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.
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