SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
September 23, 2012

An Odd-Looking Kid

 

He was an odd-looking kid, that was for sure. A small, severe face balanced between a sharp chin and a bulbous, overhanging cranium. Beneath the head, he was skeletal, with arms so thin that even when we were five I could encircle his bicep with my thumb and forefinger. He moved stiffly, like a marionette in need of oil. His fingernails remained untrimmed and grew to dangerous lengths, and the flesh of his hands was wrinkled and scaly. He looked more than anything (depending on your perspective) like a light bulb balanced atop a stick figure or one of the invading aliens from This Island Earth or Mars Attacks!

            I first met Eddie in kindergarten. We started talking then, for no other reason than we were both about as interested in talking to those other little cretins as they were in talking to us. Eddie didn’t seen much interested in talking to me either, but did anyway if only to keep the teacher off his back for not joining in. It was clear from the start that he wasn’t at all like the others—that he was working on some different level. He would be the first of a surprising number of kids I would meet over the years in the Green Bay Public School system who possessed an intelligence far beyond their years. An almost alien intelligence. And as I would also learn as the years progressed, it sealed his doom just as it did for the others.

            By age seven he was speaking French. By eight he was doing higher math. He also had surprising artistic ability, and a cool but hilarious sense of humor (he was the only other kid I knew back in the early seventies who loved Ernie Kovacs). Eddie and I would remain friends off and on over the years. He always seemed a bit uncomfortable with the idea of having a “friend”, perhaps because he was so completely rejected by all the other kids who thought he was a weirdo. And granted, he was lacking in anything resembling “social skills,” and made no secret of the fact that he knew he was a hell of a lot smarter than everyone else, and had a real knack for looking down his nose and skewering me with a single line if I made a mistake. Still though, he impressed me and interested me.

            In many ways he was a perfectly normal geek. He read science fiction and drew little comic strips satirizing the teachers and other students. He raised guinea pigs in his basement (just as pets -- not experimental subjects) and adored them. The one and only time he invited me over to his house—we were in junior high by then—was to meet his guinea pigs. I also met his parents, sort of. They were both sociologists. His father was sitting at a dining room table covered with papers and file folders, and did not look up or speak when Eddie introduced me. His mother was in the kitchen and may have grunted when we walked in. They had had Eddie when they were in their fifties. He had two brothers, both engineers, who were about fifteen years older than he was. It may have helped explain something.

            As he showed me around the house and his bare room, he was nervous. He moved and spoke quickly and seemed to be trying to hard to prove how normal he was. I got the strong impression he’d never had a friend over before and was trying to do what was expected. It all made me a little uncomfortable and sad. After half an hour he told me it was time for me to go, and he never invited me back. I had him over to my place a couple of times, though, including one visit when he brought his prized guinea pig to meet my twenty-pound rabbit Charlotte. Given that they were both rodents, we figured they’d get along.

            Well, it was about three seconds after he lowered the guinea pig into Charlotte’s cage that she pounced and latched onto the shrieking animal’s hind leg. I’d warned him she was a killer. Yes well. We eventually put it behind us.

            In high school two things happened that were perhaps inevitable. We both started suffering severe bouts of depression, and we both fell for the same girl. neither of us had ever expressed much interest in girls before, which only made it inevitable that we would focus our attentions on the same one—a very cute, rail thin math whiz who seemed as awkward and nervous as we did most of the time.

            Eddie, who apart from growing taller had remained physically unchanged from when I first met him in kindergarten, was also as socially inept as he’d always been and kept his emotions mostly to himself. He would discuss math with her and draw pictures for her, but left it at that. I could tell he was hooked bad, though, and so could she. She would tell me in an offhand way how depressed he was, what kind of troubles he was having, and she sympathized with how hard it must be to be that supremely intelligent. Still, she seemed to admire him as an intellect but little else. I, on the other hand, did not have any of the troubles that came with supreme intelligence.

            After it became clear we were clumsy and inexperienced romantic rivals, kind of, Eddie stopped talking to me. It didn’t matter that she was in the end fairly aloof to both of us—an attitude that only grew worse when she discovered that Jesus Christ was her personal savior. After that her aloof patience became pity for our lost souls. Eddie still seemed to resent me for standing between him and the girl of his dreams. I wanted to explain to him that it was pointless, but it was too late.

