By Chip Walter
We all suspected that Konrad Backman had a few screws loose. It wasn’t just the time he tossed a match onto his basement wall after splashing it with turpentine and gasoline that made me personally suspicious. Or even that he stood there afterwards, still as a tree, watching, utterly entranced, as the flames danced all along the cinderblock. He never seemed to hear his mother screaming from upstairs, “What is that goddamned smell, Konrad! … Konrad!!!!!”
Between you and me, I don’t think she really wanted to know.
He also had a habit of wrecking bikes, usually not his, and splintering baseball bats if he sometime didn’t hit the the ball the way he had envisioned it when the pitch was coming his way. He was bigger and stronger than the rest of us, and a couple of years older. He wasn’t a bully, though, and he wasn’t mean, like Artie Hatterman or Bobby Bateman or Kurt Yuhalt. Those guys were all a good four years older than my gang and we didn’t see them much unless they were out of snitched smokes and needed to extort pocket change from us, or decided they wanted to hit the ball in one of our sandlot games to show off, or maybe just clout us over the ear and terrorize us for shits and giggles. At least those encounters didn’t last long. Konrad was around more, though.
He seemed to take an almost Zen-like joy out of the strangest things. One day he threw an M-80 into the swimming pool while his 8-year-old brother Lewis was paddling around in it. M-80s were considered the most lethal explosive available to humankind among us kids. About fifty times more powerful than your standard firecracker with a long, water-proof fuse that protruded from its fire engine red center, it was more like a small hand grenade than something you might actually detonate on the Fourth of July. And like A-Bombs, it was an unwritten rule that though they could be tested, you never actually used M-80s like you would a standard fire cracker or Roman candle. This was something you lit up in an open field and ran from as fast as you could.
Somehow Konrad had come into possession of six of these, and decided to amuse himself by lobbing one into the pool in the back yard just after Lewis had jumped in.
We didn’t live in a swanky neighborhood. Gardenville was your standard post-war suburban plan of medium-sized houses filled with parents that were struggling to live the American Dream — carpooling to work, trading in the cities they had grown up in for a nice plot of grass to mow, some flowers to tend, and on the perfect summer weekends, hamburgers and hot dogs to grill with some cherry jello and homemade potato salad, all of it washed down, depending on who you were, with a cold Iron City beer, Coke or paper cup filled with Kool-Aid. The point is, if anyone in our neck of the woods had a pool it wasn’t the cement-sunk-in-the-ground variety, it was the above-ground-dubiously-sustained-giant-tub-kind; a big, fenced in bag of water with an aluminum ladder that went up one side so you could get in and out of the thing without bursting it like a blivet.
Neither Konrad nor Lewis ever actually used the ladder to enter this glorious pool of summer heat relief, they just launched themselves off the back of the flimsy pine porch their dad had built and tenuously attached to their house. It wasn’t anymore than a four by six foot platform with some slim posts and railings to enclose it. Lewis had just catapulted himself with a whoop off the top railing and executed what I have to say was an exquisite cannonball into the soup, blissfully unaware that his brother had already lit up a fresh M-80 and, after waiting just the right amount of time for the fuse to burn down, let it fly. There was a colossal WUMP! and a second later Lewis came shooting up out of the water clasping his ears and screaming, “You fucker! I’ll kill you! My ears!” while Konrad howled, snatched another M-80 from his pocket and smoothly lit it up. I could see his Zen master eyes gleaming even from the Meyer’s porch, two houses away. Lewis started scrambling like a river rat to escape the pool before the next round of ordinance hit the water. Too late. Just as he had paddled to the aluminum ladder, Konrad let the next bomb fly and its thunder echoed around the neighborhood nearly drowning out Lewis’s “..ucking kill you!”
That’s when Mr. Irig came out.
Mr. Irig was a vet and a nice enough guy, except when he was drunk. Then he was bat-shit crazy.
Right now he was drunk.
He was a big man, even bigger than my dad who was over 6’ 2”, 200 pounds. He hauled around a thick torso with hamhock sized fists topped by an immense head of thinning blonde hair that he combed straight back. He looked like a giant, aged version of the Cookie Burns character on TV’s 77 Sunset Strip. There were various neighborhood theories about why Mr. Irig liked to drink himself into oblivion most nights and every weekend. The most popular one was that “he had seen a lot of action” in the war. Among adults that seemed to be all the explanation that was required.
He had one kid, Richie, who was a miniature version of him, no wife and a yard in such disrepair that it looked like the snarled jungle of Bataan we had heard he had marched through back in his days as a infantry corporal. Anyhow, he didn’t seem to much appreciate the explosions. He kicked open the back door of his house which was one yard over from both the Backman’s and the Meyer’s, clutching Rich around the neck and chest with his massive left arm, and gripping a Luger pistol in his right. The wooden screen door flew into the air and clattered to the cement patio.
“You lousy yellow bastards! I’ll kill you all,” he howled and fired three shots at the pool. The first kicked up dirt at its edge, the second two hit the giant ring of sloshing liquid and blew the side of it apart with a force no M-80 could ever match. Lewis came skidding out the side with the fusillade of water flopping like a mackerel and screeching like a strangled bird. The concussion from the burst pool tore the posts off the Backman’s porch, and I saw Konrad toss one more M-80 into the air as he toppled into the mass of plastic and mud and water below. The M-80 exploded like a mortar burst in the air, and Mr. Irig crouched instantly, a big fat cat. Shifting his weight, he slung Rich over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes, a fallen comrade.
