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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
Sometimes It Takes a While to Notice
Summer was nearing an end, but the heat was still holding tight to the city. Where we were, though, down by the ocean near Brighton Beach, things were a little cooler. At least the breeze off the water made it seem that way.
Things were cooler still in the bar, where we'd been sitting for the past few hours, listening to the jukebox music, drinking beer out of plastic cups, and talking about any number of things. There was no reason to leave, really. We could get food next door if we wanted it, the jukebox was playing Dean Martin, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, and Del Shannon, and the bartender kept bringing the beers over. It had been nothing but a fine day. If we got drunk enough, we figured, we might even consider strolling down to take a spin on the Cyclone. Probably our last for the season.
Morgan and I were a little hesitant at first to settle in at the bar. After all, our last few visits there had ended, if not disastrously, at least with a bad dose of the creepies. For whatever reason, we'd been attracting unwanted company-company we weren't able to shake until we just up and left. One of the substitute bartenders-one we'd never seen there before-had even made some cracks of his own. We were never sure why.
We still loved the place, though, despite those last few visits, and so, having found ourselves in the neighborhood again, we couldn't resist the temptation to stop in for a couple. We kept our fingers crossed that we wouldn't be cornered this time.
As these things happen, "a couple" turned into much more than that as the afternoon stretched out. The regular bartender was back. That was a relief. He knew us and took good care of us. Beyond that, we'd been there awhile, and nobody'd bothered us yet. Everything was turning out just fine.
We hardly even noticed when he first showed up. Jerry Vale was singing "Arrivederci, Roma" on the juke, so I was preoccupied. From what we could tell, we'd never seen him in there before, but the drunken crazies were so common in that place that seeing a new one walk in was no big deal. He was a short fellow with black horn-rimmed glasses and wild frizzy white hair. He was probably in his 60s.
Given that the bar was so close to the beach, they didn't much bother with a no shirt/no shoes policy. Somehow I get the impression that it wouldn't have much mattered to this guy even if they did. He was wearing shorts and sandals, and had draped his shirt over one shoulder. His scrawny chest and back were matted with wiry patches of gray hair. He was like a creature only half-evolved. Or Russian.
It wasn't until he was standing directly behind us that we paid him any direct mind at all. He grunted, and when we turned to see who was grunting at us, he smiled broadly.
We were, admittedly, pretty drunk at this point, so we smiled back and said hello. I guess that was our first mistake, but he seemed so harmless. I guess we've made that mistake before too. Hell, he just seemed like a happy drunken elf is all. Nothing to worry about with that. He'd go away soon enough.
He made some more noises at us. Something between words and grunts. Mostly he gestured in obscure ways, and we shrugged in return.
He reached for Morgan's hand and mumbled a few more half-words. We looked at each other. Morgan hesitated, but he was quite insistent. With some doubt still in her eyes, she took his hand. Maybe he just wanted to shake hands. Instead, he gave her arm a light tug, encouraging her to stand up. Once she was off the stool and on her feet, he gave her a quick spin around the floor to the jukebox music. ("Mack the Knife," as I remember.)
She extracted herself after a few seconds and returned to the stool next to me. By the time she was seated again, the old man was dancing with another woman from the bar. We'd seen her around before, and we'd seen her dance with others.
Eh, we figured, he was just a little drunk and in a dancing mood. We went back to our beers and forgot about it. After the song was over and his latest partner had abandoned him, however, the old man was back.
He made some more noises and gestures at us. It wasn't clear if he was insane, a mute, or simply took drunk to speak. The few complete words he was able to form had a distinctly Russian feel to them.
"Maybe he wants a drink," Morgan suggested.
"Do you suppose that would make him go away?"
We turned back to him. "Is that it? Do you want a beer or something?"
He rocked back and forth, still smiling. We weren't sure how to take that. Then he reached out a thin hand and stroked my hair.