            Unfortunately by that time the girl and I were not only headed to the same college—we would be living in the same dorm. We made no effort to see each other, though, and when we did we were civil but little else. Except for one day. I forget the exact circumstances, but I heard she was very ill and I think I was asked to deliver something to her room. She was sick in bed and I stayed in the doorway, and that’s when she told me at some length that Eddie’s affections for her had taken a turn for the disturbing. He kept sending her letters and portraits he’d sketched.

            “I tried to explain to him that there’s nothing there, but it only seems to make him angry.”

            I admit I was less than sympathetic, thinking back to how she’d treated me, and did little more than wish her luck before making some excuse and heading back to my room before I caught whatever it was she had. It was interesting to learn what was happening with Eddie, though. Given my own early and failed experiments with the romantic crap, I fully understood how he was thinking.

            I heard no more from or about either of them for about two years, when by coincidence I ran into Eddie at the University of Wisconsin. I didn’t know he was going there.

            He had put on a little weight and had grown one of those Amish beards without the mustache. It all left him looking a bit more freakish than ever. It also became clear pretty quickly that he’d gone completely off his nut. The first words out of his mouth were, not surprisingly, about the girl.

            “Have you talked to her lately?” he asked.

            “Naw,” I said. “Not since Chicago, couple years back.”

            “Well last time you did talk to her did she mention me?”

            I shook my head. “No, not that I remember.” It was a lie of course, but what the hell was I supposed to say? “Oh yeah she sure did—said you’d turned all creepy and stalky”? That wouldn’t fly.

            He tilted his head back slightly and looked off into the distance as his lips drew back in a strained grin that was more a grimace. Over the years I’d come to recognize it as an expression of arrogance and bitterness and pain. “I guess she doesn’t like me very much anymore.”

            “Yes, well,” I said with a shrug, wondering what she’d finally said that broke through to him. Must’ve been harsh.

            “C’mon,” he said. “I wanna show you my room.”

            Knowing that I wasn’t with her either and wanted nothing to do with her anymore, Eddie quickly set his resentment aside. That was a relief, actually. I didn’t mind being hated, so long as it wasn’t for something as stupid as that. I hadn’t been heading any place important, so I tagged along. I was quite honestly happy to see Eddie again. I was also curious.

            Along the way he told me, not surprisingly, that he was studying engineering. The University of Wisconsin’s School of Engineering was generally thought of as a place that churned out a bunch of little Dr. Strangeloves, given the number of graduates who went straight to work for the military. That didn’t surprise me either.

            “There are only a couple of girls in the program,” he explained along the way. “So at the beginning of every class the rest of us fight to try and get a seat close to them.”

            “Uh-huh.” It was strange to hear him talking that way. Of course everything about him was strange. I didn’t know if the normal hormones had finally kicked in, or he was simply trying to pass again.

            When we reached his dorm room, it was like a replay of that scene in his house when we were twelve. The room was still spare, but what was there was cluttered. There was a pyramid of beer cans on his desk. He began moving about the room stiffly and nervously like a jerky marionette. He spoke quickly as he showed off assorted objects that could be found in most any normal college student’s room. But Eddie showed them to me like he was trying to prove something, almost as if they were nothing but props placed there for just this reason. Again more than anything it made me uncomfortable and sad.

            “Here, you gotta hear this,” he said as he moved to the stereo and snapped it on. “But you gotta hear it with earphones.” Before I knew what was happening, he clapped a massive pair of earphones on my head and blasted Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” into my brain.

            I pulled the earphones off and handed them back after a few seconds of polite and banal pain. Then I made some cheap excuse and got out of there.

            It was odd—by behaving like a normal college student of the time, by surrounding himself with the same objects and listening to the same stupid music, he seemed more alien and insane than ever. Things I would have ignored or at best found insipid in the hands of most any other student suddenly seemed almost dangerous in his—a sign of great potential violence.

            I never heard from him again after that day, though I’ve often wondered how he made out. In 2003 I received an invitation to my twentieth anniversary class reunion. I had no interest or intention of going, of course, but out of curiosity I read through the list of names of the classmates they couldn’t find. Not surprisingly all those people who were missing were the only people I would have had any interest at all in seeing again. And sure enough there was Eddie’s name at the top of the list. Maybe he was working deep underground on top security clearance projects for DARPA or the NSA. Or maybe he’d finally come to accept his true nature and returned to seclusion. I can only hope.

 

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