Big Bill and Squirt are back. Egghead, the bald, cranky old landlord who reigns supreme over his building has threatened Bill’s family with eviction more than once. The family constantly lives on the edge, at Egghead’s whim. Egghead kills neighborhood cats and hates humans–especially kids, notably Bill. Taunting Egghead has become a past time, a source for entertainment for Bill, but a thorn in the old man’s side. With his friend Squirt, they scheme to build a tree house in the willow to escape the summer heat; however, the tree shades Egghead’s favorite picnic table. The ambitious project requires smarts, speed, and stealth. If they drive Egghead to distraction he may even forget to lock his dirt-floor garage, where he does plenty of mysterious midnight digging. The neighbors believe a lot of secrets lie under the dirt and maybe more than just dead neighborhood pets. A dangerous cat and mouse game ensues with the boys forgetting that the old cat still has claws. (read excerpt below)
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“I know you’re plottin’ something,” I said to my friend Bill.
He raised a hand to shush me.
Bill Stalart and I sat on the bottom of the long wooden stairway beside his ground floor suite. The stairs ran up the side of the yellow-stucco apartment building to the one suite above.
“Like puttin’ an egg in a microwave. Ever do that?” asked Bill, nudging me with an elbow.
We watched Egghead’s rotund figure push a gas mower across the front section of lawn. Bill’s green eyes were wide in expectation and his intense expression made me think of a hyena patiently waiting for a lion to leave its kill.
“Uh huh,” I said, nodding. “It looks like it could really blow today.” I remembered the mess I had to clean from trying to speed up a three-minute egg. But to see a human head explode…well, that was something else entirely. Cleaning that would take an awful lot of paper towels.
Egghead’s bald head seemed to throb with every push and pull on the ancient mower. The shape of his body and head combined to give him an oval appearance just like an egg. Blue smoke belched from the ancient machine, coughing and sputtering like a diesel truck badly needing a tune-up.
“Looks like he poured oil in the wrong hole again,” commented Bill.
Blue veins on the sides of the old man’s head swelled with his effort. His double chins wobbled as he sucked in air. Three coils of skin, like fleshy ropes, wound back around his head from one ear to the other. An abnormally hot April sun baked down on him, creating thin rivers of sweat that forked around his large ears and stained his blue shirt collar. He usually let the yard grow wild until he got the inclination to cut it back. Sometimes the grass grew as tall as a barley field nearly hiding the mower.
“He may be going down for the count here,” I said.
After every swath he’d pause to wipe his sweaty brow with a ratty rag. He lacked eyebrows to divert the torrent from his eyes. All throughout the wiping he’d stare at us for a time before returning to his task.
“He’s giving us the evil eye,” said Bill.
The deathly, cold look was pure horror movie stuff. His eyes were black and unblinking as a snake’s. Bruised rings circling them were just like a Zombie’s.
“Well then, what’s the stink eye?” I asked.
“It’s like the evil eye, but it means he’s comin’ to get ya.”
“Something’s gotta happen,” said Bill.
Okay, maybe his head wouldn’t blow, but fainting, hitting the ground, getting knocked out, and getting run over by his own mower was likely. Sliced and diced. If an accident did happen, Bill and I would swoop in like superheroes to finish the lawn–for a price.
Because it was a big job, it was also a dream job requiring a substantial wage. There was only grass on the front and on Bill’s side, but there was a lot of it.
“And if it does happen?”
“Ten bucks. No prisoners,” I replied.
We slapped high fives. It was a fair price based on what Bill charged his customers. Of course, we’d try to squeeze him for fifteen, but ten was our bottom line for a five and five split.
Egghead did have a real name–Mr. Morella. It was hard to judge how old he was. Not only was he bald, but his entire body appeared to be hairless, smooth, as if he’d been dipped in a chemical bath. Not a nose thread or spiraling ear hair in sight.
As the owner of the building he was also the caretaker in every sense of the word. He did everything no matter how tough the task. His sacred space was the other half of the building with his suite upstairs, diagonal from the Stalarts, and his dirt-floor garage below. A young married couple lived above Bill but we hardly ever saw them.
That dirt-floor garage sure raised a lot of speculation about what was under it. Bill and I believed it hid plenty of secrets.
No one in the neighborhood seemed to know much about Egghead as he had lived here long before any of the neighbors. Old Mr. Oleskiw, a neighbor of thirteen or so years had told us his suspicions: “I think Morella’s got a treasure of loot buried under the dirt. Might be some kind of Commie gold from when Mr. Morella fled Hungary, or somewhere, in the 50’s. I see a light in there sometimes at night.” Then he gave us a look that held all the intrigue in the world. “I can hear digging in there, too.”
The treasure in our minds somehow became riches beyond belief. Egghead guarded his garage as if the Holy Grail itself were inside. The only time the wooden garage doors remained partly opened for any length of time was when he cut the grass or hoed the garden.
The few times when he happened to leave it ajar and unguarded for a minute or two, Bill and I would stroll past, real slow, for a long look. The old man didn’t have a car so nothing blocked our view. Sure enough, there were sections of the floor that looked recently disturbed. It was awful tempting to sneak in some night with a shovel. The only thing stopping us was no invisible powers, the heavy padlock, and fear.
“I been thinkin’ about him and got some stuff in mind,” said Bill.
“It’s still brewin’. Seeing if it’ll fly before I tell you.”
I thought he was plotting another mean joke. Bill once got his kid brother Johnny, to jump on his shoulders and, with a pencil, draw a jagged line high up on the wall. Bill said it drove Egghead to distraction, going so far as calling in a builder, making sure the building didn’t crumble. Bill had an older brother Jimmy but he’d left home last year.
Egghead’s pushes became robot-like, planting his weight on one foot, then another, developing a mechanical sway as he leaned heavily to bull the mower forward. Even so, the old man never forgot to keep one evil eye targeted on us like an armed Hellfire missile.
Bill’s mom said he gave her the creeps. The look maybe couldn’t stop a small car but it did occasionally stop a kid on a bicycle. The longer the stare, the more uneasy we’d become. Strange how that look could make a person feel guilty, as if Morella knew every deep dark secret.
Bill figured him for a one-time prison warden. Mr. Oleskiw also said that Morella might have been “a death-camp guard” to which Bill nodded, validating his own suspicions. You’d want that face on all your guards.
Scary having a guy like that in the neighborhood. I couldn’t face those inky eyes for more than a few seconds before feeling myself tremble.