SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
May 17, 2020

The Dead End Kids

 

[Author’s note: It will probably be obvious, but this was written two or three weeks before the lockdown. It would’ve run much sooner but, well, other things got in the way.]

I’d just been to a hardware store a few blocks away where the ornery Russian proprietor made me, I would soon learn, an absolutely worthless copy of a mailbox key. Now I just wanted to pick up some smokes and head home. The local schools were starting to let out, and the sidewalks were becoming treacherous.

            “Hey,” I heard a young voice call from the stoop I was passing. “Are you, um, blind?”

            I stopped and turned toward the voice. “Yup.”

            “No you’re not.”

            Oh, for fuck’s sake. Speaking of treachery. This wasn’t going to go well. If I had to guess, I’d say the kid was probably no older than twelve or thirteen. Getting this shit from adults was bad enough, but somehow getting it from kids was worse because, unless I set them straight now, they were going to grow up into adults who gave other blindos shit like this.

            “And what,” I asked him, trying to remain as calm as possible while wanting to cave his little head in with a brick. “Leads you to this conclusion?”

            “Because your eyes are open.”

            Yup, yup, yup, yup. There were some little fuckers back in Park Slope who once claimed I wasn’t really blind because they saw me blink. Might as well accuse someone of not really being a paraplegic because he has legs. “If I may say so, that’s some mighty stupid reasoning. Just because my eyes are open doesn’t mean they work.”

            At that point my stomach clenched a bit as I realized that this little fucker was not only sitting with five or six friends, but they’d all stood and were now surrounding me on the sidewalk, all of them suddenly giggling as the circle around me grew tighter. I’d been in this situation before.

            Three years earlier while on my way home from a bar, I’d been surrounded by a group of young Bay Ridge ruffians. That hadn’t gone well at all. These Bensonhurst ruffians seemed a little older, but I couldn’t be sure. They also had slight but undeniable accents I took to be Middle Eastern, which would be strange given so few Middle Easterners lived in Bensonhurst.

            “Kick him in the balls!” One shouted.

            “If you’re really blind,” the first kid asked, “how can you find your mouth?”

            “What?” I couldn’t even make sense of that one.

            “With the cigarette? How do you know where to put it?”

            “Um, can you eat in the dark? I’ve been alive long enough to know how faces are arranged.” Okay, so these kids obviously weren’t very bright, which made them all the more dangerous.

            The other five or six voices kicked in, all of them peppering me with overlapping questions.

            “How can you tell where we are?”

            “Because I can hear.”

            “How many of us are there?”

            I have no idea. Why don’t you count off?”

            “Why don’t you have a dog? Blind people are supposed to have dogs.”

            “Do you know where you are?”

            “If I’m not mistaken,” I told whichever one it was, “I’m near the corner of Eighteenth and Sixty-fifth.”

            “No, you’re at Sixty-fourth.” He giggled, knowing he was being naughty.

            “Well,” I said, “Given Sixty-fourth is a one way street and Sixty-fifth a two way street, there’s either about to be a terrible accident, or you’re a liar, and not a very good one. It’s not cool to fuck with the blind.”

            The echoes of that earlier encounter were too creepy and palpable. It felt like exactly the same scene all over again, but with accents. I just wanted to get out of there. “Well, gentlemen, it’s been fun, but if you’ll forgive me, I need to go buy more cigarettes.”

            I began tapping toward the corner, but they moved along with me, surrounding me all the while. “Kick him in the balls!” Someone behind me shouted again. The apparent ringleader was shuffling backwards just a few feet in front of me. Why does this shit keep happening? Getting life stories from complete strangers on the street is fine, it’s interesting and entertaining, but this being hassled by dirty-faced Munchkins gave me the willies.

            “You keep walking backwards like that,” I commented as I tried to reach the crosswalk. “you’re going to trip and hurt yourself.”

            “How did you know I was in front of you?”

            “I could hear your footsteps and your breathing.”

            “How could you hear my footsteps?”

            “Because I can apparently hear better than you.”

            “Will you give us some cigarettes?”

