SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 10, 2016

Why Do All My Neighbors Turn Into Pods?

 

In the summer of 2014, Morgan and I were living in the Bunker downstairs and the couple who’d lived on the second floor for the previous two years was preparing, quite suddenly it seems, to move to Maryland. I had by that time become firmly convinced they were Pod People, and had plenty of empirical evidence to support my claim. First and foremost was their complete lack of emotion, and the man’s inability to speak in anything other than patently obvious banalities (“It is raining today but not very hard,” or “It seems you are checking the mail”). I never once heard the sound of music, a radio, or a television coming out of their apartment. In fact I never heard them speak to one another at all. Then there was the shadowy and silent way in which the move took place. The massive truck sat in front of the building for days, but we never heard movers tromping up and down the stairs with boxes and furniture. We never heard or saw anything at all, save for one morning about four when Morgan heard the back of the truck open briefly, close again, and that was that. Then the truck was gone. It was obvious the move to Maryland was an alien directive to spread the pods they’d been growing on the second floor around some other part of the country.

            I was relieved to see them go, not only to get the fucking Pod People out of the building before they got the rest of us, but because it also meant Morgan and I could snag the second floor apartment. After a thorough search revealed no poddy residue (though plenty of other evidence my supposition was correct), we did just that and have been very happy up here since.

            Over the last year or so, however, things in the building have grown increasingly strange. The truth finally became clear only after a recent marathon that involved watching eight or nine interpretations of Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers. Over the course of a couple of weeks I watched everything from Don Siegel’s brilliant 1956 film to a 2007 abomination clearly made by Pods and starring that Queen Pod Nicole Kidman. All the clues were there.

            In late 2009, when I suddenly found myself in desperate need of an apartment, and quick, I heard through friends that the basement here was vacant. I moved in a couple of weeks later, and everything was swell. Fortunately the couple upstairs were friendly. We hung out in the garden on summer nights, we always stopped and chatted in the hall when we ran into one another, we got together to watch old movies, we shared big holiday feasts, and we helped each other out when need be. They helped me mop up after a couple of floods, we helped each other with heavy boxes, and we kept an eye on the building in general.

            During the summer they spent a lot of time out back tending to the garden. There was almost always music coming out of their apartment, whether it was the woman’s piano playing or classical music on the radio. They watched old British comedies on TV, and when there was nothing else playing you could hear them talking and laughing up there most of the day.

            But over the past months things had grown quieter. The music and television and voices seemed to vanish. She no longer played the piano and it seemed they no longer spoke to one another. The apartment was silent, except for the door opening and closing now and again. The once carefully tended garden was abandoned, so abruptly they left all their tools and pots and bags of soil scattered around, almost like they’d simply dropped them where they were one afternoon and left. Whenever I ran into him in the building’s entryway, the historical and literary anecdotes which had been so much a part of the man’s conversational style were replaced with simple businesslike statements of the obvious spoken in a monotone. The woman, who had once been vibrant and funny, likewise began speaking in a monotone, when she bothered to speak at all.

            The man began doing laundry obsessively ten or twelve hours a day, five days a week. He seemed to be washing the same rugs and blankets over and over again, making it difficult if not impossible for anyone else to sneak in a load. Then the woman seemed to disappear almost completely, apparently never leaving the apartment. The only evidence we had she was still down there (by now we’d moved to the second floor) was the cigarette smoke, which seemed to indicate she was sitting up all night chain-smoking. Efforts to do them small favors went unacknowledged. The little tasks the man did around the building—what he had always asserted was just part of being neighborly—either stopped getting done or were done randomly, haphazardly, and badly. Even more disturbing, there seemed to be some deliberate efforts on their part to inflict damage on the building, affecting everyone. They broke things and blamed us for it, and sent repairmen away when they showed up to fix them. A few months back they asked us to keep an eye on their cats when they went out of town for a night, but neglected to tell us they’d also asked four other people to keep an eye on the cats as well. They simply weren’t themselves anymore. Their behavior had become robotic and a little frightening.

            There of course were any number of possible explanations for the change in behavior. Maybe we’d done something to offend them and they just didn’t want to deal with us anymore. (I can sometimes have that effect on people.) Maybe there were personal or health issues we didn’t know about and they didn’t care to discuss. That was understandable. We have a bunch of autistics living on the block, so maybe there’s a bacterial or viral source to the condition doctors haven’t discovered yet, and our neighbors caught themselves a dose. It could be early onset dementia, or drugs, or maybe they’d acquired one of those brain parasites from handling the shit of their fifteen cats. Who the hell knows with people, right?

            Things had gotten so bad I’d even had friendly conversations on the street with the woman next door, and I used to despise her so much I could never remember her name. Even though she hadn’t changed a whit, the simple contrast with what had become of the folks downstairs made her suddenly preferable.

            One afternoon not that long ago, though, when after much coaxing I was able to speak to the man on the sidewalk for a few minutes, I learned they were seriously considering a move to Maryland, and that’s when it all started to click.

            Maryland?

            In a flash it was clear this wasn’t a case of viral autism. Like the couple on the second floor, they’d become Pod People. We had once again found ourselves living next to emotionless alien replicants. Why the fuck does this keep happening, and how do we protect ourselves? And where the hell are these pods coming from? The logical explanation would be the garden out back, which might explain why the guy next door paved his entire backyard over. We couldn’t see anything from the window, but then again things were getting pretty overgrown back there. The other logical guess would’ve been the basement, but the Greek kid who lives down there seems perfectly normal. For now, anyway.

            The more I think about it, the more I wonder why I’m so shocked to find myself living next to more Pods. Maybe it was simply so disturbing this time because I’d seen the transformation happen. The invasion is all but complete, and the Pods won decades ago. Just take a walk down any sidewalk in Manhattan and you’ll see what I mean. These days I’m certain that wherever I go, wherever I try to run, I’ll find myself living next to, above, below, or more likely completely surrounded by Pod People. Which all has me more than a little anxious to see who’s going to move in downstairs.

 

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