Fall of the House of Slackjaw

by Jim Knipfel

If all these apparently isolated incidents and accidents were recounted in a novel, reviewers from the Times Book Review and Publisher's Weekly would say things like "Obvious, cheap symbolism...useless and ugly...he's read Fall of the House of Usher one too many times...just plain stupid." But when all of these things are happening around me in my own little second-floor apartment in Brooklyn, what the hell am I supposed to think?

I've mentioned a few of these things before--the stereo that will only play one CD a day (and then only the stinky ones); the sink that stayed clogged for six months, rebelling against even the most ardent of plumbers; a bathtub that continues to spit boiling water, even after the water's been shut off; a telephone that crackles into silence and abruptly dies. All of these things would be normal, something you expect when you live in the city--if they took place over the course of a year or two. All these things, however, have clustered together over the course of the past few weeks--coinciding happily with the collapse of my physical and mental health.

None of this was more than an annoyance until last night. I could listen to tapes. I'd called the phone company from work (twice), and they promised to send somebody over. And I realized that if you mix lye with liquid Drano, pour it down the drain, then plunge it to get it into all the nooks and crannies of the pipes, it'd clean that sonofabitch right out.

So I'm asleep early--big doctor's appointment the next morning, set to last through much of the day--only to be awakened at lord knows what time by a loud crash. Only it wasn't quite so simple as a "loud crash." It was a rumbling explosion of glass and wood and plastic that seemed to roll across half the apartment. A roar that went on much too long.

I lay in bed awake, trying to figure out what the hell happened now. I was tempted to turn the lights on, put my contacts in, and see what was up. "But if I do that," I thought, "I'll never get back to sleep, and tomorrow's gonna be a bitch enough as it is."

Instead, I simply lay there, listening to make sure that neither cat had been squashed beneath whatever the fuck it was that collapsed. I hadn't heard any hisses or shrill kitty-screams, so I figured they were fine. Eventually, I was sure I'd heard the clik-clak of the Big Guy's unkempt nails and the jangle of the Little One's collar, so I drifted back to sleep, figuring I'd take care of it the next day before going to the hospital.

When both alarms went off at 7 a.m., I rolled to my left, meaning to crawl out of bed and shut off the one that I keep across the room. Unfortunately, my way was blocked by a pile of...something. This time I did turn on the lights and put my contacts in.

When Laura and I moved into this place, we didn't have the money to buy honest-to-goodness bookcases to house our library. So instead, we wandered around at night and, like normal people, stole milk crates from around grocery stores. Out of these crates and a few boards, we created a wall-sized bookcase, maybe eight feet long, stretching from floor to ceiling along one wall. And this wall of books--sturdy as hell up till this point--had curled forward and collapsed, the top shelf of crates crashing down inches away from my sleeping head. Hundreds of books lay splashed across the floor, dozens of plastic milk crates scattered on top of them, my TV antenna bent like a broken noodle.

Had I rolled over at the wrong (or right, given my current frame of mind) time, my head would have been squashed like an overripe melon. I wasn't shaken so much as I was annoyed. Another goddamn mess to clean up--a job I'd never even have a chance to begin before heading off to the hospital to get more bad news about one organ or another.

All of this, in a very roundabout way, leads to something else I'd been thinking about for the last few days. During the last Bad Movie Night before my friend Linda moves far, far away, John pulled out a recent acquisition: a spectacular no-budget extravaganza, The Creeping Terror. Little about the film is worth mentioning--just another bad '50s space-monster movie featuring an alien created out of carpet remnants wandering around a small town gobbling people up. It's not much different from a hundred others, except for one little detail--most of the film is silent with the plot shoved along via narration.

Narration is a wonderful thing, just by it's very nature. However it's used--in film noir, in nature programs, in The Creeping Terror or Jaws: The Revenge---narration is never a mistake.

Maybe that's why I've been thinking lately that I'd like my own personal narrator. Not a biographer--I've taken care of that myself--but an honest-to-goodness narrator who would follow me around, not only describing everything that happens, but explaining it too, and telling me how I feel and what I think about it. Imagine how easy things would be--no more of this damnable "thinking" nonsense. Everything would be taken care of, toot-sweet.

Take these past few weeks. Rather than trying to justify to myself that I wasn't (or was) living in a modern House of Usher, collapsing around me to mirror my own personal (and not so elegant) decay, I could just go about my business and have my narrator stand next to me and say things like:

Knipfel had to stop and think after seeing that the books had nearly crushed him.Was it a pattern or mere coincidence? Little did he realize that working behind the scenes, and hovering outside his window at that very moment, was a demonic stranger intent on driving him completely mad...

Or better yet:

Knipfel lay on his back on the sidewalk, the blood coagulating around the back of his head, where the skull had been smashed. He still held a bottle in one hand, his other clutching at the knife in his belly. He didn't yet realize that he was minutes away from death. All he could think about was the fact that he needed a haircut, and soon...

Well, you get the idea.

Two days later, and the telephone's been fixed. Thing is, it means that once more, people can reach me, and that fucking bell can keep waking me up at night. I think it's just about time to break it again.

"The Fall of the House of Slackjaw" copyright 1996 by Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress.
Artwork copyright 1996 by Bob Hires. All rights reserved.

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