SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
September 9, 2018

Working the Suit

 

[Author’s Note: This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Legal Action Comics, an anthology featuring the work of several noted cartoonists, many of whom had been associated with the New York Press. So you got Tony Millionaire, Kaz, Sam Henderson, Steve Cerio, Russell Christian, and a bunch of others, including R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman. The whole project was pulled together as a fundraiser designed to help cover the legal fees incurred by another Press illustrator, Danny Hellman, who was in the midst of an ugly lawsuit filed by Voice cartoonist Ted Rall. Well, Danny was a good friend of Morgan’s and mine, as most of the involved artists were, so when he asked if I’d contribute something to the anthology, there was no question. The story below, which came out before Slackjaw, was not only my first piece of published fiction, it also represents the first piece of mine to appear in book form. Given Legal Action Comics is long out of print, I figured I’d mark the anniversary by reprinting this silly little exercise—JMK]

It was like the old, bad days again—I’d found myself temporarily at leisure (which is a nice way of saying “unemployed”), sitting at a Sunday morning kitchen table, rain falling outside, smoke burning slow in the ashtray, second beer sitting next to it, open and getting warm, Mahler churning strong on the stereo, flipping hopelessly through the Times help wanted ads, knowing that I wouldn’t even come close to finding so much as a scratch in those pages. Nobody I know has ever heard of anyone finding a job through the Times. Myself, I was a man who was doomed to charity jobs, and bad ones at that. Last few jobs I’ve had have been given to me, just handed over, because someone felt sorry for me—felt bad because I was a poor, blind, drunkard whom nobody else would consider for any job, no matter how ugly.

            I did those charity jobs well—at least as well as an unskilled man could be expected to. Held on to those jobs, too, as long as I was able. Like everything else in life, though, they all evaporated, eventually, landing me back at my kitchen table, where I sit and stare at useless newsprint.

            I found dried blood in my ears that morning just before I got in the shower. While I didn’t understand that at all in medical terms, I still understood it all too well. Everything was going to hell and leaking out of me. I picked up the Sunday paper—something I hadn’t done in almost three years—out of desperation, and now there I sat, scraping down each column in the help wanted section with my magnifying glass, getting weaker. Not just the eyes, but everything. Even my cells, it seemed, were getting weaker and breaking up and flowing through any opening they could find, only to dry up on the surface of my flesh. Lord knows why I even bother.

            Construction worker. Programmer-Analyst. Banker. Teacher. Driver. Receptionist. All hopeless. I mean, I’d been a receptionist at my last job, damn good one too. But not any more. Just couldn’t do that again. All those faceless voices screaming at me over the telephone because I was the only one they could scream at, because I was their own little captive audience, and they were as frustrated by their lot as I was with mine.

            Then something caught my eye.

            It wasn’t much. It wasn’t perfect. But it was something. As I read through the prerequisites for the job, I felt a minor fluttering in my guts. I can do that, I thought. And that . . . I have experience in that . . . Down the list, nothing seemed to disqualify me from at least taking a stab at it, at least sending in a letter. Christ, I needed work, and this thing seemed almost, well, reasonable. That was rare enough to justify something. The problem with reading want ads with a magnifying glass is that oft-times you don’t realize who placed the ad, who was looking to do the hiring, until you hit the very bottom. Reading as slow as I do, that can sometimes take awhile.

            So I continued to read, word after slow word, my enthusiasm kindling, until I hit the bottom of the ad and saw the words, “Disney Corp.” It was like somebody had dumped a bucket of ice over my slow-burning enthusiasm and hope.

            Nossir, I thought. Any work I do for Satan is going to be on a freelance basis only. I don’t need no 401(k) plan with Beelzebub.

            Then for a moment—the briefest of moments—I started thinking about the possibilities. Maybe I could do it. It’d be twisted, that’s for sure. And sometimes “twisted” makes it all worthwhile. So that afternoon, I got my resume and a bland little cover letter together, folded them up, slipped them into an envelope, addressed it to the P.O. Box in the ad, went outside and dropped the envelope in the mailbox.

            Then I forgot about it, except for the nagging annoyance that I had just thrown a stamp away. I couldn’t afford to keep doing things like that willy-nilly.

