SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
November 13, 2011

The Death Kid

 

I was out at sunrise, as usual, making my run up to the bodega for the day’s supplies, hoping to get there and back while avoiding as much foot traffic as possible. It’s too early for the kids to be headed for school or their parents to be headed for work. It’s mostly the dog walkers who are out at that hour, and they keep to themselves.

            This is why it was so surprising when a young dogless man in the middle of the block on 77th Street grunted at me as he passed. I grunted back at him and kept walking. Behind me, he grunted again, more insistent this time.

            It was a whining grunt, almost a word, and it occurred to me that he was probably deaf. Either that or dangerously psychotic. When he grunted a third time, more loudly, I also realized that he was a deaf man who wanted my attention. I stopped and turned. This was going to be tricky.

            “So . . . what’s this you’re saying, now?”

            He grunted again, something I’m sure was meaningful, and I shrugged.

            “I’m sorry,” I said, offering the universal signal for “I’m a blindo.” “I can’t see.”

            To make his point, he started slapping at me. Not threatening slaps—just light slaps at the breast pocket where I kept my smokes.

            ”Oh,” I said. “You need a light?” I pulled out the lighter and offered it to him, but he didn’t take it. I shrugged and replaced it. He slapped at the pocket again. This time his meaning was clear.

            “Oh, you want a smoke?” He grunted affirmatively and slapped my shoulder. I was getting a little tired of the slapping. “Jeeze,” I muttered quietly. “These things are awfully expensive, ahh . . . ” Nevertheless I pulled one out and handed it over. Better to give him one than have him take one by force, I figured; Once he had it, of course, now he needed the lighter.

            Once he was lit I retrieved the lighter. ”I should be getting on.”

            He made more insistent noise as I started to turn. Jesus Christ, now what? I looked in his general direction.

            Once again he slapped at me, but this time he slapped the hat brim and my sleeve.

            “Oh, you like my ensemble here?”

            He grunted happily.

            “Well thank you. You’re a man of taste and distinction.” I shook his hand, extracted myself, and continued on my way to the bodega.

            I thought nothing more of the encounter until a week later. I hadn’t seen him before or since, and just assumed that he was passing through. But then on Saturday morning I was in the back of the bodega grabbing more beer when I heard his unmistakable voice at the checkout. I suddenly decided there were a lot of other things in the store that I needed to look for. Things I knew they didn’t carry, like plant food and car batteries. They had to be in the back there someplace. I dawdled as long as I could. But it was a small and narrow store—I could only lurk in the back so long, and he didn’t sound like he was going much of anywhere. He was still talking to the clerk, in a way.

            I finally gave up and went to stand in line, hoping he wouldn’t notice me as he turned to leave. I’m a foolish optimist that way sometimes.

            Whenever I heard the word “deaf,” when I was a kid, I thought people were saying “death.” I thought those people who couldn’t hear were Death People. I didn’t know why this was, but it made me uneasy. Because of that, even after I learned the word the deaf have made me uneasy. Of course the blind make me uneasy, too, but that’s another matter.

            So there I stood with my beer, behind the kid and hoping he’d just turn and leave without catching sight of me.

            I heard the clerk call me and I stepped forward, thinking I was in the clear. Then I heard a happy whinny of surprise beside me and a hand slapping my sleeve.

            “Oh, hello,” I said. “How are you?”

            He made some more noises. Not knowing what else to do at this point, I set my beer on the counter and reached for a cigarette, which I handed to the deaf kid. The clerk, a normally jovial Egyptian kid in his mid-twenties, sounded tense and nervous as I asked him for a pack of cigarettes along with the beer. The deaf kid slapped my arm again, and as I turned he slapped my hat.

            “Yes, thank you,” I said.

            “Hey man,” the clerk muttered to him. “Leave the customers alone.”

            It immediately struck me that these two were related somehow—brothers, possibly, guessing from their ages. It also struck me that the deaf kid wasn’t just deaf, but a little off in the head.

            I grew up surrounded by a shifting assortment of retards and autistics. As a result, they make me more uneasy than the deaf and blind combined.

            As I started pulling bills from my wallet, the kid began clapping both hands on the counter next to me. This time I had no idea what he wanted. I don’t like anyone crowding around when I’m at a check out, and this whole scene was taking a few extra steps into High Strangeness.

            I half-turned to the kid, who grabbed my arm and spun me the rest of the way around. Then he grabbed my hand and gave me a bro-shake.

            “Yes, yes, there you go,” I said.

            I tried to turn back too the counter, but he grabbed me again, spun me back around, and gave me a big hug. This was just way too much touching and slapping for my taste. Especially that early. Nevertheless, when he released me I patted his shoulder. He slapped my hat again, then left.

            The clerk and I finished the transaction, neither of us saying another word.

            As I walked home I wondered once more how it was I always ended up in these situations.

 

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