a story

by J. Orlin Grabbe

I had known he was dumb, but I never would have run with him if I had known he was that dumb. And I had never liked him either, before then, cause he was a sissy. He was as big as me, bigger than average, and there weren't no reason for him to act like a sissy. But that's the way he was: poor, dumb, and a sissy. Hell, I was as poor as he was, but not dumb and not a sissy. I should have figured he would have squealed in the end. He was too big a sissy not to squeal no matter how afraid he was I might bust him up for it, and he was too dumb to know I could never do it once he had squealed cause it'd look suspicious.

I had never liked that sheriff, either, the one with chewing tobacco juice running out between his teeth and smelling awful.

The girls were skipping rope one day, two of them holding the ends, and the others taking turns kind of sliding in and doing five skips and out. A bunch of us were leaning against the school wall having a good laugh at the way Kathy always jumped stooping over, holding her skirt, afraid the wind would blow it up and show her panties. Anyway it weren't her panties we were looking to see, it was Ruth Ann's. So while we were waiting to see if anything was going to happen, I took the keys out of my pocket, about thirty of them all on a long chain, and I thumbed through them looking at each one.

I had read this book told by a safecracker, how he had stole a couple million dollars just breaking into places and opening safes. And I was figuring to do that myself, once I got big, only I wouldn't make the same dumb mistakes and get caught. Hell, everybody knew I was the smartest kid in the class. Everybody except the ones who wanted to start something cause they said I was putting on airs. The first one who had said that, a few years ago, was my best friend, and he came up to me real mad one day after Mrs. Anderson put all the reading test scores and names on the blackboard, and he said what makes you so smart, and started punching me. Well, I figured he had no cause to act like that, him being my best friend and all, so I really let him have it back, and when it was all over we weren't friends anymore. And it made me kind of sad cause I liked him. So now when anyone did that I just said don't you know the trick, and I would tell them the easy way to get the right answers. I would tell them one thing, and then another, and make sure I talked just like them, not putting on no airs, and pretty soon they would be so mixed up they'd forgot what they came for, which was to pick a fight.

Well if I was the smartest, I figure Buford was the dumbest kid in class, his name always coming out at the bottom of the list, and him getting F's and all. I would have never paid him no mind except his house was kind of run down and dumpy and dirty like mine. Of course he had a TV and could watch Dracula and the Wolfman and stuff whenever he wanted, but it didn't seem to do him no good, he just stayed about the same level of dumb all the time.

So I was looking at the keys. I had been collecting quite a few from different places, even some I found just laying in the dirt when I was walking around. And I had been studying them, thinking about what kind of locks they might work on, reading books on Houdini and how to unlock any type of lock, and how pickpockets operated, and how to trick people. And I was thinking I could take these keys, and maybe I could just file them a little here and there, and then they would work in brand new locks and I could break into any place I wanted. I wouldn't leave any fingerprints cause I'd wear gloves, and I would check for alarms and be careful not to make noise or attract attention.

Sometimes I would put on my sneakers and walk up and down the creakiest part of the stairs at home, practicing shifting my weight just right so I could float up and down like a cat or a ghost. Not that you needed to know any of this in my town, on account of there weren't any office buildings or safes to break into, except for the local bank, or that's what I thought then, and maybe only one or two stores had a burglar alarm. But those were real dumb ones, just hanging out there on the side of the building where you could cut the electric wires. Of course you had to use rubber gloves to keep all that juice from going through you, and maybe even frying your brains or making your eyes pop out, like when they put people in the electric chair.

So I was looking at my keys and Buford walks up and pulls a wad of keys out of his own pocket. It made me kind of proud to see that, another key collector, and him in my class. He had some good ones too.

"These," he whispered private-like, "unlock the ice house."

"How you know that?"

"That's where I got 'em. The old man was in the back and I jis took 'em out of the drawer of his desk."

"Hell, they could be anything then. Maybe file keys or something. It don't mean they open the front door."

The ice house was the place in town you could go to get fifty- or hundred-pound blocks of ice, which were kept in a big locker all covered with sawdust. And we would go there sometimes in the summer to get ice for the ice-cream maker to make home- made ice cream. And I started to think how much fun it would be, to go in there all alone, not to steal ice, what would be the point of that? And not to steal money, that old man didn't make nothing, everybody knew that.

