A Fearless Coward

by Antonios Maltezos

I’ve never been more fearful in my life, so full of anxiety and worry. Falling asleep every night has become this whole production, my two pillows a tiny source of comfort if I can only get them to snuggle me just right. Same as when I was a child folding the bottom end of the blanket securely under my bare feet against that cold dead ghoul living under my bed, a quick roll of one shoulder and then the other so I was tucked in tight, so nothing could get at me. I search for Pawn Stars on the TV if Family Guy isn’t playing, American or Canadian Pickers, anything as long as it isn’t Life After People or any one of the Shark Week programs. The darker productions tend to spoil my dreams no matter how low the volume. It’s a fitful, frightful sleep, just on the other side of a complete and total awareness. It’s a Silent Hill kind of sleep.

It’s overwhelming, this constant state of fear, and not much changed from the fear I knew as a child, except back then there were also long stretches of mindless wonder and imagination, a preoccupation with all things new and uncharted, a break between the spurts of fear. Who knew what tomorrow would bring, right? And then BAM! Sprinting for my life ‘cause I didn’t notice there was a dog watching me, sauntering down the sidewalk from its hiding place behind some bushes. There was that, the mad adrenaline burn, the ringing in the ears. And then there was the fear of being tested, measuring up against the unknown. Climbing ever higher, too high, at one point, but you keep on reaching for the next branch, the footholds knocking the wind out of you with every glimpse of ground. Almost there, you tell yourself, a respectable height. But then BAM! Your sickly imaginative mind is cracking branches, peeling your fingers from the bark, berating you for not tying your laces now that your feet are swimming in your runners. And you are falling, even as you are undoing your foolishness one desperate sure foot at a time, your arms coming off at the shoulders, every sweaty grip is life or death, you are falling. Until you step with both feet on that last thick branch. You aren’t falling anymore, but you can feel the ache of your ankles bearing the brunt of your weight, the heaviness of knowing for yourself it did not matter how high you climbed. You jump, knowing full well even before your ankles have collapsed painfully, that you will grovel and kiss the ground. That’s a fear episode. It colors you for life. I’ve climbed. I’ve jumped. Too many times since then. Always that first freaking test of my courage in my back pocket. Can’t shake it. It’s going to get me killed one day. It’ll catch me.

So much fear, or is it fearing, cowardice? Not sure. I do know that there seems to be a limited number of early memories we’re allowed to carry with us ‘til doomsday, and without a doubt, it’s those moments that shocked the nervous system which stand out clearest. There were carefree good times, for sure, but they’re more postcards than anything else, sketches of what it must have been like for most kids growing up through the seventies.

I snuck out of my room one night, vulnerable because of the grainy shadows bugging out my eyes, checking for the slightest movement, and slithered along on my belly down the hall like one of those very same creatures waiting in the dark for me to close my eyes. There was murmur and blue light coming from the living room… the Late Late Movie Feature, and my mother curled up on the big sofa. I was just close enough, peeking out from around the corner, to feel the power of that blue light touching my face. Mom was strict about bedtime, so I didn’t dare slither any closer. I focused on the Late Late Feature she was watching instead. 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi, turns out. Eek! After about five minutes, I started calling out to her in the faintest most vulnerable and cowardly voice I knew to make. M-a-a-a. M-a-a-a. M-a-a-a. Over and over until she finally replied. Why you out of bed? There was something weird about her voice. I think she knew I was there all along, and now that the jig was up, she was trying to mask her own fear. She was only pretend mad. I can’t sleep, I told her. Okay, come here, she said quite easily.

I could go on and on, I suppose, but it still wouldn’t bring me here, to this moment, my fear of getting back to the writing I abandoned some years ago, twisting this essay from one about change, to this, the results of my psychoanalysis if you’re paying attention. And I am.

