SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
May 30, 2010

Author’s Note: Whenever possible, I try to avoid being a big fat insufferable whore. This has not made me popular among publicists. So in the spirit of goodwill, I’ve decided this small foray into whoredom wouldn’t leave me feeling too filthy inside. On June 1, I’ll be releasing my new book, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and Other Fairy Tales (Simon & Schuster, $14). Between now and then, Electron Press will be running a few stories originally intended for the book, but not included in the final collection. The hope is that if you like these stories, you’ll like the ones in the book even more, thus feeling compelled to buy several copies. So please don’t hold it against me.

 

Never Wise Up a Chump

 

One fine day in the spring of the year, a good-hearted fellow named Tim traveled to a neighborhood far, far away from his own. Normally he would never step foot in a neighborhood as shaky as this one, but on that particular day he was on a personal quest.

            When he found the address written on the slip of paper in his pocket, he rapped lightly upon the door three times, as he had been instructed.

            When the door was opened by an old woman with frizzy gray hair and crooked teeth, Tim asked, “Ingrid?”

            The old woman nodded, looking him up and down. “And I’m guessing you must be Tim,” she rasped, dropping her cigarette on the threshold and grinding it out under her large boot. “Pretty much what I expected. Well, don’t just stand there—follow me.”

            He followed her into the dim, shabby house. The air smelled of mildew and stale smoke and cat piss. Everything in the house seemed as old and broken as the old woman herself. A three-legged black cat in the corner considered him for a moment, emitted an unimpressed growl, and hobbled into another room.

            “Have a seat,” the old woman said. “This’ll just take a second.”

            Unsure whether the chair she was pointing at was safe (for any number of reasons), but not wanting to appear rude, Tim lowered himself into it gingerly while she disappeared behind a raggedy gray curtain.

            She was back a moment later, and plunked a small vial on the rickety table in front of him. Inside the vial was a brown liquid. “There you go,” she said. “That’ll be fifty bucks.”

            Tim nodded and reached for his wallet. “And you’re sure this will work?”

            She pursed her dry, cracked lips at him. “I’m a witch, dummy,” she rasped. “It’s my reputation we’re talking about here. If it didn’t work and word got around, well that wouldn’t do my business much good, now would it? Don’t need no local news crews in here accusing me of this and that . . . So yeah, in short, it works.”

            “I’ll be invisible?”

            She turned her head and spat over her shoulder, then focused her hollow eyes on Tim again. “That’s what you asked for, ain’t it?”

            He nodded.

            “Then that’s what it’ll do. Christ, you people.”

            “Sorry. It’s just not your every day . . . product. Is all. And the effects last how long?”

            She took a deep, wheezing breath. “Permanent. Like you asked.” She snatched the pack of Dunhills off the table and lit another.

            “Right. Good.” He smiled and handed over the money. Picking up the vial he asked, “Should I . . . take it now?”

            “Can if you want,” she said. “I don’t care. But it takes about twenty minutes to kick in, and not to be rude, but I want you out of here before that. I have dinner guests coming.”

            “Then I guess I’ll be on my way,” he said. “And I thank you most kindly. You don’t know how happy this makes me.” He stood and slid the vial into the inside pocket of his jacket.

            “Yeah, sure,” the witch said. “And be sure and tell your friends about me.” Then she cackled wildly and vanished behind the curtain again.

            Tim let himself out of the witch’s ramshackle house and headed home, his steps light.

            Ever since he was a young boy, Tim had wanted to be invisible. Not for the usual stupid, sophomoric reasons—he wasn’t interested in sneaking into the girl’s locker room or pulling off the perfect heist. Like I said, he was a good-hearted fellow, and fully believed that by being invisible, he could help make the world a much better place.

            He could fight crime, he thought, and uncover corruption and wrongdoing in the seats of power. He could help the poor and stop dictators. He could perhaps even become the world’s greatest investigative journalist. There were so many good and just things he could do, were he free to move about the world without being seen. He wasn’t after personal glory—how could he get it anyway if he was invisible? No, he just wanted to make life a little better and safer and richer for people everywhere.

            The next morning before heading out he considered the vial. The old witch’s house didn’t seem like the most sanitary place he’d ever been. But he’d face that risk. It would be the first in a life that from that point on would be full of risks. And it was, after all, the rest of his life he was talking about. Once he swallowed that potion, no one would ever see him again.

            He pulled the black rubber stopper out of the vial, took one last look in the mirror, then dumped the contents down his throat.

            It burned going down, and the taste was bitter. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. She said it would take twenty minutes to work.

            He set the empty vial down on the table and headed outside, thinking he would spend the day just strolling around the city and testing out his invisibility. He’d keep it simple. He just wanted to see what he could do.

