SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
January 13, 2008

Maybe I Should Take the Hint

 

Not too long ago, my friend John passed along a stack of movies. John and I have known each other for roughly fifteen years now, and in that time we’ve become fairly good judges, I think, of each other’s taste in horror movies (which most of these were). That’s why, when he passed the stack along, he warned me that several of them had been made within the last few years, so he could not, therefore, be held accountable for their quality.

            John knows I’m not a big fan of recent horror films. They all look the same to me, with their saturated colors and their blue-gray filters. Even the actors all look the same. And as for the scripts, well.

            John’s not a big fan of most of these films, either, to be honest, but he still goes to see them. He passed them my way, I guess, because he also knows that I will watch damn near anything through to the end, no matter how awful.

            So I began watching them. There were a couple, I’ll admit, that I found surprisingly entertaining. But there were a few that were absolutely incoherent. At any given moment, I would’ve been hard pressed to explain what the hell was going on, or why. Plus everyone looked the same, which made things even more confusing.

            In the middle of one of these baffling jobs—something called The Abandoned, which is about ghosts or something—a character says, “They say if you see yourself—your Doppelganger—then you know it’s time to die.”

            That gave me pause—and not just because all the actors looked the same to begin with. It didn’t even have anything to do with the fact that he’d just given away the end of the movie with forty-five minutes to go.

            Instead, I had to stop and think at that point simply because I’ve been seeing my Doppelganger for years now—lots of them, even—in damn near every city where I’ve ever lived. Green Bay, Madison, Minneapolis, Chicago—and to date there have been at least four in New York (there might have been some in Philadelphia, too, but I was pretty drunk at the time, and don’t remember). Yet for all that Doppelganger action, I’m still here, for whatever that’s worth.

            When I was in high school my Doppelganger was one of my best friends. Maybe that saved me. His name was Peter. He was my height, his hair was the same color and style as mine, he wore the same kind of glasses. It wasn’t uncommon at all for people to confuse us with one another, or ask if we were related.

            Yet for all the physical similarities, we were polar opposites in most ways. He was brash, confrontational, athletic and outdoorsy. I . . .was not. Maybe it was that balance that protected us.

            I lost track of him after college (actually it was during college, even though we were at the same school). Perhaps—if this guy in the movie was right—it was for the best. Unless of course Peter’s dead now, which would throw a monkey wrench into things.

            I never actually saw my Doppelganger in Madison—just heard about him from other people. The giveaway difference in that case was that he wore green medical scrubs everywhere. I . . . did not. It was the same deal in Chicago, but without the scrubs—people would come up to me all excited, saying that they’d seen my double here or there. I was never quite as interested in this as these other people were. Mostly I just felt bad for the guy who, poor thing, looked like me.

            In New York, though, Christ, I can’t get away from the damn things. I’ve written quite a bit about one guy in particular who kept showing up at the same bars Morgan and I were frequenting. He was almost always bathed in an ethereal white light, which worried me considerably. Last time I saw him was in 2002, I think, and by then I’d come to the conclusion that even though I’d never spoken to him—and he was always bathed in white light—he was a real jerk.

            Morgan tells me that she’s seen an older version on a pretty regular basis on her way to work in the morning. That “older” part makes me wonder if it was the same guy I saw on the subway back in the mid-nineties. That guy scared me—and maybe it’s because he scared me that he’s since become my favorite Doppelganger.

            I got on the train one warm, humid summer morning. It was early yet and the train wasn’t too crowded, so I plopped myself down in a seat. When I eventually let my eyes drift up toward the ads on the opposite wall, I couldn’t help but notice that I was sitting across the aisle from myself. It was the damnedest thing. Not only did this guy have the same stained, ratty black hat, he had the same scraggly hair, too. And to top it off, he was even wearing the same shirt as me. Ugly, ugly shirt. But this guy was at least fifteen or twenty years older than I was at the time. He was also about fifty pounds heavier.

            That’s when the horror kicked in—the realization that two decades down the line, I was still going to be riding the same train, wearing the same stupid hat, the same stupid long hair, and the same ugly shirt. The only thing that was going to change, it seems, was that I was going to get fatter. It was a grim realization—that I was going to be in my fifties and still wearing a shirt I’d had since high school.

            The guy never looked up, never showed any recognition, never said a word. But he made his point. When I got home from work that night, I threw the shirt away.

            Of course we all have Doppelgangers out there. It’s a statistical given. Most people just don’t care—hell, just take a look at most any contemporary film and you’ll see that a lot of them are being cast together in the same picture. They sure don’t seem to be afraid of dying because of it (though I sometimes wish they were). Most people, at best, only hear about their Doppelgangers from others, or learn that they exist when a stranger stops them on the street, convinced they’re someone else. It’s not a big deal.

            To be honest, I don’t care about my Doppelgangers, either. The only thing that bugs me about them is their frequency. I can’t quite say why I’ve been haunted by so many. Maybe it’s because I’m so bland of visage that it just works out that way—I’m like Silly Putty. Or, who knows, maybe that jerk in the movie was right, and all these doubles are trying to tell me something. Maybe I did die way back in high school after seeing my first Doppelganger, and simply haven’t come to admit it yet. Or maybe I’m the one who’s haunting all these other guys, trying to make them feel uncomfortable about their shirts.

            I doubt it, though, if only because haunting should be much more fun than this. I guess our Doppelgangers are only good for some more of that ol’ cheap symbolism. But in the end, it’s that cheap symbolism that keeps things interesting.

 

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