SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
October 7, 2018

Snippets IX: First Blood Part II

 

“You want a martini?”

            “Pardon?” I asked.

            “You want a martini?”

            I finally recognized the slurred voice coming from the sidewalk just outside the front gate. It was my neighbor Sammy, who lived four or five houses down the block. I hadn’t seen him in months, and had been wondering if he was dead. Sammy was an ex-cop in his early sixties. Nice guy whom I’ve never seen sober all the years I’ve been living here. Like most of the people on this block he was a big Trump supporter, probably more than a little racist, and for some reason was convinced God was trying to kill him. Still, though, a nice guy with some good stories. I had nothing against the idea of having a drink with him, but it was a little after eight on a sweltering Saturday morning, and I’d just popped down to the stoop to have a quick smoke before getting on with the day’s work.

            “Thanks,” I said. “Maybe not right now, but later.”

            “It’s early,” he said. “This is when I start. I used to work the night shift. You get off at seven or eight, it’s like other people getting off work at five or six.” Then he paused. “That’s a lie. I haven’t worked the night shift in twenty years . . . I do crossword puzzles. You do crossword puzzles?”

            “Used to,” I told him. “Back when I could see.” I started wondering if he’d forgotten I was blind.

            “I do crossword puzzles,” he repeated. “I do crossword puzzles and I drink. That’s the good and the bad parts of me. And they’re both bad.”

            With that, he continued down the sidewalk.

**************************

“Could I ask you a really personal question?”

            “Sure, I don’t care. Ask whatever,” I said, bracing for the worst. I was smoking on the stoop again. You get to know your neighbors a little too well when you smoke on the stoop.

            Elizabeth, who lived next door, was a cool, cynical and literate painter in her sixties whose overt politics ran headlong into pretty much everyone else’s on that street. She was another reason why the cluster of houses by the corner was considered The Freak End of the Block.

            “Yesterday I’d just left the class I teach and was walking down Greenwich,” she said. “And I saw a blind man at the corner. I asked if I could help him across the street and he said yes. Then he asked if I could walk him to six-eighteen, which is the building I’d just left, and so I said sure.”

            “Okay.” I had no sense of how this might turn into something “really personal.”

            “So we were talking about this and that, and when we got to the building, he stopped and asked if he could smell my breath.”

            “Oh, Jesus Christ, no, no, no,” I said reflexively.

            “Well, yeah, so I just kind of exhaled at him. It seemed a little weird, but I did it.”

            “Uh-huh?” I got the sense this guy probably lived in the Associated Blind building on Twenty-third. They’re all pretty creepy in there.

            “Then he asked if he could put his fingers in my mouth.”

            “Oh, Jesus, no!”

            “Well, I said, ‘Um, no you may not,’ and that was that.”

            I got to thinking that if I’d been a little quicker on my feet I would’ve remained poker-faced throughout the story, acting as if all this was perfectly normal behavior, something we blindos did every day as a matter of course. Putting our fingers in strangers mouths was integral to our navigating around town. Or something like that. I suspect that’s what her personal question was, and I blew it.

            So consider this a public service message: if some creepy blindo on the street asks to stick his fingers in your mouth, don’t let him.

            Thank you.

**************************

It was early Monday, so the grocery store was busy, the aisles having been turned into an obstacle course of crates, stacked boxes of produce and stock boys reloading the shelves. I slowly picked my way through it all toward the back of the store, praying I wouldn’t yet again send an open boxful of fresh tomatoes toppling.

            I didn’t, and made it to the back, where I turned left by the freezer cases.

            “Hello!” A woman exclaimed suddenly as I turned the corner. “Oh, how are you?”

            “I’m fine,” I said. “Doing well. And how are you?” I had no idea who this woman was, but she was acting like we’d known each other for years and this was just a happy coincidence. Maybe I’d run into her here before, but if I did I didn’t remember. I could place neither her age nor her accent. She might have been in her thirties or sixties, she might have been Hispanic, Italian or Albanian.

            “Oh, thanks God, thanks God,” she said, moving closer. “I am doing good too. I am so happy to see you! Did you need any help with anything?”

            “Oh, I think I should be just fine,” I told her. “But thank you. That’s very kind.”

            “My name is Lucia,” she said. “You need help with anything, just call for Lucia, and I’ll be there to help you”

            I introduced myself, shook her hand, and thanked her again.

            “Remember, anything at all, just call on Lucia.”

            It was a fairly standard encounter for that store, where the staff and customers alike go to absurd lengths to help the blind guy. This was just a bit more enthusiastic than most.

            It was only after I got home and told Morgan about it that she reminded me Lucia was the Catholic saint who’d had her eyeballs plucked out, and is usually portrayed carrying them on a small plate.

            “So, you’re saying I just had a visitation in the freezer aisle?”

