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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Screaming Porch of Horror

A few days ago, while Morgan and I were sitting at a back table at the bar, I realized something for the first time. Something, to paraphrase the great Arte Johnson, both interesting and stupid.

Now, a lot of things frighten me. More things than used to, actually, but I hope I have the common sense, when confronted with them, to keep these fears to myself, not make them too obvious. That would just be a death knell. I certainly haven't screamed in public--or even at home--in a long time.

That night at the bar, I finally came to recognize the two most terrifying events I've ever been through. There have been a lot of scary things-too many grim doctors appointments and hospital stays, too many incarcerations in psychiatric wards, too much waiting to hear potentially very bad news, too damn many accidents. That's not the kind of fear I'm talking about, though. I'm not talking about the quiet, creeping horror of learning you have some dreaded disease or coming to the inescapable conclusion that your city is under attack either.

I'm talking about something much more simple than that--I'm talking about wild, shrieking, intense pants-shitting terror. Those events which cause your body to flash numb, when all you can do is stand frozen and scream, only to find that your throat has been paralyzed. Like what happens to all those people in H.P. Lovecraft stories when they're confronted with some creature from another dimension.

I realized that night at the bar that the two most terrifying things I can remember--stupid as they were in the end--both happened in the same year (though several months apart). Both events were caused by the same man--my next door neighbor, Mr. Frazier--and both took place just a few yards away from each other.

As long as I could remember, Mr. Frazier had been our next door neighbor. He was our neighbor, in fact, from the moment we arrived in Green Bay in 1968 to the moment I moved out and headed south. And for that entire stretch, I don't believe that I ever once saw him sober.

Mr. Frazier was a small, thin, cadaverous man. His little head was all but bald, the skin pulled tight across his cheekbones and away from his teeth. His teeth themselves were another story--crooked, jagged, with more than a few missing. He had enormous, watery eyes, and a fast way of talking that could sometimes hide the slur.

He walked with a slight stoop, and accentuated his speech with quick tilts of the head and sharp gestures with his hands that didn't seem to be connected with anything he was saying.

Now, being Green Bay, nobody locked their doors much in the daytime. At night, maybe, and when they were away, but if someone was home during the day, the doors stayed open. And hardly a day went by, regardless of the season, regardless of the weather, when Mr. Frazier didn't just sort of wander in. When I was younger, I thought that this was the way people did things. As I got older, though, and recognized drunken behavior, I was more likely to believe that he'd just found himself in the wrong house and was being friendly and chatty in an effort to cover the fact that he was really supposed to be at the next house down.

"Hello!" he'd shout as he threw open the door and came inside. By the time he reached the kitchen, however, you could see the steps slow and the mild confusion crawl into his eyes. Nevertheless, he'd just sit down at the kitchen table and stay awhile.

So anyway, that's Mr. Frazier.

It was about 11:30 on a summer night in 1982. I was 17, and my friend Steve and I had just gone to see a movie. I forget which one it was now, though I'm guessing it was a horror film, and not a very good one. So all the way home, in order to make up for the fact that the film wasn't terribly scary, Steve (who was driving) and I were trying to creep each other out. If I do say so, I was pretty good at creeping Steve out. Helping me with this was the fact that, after he dropped me off, he had a long trip left in front of him, down a long, dark, and empty road. All I had to do was go in the house and start throwing all the lights on, while he had the little gray man with the cool hands and the red eyes--the one who was hiding in the back seat--to contend with.

He pulled into my driveway and stopped the car. I wished his luck on the trip home, opened the door, and stuck one leg out. Then I noticed there was something strange about Steve. It was almost as if he were looking at something behind me. Something was wrong, I could feel it. Without even glancing over my shoulder to see what it might be, I yanked my leg back into the car and slammed the door.

"What?" he asked, surprised.

"What what?" I said. "You looked like you were looking behind me."

"Behind you?"

"Yeah-like something was coming up behind me or something."

"No, uh-uh."

"Okay." I sat there a moment catching my breath, letting my heart slow down. I guess I'd accidentally given myself the heebie-jeebies on the way home, too.

As we sat there, laughing about what chickenshits we were--or at least I was--Steve casually glanced out his own window and began to scream. At first I thought he was just joking, toying with me. But he didn't stop screaming. I looked past him this time, out his window, and saw something I couldn't figure out.

As I stared at it, it slowly resolved itself into a face right outside his window, the face of the little gray man I'd been telling him about.

That's when I began to scream. We were both frozen in our seats, shrieking, unable to move, unable to run or drive away. All we could do was scream.

Then there was a sound--a clicking sound--as the creature outside Steve's window pulled the door open and reached a long, thin arm inside, grabbing at Steve, grabbing for the car keys. We screamed louder, but it didn't help anything. Slowly, as my brain began to focus, I recognized the little gray man as Mr. Frazier.

"Holy shit," I said. Our screams faded away as we both recognized who it was.

"Boy, it sure looks like I scared the bejeezus out of you guys, huh?" he asked, not laughing or anything--just asking. "'Bout had a heart attack!"

Neither Steve nor I was able to speak yet, and a moment later Mr. Frazier disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived, without ever explaining why he was lurking around in the driveway, peeking in car windows, and grabbing for people and car keys at 11:30 at night.

We sat there in silence for a very long time afterwards, still unable to walk.

In the days and weeks that followed, I never asked Mr. Frazier what the fuck he'd been thinking, and he never offered any explanations. I had my doubts that he would even remember, anyway. When I told my parents what had happened, all they did was shake their heads and laugh. I wasn't sure how to take that.

The following winter was a cold one with heavy snow. I was in the habit back then of getting up at about 3:30 or 4 in the morning. That's when I'd do my homework. No distractions at 4 in the morning, and nothing worthwhile on the television.

We'd had a bit of a blizzard the night before the morning in question. So before I got to work, I went into the living room and pulled the curtains back from the big picture window. Everything outside was pristine, uniform, untouched. The plows hadn't come through yet, and there was no traffic to speak of. Because it was still dark out, the new snow seemed to glow under the moon and the distant streetlights with an eerie, almost electric blue light. It was quite beautiful and unearthly. I stood there, unmoving, just taking it all in. I knew it wouldn't be that way for long.

Then, from beneath the window frame, I noticed something. A movement. Then a dark shape. It was on the front porch, just inches away on the other side of the glass.

As I stared, my brain still not making sense of what was happening, it rose, this shape, grew taller, assumed an almost human form. It was a man--at least it looked like a man--but hairy, and big, and it had no face. And it was staring at me from just a few inches away--all that protected me was that pane of glass.

I went numb. I began to scream again. But at least I could move this time, though I don't remember moving. The next thing I remember, I was in the basement, crouching in a back room.

Only then did a few of the details begin to seep in. That's when I realized that the creature wasn't hairy--it was just wearing a bulky military-style survival parka--the kind with the fur around the hood. I also realized that it did, indeed have a face beneath all that fur. A thin, cadaverous, watery-eyed face. I dropped my head in shame. He'd done it to me again.

I never knew what Mt. Frazier was doing on our porch at four in the morning, no more than I knew what he'd been doing in our driveway at 11:30. Maybe his wife had thrown him out again, and he was sleeping there. But through a blizzard?

I never got an answer to that one, either. Lord knows, Mr. Frazier never told me what was going on. And when I told my parents, all they did was shake their heads and laugh.