SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
August 23, 2020

Shady

 

He had the mannerisms of an aging rat. Small, wiry guy with a quavering, hesitant voice pitched just a shade too high, the nervous twitches you come, over time, to recognize as the unmistakable tells of a former junkie trying hard to play it straight in a straight world.

            “So, are you blind?”

            “I sure am.”

            “Really? Like, you can’t see?”

            “Um, yeah, that’s pretty much the gist of it.” If he was one of those fuckers who was about to accuse me of not really being blind because I didn’t have a dog or didn’t wear Ray Charles wraparounds, I was going to snap his fucking arm. But he didn’t.

            He told me his name was Jamie. When I first met him he was playing soccer on the sidewalk outside my building with Ethan, the smart, pleasant twelve year old who lived upstairs. They were using a half-deflated basketball. I’d stepped out for a smoke and was trying to stay out of their way when he paused the game and sidled over to me.

            There are four apartments in this building, two on the second floor, two on the third. Morgan and I are on the second floor, and the apartment across the hall from us has remained vacant since we fled it at the end of February.

            I never was able to get a full handle on the situation with the people upstairs. While we were all pleasant to each other and said hello when we passed in the hall, we weren’t exactly Chummy. In fact, even after living here for six months, I still hadn’t learned anyone’s name.

            As far as I could tell, the third floor was home to four generations of an extended Puerto Rican family divided across the two apartments, but I never did grasp who belonged where. I don’t even know how many people there were, though they seemed to range from three years old to about seventy. I only talked to one person at any length who was even vaguely connected with the third floor. JJ was the boyfriend of a twenty-three-year-old girl who lived up there, and he not only didn’t live there, he apparently wasn’t allowed into the apartment. JJ was in his early thirties, about ten years older than the girl, and was kind of a lowlife who always gave answers like “Ah, I do stuff here and there,” when I asked what he did. That was no big deal, he was always nice to me. I usually ran into him on the steps outside, where he was waiting for his girlfriend (whose name I didn’t know) to come downstairs so they could sit on the stoop and smoke a blunt.

            Things could get loud up there. The doors to both apartments stood open all day as people came and went. There was a lot of yelling, much of it copped from the standard Hollywood stereotype of a large, mildly dysfunctional Puerto Rican family (“You say ’shut up’ to your Papa? ’Shut up Papa,’ you say to him?!”). There were also a lot of screaming kids running around, a lot of cooking, a lot of blasting music, but somehow it never bothered us down on the second floor. It was so comically stereotypical, how could it? When I stepped into the hall, I half-expected to encounter a live chicken flopping its way down the stairs. Even if the noise had bothered us, we likely never would have complained. They were pleasant, after all, and we were grossly outnumbered.

            So back to where all this started. One afternoon in mid-July, I went outside to have a smoke when I met Jamie playing soccer. He bummed a smoke off me, then introduced himself as Ethan’s grandfather. Or maybe it was step grandfather? He sounded like he was in his late thirties. Working out the generational mathematics, it seemed kind of tricky, a twelve year old with a grandfather in his thirties, but who am I to judge? Jamie seemed to be the only family member who didn’t live in one of the two third-floor apartments, but stopped by every once in a while to visit.

            Another giveaway trait of the twitchy former junkie is that he immediately began talking to me as if I knew everyone he knew.

            “So Jackie’s husband says he might have some work lined up with Harry . . . ”

            “Hey, that’s great!”

            Given I didn’t know Jackie, didn’t know Harry, and didn’t know if either of them lived on the third floor, this merely confused me, but I just let him talk. Eventually it was through Jamie that I came to glean the names of at least a few of the people there (like Ethan), even if I’d never be able to recognize them on the stairs.

            A few weeks after I first met Jamie, the official inhabitants of one of the two apartments picked up and moved out without warning. I heard a lot of heavy shuffling up and down the stairs for about an hour one Saturday, then they were all gone, save for the trash they’d left in the hall. The only ones who remained upstairs, so far as I could discern, were a woman in her fifties and her three or four daughters, including the one who was still meeting JJ on the front steps to smoke weed a couple of times a day.

            I wondered -- but not too hard -- where the others had gone.

            Then one Tuesday afternoon in early August, I headed downstairs once more to have a smoke, only to find Jamie just kind of hanging around on the sidewalk. My first thought, given I knew Ethan was part of the group who’d moved away, was that they’d never bothered telling Jamie they were going. Maybe they were just trying to duck him, and I’m not sure I blamed them, except that now I’d be the one who had to break the news.

            He again sidled over and bummed a smoke off me.