Hell, just to steal keys. Add to my collection. And that's how it came to me--one of the grandest ideas I ever had. People locking up all their doors, protecting their stuff, and somebody breaks in and steals their keys, nothing else. And I started laughing out loud, it was such a grand idea, and some boys jerked up their heads to see who was jumping rope and what they had missed.

So we talked about this and that, me and Buford, and he told me the places he had already broke in. And I asked him if he wore gloves and he said that was just shit they did on TV, no one around here knew about fingerprints and that kind of stuff. And I said you never know, and he started talking big, letting on how he knew it all, and I thought to myself he's just as dumb doing this as everything else. But I let him brag and didn't care, cause I was feeling real proud here was another kid who wanted to be a burglar like me.

I was running the show then, the one in town, on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. I got paid three dollars each of the two days, and it didn't make no difference if it was a four- reeler like Cowboy or a twelve-reeler like The Ten Commandments. Each reel had about two thousand feet of film, and lasted about eighteen minutes, so a five-reeler would run about an hour and a half for each show, not counting the comedy or coming attractions, and we generally had two shows. The first time Buford and me went out was on a Sunday afternoon after I got done showing Dunkirk, which Mrs. Caves, the wife of the man who owned the movie house, kept calling dern kick. And I would laugh every time she said it, and she would wonder what got into me but never asked cause she thought I was Einstein or somebody, being only eleven and being the projectionist, and she would tell everybody I was a child progeny, which made me laugh even more.

So Buford came by after the show, and we walked over to the ice house, it being closed like everything else on Sunday except for the movie house. We were throwing a ball back and forth, all innocent-like, just like two kids playing, and I threw it over Buford's head and behind the ice house. There weren't any alley behind it, just a niche off the street, so you could get to the wooden stairs that ran up to the second story of another building facing the other way.

I put on my gloves first and Buford scoffed and said I didn't need to do that and I said you do it your way and I'll do it mine, and he was too dumb to think it would just be his prints all over everything. I looked at the padlock on the back door and he pulled out his keys like he was going to find one that fit it, but it was only a spring lock, the spring holding the bolt down cause it fit into a flat place on the side, so I had it picked open by the time he got his keys out.

When you went in the door it was like a stables or something that ran along side the ice locker and the front office and it was filled with barrels of stuff the old man had just dumped. There wasn't a door to the office, just a square hole half way up the wall that looked like it had been knocked out with a hammer. And Buford grabs hold of it with both hands to climb through and says to me I always tear it bigger when I climb through here, and I say don't do that, he'll know for sure somebody was in here, and Buford said naw that old man don't notice nothing. Well we looked through the desk some, and found another set of keys, besides the one Buford had already took, and we split them, and then we looked in the ice locker and chipped off a piece to suck on. And then I was ready to go, and when we climbed through the hole Buford stopped to kick at the sides of it to show me how tough he was, and I reckon I was kind of impressed, him being so dumb you couldn't help admiring it, and we went out the back and I relocked the door.

Well, I was kind of excited and I said, hell, let's go in somewhere else, and we walked over behind the laundry, where some of the women in town went to wash their clothes, and there was a pin tumbler lock on the back that I couldn't do anything with, but it was stuck on a hasp that had the screws just showing face up, so all I had to do was unscrew them with my knife. And boy we made a haul there, must have been ten keys, five for each of us, but none of them fit the vending machines that sold soap and candy and other things. And after that we must have gone to a couple other places, and I was real proud that my key collection was growing by leaps and bounds.

Well the next week at school one day Buford says to me those Mexicans got a safe in the old Chevrolet house, and there's a couple thousand dollars in there. And I say how you know that, and he says I seen it, I go over there to the dances all the time. And what he was talking about was in the fall the Mexicans came from across the border to pick cotton, and they stayed in buildings by the cotton gin, and Mr. Caves who had the movie house loved them because they came every night to the show, and so he opened the movie house every night just for that part of the year, and we showed Spanish movies mostly, and the regular movies on Saturday and Sunday. And the Mexicans all came to the movie on Saturday night, too, and then went over to the top of the old Chevrolet house where they danced for hours and hours, and sometimes we would go over and watch them after the show.