**************************

            Here’s a brief example of how my brain works sometimes. As per usual, a little after eight I went across the street to the bodega for the day’s beer and cigarettes. I was relieved to find it was open (the old Egyptian who runs the place has been showing up later and later lately), but as I stepped through the door I didn’t hear his standard hoarse greeting from behind the counter. That wasn’t that unusual. He was probably taking care of something in back.

            I headed back to the coolers, felt for the right door, pulled it open and dragged a sixer off the top shelf. Usually when he’s in the back, the moment he hears the cane tapping and the cooler door opening, he knows it’s me and calls out, “How many?” Over the years, especially since he started specializing in black market smokes he has to keep hidden in back, we’d developed a quick shorthand. “How many?” Simply meant how many packs I wanted that morning.

            That morning he didn’t call out. There was only silence. Again, no big deal, so I carried the beer back up to the register, set it on the counter, and waited. I listened carefully, but didn’t hear any shuffling sounds coming from the back room. I didn’t hear him outside either. Sometimes he was out there screaming at someone on the phone. Apart from the bodega being open, there was no evidence of him at all.

            I waited a few minutes longer. When there was no sign of the old Egyptian, or any Egyptian for that matter, I briefly considered taking my beer and going home. But I knew there were cameras posted all over the place, and he’d probably recognize me when he reviewed the tape. Crap.

            After a few more minutes of silence, I tapped toward the back room, stuck my head inside the open door, and called, but received no response.

            Well, shit. I marched back up to the counter. It was a warm morning, the place wasn’t air-conditioned, and didn’t even have a fan.

            Standing there in the silence for a few more minutes, another thought began creeping into my head. “I bet he’s dead. That’s gotta be it. He was old and in rough health as it was—he probably collapsed and died in the back room after rolling up the gate and dragging the gumball machines out on the sidewalk. Came back in, went to the back, and had a heart attack or stroke. Or maybe he’s just on the other side of the counter here, all sprawled out. Christ, that’d just be my luck, wouldn’t it? Dead guy right here. And I’d never know it unless I went around the counter and started swinging the cane. Lord knows I’m not going to do that, because the moment I did, that’s when he would walk in and accuse me of stealing batteries and lighters. Nope, I’m just gonna stand here like an idiot waiting for a dead guy. And what would I do if I did find him? It’s not like I was carrying a phone or anything. I’d have to go out on the sidewalk, flag someone down, and have them call 911. And when the cops showed up, then what? What if he’d been stabbed or shot or bludgeoned? The block had taken a few turns for the Selby in recent days. So would I be a suspect? Would they cuff me and haul me in for questioning? Jesus, I can see the Post headlines already.

            Then I paused, backed up and thought of something else. Part of the plan involved grabbing someone on the sidewalk. But there hadn’t been anyone on the sidewalk. All the time I’d been standing there, no other customers had come into the store, and so far as I could tell, no one had even walked by. That was just fucking strange. This place was usually pretty busy this time of the morning, people stopping in to grab papers, coffee and buttered rolls. But there hadn’t been a one. The whole corner seemed completely devoid of life.

            Wait a second. Maybe it wasn’t the old Egyptian who was the dead one. Maybe I was dead. After all these years I’d finally been struck and killed by one of those cars that come zooming down the street before turning onto the avenue. Stop sign right there, but no one ever stops. Just roll right on through. It was inevitable, really, that they’d get me one of these days. Zoom through the stop sign and BOOM! So quick I never saw it coming and never felt a thing. Just boom and dead. Which is why I couldn’t remember it. Shit, so now I’m dead and forced to spend eternity in this goddamn bodega? Just stand around here for eons waiting for some guy who’s never gonna show to sell me beer? Son of a bitch.

            I tapped toward the back room again and called through the door. As expected, there was no response. I stood there a moment in the narrow aisle between the juice bottles and the laundry detergent wondering what the hell I was supposed to do now.

            As I finally gave up and headed for the door, the old man stepped inside.

            “Hello!“ he rasped. “How are you?”

**************************

It was about ten on another warm and humid August night, and I was out on the stoop for about the twelfth time that day, having a couple of last smokes before cleaning myself up and crawling drunkenly into bed. I was getting down to the end of the second smoke when I heard a voice from the darkness out on the sidewalk.

            “Hey Jim.”

            I didn’t recognize the voice at first, but the fact he knew my name narrowed things down. I raised a hand reflexively in greeting. “Hey.”

            “You wanna Heineken?”

            Then I recognized the hopeful slur in the voice, and immediately felt bad. “Oh, Sammy,” I said. “I’m really sorry, but I think I’ve had my fill tonight. Gimme a rain check.” I did want to have a drink with the old, sad ex-cop at some point, but this wasn’t it. I was on the edge of coherence as it was.

            I waited for some kind of response, but there was only silence.

            “Hello?” I asked. “You still there?”

            After a moment longer with no response, I realized he’d walked away without a word the minute I turned him down.

 

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