A moment later he came out of his crouch and was ran toward the buckled pool, Luger cocked. Rich was pounding on his dad, trying to get loose, yelling into his ear, “Dad, dad! Stop! It’s okay!!” Lewis scrambled up and I swear the next shot would have caught him square in the forehead if he hadn’t slipped. Larry and I had started to run toward the pool behind Mr. Irig drawn into the insanity in the irresistible, magnetic ways insanity always drags you toward it. With the fourth shot Konrad skidded to Lewis, and hauled him to his feet. Then he looked back at his charging neighbor and I never saw any human’s eyes go so wide. Another shot cracked over his head.
“You crazy bastard!” Konrad screamed, and started digging in his pocket for another M-80.
“Holy shit,” I said to Larry. “He’s going to kill them both. Holy shit! Go get your dad, tell him to call the police!” I kept following and Larry sped off. I was still well behind Mr. Iriq, but close enough to hear Konrad tell his brother, “Get the fuck out of here,” as he shoved him up the mud-soaked hill. Then he turned to Mr. Irig who heaving and sweating, but still chucking up the grassy knoll, gun cocked and aimed. Richie had finally wriggled off his back and the big man had let him fall, utterly focused now on the prey before him. Konrad had pulled his sopping, boney body up to its full 5 ft 7 inches. I had never noticed how skinny he really was. To us eleven year olds he had always seemed immense. Now he looked like a wet bag of bones. Still, he pushed his shoulders back, dragged his long, thick brown bangs away from his eyes and glared at Mr. Irig. The man fired again, but slipped just before he squeezed the trigger, and I saw the mud at Konrad’s feet jump with a thump. Konrad never moved a millimeter.
“You son-of-a-crazy-bitch!” Konrad screamed. “I’m going to blow you to tiny bits.” But the soaking book of matches he had in one hand was never going to light the M-80 he had in his other. One, two, three, four times he tried to strike the tattered matches. Nothing. Still he never moved. Mr. Irig stepped up to him. He put the hot barrel of the gun right on Konrad’s forehead. Konrad looked at it cross-eyed, entranced. Everything seemed to slow down. I stood now not ten feet away from Mr. Irig. He was breathing hard and smelled of sweat and booze and tobacco. I could see Lewis, stock still near the porch. Above him, his mom gawked out the window, a look of horror on her face as she screamed something no one could hear. Neighbors everywhere were standing in their yards and on their porches, stunned, unmoving.
Viciously Mr. Irig’s massive left hand shot out and grabbed Konrad by his sopping wet t-shirt and yanked him forward while the gun barrel held square in the middle of his forehead. His face was an inch from Konrad’s.
“You slimy little yellow bastards with your traps and nests. Like vermin, everywhere, you fucking Japs. Why? Why do you keep killing us? Why don’t you go away?!” And then he started crying. Very softly, not blubbering like a big drunk man. The tears ran silently down his cheeks. Konrad tried to break for it, but Mr. Irig held him and yanked him close, and began ever so slowly to pull the trigger.
“Don’t do it, Mr. Irig,” I croaked. But he didn’t hear me. He was somewhere else. And that’s when I realized the looney bastard had fired six shots! He was out of ammo! Every kid who watched The Lone Ranger or Davy Crockett or even Maverick knew pistols only fired six bullets. That’s why they called them six-shooters! Mr Irig could go ahead and pull the trigger, but nothing was going to happen. Well, Konrad might have a heart attack, but at least he wouldn’t be shot in the head in plain view of everyone in Gardenville.
The hammer came back. Konrad squeezed his eyes shut, waiting. And then with a resounding thud Richie kicked his father from behind in the family jewels so hard I figure they bounced off the old man’s Adam’s apple. Mr. Irig’s eyes bulged and he made a fierce gurgling sound. Konrad dropped to his knees, from fright I suppose, and at that exact moment the gun fired and a wild shot slammed the air. Then the big man crumpled sideways like a tipped cow, silently cupping his crotch with the utmost care and tenderness.
I looked at Richie who now appeared behind his toppled father. He stood, legs spread apart, breathing hard.
“Holy shit, Richie!,” I said with awe. “You just kicked your dad in the balls!”
Richie picked up the gun, and held it with both hands. It didn’t look like it was the first time he had held it. He put his fingers around the trigger and looked at me.
“He fired six shots,” I said, astonished. “He should have been outta ammo.”
Richie aimed the gun at his crumpled father and pulled hard on the trigger. Then at the last second he pivoted left, and a shot cracked right between my feet. I jumped a mile.
“What the hell!” I said staring at him. He stared back with an odd smile on his face.
“Lugers don’t hold six bullets, dickwad.” He dropped the gun. “They hold eight.”
And then he touched his father’s shoulder and said, “Come on, dad. Let’s go home and wait for the police.”
You could just then begin to make out the approaching sirens as they echoed in the surrounding hills.
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