SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 24, 2011

Near Death

 

It was a weekday afternoon, and I was sitting in a German bar, listening to the krautrock coming through the speakers and talking to a woman who was once a colleague of mine at a local paper. At one point she asked me about my most memorable brush with death.

            Well, that’s a trick one, given that there’s such a smorgasbord of calamities and near-calamities to choose from. Christ, it seems every day is a brush with death in some form or another—especially those days when I venture outside. Figuring that “trying to cross Park Ave. during rush hour in November” would be a less than satisfying answer, I tossed out the old “overdose in Minneapolis in 1986” bit instead. Having been clinically dead there for a bit, I suppose, makes it my closest brush with death if nothing else.

            Little did I realize that the next close call would come along just a couple of days later. And while there were no drugs or psych wards involved, like that time in Minneapolis this one, too, was accompanied by a dream.

            It was one of those rare, delightful dreams that’s actually a movie. I played no role in the dream other than as a passive viewer, watching the dream as I would a videotape.

            It was a black and white film from the early fifties called Blood and Bad Memories. I can’t say who directed it, but it starred Edward G. Robinson, Elisha Cook, Sterling Hayden, and a host of my other favorites. Robinson played an aging gangster who suffered from some kind of neurological problem that prevented him from holding his head straight. It just kept lolling from side to side. I remember little beyond that, except for one extended scene. Sterling Hayden played a sheriff in a small county in Northern California. In the scene, he’s standing at the top of a hill with a man who’s been gagged, blindfolded, and tied to a wheelchair. Like Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, Hayden (who’s apparently not a very nice sheriff) gives the chair a shove. As the bound man screams, the chair rolls down the hill toward a crowded freeway packed with cars speeding in every direction.

            Miraculously, the wheelchair makes it across the freeway unscathed, then rolls up another hill on the other side. It teeters at the top for just a second, then tips over the edge. As the camera cuts to the other side of the hill, we see that the wheelchair—the blindfolded man still screaming—is now zipping along the track of a roller coaster.

            I don’t know what happened to the guy. When I awoke, most of the dream vanished except for the film’s title (which I kind of like) and those two images.

            It made no sense to me, this dream, apart from the fact that I usually dream movies that don’t exist when things are going smoothly. The fact that things were far from smooth at the moment made it even more confusing. I decided to let it slide. It didn’t matter. Just a damn dream.

            The afternoon after the dream I got myself together and began tapping toward the subway. I was on my way to Manhattan to see Morgan. In my free hand was a plastic bag containing half a watermelon.

            The plan was that I would drop the watermelon off at her place, then we’d head out to see a movie (I wish I could reveal that the film was called Blood and Bad Memories, but it wasn’t). The film started at 2:15, and I didn’t leave my place until close to one. It was already hopeless—there was no way in hell we’d make it to the theater on time. Nevertheless I had to try.

            I was tapping down the street faster than usual, hoping there were no major obstacles in the way.

            A few minutes later I tapped double time down the stairs into the subway station. As I approached the turnstiles already fumbling for my MetroCard, I heard the train pulling into the platform below.

            The only thing worse than a man chasing his hat is a man running for a train. Still, I swiped the card through the reader, bumbled through the turnstile with both cane and watermelon held high, and tapped quickly over to the stairs. Below me I heard the subway doors slide open. Holding tight to the railing so as not to die foolishly, I bounded down the stairs two at a time, clinging fast to the hope that the doors might stay open long enough. If I made it on this train who knows? We might just make it to the movie.

            I reached the platform alive, still balancing cane and watermelon, and began tapping toward the waiting train. The bell rang, giving me that one-second warning that the doors were about to slide shut. Those bastards always do this to the blind guy, then they laugh—laugh!—all the way to the next station.

            I had one chance left. Sticking the cane out in front of me like a lance, I made a mad dash, hoping I could get it between the closing doors without impaling a passenger. If I succeeded, the doors would open again and I could step aboard, victorious. But I had to be fast.

            “Sir!” a man called from the staircase behind me. I had a train to catch, and so ignored him. “Sir!” he shouted again, “The train is on the other side!”

            I froze, cane still out in front of me, toes on the very edge of the platform, teetering above the abyss. “What?”

            “That’s a downtown train you’re hearing.”

            I swung the cane back and forth. There was indeed no train in front of me. On the opposite platform, the train wheezed and coughed and continued heading south.

            “Oh,” I said.

            One more step, half-step, even, and I would’ve been on the tracks. All these years, all those thousands of trips, all those drunken nights, and much to my amazement it still hasn’t happened. I turned back to the man who’d warned me. “Wow,” I said. “That could’ve really been ugly, huh?”

            “Yeah, I bet it would’ve,” he said.

            Once again I was awfully glad I’d had the cane out. If I’d kept it tucked away as I had for so many foolish years, he probably would have assumed I was just crazy or drunk, and wouldn’t have stopped me. That watermelon would’ve been everywhere.

            Well, we missed the movie, but at least I understood that dream now. That’s always been the pisser about prescient dreams—you can’t understand them until after the fact.

 

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