Every Man For Himself, And--

by Jim Knipfel


On Saturday, the first real day of my first real vacation since I’d started answering phones for a living, Bill Burroughs kicked. Myself, I’m still convinced that he died five or six years ago, and his secretary, Mr. Grauerholz, has been pillaging his old manuscripts ever since, trying to get two or three more books out before the news broke.

That’s neither here nor there, though. Breaking the news now allowed me to put it down to the book curse. First two uncles die, my dad and niece get sick, now a man we’d been hoping to line up to write a blurb has a fatal heart attack. It just makes sense.

I’d taken my allotted two weeks with one thing in mind. I wasn’t going anywhere, because I couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t like traveling much anyway. No, I was going to take these two weeks, lock myself in the apartment, and write my damn book. My only worry, really, was the cabin fever. Leave me alone in the apartment too long, and things get creepy. I might just end up sitting on the floor, staring at my feet, unable to do anything. A few days later, I'd eat the cats. That wouldn’t do me any good at all.

"What happens if you don’t finish it?" a fellow at work asked when I told him my plans.

"I will," I told him. Not finishing wasn’t an option, even though I was taking off, pretty much, sort of, from a standing start. I mean, I’d been doing some writing towards this end for a few weekends, but they were just scraps and notions. Besides, it was early August, and the professional football season started in a month. I couldn't afford to try and write a book and follow the Packers at the same time. I had to get it out of the way.

After sitting in front of the machine all day Saturday, I found I couldn’t sleep. I was all keyed up, the adrenaline still coursing through my veins. That hadn’t happened in years. I’d made it through the day, I’d gotten some work done, I’d get some more done the next day. Everything was going to be just...fine.

It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that I started to go mad. Way I figured it, it would take me at least three or four days to reach that point. But there I was, at three o’clock, pacing from one end of the apartment to the other, listening to instructional audiotapes. I’m proud to say that I can now find my G-Spot in the blink of an eye.

After a few hours of that, I sat down in front of the television and watched an instructional videotape which showed me how to talk to my children about the dangers of drinking. Given that the tape was put out by the fine folks at Anheuser-Busch, their warnings weren’t all that frightful, which made me feel better. "Yes, alcohol is a drug," a mother tells her young daughter in one scene, "just like aspirin and vitamins are drugs."

That night, in celebration of a day well-spent, I drank myself unconscious, just to make sure I got the sleep (and the proper nourishment) my body required.

The next morning, after two days of flopping about, I finally set up a regimen. I’d get up at seven, put myself together, then take a stroll around the neighborhood to clear my head and get the blood flowing. I knew I wouldn’t be moving much for the rest of the day, that I’d be spending most the rest of the day sitting cross-legged, so it was best to move myself around at least a little bit. Once I got back home, I’d sit down at the machine and work until I finished what I needed to finish that day.

Everything seemed to be churning along at a nice clip. I felt strong, I felt clean, I was pounding through a chapter a day. I was like a fucking locomotive. Or maybe, as the Spanish would call it, a loco-motive.

Early the next morning, however, not long after I sat down, things began to change. A construction crew showed up and started sandblasting the building next door. They skipped the first two floors completely, and dragged their scaffolding up to the third, right next to my open window. They knew I was there. That’s why they did it. I wasn’t aware of any of this until I heard the strange hissing and crunch in the next room.

I stood up and went over to take a look, only realizing then that they had been blasting straight through my window, spraying brownstone dust all over my bed and my (extremely) rare reader’s edition of Mason & Dixon.

"Well, shit." I slammed my windows shut, and cleaned up as best’s I could, then went back to work.

After things had been quiet outside for a couple hours, I decided to take another little stroll. It was a nice day, and I’d finished what I needed to. Unfortunately, after putting my shoes on and tromping downstairs, I found that the construction crew had, somehow, commandeered the front steps of my building, swathing them in layer upon layer of impenetrable plastic, which hung in great sheets from the front door. I was trapped.

Irony abounds, as the great Arthur Bremer said. Here I was, a man who usually hated going outside, deciding to do just that, then being prevented from doing so. Not knowing what else to do, I turned around and went back upstairs.

