The Wages of Bitter Jealousy

by Jim Knipfel


Sometimes I forget that the good times in this life are only fleeting; it's the sorrow that lasts. It’s an easy thing to forget. Sometimes, though, can’t help it, but sometimes, some things in this world just make me want to go back to repossessing other people's things and collecting bills for a living. Just give up everything else. And sometimes, some mornings the only thing that keeps me going under such circumstances is listening to the Clancy Brothers tear through "Tim Finnegan’s Wake."

Of course sometimes the Clancy's aren't enough, either. Even when they aren't, though, plenty of other things prevent me from returning to my former life. Can't drive over and pick up a television or refrigerator whose payments are overdue if you can't read the damned address you're supposed to stop at.

Just as well, I guess. Of all the lives I've led, repo work and bill collection was about the least pleasant. It was fun at first, until I realized that I was being paid to be a professional asshole. Then again, what do I call what I do now? No matter.

A month of minor joys disappeared over the course of a week. I hadn't been giddy or giggly–that just frightens people–but I was at least functional. Then the little things just chipped away at the ice sculpture that was my smile–angry voices on the telephone, a double-earful of bad news as the week ground to a slow close–leaving me with nothing by the time the weekend rolled around. I was back to where I belonged, passed over again, for whatever reason. On the bright side, though, I guess, it helps me understand what my ex-wife was going through the whole time we were together.

See, Laura's a writer, too. Her research in phonetics and acoustics might be her bread and butter, but in her heart it was her poetry and plays that really mattered. Though I'm not much one for poetry, I could tell that what she did was good (even if a goodly amount of it from our time together involved nasty poems about me, and several plays included an uncaring, self-centered jackass who seemed a touch too familiar). Problem, of course, is that there's no market for such things. Little magazines? So what? Who reads them except the other poets who are in that magazine? And plays? Well, what do those matter unless you they get produced? But that takes some theater space, and money, and actors, and directors, and someone to do lights and sound, and if you're not already known, who sees them except your friends, and the friends of the other people involved?

This was, and remains, her central problem–the major, inescapable source of her misery, and the misery of a couple thousand other struggling poets and playwrights in this city. Yet she had to watch as, from a moment not too long after we moved out East together, I floundered my way into some luck–the first luck I'd ever really known–and found my stupid little stories appearing someplace or another week after week. And she had to continue watching as the weeks spread over years. She had to live with this–watching me get drunk, then watching me write a story about what sort of foolishness I got myself into, then watching that story appear a week later. It didn't help our relationship much. I didn't really try to do any of this–I was supposed to be an academic or a petty criminal instead–but I just sort of fell into it. This simple, filthy luck of mine became one of about 350 reasons why she left me. But that's history. Let's just say that, for the first time, I understand how she was feeling all those years.

Saturday morning, I tried to stave off my resumed bitterness by picking up a Roy Orbison musical record on the cheap. I've always loved Roy Orbison. When I was a kid, I put up with endless needling from my dad over the fact. He was convinced, for some reason, that Roy Orbison was a robot. (I think the fact that Mr. Orbison never moved when he sang had something to do with it.) Even when the family went to see him play the Carlton West dinner theater, it didn't help–my dad kept heckling him, right there in person–but it didn't matter. My folks stayed back at their table, while I worked my way up to the front of the stage. Thirteen years old, by far the youngest person in the room. Roy Orbison was the shit, as the young people today would say, and I was there at his feet, staring up at him, awestruck by the warble.

But this Saturday morning in Brooklyn at winter's end, I can't escape the darkness of his songs–certainly I'd noticed it before, it was always obvious, but it was never quite this palpable before. Instead of combating my petty sorrow by stopping this Orbison-led parade of gloom and putting on something that would cheer me up–some calliope music, say, or the Swans–I let him play, moving back to my regular spot at the kitchen table, where I broke open a new bottle of whiskey (given to me, just because, some months back by an anonymous lovely young woman), put some ice in a glass, and set to it.

Half an hour later, the Orbison done with, when even Fats Waller rollicking away on his magical pipe organ can't pick me up at all, I know I'm locked into struggle with something bad. I got up and flipped the tape over, hoping the profound negative energy of Lucifer Rising might be able to purge the demons from my head and belly. Instead, he just gave them something to dance to.

The whiskey felt good on my constricted throat, and burned nicely in my stomach. Another long, dead weekend spread out in front of me. That was good. I needed the silence, the space, the utter absence of any human contact. I'd had too much of that shit the previous five days. Too many voices on telephones, asking the impossible questions, making the false accusations. Sick of it. More tired than sick.

Another day shot three hours after it began, still more hours in front of me than I cared to think about before I could crawl back into bed.

A few hours later, almost motionless except to pour another shot, raise the glass, get more ice or grind out a cigarette, I came to a conclusion that's come to me more and more often lately. I'm no longer a happy drinker. I no longer enjoy drinking with other people. I no longer enjoy the sloppy camaraderie that comes with public drunkenness. I still need to drink, and I still need to drink on a daily basis, but I prefer to do it alone now (along with most everything else). It's not a battle with the booze I'm engaged in, but rather a slow, stumbling waltz, with knives. Just waiting to see who draws first blood, then waiting to see who draws it last. I'm still ahead of the game, so far as I can tell, and have no intention of quitting till it's over. I've got the guts–guts enough at least to know that what I'm doing is doomed. Guts enough to know and admit that there's no way out of it.

I shuffled around the apartment in my stocking feet, telling myself that I was "cleaning up." what that meant was, I'd find a pile of old papers stacked up on a milk crate, or on the floor next to my desk, take a cursory flip through the pile without really looking at what was written on them, then carry them over to the trash can and dump them all. Then I'd do it again. Then I'd sit back down and pour another drink, have another smoke.

About 3, with what was left of my vision moving blurry and slow, I decided it was about damn time I did some real cleaning. I scrubbed out the sink and the tub and the toilet, moved into the kitchen and set-to on the stove top. But every time I turned around, I saw another mess–another furball in the corner, another pile of coffee grounds next to the trash can, another smear of grime across the side of the refrigerator. It was too much. I'd never be able to catch up with it all. Too many things I'd never see. And if I couldn't see them, they didn't bother me too much. Over the past few months, I've actually taken to asking my rare visitors if they noticed anything obvious that needed cleaning or picking up–a dumped pile of books, some cat sputum, a dead mouse. I usually don't notice such things unless I step in them.

I gave up the good fight against creeping filth and sat back down at the table, frustrated, loaded down with pathetic and maudlin self-pity and petty jealousies. I'd just have to realize that it's all out of my hands. One of these days, maybe I will.

At about 7, I noticed out the front window that a light snow was coming down. From the looks of the street and the parked cars, it must've been coming down for awhile. The stereo had stopped playing long ago. Back out in the kitchen, I looked up at the wall above the table. Hanging there was a big sign that spelled it out in white on black: "KILL. OR BE KILLED." That pretty much said it, but I just didn't have the energy anymore. Not now. Killing myself wasn't even the issue. I wasn't thinking that, and even if I was, it takes a good four to six months to work myself up to failing again and landing in another psych ward.

I put on my shoes and my coat, grabbed my smokes and went outside. Always have had a fondness for the snow. I sat down on the top step of the stoop, lit a smoke, and waited for it to cover me up.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. Illustration by Russell Christian. All rights reserved.

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