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Some Kind of Nut Brittle

September 17, 2006|Martin J. Smith | Martin J. Smith is a senior editor for West and the author of three crime novels, including "Straw Men," an Edgar Award nominee.

The doorbell. Never fails. They must wait in the bushes outside my kitchen window, watching for the most inconvenient moment. Ah! He just poured milk on his Wheat Chex! Ring it now!


Another one. Hispanic this time. Maybe 10. Camouflage jacket. Waxy smile. Dark eyes at once pleading and malevolent. They work the block in groups of three peddling a glorious assortment of bad candy, usually on Saturday mornings. The pitch is a variation on a theme: Buy this crap or I'll join a gang. By implication, if I don't buy they'll return someday with their gang to stomp me into hamburger on the front porch of my homey little cocoon. Somehow, before this one leaves, he'll mark my door. The Scouts do it, too.

"Good morning, sir. My name is Hector." He holds up a laminated placard for me to see. It's covered with print and has his picture in the upper left corner, but I don't read it. For all I know, it identifies him as a Crip or a Blood and offers details about their annual ammunition drive. "I'm selling delicious Auntie Fran Candies to help keep kids like me out of gangs. I still have a good selection. How many boxes would you like?"

"I don't want any, thanks. Best of luck."

The doorbell rings before the door is entirely shut. I open it again. Same waxy smile.

"Still plenty of brittle left."


"Some kind of nut brittle."

"How much?"

"Five bucks."

"Sorry. No."

"Twelve-ounce box, real nuts," he says before the door closes. This time, a spirited knock. Same smile.

"Three bucks? Nice gift for that special someone."

"Look, I don't want anything. How much do you get out of this? I mean, per box?"

"Depends. Sometimes a buck."

"Wait here." I close the door. In the pocket of suit pants bound for the dry cleaner, I find a dollar bill. It's still crumpled as I pass it out the screen door and into the cold morning air.

"It's for you," I say.

"You want the small box of brittle then? It's two bucks."

"I don't want the peanut brittle. I'm giving you a buck. Pure profit, free and clear. Whoever you're working for never has to know. Plus, you can sell the candy again to somebody who might want it."


He doesn't leave. He should have left. Instead, he's rummaging through his cardboard box. I untie and retie my robe, watching to see how he marks the door. Finally, he pulls out a nondescript candy bar the size of a thumb.

"This is a buck. Like a Baby Ruth, but without the chocolate."

"Don't want it."

"You paid for it."

"No, I gave you a buck. Sell the candy to someone else. The dollar's yours. Understand?"

He looks over his shoulder at the dark blue Monte Carlo parked across the street. Tinted windows. Bad second paint job. Classic sleaze.


"What do you mean?"

"He seen me take the dollar."


The kid cuts his eyes to the side, keeping his head perfectly still, then fixes me with a look that makes me feel like I'm way out of line.

"Scoutmaster or something? Your old man?"

I step out the open door onto the cold concrete porch. I don't know why. Mrs. McFarland, my neighbor, told me once what happened to her Chuckie. He ran away, met up with some cretin who trolls bus stations looking for kids. Guy buys him a hot meal and offers him a job, something that sounds legit. Spots him the cash to buy his first load of candy, then milks him for as long as he can before Chuckie catches on and splits. Chuckie doesn't talk about it much.

So now I'm on the porch cinching my robe. The kid looks at me like I'm crazy. Arlene used to say I'm most content ignoring the obvious, which I am. Admitting it didn't save the relationship. But maybe she had a point. Maybe overlooking these little urban nightmares is a bad thing, karmically, and this is my one chance. Maybe I should at least check it out.

I'm halfway down the sidewalk when the kid says, "Don't, mister. Please just take the Baby Ruth."

The driver's window is open at the top, but only far enough to let out a curl of smoke and the deep rumble of some serious bass from the stereo. Inside, the tiny red glow of a joint illuminates, what? The window crack and the rumble disappear as I approach. So I knock and wait.

And wait.

I knock again, suddenly aware that I'm naked under my robe. "Excuse me," I say, and wait some more. "Ex-cuse me."

Pulling my robe's terrycloth belt tighter, I lean around the rearview mirror to look through the windshield. It's the only window not tinted. And there it is; a gun. Propped right there on the steering wheel between two dead-calm hands, barrel big as a highway tunnel.

I'm on my belly, tight against the Monte Carlo's front tire. What a fool I am. A face. Right behind the gun. A description. Get a description. White? Black? Beard? Dark hair? Blond? Christ. Never even saw him.

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