SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 14, 2019

It Happens Sometimes

 

The year began with a mad rush of paying work, which is always a good omen for the months ahead. Every day it seemed I was slamming out something new, tossing it to this outlet or that, then moving on to the next. It was interesting work, too. Work that had me thinking in all kinds of different directions. There were the standard pop culture and cripple pieces, first person things, long historical overviews, liner notes for Residents albums, andódonít ask me how this came aboutóessays on journalistic ethics. Things were going well, the brain and fingers were staying active, and together they were holding that inevitable dementia at bay.

††††††††††† Then in mid-February, I had another idea for a sparkling and insightful bit of editorializing, drawing historical parallels between a current trend and a book originally published in 1974. It was a good little idea, I thought, something no one had pointed out yet. But it was getting late in the day, close to the time when I like to shut down and start drinking, so I dashed out a semi-coherent bunch of notes just to get the general outline of the idea down, gave the file a title, saved it, shut down and headed for the kitchen. Iíd pick it up again the next morning, knock it out and be done with it.

††††††††††† Before I could get to work on it the next morning, though, I had to throw in a load of laundry, then run out to the grocery store. Then after I got back from the grocery store I had to run out again, this time to the drug store. Then after I got back from the drug store I had to go across the street to get the smokes Iíd forgotten to pick up on my way home from the grocery store. By then it was time to feed the cats and check the litter box, change their water and eat a little something myself. Nothing much, just a couple of crackers, a handful of nuts and a swig of water. Then check the email, then see if there was anything Iíd forgotten on that dayís agenda so far, and while I was there jot down a few things on the next dayís list of what needed doing.

††††††††††† When I finally opened that file to get back to work, one of the cats marched into the office and began yodeling at me. This, Iíve learned, was his way of communicating one of five things. If I didnít get up and see which of the five he wanted this time, heíd just keep yelling, and he has an unexpectedly large set of lungs. Very cool cat, but if he doesnít get what he wants, thereís no way youíre going to get anything done until he does. With a sigh, I closed the file, pushed myself back from the Machine and headed for the kitchen, where three of his primary complaints were sourced. This time it was a litter box issue.

††††††††††† That taken care of, I returned to the office, sat down again, and opened the file. As I scanned through the previous nightís notes, I began to smell something. I donít have much of a sense of smell left after chain smoking for thirty years, so if I can detect anything at all, it must be pretty intense. It was sickly sweet, almost reminiscent of that plastic frosting you get on cherry Pop-Tarts, but even more toxic. I thought I knew what it might be.

††††††††††† The young Greek woman who lives in the basement apartment with her husband and two daughters cooks a lot, and whenever she does the smell floats straight up into our place. Most of the time this is not a problem. Sheís also recently started a home business, selling soaps and body lotions and the like at local craft fairs and through the mail. Iíd often wondered if she actually made them herself in the kitchen down there, and now I knew. This was some kind of bubbling vat of perfumed ointment, all right. After just a few minutes my head began to fog and spin. I grew nauseous. My sinuses began to throb and I couldnít focus on anything. This was bad shit, and the fumes seemed to be growing thicker with each passing moment. I could feel the brain cells, thousands of them, curling up and dying.

††††††††††† They were extremely kind and generous kids who did a lot of basic work around the building, so I wasnít about to go downstairs and puke outside her front door to make a point. Instead I just threw open the windows and set the fans going to air the place out, trying to ignore the fact it was about twenty degrees outside that day.

††††††††††† Still woozy, I headed back into the office and sat down, but couldnít concentrate. Time passed and nothing happened. I couldnít think amid that cloud of chemicals. I think I wrote one sentence and that was as far as I got. That was alright. There was no deadline and I didnít think anyone was going to grab that idea, so I let it slide. Iíd get it the next day.

††††††††††† About two hours after I opened the windows, the deadly moisturizing fumes had cleared out, the apartment was freezing, and my head still felt a little wiggly. I opened a beer and tried not to think about it.

††††††††††† The next morning there was more laundry to do and more errands to run. I started thinking that, as fully-formed as it had seemed originally, I had no clear idea where I was going with that story.

††††††††††† I carried the laundry down to the basement, put the quarters in the machine, dumped the detergent in the water, and went back upstairs to take care of the morning email. When I went back downstairs half an hour later to throw things in the dryer, I found that Iíd never bothered putting the laundry itself in the machine.