Late that night, I sat in the darkness at the kitchen table with a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of Jim Beam, a thunderstorm raging outside. I wasn’t thinking about much of anything. Then I noticed something strange. It was completely black in the kitchen—at least to me—yet suddenly I was catching what seemed to be glimmers of light out of the corner of my eye.

My mind started racing around corners—could it be some peripheral light perception coming back? Was I, this very instant, on the road to recovery? Was my blind man schtick history? Or, more likely, could it be my retinas simply tearing themselves apart for good?

I looked around, waiting for the next flash. It took me a few minutes to realize that all I was seeing was lightning flashing through the window.

The next morning’s reverie turned into a nightmare. Normally, I strolled past Henry Miller’s old place, hoping for a little spiritual guidance. But that morning I walked west, towards the Gawanus, and before I realized it, every sidewalk, every corner, became a major construction site, a frightening combination of broken concrete, exposed pipes and rumbling machinery. I was so deep into before realizing that it wouldn’t end that turning back would’ve been just as bad as forging onwards.

It all seemed too metaphorical though, just one more blast of Jim’s Cheap Symbolism, so I ducked behind a dumptruck, into the street, around the corner and down a few blocks, hoping no cars would decide to pick me off as I trotted along, and went back home, feeling the first, quiet naggings of a strange sadness tugging at me.

I awoke the next morning with the light through the window burning my eyes, the depression burning everything else. I didn’t know where it was coming from, and I had too much work to do to let it take over. Not yet at least. I only had two chapters to go. Granted, the one directly ahead of me was the biggest in the book, but I refused to think about that.

When I sat down in front of the machine, things lifted some. They always did when I was working. Everything else always fell away, even the news that my niece had developed appendicitis. Too many people had told me I couldn’t do this, shouldn’t even try to do this in two weeks. I’d show those jealous bastards. Something bad had possessed me. I just lined up the same three records I’d been listening to, over and over again, since I’d started—a compilation of Fassbinder soundtracks, Attack of the Killer Surf Guitars and Beethoven’s Ninth—then kept typing.

Three o’clock Friday afternoon I was done with the first draft. I usually didn’t do more than one. Type it, give it a quick clean-up, turn it in, forget about it. Things are just easier that way. I didn’t see why this case should be any different, except for the fact that the end result was 467 pages long. They asked me for 250. I figured we’d deal with it. I’d edit it down some over the next couple of days, then they could publish what was left over in a really tiny font.

When I called my editor, David, to tell him I was finished, all proud of myself, he seemed a little incredulous.

"Great," he said. "What part did you finish?"

"No—not a part. The whole thing. It’s done. It’s written."


I liked David; but I could tell that he was thinking that I had done some half-assed job. Though he knew what I did, he had never worked with me before.

All the while I was working, I was wondering when the demons were going to show up, and I got my answer Saturday morning. I’d gone into the bathroom for some reason (quite possibly to piss) when I stepped on something small. I didn’t worry about it until the pain shot through the bottom of my foot and up my leg. I jerked my foot off the ground, thinking I had stepped on a still-glowing cigarette ash, when the wasp righted itself and buzzed away. Fortunately, Morgan stopped by later that afternoon and killed it for me. Even though the wasp was dead, however, the demons were there; I had let them in somehow, and they weren’t ready to leave yet. That wasp was just a courier.

So over the next couple days, as I edited my 467-page manuscript down to 464 pages, I did my best to fight off the bad voices in my head. Inexplicable tears would well up in my eyes, and I forced myself to choke bad inexplicable sobs. My guts felt thick and queasy. I stopped sleeping, no matter how much whiskey and beer I poured into myself, I ate a bowl of cereal in the morning, and not much after that.

Who knew where it was coming from? There were a few obvious possibilities. I’d been pushing myself harder than I had in years, running on adrenaline and cigarettes alone, staying off the beer until two or three, just to keep my head clear, and now it was done, and I was exhausted. That was the obvious guess. Which, of course, made it the least likely.

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I had taken a decade’s worth of work and crammed it into ten days, packaged it up nice and pretty, and was done with it. It was in heavy, solid form, and now it was time to start all over again from the beginning.

Or maybe it was just cabin fever. Or maybe I was dreading the return to my post and my phones.

Or maybe I just hadn’t gone mad in awhile.

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

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