Shot Across the River Styx

My last few blogs have been inspired by chapter illustrations from Playing with Sharp Objects. Created by Michael Swearingen. I liked this approach to blogging – it let me move through past writing.

Incidentally, if you haven’t done so already, buy that book, will ya? And write a review of it on Amazon. Help a Sam out.

Anyway, I’m going to keep pulling inspiration from chapter illustrations. But I’m going further back in time. I’m returning to the first book in my trilogy of weepy memoirs. Shot Across the River Styx is in its second incarnation now. I recently published a second edition through Happy Valley Improv. Fixed some grammar. Changed some names. Cleaned it up, a bit.

I’m going to follow the same pattern I did with my previous run of blogs. First, I’m sharing an excerpt from Shot Across the River Styx. You’ll find the prologue to the book below. It’s a little dark. A little heavy. After that, I’ll spend the next couple of weeks riffing on Michael’s chapter illustrations for that book. There’s a link at the bottom of this first entry to purchase Shot Across the River Styx if you haven’t read it.



It has been ten years since my good friend Nick put a bullet in his brain. It has been two years since my stepfather, Jim, did the same thing.

Nick was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. So was Jim. Nick was so precise as he leveled up his characters in Final Fantasy III. Jim was a master carpenter, and could build seemingly anything. These were different intelligences. They were equally impressive to me.

One of the great things about people is how smart they can be.

Then both Nick and Jim put bullets in their brains.

One of the terrible things about people is how stupid they can be.

I don’t know why Nick and Jim did what they did. Maybe if I were smarter, I would know. But I’m not. This is an enormous, complicated universe.

So I started to write.


This book about Nick and I began to take shape when I received a writing prompt in a class about teaching creative writing to high school students. I was pursuing my doctorate at the University of Minnesota when Jim put a bullet in his brains, you see.

The prompt was this.

Where were you last night?

After another in a series of reoccurring dreams where Nick had traveled back from the dead to visit with me, I responded to the prompt by responding to the dream.

Where was I last night?

Here’s what I wrote.

I was asleep in my bed. Kinda sorta. I might also have been traveling. And in this maybe traveling, I swear you came to me, Nick. You were very much not dead.

We were at your parent’s house. But we weren’t thirteen. And we weren’t twenty-three. We were in our thirties. At least I was. There was a seriousness about you that wasn’t there when you were thirteen. I suppose that is what a bullet to the brain does. It makes everything so serious.

So our conversation was heavy. I asked you how you had climbed out of your coffin. You explained that you hadn’t really died.

We spoke. Something was missing. We couldn’t quite connect. And then you were leaving again. I tried to tell you about your father. I tried to tell you about your mother. I tried to tell you about seeing them at my wedding. I wanted to tell you that it was as though they had died when you died. But you were fading out. And then you were gone.

In the morning, as I responded to a writing prompt, it occurred to me that I was sincerely curious. Where were you last night? Where was I?

I think that I was asleep in my bed. But who can be sure? And I figured you were a rotten heap of bones in a cemetery in Northeast Minneapolis. But who knows?

We were somewhere last night. I am certain of that much.

That is what I wrote.

And after I wrote, I packed up my laptop. Instead of putting a bullet in my brain, I went about my life as a high school teacher, a doctoral student, and a newlywed. Talk about busy. Talk about adult.

Nick, meanwhile, was a lump of decaying flesh in the ground.

On my way to teach high school that morning, I put Pearl Jam’s Ten in the CD player. Nick and I use to listen to that album when we were thirteen. Nick’s favorite song was the final track.

“Release me!” I sang along as my car barreled forward through an enormous, complicated universe. And I was surprised to realize that I was crying.


Here’s a true story.

I first met Nick Wiseman when I was twelve. We became fast friends. And we stayed extremely close until, at twenty-two, Nick shot himself in the head with his dad’s AR-15 assault rifle. He did this in his bedroom in the basement of his parent’s suburban townhouse.

And then it was 2012 and I was thirty-two. Nick kept coming to me in my dreams.

I spoke at Nick’s funeral. I was standing in front of a crowded room of mourners. The only thing I could think to say was this:

“I have so many stories I could tell you about Nick.” I paused and, through my tears, my lips curled into a mischievous smile. I continued.

“None of them are appropriate for this occasion.”

The crowd of people laughed at my joke.

While it didn’t feel right to share Nick and I at his funeral, it does feel right to do so here.

So this book became a funeral ceremony. This is how I properly buried my friend Nick.

This is how I released us.


Shot Across the River Styx: I met Nick when I was thirteen. We became fast friends. Nick shot himself when he was twenty-two. Nick’s parents attended my wedding ten years later. They were in such pain. I guess I was too. Nick often came to me in my dreams after his suicide. So I decided I would travel to him. This book is the story of my journey into the afterlife, that space between spaces. This is a funeral ceremony for my friend Nick.

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