Malicious Mischief

by Earl Carlson

I am not a trouble maker. I want to make that perfectly clear before we go any further. I take no pleasure in discomforting others; nor do I covet their goods. I was never quick to anger, and I can truly say that I harbor no ill will toward any living soul. And yet, in my youth, I found myself constantly in trouble of one sort or another " always suspect " repeatedly accused " and, usually, guilty as charged.

Trouble found me out no matter how earnestly I sought to avoid it. The root " or rather the roots " of my misadventures were two-fold. First, I was blessed with an assortment of friends who did not share my high principles, when it came to the making of senseless mischief. I was therefore under constant peer pressure to engage in activities that were totally alien to my nature. And, second, I had been cursed with an excessively fertile imagination, which " though it produced next to nothing of a constructive nature " was none-the-less exceedingly useful in the pursuit of less industrious matters. So I frequently found myself consulted and subsequently involved " though I'd have preferred to remain simply an advisor, you understand " in all manner of irreverent enterprises.

And so it came as no surprise when, on the morning of November 1, 1952, Deputy Sheriff Dar Holsman dropped by to request that I and a few of my companions " affectionately known throughout the community as "the usual suspects" " join him downtown.

Had this been Minneapolis, or Duluth, or even Bemidji, downtown would have meant the police station. But, since Backwater had no police station, downtown meant precisely that: downtown. Specifically it meant the stretch of State Highway Number One that served as Backwater's main drag. And, more specifically, in this particular instance, it meant that space in front of George Mihelich's Garage that was then occupied by Benton Frickie's grey 1947 Frazer.

The topic of discussion as I joined the group and, undoubtedly, the reason for this compulsory gathering was the toilet tissue decorations that clung, by means of a thick brown viscous substance, to the front fenders, grill and windshield of that self-same 1947 Frazer. Someone " some gang of young hooligans " had lain in hiding and had ambushed Mr. Frickie as he drove through town on his way home from the legion hall the night before. Apparently the wipers had succeeded only in smearing the thick brown viscous substance across the windshield, effectively obstructing his vision to the point that he had been forced to abandon his car in town and walk the two miles home in the freezing cold.

Naturally, we all sympathized with Old Man Frickie's predicament. Not only had he suffered the indignity of this outrage and the inconvenience of the long walk home, but that thick brown viscous substance, having sat out overnight, had now frozen to the front fenders, grill and windshield of his 1947 Frazer. He'd have to wait "til spring to clean it, unless he was willing to chisel it off while it was still frozen, thereby endangering the paint.

But " I admit it " Benton Frickie was not the sort of person we'd have felt compelled to lend a hand in his hour of need. It was not as though he belonged in Backwater. It wasn't as though he had been born there. In fact, he had moved up only recently from the Twin Cities, where " I might interject " he had developed some peculiar notions about neighborly relations.

Benton Frickie was a stool-pigeon.

Technically, of course, it is against the law to spear fish during the spawning run and to shoot game animals out of season. But no one ever took that to mean that residents of the community should be denied fresh meat on their tables. In the minds of the citizenry it simply meant one should not be so careless as to get caught with a recent kill hanging in the woodshed. Poaching was not a criminal activity to be furtively practiced; it was an intellectual pursuit " pitting the wits of the hunter, first against the wariness of the game, and then against the vigilance of the game warden. It was a challenge " to be enthusiastically joined. Television, you understand, had not yet come to the North Woods. Back then hunting and fishing were about our only recreation.

The game warden was never thought of as an enemy. He was an adversary, to be sure, but he was an honorable opponent and often a good friend, with whom a man might share an evening of debauchery without risking the unkind commentary of his neighbors. A stool pigeon, on the other hand, was another creature entirely. Poaching was a matter between the hunter and the game warden. The rules of the contest did not accommodate stool pigeons, and we had no use for a man like Benton Frickie who so flagrantly violated those rules.

So, even though we were sure that those young hooligans " whoever they might be " had not set out to attack specifically that 1947 Frazer, we were equally certain that they had considered the encounter serendipitous. There is no way of knowing how long they had crouched there in the darkness around the corner of Mihelich's Garage and across the street in that narrow recess between Ward Johnson's Red White and Seth Mattson's dry goods store, but we can imagine their extreme happiness on discovering that, when finally a car came cruising into their ambush, that car happened to be Benton Frickie's 1947 Frazer.

