SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 8, 2013

Witnesses

 

I live in a Brooklyn row house with three apartments. I’m in the basement. The way the place is set up, should anyone come to the front door and hit any of the doorbells, the bells in all three apartments ring (Big Ben chimes, even). As aggravating and lazy as that seemed at first (especially since only rarely is anyone looking for me), it’s turned out to be an arrangement with certain advantages. Since there’s almost always someone at home in one of the apartments at any given time, and since the two couples above me are pleasant and responsible people, it means someone’s always here to accept packages, sign for mail, let repairmen in, and pass along messages. It works out.

            Most of the time, anyway. It was about eleven on a Saturday morning when Big Ben chimed. Not hearing any immediate footsteps in the apartment above me, I pushed myself back from the desk and hobbled to the door. Since virtually no one save for the boiler repairman ever comes to the basement door, I stepped outside, pulled myself up the short stairs nearly to street level, and called up toward the front door. (This practice worries Morgan terribly. As I can’t see who’s there, she fears one of these days I’ll end up confronting someone I’m trying to avoid, or an Albanian gangster.)

            “Oh, there you are down there,” I heard a man say. I didn’t recognize the voice, but the Brooklyn accent left me thinking it was the FedEx guy with a package for one of my upstairs neighbors. He tromped back down the stairs and around the corner to where I was standing. “Here,” he said. “I have something for you.”

            “Okay.” I wasn’t expecting anything, but you never can tell. I held out my hand, and he handed me what turned out to be a small pamphlet.

            “Uh-oh,” I thought. Should’ve known they were about due again.

            “I want you to take that inside and read it,” he said. He sounded like a friendly enough sort, but they always do. “Because in all our lives we worry about the end, about dying, and I don’t think there’s a person on earth who’s ever reached that point without thinking about God. We all wonder about God at the end . . . ”

            “Do you know something I don’t?”

            I’ve always found Jehovah’s Witnesses hugely entertaining. Even when I was in junior high, long after I’d given up the idea of faith of any kind, I’d invite them in and asked them all kinds of crazy questions about the nonsense they believed. Sometimes, if I was in a particularly anti-religious mood, I’d sucker them into debates about everything from social issues and politics to the origins of the universe and the validity of some of the more ridiculous things they were touting. When I was a high school science geek I tried to correct their conceptions of how the universe is structured, pulling down textbooks, showing them simple illustrations in an effort to explain quantum theory.

            I will give them one thing, they’ve been well-trained to argue most any issue from the Jehovah’s Witness perspective. They may not be on a par with those creepy Jesuits when it comes to the intricacies of complex philosophical debate, but in their own smiling, pleasant, simple-minded way they at least gave it the old college try. And, in the case of quantum theory, they even eventually admitted their science might be a little outdated.

            Best of all, they always left me with a stack of magazines and hardcover books explaining their cockamamie ideas. I never read any of them, but I loved the artwork. Jehovah’s Witness artwork is a genre unto itself, and I always wanted to know who was responsible. It had found a way—and this is a tricky balance—to be hyper-realistic, brain-meltingly garish, and bland at the same time. They were like Thomas Kinkade paintings, but with lots of friendly animals and smiling white people being kind and gentle to one another. They may not have been as much hateful fun as the hellfire of Jack Chick comics, but they had different goals in mind.

            Perhaps for budgetary reasons, in later years the glossy hardcovers weren’t handed out so freely, and my patience for proselytizers of any kind, even the entertaining simpletons, fizzled. For a brief time I abused them until they went away. (Are there any statistics regarding how many Jehovah’s Witnesses are murdered every year while making their rounds?) Soon, though, I didn’t even have the time or energy for that.

            I do wonder sometimes as I think back on it now, how much of my lost enthusiasm for the Witnesses was tied in to my failing eyesight. That goofy art of theirs may have been more of a draw than I realized, and without the books or the sight, I simply stopped caring. Well, something to think about anyway.

            Last time two of them stopped me while I was returning from the store with that day’s beer and smokes, I just told them I was a nihilist, and suggested they try the man behind the counter in the store across the street, not mentioning that the man in question was a Muslim fundamentalist. I may no longer have had the energy to abuse or debate them myself, but there’s no reason why I couldn’t do it by proxy, right?

            That Saturday morning, though, I had been working, I was under a bit more pressure than I’m used to, and I wasn’t in much of a mood to toy with the sad little belief system of a goober.

            “Yeah,” I interrupted this guy who seemed to be implying I would be dying soon. “You might be better off passing this along to someone else.” I held the pamphlet out in his general direction. “See, I’m blind, so I won’t exactly be able to read it anyway.”

            “Well,” he suggested, “is there someone who could read it to you?”

            “I live alone.” There was no hesitation or question in my voice. “And it’d just be more clutter to me.”

            He took the pamphlet back from my outstretched hand. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t want to do anything to increase your discomfort.”

            “Good,” I said, then returned inside and closed the door.

            I guess that’s another advantage to having all the doorbells ring whichever button is hit. Maybe one of these days down the line, one of my neighbors will take a bullet like that for me.

 

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