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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.
So of course, after supper, I ran out of the house and rode my bike to the end of the street. Not alone, because I wasn’t crazy. Harry Fender and I sat on our bikes watching Pete’s house from two doors down. We slapped at mosquitos and kept our ears cocked for the ice cream man.
“Think he’s home, Chet?” Harry whispered.
“’Course he is. There’s smoke in the chimney.” I pointed to the gray wisp trickling up into the sky.
Harry screwed up his face. “Why’s he got a fire? It’s gotta be 90 degrees yet.”
“Bet it’s hotter than hell in there,” I said.
“Yup, damn hot. Hot as hell.” Harry tried and failed to hold back a smile. Such was the extent of our swearing in those days, words taken from Sunday school readings. Any conversation outside of adult hearing was worth a swear or two.
“Bet he’s got a still, and cooking up moonshine,” I said.
Harry shook his head. “Nuh-uh. Gangsters don’t make moonshine, they just sell it, dummy.”
“You’re a dummy.”
“You’re a damn dummy!”
“You’re a double damn dummy, one-two-three-no-callbacks!” And by my invoking those sacred words, Harry could only shut his mouth and roll his eyes at me before turning back to Wichita Pete’s shack.
“I bet we could sneak right up to his windows,” Harry said. He pointed to the overgrown lawn, with weed patches nearly as tall as I was.
I didn’t like the idea. Crawling around on my belly though itchy grass, nettles, and thistles I could handle. But then what? What if Pete caught me? He’d line me up against a wall and shoot me with a Tommy Gun, that’s what. But if I said this to Harry, he’d call me chicken. So I made up a lie. “What if he’s laid traps, like bear traps?” I said.
Harry looked at me and squinted. “Why would he do that, Chet?”
“In case the cops raid his place. The cop steps in the bear trap and while he’s yelling for help, Pete comes out and plays them a song on his Chicago Piano.” I held up an imaginary Tommy Gun and swung it back and forth, making machine gun sounds.
He looked puzzled and glanced between me and Pete’s shack. I could tell he was about to call shenanigans, so I made up a hell-damned big lie.
“Al Capone did it,” I said. “Shot up a whole squad of G-men in backwoods Wisconsin trying to sneak up on his cabin.”
Harry looked surprised, but quickly nodded. “Oh yeah, now I remember. I heard that on the radio once.”
That made me wonder if there really was a radio show I had missed. I decided it was time to change the subject.
“I think he’s burning papers,” I said.
“No! The papers with all the secret names and addresses of other gangsters. He’s burning the evidence.” Actually, the idea seemed real to me as soon as I said it. What else could a gangster be doing with a fire on a day like this? Whatever it was, it had to be bad.
Harry wiped the sweat from his eyes and shook his head. “Why would he do something like that?”
My brain told me the answer instantly. “Because if the G-men catch him with the book and go arrest all the other gangsters, they’ll kill him in prison with piano wire.”
“Oh.” He paused. “Where do they get the piano wire?”
“They get their molls to bake it into a cake, of course.”
He nodded, then thought about it, squinting at the shack. “Don’t the guards know about that trick?”
“Nope. I think only gangsters and us kids know about that.” It must be, I thought, because why else do they keep doing it in the radio action hour and movies?
“Dummies,” Danny said.
“Damn dummies,” I agreed.
“Double-damn dummies straight to hell!” Danny grinned. A breeze shot through the street, and it felt better than ice cream. But something in that breeze made Harry stupid; me too, I guess.
“We have to do something,” Harry said. “He’s going to get away with it!”
I started backing my bike away. “What? I’m not going in there.”
“Me either,” Danny said. “But if the cops showed up right now, they’d catch him red-handed! We’d be heroes, Chet!”
I could see it. Danny and I would get our pictures in the paper, and the mayor would pin badges on us and everything. I bet they would even give the two of us the day off from school and have a parade.
“Okay. Let’s go get the police.”
“What if he runs away? Someone should keep watch.”
I wasn’t going to wait around by myself, so I was going to volunteer to get the police. Danny, however, had already swung his bike around and before I could say anything, was half-way down the street. “You keep watch,” he said over his shoulder, “I’ll go get ‘em.”
I tried pedaling after him, but my foot chose that moment to slip off the pedal as I gave a mighty kick-start. My bike went tumbling over, and the handlebars punched me in the stomach. My hands and left knee came up raw. I looked back in time to see Danny tear around the corner and disappear.
I picked up the bike and limped to the curb. The scrapes started bleeding, but not that bad, though they would sting once Mother put iodine on them. I didn’t want to go home and face that torture. I didn’t want to stay in eyesight of Wichita Pete’s shack either. I decided to go to my friend Gary’s house and play in his crummy tree fort, but as I got up, I realized Danny would come back with the police, and I would be gone. Danny would get his picture in the paper by himself, and I would be watching from the sidewalk while he and his shiny badge marched down Main Street in his parade. So instead, I walked my bike to some bushes and decided to wait it out.