The culprits had worn disguises (as we were given to understand) and they had leapt from their hiding places and hurled their odious missiles with such ferocity that Mr. Frickie was forced to jam on his breaks, killing the engine. Before he could restart the car they had rearmed themselves and returned in a second attack, so sufficiently covering the windshield that he dare not engage the clutch. He could only lock his doors and take cover, while wave upon wave of ululating avengers descended upon him, barraging that 1947 Frazer with a toilet paper fusillade.

And then they were gone " disappearing into the shadows " leaving only the echo of their hideous laughter to mock the frustrations of their victim.

Mr. Frickie was unable to identify any of his attackers or offer any information that could conceivably aid in their discovery. The scheme had all gone off without a hitch. Indeed, it had gone off too smoothly. Which is why, early the next morning, Deputy Sheriff Dar Holsman had set out to round up "the usual suspects".

If we exclude the virtually innocent " I consider myself only an advisor in these escapades " "the usual suspects" consisted of four adolescent miscreants. Deech, who would have been the leader of the group if it could be said that the group had a leader, had been my best friend for as long as I had understood the concept of best friend. He was nearly a year younger than I " fourteen while I had just turned fifteen, but he was tall for his age, and I was extremely small. Moreover, while I seemed younger than I was, he looked and acted mature and sophisticated for his age. So, though he was actually a grade behind me in school, strangers always assumed that Deech was the oldest of the group. Deech was also the only one with a real girl friend at that time.

Troublesome was my age. He was big and strong, but not unusually quick. And he was rather silly in his comportment. His folks had a cow and a barn with a hay mow, which, of course, meant he had to do chores after school while the rest of us bummed around. For his labors, however, he was destined to inherit his dad's 1940 Ford Deluxe two door the following spring. Kids used to call Troublesome a farm boy, even though there were no real farms around Backwater. Our folks all worked in the woods.

Pudge was shorter than either Deech or Troublesome but a good deal huskier. He and I and Troublesome were in the ninth grade and had to ride a bus seven miles south to Bobcat Crossing High, where Pudge was a starting lineman on the football team. At that time I neither knew, nor much cared, what a lineman was. But, from his conversation, I understood that it had something to do with raking the opponents' shins with his cleats.

Finally there was Coomie. Coomie was a Finlander, and I seem to remember that, during those long winter evenings beside the wood stove in Mihelich's Garage, the name Coomie had somehow evolved from Soumalina cootie. Soumalina, of course, is Finnish for Finnish, and cootie is G.I. for cootie. Coomie could take a punch like nobody else I have ever met, and, though he wasn't especially good at it, he loved to fight. His older brother, Gene, was even meaner than mine; so he had grown up taking punishment. But Coomie seemed almost to enjoy it. I have seen him come up laughing after having been knocked to his knees with a straight right hand.

He derived his greatest pleasure from a game of tag that he would play with Dewey Dunaway's brahma bull " the bull of course being "it". Coomie would taunt the bull by dancing in and out among the tag alders waving his arms and shouting obscenities at him, and " on at least one occasion that I recall " mooning the beast. No self-respecting bull will endure this sort of indignity for long. It would snort and bellow and paw the ground, and finally, shaking the ground beneath it, it would charge. Coomie, who was surprisingly fast on his short legs, would lead the bull on a twisting pathway through the brush and, only at the last moment with the bull steadily gaining on him, he would grab an overhead branch and swing himself up into a tree, while the bull passed noisily but harmlessly beneath him. Though often the bull missed by only the barest margin, Coomie never got tagged. But he could never induce any of us to join him, and, to my knowledge, he was the only one ever to enjoy this particular game. Coomie was Deech's age and still in the eighth grade.

As I have explained, I always tried to function only in an advisory capacity, and I should not be counted a full member of the group.

So here we were, the usual suspects assembled: Deech and Troublesome and Pudge and Coomie and I, all of us doing our best to appear as piously innocent as regular church-goers, shaking our heads in disbelief that something so contemptibly wicked could happen on the streets of small town America in this day and age.