            For the next two weeks, I continued on with my business. Not a hard thing to do, really, considering that “my business” consisted primarily of drinking and moping. I’d step outside maybe once a day and take a quick stroll around the neighborhood just to see if anything had burned down since I last strolled around. Then I’d come home and get back to work.

            It was just after one of these little strolls—I was still taking off my shoes, as a matter of fact—when the phone rang. I let the answering machine get it; there were too many people—millions of them—I had no interest in talking to.

            “Hello, Mr. Knipfel,” a woman’s voice said after the message had played out, “this is Melanie Hathaway from Disney, Incorporated. We received your resume last week, and—”

            I picked the phone up, one untied shoe still on, and shut the answering machine off before the feedback got too bad.

            “Hi, hello,” I said. “I’m sorry—I just walked in the door. Now, uh, what was this you were saying?”

            “Oh. Hello. I was just saying that, after reviewing your resume, we’d very much like you to come in for an interview.” Her voice had a clipped, calm, Stepford-esque air about it.

            Oh, Christ. Well, I wasn’t going to turn it down. Not when I didn’t have anything else to look forward to. Besides, knowing they would never hire me because nobody ever did, at least going in for an interview would get me out of the house for awhile.

            The next morning, I put on a suit and a tie and hopped an F train up to Disney’s Midtown headquarters. Went up to the fourteenth floor. Met with Ms. Hathaway. Chatted for about fifteen minutes before being offered the job. I was to start the following Monday. Strange thing was, instead of reporting to Ms. Hathaway at nine sharp, I was told to report to the basement instead.

            “The basement? What’s down there?”

            “Oh, it’s just part of your orientation into the Disney family,” she said, brightly. “We expect all our new family members to work the suit for a week or so, before getting down to business. It’s all quite fun.”

            “Work...the suit.”

            “Yes.”

            “Okay . . . ” I replied, a little hesitantly.

            “It’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “It’s just the way of things here.” She smiled even more broadly than she had been the whole time we were sitting there. I was worried that she was going to rip something, so I grabbed my hat, shook her hand and thanked her before backing out the door.

            Nine a.m. that next Monday, I dressed up nice and took the same train to the same building. But instead of going up to the fourteenth floor, I took the elevator to the basement. When the elevator doors opened, two more women were waiting for me, with an older gentleman standing behind them.

            “I’m Alice!” the one on the right barked with undo enthusiasm, and a voice which drilled through my ear like an awl. I winced. “She’s Nancy!” she barked again. Nancy nodded and grinned. They never introduced the man who was standing behind them. “Follow us!”

            What choice did I have? I followed the three of them through a series of doorways, each one with a security guard posted out front. I tried to glean something out of each guard as I passed, some hint of what I could be expecting, but got nothing. They stared straight ahead, never acknowledging any of us.

            The three of them led me into a dank, musty little room at the end of a long hallway. There were three folding chairs and one Klieg lamp in the room. There were no other furnishings, and the only other light came from a dim, bare bulb in a socket on the wall. There were four of us and three chairs. My guts started to seize up on me.

            “You stand here!” Alice yelled, again much more loudly than necessary, taking me by the shoulders and moving me to the space in front of the chairs. Each one of them took a chair and scraped it across the cement floor, then sat down against a far wall behind the lamp. I was still thinking that I was just along for the ride here, but I needed that paycheck, so I didn’t want to queer my chances by doing something stupid, like weeping.

            The old man stood up for a second, and snapped on the lamp. The light burned into my weak eyes, and I lost the three of them in the shadows behind the glare.

            “Now frolic!” I heard Alice yell.

            “Excuse me?” I asked, which seemed a reasonable enough question.

            “You heard me—frolic!”

            “I’m . . . I’m sorry . . . ?”

            “You wanna be Mickey, don’cha?”

            “Mickey?”

            “Jesus Christ, son—” It was the old man’s voice. Those were the first words I’d heard him speak. He sounded British. “Everybody wants to be Mickey.”

            “I’m, uh, I’m afraid I’m a bit confused.”

