Effortless Walls


fiction by James Ferry


I was forgetting to masturbate. Even though the gap between sexual encounters was typically brief, I’d sometimes realize that I hadn’t ejaculated in weeks. I’d tell myself that I’d handle it that night, before I crashed—it has always been, with me, a bedtime thing—but who knew when that would happen? Then I’d pass out, come to, remember that I’d forgotten, and set a new date. (Yes, I was making jerk off dates, standing myself up, and taking rain checks.) And this would keep happening. It didn’t seem normal, and I wasn’t striving for normalcy, but when you realize that you can’t even rely on yourself to masturbate as scheduled then there’s a problem. (Shit, even putting ‘masturbate’ and ‘schedule’ in the same sentence is indicative of a problem.) Eventually I’d just come in my sleep, leaving a stagnant gooey mess to congeal in my dick hole. I wouldn’t even realize until I’d stumble out of bed to piss at some odd hour, and I’d feel a brief sting and stoppage. Then the stream would burst through, splintering off in directions that seemed to defy physics.

Tangentially, I was plagued by these creeping sensations I was having about myself and my place in the world. Apropos of that famous Groucho Marx quote—“I would never belong to any club that would have me as a member”—I realized that I’d been dooming every romantic relationship with the same self-fulfilling prophecy: if she wants me, then there must be something wrong with her. This revelation, though simple in its circularity, seemed a rather sad one. I’d painted myself into a loveless corner.

. . .

Paisley plopped on my couch, making one of her hmmph noises—a poutiness I matched with characteristic languor. This was our routine, the urge to accommodate each other’s idiosyncrasies having long since dissipated. Like an old couple, we just were.

“I broke up with Volkert today,” she said.


“Uh huh. I need a gram and something to help me sleep, if you have anything.”

Paisley had been unemployed for a month and a regular for two years. I considered her a friend (we’d never fucked, oddly, given who we were), but I was tiring of her fragility, what I perceived as her emotions coalescing around her circumstances. A bartender by trade, she bounced from club to club, always meeting a regular who, coincidentally, was always her soul mate. And he was always a Pieces or Aries or Capricorn or whatever he was meant to be. Then things would go sour, and it was always oh well, everything happens for a reason.

Paisley rifled through her Louis Vuitton knock-off, a freshly-lit 100 dangling from her lips. She did this habitually: rather than remove the cig when busy, she’d squint fish-lipped into a trail of smoke. She had crow’s feet at 28. There were post-it notes, tampons, receipts, a traffic ticket, antihistamine, birth control—all on my couch now. Half a roll of Tums rolled onto the floor. Finally she located some scraggly bills and began organizing them.

“Just give me twenty-five,” I said. “That’s cost. And I’ll throw in a Xanax bar for free.”

She looked at me like I’d just wiped away every problem she’d ever have. “Really? Omigod, you’re the best!”

“Yeah, I’m a real pillar of society.”

“Stop it,” she said as if my sarcasm were a ploy. “You’re sweet and you know it.”

She began rolling up a five-dollar bill. “Don’t use that,” I said, “you’ll wind up with Hep C.” I got her a clean straw and settled down next to her, reached for the remote. I must have sighed because she asked if I was okay.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Why, don’t I seem okay?”

“You just seem kind of bothered by something.”

“Do I?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t assume. I don’t really know you.”

This was Paisley. She was the type to let things slip through the filter, no matter how awkward or confounding. “Paisley,” I said, “what the fuck do you mean you don’t know me? We’ve been sitting on this couch together for years.”

She dropped her little straw and sniffled. “You never share anything. You’re a nice guy and everything, Jimmy, but you’re unreadable. You’re like this walled-off person, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.”

I tried to think of people I knew who knew Paisley. They were many. How often had this wall of mine been discussed? “What do you think, Paisley? You think that any of this”—I waved a hand through the air—“means anything? Your stars, your quasars, your Zodiac dating bullshit, you really think the universe has a plan? Well, it doesn’t! We make our own luck and we court our own disaster, and the sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be.” I reached for my pack of cigarettes on the table. “Stop trying to make sense of the chaos.” By the time I lit a cig and leaned back, I could see that Paisley was crying.

