SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
October 5, 2008

Schoolyard Chums

 

One of the most obscenely obese women I’ve ever seen was standing in line in front of me at the drug store. Her knees were buckling from the effort to stand upright, and mean as it may sound, I can’t say I’ve ever seen another human being of quite that same shape before. Not even in Wisconsin.

            We were the only two people in line, which was a relief. I just wanted to get out of there; that place always makes me jumpy.

            The woman in front of me looked back over her shoulder and, in that thick, phlegmy wheeze that seems to come along with obesity, screamed to her son, who was apparently on the other side of the crowded Rite Aid:

            “Hey, Ricardo! You wan’ some candy? I’m in line! C’mon! Candy!

            I cut my eyes to the right, but said nothing.

            By the time the obese woman was called over to the register, she’d still received no response from her son, so she continued screaming over her shoulder with a growing desperation:

            “Ricardo! Hey! You wan’ some Skittles? . . . A Kit-Kat? You wan’ a Snickers bar? A Starburst? . . . A Milky Way? . . . They got all kinda M&Ms! You wan’ some M&Ms . . . ?”

            The list of enticing candy names rolled on endlessly as I stood and waited my turn, thinking, “What a wonderful world we live in.

            Later that afternoon, my mom called. She didn’t have candy on her mind.

            “Say,” she said, “I have a question for you.”

            “Sure,” I said.

            “Do you remember someone named Kevin Dunahey?”

            The name sounded familiar, but it took a few seconds before the face from the old school picture came back to me through the fog of all those years. Blond kid. Frighteningly skinny. Almost skeletal, in fact. A tight, cruel little face with sharp eyes and a perpetual sneer. Even at nine, he was a thug who terrorized students, teachers, and random hapless animals alike. We were classmates from first through, I think, eighth or ninth grade. After that he was sent to another school and I lost track of him—which I must admit was quite a relief. Nasty fucker, Kevin was.

            “Yeah,” I told my mom finally. “He was a little thug.”

            “That’s him, then,” she said. “Thank you. I was starting to wonder. I asked your sister, and she didn’t remember the name. Of course she wouldn’t, because she’s not the one who went to school with him. Then I asked my friend Eileen, and she’d never heard of him. I asked a few other people too, and nobody heard the name. I was starting to wonder if I was just remembering things wrong or something, but I knew I knew that name somehow, so I sure am glad you remember, too . . . ”

            My folks do this all the time. They’ll call and ask if I remember some old classmate, then get lost on a long and convoluted tangent before bothering to explain why it was they were asking in the first place.

            The question, “Do you remember . . . ?” almost inevitably precedes news that someone had been arrested or killed, usually under bizarre circumstances.

            In one instance, they just wanted to tell me that a former classmate was now a paramedic who’d saved the day when my dad was slipping into diabetic shock. In another, that a different classmate had become a telemarketer selling pants over the phone. But those were rarities—mostly they only asked when crime or death were involved.

            There was Tim Weintraub, who’d been shot-gunned by his brother shortly after graduation. And there was Victor, who’d shot up the cable store after his television started talking to him. And there was Brian, who’d been arrested on several counts of child molestation. I was curious to hear what happened to Kevin. Even in grade school, you could tell he was racing somewhere bad.

            Strangely, though, he was nicer to me than he was to most. Oh, I mean, he beat the crap out of me more than once, but he wasn’t as predictably evil toward me as he was to everyone else around him. There were times when he was genuinely friendly. My suspicion is that it had something to do with special ed class. I’d been shanghaied into being a special ed tutor for a few awful weeks, and he was one of the students I worked with. It was humiliating for both of us, and afterwards I think he was just grateful that I never told anyone that he was in a special ed course because he couldn’t read. It left me with more sympathy for him (compounded by the fact that he was obviously abused at home), but I was still relieved when he was sent to another school.

            “ . . . I even tried asking—” my mom was saying.

            “Mom!” I said, trying to catch her before she could get too far off the track, “Why are you asking about Kevin? What happened?”

            “Oh,” she said, “this was weird—I saw it in the paper. On Saturday night, the police were called to some domestic disturbance involving a ‘Kevin Dunahey.’ I knew I knew that name.”

            “Oh,” I said, “is that it?” It was admittedly kind of a let down. Pretty pedestrian, especially for Green Bay. Domestic disturbance calls were par for the course—you just come to expect them eventually.

            “Well, I guess there was a shotgun involved.”

            That was a little better, I guess, but even that was hardly a shocker, given that there are shotguns in ninety percent of the households around town.

            “Oh,” I said.

            “There weren’t that many details in the paper. I guess he showed up at his ex-girlfriend’s house with a shotgun, saying he was either going to kill her or himself. I’m not sure which.”

            “Yeah, well, I guess I’m not real surprised by that—he was always kind of a little thug—”

            “But then when the cops showed up, he was gone. So they began a manhunt.”

            “He went on the lam?”

            “I guess so—they couldn’t find him.”

            Okay, this was getting more interesting, finally. My old schoolyard chum was now officially armed and dangerous.

            “Then,” she said, “they found him dead in the street on Monday morning. They have no idea what happened. The police say there were no signs of foul play, and they aren’t looking for any other suspects.”

            See, now? That’s the Kevin I knew. A final shootout with the cops would’ve been a nice topper, but this at least was in character. And that twist of mystery at the end (though I’m guessing it was just a polite way of saying “suicide”) was even better than a shootout.

            After getting off the phone with my mom, I got online and found a recent mugshot. I guess Kevin had a bit of a record. Even though he was my age, he looked twenty years older, his face bloated and lined and mean. But if you peered closely, past the lines and the bloating to the features themselves—the eyes, the nose—you could still see hidden in that prematurely old body the face of a cruel, nasty little illiterate.

 

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