Stripped bare and thrown to the fools

by Jim Knipfel

The fear crept up on me slowly that Saturday, like a disease or an aging panther. There was simply no way to combat it, there was no time to prepare, no time to throw up the iron walls before this stone frozen panic grabbed me by the throat and started shaking me like a torn rag doll. All I could do was try and get out of there as quickly as possible.

Let me back up a bit. See, I'm not a man who's afraid of much. It isn't a macho thing--I don't have time for that. It's just a matter of survival. Once you're no longer afraid of dying, then nothing outside of yourself is much cause for concern. That was the problem. The only thing that still scares the shit out of me are the mysterious storms that occasionally break deep inside my brain. I can't predict them and I can't control them and they can leave me a gibbering idiot, cowering in a corner for no good reason. That's exactly what happened that Saturday night.

It had been a pretty monstrous day to begin with. I shouldn't've considered going out at all that night, but I had no choice. I'd created some obligations for myself. By the time I left the apartment and headed towards the subway, I was in a vengeful rage. The day had been spent having my spirit slowly picked raw and bloody by voices that weren't my own. It happens on such a grand scale--going on for hours and hours--every few years. Someone close to me decides that they know exactly what's wrong with me and decides to let me in on the secret. Why do I put up with it? Because as I've said before, I'm a fucking sweetheart, that's why.

So after all the noise has stopped, I stomp out into the rain and into the dark, nearly as blind psychologically as I am physically. It's only a few blocks to the subway, it's a trip I could usually make blindfolded. I know where all the bad spots in the sidewalk are, I know which gates people tend to leave open, I know when the various garbage days are (meaning the sidewalk will be an obstacle course of metal and plastic). All that useless knowledge stayed behind in the apartment when I left. Something else for the cats to play with, I guess.

Along the way, keeping my eyes to the ground, I knocked old women to the sidewalk, stepped on small children and kicked a few dogs. "Sounds like something you'd normally enjoy doing," Ken told me as I rocked from one foot to the other obsessively some time later. "Yeah, normally--but thing is, it lacked that delicious sense of anticipation, the knowing that you're gonna hurt someone. It was just boom-boom, then it was over. Hitchcock sure was right about that shit."

By the time I reached the train, the rage had been multiplied by pain and frustration. I was ready to kill and be killed. Worst of all, I was on my way to Hate parties. Especially parties where I won't know many people. Hate people. Especially strangers. But like I said, I had obligations.

The trip into Manhattan did nothing to calm me down. No, all it did was give me plenty of time to sit there in my wet coat and think about how angry, hurt and humiliated I was. "Poopyhead," am I? I'll show you a poopyhead!

I skulked through the door into the noise and the smoke and the crowd and tried to stick close to the wall like some hairy roach, staying as anonymous as possible, all the while trying to track down a recognizable face (and a drink) in the big swirl of nothings.

I was filling my glass when something grabbed me by the shoulder. I snapped around and glared, ready for anything.

"Jesus, Mr. Jim--wha'cha looking at me like that for? It's just me." It was Ken. Ken was a good sort. Lawyer or not, I could trust him.

"Sorry 'bout that. Just a little, uhhhh, tense, I guess."

"Maybe it's your coffee."

"Or maybe it's all these people," I spat.

I moved off into a reasonably quiet hallway, shoved myself into a corner and started in on the drink. I'd have to watch it tonight. The way it was going, the tension, the rage, if I got too stupid, I might snap and start swinging, or throwing babies out of windows or some such.

There were a few familiar faces around, so I gestured them over, in an attempt to build an impenetrable wall of flesh around myself. It didn't work. It never did. Whether or not I was obviously talking to someone, the Stupid Parade broke right on through into my face.

"You Knipfel?"

"Ohhhh, I guess so."

"Hey maahn, blah, blah, blah, blah."

"Uh-huh. Well, thank you. That's very kind of you to say, uhhh...."

Another face, the same exchange, one right after another, like they were all held together in a long chain of snot. Most everybody, it seems, wants to meet Knipfel. Problem is, though, that Knipfel don't want to meet everybody. In fact, Knipfel don't want to meet anybody. Except maybe Norman Mailer--but he wasn't there that night.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, I fulfilled my obligation, and the baklava was delivered to my friend Linda. I turned to leave, but found myself trapped. The rage and pain built in my guts, a fiery nest of blood red worms which grew and fed on itself and grew some more, spreading out towards the surface, crawling down into my legs. All at once, it seems, everything combined into some sick alchemical monstrosity, and exploded into a blind panic. I started rocking back and forth, stuttering, my eyes darting back and forth, seeing nothing. I started to sweat something terrible. It was the Great Fear again. I can't control it, and can't much explain it.

"You Knipfel?"


Some say there's a beauty in blind panic, and I'd usually agree. The L.A. riots had an honest beauty to them, as do those final fifteen pages of “Day of the Locust.” But when the panic is flapping its wings madly inside your skull, there's nothing beautiful about it. It's about as ugly as it gets.

I had the option of getting another drink--of just grabbing the goddamned bottle and pouring myself into unconcious escape, but I couldn't. Like I said, there was the serious chance that somewhere along that road I'd lash out at the next person who asked me if I was me. Simple lying isn't an option. Besides, I was surrounded by too many fake drunks that night. It's always better to stay straight in a room full of fake drunks. I'm not sure why, but it is.

I lit a smoke and went into another room and sat down, keeping an eye open for a possible escape route.

"Hey, are you...?"

A few hours later, finally back in Brooklyn, the Great Fear still had its claws into me. I was alone now, goddammit. Why didn't it leave me alone? I poured a shot of whiskey and turned the television on. Nothing. It didn't matter. I sat there on the floor, staring at the screen, not thinking about anything except the squirming, burning panic.

I think I finally fell asleep sometime around three or three-thirty. But when I awoke the next morning at nine,. it was still there. It threw me around the apartment unchecked, haphazard, dangerous-like. There was nothing to be afraid of, you idiot, I kept telling myself. It was like being on a good, strong dose of crank again. That's what it felt like, but again, without the anticipation, without knowing why you couldn't think of sitting down, it lost it's joyous edge.

I went outside and stomped around. I came back to the apartment and swept. I was exhausted, but I kept moving. It was all beginning to worry me a little bit. It wasn't until late that afternoon that I realized what I had to do.

I slipped in a tape of Johnny Cash live at the Manhattan Center last year, lit myself a fat, black Havana cigar my pal Grinch had sent me, poured myself a more than healthy dose of whisky, sat back, and felt the fear melt out of my system fast as cotton candy in a warm summer rain. Sitting there alone, "Sunday Morning Coming Down" playing sad and lonely over me, the whiskey and smoke warm inside, I decided to make it my own little manly holiday. I felt much better.

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

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