Excuse me as I talk myself out of something nice

by Jim Knipfel

Things build and build, piling up, blocking my vision so that even when something potentially good seems to almost come along, I have the damnedest time trying to fit it in anyplace. It's like trying to fit a jigsaw puzzle piece into a board game. Makes no sense.

On my kitchen table at home, there's a scattered pile of unpaid medical bills, buried beneath the unpaid gas, phone and electric bills. Next to them sits a letter from a lawyer for the City of Philadelphia, claiming that I may owe back taxes--they're not sure--but if I do, and I don't pay them within two weeks, they're going to send someone up to Brooklyn to shatter my kneecaps.

I go over to my ex's place Saturday night. She's out of town and wants me to stay over there to make sure that the cats she's babysitting didn't kill her own cat (or vice-versa). By the time I got over there, the two visiting cats had shat all over her bedroom--on the floor, on top of the bed, in the closet and under the blankets (something I didn't realize until I crawled into bed that night). Then, to top things off, I made the grotesque mistake of forcing myself to watch Scanners III from beginning to end.

When I got home the next day, I walked through the front door, took off my jacket, and sat down in front of the pile of bills. From the next room, there came another low, rumbling, frightening crash. I didn't even bother to look this time. It could wait.

"Every time I sit down, the world just crumbles around me," I told Laura when I talked to her a few minutes later.

"The thing to do then, I guess, is just never sit down. Just keep walking around."

"Yeah, but then things would fall on top of me."

The weekend went straight downhill after that.

That's all good and fine and normal. I'm used to the shitstorm. It doesn't bother me. By this time I'm pretty much convinced that, when I finally do die, seconds before the lights go out, Alan Funt is going to step out from behind the curtain, holding his camera, pointing and laughing.

The next day, Monday, however, things started to get seriously twisted.

When I got back from my daily respite at Buffa's, there was a phone call waiting for me. That was a bad sign to begin with. It wasn't a relative or a friend. No, it was a (supposed, at least) literary agent. How he found out where I worked is beyond me. I didn't even want to know. He was waiting there on the phone, and I was stuck.

Like I said, this should've been a good thing. Some sort of validation of these past eight years of struggling and starving. That final, long-awaited recognition from the Powers That Be. Thing is, though, it just made me sort of nauseous. I sat there on the phone, saying things like "uh-huh," "sure," "uh-huh," "we'll see" and "yeah, so long."

I didn't remember his name or what agency he was from. He didn't sound like he had much of a sense of humor. He wanted me to write a novel. I don't have the imagination to write a novel.

That's the thing--I've talked to some of these folk before, and they all want something different out of me; inevitably, something that I'm not terribly interested in doing. One woman wanted me to write a "coming-of-age novel about growing up in the Midwest." Not only do I not know what the hell that means, but I think the world has too many of those already. Another offered me a reasonable deal, then told me that the real reason she wanted to see me was that she was "in love" with me. ("Christ, I really don't need this," I told her as I stood up from the table and paid for my own goddamned lunch.) The only recent offer I've received that still intrigues me is the one from the Retinitis Pigmentosa Newsletter.

The last thing I want to appear to be here is a big, whiny baby; or worse, some self-righteous artiste. I've always maintained that all I do is write goofy little stories. That's all. It's no big deal, it sure as hell ain't art, and I don't really take it all that seriously. If my editor decides to scrap a story (which he does on a fairly regular basis), I don't get all huffy about it. When strangers ask me what I do for a living, I puff up my chest and declare proudly, "I'm a receptionist!"

I fully realize that New York is full of people aching to be published, people who pray every night for an opportunity offered by this literary-agent thing. I'm also aware that some of the finest writers in the world never get published--the best writers I know personally have never ever been published; and in this I realize that I've been a very lucky man.

Besides, am I really aching for that Random House deal or that Vanity Fair cover story? Not really. That's not my world. I suppose I should be aching. Maybe some day I will. One day when I get really, really desperate. Now, as with most of the last eight years, I'm content to write stupid little stories about myself, and there's not a goddamned thing wrong with that. In the end--and I know this from experience--none of these Big Folk would have the slightest interest in me, anyway. I'm not the self-deluding type (at least not most of the time).

Herein lies the rub, and the source of my nausea: I'm touched--honestly--that these people, these agent-types, enjoy what I do. But given that, why do they want me to do something different? It makes no sense to me.

I find this to be the case with most of my human encounters, which is why I like to keep them to a minimum. The number of people I choose to deal with on my own time grows smaller with each passing breath. In fact, taking stock over this past week, I seem to be on the fast track towards Pynchonville. Here's why: like with these agents, most people, I've found, approach me for something they believe me to be; but once I open up, talk to them for awhile, suddenly they start expecting me to be someone or something else, something completely different, something that exists only in their heads, in order to fulfill their own petty and insipid expectations.

I really hate that. That's why I stick with my cats as much as possible. I can't escape people at work. I still ride the subways with them and walk the streets with them and sit in the bars with them when I can afford it. But when I can, I hide out in my apartment, not answering my phone, drinking, hassling the beasts.

And as long as I comb the Big Guy when he jumps up on the sink in the morning, and so long as I turn on the lamp above the stereo so the Little One can bask in the glow after I get home from work, they don't ask much else from me (except for that food thing). Lord knows they don't shit on my bed. I can walk around in my underwear, sing Elvis off-key, pick my toenails in front of the television. They don't give a fuck, and neither do I.

"Excuse me while I talk myself out of something nice" copyright 1996 by Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress.
Artwork copyright 1996 by Bob Hires. All rights reserved.

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