Maybe It's Something You Thought

by Jim Knipfel

Something's gone wrong with the world. It seemed to happen right around the first of the year. Something bad's happened. Sure, things have been swirling down the crapper ever since our ancestors first started talking, but this is different; this is something that has no apparent connection to the crime rate, the unemployment rate, the number of unwed mothers, or an increase in cab fares. This time around, the swing towards the ugly seems to be operating on a very individual, human level.

Strangely enough, the world immediately surrounding me—my bubble, my shell, the tiny world I live in—was fine. I woke up without a howler of a hangover, the cats didn't shit on the floor, there was still hot water enough left for a shower. The tape player was still working, so I could count on X's More Fun in the Free World to pick me up and send me bouncing on my way. For once, things seemed almost all right, if only for the moment.

Then the little things started popping their puffy, festering heads up. The Iranian guy at the newsstand didn't call me "chief" or "boss." Didn't say a word, actually. Just opened his window, stuck out his hand, took my change, closed his window, went on with his business.

On the subway into work, a vaguely attractive blonde woman sitting a few seats down from me sobbed uncontrollably. She covered her face with her hands in a feeble attempt to hide it, but it didn't work. The rest of the car was silent. She'd obviously been crying for a long time—her eyes red, her face bloated, the lines etched deep. Everyone around her pretended not to notice. Except me. I stared, until she took her hands away from her face and looked up, directly into my eyes. I looked away, a little ashamed, but not too much.

There were five messages waiting for me on my telephone at work: two hangups, one long silence, except for the background mutterings of a bus station, one person looking for someone who hadn't worked in the office for three years, one person wanting to talk to someone, anyone, about "an elderly woman who—" (I erased the message at that point).

As people started coming in, it was obvious that something was wrong. It was more than your boring Monday morning blues. There was a serious depression and anger around them. It was like a sickness, some sort of plague afflicting the spirit. Almost none of them had a smile or a kind word. They shuffled past me, heads down, maybe a little mumble, nothing more. Went straight to their cubicles, nothing more. At the stroke of nine, the phone started to ring.

That in itself is not unusual. Everyone on the other end of the phone was extremely stupid. Certainly nothing about that was unusual, either. But there was something different about it this morning. It was as if everyone in the city had made a New Years' resolution to be just a little more profoundly stupid this go-round—and to make a special effort to combine that stupidity with an impotent rage. On top of all that, they all decided to direct these things my way.

"'Mornin'," I'd say in my normally chipper, dulcet tones as I picked up the phone.

"Kevin there?!" He was teetering on the edge of an ugly panic that I recognized immediately. It was the guy who called three times a day, asking for Kevin. Every day I tell him that Kevin doesn't come in until 11:30.

"Nossir. As I keep telling you, Kevin won't be in for a couple hours yet." I try to be nice to him. I mean, the man's obviously a little retarded, or maybe suffering from Alzheimer's, so I don't let it get to me much. Until that morning.

"Goddamn you! Goddamn you!" he screamed into the phone before hanging up.

I wouldn't've given that more than a chuckle normally, but that old man set the standard that carried through the rest of the day.

Now, I've been thinking--there's something strange and indecipherable about the art of receptioning. There's a randomness to it, like quantum physics, except your dealing with phone calls and visitors instead of protons and neutrons. You can sort of guess when there's going to be a flurry, but you can never be sure. Long, undisturbed stretches of reading and calm will be punctuated unexpectedly by shotgun blasts of panic, rage, and insanity.

You can always count on the phone ringing non-stop between 11 and 12, and again between 3 and 4. Apart from those two hours, the rest of my time there is pretty much a crapshoot.

But not that particular day. That particular day there were no breaks, no pauses, no chances to catch my breath. Whenever I was on the phone trying to calm down some silly-ass, another one was ringing another line, waiting to yell at me. They were all--every last one of them--angry, at me and at the world that forced them to talk to me. Angry and stupid. Bad combination.

"Why won't John talk to me?"

"Because John's not here."

"Do you know who I'm am? I've been patched through to CEOs of major corporations and politicians! Without question!"

"Then maybe you should try calling some of them."

"You just shut your mouth."

And so on.

It wasn't just the phones, either--they walked in through the front door, where I had to look at them, and where I'm not allowed to make funny faces (the way I do to people on the phone).

A small man of indeterminate Eastern European origin shuffled in about 10:30, and plopped two enormous binders on my desk.

"I need, ah, to be speaking wiss de man in charge."

"Of what?"

"Of the homelessness."

When he found out we had no man in charge of "the homelessness," he packed up his two binders, 500 pages worth of "serious government documents," and left. But before he left, he turned and gave me the finger. I just laughed. Such problems I have with the foreigners!

That's the weird thing. As all this rancor was thrown my way—all this hatred and bitterness was fired at me, personally—I fed on it, sucked it up like Godzilla sucks up electricity, growing stronger and happier as all those around me got weaker and grumpier. This, of course, did not improve my standing amongst my co-workers.

"Look! It's all gray and drizzly outside!"

"Just shut up."

I was working in a Spike Jones kind of rhythm—wired, anarchic, full steam ahead, with a horn section in my head that was having one hell of a good time.

The phones kept ringing, the doors kept opening, offering me more bad news, more bad energy, more venom, and I ate it all up. Still, in the back of my skull, in the quiet part, the part sheltered away from the horn section, I was wondering what, exactly, had gone wrong with everybody else.

I'd seen it happen before, and it always evaporated after a day or two. For those few days, everybody's cranky and grumpy and stupid mean. But time passes, they forget what they're doing, and they get blind happy again—which, of course, casts me back into the dark pits of personal, drunken despair.

I knew things were coming to an end when Kevin threw an envelope on my desk.

"What's this?" I asked.

"Dunno. So you take it."

I opened it up. There was just a single sheet of paper inside. The first line read, "Kiss Someone you love when you get this letter and make magic! This letter was sent to you for good luck!"

I could feel my happiness seeping away, the black nausea sliding in to take its place.

Unlike most chain letters, this one didn't promise dire consequences for not mailing out 20 copies to my friends (I don't have 20 friends). Those are the kind I like. No, this one was full of warmth and good cheer—winning lottery numbers, better jobs, love, whatever. All these things I have no use for. Promise me illness, despair, car accidents, anything—then maybe I'll do something about it. I crumpled the letter and tossed it. With any luck, they simply forgot to mention the darkness awaiting me for breaking the chain.

I guess the darkness is the only place I'm really comfortable.

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

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