            “Frolic, damn you! Frolic!” Alice was shrieking, her voice trembling with the effort. It sounded like she might attack me if I didn’t do something.

            In a panic, I did my best. I’m just not much one for frolicking. Still, I tried, mincing this way and that across the cold floor, skipping a little, waving. I jumped around weakly, and desperately tried to look happy, knowing full well how foolish I looked. I wasn’t liking this one bit.

            After a minute, I heard the man’s voice again. “Christ! Stop!”

            I did, and was glad to.

            “Nancy, kill that fucking light, would you?” It was Alice again, barely hiding the disgust in her voice. When the light went off, it took a second for my eyes to adjust again to the dim room. Once they did, though, I saw the three of them in a corner, whispering furiously to one another. I stayed put, and only briefly contemplated a break for the door. I knew all those guards were still out there. I’d never get past them. I decided to wait.

            After a few minutes of frantic whispering, they broke up. Alice and the man sat down. Nancy approached me.

            “Mr. Knipfel?” she said meekly. Nancy was a mousy little woman in her mid-thirties, with short brown hair and big round glasses. She carried a pencil behind her left ear. “Mr. Knipfel, I’m very sorry—but we’re afraid you’re just not Mickey material.”

            “Would one of you please explain what the hell this is all about?”

            There was a silence.

            “I mean, all I know is that I was told to come down here this morning for my first day of work, and was told to come to the basement so I could, what was it that she said? Work the suit, something like that. That’s all I know.”

            “She didn’t tell you anything more?” Nancy asked.

            “No, ma’am.”

            She sighed. “Okay. It’s like this. Each new Disney employee has to spend a week or two working a suit.”

            “I know that much.”

            “Working a suit means going out in costume. Big head, everything. Shaking hands, meeting the people, posing for pictures, that kind of shit. You know. You’ve seen our commercials.”

            “Sure.”

            “Well, every new employee always wants to be Mickey, you know? But not everybody can be Mickey. Mickey’s special.”

            “I don’t wanna be Mickey.” I told them. They all, all three of them, stared at me.

            “You don’t want to be Mickey?” the man asked. He sounded almost hurt. “Jesus.”

            “Not particularly, no.” They continued staring. I knew I had to cover myself, and quick. I didn’t dare say anything like, “Mickey sucks” or “Ever since I was a kid I always hated that goddamned vermin.” Then it came to me. “Y’know, just because, like you said, I’m just not Mickey material.” They murmured appreciatively at my honesty.

            They excused themselves and went back to the corner to whisper together again. I remained standing where I’d been since the whole nightmare started. I could tell the way things were headed, if only because things always headed this way. No, I wasn’t Mickey caliber. I wasn’t Donald caliber. I wasn’t even Goofy caliber. I was destined, instead, to dress up like one of those Disney characters that nobody really cared about. Like Pluto. Or Prince Charming (yeah, that was likely). Or one of the Dwarfs nobody could remember when asked to name them all—like Sleepy or Happy. Nobody ever wanted their picture taken with Sleepy. What the hell for?

            Their little meeting broke up, and Nancy came back over to me. “Mr. Knipfel? I think we have something for you. If you’ll wait here a second?”

            “Not going anyplace,” I told her, shrugging my shoulders.

            The three of them disappeared through a side door I hadn’t noticed earlier. After the door closed behind them, I heard the sounds of a frantic shuffling about, the crashing of cardboard boxes, the tinkle of broken glass and a confused mutter of anxious voices. They were back two minutes later. At least Nancy and Alice were. I guess the man stayed behind to clean up.

            “Here’s what we’re gonna do!” Alice shouted as they approached me. She dropped a box at my feet. “Open it!”

            I squatted down and flipped the lid open. Inside was a mass of yellow, red and blue fabric. I pulled it out and held it up. It was one of the Dwarfs all right.

            “Put it on!”

            Without saying a word, I stepped into the pants, then slid this sort of tunic thing over my head. It was padded enough to make me look like I was carrying an extra hundred pounds. I was beginning to sweat already. That done, I held out my arms and faced them.

            “How do I look?”

            “We’re not done yet! Nancy! Head!”

            Nancy stepped forward, put the box at my feet and flipped the lid up. Staring up at me from inside the massive box was the three-foot wide scowl of a severed Grumpy head.

