I can remember her sitting across the kitchen table, telling me to go forward with the project.
“Go ahead, Mark,” she said as she casted her eyes downward. “I approve. I really, really do.” She played with the coffee mug that sat in front of her, letting her nails tap against its ceramic shell. “This is something you have to get off your back, to do and get past. I understand that now.“
She was right. I had been bouncing the idea around for years. I couldn’t shake it. It pursued me like a demon, and I wanted to embrace it badly, in hopes that it would break me out of my creative rut and, at the same time, give me a story to sell—either in the form of a novel to a publishing house or as a multi-part feature story for Esquire or Vanity Fair.
Heck, at the very least, it would make for a fantastic character piece.
It had been three years since my latest novel, Tribal Lands, released, but it had been seven years since the Times had called me one of the literary world’s freshest new voices. Oh, those were the glamour days. My first novel, Red Desert, a crime thriller set amongst the squalor of a modern-day Indian reservation, sold just enough copies to crack the best seller list. Critics praised the story for its inventiveness and wanted to see more of the Coyote Indian Reservation and its tribal sheriff, Joseph” Red Desert” Lakota. And I ended up making just enough money to want to make more.
So, what did I do? I wrote Tribal Lands, a direct sequel. This time, however, the book flopped. The same critics, who had been sending me e-mails, eagerly asking about the status of my next novel, turned on me. They said I had failed to show them any more of the reservation than I had the first time around. They criticized my plot points as being cliché and the characters as being overly one-dimensional.
And, to tell you the truth, after separating myself, from the story and giving it an objective read, the critics were right. My vision of the reservation and all of the tribal members living within its borders had failed to mature. With Tribal Lands, I brought nothing new to their story.
I guess that’s what happens when you’re just looking to cash in.
After Tribal Lands flopped, my publishing house decided that I was a one-hit wonder; they thanked me for my services and sent me on my way. My agent, David Lipowski, still believed in me, but every time I proposed a new story idea, he said that he could name at least five popular books with the same premise at its heart—and then he would ask about the book I had talked about writing right after I had finished reviewing page proof for Red Desert.
David. Maybe I’ll blame all of this on him.
When Red Desert first published, Sarah and I were newly married. We had met in school. She was a psychology major and I was an English major. We met in Psych 101. It was her freshman year; my senior. The class was one of the last electives I had to take in order to graduate. What better way to learn about the different kinds of people you want to write about than by taking a psychology course, right?
Despite my lack of seriousness regarding the class, Sarah and I started dating. We married after five years—and eight months after the wedding, Red Desert published.
When it hit #10 on the best seller list, we celebrated with a dinner at one of the city's finer restaurants. She surprised me with two tickets to Paris. I, on the other hand, surprised her with two tickets to Disney World.
Perhaps I should’ve known then and there.
Shortly after I finished with Red Desert, I first began developing my next story idea—and it had nothing to do with what would become Tribal Lands. However, I still wanted to write a timely story—and one that had a message, too. With Red Desert, I was able to expose a large amount of people to the issues found within the country’s many Indian reservations, where money, drugs, booze, and just about any other societal blight you can think of run rampant. I wanted to do something similar with my next book, to bring to light another modern day evil.
However, in order to craft the story properly and make the people and their dilemmas come to life, both for myself and the reader, I knew that I’d have to immerse myself in the world I was writing about for a time. For six months—at the very least—I’d have to live within this world and become a natural part of it.
And when you’re talking about a story set amongst the homeless, well, let’s just say that I don’t think any sane person wants to walk away from his new wife and suddenly impressive bank account to go live on the street like a vagrant.
But that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to leave home with nothing but my driver’s license and fly to another city—a city nobody knew I was headed to. I wanted to kiss my wife on the lips and say good-bye to her for six months. I wanted her to trust that I’d be okay and that in about six months I’d place a phone call asking her to come and get me, wherever I happened to wind up.
