|Image via Wikimedia Commons|
When I was growing up, there was an old hermit at the end of the street named Wichita Pete. I always remembered him as an old man who wore baggy GI surplus pants held up with red suspenders. His hair was always slicked back with something like Vaseline, but different because it never stayed put like the high school boys’ did. His basketball-sized face had this thin gray moustache like there were cigarette ashes balanced on his upper lip. Wichita Pete lived at the edge of the neighborhood, in a little tarpaper shack with its blackout curtains. Kids dared each other to ride bikes past his yard, or knock on his door and run away. If Mother had ever found out about that, she would have whipped me, but she was in charge of the Ladies’ Auxiliary, and always busy. I don’t know if Father would have cared, he pretended Wichita Pete’s house didn’t exist. Nobody seemed to know what Wichita Pete did with his time, but somebody heard that he was once the meanest gangster in Kansas City.
There was one time, at the market, where I saw Pete shuffling down the aisle, razors in one hand, and a can of peas in the other. He stopped to look down at me, but I wanted him to move along, since I had been sneaking vanilla wafers right from the box, and had the evidence hidden behind my back. He kept looking at me, that ashy moustache of his quivering. He smelt of wood smoke and cesspit, with something else that I would later learn was lavender. We stared at each other for a while, and I knew he knew about the cookies. His runny eyes stared into mine, but I didn’t feel like he was going to yell at me about it, or get me in trouble. Instead, my arm was yanked out of its shoulder socket by Mother. The cookies dropped to the floor, still open, but she was dragging me down the aisle and hadn’t noticed.
“I didn’t say anything to him, Martha,” Wichita Pete said.
“Time to leave, Chester,” she said, and stared a mean one at Pete. I took one glance back, and saw him picking the box from the floor. Mother tanned my butt right there in the car, and I understood I was not to go near Pete again.