"Ohh, no," I groaned quietly. He uttered another half-word. I tried to move my head out of reach, but his hand followed.
Why does this always happen here?
Thing is, we were having too good a day to let any of this bother us very much. At this point, we were still willing to accept that he was just a weird old drunken hairy half-mute. We were also convinced that he'd go away soon.
He dropped his hand to my shoulder and brought his other hand to Morgan's. Then he pushed us together.
"He wants us to kiss," Morgan whispered. So we did. He took a step back, obviously excited, and clapped his hands.
Then he pushed us together again.
It's hard to say exactly why this didn't strike us as being as weird as it was quite yet.
"Are you sure you don't want a drink? Or do you? Is that what you want?"
We both turned and tried to flag down the bartender, but he was at the other end of the long bar, and occupied. I noticed that no one else was sitting near us anymore. All the other customers had gathered at the far end. Maybe they knew this guy and knew what to expect. Whatever the case, we were all alone. I turned back to the old man. "We'll see if we can get you one, okay?"
He smiled and stroked my hair again.
"He likes you," Morgan said.
"Oh, bully for me."
I was unsure whether anything we were saying to him was getting through. So on a whim, I decided to toss out one of the few Russian phrases I knew, just to see what would happen. If nothing else, it's always good for a laugh.
"Postli revolutsi," I said with all the earnestness I could muster, 'ya vom kupru novyu schilappo."
His eyes widened as did his smile, then he clapped again and tapped at my hat, grunting out something that I'm guessing was a response.
"My God," Morgan said, "he understood you!"
"Yeah, too bad I never learned, 'Get the fuck away from me, you crazy old fool.'"
He moved in and gave me a hug, holding onto my hand as he pulled away. I began praying there wouldn't be a revolution soon, as he'd probably track me down again and call me on it.
I craned my neck around as best as I could and searched for the bartender. Not so much to ask for another beer, but to ask his advice on how to get this creepy little man away from us. "Uhh...help?" I asked quietly. The bartender didn't notice.
The little man took my hand and began rubbing it over his hairy chest. I snapped it away quickly, recognizing for the first time that things were getting way out of control.
"I don't want to hit him," I whispered to Morgan, "I just want him to get the hell away from us."
"I think he wants us to go back to his place with him," she said, the horror of recognition sneaking into her voice.
As if on cue, the jukebox erupted with Rosemary Clooney singing "Come On-A My House"
"Oh Jesus Christ."
Then he was all hands, trying to paw at both of us. There was nothing cute about it anymore. He was quickly starting to lose control, his flailings becoming more violent. We continued shoving him away-more forcefully ourselves. I looked for the bartender in desperation again. This wasn't right. We were good customers. We just wanted a little advice as to how to get rid of him without, you know, bloodshed. Maybe this guy was the owner or something and that explained why nobody was doing anything. Who knows? And shit, we were out of beer ourselves, and suddenly the bartender, who hadn't missed a beat all afternoon, was nowhere to be found.
We continued slapping at his hands and trying to get the bartender's attention.
Why does this always happen?
Then, finally, there was the bartender, walking right past us. He must've been in the bathroom or something.
"Hey," I said as he passed, "please." I tried to gesture over my shoulder with my eyes, as if to ask, "What in the fuck are we supposed to do here?"
He merely looked down without saying a word, shook his head, and kept walking.
"You about ready to split?" I asked.
"Yeah, I think so."
We gathered up what few things we had with us, slid off the stools as the old man continued to make monkey noises at us, and walked out of the bar past the few customers still sitting there-customers who had obviously watched the entire fiasco unfold. Some of whom probably knew exactly what was coming the minute the old man walked through the front door. I didn't doubt that for a second now.
Once outside and a safe distance away, once we were certain we weren't being followed, we stopped. Morgan and I were both feeling pretty filthy at that point, and baffled and frustrated and still a little drunk. The best thing to do at this point, we figured, was go take a ride on the Cyclone. Maybe that would help us forget.