SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
June 28, 2020

Bad Night in Philly, Circa 1988

 

His name was Russell. He was a friend of Brian’s, the jittery, neurotic political activist who owned the used book stand where I started working shortly after arriving in Philly. Given Brian’s sincere grassroots activism, to this day I’m still not sure how or why the two had become friends.

            Russell was in his late thirties, tall and balding, with a fringe of longish red hair and a neatly trimmed moustache and beard. His face was thin and expressionless, but he had piercing eyes. He was always impeccably dressed, more clever than smart, enormously wealthy, and with an arrogance to match. Normally, I might feel compelled to hurt someone like that, or at least avoid him, but he was the first real Satanist I’d ever met, and initially—if only initially—I thought that was the bee’s knees.

            Russell was the real thing, and he showed up at a time when I was still intrigued by extreme viewpoints. He used to stop by the book shop a couple of times a week. He always had something outrageous to say, some wild opinion or wacky story about the debauchery Philly’s rich and famous had engaged in that week. Although I knew my share of neo-Nazis, he also remained the most violent racist I’d ever met, made all the scarier when terms like “complete extermination” spilled out of his mouth as casually as someone else might say, “I’m going to buy some socks.” Yeah, he was entertaining, and his visits certainly broke up the monotony of the sometimes very slow days at the book stand.

            He showed up close to closing time one night—this would have been late autumn, 1988—and invited me out for a cup of coffee. It seemed innocent enough. At first. How do I get myself into these things? The answer is simple: because I can be stupid as toast sometimes.

            I swept out the store, pulled the curtain shut, and counted the day’s take, which was never very much. Then I slipped into my trench coat, snapped out the lights and headed outside, where Russell was waiting.

            “I’ve got a better idea,” he said as I lit a smoke and we started walking toward Broad Street. “Let’s skip the coffee and go to my place. It’s close by, and we can have a drink there.”

            Alarms started going off in my head, but they weren’t loud enough to make an impression. Russell is a very odd man, I was telling myself as we walked along the dirty sidewalk. Coffee in a public place is fine and quick. Half an hour, forty-five minutes tops, then you can get home to Laura (my future ex-wife at the time). You go to his house, no one knows you’re there, he chains you up in the basement, tortures you for three days, then sacrifices you to his Dark Lord. I took another drag on my cigarette. Oh, what the hell.

            He lived in a fancy three-story row house on a hidden side street just off Broad. A nice place in a shaky part of town. Once inside, he told me to have a seat on the couch and ran upstairs. He returned a minute later.

            “We have to be quiet,” he whispered, “Christopher’s upstairs. He’s not feeling well. He was supposed to go and accept an award tonight, but he’s not going to be able to make it.”

            That’s a little strange, I thought, he’s never mentioned a “Christopher” before. But I let it slide—even the bit about the awards ceremony. It wasn’t like I couldn’t smell the brimstone or sense all the sinister clues stacking up against me. At that point I was simply too morbidly curious to see how this was going to play out.

            Russell’s place was extremely dim, but even with my fading vision, I couldn’t miss all the satanic hullabaloo climbing the walls and piled up in the corners. Paintings, carvings, candles. Everywhere you looked, it was Satan! Satan! Satan!. I began to think that stopping by for a drink was an extraordinarily bad idea.

            “I should call Laura,” I told him, “let her know I’m gonna be a little late.”

            “You’ll have a drink first,” he said, “then you can call Laura.” There was a strange contempt in his voice when he said her name. Those alarms in my head were growing much louder. Sometimes—no, most of the time—I’m pretty slow on the uptake.

            He invited me to follow him into the kitchen where he’d get the drinks. On the way there, he stopped and pointed at the floor. Inside the silver pentagram he had painted in one corner stood an array of tiny figures. He picked one up and showed it to me. It was a little wizard. It was one of those miniature lead figurines geeks used when playing Dungeons and Dragons.

            “I hand-painted all of these myself,” he said proudly.

            I stopped myself from saying, “That’s really, really stupid,” and just said “Uh-huh” instead. He continued into the kitchen, where he mixed me a vodka and cranberry juice in a tall glass. I never asked for a vodka and cranberry juice and never would have asked for a vodka and cranberry juice. Not wanting to be a rude guest, though, I accepted it graciously, while I started making escape plans—a tricky thing to do, given that he had bars on his windows and his front door was triple-locked.

            We went back into the front room, and I returned to my spot on the black leather couch. He sat in a chair across from me, which was a relief. Then he jumped up again, saying, “I have something I want to give you,” before vanishing upstairs. While he was gone, I poured most of my drink into the planter next to me, and lit another smoke. Jesus, now what? I thought.

            When he came back downstairs, he handed me something flat, sharp, and metallic, which I held under a lamp.

            “It’s a Chinese throwing star.”

            That’s what it was, alright—I’d seen them used in a couple of Shaw Brothers movies.

            “Something to provide a, shall we say, interesting companion to your brass knuckles.”

            “Thanks, uh, Russell.”

            “Those stains on the one point? Blood.”

            “Uh-huh. So you’ve used it.”

            “Yes, indeed I have.”

            He didn’t go into any more detail, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, afraid I’d find out the stains were from the last skinny little white boy who attempted to flee his clutches. Unless he was completely full of shit, which was another possibility. Sure did look like dried blood, though.