"You boys have any idea who might have done this?" Deputy Sheriff Dar Holsman had an aptitude for asking a question in a way that left very little room for denial " in such a way that it sounded less like a question than a statement of irrefutable fact.

Pudge offered the opinion that, though he wouldn't want to point any fingers, it did look like the work of certain young hoodlums from Bobcat Crossing that he would rather not name.

"Would it be presumptuous of me to ask what you fellows were up to last night?"

"We were all at that Halloween party at the school house." I replied.

* * *

Let me explain something before we go any further here, I have never liked that word "lie". With so many varying degrees of truth, who can say where the truth leaves off and the lie begins? It's true we had stopped by that party " at least long enough to see who all was there " long enough to help ourselves to the candy and soft drinks, but I felt no obligation to mention that we hadn't stayed long, or that, when we'd left, we hadn't gone directly home. You understand, not all facts about a given event are relevant to the telling of the story. If a person, while remaining faithful to the essential truth, should occasionally omit or reconfigure the constituent facts of a given event in order to create a more pleasing or effective composition, that does not make him a liar. That makes him a poet.

* * *

"I've talked to people who were at that party. None of them remembers seeing any of you." It seemed that Deputy Sheriff Dar Holsman was himself aware of the malleability of truth, and that he too might have the soul of a poet.

"We were in costume." Deech explained.

"I see. And what did you go as?" This was another of those questions that was really an accusation.

"I wore my Ivor Carlson getup." Deech declared. "And I had a lot of people fooled too." Ivor Carlson, whom we had seen at the party by the way, was a candy-assed brown-noser, the oldest son of the Presbyterian preacher.

"I went as Elsworth Johansson." Pudge answered, while Troublesome chimed in, "And I was Waldo Norge." These were two more brown-nosers we'd seen at the party.

I said nothing. Sometimes, if you're just cocky enough and don't overplay your hand, you can get away with outrageous lies " excuse me, I meant to say Aoutrageous reconfigurations of the facts". I had, once or twice, run bluffs nearly as shameless as this, and I figured that, though the chance was not great, still there was a chance.

"I went as Old Swivel-Ass." That was Coomie. And Old Swivel-Ass was the grade school principal.

Of course everyone cracked up at that. Troublesome whooped and stamped his foot. Pudge got Coomie in a head-lock and knuckled his crew-cut, while Deech punched him solidly on the shoulder. And Coomie just grinned with pleasure at his witticism.

But it effectively eliminated any hope we might have held for putting one over on Deputy Sheriff Dar Holsman. There wasn't much doubt in anyone's mind now who would be blamed for fouling Mr. Frickie's 1947 Frazer.

"Here's the deal, boys." Deputy Holsman said when the guys had quieted down. "Mr. Frickie has promised not to press charges if you clean up his car."

We all turned and looked again, with a genuine lack of enthusiasm, at the toilet paper ornamentation clinging, by that thick, brown, viscous substance, to the car. Then we looked at each other and back again to the car.

"Wait a minute," I said to Deputy Holsman. "You've got nothing on us. You can't prove we had anything to do with this."

Then I turned back to the guys, "I say we tell Old Man Frickie to clean up his own damned car. They can't convict us of anything. They don't have any evidence."

"I don't need any evidence." Deputy Holsman replied. "In juvenile court I don't have to prove anything. All I have to do is say you're guilty, and that's it: You're guilty."

"Where the hell is the justice in that?" I practically screamed it, and I was immediately sorry. I was going through the Acool" phase of adolescence at the time, trying " with limited success " to avoid any show of emotion.

"Did you hear me say anything about justice?" Deputy Holsman shot back. "I don't give a damn about justice. All I care about is Mr. Frickie's car." He looked me over very slowly " looked right through me as though I were made of glass and every stunt I'd ever pulled was lit up like a neon sign in my window. I studied the ground at my feet.

"So what's it gonna be then? You gonna clean up the car, or are we going down to Grand Rapids to juvenile court?"

I had nothing to say. Damn it, this was the very reason I try not to get too much involved in these things.