Whether I was conscious of it or not, every word I wrote when I wrote regularly, when the writing consumed me, I pinched from the life I knew. Write what you know begins to explain it, but it’s been much more than that for me. It’s a way of life. It’s deciding to climb a big tree for no good reason other than to see if you’re up to the challenge, ‘cause you doubt that you are. That kinda makes me a fearless coward. Always have been. Scared of the dark for what I could not see. And I hated it. Moved into the basement bedroom when I was still a kid, only my side of the wall finished in plaster board because who bothered to finish the walls in a furnace room. Lived with that groaning, starting-up monster for years without ever getting used to it. Without ever complaining. Scared of life, basically, is how I would describe myself.

So I wrote from what I knew, revisited the people and places I knew, but not out of any born-with compunction to write. What is that? I wrote because I was easily swept away, swept off my feet by the notion that I could somehow figure things out for myself within the relative safety of make believe. And it worked for a long while. I truly believed, through writing, that there was no such thing as a dead end. There was always reason for hope, no matter how dark the story appeared. And it had to be dark, right, the challenge, the test, near insurmountable for there to be any worthy conclusion. Those years I wrote regularly were postcard years, sketches of a life, literally. Because it’s still only make believe, after all.

Half a dozen variations of cancer I knew nothing about in my youth; a solid basic knowledge of mental illness and the kid gloves that come with it; two aneurisms, both like horrible car crashes; that one nearly blind eye some kids are born with, in the two percentile, hoping and praying the other eye, the good one, be blessed and protected her whole life long. That’s what change is. It’s learning to live with fear. Should she ever get poked in that one good eye, I’ll be there for her, the shadows she captures with that one remaining bad eye a marker for where her world begins, mine. In the shadows. This is where we are. It’s the mid-life, but not really because who lives to be one hundred? No time to grieve. So many more things to deal with, none of which I wish to dig for story. I blocked on the writing because I needed that fearless coward back, not the writer who started to believe in the power of make believe.

*

I left the earth once, my aim to shoot up through the roof of the house like a rocket, so fast only a gaping irregular exit, stinking of molten tar and burnt shingles to prove I’d done it. The outer edge of the maw glowing lava hot, the substrate of the roof splintered and jutting out through the opening like blackened and broken teeth, the whole mess of a wound spitting embers and fuming moonlit billows.


Antonios Maltezos, Editor

Antonios Maltezos

Change Seven editor, Antonios Maltezos studied at Concordia University. He is a former associate editor of Vestal Review. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Night Train, Smokelong Quarterly, [PANK], Foundling Review, Storyglossia, Verbsap, Dogzplot, Thieves Jargon, Slingshot Magazine, Ink Pot, Skive Magazine, Mad Hatter’s Review, Pequin, Per Contra, Story Garden, WordRiot, LITnIMAGE, Underground Voices, Cezanne’s Carrot, Pindeldyboz, Flashquake, Elimae, Eclectica, Hobart, and many other journals and mags. When he isn’t running a tavern-style kitchen near Montreal, Quebec, he is working on a collection of short fiction, Setting Fires, and a novel, A Train Runs Through Here, told entirely through flash.

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8 replies »

  1. It’s weird because I had just started, a few days ago, to think about what I might want to write about for my next column and the topic I came up with was fear. And, here, you write so beautifully, so truthfully about how fear beats through us, from childhood on, how it both drives us to writing and drives us away. The truth is, we’re all afraid, aren’t we? Both in the arena of writing and in so many other corners of our lives. Thank you for this, Tony. It did for me what really great, honest writing should do: it made me feel less alone.

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  2. Wow. Tony, your power of storytelling is such a gift. I fall to the ground, then shoot up straight to the sky with you. Thank you for the inspiration- this lesson in fear, change, and the courage to overcome makes me want to fly– like the escapist dreams of my childhood– my feet pedaling furiously across the meadows, arms spread, and then just at the right moment- jump – up into the clear blue sky, to soar. And soar, and soar…

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  3. Tony, not only is this piece bold and delightful, but it’s also inspiring to those of us who face the same fears, particularly when it comes to writing. It takes a lot of courage to put ourselves out there. I’ve been such of fan of your writing that I wouldn’t have thought it possible a writer of your caliber ever faced bouts of block like the rest of us. I’m so happy you’ve broken through again, and you can be sure that I’ll be first in line to read what comes next. Congratulations. This should make you very proud!

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