"Well if it's a safe there's no way we're going to get that kind of thing open, and besides we're just taking keys, there'll be hell to pay if we take money."

"Naw, no one cares if you take money from Mexicans."

"I'm not taking no money from no Mexicans."

"You're just a Mexican lover."

"It don't make no difference, anyhow, there's no way we're going to get the safe open."

"I've got a key to it," he said, pointing to a new key on his ring, one I hadn't seen before. "That's it, right there." And I looked at it, it didn't look like a safe key to me, but I hadn't seen that safe and couldn't say different.

"How do you know it opens that safe?"

"I tried it."

"Hell, if you tried why didn't you go ahead and take the money?"

"I heard somebody, so I had to hide. I shut the safe door real fast, and then I ran away after that."

"So maybe they saw you, and took the money out."

"Naw. Nobody seen me."

Well, I got to thinking. You could get two candy bars for a dime. So that was about fifty cents a week, if you had two every day not counting weekends. Which would cost you about twenty- five dollars in a year. Hell, I could just take a hundred dollars, and that would be four years of candy bars.

"Okay," I said, "I'll go with you. But we're just going to take a hundred dollars each."

"Naw, we'll take it all."

"Hell, how you going to tell people where you got all that money?"

"I'll just tell them an uncle died and left it to me."

"And what are you going to say when they ask your brother, and he says you didn't have no uncle that died?"

"I'll give him some of the money, and he'll say the same as me."

"You going to tell your brother we stole this money?"

And we talked like that some, him being so dumb he couldn't see we couldn't take all the money. And then I got to worrying that maybe he was going to lose the key before we got over there and got any of it.

"You better give me that key, so you don't lose it."

"Naw. I ain't going to lose it." He thought a minute. "But I'll get you a copy of it, then we don't have to worry."

"Where you going to get a copy? There ain't nobody that makes keys in this town."

Anyway we decided to go check out that safe after the next weekend, when it would be full of money after the Saturday dance and all, and I told Buford it's better to not be walking around town like we did that last Sunday, and we would just go over there during lunch hour at school, and so the next Monday Buford came up to me real proud and hands me a copy of the key. And I looked at it, real surprised-like, and said where did you get this, and he said I had it made, and I asked him where.

"The sheriff made it."

"What are you talking about?"

"Well, I asked around a few stores, and they said ain't nobody got a key machine around here but the sheriff, and so I went over to the court house and he drilled it for me."

I was so mad I could hardly speak, and I called him a dumb shit and some other things, and then I said, so what'd you tell the sheriff, we needed two keys to break into the Mexican safe?

"Naw. I just told him it was for Mrs. Anderson's husband, and he sweated and cussed and drilled for about an hour, and didn't charge me nothing for it."

Well, after a crazy stunt like that, I knew we better get over to that safe right away, so we went over during the lunch recess, and I put on my gloves, and we climbed through a broken window in the back. And the bottom of that old Chevrolet house was filled with all kinds of stuff that had just set there for years, all covered with dust, and then we went up front where the safe was, and it was sitting there pretty as you please with a big combination lock built in the door. And I looked at Buford and said you never had no key to no safe, and Buford pulls out his key and looks at it, and pretends to be puzzled, and says they must have changed the lock. And I said you dumb shit this lock is part of the safe, and he said don't call me no dumb shit, and there was nothing to be done, so we went up the stairs to the dance hall to look around, to see if there was any money laying around up there, but we didn't find nothing.

So later in the week Buford is standing by the school wall, keeping to himself, and I walk over and right away he says, we're in trouble, the sheriff's asking me all these questions, but I ain't going to squeal on you, cause you're my pal. And he keeps saying it again and again, that he was my pal and he wouldn't squeal on me, and finally I tell him to shut up and tell me how the sheriff found out, and Buford says the sheriff called Mrs. Anderson's husband to see if he got the key, and Mrs. Anderson's husband said he don't know anything about it.

