SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 22, 2012

Boo, There, Neighbor

 

There’s a scene in The Sentinel—one of my favorite devil movies of the seventies—that always gives me a chuckle. Actually I chuckle at any number of scenes, but there’s one in particular of late. A young woman has just been shown a vacant apartment in a creepy old house in Brooklyn Heights. While walking down the sidewalk afterward, she and the real estate agent pause and look back at the building. The young woman is startled to see an elderly man staring at them from a top floor window.

        “That man,” the young woman says nervously. “He’s staring at me.”

        “Oh, don’t worry about him,” the real estate agent assures her. “He’s blind.”

        As the word “blind” is uttered, the ominous strings kick in on the soundtrack, telling us that there’s something sinister and evil about having a blind old man living on the top floor.

        The scene came back to me the other day as I was heading out to a nearby bar. Before stepping onto the sidewalk, I paused at the front gate and lit a smoke for the trip. I exhaled, got my bearings, and stepped through the gate. That’s when someone who had apparently been standing very close to me this whole time spoke.

        “Hello . . . I’m your new neighbor.”

        It took me a second to register what he’d said. I knew my neighbors and hadn’t been warned about any new ones. Unless he meant next door or down the street a little ways. In any case the guy had a lot to learn. You don’t just sneak up on a blind man and bark in his fucking ear. Give him a little warning, or better still don’t say anything at all.

        “You mean, what, next door?”

        “No,” he said. “The top floor in here.”

        “Oh.” I put out a hand as it seemed the thing to do, and that’s when I realized he was holding a large box. This was no bad dream—there really were new people moving into the building. That never bodes well.

        There wasn’t much time for niceties at that point. He was in the middle of moving in, and I had to get to the bar before someone took my place.

        “My name’s Jim,” he said. “What’s yours?”

        Christ, where were we, third grade?

        “Jim,” I replied, “which is sure to make everything a little more confusing.”

        I let him continue with his moving and I tapped down the street, filled with both relief for being done with the encounter, and dread for what lay ahead.

        A few hours later I was still in the bar and still fuming mildly over the fact that no one had given me a heads-up about this. The possibility began to grow in my head that maybe my old neighbors hadn’t warned me because this so-called “Jim” had killed them and was moving into their apartment. After all, I hadn’t heard any moving trucks or Dominican movers tromping up and down the stairs with furniture. It was just this guy with one box. That didn’t seem right. Maybe he’d introduced himself to them as “Bill” before he killed them and buried their bodies in the backyard. I was next on his list, all of it part of his insidious plan to take over the entire building.

        I stopped myself, realizing that I was approaching this with the wrong attitude. If an old blind man living on the top floor and staring out the window is a portent of evil, how about an old blind man living in the basement? How creepy is that shit? My job was not to worry about him—he was the one who was going to worry about me. I left the bar late that night with a newfound confidence. If my presence disturbed a bright and happy young family so much that they threw me out of my last apartment, this guy would be a piece of cake.

        Two days later I was tapping down the sidewalk again when I heard someone call my name. Not recognizing the voice, I kept tapping. A moment later the erstwhile “Jim” stopped me.

        “Hey,” he said. “It’s your new neighbor.”

        “Hello,” I replied.

        “Where are you headed?”

        That opened up a box of possible responses. Cult meeting, shooting range, rat breeder, Satanist convention. As I sorted through the possibilities, the word “bar” spilled from my mouth.

        “I’m heading to the grocery store,” he said happily. “So I’ll walk a little ways with you.”

        “That’s super.”

        As he toddled along beside me he told me about the new apartment, and I reminded him that I lived in the basement. He seemed to be roughly my age, a low-key, soft-spoken and pleasant man, which of course meant he wasn’t to be trusted. I learned he had a wife or a girlfriend or something living with him. He was some kind of investment counselor and she designed furniture coverings “for both indoor and outdoor use.” He seemed very proud of the fact.

        “Oh god,” I thought. “These are the two most boring people on earth.” That’s a terrible prejudice on my part, I realize, but as soon as someone mentions those two occupations, I just shut down, not wanting to hear any more. What would be the point?

        He told me a great deal about himself (more than I cared to know, really) in a very short period of time. I said very little, keeping my head down and tapping toward my destination. I did remind him yet again that I lived in the basement.

        As we shook hands and he headed for the grocery store I kicked myself for not telling him that he should just ignore any strange sounds he hears coming out of the basement. For a moment I considered yelling it after him down the street, but didn’t think that would be very effective. Still I was getting the impression the dark magic was starting to do its work.

        The following afternoon I crept from my apartment to the ground floor and felt my way down the hallway to check my mail. I could hear someone moving about at the top of the stairs. The sliding of boxes and the crumple of newspaper packing. I said nothing, found there was no mail, and began feeling my way back toward the basement door again.

        “Hello,” a woman called.

        “Hello,” I replied.

        She tromped downstairs and introduced herself.

        “I’m told you design furniture coverings for both indoor and outdoor use,” I said. Then I told her my name was Jim and that I lived in the basement.

        She returned to her unpacking and I crept back downstairs. Yeah, I give it two months before they’re going to great lengths to avoid me.

        I’m still a little concerned about my old neighbors, though. I still haven’t seen them.

 

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