The Scent of Evil

1

 

It was late spring that year, and I had that giddy feeling I got every year after school let out for the summer. The whole world was green, and green had a smell, and that smell was of new leaves and mowed grass. Even the dusty, dank attic of our house smelled green– if you left the window open long enough.

I spent endless hours playing catch with my brother, Biddy. I wasn’t clear how he’d come to be called Biddy, for his name was really Bobby. He was three years younger than I, who was eleven at the time, and he had such bad co-ordination that he caught the ball only about half the time before it hit him– in the chest or stomach or knee– if it hit him in the face, he’d go crying into the house, and that signaled the end of playing catch for the day.

Once he got hit in the eye, which turned purple and nearly swelled shut, and my father gave me a good whipping for throwing the ball so hard. It had been an accident, of course, and I felt bad about it– sort of– but still I got the whipping. That was the way it was in our house; there was no such thing as a mishap. My father was a devout Christian, and though he believed you if you told him whatever happened was an accident, he also believed that the devil had got into you and made you have the accident without you realizing it and so he had to whip the devil out of you. He’d say that you couldn’t smell evil, because it gave off no scent, but you could pretty well assume it was always around. It didn’t seem fair, sure, but it was no less fair than many other things. I supposed I was a good Christian, too, from what I recalled from the Bible; Christians always seemed to be taking a beating for no good reason I could see, and then, when I thought about the ones that were eaten by lions and such, I figured I didn’t have much to complain about.

 

 

 

 

Biddy and I still tossed the ball back and forth every day. The heat didn’t bother us as much as it bothered the adults, who sat out on their front porches each evening and tried to catch the slightest breeze. We were throwing the ball back and forth in front of the house when something strange happened. Biddy reached out to catch the ball and missed, which he did pretty often, only this time he missed in a peculiar way. The ball snicked off the end of his glove, which he was raising at the moment, and went up into the air and bounced in the street. It was a rubber-coated league ball, and it bounced fairly high. As wicked luck would have it, a panel truck– one we didn’t recognize, and obviously driven by an evil minion of Satan — was speeding down the street and before the ball could hit the pavement again, the truck intervened and the ball shot off the front fender of the truck. The ball was propelled up and across the street where it ricocheted off the trunk of a large old oak tree, changed directs again and ended up crashing through one of the four little windows of the front door of house across the street.

Biddy and I looked at each other in horror. We knew there was no way somebody wasn’t taking a beating for this one. It was a bizarre incident, and it looked as if the devil himself had sent that ball on its crooked course, like one of the small silver balls in pinball machine, which we could never play because our father said they were evil.

We did the worse thing possible, then; we ran, we ran and hid under our front porch. Our father had always told us that there was one thing worse that committing a sinful act, and that was running away from the punishment you had coming to you. We didn’t think of that of the moment, and as we hunkered down unseen we felt very safe– for the time being, anyway.

We watched from under the porch and spied on Mr. Crawford, who lived in that house, as he walked outside with our baseball in his hand, which was gnarled like the roots of an old tree. Under the best circumstances, he was a crotchety old guy who retired years ago because arthritis ruined most of his joints, along with anything pleasant in his personality. He had to be even more miserable than usual, what with the heat and no air conditioning or fans and his T-bones steaks, which he enjoyed barbequing in solitude, going bad in his warm freezer. He paused on his porch, propped up by his wooden cane, and looked up and down the street in a searching way.

“He didn’t see us, did he?” Biddy asked, hopeful.

I didn’t say anything. I really wasn’t sure.

 

As though to settle the manner, Mr. Crawford crept down his stairs and headed straight for our house. It would have been an actual beeline if he hadn’t been so slow. At last he reached our porch, and as he climbed the wooden stairs, dust fell down on us from under the stair boards. We couldn’t hear exact what Mr. Crawford said to our father, but from our position, it didn’t sound too neighborly.

“Boy, are you going to get a whipping,” Biddy whispered.

“Me?”

“Yeah, you threw the ball.”

 

“Still, you threw it,” he countered. “If you didn’t throw it, none of it would have happened, either.”

Only our father would be able to settle that dispute.

 

  

2

  

 

As it turned out Mr. Crawford not only told our father what we had done but also that we had run off and were hiding under the porch.

After our father dragged us out from our hiding place, we discovered that we each would get a whipping. We went up to the living room, where my father spent most of his free time watching television and waiting for my mother to bring him something to eat. Because of the lack of power, the television and the electric stove weren’t working, and so he was in a particularly foul mood himself. He didn’t even try to amuse himself in other ways, but just sat there on our beat-up sofa and stared into space, as though growing more irritated by the minute that the electric wasn’t coming on. So it wasn’t a good time to take a whipping from him– no time was, really.

There was a set process to the event. I, being the older child, would be dealt with first. While he sat on the sofa, pulling off his belt, I stood in front of him and dropped my pants. The receiver of a whipping– in his book, anyway– was expected to stand there and take it without crying and trying to run away. Either transgression was punishable by harder or more numerous lashes of his belt. I had taken so many beating in my life already, I knew all the tricks. It was always advisable not to stand too far away; my father was a husky man– if he hadn’t been my father, I’d say he was downright fat– and his belt seemed endlessly long. If you stood too far away, you got caught by the very tip of the belt and it felt as though you’d been hit with a bull whip. In baseball, the same principle applies when you pitch a batter inside rather than over the plate. I had also learned the trick of appearing badly hurt by the whipping although it barely bothered me at all. This little deception was necessary, since I never wanted my father to get the idea in his head that he was under-punishing me. It was amazing what could inspire a person to develop acting abilities.

