SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
March 17, 2013

What Do They Know That I Don’t?

 

I’m used to hearing strange, disconnected, and confounding things coming out of the mouths of the people I know. Most of the people I know are just like that. But in recent days the non-sequitors have been coming fast and furious from complete strangers, and it’s starting to unnerve me a little bit. The troubling thing is, all the comments seem to hint that these people—people I’ve never met before and will likely never meet again—know something I don’t about my mental and physical state. Something at once secret and common knowledge. Take yesterday for example.

               It was simply a couple of errands, is all. Step outside, make two quick and easy stops, and come back home. Twenty, twenty-five minutes. Maybe as much as forty-five if the lights were against me. I wasn’t even thinking about it, just getting it out of the way.

               Then at the first corner as I waited for the light to change an older middle-aged man approached.

               “Hey, I don’t wanna be nosy or nothin’,” he said. “But can I ask you something?”

               My hand tightened around the handle of the cane, but I don’t think he noticed. “Go ahead.”

               “I always wondered—how do you know when the light’s changed so you can cross? . . . Again I don’t wanna be nosy.”

               That one was actually much easier than I expected. When people use the word “nosy” I expect it to be followed by an insult. “Oh, you’re not being nosy. It’s a perfectly logical question,” I told him. “I just listen, see? If the traffic’s going this way . . . ” I gestured with the cane. “Then I got the light. But if the traffic’s going this way, see?” I gestured again. “Then I don’t. So right now I don’t.”

               He was very pleased about finally understanding. “So you just listen? That’s great. Like I said, I didn’t wanna be nosy, but I was always curious. That’s great. Gotta be usin’ your ears all the time. Like I could tell you knew that I was here, and knew exactly what I was gonna ask you even before I did.”

               “Um, sure.”

               “That’s great—you could tell even before I asked you. I could see it.”

               I’m not exactly sure how he made that leap from listening to traffic to psychic abilities, but now was not the time to try and dissuade him. I simply wanted to get on with my errands. Fortunately as we chatted I noticed that the cars passing in front of me had pulled to a stop.

               “Yeah, well,” I said. “I’ve got the light now so I’ll be on my way.” I tapped out into the street and straight into the path of an oncoming ambulance, which swerved to avoid me. So much for using my ears, I guess. I was a little preoccupied with that psychic business. What did he mean he could tell? I had no fucking idea he was there until he spoke, let alone what he was going to ask me.

               Well, no matter. The drug store was right across the street—I hated that place—and getting back to the pharmacy counter always took a lot of concentration.

               Once inside I moved slowly, weaving my way through the maze of aisles until I found the pick-up window. I gave the pharmacist my name and she stepped away to grab the bag.

               “That was two prescriptions, right?”

               “Uh-huh.”

               She returned to the counter and looked in the bag. “Oh,” she said. “One of them wasn’t filled. I’ll go find out why.”

               I wasn’t surprised by this. There always seems to be something at that place. I waited patiently for a few minutes until she returned to inform me that the prescription had run out and that I’d need to go see my doctor to get a new one.

               Well, I had no intention of doing any such thing. I didn’t care much for that doctor, and besides, he’d retired a few weeks earlier.

               “Oh, I can live without it,” I told her. “It’s fine.”

               “But is your high blood pressure under control?”

               I shrugged. “I s’pose. Enough.”

               “But those pills are very good for the kidneys.”

               “Um, excuse me?”

               “Kidneys. Those pills help maintain kidney health.”

               What the hell am I, a cat? My kidneys hadn’t failed since 1986. I was taking the pills for my blood pressure, which was slowly starting to rise. Nobody had ever said a word about kidneys. What was she hinting at? Did she know something I didn’t?

               People were starting to line up behind me. I had to do something, give her some kind of assurance I’d restore my kidneys to full working order, otherwise she’d never let me leave. We’d be standing there all day talking about kidneys in roundabout terms and dropping vaguely sinister hints.

               “I’ll take care of it,” I promised. “I’ll just take the one prescription now and get back to you.”

               Apparently believing my half-hearted lie, she wrapped up the transaction, I grabbed the bag, and hobbled back out to the street. What was with these people? What hadn’t I been told?

               Well, with kidney health in mind, I headed four blocks south to the liquor store. I always have a hard time finding that place. I know what block it’s on, but which door is another matter. This time it only took three tries before I stepped through a doorway and asked in a loud voice if I was in a liquor store, same as I’d done in the two previous places (a laundromat and a bodega). This time I heard a young man in the back of the store call back, “Yes, you are!”

               “Well, thank god for that.”

               I was apparently the only customer there at the moment, and he was the only employee. I’d been in here several times, but didn’t recognize his voice. Maybe he was new. Given that it simply wasn’t a good idea to go bumbling about a place full of bottles swinging a cane, I sidled over to the counter and stood still. They’d always been quite helpful here that way. I could tell them with some specificity what I wanted, and they’d scamper off to get it. That’s what happened this time as well.

               “I would like a fifth of your cheapest rye, please,” I said, and sure enough he seemed quite happy to go grab it for me. He returned a moment later overflowing with descriptive terms that meant little or nothing to me. I just wanted some cheap booze is all. Still, I nodded politely.

               Then as he was ringing it up and I was reaching for my wallet, he said, “I’m so happy to see you up and around.”

               Okay, that was enough. I’d about had my fill of these smug bastards pussyfooting around with their oblique references. Was I not supposed to be ambulatory for some reason? Had there been something in the papers that I missed? What the hell were they trying to get at? It was time someone here cut to the chase and put an end to all this nonsense.

               “Look,” I told him as I handed over the bills. “If I really did have psychic powers, don’t you think I’d know if my kidneys were about to fail?”

 

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