Return to Strangeville
by Jim Knipfel
"I was real lucky," he said, "I was out there just a short time, 22 years old, before I got the fourth lead in a movie."
"And what movie was that?"
"Oh, you probably never heard of it."
"I watch a lot of movies. Try me."
"It was a little movie called Private School."
"With Matthew Modine and Phoebe Cates? My God, of course I've seen that movie. Over and over again."
"Well, you remember a character named Bubba?"
"Fell out the window, didn't he?"
"Yeah--that was me."
"Well, I'll be damned."
We talked a bit more about his life since Hollywood, what he's doing back in New York. Then we reached our stop and had to go out into the rain again. When I got home, there was a message waiting for me from Pete Brown, an old friend from Philly and the world's biggest Bob Dylan fanatic, informing me that, for some reason, I was being discussed on some Dylan Internet newsgroup. He wouldn't tell me why, though.
That's certainly peculiar, I thought, as I opened a beer and put my frozen pizza in the oven.
The next morning, on my way back into work, I found myself sitting next to a Hassid on the train. Hat, black coat, long white beard. And, as usual, his body was bent over a small book open on his lap, which he seemed to be studying with some concentration and vigor. I paid him no mind, this being a common sight, especially on my way out of Brooklyn. I went about my own business--looking at my shoes and trying to figure out what to do with my hands--until we approached his stop at 14th street. It wasn't until the train slowed down and he started getting ready to leave that he finally closed his book, and I discovered that he wasn't memorizing the Talmud but rather hard at work over a movie tie-in edition of John Grisham's The Rainmaker.
I watched his back as he left, a few preconceived notions following him out onto the platform.
When I got off the train myself at the next stop, I hit 23rd street and lit up a smoke. As I walked down the sidewalk towards 7th, an old woman leaning against a wall called to me as I passed.
"Hey!" she said. So I stopped and walked over to her.
"Can I have a cigarette?"
"Sure." I reached into my pocket, and while I was doing so, I took a closer look at her. The Greeks would have called her a "crone." She was an ancient, tiny woman--just a dried up little husk of a woman--with four brown tooth nubbins jutting out of her lower jaw. She was dressed awful light for such a cold, blustery day.
I handed her the cigarette, and she looked hard into my eyes. As she took the smoke, instead of saying "thank you" or "God bless you, young man" or "have a nice day," as I might've expected, she belched out, "I don't want to live."
"I know what that's all about," I told her.
"I don't want to live," she repeated, a little louder.
Well, fuck it, I figured. I raised my voice a bit too. "I don't want to live, either, ma'am--but here we are." I kept walking. It was cold out, and I had to get to work.
"Thank you!" she finally called after me. I wasn't sure if she meant that for the smoke or the cheap support. Whichever, I figured.
"You're welcome!" I called back.
Somehow, with that little exchange, something had clicked back into place. Life was weird again, I knew that for sure now, and I felt much better about it all. I continued on into the office with a newfound bounce in my step. Well, not a bounce actually, more of a limp, but it was something.
Unfortunately, once I got into work and got my coat off and got settled and opened my coffee, I was handed the news on a shiny silver platter that my column had been cut back to every other week.
An hour later, as I sat there glowering at the phones trying to figure out how I was going to cover the rent--it had been tough enough before--Murray strolled through the front door. Murray is a radio producer who had promised me a show a couple weeks earlier, and I hadn't heard from him since. Granted, we were both drunk something awful at the time, but I remembered our discussion.
We made small talk for a bit, before I finally came out and said it.
"What the hell's the deal with my radio show, Murray?'
He stared at me a good long time, obviously trying to focus himself, trying to remember. Finally, he asked that singularly deadly question:
"What in the fuck are you talking about?"
I guess I'd figured as much that night in the bar, even.
"Never mind," I told him.
Yeah, life was weird again, all right. I always keep forgetting, always during the dry spells, that "weird life" is pretty much the same thing as "bad life." It was gonna be a helluva year, that's for goddamn sure.
Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. Artwork copyright Bob Hires. All rights reserved.
Buy Jim Knipfel's books from Amazon.com with the links on the Slackjaw books page.
You can also send email to Jim Knipfel.