Smoke Gets In Your Head

by Jim Knipfel

It had been a good some time since I'd had a hangover like this one. I’d almost forgotten what the game was all about. I guess I’d been too easy on myself.

Things just rolled on and on at the bar the night before--every time someone made their goodnights and left, someone else would show up--someone else we hadn't seen in months. Case like that, well, there’s no choice but to call for another round. The pints mounted up on my empty and tired belly as I gulped and smoked my way through an impromptu, silly-assed and drunken episode of “This Is Your Life.”

Still, by the time I left, things didn’t seem so bad. I can’t remember much of anything I said to anyone, but I don’t remember stumbling or falling down either. My knees and hands weren’t scraped bloody. I did wake up two stops too late on the subway, but that was fine. Been through that shit enough times to know the procedure. At least I hadn’t slept all the way to Coney this time. I didn’t lose my hat or my cane on the way home from the train. I didn’t burn myself while cooking dinner after I got home and, even though I don’t remember anything that was on, I didn’t pass out on the floor in front of the television.

I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night soaked in a foul sweat, as would normally happen in the olden days--in fact, when I did wake up during the night, I noticed only the slightest ringing in my ears and a sharp, but mild pain across my eyes. No big deal, I thought as I lay there, waiting to fall back asleep--it’ll all be fine once I’m up and around, once the blood starts flowing again.

That final thought, I figure, was merely a reflection of the hubris which accompanied getting home alive and unsullied that night. I was a fool, and the pain didn’t go away the next morning. It grew and prospered as I stood under the shower and tried to get dressed. I stumbled out to the kitchen, head down to ease the pressure, and poured myself some coffee, juice and a small bowl of some ridiculous, godawful new-fangled breakfast cereal.

Three bites into the cereal, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it. Jesus, I hadn’t puked in months. Gagged some, but never puked. I stood up from the table and was only halfway to the bathroom before I had a mouthful. Rather than let it spray, as I normally would have if I were on the subway, I held it in check until I grabbed the porcelain.

Finished with that bit of business, I sat back, rinsed my mouth out in the sink, and returned to breakfast. I ate a few more bites, then dumped the rest. It wasn’t worth the effort, even with Grinch’s Only True Hangover Cure (“Eating, Sleeping, Puking”) tapping me on the shoulder. After downing the rest of the coffee, I returned to the bathroom, brushed the rest of the vomit off my teeth, took my pills, then put my shoes and coat on to head out.

I stepped into the hallway, locked the door behind me and pocketed the keys. I stood at the top of the stairs for a moment. Then I retrieved the keys, unlocked the door, and stomped back towards the bathroom.

This time it wouldn’t stop. It just wouldn’t stop. I’d been kneeling there awhile before I remembered my hair. Shit--there it was, hanging down towards the water. Reaching to pull it back behind my ears, I found that the ends were soaked.

Maybe it’s still just wet from the shower, I tried to console myself. I sniffed the damp ends, before realizing that I wouldn’t be able to smell anything, no matter how badly it reeked. Not yet anyway.

After letting the last of the bile spill out of me some minutes later, I sat back again and took a few deep breaths. It’s sad to be an old man. After rinsing my mouth out again, I stood on shaky legs and headed back out towards the train.

It’s always been part of God’s Big Joke that He enjoys tormenting me above and beyond the call whenever I’m hungover. That morning was no exception.

Normally, he gets me with drizzle or rain, the air pressure forcing my already scarred sinuses to the bursting point. This particular morning, he got me with cruel, bright and piercing sunlight. While normally sunlight is a blessing, this time I tried to avert my eyes. Yet wherever I turned them, there was more light, drilling into my head, bursting more of the pain nodules which line the inside of my skull.

Squinting my way underground, finding the shadows hiding there to be only the mildest bit of relief, I stepped aboard the packed and waiting train. Five minutes behind schedule, and the fucking train’s packed. I leaned back against the doors and kept my head down. God’s cosmic one-liners just kept bouncing along.