This was me. Repelled by criticism, I spun it around deftly, hitting my relief valve, projecting, feeling unjustified in increments, but too swept up—too absorbed—to stop. Now I’d have to apologize, again, for being myself. “Aw Jesus, Paisley, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come down on you like that.”

She wiped her tears. “No, it’s okay. You’re right. I need to toughen up.”

“No, you don’t. You’d be acting tough and that wouldn’t suit you. It’d come across all wrong and you’d be just another phony. And everyone would know, they just wouldn’t say anything because they’re all phonies too.”

We smoked silently for a moment. Then she asked if I’d ever been to therapy. I said no.

“Ever consider it?”

“What am I gonna say to a shrink, Paisley? That I’m feeling unfulfilled as a drug dealer? That I’m experiencing cognitive dissonance?”

She asked if that was a “male-confidence thing.”

I laughed. “Yeah, sort of.”

“Well, if you decide to go, you can tell your therapist anything, you know. They can’t call the cops unless you threaten them or something. It’s against their code or whatever.”

“That’s comforting.”

She went back to her lines. Amidst the purse scatterings on the couch there was a photo, so I reached for it out of curiosity. It was of Paisley and a woman whom I didn’t recognize. They were wearing funny hats and mugging for the camera. Paisley looked very pretty. Not like she did that day.

A short time later, Paisley moved to San Francisco to be with her family. She wanted to start fresh, get clean. Whether she did or not I can’t say. I don’t recall anyone mentioning her after she left. That’s how it is. You leave LA and no one misses a beat. It’s like you were never there.

. . .

I bagged a Xanax bar, sealed it, placed it on the coffee table, and slammed it with the hockey puck. It broke in one whack, looked to be about a quarter gram—way more powder than I’d imagined. But then, I was determined to sleep. And go down quickly.

I dumped the contents onto a CD case, cut two long sleek lines, and braced myself. My passages were raw, but at least used to the coke. Anything else was always more offensive (ecstasy being the worst.) I ripped the lines quickly. There was immediate and brutal stinging. I shouted and hacked and slammed my fist on the table hard enough to topple an empty bottle to the floor. I pounded my beer, and some of it backwashed into my nose as if to put out the fire. It didn’t. I grabbed a scraggly paper towel and blew, causing my inner ear to squeal. (Sinus issues were ongoing.) I shook my head and wriggled my jaw and swallowed, hoping something would depressurize or pop. Nothing did. I curled up on the couch. The last thing I remember is a smug-faced Bill Maher doing his Real Time monologue, and the pain slowly subsiding.

I heard pounding. I thought I was dreaming at first, but then I realized: someone was at the backdoor. I peeled myself off the couch, slipped, and hit the floor. Ordinarily the rug would’ve been there, but I’d passed out with my feet propped up. This would happen occasionally. I’d pass out with my feet on the edge of the table, knees bent, and I’d straighten my legs, pushing the table out, and sending the rug along for the ride. My cleaning lady had just waxed the floor, facilitating the glide and killing any traction I’d have had in stocking feet.

The pounding continued. I stumbled to the kitchen, shouting obscenities the whole way. When I got to the door I removed the two by four, disengaged the deadbolt, and flung the door open violently, causing the knob to gouge the adjacent wall, again. Spackle chipped and crumbled to the floor, again. (This scene would play itself out from time to time, the key variable being the person on the other side.)


“I should’ve known.”

He just looked at me.

“Sorry if I sounded like a prick back there, but you know the rules. What’s with you banging on the fucking door?”

“Sorry, man, but you weren’t answering your phone.”

“Yeah, I was sleeping. I do that sometimes, I think. I can’t tell anymore.”

Gregory followed me, his feet making that wisp, wisp noise. He offered a guttural “Whassup man?” I didn’t answer. He hit the couch, and I went to the office to get the gear.

“Hey,” he shouted, “I got your money.”

“All of it?”