            Twenty minutes later, Tim found himself on a quiet and empty side street. No one else was around. This was a mild disappointment—he was kind of hoping to see the expression on some stranger’s face when he just faded away like that before their very eyes.

            “Ah, well,” he said. “Wouldn’t want to scare anybody like that, I guess. Too late now, anyway.”

            He continued walking, and it became clear before long that the old woman hadn’t let him down. He could go wherever he wanted, stand wherever he wanted, and nobody paid him the slightest bit of attention. He stood at the counter in a deli for fifteen minutes and watched the deli guy take orders from everyone around him without ever once acknowledging that he was there. Tim tried hard to control his giggling, afraid it might give him away.

            He went into stores and was not approached by any salespeople. He could look at whatever he wanted undisturbed. He could stand on street corners and wave his arms at people. He could skip up Broadway—literally skip up Broadway—in the middle of the afternoon, and no one looked at him once, let alone twice.

            “This is fantastic!” he thought gleefully. “This is what I’ve been dreaming of all my life! Imagine everything I’ll be able to do now!”

            There were a few downsides to being invisible, he soon discovered.

            Rambunctious young children, not seeing Tim, tended to slam into him while running down the sidewalk. At the same time their parents, not seeing what happened, didn’t insist that they apologize to him. Nobody held doors open for him anymore. If he was trying to read a sign or look at something in a window, someone would inevitably step right in front of him, blocking his view. He had to jump out of the way of speeding bicyclists. Because drivers couldn’t see him, cars rolled forward at stoplights and blocked his path while he was in the crosswalk, and others didn’t bother to stop at all, even when Tim had the light. At one point that afternoon he even tripped over a sidewalk planter and fell down. Not only did no one stop to see if he was okay or help him up—a couple even stepped on him as they passed. But these were all minor and understandable things. People didn’t say “I’m sorry” or “excuse me” after stepping on his foot (which happened a lot)—and why should they? They didn’t know he was there, so he couldn’t exactly hold them responsible. The same with people on their cell phones. While they were weaving down the street or walking in circles in front of a door, they didn’t see that he was trying to get around them, which explained why they didn’t step off to the side to let him pass.

            But yes, those were all minor inconveniences—part of the job of being invisible, he figured. Something to which he would adjust. Tim of course didn’t want to say anything aloud, for fear of giving himself away. On the whole, everything was going as he’d hoped.

            He decided just for fun to stop by his old office, see how that crazy ol’ gang up there was doing in his absence. But when he reached the building (as he was coming to expect) someone let the door to the lobby swing shut in his face. When the door closed a foot in front of him, he couldn’t help but notice the reflection in the glass.

            At first he thought it must have been the reflection of the person behind him, until he turned and saw there was no one behind him. He turned back to the door and stared at his own familiar face. He looked down at his hands and shoes, then back at the door. Something had gone wrong with the potion.

Forgetting all about sneaking into the old office, he quickly returned to Ingrid the witch’s house and pounded on her door. When the door opened, she seemed surprised to see him.

            “I can see you,” she said. “What happened? You get cold feet? I told you before there are no refunds.”

            She let him inside and he began to explain the whole story to her.

            “I drank the brown potion first thing this morning, then headed outside—”

            The old witch cut him off right there. “Wait a second, son. You said brown potion?”

            “Brown, yes.”

            “Well there’s your problem right there. My invisibility potions are green, not brown.”

            “But the one you gave me—the one I drank—was definitely brown.”

            She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Oh, no no no—what have I done?”

            “Why?” Tim asked, suddenly very worried. “What’s wrong?”

            Her eyes were still closed. “How could I have been so stupid? Green is my invisibility potion. Brown is my clarity potion. Oh, damn this color blindness!”

            “Clarity potion?”

            “Yes, clarity potion,” she said. “The potion that allows you to see the world as it truly is. What people are really like.”

            “Oh,” he said, “but I know what people are like. Today it was just because they couldn’t see me that they were acting like that . . . ” His voice trailed off. “Oh.” He looked at her with pleading eyes. “You aren’t trying to tell me that people are really that rude and self-absorbed—that they treat everyone like that?”

            She nodded gravely. “I’m afraid so . . . And the more you see, the worse it will get. It adds up.”

            “But—” Tim said. “But you must have some kind of antidote, right? Something to counteract it?”

            Again she shook her head. “I’m so sorry, but it’s as permanent as the invisibility potion. Or at least as the invisibility portion would’ve been had you taken it. From now on you’ll see things as they really are . . . And I’m afraid it’s not pretty.”

            Tim, good-hearted lad that he was, a man who had always looked for the good in people, dropped his head in despair.

            Three hours later, he handed over the completed paperwork and the cash, and the clerk behind the counter handed him the automatic and four boxes of ammunition.

            After Tim left the gun shop, the clerk barely registered that he had been there at all.

 

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