††††††††††† Well, fuck me. I pumped more quarters into the washer, got it all started again, and this time, quite consciously and deliberately, put the clothes in the machine. Iíd never made that mistake before. Something in my head was still feeling a little off. I wasnít blaming the fumes. This was something else.

††††††††††† Yeah, I thought as I headed out to the bank a little later, this story was useless. No place to go with it that was anything beyond obvious and trite. That had never stopped me before. Iíd just plow on through and turn it into something. No one would notice.

††††††††††† But when I got back from the bank (after getting lost in two construction sites en route), I was exhausted and dazed. I had no reason to be exhausted. I opened that file again and let the Machine read what I had down. It was okay, but I had no idea what to do. I just didnít feel motivated to work on it. I just didnít care that much anymore.

††††††††††† Meanwhile, I was waiting to hear back from a bunch of people. Some were editors to whom Iíd passed stories the week before. If they didnít want them Iíd pass them somewhere else. Some of the people I was waiting to hear from needed to give me some information so I could wrap up another couple of stories once and for all. Apart from that, it occurred to me, I wasnít working on anything else. I mean, there were a couple of things sitting there I could do, but they werenít due for six months, and to be honest I didnít feel much like working on them until that place paid me for the last thing theyíd used.

††††††††††† No, come to think of it, I didnít feel like working on anything. Not a fucking thing. I had no ideas and no drive. As excited as Iíd been at first, that new story was shit and I knew it. I was tired. More than tired, I was completely sapped of energy. I had no idea whyóIíd slept okay the night before for the first time in about a week. It felt like my brain was quietly drifting away. Maybe my whole head.

††††††††††† Oh, great, here comes that disassociation again, I thought. Or sort of thought.

††††††††††† I sat in the straight-backed wooden chair at my desk and stared. I made a few weak efforts to type, but my fingers couldnít find the keys. I couldnít even use the fucking mouse to navigate around the screen. Either my coordination was shot, or the Machine was lying to me. Wouldnít be the first time.

††††††††††† I went out to the front stoop to have a smoke, praying none of the passing neighbors decided to stop and chat about nothing. I was in no mood. Trying to light a cigarette when you can see neither the cigarette nor the flame from the lighter is never easyóyou end up lighting the side of the cigarette, or the middle, or burning your fingers or noseóbut that afternoon it was useless. After eight or nine tries, getting nothing at all out of it, I gave up and slouched back upstairs. My face was hanging off my skull like an ill-fitting bloody mask Iíd carved off a corpse.

††††††††††† The next morning I didnít feel like doing anything at all. Not writing, not going out, not looking at the computer, not doing a damn thing at all. It wasnít a physical problem.

††††††††††† I forced myself to check the email to see if any new jobs were being flung my way or if any of those people I was waiting to hear from had gotten back to me.

††††††††††† Of course not, but it was for the best. Even trying to type the simplest response seemed beyond me at the moment. Things had taken an extremely dark turn these past few days. Everything in my head seemed to waver a bit, and none of my limbs felt like they were connected to my body. I was neither suicidal nor homicidal, I simply felt disjointed and dead.

††††††††††† I may not be the most chipper man on the planet most of the time, but Iíll tell you it had been a long time since a serious depression had broadsided me this way. In the past all I had to do was get to work on something. There was something about writing that always kept the demons of the world at a distance, at least for a little while. But now Iíd even lost the desire to write, which is not a good sign. You lose that one defense and you were in trouble.

††††††††††† Fuck that story. Stupid thing was going nowhere anyway.

††††††††††† For all my coordination problems of the previous few days, I still managed to delete it. Thirty-plus years in this racket and Iíd only abandoned about a dozen stories. Donít know what that says.

††††††††††† And fuck, now the catís in here screaming at me again and I donít know why and I canít think and my stomach hurts and I donít care. Brain all arid and gray and dead. Nothing.

††††††††††† Christ, I thought trying to force myself, just doing what I could to will my fingers to work so I could get this down as a simple exercise might help, but no. Donít. Just donít bother. And the catís not shutting up.

*†††††† *†††††† *

Postscript: I originally wanted to run this the way I first typed it, but I doubt my editor would have gone for that, seeing as the second half in particular was complete gibberish. So I reluctantly cleaned it up as best I could. When I first started in this racket and had some pretensions about this or that, I was under the impression I had to be deeply depressed in order to write anything of value. Clearly I was mistaken, as this proves.

 

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