When I first thought of the idea, I knew how much I’d be asking. Yet I asked anyway. Sarah’s first reaction was to slap me across the face, and then came the tears. She couldn’t understand how I’d want to leave her, how I could want to be away from her for six months and live like a vagrant.
I understood her reaction perfectly. She loved me, and we were just starting out. Many marriages don’t survive the first few years—and that’s without one of the individuals in the marriage skipping town and literally disappearing for half a year.
So I put the idea aside. And then my royalties for Red Desert started coming in, and they were nice. We bought a new house, gifted cars to each other, and began living the life of the newly successful.
Yet I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. It sat there, and every so often I’d mention it to her, half-kiddingly, of course. “Hey, Sarah, I’m gonna pack my bags tonight and set out in the morning. It’s time I get to write that book.”
But when Tribal Lands flopped and my publisher let me go, my little homeless project was the only idea I had sitting in the well. And it had been festering in there, getting bigger and gnawing at me. It wasn’t just a story that I wanted to write—it became a story I had to write.
One morning, after tossing and turning all night, I told Sarah that I was going to leave and live as a homeless person. I had been depressed about the reception to Tribal Lands, and she had been pretty depressed for me, which is why I think she gave in. She told me that I could leave her, as long as I promised to come back to her.
I promised, and a week later, with just my driver’s license, a plane ticket, and the stuffed bear she had given me while we were dating, I was gone.
For the past six months, I’ve been homeless. I’ve ate meals from trash cans, gone showerless for weeks at a time, been in more than a few fights, gotten arrested multiple times for trespassing, slept in cardboard boxes, and had more than my fair share of lukewarm meals at the local soup kitchen. As I write this, my hair is long and unkempt, and if you search hard enough I’m sure that you could probably find a chicken bone in my beard.
The last six months sucked. More than you’ll ever know. More than I can put into words right now, that’s for sure. The people I met, the stories they shared, and the incredible love they have for one another…just, the next time you see a homeless person, don’t look past. Remember that there’s a person in there. Over the course of six months, I had to remember that about myself from time to time; otherwise, the madness that I had seen and experienced in some of the others I was sharing the streets with would have surely overtaken me as well—and I knew that I was going home. Most of the other people I met during my time on the streets hadn’t known what a home was for a very long time. I was the lucky one. I was the one who had decided to be homeless and who could’ve decided to pull the plug on the experiment at any time.
But I’m home. Or, at the very least, in the city I call home. Instead of calling Sarah like I said I was going to do, I hitched my way back, figuring that there are all kinds of levels of homelessness—and in one of those levels are the vagabonds who travel from city to city, on a constant search for something they’ll probably never find, hitchhiking their way across their very own dreamscape.
I thought surprising Sarah would be a treat. Her, expecting a phone call from me, but instead getting me in her arms, holding her, kissing her on the cheek, and telling her that I never want to be away from her ever again.
That was my plan. As I was walking up to the front door of the house, I began to shake from nervousness. I was so close to her I could barely stand it. All I wanted to do was get inside and be with her. Look at her face, hear her voice, and just be with her.
Just as I was about to ring the bell, I looked through the ridiculously expensive stained glass window that we splurged on while still euphoric from Red Desert royalties. I saw Sarah in there. But I also saw someone else. Someone I didn’t recognize, on the couch with Sarah on top of her.
Tonight, I’m still homeless. I’m clutching the bear she gave me all those years ago, in some unknown alleyway, and I’m crying—and I really don’t know what to do.
I’m homeless and it’s my damn fault.
Stop looking at me that way. Fucking stop it! Stop looking at me that way or so help me I’ll shove this fucking bear down your throat. I'll cut you, mother fucker. I'll cut you good. Open you right up and watch you bleed.
Oh God. It’s happening. The Madness, the fucking Madness, it’s happening.
What the fuck have I done? What have I done, Sarah?
am I the villain in all of this?