            “So do you miss Jackie?” He asked.

            Okay, so maybe they did tell him they were moving.

            I hadn’t been sure up to that point, but now took a wild guess that Jackie was his daughter, Ethan’s mother.

            “Where did they all end up?” I asked, figuring it was a generic enough question that wouldn’t reveal I didn’t know a goddamn thing about these people.

            “Some of them went to Jersey, I think. And some others went to Staten Island. I guess they had the chance to get a house, so took it.”

            I likewise didn’t want to come out and ask, “So why are you still lurking around the building, given your daughter and grandson are either in Jersey or Staten Island?” Instead I again asked the more innocent and generic, “So, do you live in the neighborhood?”

            “Naah,” he said in that whining quaver. “I got a little room in The Bronx. It ain’t much, but beats the shelters. They asked me to come by and pick up the air-conditioner and the microwave. Guess they couldn’t take them when they moved. I’m just waiting for the landlord to let me in. I guess he has to come with me, but I guess he’s out to lunch or something now.”

            I didn’t think anything of this at the time. There was no reason to. I only started thinking about it the next day, when I found him hanging around outside the building again.

            “Hi!” He shouted as I stepped outside with a bag of empties. He so startled me I missed the second step, and nearly tumbled down the remaining ten, only saving myself through a series of ridiculous, stork-like contortions. At least I didn’t drop the bottles again.

            Hey, didn’t mean to scare you. Are you okay?”

            “I’m fine. Sorry about that.”

            “Is your back okay and everything? Did you hurt yourself?”

            “I’m fine, thanks. No harm done.”

            “Is that trash? I’ll take it for you.”

            Before I could protest, he snatched the bag out of my hand and brought it to the dumpster, then returned and bummed another smoke.

            After a few pleasantries and a pause, I brought up the obvious. “Did Larry ever come back from lunch yesterday?”

            “Who?”

            “Larry.”

            “Who?”

            “The landlord. To let you into the apartment. So you could get the air conditioner and microwave.”

            “I dunno.” he seemed genuinely confused by this, clearly not recalling he’d told me Larry would need to let him into the apartment to collect the microwave and the air conditioner, which he was then supposed to deliver to his daughter’s family in either Staten Island or Jersey. “I guess they took the microwave with them when they moved, but said I could have the air-conditioner, which is really nice of them. I could really use it this summer. I’m just waiting for Jamie Jr. to show up and help me get it back to the Bronx.

            This was the first time I’d heard the name Jamie Junior, and assumed he was referring to the pot-smoking boyfriend of the girl still living upstairs.

            “You mean JJ?”

            “I dunno. Is that what you call him?” I learned soon enough this was in fact Jackie’s husband, though whether he and the pot smoker were the same person remained foggy. In fact the whole story was getting foggier by the minute. None of my goddamn business, of course, and I wasn’t going to call him on any of it. I was just finding it pretty funny. Former junkies are a nutty breed, and never more so than when they’re trying to play it straight.

            We chatted a bit more. Jamie wasn’t really the brightest of bulbs. Learned he had a friend in the construction business who sometimes tossed him small jobs, like laying down the caulk after a bathroom renovation, though I had to remind him of the word “caulk.” I eventually extracted myself and went back upstairs.

            An hour later when I stepped out for another smoke, he was still there.

            “He said it’s gonna be another hour or more,” Jamie explained. “He was gonna come by after work, but then said he had to meet this guy and they had to go do this thing. So now it’ll be at least another hour.” This didn’t seem to bother him much. In the meantime, he had to stand guard over the air conditioner, which was apparently sitting on the curb. “Four people have stopped and tried to pick it up already, even a truck driver. I have to tell them it’s mine.”

            His whole story was becoming shakier and shadier every time he opened his mouth, but that was all standard procedure. I was, however, getting more confused than ever about the  various relations between everyone on the third floor, past and present. So long as he didn’t ask to come into the apartment to wait (and I wasn’t about to offer), I’d let him spin and re-spin whatever crazy tales he liked, though I was admittedly curious to know what sort of sneaky business he was up to.

            Two hours later, when I headed downstairs again, he was still there. This time, however, the fidgety, semi-retarded Jamie was gone, replaced by a desperate penny-ante crime lord. He was marching back and forth (as these people always do), screaming into his phone that he “was gonna fuck that motherfucker up bad if he didn’t come through with the money.”

            Yes, well, I stepped off to the side and had my smoke, and he didn’t seem to notice me. All for the best.

            I have no idea what happened to Jamie and his air conditioner, but I haven’t seen him since. I’m guessing everything worked out fine.

 

You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.