"Okay, here's the way it's gonna be," he continued after an extended pause. "We're gonna push that car into the garage where it'll thaw out so we can clean it up. And, when I say "we', I mean the five of you." He nodded in the direction of Mihelich's office. "George there says we can bring it in if we make sure none of that shit messes up the garage. So, before we do anything else, we're gonna go collect some newspapers. I don't care where you get them, but I want to see you all back here in an hour with enough papers to cover the floor from the door all the way back to the grease pit. Now get out of here, and don't make me come looking for you."

* * *

I knew George would be standing at the window enjoying every agonizing moment of our chastisement. This was just the sort of thing that tickled the living shit of him. Not that he had anything against raising a little hell. On the contrary, not many pranks got pulled in Backwater that George Mihelich didn't have a hand in.

Admittedly, the time Charlie Bullock left his new car unattended in front of the garage, it hadn't been George who'd blocked up the rear axle so the wheels didn't quite touch the ground. But he had been conveniently perched in the front window when Charlie, sitting proudly behind the wheel, released the clutch and raced the engine " loudly proceeding nowhere at all, while his wheels spun futilely and his speedometer flagrantly overstated his progress.

Nor was George lacking an alibi when somebody rigged the women's out-house behind the municipal Fire Water Store by suspending a copper grid under the hole and connecting it to a Model-T magneto. Not George Mihelich. George was never the perpetrator. He was, however, often the instigator, and the one who provided the hardware and the technical expertise. And, when an unseen hand had flipped a switch that sent a current of electrons coursing through copper wires in search of the path of least resistance, he happened once again to be in the ideal position to observe the commotion as an anguished squeal rent the evening air and Lola Dodge energetically exited the sanctum sanctorum, floundering down the pathway with her step-ins still around her ankles.

A fellow could look further and settle for role models less worthy than George Mihelich.

* * *

Locating enough newspapers to cover the floor of Mihelich's garage would not be a problem. We knew where to find all the papers we'd need. You see, Coomie's great-aunt Winifred had been saving them up in her woodshed ever since the government had suspended the war-time paper drives. An ardent supporter of Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy, she prepared for the imminent "Commonist invasion" by the only means available to her, and she collected papers as only a dedicated patriot can. Though her grasp of English was limited and her eye-sight failing, she subscribed to both the Minneapolis Tribune and the Bobcat Crossing Weekly Bulletin. And she lectured friends and relatives with all the conviction of the true believer on their patriotic obligations " paper-drive-wise. So finding the papers was not the problem; it was the acquisition of them that might prove difficult. Great Aunt Winifred guarded those papers as though her woodshed was Fort Knox.

Fortunately, a rumor " surreptitiously whispered by persons unknown into a party line conversation " that Russians had been spotted in Bobcat Crossing drew elderly women throughout Back Water to battle stations at their south-facing windows, to search from curtained sanctuary for lines of advancing armor and jet-propelled aeroplanes, while we approached Aunt Winifred's woodshed from the north through Dewey Dunaway's pasture. That is four of us approached the woodshed while Coomie entertained Dewey's bull on the far side of the pasture.

Judging that two armloads apiece would suffice, we brought out the news of flying saucer sightings and Truman's upset victory over a prematurely jubilant Thomas E. Dewey. And we carried accounts of the loss of China and the Korean invasion. We delivered revelations of Sugar Ray Robinson's capture of the middle weight crown from Jake LaMotta, and of the Alger Hiss conviction and the death sentence for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. We were careful to take only stacks of the larger Minneapolis Tribune, forsaking announcements of the death of the Blaha boy in a tractor accident and of Mrs. Orville Randall's polio, which accounts we left behind to fuel the war effort.

Within the allotted hour, we had reassembled under the oversight of Deputy Sheriff Dar Holsman to lay out the papers and push that grey 1947 Frazer up the ramp and into Mihelich's Garage, where the frozen agglomeration from Friday evening's escapade could thaw in preparation for our Saturday afternoon penance. And, then Deputy Holsman turned us loose to contemplate the error of our ways until four o'clock when we would return to conduct the actual cleanup.