His royalty check had arrived. As a professional recording artist, Gregory had composed theme music for two very popular network TV shows. Despite worldwide airplay, his checks were barely keeping a day job at bay—not a situation I’d ordinarily sympathize with. Cynically, I’d always assumed that artists were inherently whiny, their complaints largely invalid. You’re being paid to make your art, asshole. It’s a gift. Shut up. But Gregory had schooled me a bit.

Having your composition licensed for use on television entitles you to a synch royalty. You get paid every time the music is used, which, with theme music, would be every time an episode airs, and that can mean domestically, overseas, or both. There’s a point system that gets complicated, but the basic problem is this: how can you, the artist, be sure that the information you’re getting is accurate? You’re one guy sitting on a couch in Los Angeles; how do you know how often they’re using your tune in Southeast Asia? The solution is to have your own lawyer—so you’re paying Peter to keep Paul honest, and that’s what it boils down to: either you trust the executives, or you hire a bully who takes a cut. And I understood this because of the multilevel marketing I’d done. The incentive there is to train people and then collect an override, the sales equivalent of a royalty. (This is one of the reasons that multilevel marketing managers fail so often. There’s almost no incentive for the brass to save you; they can just absorb your take.) If there’s one thing that’s true of all executives, entertainment or otherwise, it’s that they hate paying out on the back-end. The advances, the signing bonuses—those are designed to entice you, to get you working. But as an artist you want, and deserve, continued payments on your back catalogue, which, it seems, is always the sticking point.

I handed Gregory the gear, and he handed me a wad of cash. “Ever wonder if they’re in cahoots?” I said.


“Your lawyer and the record company.”

“All the time.”

“Ever crunch the numbers?”

He began tamping his bag. “No.”

“Just as well. You’re probably breaking even—paying the lawyers what the suits would otherwise be stealing. Everyone gets paid, everyone’s happy, right?”

He covered his mouth and hacked into his fist. “Yeah, I guess.”

Gregory’s cough was something I’d always noticed, but he was a pot and cigarette smoker, so I didn’t think much of it. But it seemed to be worsening. “Damn,” I said, “that doesn’t sound good. You ought to go get a steam bath or something. Clear that phlegm out.”

“Won’t do any good. I always got fluid in my lungs, from the cystic fibrosis.”

I looked at him. “From the what?

“Cystic fibrosis. What, I never told you?”

No you never told me! Jesus, are you okay?”

He coughed. “I’m fine. It’s in my pancreas and my lungs. I was born with it. You don’t have to worry, it’s not catching.”

“I’m not worried about me, dummy, I’m worried about you. You have cystic fibrosis? That’s definitely something I should’ve known, something a guy tells his—”

Drug dealer? Friend? I didn’t know what to say. I just put my head in my hands and took a breath.

Gregory and I were closer than people realized. He lived upstairs from Maus, his voucher, and we’d built a friendship when I was living with her, when I was just starting out. We’d spend hours talking about music, movies, drugs, women. For someone who’d toured the world on a major label, Gregory was extremely humble. He wasn’t one to gossip or brag, but I’d goad him because I loved his stories. Partying with Sean Penn (more down-to-earth than you’d think) and Thom Yorke (about as tormented as you’d think). He’d give me things: a pair of drumsticks from the Radiohead tour; promo flyers, DVDs, and lots of music. He knew I favored rarities and outtakes, so he went out of his way to unearth demos of his early work, and he gave them to me—all with original artwork. When I explained that I couldn’t accept them (they were clearly his only copies), he insisted. “I can’t listen to them,” he said, “it’s too heartbreaking. They could’ve been so much better.” They were fantastic.

Every Christmas I was in the habit of spending thousands on gift cards—Sephora or Victoria’s Secret for girls, Amoeba Music for boys—and one year Gregory used his card to buy me CDs because his royalties hadn’t arrived.

This was the relationship we had, the one that no one saw.

And, unless a woman had spent the night, Gregory was always the first person I’d see in the morning. Why hadn’t I known about his illness? It was clear that he hadn’t kept it from me, and I was in no position, in any case, to be self-righteous.

