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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Paybacks are a Bitch

My first cat was named after my friend Tommy Cromack, who lived on Third Ave. Tommy was a blond haired, blue-eyed-all-American boy. He excelled at all sports by the age of six. Tommy could do one thing that none of the rest of us could do: he could make a ball pocket in his baseball mitt with a hardball. Having a pocket ensured that every thrown ball would magically be magnetically drawn to that glove on every play.

Tommy never ever dropped the ball. Who would challenge my effort to immortalize the stray black cat that wandered into our yard in 1955?

Tommy (the cat, not the friend) was a kind and sharing little furball. When he scored a rabbit for dinner, he’d invite all of the neighborhood cats over for the kitty barbeque in our coal bin. They were already black, so no one noticed a little dirt here or there, and whatever was left over after the feast was dispatched to our furnace. No global warming in my backyard, no way…

I must have been around 10 when Cicero walked into our lives. We had moved down the block from the duplex at 63 N. Dawes to the single family home at 76 N. Dawes on the other side of the street, two doors down from Carol M. who took it upon herself to devote most of her free time to tormenting me in a manner only a young girl could. Cissy, as we had nicknamed him, was as smart as the day was long. He would climb the pine tree in our front yard to our second story porch, sitting patiently on my windowsill, waiting for me to open it. He would exit the same way.

Our neighbor across the street didn’t know much about cats other than the fact that he did not want any in his backyard. I was around 12 when he made that abundantly clear to me. He was a small (in many ways) guy with a balding pate. When he dropped the gauntlet on me, I tried to calmly explain to him that cats had a mind of their own, and could not be instructed to avoid his 1400 square feet of North Dawes. My words fell on deaf ears, and his demeanor did not bode well.

I was sitting on a chaise lounge in our backyard, Cissy on my lap, when I noticed something was amiss. His emerald green eyes were decidedly yellow. The vet told us he had been poisoned and there was nothing he could do to help the poor feline.

My rage did not build slowly, it erupted. I confronted him and I saw a mix of pleasure and madness in his eyes. Unfortunately, I had not learned any curse words yet, so I was ill equipped to match his hissing and pissing a blue streak.

At twelve I was already adept at manufacturing small, time-controlled explosive devices. I was the go-to guy in the neighborhood for firecrackers. There was a mom-and-pop candy store in Edwardsville that sold fireworks under the counter to anyone with a good spiel. While it was not something to be proud of, my parents had taught me to lie -- and lie convincingly at a very young age.

Whether it was giving the manager of the Boston Store a fake name and phone number when I was caught dropping miniature explosive balls off the top of the two story parking lot into the path of people walking below; or lying to the railroad police when I was nabbed flattening pennies on the track not four feet from a passing train behind the Third Ave. Elementary School, I was adequately skilled in being as pleasant and deceitful as could be expected from a failed juvenile delinquent like me.

The owner of the candy store wanted my parents present for the purchase. “My mother is having her hair done, and my father is out of town on business.” After swearing to be a good little boy with the explosives, I peeled out a dollar and a quarter and stuffed the assorted firecrackers and cherry bombs in my pocket and beat feet outta there. Ira was with me but was too timid to come in and try and sell his own shtick to the old man. I gave him his twenty-five cents of the loot and we pedaled back to Kingston.

The trick to setting off fireworks and getting away clean was to sacrifice some of the little nasties for the gunpowder contained within. You could then make an extended fuse with a Kleenex and the black powder. Twisting the napkin tight into a cord ensured that you would have the requisite 30 seconds or so to escape detection. I did a test run behind the Dairy Queen on Wyoming Ave where we liked to hang out after school. My father was a heavy smoker so snatching a pack of matches was no big thing.

I nonchalantly set the charge behind the establishment and sauntered to the front to rejoin my friends. 40 seconds later there was a loud bang. My skill was tested and found to be adequate for the task ahead of me.

That night, very_very_late, I snuck out of the house and across the street with all the stealth I could muster. The block was quiet; everyone was comfortably tucked in for the evening. It was a new moon, so I took advantage of the darkness to enhance my Ninja like skills. Back in the days before clothes dryers, everyone had a clothesline in their backyard, usually conveniently hooked to the back porch so the lady of the house could clip clothes to the line easily.

His was completely full of white underwear. I carefully placed a small charge into each pair of shorts, and then quickly lit the extra long fuses and ran like a dog chasing a rabbit across the street, bolted up the front porch and inside. Carefully leaping up the stairs to the bedroom, I was undressed and under the covers when the charges detonated in a rhythm that would have been the envy of any Conga line.

I fell asleep with the biggest shit eating grin I’d ever mustered, confident that I had avenged the death of my pal Cicero. The next day my neighbor accosted me, telling me in no uncertain terms that he knew what I had done. With a composure fitting of a nun in prayer, I assured him I had no idea what he was referring to. He knew, I knew, He knew I knew, and I didn’t care.

While my vengeance was born and died on that fateful day, I learned the full meaning of the epithet that was to become the anthem of the outlaw bikers I would ride with some thirty years later:

Paybacks are a Bitch!

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