* * *

If I have a failing " and, you understand, I'm not admitting that it is a failing " It's that I have never been a gracious loser. I have agonized for years over the many times I've ended up holding the shitty end of the stick, especially those times when the other guy was an asshole or a stool pigeon like Benton Frickie. And this failing " if it is a failing " prevented me from achieving the level of contrition that Deputy Holsman had intended. I seriously doubt that any of the other "usual suspects" had been quite so penitent either " remember, at no time had any of us admitted complicity in this unfortunate business " but I suspect they may have harbored some modest regrets about the quality of their reputations in the community. For me, however, resentment will always overwhelm any incidental stirrings of remorse. Not that I consider that a failing; it is resentment after all, not repentance, that feeds the creative force.

* * *

On top of all the other indignities, as soon as I got home I had to march right back downtown to pick up the groceries at the Red and White. Knute, had been home all day, and it hadn't occurred to anybody to send him to the store. He was a sophomore, and that would have been beneath his dignity " even though he had a car, and all I had were my walking shoes. But then, as they so energetically explained, Knute was not the juvenile delinquent in the family.

They had a lot more to say, too. And, maybe for the only time in my life, I was happy to go to the store " anything to get out of the house. I don't suppose I have to remind anyone how it makes a guy feel to have his folks tell him they're ashamed of him?

At least my younger brother Erik, who was always trying to tag along, wasn't ashamed of me. I told him he could get his sled and come to the store with me provided he didn't talk to me along the way. And, on the half-mile walk back to town I made a solemn promise that, by God, somebody was gonna pay for my humiliation.

* * *

Ward Johnson's Red and White was an old-fashioned grocery store " old-fashioned even then; though we in Backwater didn't realize that at the time. In a supermarket, the customer collects his purchases and brings them to the checkout counter, where they are scanned and totaled, and the customer writes out a check. But I'd never heard of a supermarket, let alone shopped in one. In a grocery store, the customer used to tell the clerk what he needed, and the clerk would retrieve the requested items from ceiling-high shelves with a long stick, bag them and total the charges with a pencil on a two-part pad. He would hand the customer the carbon copy, and the customer would say, "Put it on the bill."

But, even at the Red and White, the customer would probably get a few things from the lower shelves or the cooler himself. So, while Ward got out his long stick and knocked down the macaroni and the Kellogg's Pep, I ambled to the back of the store and reached into the cooler for the milk and butter.

And it was at that precise moment that I heard the siren song of the kleptomaniac.

It was not the pop in the cooler that caught my eye; nor was I drawn toward the rack of candy bars or the freezer filled to the top with ice cream and Popsicles. To hell with the nickel shit; I had spotted something truly precious " something absolutely priceless " though, until that moment, I had never considered it even remotely appealing. In fact, I knew of only one person who would eat the stuff, but George Mihelich had Ward Johnson special-order it from Grand Rapids for him once a month.

Well by God, George, the November consignment was mine! I slipped the small container inside my jacket and returned to the counter, luxuriating in that profound satisfaction that only the truly wicked will ever know. Even Erik hadn't seen what I'd done.

* * *

We had an audience, if that surprises anyone. As I said, television hadn't yet reached us up there in the far corner of the North Woods. Mihelich, of course, was there, and his boys. Even his daughter had dropped in to witness our humiliation. Zim, the one-legged shoemaker who slept in the cellar, had dragged his bench up close. Knute and Skeeze were both there " as if wild horses could have dragged them away. And even Deech's brother Purt, who wasn't normally such an asshole, occupied a nail keg in the front row. Others came, as well, but they were there as silent observers, and they remained in the shadows.

Pudge was wearing his dad's greasy coveralls. Deech had on last year's clothes " too small, with holes at the knees and elbows. And Troublesome hadn't changed out of his barn clothes. But, since my new clothes were also my old clothes, I still wore what I'd had on earlier " as did Erik, whom I had allowed to tag along. Coomie, who didn't give a shit anyway, hadn't changed either.

"Okay, fellows, line up here in front of me. I'm gonna tell you what we're gonna do." Deputy Holsman had one of those saps like Sheldon Leonard used to carry in the movies, and every once in a while, to emphasize a point, he'd smack it into the palm of his other hand. We knew he wasn't planning to hit anybody with that sap, but, just the same, we couldn't help flinching. It made a splashing, naked-flesh sort of sound whenever he did that, a really unpleasant sound. And then, as soon as we were all lined up, he began pacing back and forth like a drill sergeant in front of us " doing his Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity impression.