            “Now get to work!”

            I heaved the bloodless head out of the box and set it down carefully upon my shoulders. I weaved unsteadily under the giant mass of plastic, trying desperately to see something—anything—out through the two big nostrils in front of me.

            “Well, hel-lo, Grumpy!” I heard a muffled voice shout.

            “Now what do I do?” I asked. It seemed like a reasonable question.

            “You go out there and make people happy. You go out onto the streets of New York City and you let them know that we’re here to stay!”

            Fifteen minutes later, there I was, alone on the corner of Forty-second and Sixth Avenue, right at the entrance to Bryant Park, waving like an idiot, trying to see anything at all. I had to be out here for another six hours, so I figured it’d be best to conserve my energy.

            Before too long, I heard a small voice down beneath my head someplace.

            I looked down through the nostrils and saw a young girl staring up at me. I waved at her, friendly-like.

            “Where’s Mickey?” she asked. I shrugged my shoulders, given as I wasn’t allowed to speak while in costume. Just shrugged my shoulders and looked around for other people to make happy, until I felt a tug on my pant’s leg. I looked down again, to see that it was the same girl—only this time some big guy was standing next to her.

            “I said, where’s Mickey?” she repeated, a whine creeping into her tiny voice. I shrugged my shoulders again. It was all I could do. I didn’t know where the fuck Mickey was.

            “Hey asshole,” the big guy said, “get the shit out of your ears and answer the little girl’s question—where the hell is Mickey?”

            I bit my lip, trying to keep my big mouth shut. Instead, I just pointed west, down Forty-second towards what used to be the ugly stretch of Times Square. Not anymore, though, thanks to people like . . . well, like me, I guess.

            “You better be right, you bastard,” the guy growled, before giving me a quick shove. I tripped over a step, stumbled backwards into a fence, then crumpled to the pavement. The little girl ran over to my prone form and landed two sharp kicks into my kidneys. Then she ran away to look for Mickey.

            I struggled back to my feet and kept waving. It was still reasonably early—post rush hour, pre-lunch hour—so the foot traffic wasn’t so bad. A few people shouted things from passing cars, though. A couple of bums asked me for change. Most everyone made a crack of some kind.

            “Hey, fella! Let a smile be your umbrella!”

            “Why the long face, bub?”

            “It’s not all that bad, is it?”

            After awhile, it started to get to me. I was sweating bad in that goddamned suit. I couldn’t see much of anything. My shoulders were sore from holding up that plastic hydrocephalic head. I really needed a drink and a smoke.

            I suppose I’d done worse in my time—bill collector, security guard. No . . . no, I guess I really haven’t done any worse. But hey, it was five bucks an hour more than I was making yesterday. And I only had to do it for “a week or so,” before I started my real job as a professional bootlick.

            Come one-thirty, I was hungry, I had to piss. I had to sit down. Not one person had wanted their picture taken with me. Not even the tourists. They were all waiting for that fucking Mickey. Bastards. I could take ‘em all out, not miss a single one. Jesus, but it was hot—

            “Hey, shit-for-brains!” I heard behind me. I ignored it and kept trying to wave to all the stupid smiling faces around me. It didn’t go away. “Hey, you goddamned freak— I’m talking to you.” I slowly turned around, ready for anything.

            Anything but Mickey, that is.

            It was Mickey all right, all big ears and big ugly smile, tongue hanging out, white-gloved hands on his hips.

            “You don’t listen very well, do you?” he spat at me. “This is Mickey’s neighborhood now. Mickey runs this town. You are nothing. You are a Dwarf. And you, my friend, are standing on Mickey’s favorite corner.”

            That was it. A man—even a man who would sink so low as to dress up like a cartoon—can only be pushed so far. Something in my head creaked and sputtered. I clenched my fists, and finally held my tongue no longer.

            “You gonna make me move, mouse?” They want me to be Grumpy? I’ll give them fucking Grumpy. Grumpy the way he was meant to be.

            “Nobody talks to Mickey that way,” he hissed.

            “Yeah, well, it looks like the rules have changed,” I growled back. “Grumpy’s about had enough.”

