Any house that has nobody but old ladies living in it starts to smell funny. Mabel's
was no exception. Smelled like every old lady's house I'd ever been in. Other than
that, it was just the way I remembered it. Plain. Nothing unnecessary. Well, except
for the photographs sitting on the bureau in the parlor. They hadn't been there 20
There was a photo in a plain frame of 5 children-4 boys and a girl. None of them were
smiling. One of the boys looked like maybe he had a black eye.
Another photo of a couple in fancy clothes-I had to look twice at that one. At first
I thought it was my old man, looked just like the old bastard, but the clothes were too
old-fashioned, and I didn't recognize the woman at all.
There were a couple of other pictures of people I didn't know…..and then there was one
I don't know where she got it. One set of foster parents had been nuts about cameras,
and took pictures of just about every fucking thing there was, but they didn't usually
waste film on me. They knew as well as I did I wasn't gonna be there long.
I looked about 16 in this picture. My hand was raised up in the air, and I was walking,
or maybe running. My hair was long; it must've been after that time the barber clipped
my ear, and I took the scissors away from him and threatened to stick him with them, and
he refused to cut my hair after that. I wasn't looking at the camera, so I guess I didn't
know my picture got taken.
It was in a frame same as the others, sitting there with the pictures of her brothers and
her parents and those other people. Who woulda thought the old bitch wanted pictures of
anybody? Especially me…..
The bureau underneath the pictures was all locked up, just like it'd been then. I always
wondered what she coulda had that was so important. Or that she thought I would wanna
steal. Now I guess I'd get to find out. If I could find the key.
Hey, I used to be a cop. I knew where it would be; and it was there. There were 4 keys
in the top drawer of her dresser. I have to admit, going into her bedroom felt sorta strange.
I was damn grateful there was no underwear in that top drawer. Mostly women's underwear
doesn't bother me---I've seen some I really like---but I didn't even wanna see the Bitch's.
If I had to clean the house out, and it looked like I would, Lynn was gonna hafta come along
and help me with this room.
The smallest key fit the locks in the bureau. I'd figure out what the other three were
for later. I put all the keys in my pocket.
Mostly it was empty. A coupla the drawers didn't have anything at all in them. They were
locked anyway. Figure that out. One drawer had some papers that looked like legal
papers, deeds, that kind of thing. I decided this was the kind of stuff I should take
home with me and look at, so I put them in my jacket pocket. There was a stack of
newspapers with things circled in pencil; and a box full of more photos. Some of 'em
had names on the back. I set both of those out to take back with me. And there was a
small box with metal corners, with a Valentine inside, one of those old-fashioned kinds
that aren't flat, you fold them out and they stand up. On the back it said, To My
Sweetheart, From Tom.
I put that in the box with the photos. And that was all there was. There was nothing
personal in the rest of the house, unless it woulda been in her bedroom; I didn't go
back in there.
It looked like she was storing garden tools in the room I slept in, the room I spent
so much time locked up in. And there were boards, used ones with the nails still sticking
up out of 'em, piled up next to one wall. The furniture, what there was of it, was gone,
except for the metal single bed frame and springs against another wall.
I went out the back door, which was broken on one side and about to fall off its hinges.
You had to lift it up to shut it.
The big shed was still standing. And the smaller woodshed too, although it looked like it
was about to fall down. The fucking woodshed. That was where the Bitch and I had most of
I can't remember, now, what it was I'd done the first time Mabel decided I needed to
be punished. I'm not talking about the occasional smack, I mean the kind where she tells
you about it ahead of time, so you can think about it. She was pretty predictable; she
musta read all the same stories I'd read, where the kid does something wrong, and one of
his parents sends him out to find a switch. And he goes and gets it and brings it back.
And he gets switched. Now, I don't know about you, but I never understood that. I always
figured maybe those kids weren't playing with a full deck, you know?
I think it probably had something to do with food. I don't remember ever having enough to
eat while I lived there. No one could ever accuse of the Bitch of not feeding me---she
sat me down at the table 3 times a day, but there was usually damn little on the plate.
At the time, I figured she was feeding me just enough to keep me alive. I was always
hungry. So if I had the chance to steal something out of the kitchen, I took it. Sometimes
I got caught; sometimes I didn't.
I don't quite know why, but for some reason after I got outta the hospital, I was sorta….
reckless, I guess. I'd learned with my old man how to stay low (for the most part) and
out of his way. And I'd lived at the Bitch's house long enough, and been smacked enough,
to know better than to talk back to her. I shoulda just kept my mouth shut. I knew that.