"Yeah," I say, "and then what?"

"And then the sheriff comes to see me, and asks what I wanted the key for, and I said I just wanted one to give to another kid at school because we collected keys, and then the sheriff starts asking me questions about places being broke into and people missing keys, and I said I didn't know nothing about that."

So I listened to this for a while, and then I tell Buford you better not squeal on me, and he said I'd never do that cause you're my pal.

Well, the next Sunday afternoon, my dad drove me to the movie house in the pickup, so I could run the projector, and we were sitting there parked. And I looked out the window of the pickup and I saw the sheriff coming over, walking across the street from the direction of the court house, and it gave me a little start but not too much cause he and my dad liked to chew the fat now and then. But then he came right up to the pickup and instead of leaning in and talking across me to my dad, he opened the door and crowded right in, so I had to scoot over and was wedged in between them in front of the gear shift. And my dad says hi Johnny real glad-like cause he thought if the sheriff was getting in he was going to hang around and chew the fat and not have to rush off, but I knew something was up.

And he says hi Carman and leans over and starts talking to me right away, saying well you know I been talking to the McGavock boy, Buford, on account of some folks in town are having break-ins, and are missing some keys, and Buford tells me you and him did it, how you been going around and breaking into places and taking their keys. And right away I said, just blurting it out, not thinking:

"Well, he gave me some keys."

"He just gave 'em to you. You didn't go in with him and get 'em?" He was leaning right over in my face, so I could see all the tobacco on his teeth, and see the juice squeezing out between his lower teeth and overflowing on his lip, and I would have told you I was downright disgusted to have to look at something like that at a time when there was trouble.

"We was talking one day and it turned out we both collected keys. So I would give him some of mine and he would give me some of his. That's all it was."

"I was talking to Mr. May the other day and he said he had seen you two boys together, out at some place."

"Sure, we run around a lot. Just playing and talking about keys and stuff."

"And Buford never said nothing about any of those keys being stolen?"

"Well, he may of let on how a couple of 'em he got at this place or that place. But I figured he was just talking big, telling stories like he always does. Everybody knows you don't believe nothing Buford says."

So it goes on this way for a while, and we drive home, me and my dad, and I have to give him all my keys, all the ones on the chain, not just the ones I tell him Buford gave me, and he takes them to give to the sheriff, and tells me if the story is true he's going to beat me with a rope, and I get mad as hell cause he would think of believing a dumb liar like Buford, and cause most of the keys I had had before, and even though I knew it would look better that only a few of the keys were the missing ones, I was real sore at losing the whole collection, cause they kept them all as evidence, saying maybe these were keys missing from nearby towns or something.

Well, I didn't figure that it made any difference what Buford said about me, cause he already lied to the sheriff before about who the key was for, the one the sheriff made thinking it was for Mrs. Anderson's husband, and cause no one had seen us breaking in or the sheriff would have already known that, and because I hadn't left any fingerprints or anything dumb like that.

And it was a lesson to me how you should never lie, you should always tell the truth, because no one would ever believe a liar who told the truth, but if you always told the truth they had to believe you when you lied.

And I never did nothing to Buford, or talked to him after that, I just ignored him except one time at school when he got in my way in the hall and I shoved him aside and he fell down, but he didn't make nothing of it, on account of being a sissy and all. The sheriff got him a job at the barber shop, shining shoes, so he could make some pocket change. And I would have felt kind of sorry for him, him being that dumb, if he hadn't of squealed on me, and lied to me, saying he would never do nothing like that.

But it got me to thinking, cause I had read about lie detectors and stuff they had in other towns and in the big cities, and it got me real worried that no matter how careful you were, they could just hook you up to a machine and be able to tell where you had broke in and what you had done. And I was stumped until one day I read a story about a man who could fool lie detectors because he had been to the Orient and he could concentrate his mind. So I wrote away for some books on yoga and stuff, so I could get this problem licked, and learn to shut up my mind like a steel vault door which no one but me would have the keys to, and no machine could tell what was going on inside. And in the meantime I had to start my key collection all over again.


from The Laissez Faire City Times, Vol 2, No 34, October 19, 1998