The problem with our plan was that I had no idea how long it would take Danny to get the police. Would he call on the phone at his house? No, he said his mom was always on the phone. Would he ride to the station? I listened for sirens, but didn’t hear any. I was getting tired of waiting and the sky was getting darker. Soon, the sun would be gone and the mosquitos would swarm like black fog.
The smoke still eked from Pete’s chimney, and I thought about going home. The police weren’t going to show, were they? But then again, I had waited too long to quit now, and I still didn’t want to face the iodine on my oozing hands and knee. So I stayed, and not only did I stay, the deepening shadows gave me the idea to get closer. I slid through the grass like an Indian scout, checking each new clump for hidden traps, careful not to snap the brittle stalks or rustle the yellowed blades. I didn’t find any bear traps, but I did find plenty of thistles, snake vine, and a fire ant nest that would have doomed a tenderfoot like Danny. Before I knew it, I was right up to Wichita Pete’s window.
That surprised me, looking up and seeing a crack of lamp light escaping past Pete’s blackout curtain. I looked back and couldn’t make out the way I’d come. The sun had disappeared behind distant trees, casting the whole neighborhood in gloom. I couldn’t make my way back now, not without blundering into all the stuff I’d just avoided. I stood and peeked through the crack between the curtain and the windowsill.
The heat blasted my face, like opening the lid on a boiling pot. The smell of sweat and that flowery-leathery smell someone would later tell me was lavender hit me. I could only see a man’s shirtless sweat-slicked belly and red suspenders through the crack, but it had to be Pete. He stopped long enough to gather unseen things in his arms, and then heaved them over to the corner by the fire with a grunt. He stirred something with an old canoe paddle. If he was burning papers, it seemed an odd way to go about it. Then Pete headed to a table by the window. I ducked, but not before seeing his hand reach into a familiar yellow box of vanilla wafers.
The rustling of cookies against cardboard made my heart beat faster. Seconds later, the rustling was replaced by muffled crunching and the retreating tread of bare feet on floorboards. My mouth watered with memories of the wafers’ creamy goodness, though the lavender in my nose ruined the taste in my imagination. Were those the same cookies I had to abandon in the market? How was it Pete got to have them and I didn’t?
Then my belly turned cold. When the cops showed up and arrested Wichita Pete, he would see me and would know I was the one who turned him in. He wouldn’t be able to shoot me with his Tommy Gun, but he would be able to rat me out for eating the store’s vanilla wafers. I wouldn’t get my picture in the paper then. The cops might even put me in jail in the cell next to Pete. I thought about piano wire and swallowed.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the kitchen matches Mother said I should never touch because they were not toys. I slid the box open, and there they were, all lined up like little soldiers, with white uniforms, red faces, and white hats. I pulled one out, slid the box shut, and held the tip to the striker. Light flared, and sulfur cleared the lavender from my nose. I held the match to the grass, and the sweat on my body dried as the fire grew. I ran. Two, three, four, and then the whole box of matches flew as I struck each match and tossed them to the side, seeding the weed patch with fire. I ran back to my bike and pedaled the fastest any boy had ever pedaled before, all the way home.
Mother was not happy as I walked through the back door.
“You’re filthy, Chester! And what did you do to your knee?”
“Fell off my bike,” I said.
Father looked up from the paper and peered at my knee. He went back to reading without a word. Mother marched me to the bathroom and scrubbed my hands and knees so hard, they started bleeding again. The iodine came out as the smell of smoke drifted in through the window screen. I sucked in through my teeth as Mother swabbed the purple stuff all around the scrapes and she was about to ask me something when sirens came wailing down our street. She told me to stay put and ran from the bathroom. Our screen door banged along with all the neighbors’ and people started shouting. Mother cried out above them all, and I did not see her again that night.
The next day, there was nothing left of Wichita Pete’s shack except for the chimney. The paper had a big story about the fire, but Danny and I weren’t mentioned, because that dummy had chickened out at the police station and rode home. I saw him with the other kids watching the firemen stomping out the shack’s last embers, but he pretended not to see me. We never talked about it again.
At lunchtime, Mother wasn’t in the kitchen. I found her in the bedroom, holding a white handkerchief to her nose. Her eyes stared past the walls and her head bobbed tiny bobs. I watched her for some time, wondering if I was in trouble or not. Had she found out? Mother believed in the silent treatment when she was really mad at me.
She looked around and seemed surprised to see me there in the doorway. She gave a quick smile.
“Is it lunchtime?” she asked.
“Yeah. Are you all right?”
She nodded and began folding the handkerchief. “I was just thinking about that poor man and the fire last night.”
“He didn’t die,” I said. “The newspaper says they’re still looking for him, but he’s gone.”
Mother nodded, but still seemed sad. She walked past me and opened a dresser drawer. That flower scent trailed behind her. I asked her what it was.
“It’s lavender, Chester.” The handkerchief went in the drawer’s far corner and was then closed.