            He threw himself towards me awkwardly, the giant head keeping him off balance. I stepped aside and caught him from behind, slamming his snout into the green wrought-iron fence that ringed the park. “Mickey’s corner,” he kept muttering. “This is Mickey’s corner.” He swung a leg back and hooked it behind my left ankle. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to knock me to the pavement. While I rolled from side to side, trying to stand up, he jumped on top of me. He landed a few quick blows to my exposed ribs before I was able to throw him off.

            I found myself on my feet again, there in the middle of the sidewalk. A crowd had started to gather around us. A few voices screamed. Mickey was just getting to his hands and knees, obviously dazed, when I saw my opportunity. I stepped forward and grabbed an ear in each hand. He was helpless. I spun him around a couple of times before finally launching him into the middle of Forty-second Street, where a cross-town bus took care of the rest.

            The bus kept rolling. Schedules to keep, I guess. And the crowd dispersed. They had to get back to work. Fuck ‘em. I had to get back to work, too. Grumpy was alive—and nobody would step on Grumpy ever again.

            I headed down towards Eighth Avenue. I always used to love Eighth. Eighth was bad news. The peep-shows, the porn shops, the hookers and grifters, the drunks and the junkies. They were the life of the city, and now they were about gone.

            I turned north on Eighth, passed Show World, past the awful Greek place, passed the tourist junk shops. I stomped on every foot I could, knocking any slowpokes out of the way.

            “Outta my way!” I screamed at the crowd in front of me. I lowered my head to use as a battering ram through all the Normals. I knew them all, these people—all playing the same depraved game in their nice clothes and haircuts, celebrating their regular incomes as they flagged down taxis and ate lunch with business associates in pleasant restaurants—men whose idea of radical individuality was wearing a different ugly tie every day—it was about time they felt Grumpy’s wrath.

            I left a wake of the bruised and the bleeding behind me. Their own damn fault. They got in the way, and I had places I needed to go.

            I turned into the first bar I found—just off Forty-fourth. Inside, the skells who lined the bar stopped for a second to turn and stare, then went back to their beers. I stood at the end of the bar, waiting for the bartender to notice me. But he was busily chatting up some failed, wasted old whore at the other end. I began to fidget. This was going on too long.

            I leaned over the bar and screamed “Hey, how ‘bout some service, ya stupid-lookin’ Irish pig!” (I heard that in a movie once). His big gray head snapped away from the conversation, and he strolled down towards me.

            “You gotta problem, buddy?”

            “Just want some service, is all,” I said, in a voice that was all honey and cream.

            “What would you like?”

            “What would I like? What do you think I’d like? A hug? Christ almighty, give me a shot of bar whiskey.”

            Without another word, he poured the shot and brought it to me. “That’ll be four dollars,” he said.

            “Four bucks? Are you kidding me? Don’t you know who I am?”

            He looked at me hard, then shook his head. A slurred voice from down the bar said “I think I know you . . . ”

            I turned towards him. “Yeah?”

            “Yeah . . . Saw you in a movie once . . . Ain’t you the Elephant Man?”

            Without my noticing, two large men had positioned themselves behind me. With a nod from the bartender, they each took an arm and dragged me towards the door, where they dumped me, unceremoniously, back onto the sidewalk.

            For the rest of the afternoon, I took in a movie and stomped on some more feet. At five o’clock, I returned to the Disney building to drop off my suit.

            “Everything go okay?” the receptionist asked me, as I handed her the head and the tunic.

            “Fine, fine,” I said. “But I don’t think I’ll be back tomorrow. I think I’ve had enough.”

            “Something go wrong out there?”

            “No, not really . . . It’s just that wearing a mask all day, well . . . y’know, it affects a man.”

            “I understand,” she said, and smiled broadly.

            An hour later, I was back home, back at the kitchen table with an open beer. Everything was all right. I made some dinner, watched the late news. If I didn’t get this job, well, I’ll get the next one.

            When I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and shower, though, I could sense something was wrong. Something I’d caught out of the corner of my eye. I looked up slowly to glance at myself in the mirror. Then I screamed.

            I still had Grumpy’s face.

 

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