But when Mabel told me to go get her a stick from the woodpile to give me the licks I
deserved for whatever fucking thing I'd done (or hadn't done), I said, "You think I'm
"What did you say?"
"If you think I'm gonna go find you something to beat me with, you're outta your mind."
She was about as quick as her brother. I didn't have time to get out of the way before
she smacked me.
"That was disrespectful. Now you come with me."
She grabbed me by the hair on the back of my head, and dragged me out to the woodshed
I watched her pick up a stick-a thin one, kindling, maybe, but still thicker than her
thumb. And solid; she whacked it against her palm a coupla times to test it. Right
then in that moment, it was like I was two places at once. I knew I was in Mabel's
woodshed, but it was like I was back in our kitchen again, too. I could almost feel
the tire-iron whooshing past me as I ducked; I could hear in my head the clang against
So you can maybe understand that I thought she was gonna kill me. No reason for it that
I knew of, but at 12, I didn't know you needed a reason to kill somebody.
She was a strong woman, and she was quick. She reached for me and I scooted away. She
grabbed my shirt and I twisted out of it, tried to dodge past her to the door. She got
my hair again, and then she had me. I think now she was aiming the stick at my rear
end, but I wouldn't be still, so I caught some on my back and the backs of my legs too.
Finally I was laying face down on the dirt floor, shirtless, with her knee in my back.
"Every step you take earns you another lick," she said. She was panting about as much
as I was. I couldn't see her face, so I couldn't tell if she was enjoying herself.
"Stand up here and take your punishment like a man."
She thought I was going to fall for that? Men didn't stand and take licks; they were
the ones who gave them out.
"If you do that, your punishment will be much less. Every step you take away earns you
Then she said something I didn't understand. Almost under her breath, she said, "Your
father used to wrestle me down on the ground like this. I suppose all knowledge is
useful at some point."
That night was the first time I ran away. Sounds stupid, now, but I'd never thought of
doing that before. You stayed where you lived, and as much as I hated it, this was
where I lived. That night, laying in bed on my stomach, the revelation hit me---I
could leave and she couldn't stop me. I didn't even have to think about it. I didn't
have any place in mind to go; I didn't take anything with me. I just went.
The cops found me the next day and brought me back. She took me out to the woodshed
for a repeat of the previous day, and started locking my door at night.
The little shed looked like it wouldn't take more than a good push to send it over,
so after I checked inside and took out the tools, I pushed it. It was more solid than
it looked and I had to put some muscle into it, but I flattened it inside of a few minutes.
"Doing some sprucing up, are ya?"
He was leaning against the side of the house. A beefy guy, not too tall, with a little
bit of a gut hanging over his belt. "I knocked on the front door, but nobody answered.
Murchison told me you were here. Looking over your inheritance. Find anything interesting?"
It was supposed to sound like a casual question, but it didn't, quite.
"You must be Ronnie."
"And you're Cousin Wendell, of course. The prodigal….umm, nephew."
"You need something?"
He shook his head. And smiled. "I'm family, Wendell. We should get to know one another."
There was something about him that reminded me of my old man. And Mabel. Something
around the eyes. I hated him immediately.
"I'm kinda busy right now."
"You know I stayed with Mabel when I was a kid. Like you did."
"Like me, huh?"
"Well, not exactly like you, I guess."
The big shed was fastened shut with a big padlock. I guess the surprising thing shoulda
been, not that it was locked, but that there weren't more than four keys in Mabel's drawer.
"You know there's a car inside there," Ronnie said.
"You don't say."
"I bet the key to the lock is inside the house somewhere. I could help you look for it."
Such a helpful guy, that Ronnie.
"Thanks, I don't need any help." I pulled the keys out of my pocket and picked out the
one that went with the padlock. He lost his smile. His eyes followed the keys that went
back in my pocket. Pretty obvious. An amateur? Or just stupid?
My old man had mentioned Vincent's bunch, and they weren't the mob, exactly, but you didn't
want to underestimate them either. I had to wonder if my cousin was connected. You wouldn't
think this guy'd last 10 minutes with them. On the other hand, used car lots were great
places to launder money. So it could be he was just a used car salesman with a problem.
Or it could be he was more than that.
The car started right up. It was a little dusty, but otherwise looked good. A Ford sedan,
black, not too old, and nothing fancy, but it seemed to run OK. I figured I'd call the
lawyer, and let him know, and then take it back to Bisbee tomorrow instead of the train.
"You know, I sold Mabel that car," Ronnie said.