From the other end of the train, over the mild din of the rush hour crowd, I heard the first electronic thumps from a cheap, portable beat box. Well, I can deal with that, I thought.

Then the trumpeting began.

In the pantheon of Western musical instruments, nothing, I must say, is worse for a hangover than a trumpet. Even snare drums are less vicious than trumpets. I couldn’t see him, this desperate musician, but his trumpet rumba version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” was drilling through my head like an awl. Even turning my back on the sound didn’t help--it wrapped around all obstacles and continued stabbing at me. Worse, it was getting closer, the sound growing, screeching and inescapable. A minute later, he was right next to me, pointing that weapon of his right in my face, blaring away. All the other people around me were smiling happily and filling his outstretched hat with cash. I wanted to cry.

Finally limping from the train, I hit the street and the fresh, cool morning air, hoping that would clear my head some, but God was just getting started.

The entire six-block walk from the subway to the office had been transformed into a construction site, lined with jackhammers, air horns and clouds of dust. Why was I doing this to myself? I was tempted to turn around and go home, but that would be cowardly. A hangover has never kept me home from work before, never once. I wasn’t going to let it happen this time, either.

By the time I stumbled into the paper’s front doors, my blurred and narrowed vision had blitzed red. The office in the back where I work was full of cigarette smoke. Now, I certainly have nothing against smoking and consider it a blessing to be able to work in a smoking office. I’m not about to ask my co-workers not to smoke just because I was feeling poorly. Still, as I sat there, my stomach began to lurch again, even though there was nothing left in it to spew around the room. I guess it’s the way of deities, isn’t it?--to take a blessing and turn it on it’s head, turn it into some sort of wicked curse.

It was evident after an hour or so that I wasn’t going to get a goddamned thing accomplished. I sat there staring at the computer screen, arms hanging limply over the sides of my chair, everything getting worse.

I shut off the machine, stood back up, put my coat back on and headed towards the front door. On the way there, various voices from up and down the hall kept adding to the list of little jobs I had to finish ASAP.

“Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh,” I kept muttering, trying to sift all these instructions through the pain and keep them all lined up.

Once back outside, I was again in the world of eternal construction, but it seemed now as if the volume had been jacked up a few notches. I pulled out a cigarette of my own, figuring that would be different, only to find that I was wrong again. The flames in my skull roared higher, the needles in my eyes burrowing deeper.

I dropped the cigarette to the ground.

The train back towards Brooklyn, thank goodness, was nearly empty. I could sit with my eyes closed and relax. God must have noticed that I was letting my guard down, that I was easing the tension in my muscles a touch, because at 2nd Ave. the train doors opened and a couple got aboard and sat down across from me.

They were loud, but I’d been through worse already that morning. At least they weren’t playing any brass instruments. Soon, though, I noticed something strange about their loudness. They weren’t just loud, they were uselessly loud. And manic. Listening to the words alone, it sounded like a normal conversation, but they were screaming:



All spit out in a rapid-fire howl, interrupted by cheap laughter. I couldn’t tell if they were drunk or speeding or simply enthusiastic about living. Then they pulled out cigarettes. They were screaming and cackling and smoking. Again, I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite, but Christ, you just don’t smoke on the subway--especially not around people who are obviously hung really bad. Given that the car was empty, I didn’t want to get up and move--that would’ve been obvious, and then they would have killed me. Not that that was such a bad idea at the time.

But I got home alive, and crawled back into bed. Even my bad foot hurt, and it hadn’t hurt since the day after the operation.

Before I fell asleep, I began to reminisce about other hangovers I’ve had, at other times in my life. This time around wasn’t nearly as bad as the time in Philly where the puking was not only endless, but the bile itself, after the first few minutes, turned cold. Cold and black.

This wasn’t nearly as bad as that time. That time or a few dozen others. And I’m sure there will be worse times in the future as well. I’m just getting old, is all. Old and cowardly. I closed my eyes and lay there for awhile in my rumpled clothes, letting God’s laughter die down.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. All rights reserved.

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