SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
August 27, 2017

The Creepy Kids Next Door

 

Itís little secret that Iíve always hated kids. Even when I was a kid I hated the other kids my age. I hate their squeaky voices and their tendency to shriek unexpectedly. I hate the way they move, I hate the way they smell and I hate the way they think. And their jokes arenít funny, especially after they tell them for the eighth time. I even had myself fixed at age twenty-four so I would never be saddled with one of the filthy little creatures. There are exceptions of course, but they remain rare. It was one of the first things that attracted me to this neighborhood after escaping Park Slopeóeveryone around me is retired, and there were no kids. At least not enough to notice or get in my way.

††††††††††† Then I became aware of the creepy kids next door.

††††††††††† I live next to a shabby six-story apartment building. Everyone else on the block hates that building. I donít know if itís still the source of the local (and booming) heroin trade or not. Used to be. My neighbors blame that building and that building alone for the growing rodent problem on the block. The landlord tosses out five or six soiled mattresses a month, and though Iíve never been in there, I get the impression the whole place stinks of insecticide.

††††††††††† Thereís a narrow, gated alley between my building and the apartment building. Someone at some point, in an effort to make it more appealing and disguise the fact it was a filthy alley, rolled out a big patch of astroturf and set up a rusty swing set. We have two windows that look right down on the alley, and Morgan tells me itís littered with trash, broken bottles and toys. As far as I know, all of the people who live there are Chinese or Hispanic and few speak any English, so Iím not sure who the creepy kids belong to, as they are neither Chinese nor Hispanic.

††††††††††† I didnít think they were creepy at first. In fact, much to my shock, I kind of appreciated them. There are four of them, three boys and a girl, and I first became aware of them in the spring of 2010, a few months after we moved into the basement here. I heard the youthful, exuberant voices of some seven-year-old kids playing out in front of my building. After groaning a bit and muttering a few obscenities under my breath, I listened more carefully and noticed something.

††††††††††† Instead of spending a warm spring afternoon staring at their StupidPhones or sitting inside with a stack of video games and a two-pound sack of Cheez Doodles, they were actually outside running around and playing. And if that wasnít Dick and Jane enough, they were playing STICKBALL.

††††††††††† Stickball? Jesus Christ, Iím in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and there are fucking seven year olds outside playing fucking stickball? It was all too perfect. Maybe I really had finally found my way back to 1947 the way Iíd always hoped I might.

††††††††††† Okay, so the SUVs parked on the street and the computer on my desk told me otherwise, but still, I was a damn sight closer to 1947 than Iíd been a few months earlier in Park Slope. While I wanted to take a flame thrower to every last kid under the age of seventeen in Park Slope (before immolating their parents as well), these kids were alright in my book, even if I wanted no direct contact with them. Iíd put up with their rambunctiousness, simply for what they represented.

††††††††††† That spring and summer was the only time I heard them playing stickball. After that they moved into the trash-strewn and astroturfed alleyway, playing on the squeaking swing set and acting out crazy fantasy games they seemed to be making up on the fly, with each of them taking a character.

††††††††††† ďNow Iím the princess,Ē the girl announced from her perch on the swing set. ďAnd youíve got to protect me from the dinosaurs!Ē (The girl always seemed to be the ringleader.)

††††††††††† ďOkay, I have a spear!Ē One of the boys shouted.

††††††††††† I used to do stupid shit like that with my friends when I was seven, too, right? At least they were using their imaginations instead of having crap fed to them through some corporate-sponsored screen, the way every other kid in the goddamn country was.

††††††††††† If the day is nice enough to throw the side windows open, thereís no escaping them giggling and scampering about out in the alley. Every once in awhile the swishy, fey kid of the bunch would break into an impromptu rendition of ďEye of the TigerĒ or some other dreadful Eighties hit, but Iíd let that slide. He was probably aiming for a career on Broadway.

††††††††††† It took me six years to realize something was wrong. Every year spring and summer would roll around, and on every nice afternoon the kids would be out there in the alley playing on the swing set and acting out their ongoing fantasy game. It would go on for a few hours, then they would head back inside. If the next day was nice, theyíd be out there again in the Land of Make Believe. Given the alley was full of garbage, what other escape was there? Come fall, they would disappear, presumably heading off to school.

††††††††††† It wasnít until last summer, listening to them out there playing again, that it occurred to me that, in all the time Iíd lived there, they hadnít gotten any older. They were all still seven years old. Their voices hadnít changed, and most terrifying of all, they were still playing that same fucking game!

††††††††††† In 2010, the girl announced, ďNow Iím the princess, and you have to protect me from the dinosaurs!Ē And in 2016, she announced ďNow Iím the princess and you have to protect me from the dinosaurs!Ē

††††††††††† What the fuck was going on? I mean, when I first noticed this it really freaked me out. I pointed it out to Morgan, and foolish as she generally thinks I am when I notice such things, she couldnít deny it. Six years after I moved in, those kids should be at least thirteen by now, but they werenít. They were seven. We tried to come up with some rational explanation, like maybe they were autistic or retarded or something, but even autistic kids get older. Maybe they were weird shut-ins whose parents kept them isolated and locked in closets, only letting them out to play in the alley a couple of hours a day. But even kids locked in closets get bigger over time.

††††††††††† I was listening to them again today, and nope, nothing had changed. They were still seven. They were playing the same game of make-believe on the squeaky swing set. They were kids trapped in time, re-living that same afternoon over and over again for eternity. Jesus, it struck me that all these years I may have been listening to the ghosts of a group of kids whoíd died tragically in that alley back in 1947.

††††††††††† It also occurred to me that after all these years, apart from Morgan I never asked anyone elseónone of the other people who live in this house, evenóif theyíve ever heard or seen the ghost children in the alley. And now Iím afraid to.

 

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