            “So, uh,” I asked, as I slipped the throwing star into the pocket of my trench coat, “what’s this painting over here?” I pointed at a large canvas on the wall, some abstract thing.

            “That? That’s a ‘landscape,’ if you will. A landscape from another plane of reality. I painted it myself.”

            “Uh-huh.” I figured he was just talking silly, pretentious artist talk, so I was going to let it slide.

            “Don’t doubt it. I know that these things exist, because I’ve been there. I’ve seen these things. You’ve heard of astral projection?”

            “You’ve heard of acid?”

            “It’s not something to be mocked.”

            “I’m not mocking, I’m just asking.”

            “Drugs have nothing to do with it. These things exist, and I am in touch with them. There are many things in this universe—many things—that most people simply refuse to accept.”

            He went on to tell me about a bunch of them, and I kept saying “uh-huh.” Thing is, he talked about them with such certainty and earnestness, as if he were saying things like, “I bought some rye bread yesterday—some cheese, too,” that at moments he almost had me believing. Almost. Of course that “almost” may have been a result of the fact that he kept refilling my sissy drink. And with each refill, he made it stronger.

            “You’ve heard of reflexology?” he asked me.

            “Reading people’s fortunes from the bottoms of their feet, right?”

            “It’s much more than that. You can read the past as well as the future. I’m a master of reflexology.”

            “I’m not surprised.”

            “Want me to prove it to you?”

            After the fact, people always asked me, “Why in the hell did you take off your shoes and socks in this man’s presence?” Fact of the matter is, I don’t know. I was a little curious. I was also a little drunk. And it was only one shoe and one sock.

            “Sure, take your best shot.” I should’ve chosen my words more carefully. Nevertheless, I slipped off my left shoe, then the sock. He grabbed my foot and propped it up on his knee, where he began to massage it.

            After a minute or two of silence, he said, “I can see here that your kidneys are weak.”

            “Yeah, that’s true. And I told you about my kidney problems last week.”

            He ignored me and continued squeezing my foot. “I can also see that you’re a very angry young man.”

            “Getting there, yeah.”

            This was all going on much too long. Laura would’ve been expecting me an hour ago, with dinner waiting. I had to give her a call and get the hell out of there. I pulled my foot off his knee and dropped it to the ground.

            “That’s enough. Look, I’ve got to call Laura and head home. I’m sorry. It’s been swell, but I’ve got to go.”

            His eyes darkened, and his voice became sharp and bitter.

            “Fine. You can call Laura, then go home. But you’ll have one more drink first. Just as a matter of courtesy.”

            Never being able to turn down a free drink, I conceded. When he went into the kitchen, I went over to the phone on the table and picked up the receiver. Nothing. Dead.

            Russell stuck his head out of the kitchen when he heard me rattling the cradle, praying for a dial tone. “Oh, I forgot to tell you—my phone’s not working. I’m expecting repairmen tomorrow. It just completely slipped my mind.”

            Oh Christ, here comes the handcuff game. I fingered the throwing star in my pocket.

            He brought me another one of those fucking vodka and cranberry juice things, and I guzzled it, which in retrospect may not have been the wisest move. I wasn’t making many wise moves that night..

            “Well, Russell,” I said, as I grabbed my bag, “It’s been a pleasure, but I’ve really got to go now.”

            He stood up reluctantly, and I breathed a sigh of relief when he started unfastening the latches on the front door. Once outside, I lit a smoke and then started running. It was about twelve blocks back to my place, and I knew I’d have hell to pay when I got there. Well, so to speak.

            Five blocks from my door, something didn’t feel quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something was definitely wrong. By the time I reached my building, I could barely see. I scrabbled at the lock, got the key in eventually, and slipped inside. It was just a few yards down to my door. Got the door open and slammed it shut behind me just as the convulsions began spreading across my body.

            Pissed as she was, not knowing what the fuck was going on, Laura helped me into the bathroom, where I retched and retched and retched, my arms and legs shaking uncontrollably.

            Between heaves, I explained to her what happened as best I could, and once it seemed I had nothing left to purge she led me into the bedroom.

            When I woke up the next morning, Laura was sitting on the floor next to me, watching.

            “What?” I asked her, still bleary, still weak, still shaky.

            “I’ve been sitting here all night,” she said, “watching to make sure you didn’t stop breathing.”

            I made an appointment to see a doctor later that day at the Jefferson Memorial Hospital. She couldn’t find anything wrong with me, but ran a series of blood tests. She said I could call her in three days for the results.

            The next day, Russell stopped by the bookstore again. Before he could say anything, I snapped, “What in the fuck did you put in my drink?”

            “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said unconvincingly. I told him what happened after I left his place.

            “You must have just had a case of the flu.”

            “If that’s it,” I asked, the anger swelling inside my chest, “then why didn’t you read it on the bottom of my goddamn foot?”

            Two days later, I called my doctor back. Seems that my bloodstream was swimming with about a half-bag’s worth of low-grade heroin. A dose, for a nonuser, that should’ve been lethal.

            “You’re a very lucky man,” she said, after I gave her the basics of the story. “You should be dead.”

            I never saw Russell again after that. Not knowing his last name, and knowing I’d never be able to find his house again, I realized any plans for revenge would be nothing but wasted energy. I continued to carry that throwing star with me, though, and never washed off those blood stains until I accidentally left it in the pocket of a pair of jeans I threw in the wash.

 

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