickly if the result speaks for itself loudly enough. Despite all that, here I am again, exposing my most sensitive demons in an attempt to win an understanding of them.

Sure Shot Cover

The chapbook I published to honor J.E.B.’s memory. (Photo Credit: Jared Smith)

I felt compelled to tell J.E.B.’s story in an attempt to examine the role of weaponized violence in American pop culture, and to give some meaning to the vacancy his loss had left in myself and his other friends and family. The guns in “The Force Awakens,” the movie J.E.B. and I had been planning to see together before he was murdered, are more obviously playthings than any other movie prop of the same nature that I have ever seen. One of my fellow #MFAotA students has called the movie (accurately) “a white man’s wet dream.” The weapons in that “dream” are designed specifically to be sold to young children, devoid of sharp edges and choking hazards and covered in flashing lights that belie any true tactical application. Disney makes much of its hay on young Americans’ violent fantasies, on peddling the idea that war is the final solution to the problems of a galaxy far, far away, one that comes closer and closer to our present reality with each passing day. Walt Disney himself is on record as having said that “our greatest natural resource is the minds of our children.” I was super precious with my examination of his company’s less-than-fairytale exploitation of those minds, and my editor, Ryan Rivas, did an incredible job of remaining patient with me as we tried to get it just so

Is that social commentary worth it if it means a young man’s mother can’t find peace? Does making people think critically about what they value in entertainment take precedence over one woman’s irreversible heartbreak? Is her re-victimized loss a price that must be paid? I hope not, but I fear I will never grasp how to tabulate the human cost of writing about real life and the lived events within it. Was J.E.B.’s Mother going to ask me “what really happened?” Do I have the answer to that?

“A heroin addict who was very likely high shot your son on accident. He got hooked on it in jail when he was 15, which is around the time he traded in toy guns for real ones. Your son was not a heroin addict. The shooter stayed until the police arrived to arrest him for accidentally killing your only son.”

Nope.

That’s the short of it, but from there the story gets much longer. I’m reasonably certain that there is an essay by my ex-lover likening my mouth and hands to heroin, which means she described sleeping with me as “another type of death.” I find myself unable to divine what that means, as heroin and death both mean many different things. I’m pretty sure the more negative connotations are the ones she was shooting for, which I do not have to tell you hurts like a motherfucker. One of the last things I asked her was whether she was comfortable being the heroine in my memoir. She told me she did not read it that way, and I bit my tongue. Her essay that I am reasonably certain I am in got nominated for a Pushcart because it is indelibly sophisticated, just like it’s author. I registered for the same hostel room we stayed in way back when the other day as a part of my extended residency this summer, and was reminded electronically that it overlooks a place called the Rua Crucifixo.

I click the reply button and my fingers shake a little over my touchpad.

“It’s great to hear from you,” I write to J.E.B.’s Mother. “I would be glad to try and answer any questions you might have.” I can only wonder if it will help.

Lisbon Shadows

“Light Crossed Shadows,” or the streets of Lisbon via Rio de Janeiro. (Photo Credit)

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