After he was finished with me, it was Biddy’s turn. Biddy did not know how to act. He never cried any more. He had run once, but had discovered what a huge mistake that was, and so no longer tried to escape. He just stood there and took the whipping as though it was nothing. That was why our father always beat him more. The kid didn’t have the sense to fake anything, and afterward he would always seem very proud that he had got beat worse than I had and endured the procedure without so much as a whimper. He was a good kid, really, but I suspected not too bright.

I learned later that the whipping was only part of my punishment. It seemed that throwing the ball– as though the devil himself threw the ball with my arm– was a much greater sin than Biddy’s sin of not catching it. My father informed me that I would have to go and fix the window that had been broken.

“But I don’t know how to do that,” I protested.

“I’ll show you,” he said, and he had that tone in his voice with which nobody could ever argue. “It’s about time you learn to fix things– especially if you start going round and breaking them.”

I couldn’t protest any more, for fear of getting another whipping. I had never in my life had back-to-back whippings, and I didn’t wish now to see whether I could withstand them. It didn’t seem fair to me, though; it was like going to the store and paying for a gallon of milk, and then having the cashier ask you for an extra quarter.

 

  

3

 

 

Before I crossed the street Saturday morning, which oddly was a beautiful morning with new hope and sweet summer scents, I must have asked my father a half dozen time if he told Mr. Crawford that I had my beating.

He assured me that Mr. Crawford understood everything and that he was a good and forgiving Christian. He told me just go over there and fix the window and promise him that it will never happen again. It puzzled me that I had to make such a promise; considering the weirdness of the incident, how could I know for sure that it wouldn’t happen again? All that concerned me, really, was that Mr. Crawford understood I’d been punished, because I didn’t want him hovering around me as I replaced the glass, harping at me, as old folks tend to do, for breaking the glass in the first place.

After I rang the doorbell, I thought it would take a month for the old man to reach the door and let me in. I could see him through the old, broken glass as he approached the door. He was snail slow. I really did feel sorry for him, though, when I saw how his knees bowed out badly and how his pants hung off his waist so baggy. His body was so bent and skinny from age. It was clear that the years and the arthritis had taken a bad toll on him, and then to boot his wife had passed away long ago and left him to suffer alone.

He finally opened the door. He muttered a gruff, “There you go,” turned away and thankfully headed back toward the kitchen to let me work on my own.

I took the old broken glass out of the frame first, and then cleared away the old caulking, which was so dried out it nearly fell off itself. I set the new glass in the frame. The glass fit perfectly, and I was relieved my father had taken a good measurement the day before– I would hardly have known what to do if the glass had been too big. With my fingers I pressed eight, two on each side, of the small flat metal triangles into the frame so that they held the glass in place. The points of the triangles were pretty sharp and they dug easily into the old sun bleached wood. I caulked around the edges of the glass, then, trying to kept the caulking even and neat while making sure the tops of the metal triangles were completely covered.

When I was finished, I stepped back to assess my job. It was pretty good, really, considering that I had never done anything like before, never seen anybody perform the job, and was only going on my father’s oral instructions. Except for a couple smudgy fingerprints on the glass, I had to say the job looked pretty professional.

I cleaned up the mess, then, the broken glass and old caulking that had fallen on the floor. I put it all in the big brown bag, along with the caulking gun and opened package of tiny triangles.

I went back to the kitchen to look for Mr. Crawford to tell him how totally sorrow I was about what had happened and how it would never happen again. I found him standing at the old kitchen sink. He was scrubbing some pots and pans. His back was to me, and I paused to notice how old and frail he looked. With his legs so bad, he seemed to have a hard time balancing without his cane, which was set against the side of the sink so he could use both hands to scour a pan that looked hopelessly caked with brown stuff. There were suds halfway up his forearms, which were so thin you could nearly see the bones and wrinkled skin hung loosely off those bones.

I felt totally ashamed then, standing there and watching him. He was just an old man who wanted to live alone with his pains until the Good Lord saw fit to relief him. The last thing he needed was a baseball crashing through his front window. Even though I believed it had been an accident, I still thought it was an awful thing to do to him and I felt responsible.

I stepped up to apologize.

“Mr. Craw–”

I never got his entire name out. I never got to say how sorry I was, or how it would never happened again, or anything other than half his name.

The old man, quicker than I would have though possible, spun round and cracked me on the head with a frying pan. I saw a bright flash of light, and all I could I could hear was the echo of metal, as though my head had been inside a big brass church bell just after it tolled to beckon all the faithful within earshot.

Mr. Crawford muttered something. It sounded like, “And there you go,” or something– I wasn’t really sure, due to all the reverberating going on in my skull.

I just wandered out of the house, then, went across the street and settled down on my front stairs. I sat there and felt the lump rise at the top of my forehead. It felt about as big as a large robin egg when the swelling finally stopped.

A while later, my father walked up and asked did I fix the window and apologize to Mr. Crawford.

I told him everything that happened, and he stood there, looking down at me and wagging his head.

“Well, that’s the way it goes, sometimes,” he said.

“What about forgiveness?” I asked.

“I’m sure God forgives you, and that’s about all that really counts. Sounds like the devil got into Mr. Crawford. It happens. It happens to everybody now and then,” he said and sounded wistful. Then he walked away and let me alone.

I sat there for a long while, staring across the street at the house whose front door had three dirty windows and one so new it shined so brightly it made the other three seem all the dirtier. I wished that someone would invent something, some kind of machine that could detect evil, like an electronic evil sniffer. That way everyone would know when evil was about, and they could protect themselves– or at least learn when to duck. Until we have such a machine, I guessed, we all have to assume evil is all around us all the time, and we all, from time to time, are going to have to take a beating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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