SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 11, 2011

I’m Just a Patsy!

 

Three or four days a week I sneak up to a bodega some seven blocks away to pick up beer, smokes, and assorted sundries—enough to keep me going until the next visit. I make the walk to that place as opposed to either of the two nearly identical bodegas less than a block away from my apartment for one simple reason: weirdness. Every two or three visits I can count on something unexpected happening. In some cases it’s just goofy, like the man behind the counter singing his “lettuce, tomato, and American cheese” song for me. In others it’s an uncomfortable weirdness, as I found with the overly affectionate deaf retarded kid I ran into a few weeks back. And in some cases it begins goofily enough, then slips inexorably toward the uncomfortable and sinister. Whatever the case, it’s enough to keep me coming back—and that may be my downfall.

            When I slid my beer onto the counter Tuesday morning the “lettuce, tomato, and American cheese” guy was there. That was a surprise, as he’s usually not there that early on weekdays. He didn’t sing for me that morning, perhaps because of the hour. The sun was only then beginning to rise.

            “I will call you Habib,” he said as he set down his paper and moved toward the register. “How you like that?”

            “Oh,” I replied. “Okay.”

            He rang up the beer, put it in a bag, and I paid him.

“Thank you, Mr. Habib!” he called behind me as I headed for the door. I waved back and stepped outside. They were very strange, the men who worked there.

A few days later I returned to the bodega to find him there at the counter again. I grabbed more beer and brought it over to him. Once more, he did not sing.

            “Vacations are good,” he said. “You make money, you must spend. What else you going to do with it, right?”

            “Sure,” I said. “So are you going on vacation soon?”

            “Four months from now. So what do I call you?”

Having learned to accept his non-sequiturs over the last year, I said, ‘Oh, Habib works for me.”

            He barked a sharp laugh. “Very good! Yes. You are Mr. Habib.”

            “And what do I call you?” I asked. After going there for a year, I had no idea what his name was.

            “I too am Mr. Habib,” he replied happily.

            “Oh.”

            “I am Mr. Habib Number One, and you will be Mr. Habib Number Two. How is that, right?”

            I didn’t know if this scene was funny or just odd. Not wanting to upset the man who sold me beer, however, I said, “Okay. That works for me.”

            “Very good! I am Mr. Habib Number One, you are Mr. Habib Number Two, yes?”

            After I paid him, he said, “Thank you Mr. Habib Number Two!”

            As I was walking home, something started to itch in my head. What the hell was that all about? I was starting to get the feeling it went way beyond his usual wackiness.

            “Maybe he’s just trying to ask you what your name is,” Morgan said later when I told her about Mr. Habib Number One.

            “”Maybe, but if that was the case why not just ask me? Jesus. There’s something else going on here. I think I’m being set up.”

            Despite the best efforts of assorted federal agencies and media outlets, I’ve not yet been duped into seeing every Middle Easterner as a potential terrorist. I pick and choose carefully. I have, however, accepted the fact that law enforcement officials aren’t beyond using entrapment in order to march another “home grown terrorist” in front of the cameras before he disappears forever. That’s why in the coming weeks I expect to turn on the news and see surveillance footage of one of my morning beer runs.

            “The man in this tape,” the news reader would say as I approach the counter with another sixer, “is believed to be the one the group knew only as ‘Mr. Habib Number Two.’ The NYPD is asking for the public’s help in tracking him down . . . ”

Dressing like a character out of Spy vs. Spy all the time doesn’t help I suppose. It would certainly explain what I went through with security personnel during a recent trip to LaGuardia.

One of these days I’m going to be walking to the post office or buying a shower curtain while the “lettuce, tomato, and American cheese” guy (and what the fuck’s that all about, anyway? Some kind of code?) tells the FBI agents, “We took all our orders from Mr. Habib Number Two.” Then he’ll play an audio recording in which he says “Thank you, Mr. Habib Number Two!” and I shout back “Thank you, Mr. Habib Number One!” clear as a bell.

            And what was that crack about vacations and spending money? Was he hinting that I would be leaving the country soon and that I would be paid a large sum of money? Was he trying to trick me into saying something incriminating? Something about a recent trip to Yemen, maybe? Well, I better not go in there any time soon, and not for four C batteries, that’s for sure.

I ran back through everything I’d said to him, trying to remember if there was anything that could be manipulated or misconstrued. Normally I don’t say much of anything at all, given that I’m so confused while I’m in there, but god, why did I have to start smoking Camels?

            And what about the deaf retarded kid? What the hell was that all about? Had he planted something on me when he hugged me?

            Then there was Mr. Habib’s comment that he was going on vacation in four months. What the fuck was that? Or maybe he meant that I would be going on vacation in four months.

            Jesus, it was all adding up, sort of. I just couldn’t figure out what it was all adding up to, apart from the fact that I was screwed.

            So let this be my testament. If anything, y’know, weird happens (if the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge collapses or Radio City goes up in flames during a Barry Manilow concert) in the near future, I had nothing to do with it. Talk to Mr. Habib Number One or his operator at the NSA.

            Of course I know how they’d play that one, too—they’d say I was just trying to cover my ass when I was guilty as hell. It’s pointless anyway. In the movies a note like this is never discovered until after the person who wrote it is found on a meat hook in a storage locker in Queens.

            Well, the only thing to do now I guess is keep going to the bodega as I normally would. It’d look suspicious if I didn’t. I’ll play it cool, try not to say anything too incriminating, and find out what I can about the plot from Mr. Habib Number One. Besides, the beer there is pretty cheap, comparatively.

 

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