Give a Man a Little Time, and the Trouble Will Find Him
by Jim Knipfel
Sitting on the R, on my way home from another slap in the face, another kick in the teeth, another stomp on the throat of a job interview at one of Manhattan's more prestigious independent bookshops, I came to a conclusion. "If I'm destined to nickel-and-dime my way through this world, scratching and clawing until my fingers are nothing but bone and pulp," I thought, "then at least I'm going to nickel-and-dime my way through with a little goddamned class." This conclusion was a bit better than most. Most of my conclusions are along the lines of, "Boy, I sure do like toast!"
Walking back to my apartment from the subway, scraping around the inside of my skull for some inspiration, I stopped by the bodega where they always smile and call me "sir," bought a sixer and some smokes. Somehow buying beer and smokes always seems to help. After sitting at the kitchen table for a half hour, drinking, smoking, trying to read meaningful patterns in the coffee stains on the floor around my feet, I slipped my jacket on and went back outside.
The liquor store still had that "Help Wanted" sign in the window. I hadn't had the balls the dig my way through the boss-woman's shrieking the other day to make my pitch. Today was different. That was a whim. This was desperation. My head was playing too many tricks, my wife was moving out, my shrink had given up, and those negative numbers on the cash machine screen were getting bigger every day. I had to do something.
When I walked into the store this time, the proprietress was in howling mode again. She was taking out all her lost dreams on some poor sap who was trying to sell her a new line of wines from Pennsylvania. This couldn't take too long, I figured, so I decided to wait it out. Lord knows I had the time.
As she badgered and tore at this man, I let my eyes wander around the shelves, past all these bottles that were as close to me as my own family. Saw a new one--one that I made a mental note to pick up, just to have around--"New York State Brand Space Shuttle Red Wine," it was called. No. I didn't get it either, but there it was, complete with a little watercolor of the shuttle blasting off painted on the label. For some reason (and I'm reasonably sure I know what that reason was) I found this funny as hell. It bolstered my spirit a bit--just enough to give me the energy to try and get through to the woman behind the counter (who was patiently watching the boss turn purple).
"Uhhh, s'cuse me. . ."
She shuffled over--she was an old woman--and bent an ear down, as if in an attempt to duck beneath the sound from the other side of the store.
"Hi, uhhh," I began, in my confident, businesslike manner. "I, uhhh. . .was wondering--you have this, uhhh, help wanted sign in your, uhh, window. . .and, uhh, I was wondering if y'all were still lookin for help?"
"Oh. I'm not sure. We'll have to ask her," she said, pointing over my right shoulder. I didn't look. I didn't need to--I knew damn well what was standing back there. But before I could say anything, the woman behind the counter stood bolt upright.
I ducked instinctively, thinking for an instant that maybe the shelves were crashing down. No... no, she was just getting Carol's attention.
(If this thing came through, I could tell already that every day would be a laugh-riot of hijinx and whimsy.)
"ARE YA STILL LOOKIN' FOR HELP?!"
I had no idea why these women were screaming at each other. They were only about six feet apart.
"Yeah, why--who wants to know?" A quick flash of hesitation and confusion fluttered across her eyes. The only people in the store at the time were that poor wine sap. . . and me. So I beat him to the punch and raised my hand. "Uhhh. . . I guess. . . uhhh, I am."
"You? You're kidding."
Christ, what do I make of that? Now, I had a choice at that point of merely laughing it off as some kind of sick joke, some grave mistake on my part, then leaving--or of admitting publicly that I was a hopeless fuckup, unable, at the age of 29, to get myself a real job. I decided to go with the latter.
"No. . . no, I'm afraid I'm not." Lying at a time like that, just to save face, would eventually burn a hole in a guilty man.
"Okay, wait over there," she told me, pointing to the corner, "I'll be with you as soon as I'm done with this guy." Here we go--not even hired yet, haven't made my first mistake yet, and I'm already standing in the corner. Jesus.
Eventually, she came over and we chatted a bit. No resumes were exchanged, no character references were handed over. It was over in about a minute. Yeah, you hepcat daddy-o smarm-muffins with your cool arty jobs--you indie record company nothings, you slick magazine editorial assistants, you macho bike messenger thrill-seekers--you may think you're pretty hot shit, but I got you beat. Beat straight into the pavement. Because starting some day soon and crawling through all the way to the first of the year, I'm gonna be pulling in five bucks an hour (just let that sink in for a minute) as a stockboy at one of Brooklyn's finest discount liquor stores.
I left the store feeling trapped somewhere between the diseased and the blessed; 29 pathetic years old, and I'm still pulling in jobs with "boy" in the title. There was a depraved joy about it all, a rancid hilarity that lifted me up to where I've spent most of my life--as the Fool King of the hifalutin' lowlifes.
That night--the fact that she was moving out later that week didn't matter--Laura and I decided to go out and celebrate. We couldn't afford to, really, but what the fuck? So we stopped into one of the nicer little Italian joints in the neighborhood, determined to have ourselves a time.
We ordered a couple bottles of red, some calamari, she got some chicken thing, I got some fettucini thing. It wasn't long before the first hot wave passed through me. I just brushed it off as nothing, and continued to cram it down. Soon, however, the waves were crashing over me one after another, the thin sheen of cool sweat that had formed on my forehead was fast turning into a myriad of rivulets running down my face. My vision went all blurry; my guts were doing some foul gymnastic routine. After soaking my napkin in sweat and fighting back the gorge for too long, I knew I had to find a bathroom before I lost it in my lap. I've had that happen too many times.
I stood up on shaky legs, weaved my way past empty tables towards our waitress. "Uhhh, s'cuse me...uh--where's the bathroom?"
She began to point, but I didn't see where. Everything went dim and something cut the string in my legs. I toppled back over one of their small round tables, clattering glasses, silverware and napkins to the floor. I rolled off the side of the table, and found myself on my knees. In an instant, and without much fuss, that entire celebratory meal spilled back out of my gaping mouth and pooled beneath me as the waitress, in disgust, turned on her heel and left.
I tried to read the new pattern in the mess around my feet. This time it was clear: the Fates always torment me whenever I get a job, and the Fates are always right to do so. Goddamn them, anyhow.
Copyright by Jim Knipfel.
Published originally in the NYPress.