"We're each gonna get one of those paper bags." slap! He nodded toward the bags, "And then we're gonna take it over to that car and start peeling off the asswipe." slap! He paused a moment for dramatic effect and continued, "But we're not gonna just throw that asswipe in the bag " and, when I say "we'," slap! "I mean the five of you." At this point he noticed Erik. "Is he in on this too?" And, when Erik assured him with a nod that he was to be included, he resumed, "I mean the six of you. We're gonna use that asswipe to scrape up all the shit" slap! "underneath. Then we're gonna take soap and . . . "

Suddenly he affected an about-face and turned a withering glare on Coomie, who had been mocking him behind his back " head thrown back, looking down his nose and smacking his other hand with empty air, "You think this's funny? You think this's some kinda joke?"

The problem was that Coomie did, indeed, think it was funny. He thought the car was funny; he thought the toilet paper and the thick, brown, viscous substance was funny; he thought the sap was funny, and he thought Deputy Holsman was the funniest of all.

Had he loosed his wrath a moment sooner, Deputy Holsman might have contained the situation, but he was too late. Once Coomie had started laughing, he would just have to laugh himself out. Mihelich, who never failed to see the humor in the ordeals of everyday life " other people's ordeals, at least " joined in. And then Troublesome absolutely whooped his appreciation, while Pudge enjoyed a healthy laugh, and I allowed myself a quiet chuckle. Deech beamed his broad grin that " as he had pointed out on several occasions " did not expose his lower teeth. Everyone in the audience laughed along appreciatively. And, though Coomie's antics had been only silliness, after all, and not particularly humorous, in the end even Deputy Holsman was caught up in the merriment of the moment.

But Benton Frickie, who had wandered in unannounced, and who now emerged from the shadows, was not altogether amused. Silence radiated out from him in a wave as he was recognized. An anemic sense of humor may sometimes be contagious, and his presence introduced a definite chill into the ambient warmth, with the effect that Deputy Holsman felt compelled to resume his role as Sergeant Warden and we fell into line like good little soldiers before him.

"As I was saying," Deputy Holsman continued, "once we've scraped off the shit we're gonna get soap and water, and we're gonna wash that car "til we can see our faces in the shine. And, when I say "we', I don't mean me. I mean the five . . . the six of you. Now you grab yourself a bag and get busy."

There are tasks that offer sufficient challenge, or are otherwise so pleasant, that a teenager might cheerfully bend his efforts to their swift accomplishment. Chores of another sort he may swiftly dispatch simply to have them over and done with. And then there are those jobs so odious that they must be tentatively approached and dealt with only at arm's length and with finger-pinched noses. Since I harbored no illusions about the category into which the evening's exercise would fall, I had taken the precaution of bringing clothes pins enough for all the participants. My bringing the clothes pins was an especially neat touch, since, as you will see, the idea served to insulate us from any official conclusion of our guilt in that sordid affair of the previous evening.

With clothes pins firmly in place, we tackled the job, gingerly peeling off the paper and then, swiping it over the gobs to remove as much of the thick, brown, viscous substance as possible before depositing it into the paper bags. Troublesome, accustomed as he was to manure, approached the task with the detached efficiency that is characteristic of a farm boy doing his chores. Deech, as befit his sensibilities, and I, preferring to maintain an advisory role in this enterprise, paced around the car, assessing the damage and verbally calculating the best approach to the performance of our duties, all the while doing our best to maintain a discreet distance from the work itself. Pudge made an effort, he truly did, but his stomach was not up to the task. Coomie found the whole thing enormously funny, and Erik was too young to contribute even if he had wanted to. So the job progressed, thanks almost entirely to Troublesome, who wanted only to be done with it. And it may have been only I, who noticed that the assembled audience seemed to share a secret " a secret that amused them all, even Benton Frickie.

