Look here, Mac. I’m gonna give it to you straight: grown-ups lie.
Sure, they like to say that kids make things up and that we don’t tell the truth. But they’re the lying liars.
Take President Roosevelt. He’s been saying on the radio that the economy was improving, when anyone with two eyes could see the only thing getting better was my mother’s ability to patch holes in pants. Not that she had a choice. There was no money for new threads with Poppy out of work. It was either that or let us go naked.
Then there was Winky. He was the lyingest liar of them all.
“You said twenty cans for a dime, Winky!” I pointed at the small red wagon.
It was full of empty condensed-milk cans. I found them for Winky and cleaned them up. Even smoothed the sharp edges. Winky sold the cans to Pepe’s Café, where they used them to serve café con leche—espresso and condensed milk. Everyone in Key West drank leche, even toddlers.
“You must have wax in your ears, Beans,” Winky replied. He had a potbelly and slicked-back, greasy hair that matched his slippery ways. The armpits of his Cuban-style shirt were stained yellow. “I said fifty cans.”
I was so burned up by his words that steam just about burst out of my ears. And believe me, it was sweltering outside. Key West in July was stinking hot.
Garbage had been piling up ever since the town ran out of money to pay for collecting it. Flies swarmed above the rotting mounds. They were filthy and disgusting, and my brother and I had spent the entire morning in them.
Me and Kermit had dug through steaming piles of garbage from one side of Key West to the other, looking for milk cans. We’d dodged stray dogs and mosquitoes and fearless rats. I couldn’t imagine a worse job in the whole world. Except maybe cleaning outhouses.
Now Winky was trying to cheat us out of our money?
“I heard you just fine,” I told him. “You said twenty.”
“Sorry, but you’re full of beans, Beans,” Winky said, and then laughed. “Look: I made a joke. Get it? Full of beans?”
“Hilarious,” I said, and glared. “You’re a regular comedian, Winky.”
“I suppose I could give you a nickel for twenty,” Winky offered us, like he was a king doing us a favor.
“A nickel?” I wasn’t very good at arithmetic, but even I knew that this was a lousy deal.
“Sorry, Beans,” Winky added with a smirk. “Maybe you can find someone else to sell the cans to?”
I glared at him. I would if I could, but everyone knew that Winky had the only milk can game in town. He was a cousin of Pepe’s.
“Beans,” Kermit whined, tugging on my shirt. “I’m hungry.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes. Kermit wore crooked glasses and couldn’t drive a bargain with a kitten.
Winky saw the advantage and took it. A fake kindly expression lit up his face. “Why, Beans. Your little brother’s hungry. I bet a nickel would buy a nice lunch.”
I swallowed my pride.
“Fine,” I muttered. “We’ll take the nickel.”
“What’s that?” Winky asked loudly. “I didn’t quite hear you.”
I glared at him.
“I said we’ll take the nickel!”
He dropped the coin into my outstretched palm.
“C’mon, Kermit,” I snapped. “Let’s go.”
As we walked away, Winky shouted, “Always a pleasure doing business with you, Beans!”
I’d been Winkied again.
We sat in the shade of a sapodilla tree, eating our lunch. Broadcasts from radios tuned to Havana stations drifted out open windows. The streets were deserted. Everyone took siestas to avoid the worst heat of the day. Key West at noon was sleepy.
“That’s the last time we work for him,” I muttered.
“You say that every time, Beans,” Kermit said, munching on the measly lunch the nickel had bought us: cracker sandwiches. Crackers with a smear of mustard and a tiny bit of ham.
I’d wanted to buy a real ham sandwich from Pepe’s Café. They made it Cuban-style—ham, mustard, cheese, and pickles, toasted on fresh Cuban bread. It was delicious.
“Well, this time I mean it,” I vowed.
“Aw, he’s not that bad,” Kermit replied. “He gave us a nickel!”
“We earned a dime, Kermit.”
Kermit was only eight and didn’t understand how life worked. Maybe when he got to be ten, like me, he’d smarten up.
“Gee, do you think if we collect fifty cans for Winky tomorrow, he’ll give us another nickel?” Kermit asked.
Then again, maybe not.
“I’m still hungry,” Kermit complained.
“Get some dilly gum,” I told him. The sap of the sapodilla tree made good chewing gum if you didn’t much care about taste.
Kermit scraped back some bark and dug out a wad of the sticky sap. Then he started chewing. Getting it soft took a while. Even though it was free, it still took work.
A rumbling motor had my ears pricking up. There weren’t many cars in Key West; even the folks who owned them couldn’t afford gas.
The shiny automobile rolled down the dirt road, hitting every gaping pothole. It looked strange and out of place, like something from a Hollywood picture.
Kermit gave a low whistle. “That’s some ride!”
“It’s a Ford Model 730 Deluxe V-8 sedan,” I told him. I’d recognized it immediately from the newsreels. “The same car that Bonnie and Clyde drove.”
Everyone knew about the dead outlaws.
Kermit looked at me. “You think a criminal is driving that car, Beans?”
The car slid to a stop and parked across from us, and a man climbed out.
“I doubt it,” I said. I couldn’t imagine any criminal who walked around without trousers.
Kermit’s eyes bugged out behind his glasses. “Is he just wearing his underpants?”
“Sure looks that way.”
The underpants in question were long; they hit him just above the knee. They showed off pasty-white, hairy legs. On top, the portly man sported a long-sleeved suit shirt with a bow tie. He finished off the whole ensemble with a fedora. Maybe he was someone’s relative who had just gotten out of the loony bin. Wouldn’t be the first time.
He wrinkled his nose and looked around.
“My, that certainly is a powerful smell,” he said, walking over to us. He had a thick mustache, and from the way he spoke, I could tell he was from off the rock. A stranger.
“You should smell us, mister!” Kermit exclaimed. “We been in that garbage all morning!”
The fella looked us up and down, from our bare feet to our patched-up pants. “Yes, it seems you have. Who might you young gentlemen be?”
“I’m Kermit!” Kermit was like the mayor of Key West. Kid would talk to anybody. “This is my brother Beans!”
“How quaint,” he murmured.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Did you just insult us?”
“Of course not, young fella. Why, I’m here to help you.” He held out his hand. “I’m Julius Stone, Jr. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
I stared at the outstretched hand but didn’t take it. When someone says they’re gonna help you, they’re just waiting to stick their hand in your pocket and take your last penny. I should know. I got relatives.
“Mister,” I said, “you’re the one that needs help. You ain’t got no pants.”
He looked offended. “They’re supposed to look like this! They’re called Bermuda shorts. They’re the latest fashion.”
At loony bins, no doubt.
“So, tell me, Peas . . . ,” he began.
Peas? Maybe he was deaf in addition to being crazy.
“Is the rest of the town in a similar state?” he asked. He waved his hands at the weathered gray wooden houses, set close together, that lined the street.
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“Are all the houses this decrepit?”
“Run-down,” he said bluntly. “Unpainted. Falling over. Crumbling. Et cetera.”
“I guess,” I said with a shrug. Most folks in Key West were on relief. Paint was a luxury. Our town looked like a tired black-and-white movie.
The man frowned.
“Where you from, mister?” Kermit asked.
“Why, I’ve come all the way from Washington, D.C. I’ve been sent here by President Roosevelt himself!”
Yep. Definitely a lunatic.
“Sure, the president sent you,” I said, and laughed.
Mr. Stone looked offended. “You don’t believe me?”
“ ’Course I believe you, mister,” I said. “Why, we just had the Queen of England visit here last week.”
“I’m not lying!”
But I just shook my head. “Whatever you say, mister.”
Like I said: grown-ups are lying liars.