Photos by Bryan Schutmaat
Despite his huge talent as an essayist and fiction writer, Theodore McDermott is a humble guy. When we asked him to write a biographical sketch to introduce his fantastic short story “The Minor Outsider,” which we’re proud to publish here, he hemmed and hawed, and when he finally sent it in, he prefaced it with this apologetic note: “My life hasn’t been very interesting, and I’m not that accomplished, so a 200-word biography was a stretch. But I did my best!” So we took matters into our own hands because his best includes a slew of brilliant essays for the Believer on the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, the underappreciated Chicago alt-country band Souled American, and the actor and filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait. He’s also published short fiction in some quality literary journals like the Portland Review, and, as he so helpfully wrote in his note to us, Theodore “was nominated for the Essay Prize. He didn’t win.”
These days, Theodore lives in Missoula, Montana, where, until recently, he worked as a baker. He wrote “The Minor Outsider” after he’d gotten his hand mangled by an industrial mixer and was laid up for weeks, taking painkillers and receiving workers’ comp. The story has grown into a novel, which we expect, once he finishes it, to be as lonely and harrowing and great as this story, which recounts the tale of a young pregnant couple, a seedy mermaid bar, and a depressing one-night stand.
We’ve paired this story with new work from Bryan Schutmaat. These photographs were taken during his extensive travels in Montana and in other cold, northern, and sometimes sad places, and we feel they are a perfect match for Theodore’s story. Bryan’s recent series, Grays the Mountain Sends, was released to great praise late last year.
Before sunrise, while he waited until it was time to leave for work, he watched a documentary about heroin addicts. He watched the movie on mute because he was afraid he was going deaf and worried that in order to hear it, he’d have to turn the volume up to a level that would wake up his girlfriend, who was still asleep in the other room. Cameras filmed people sneaking into buildings, shooting up in laundry rooms, negotiating with johns, eating at Sbarro, walking down the street, loitering in stairwells, visiting their forlorn parents. The documentary kept stalling because he was watching it online, and they stole internet from the Holiday Inn across the street, which meant their connection was tenuous.
He was 29 and he liked to watch people shoot drugs into their arms on YouTube while he ate the Safeway version of Cheerios. He believed this had something to do with being afraid of, but interested in, death. He’d never done heroin. He was a coward.
Despite his efforts, the bedroom door opened, and his girlfriend came out wearing only striped underwear and a green tank top. I was having a dream, she told him. She looked like she was still having it. She was blond and small, and her eyes were almost closed. She elicited compassion. She was pregnant, but it didn’t show. It had only been a week or two.
It was from when I was, like, seven or something. It was a dream but it was true. It was when we lived in the desert and my dad told me that someone had built this huge water-park place a couple hours away. Near Vegas or something. Her eyes saw only what was inside her brain. And so my family, we drove across all this sand and it was so hot and then we got there and saw that the whole thing had been abandoned before it was even finished. She’d told him this story before. She was always telling him stories like this, stories that had no point but were loaded with indecipherable meaning. There were all of these huge poured-concrete pools that were empty. Dry. And there were sections of bright, sun-bleached waterslide pipe snaking across the sand. It sounded like she was mumbling but he knew she wasn’t. And I was just standing at a chain-link fence in the middle of the desert in my bikini while these big guard dogs barked at me.
Go back to sleep, he said, getting up from his computer, taking her hand. It was warm and relaxed and blood pumped through it. Come here. She was unconscious enough to be obedient. He led her back to the bedroom, to the bed.
She sat on the edge and said, I love you.
I love you, too, he assured her.
Then she got back under the covers and curled up and turned away from him. It was weird, she said. She flipped her long hair away from her neck and above her head, as though she expected him to curl up behind her and hold her. He wasn’t going to. He loved her compulsively and so his feelings for her felt coerced and he guarded his affection, rationed it. It was scary, she said.
He was definitely scared. He had an extremely rare condition that caused benign, egg-shaped tumors to grow on his nerves. Later that afternoon he had an appointment to have his brain scanned to determine whether or not tumors had begun to grow inside his head, on his cranial nerves. He believed they had after learning that the primary symptom of their presence inside his head was hearing loss. For months now a hiss of static in his ears made other people’s speech sound mumbled and he was always turning the music up too loud at work and he couldn’t make out most of the dialogue in the new Roman Polanski movie he and his girlfriend had seen in the theater. He had been trying to read lips to compensate for all this, but he couldn’t decipher how mouths made sounds. He got up from the bed.
Where are you going? she asked, still turned away from him.
I have work.
His girlfriend knew he had the condition—she’d gone with him to Boston to see the specialist who’d made the diagnosis—but not about his hearing loss or about his upcoming appointment. He couldn’t tell her. If he had brain tumors, according to the specialist, then he would be diagnosed with a more serious variety of the condition. A variety that would cause him to lose his hearing and probably his memory and maybe more of his brain function, which could result in dementia or some other mental illness. And his child—their child—could inherit his condition and his brain tumors and his hearing and memory loss and his child’s life would be hard and it would be his fault. His girlfriend was beautiful, but her child would be flawed and difficult and deaf, and it would be because of him.
Go back to sleep, he said. He wanted to get back in bed with her but knew he couldn’t. Dream about me.
Then he went out into the cold winter morning and sat in his car while it warmed up. He packed his one-hitter, which looked like a cigarette, and took two hits. It made the world a little less like it was. He drove through the tidy downtown of the small mountain city in Montana where they lived. Then he drove past mountains and rivers before arriving at the Lolo strip mall where he worked. He went in and put a pot of water on a hot plate while he removed his jacket, sweatpants, gloves, and hat. Then he stuffed his clothes into his locker. Having a locker made him feel like he’d never fully finished high school and also like he was an actual blue-collar worker. He baked and cooked for a coffee bar named an untranslatable French phrase. He’d spent a lot of time using his mostly forgotten high school French trying to decode it, before deciding that “the Minor Outsider” was the best he could do.
He changed from his tennis shoes into a pair of clogs that he’d bought at the mall. When the water boiled, he made a cup of coffee with it. Then he carried his mug through the bakery and said good morning to the coffee roaster, who was writing in a notebook, and he said good morning to the middle-aged Christian lady who packed the beans. It was quiet in the warehouse, and his concerns were far away and so this, he decided, would be his favorite part of the day. He did his best to remain in this quiet moment, with coffee and silence and extremely high ceilings and an open loading-dock door that revealed green trees and the back of an apartment building and a sky that was starting to blush blue with the sunrise.