When the paper and the most of that thick, brown, viscous substance had been removed and deposited in the brown paper bags, Mihelich brought out a bundle of rags and buckets of hot soapy water. Troublesome and Pudge got down to business washing the car, and even Coomie pitched in. Deech grabbed a couple of dry rags to soak up the excess water, so the car wouldn't freeze shut on Benton Frickie when he drove it out into the cold. I supervised.

In practically no time at all, the car was sunshine fresh, as they used to say in the old White Rain Shampoo commercials, and we removed the clothes pins. At this point, Gene, who had immensely enjoyed our labors, and did not want the entertainment to end, called Coomie over. "Bring that paper bag over here." he commanded of his younger brother. And, when Coomie had complied, "Fish out some of that ass wipe." Coomie reached into the bag and gingerly removed a piece of paper dripping with that thick, brown, viscous substance. "Now give it to me. GENTLY!" Coomie held out the paper and Skeeze took it, holding it by one corner between his thumb and index finger. "Look at that." he demanded, thrusting it toward Coomie. And Coomie dutifully looked at it. "Closer." And Coomie edged closer. Then my brother came up and grabbed Coomie from behind, and held him while Skeeze smeared the mess over Coomie's face, behind his ears and across his nose and into his mouth

That was the first and only time I saw Coomie really angry. His face, that part of his face that showed through the thick, brown, viscous substance, turned absolutely purple. He pulled out of Knute's grasp and began throwing punches. They were wild haymakers, launched from the heels, that may have done severe damage, had any of them landed. But Gene=s arms were much longer, and with the heel of his hand on his brother's forehead, he kept him out of range. The punches fell far short of the mark.

And then, something totally unexpected occurred. Coomie stopped swinging, and his shoulders began to jerk rhythmically. It appeared to all that this great bundle of mirth, this imperturbable butt of his brother's jokes, our good friend and companion in crime, was crying. No one there, with the possible exception of Gene, had ever seen Coomie cry. No one had anticipated this turn of events, and no one was prepared to deal with it. The merriment ceased, and even Dar Holsman and Mihelich seemed shamed and embarrassed.

It was only very slowly that the truth dawned on, first one and then another, and then a couple more. He wasn't crying; he was laughing " laughing as only he could laugh. But the assemblage found this news not at all comforting. How could even he, with his face so covered with this thick, brown viscous substance, laugh so uncontrollably? Had he been driven beyond his endurance?

He managed, slowly and still shaking with laughter, to stand erect, and, with the index finger of his right hand, he scooped up a healthy dollop of the thick, brown, viscous substance. Then he stuck his finger in his mouth and sucked it clean. "It's peanut butter!" he announced with obvious amusement.

At this point, I popped the hood on the 1947 Frazer and began a detailed examination of the motor and radiator, just to make sure none of that thick, brown, viscous substance had contaminated the engine compartment. No one paid any attention to my efforts, so I was very thorough and scrupulous in my examination. I completed my mission and quietly closed the hood. No one had noticed, and no one could later point the finger of blame at me.

Later, after Knute and Skeeze and Purt had admitted that they, along with some of their friends from Bobcat Crossing, had perpetrated the previous evening's ambush; later, after even Benton Frickie had enjoyed a moment of forgiveness, since it had been peanut butter, after all, and no real guilt accrued to them, and later still, after the real culprits and the victim had left, each to his own pursuits, I offered what remained of the item I had stolen that afternoon at the Red and White to Mihelich. I no longer needed it, and he was, after all the only one I knew who would eat limburger cheese.

Soon, very soon, as soon as the heater core of that 1947 Frazer warmed up and began blowing that peculiar aroma into the passenger compartment, Benton Frickie would determine that he had been premature in his forgiveness " a mistake he would vow never again to make. And soon, he would try, unsuccessfully to file a complaint with Dar Holsman. Within a month, he would trade in the 1947 Frazer, taking a real beating on the deal. But, for all that remained of his shrewish existence, he would nurse a consuming grudge against Knute and Gene and Purt, along with some of their friends from Bobcat Crossing " not against me and the usual suspects, of course. Obviously, though we had been blamed initially, we had been proved innocent.

Truth to tell, I had been the author of the plan; the whole thing had been my idea all along. But I had not been present at the ambush; I had laid out the plan and then washed my hands of the whole project. I prefer to remain simply an advisor, you understand.

the end

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