            “You wanna buy them?”

            “How much money do you have on you right now?”

            “I’m not about to tell you that.”

            “Do you read Braille?”

            “What time is it?”

            “About three.”

            “No it’s not. It’s dark out.”

            Oh, these little fuckers. I did not have time for this, and never would. With all the voices and questions flying around me, I was starting to feel like James Franciscus being interrogated by the mutants in Beneath The Planet of the Apes.

            “How do you know what time it is?”

            I stopped tapping again and pulled back the sleeve of my coat to reveal the watch, and hit the button.

            “The time,” the watch intoned in an aristocratic British accent, “is two-fifty-seven PM.”

            This, strangely, seemed to impress them.

            “How much did that cost?”

            “Where’d you get it?”

            “I just ordered it online.”

            “Will you buy us some cigarettes?”

            “Do you want this?”

            “I have no idea what ‘this’ is.”

            “He’s holding a ten-dollar bill,” another one said. If they were trying to figure out ways to make me reveal I wasn’t really blind, they were dumber than I thought. I just wished they wouldn’t stand so close. I was nervous as it was.

            “Have you always been blind?”

            “How can you use a computer?”

            “It talks, just like my watch.”

            “How did you go blind?”

            “How many of us are there?”

            “I have no idea.”

            Again I made a few steps toward the corner., but they continued blocking my way. Weren’t there any adults in this neighborhood who could see what was happening here?

            “What store are you going too?”

            “Will you get us some cigarettes?”

            “No, I’ve gotten in trouble for that before.”

            “For what?”

            “Giving cigarettes to underage kids.”

            “How do you know we’re underage?”

            “Your voices give you away. Unless you all have some kind of endocrine problem. Now, look, if you’ll excuse me—“

            One of the kids tried to adopt a deep voice, while another asked me to feel his beard.

            This was all getting creepier—the exact same exchange had taken place with those ruffians in Bay Ridge. I started to wonder if these weren’t in fact the same kids I’d run into then, just three years older and with Middle Eastern accents.

            “Can I try your cane?”

            “No you may not.”

            “Why not?”

            “I made that mistake once with a group of kids just like you a few years ago.”

            “What happened?”

            “What religion are we? Can you tell?”

            “Unless you feel obligated to convert or kill me on account of it, I really don’t give a good goddamn what religion you are.”

            “We’re Jewish!”

            “Yeah, we’re Jewish!” a few of the other voices chimed in.

            “How can you find the store?”

            “Because it’s right next door to the subway station.”

            “Where do you live?”

            “I’m not about to tell you that.” And I wasn’t, given I lived in a place where the building’s front door neither locked nor latched.

            “How can you find it?”

            My house? I can count.”

            “What does that mean?”

            “Idiot,” another kid next to me chastised him. “He finds a certain tree or something, and it’s five steps past that.”

            That gave me a momentary pause. “Y’know,” I told him. “You’re absolutely right about that. Good for you.”

            I began to notice a change in the overall tone. While those kids in Bay Ridge grew more hostile and threatening the longer things went on, ending with them calling me an asshole and trying to trick me into stepping into oncoming traffic, these kids here, whatever they were, were becoming friendlier. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking. Maybe they’d crack me over the head with a rock and steal my wallet the moment I let my guard down. At least the one had stopped telling the others to kick me in the balls.

            Unlike that first batch of pint-sized riff-raff, their questions never really turned vicious and ugly. While the Bay Ridge kids reminded me of the insane killers from Devil Times Five, this batch was more like The Dead End Kids.

            Eventually they parted and backed off, letting me reach the crosswalk. Then they let me know when the light had changed for real, and told me to be careful. And none of them called me an asshole. Still, there’s something deeply troubling about packs of kids today who feel it’s okay and fun to harass cripples, especially knowing that thirty years from now they’d all likely be lawyers, politicians and CEOs. Well, with luck I’d educated them, if only a little.

            When I reached the far corner, just as I had three years earlier, I reflexively felt my pocket to make sure the wallet was still there.

 

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