“I assume you know what you’re doing,” I said, still holding my head. “I just didn’t know you were sick, that’s all.”

He ripped a line and cleared his throat. “Sick,” he muttered under his breath. “Let me tell you something, man. I’ve been living with this thing my whole life. I’ve been in support groups. I’ve been on retreats. People with cystic fibrosis, you know—we gather. And all anyone ever talks about”—he paused, cleared his throat—“is cystic fucking fibrosis. And if that’s their identity then, you know, that’s fine. But that’s not who I am. You understand?”

I nodded. It seemed like the thing to do. Then Gregory put his hand out, palm down, fingers splayed. “See these?” he said. “See how they’re clubbed like that?” I’d noticed that his fingertips were slightly bulbous, but, like his cough, I’d never pondered it. “They call these drumstick fingers.” He was smiling now, which relieved me. He wanted me to appreciate the irony, I guess—his being a drummer and all. “I’ve got symptoms of this thing, but it’s not me. I’ve been dying my whole life. When I was young, one doctor would say I had five more years, another would say ten. No one thought I’d live to see twenty. You know what that does to a kid?”

I shook my head.

“Well, it doesn’t matter now. I might even make it to forty.” He smiled, did another line. Then he dropped the straw too close to the table’s edge, and it rolled to the floor. “Sorry,” he said, reaching for it.

“Not a big deal.”

Ordinarily I’d have felt the urge to show compassion, to offer platitudes of encouragement, but that that was uncalled for was Gregory’s whole point. And I realized now why he’d never mentioned any of this: he hadn’t felt the need to. Did I tell him that I had hemocromatosis? Why would I? He never asked about my iron levels.

“Don’t get me wrong about the support groups,” he said. “I’m not putting them down. They help a lot of people and they do a lot of good. But, for me, I think I’ve survived this long because I decided not to be the disease. I was expected to be accepting of the whole thing, you know. To just accept that I was dying and act appropriately.” He laughed. “I never really made it big, you know that. But I’ve got my music. And despite what I say, I’m proud of most of it.” Then, looking askance, he added, “Don’t ever tell anyone I said that.”

This was when I realized that I’d never heard Gregory complain about anything. Even the stuff about the lawyers and the network suits didn’t really bother him. It was life. Something he was never allowed to take for granted. I felt petty and small. Moments earlier I’d greeted him angrily. Why, because he’d awakened me at eleven in the morning? He’d only come to patronize my business. And enjoy my company.

He snorted the final line in front of him. And then he uttered some words. They weren’t the last ones I’d ever hear him say, but they’re the last ones I recall. He said, “I think I’m alive because I decided not to let other people tell me who I am.”

Gregory vanished not long after this meeting. He was rumored to have gone to Hawaii. I’d also heard that his girlfriend had gotten pregnant, though I was certain that he’d mentioned, at some point, being sterile (as men with cystic fibrosis, I learned, typically are). It was also rumored that his girlfriend, upon finding his stash, had compelled him to get clean, and to disassociate from those who weren’t. Though none of them confirmable, it was this last rumor that seemed the most likely.

. . .

I learned of his death on the internet. Despite our mutual acquaintances, I wouldn’t have expected anyone to contact me, even if they’d known how. When I left, I left. That was it.

Gregory passed away peacefully on New Year’s Day, 2010. He was forty. His former band mates issued a statement. It read, in part:

Gregory inspired all who had the chance to see him perform, to hear the
music that he made or just to be around his bountiful spirit. He will be
greatly missed.

I think of him often, and I have my favorite memories.

The time I went to visit him, midday, and found him waltzing the living room with his girlfriend.

The time we made a beer run, and I played Ataxia (a John Frusciante solo project) for him in the car, and he played air drums.

The clown mask he had, and how he loved to scare people with it. (He’d never jump out at anyone, that’d be inartful. Gregory would simply don this creepy-looking mask, position himself strategically, and wait for people to happen upon him.)

I remember his kind blue eyes, his throaty voice.

The way his feet shuffled.

These are the memories I have of him that are effortless. Unlike the ones involving drugs, they require no reconstruction.