"Yeah, it's a good little car, really was a great buy…I could get one for you."
"Thanks, I think this one'll be enough."
"Oh. Say, you wanna come to my place for dinner? My wife makes a great pot roast.
We could have a beer, talk about things."
"Well…." He was thinking hard. He took a deep breath. Here it comes, I thought.
"I'll be honest with you---"
"---Mabel had something that belonged to me, and I was hoping you'd…..you'd…."
I almost felt sorry for him. He was smiling and trying to be so cool about it.
"What is it?"
"What does Mabel have that belongs to you?"
"Well, it's…..kinda personal…..you know?" Big lop-sided grin. Hands stuffed in pockets.
"No. I don't. But if I see anything with your name on it, I'll be sure and let you know."
I brought the stack of papers and the box of photos outside and loaded them in the car,
and locked the house up. Ronnie was still standing next to the driver's door. He grabbed
"I can't tell you….you're a….cop, see, and….I just….if you'd let me go with you when you
go to the bank….." The smile was gone. He was starting to sweat. "I mean, she probably
put it in her box there, don't you think?"
"Since I don't know what it is, that's kinda hard for me to say……Look, I'm gonna find out
sooner or later. And I'm not a cop now. So tell me what it is or shut up about it."
It wasn't as bad as it might have been, but bad enough. The idiot had stepped out on his
wife with some rich broad from the other side of town, and then stolen something from her,
a ring, that was apparently worth a lot of money.
"How the hell did Mabel end up with it?"
"Well, my old man just laughed at me when I asked him for help, so I came to ask her what
I should do. I didn't think….I mean….when I took it, it was just on the spur of the moment,
then….what was I gonna do with it? You know?"
"And Mabel kept it?"
"She wouldn't give it back to me! She said as long as I didn't get in any more trouble,
I'd be safe, that she'd hold on to it for me. If I went out on Barbara again, or if I had
any more stolen cars on my lot, she'd give it and the pictures to the cops. God, I hated
the old bitch."
I had to laugh. "Yeah, I bet you did."
I believed him….for a few minutes. And then something just didn't seem to ring true. Why
would he tell me the truth so quick? Hell, he was a White; they didn't seem to be a
trustworthy, law-abiding bunch. I hadn't heard of one yet I'd trust as far as I could
throw him. Except for Mabel, of course. Mabel didn't need to lie.
And she wasn't stupid. She wouldn't keep stolen goods to turn in to the police later.
She'd've been in the cell next to Ronnie if she'd done that.
About a week after the first time, I pried the window open and left again. It took
the cops three days to find me this time. Only good thing about being caught was, Officer
Beckmann always had a box of doughnuts in his car, and he always let me sneak some of 'em.
Or all of 'em. This time there was a kind of a pastry with meat and other stuff in it in
the box with the doughnuts. I remember how wonderful I thought it was. When I said so,
Beckmann turned the car around, and got me another one before he took me home.
Mabel was really unhappy with me. She nailed my window shut.
"I told Emma not to marry Leonard," she said in between whacks with the hammer. "I believe
I warned her. But she said she was in love. You see the result."
I figured she meant me.
"She was too soft. She couldn't stand up to him." I was supposed to be handing her nails,
but I wouldn't. "But you're not soft, are you, boy?" She reached out her hand, and I
ducked, thinking she was gonna smack me again for something. But she didn't. She pulled
it back. "No, not you."
Then she hit her thumb with the hammer and I had to jump way back outta the way so I didn't
get the hammer in my ear. Mabel could get madder than any woman I've ever seen, and she
didn't have to be drunk to do it. She looked like a regular old maid aunt, I guess, but
she knew every four-letter word I'd ever heard my old man say, and maybe a couple extra.
She broke the hammer handle while she was cussing and whacking it against the side of the
house, and then she was really mad.
Every time she decided I needed a licking, I heard, "Stand and take it like a man. Every
step away earns you another lick." I think she said other stuff, too, but I stopped
listening to her. I knew I wasn't too smart, but I wasn't dumb enough to believe all
the crap she was trying to feed me.
The next time I decided to leave, I broke the window to get out. I was free 8 whole days
before the cops ran me down and hauled me back to Mabel's house. 8 blessed days. Yeah,
I was hungry, and I had to hide a lot; the street can be a scary place sometimes for a
kid alone. But those 8 days of freedom tasted better than anything I'd had in a long
time. And I was getting better at getting along on my own. I knew eventually I'd be so
good they'd never find me. I just had to keep at it.