Pick-A-Lock Pete was the most feared guy in town.
Not because he was mean or anything like that. But because he could pick a lock – any lock – faster than Harry Houdini. Nobody ever knew where he learned to do it and they for sure never knew exactly how he did it. Pete didn’t say a whole lot because he stuttered. And when he stuttered, people in the little country town of Maysville laughed and made fun of him. You also tend to keep your head down when you are only 3/5ths of a human being – if not in actual fact, at least in the reality of a small backwater town in the rural South in the 1930’s.
Seems strange to taunt that which you fear, but the simple folks of Maysville weren’t given to intellectual reasoning. If any ever experienced twinges of conscience, it wasn’t immediately apparent to the accidental bystander. And, in truth, the only bystanders ever found in Maysville were definitely accidental.
If Pete owned a pair of shoes to his name they were never in evidence and the soles of his feet were always clay-red from walking those dusty roads in and around the town. His best and only friend seemed to be an old yellow dog named Bum who had been the runt of an unwanted litter out at Ledbetter’s farm. And since Pete had saved him from a watery death in the creek three years earlier the two of them had never drifted more than 50 yards apart.
Of all the townspeople who eyed Pete with a contempt born of more than simple distrust, old Barron Jones was the worst. Jones had a mean streak as big as Atlanta. He hated Pete – just because he was black, most people said. But if truth be told he hated him because Pete bore his affliction and position in life with a dignity Barron Jones could only dream of possessing. Deep down Jones felt an envy of this young black man that he could not – and would not – acknowledge. His own smallness sniffed around his edges like a wary dog smelling something rotten and it ate at Jones like a cancer. To compensate, he took every opportunity to belittle Pete in front of others and to threaten him on those occasions they found themselves without witness.
Pete bore it all with a resigned and stoic silence that only infuriated Jones the more until one Saturday afternoon in late summer when “the thing” finally happened.
What actually happened isn’t easily describable and so cannot be told in that concise tent-revival jargon of seeing the light, repenting, and being saved. Not even Jones would have put it in such a manner – if he had had the wherewithal to describe it at all. In fact, he never attempted a description of any fashion that one could put together into a cohesive tale. However, speculation and fabrication being a part of small town existence, a story of sorts did finally emerge.
A careful man when it came to his own well-being, Jones had outfitted his barn (which was actually more shed than barn) with a lock on the door that was keyed from both inside and out. Housed inside the barn-shed and safely locked away from the prying eyes of the law (and those who might inform the law) was a medium-sized whiskey still.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, feeling lazy and dry of mouth, Jones put key to lock after letting himself inside the shed, pocketed the key, and proceeded to do a “tasting.” This tasting, which took up much of the afternoon, and a lit cigarette was all it took. The barn-shed went up in flames and smoke rapidly filled the room. Jones got to his feet and fumbled with the key to the locked door all the while screaming and pounding the walls to be let out. His vision blurred with smoky tears, he dropped the key and dropped to his knees in a panicked effort to feel it out and retrieve it.
Perhaps being that close to the floor saved him. Perhaps he found the key and let himself out. The only thing Barron Jones ever said was that he knew he was a goner that afternoon and that somewhere close by he heard a dog bark. However it happened, the door of the barn suddenly flew open and Jones crawled out to safety.
Not even Jones could explain how that door got open that afternoon, but no one in Maysville ever heard him say another word against Pete for as long as he lived.