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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
Maybe I Should Worry
One day last week, I got home to find a message waiting on the answering machine. It was from a very nice lady who said she worked for a biography magazine. She was calling to let me know they were going to be running something about me in an upcoming issue.
I’d never heard of the publication, and at first assumed that by “biography magazine” she meant a magazine which contained reviews of all the latest biographies hitting the market. New books about John C. Calhoun, say, or Art Linkletter. In short, I thought she was just telling me in a roundabout fashion that they were running a review.
The next morning, just out of curiosity, I did a quick bit of research. The magazine had been around for a surprisingly long time, it turns out. And my initial assumptions about it were completely wrong. It wasn’t a magazine about biographies—it was a magazine which consisted of biographies. Every issue contained biographical sketches of professional athletes, politicians, businessmen, artists, newsmakers of any kind. Prominent, important people.
This is when things first struck me as a little strange. Why me, after all? Compared with all the other people I saw listed, I was a complete nobody. A grub hiding out under the picnic table. Who would care, except maybe my parents? And besides—the biography’s already out there, piecemeal, spread out over about 18 years worth of columns and books. So why the hell bother?
Nevertheless, on top of being confused by all this, I guess I was a little flattered. Yes, it was a very nice thing, even if my inclusion didn’t make sense to me.
But as I read through a couple of the sample profiles I’d found, I began to feel a bit uneasy about the whole thing. At first, it was almost like a sense of déjà vu. It felt like I’d read these things before. Not these specifically, maybe—these particular profiles of jazz musicians, basketball players and governors—but things very much like them. I recognized the style and the format.
Then I remembered where from.
What I was reading, essentially, were obituaries. Obituaries waiting to happen. All you needed to do was drop in “…was found dead in a motel bathroom on Saturday. He was 63.” And you’d be good to go. That’s all an obituary is, really—a biography with a few extra sentences tacked on at the beginning and the end.
It’s an old trick of course, employed by newspapers and other institutions for generations. To save research and comp time when the moment arrives, obituaries are often prepared long in advance. Every newspaper in the country has a Pope John Paul II obit sitting around in a file somewhere right now. And most of the Bob Hope obits you read were probably originally written in the early ‘80s. I even knew the person at the University of Chicago who wrote the official obituaries for aging faculty members and administrators. The practice among the regular press occasionally makes news when the pre-obits accidentally see the light of day while the subject still lives and breathes.
What the magazine seemed to be was a clearinghouse for obituaries. A place AP or UPI could go to find obits ready and waiting whenever someone of note kicked. Where else are you going to find a detailed, fact-checked and coherent biography of Peter Uberroth when the time comes? Is someone just gonna pull that baby out of his ass in 15 minutes with quotes and everything so they can drop it on the wires? No sir—you need to be prepared.
And now they were putting me in there. The whole thing reeked of one of those quickie Twilight Zone episodes. One with Jack Klugman in it, maybe. Did the people at this magazine know something I didn’t? I didn’t dare ask.
A few days later, the woman from the magazine, much to my surprise, forwarded me a copy of the article in question, asking me to check it over for factual errors and what-not. As far as any mistakes went, there were very few: a few dates, a few quotes which had been mistranscribed years earlier. All in all, though, it was incredibly accurate. Quite humbling, too, being as kind as it was. More than anything, though, it was unnerving.
I’d written autobiography bit by bit, again, for nearly two decades. And here in front of me was pretty much the same story—except now it was in the third person and had been laid out in chronological order. There were quotes from old interviews as well as from book reviews (but only nice ones).
Someone once told me, “you live your life in the third person,” and while, yes, there’s something to that, this is a different story completely. I was reading about the events in my own life, but not the life I experienced—if that makes any sense. It was as if the events were the same, but they’d happened to somebody else of about my height.
Perhaps the most Serlingesque thing of all about the bio I’d been sent was that it ended two years ago, in 2003. Was someone trying to tell me something?
Of all the things in this world I’m perfectly happy to believe in—Bigfoot, Godzilla, C.H.U.D.s, intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, I never had much time for ghosts. On the one hand, I don’t put much stock in “souls.” And on the other, if there were ghosts lurking about, I sure as hell wasn’t going to see them. So why fret?
Still, I had to wonder. As the old explanation goes, ghosts are the spirits of people who died suddenly and don’t know they’re dead. As a result, they spend their days wandering about feeling vaguely disconnected until someone sets them straight. Is that what this was? Did I just imagine that last book? Would that explain the happy ending?
At some point in 2003, was I gunned down while drunk or run over by an SUV driven by another drunk? Is that why the days seem so much alike sometimes? And are these the types of questions everyone asks themselves at one point or another along the way? I don’t know, but I must admit they’ve always plagued me. And reading my own obit sure doesn’t help matters.
After beginning to think in these terms, suddenly everything around me began taking on new significance. “Jim’s Cheap Symbolism,” as it’s sometimes called. Computer troubles, the long silences, the other sad faces on the train.
I was waiting on a subway platform a day after these things became apparent. Apart from me, the only other person down there was a guy standing maybe 10 yards away leaning back against the tiled wall. It was very hushed, except for the wind whistling down the tunnel. Suddenly and quietly, he began singing Roy Orbison’s “Crying.”
So was he another ghost? Who knows?
I sometimes find that I play around with ideas like this, pull meaning out of any damn thing that’s at hand, for way too long.
But I’m sure it’ll pass over.
Either that, or I will.
One of the two.