SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
January 26, 2014

To Build a Fire, Starring Tim Conway

 

As I was leaving Morgan’s building on Sunday morning to head back to Brooklyn, a man just coming in from outside warned, “Pretty slippery out there, so be careful.”

            “Oh yeah, I will,” I said before thanking him and pushing through the doors.

            We were in the midst of that almost-brutal cold snap in early January, so I wasn’t surprised to hear things were a little slick. It was only two blocks to the subway, though, so I wasn’t much concerned. Then, when I tapped around the corner onto Broadway I more fully understood what he meant as the tip of the cane skittered frictionless across the glare ice covering the sidewalk. I paused for just a moment to get my bearings, then headed onward. I knew how to walk on ice. Besides, there were plenty of people out that morning and they seemed to be doing fine. Even mentioning all this is a bit deceptive, as with the exception of that brief pause to gauge and register conditions, the situation wasn’t an issue of any kind. Merely had to adjust my center of gravity and forget about it.

            I’d crossed the first street and was halfway down the next block when I remember thinking that it was mighty odd that both feet should be off the ground that way at the same time. It also seemed mighty odd that the toes of those same airborne feet should be pointing at the sky at that particular moment. I knew the route well, and at no point were my feet supposed to be off the ground, toes pointing skyward. Funny how much you can put together into a pair of coherent thoughts clearly expressed in that half-instant before your body hits the pavement.

            “You didn’t hit your head, did you?” Morgan asked later after I told her I’d ended up on my back on Broadway.

            “Oh, I’m guessing probably I did, yeah, but I’m used to that by now. Can’t do much more damage.” Admittedly I’d been lucky. Although I landed hard flat on my back, I was well padded enough against the cold that apart from a few bruises I wasn’t badly hurt. A couple of passers-by pulled me to my feet and sent me on my way. Best of all, I hadn’t dropped my cigarette. I never drop my cigarette. More than anything else I was embarrassed. I may have my share of trips and falls (mostly in the bunker well hidden from stranger’s eyes), but that was the first time in years I’d slipped on the ice. I should know better. Being from Wisconsin I should be surefooted as a damned mountain goat when it comes to icy sidewalks.

            It was almost a week later when I’d decided I had to make one of my monthly runs to the post office. The temperatures were rising above freezing again but there was no telling how long that would last. I had to get while the getting was good. Shortly after nine, I put on my shoes and coat and hat, grabbed my cane and bag, and opened the door.

            Now, after taking those first five or six steps outside and noting that a) it was raining much harder than expected, and b) it was a freezing rain that had once again left the sidewalks of lower Brooklyn coated in smooth ice, a smart person would likely have turned around, retraced those five or six steps, and gone back inside to wait a bit until things had a chance to thaw. It was a mile-long walk to the post office after all, and the chances of completing the trip without some kind of serious injury seemed minimal, if not non-existent.

            A half-wit, however, and a stubborn one at that, would likely opt to forge onward. He’d come this far as it was, and heading back inside and pulling off his shoes again now would just be a pain in the ass.

            Having been blessed with far more stubborn half-wittedness than intelligence, I forged onward. Before I reached the first corner I found I’d morphed into Tim Conway’s Old Man character, hunching my shoulders and taking slow, tiny, shuffling steps for fear of getting cocky and splatting again, while at the same time tensing every muscle at my disposal for the inevitable moment when I would. The air was colder than they’d promised and the rain was still coming down, adding only more icy layers to the already ice-slicked pavement. In the streets I could hear cars spinning their tires helplessly.

            It was obvious the trip—which there and back takes an hour and a half on a good day—was going to be a long and treacherous one. On the bright side, though, the simple fear of inescapable injury made me forget all about the acid stomach which had been plaguing me for the past couple of weeks.

            I shuffled on slowly through the rain from one block to the next to the next as the shaved ice I was scraping off the surface collected on the bottoms of my shoes, making things even more treacherous. Even if I hit a dry spot now, it wouldn’t matter—I’d still slide right on over it.

            The rain began falling harder and colder, and the sidewalks around and ahead of me were completely devoid of pedestrians. There was no one else outside, not a soul, probably because the folks down here aren’t half-wits. That was bad news for me, because it meant when I did go down I’d likely end up rolling around on my back like a fucking turtle for an hour or more as I struggled to get up again. And that’s only if I didn’t break my back in the fall.

            The hand clutching the cane was growing numb from the cold, the handle of the cane itself getting more slick in the rain. Although I was trying to concentrate on my feet, making sure they remained firmly on the ground at all times, another thought crept into my head. This whole dumb ordeal (the result of the stupid-assed decision I’d made a few feet from my front door) was turning into a cross between Jack London’s To Build a Fire and Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil. But with Tim Conway.

            “The post office . . . the post office . . . gotta get to the post office,” I was thinking as I drove myself forward. “The clerks will save me . . . the clerks . . . yes . . . the clerks at the post office will save me. I can rest there a moment . . . yes, rest . . . let the muscles rest . . . standing in line . . . yes, yes, the line . . . a long line . . . whoops, almost lost it there . . . the ground will be firm and dry . . . and friction, yes . . . friction will keep me upright . . . The post office . . . the post office . . . gotta get to the clerks in the post office . . . to lean on the counter . . . that will be good . . . lean and rest on the counter in the post office with the long line and the clerks . . . careful for the slope at the corner . . . slide me right into the street in front of an oncoming Nissan . . . How many more blocks is it? how many more blocks do I need to go before the post office? . . . Warm in there . . . it will be warm . . . dry my hands and let them warm . . . and there will be friction too . . . friction to stand firm and still . . . only a few minutes . . . all I need . . . a few minutes to rest in the warmth . . . the clerks . . . the clerks will save me.”

            An hour after leaving the apartment I finally did reach the post office, my nose running freely, my hat and coat and socks soaked, and my eyes misting with relief. I’d made it to the post office. A line all the way to the back was what I was hoping for to give me enough time to recover. But when I opened the door and felt the warmth and scraped my shoes on the rough, damp carpet, I noticed the place was unusually quiet. I tapped over to where the line formed only to realize in horror there was no line at all.

            “Next!” one of the Chinese clerks called. “Over here!”

            Forty-five seconds after entering the blessed post office, I was cast outside again into the cold rain and ice to make the same trip back home. Conditions hadn’t improved, so I lowered my head, hunched my shoulders, and resumed shuffling.

 

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