Mott Simon was the last person on this earth I wanted to see so soon after breakfast. But as I rounded the corner on my bike and headed into the library parking lot, there he was, half undressed in the heat, directly in front of the library door. There was simply no way to escape him.
At first, I put on my brake, and I seriously thought about just turning around and peddling the three miles back to the trailer. But the book was due, and I'd owe ten cents if I allowed my fear of Mott Simon to control me. So I let go of the brake with my foot and rattled down the last part of the hill.
I wasn't the only kid who felt that way about Mott. And I knew at least a few adults who felt the same way, too.
Mott Simon was weird.
Not just a little weird, but a lot weird.
Okay, so I know I'm supposed to get to know a person first and not judge them by how they look or talk. My Mom and Dad have told me this a million times. And my 6th-grade teacher, Miss Read, practically tells us this every week, especially if she catches any of us making fun of Bobby Tollerude, the short kid with big ears and yellow teeth who always has his finger poked up his nose.
But as far as I know, they've never met Mott Simon.
For one thing, Mott Simon was as totally gross as a river rat. Ever been down to the river and have one of them pop out of the rocks as you're fishing for pollywogs, then scurry across your feet? Well, I have! I almost puked!
Mott's hands, and most of the rest of his exposed skin, were mud-brown with dirt. And the T-shirt he always wore, which must have been white once (and minus all those holes), looked as if it had been soaked in day-old coffee. His jeans, too, were dirty and torn. He looked like something a dog might have uncovered, digging on the side of the road.
But maybe the worst thing about Mott was he stunk of peat moss and grass and horse manure, like a farm animal. I don't know how he could even stand to smell himself, especially in the summer heat.
I know things are not the same in Three Rivers as they are back home in Los Angeles. But this was still California, wasn't it? People took baths here, didn't they? It certainly didn't seem like Mott Simon ever did.
Some people in Three Rivers called Mott a bum. Some people called him crazy. Some people called him things that, I must admit, I sometimes thought to myself in silence but would never have said out loud, even if I did ever talk to him, which I didn't. Nearly everybody in town seemed to have a strong opinion about Mott Simon--at least as strong as his smell.
Back home in L.A., people probably wouldn't have paid too much attention to a guy like Mott Simon. But Three Rivers was a mountain town, and not a very big one, and in Three Rivers Mott Simon might as well have been a Sasquatch--you know, Bigfoot. That's how much he stood out.
For starters, he lived up North Fork Road--not in a house, if you can believe it, but under a bridge near the river (like some kind of troll!). And no matter where I encountered Mott in and around Three Rivers--over at the drive-in restaurant, up by the art studio, or here, in front of the town library--he always carried egg cartons cradled under one arm. Egg cartons filled with dirt.
He carried dirt around like it was his pet. Maybe he thought it was.
I was careful not to look at Mott as I stopped my bike. He was sitting in the middle of the flowerbed outside the library entrance. Around him was an array of flowers laid on their sides, their frail white roots showing. Mott looked like a big mangy dog, digging holes.
I gave him the usual wide berth, making sure to avoid any eye contact. As quickly as I could, I opened the front door, felt a blast of cold air-conditioning against my face and bare legs, then slipped inside. I was so glad Mott hadn't spoken to me.
Mrs. Peck, the librarian, was seated as usual at the large oak desk in front of the door. She was wrapping a crinkly cellophane sleeve over the cover of a thick book. A pair of pink-framed reading glasses rested halfway down her nose.
"Good morning, Dani," she said, taping a flap down on the book. "Back for more books, I see."
But I was distracted by what I saw out of the corner of my eye, and I wasn't really listening. Back through the front door, Mott Simon danced about wildly in the dirt, swatting his head with one hand while under the other arm he still firmly clutched his precious egg carton.
"What is he doing?" I said, rolling my eyes.
"Looks like another bumblebee is entertaining Mr. Simon," Mrs. Peck said. "It seems everywhere Mr. Simon goes, bees and flies follow."
Maybe it's because he smells like a cow, I thought.
"Mrs. Peck?" I said, "Do you think that guy is safe?"
Mrs. Peck stopped her work to look up at me, regarded me seriously, then shook her head in an ominous way.
Aha! I knew it! I knew Mott Simon was a weirdo and wasn't safe! I bet he was planning to kidnap me one of these days, and to drag me up to his disgusting little rat-infested shack under the bridge.
"I'm surprised at you, Dani." Mrs. Peck said. She stared at me hard, then her smile returned. "Mr. Simon is a very nice man. He's just?different, that's all."
You can say that again, I thought. But I didn't say anything to Mrs. Peck. It was all I could do to keep my smile from turning into laughter as I watched Mott run around in a circle, flapping his dirty arms, hitting himself in the head, still persecuted by the angry bumblebee who didn't think Mott should be rummaging around in the flowers any more than I did.
"You're just a visitor for the summer here, Dani. But most of us who've been living here a while know Mr. Simon very well, and we welcome him. And his talents."
His talents? I thought. His talents? For what? For dancing around in a flowerbed like a lunatic? For smelling like the inside of a barn? All the while Mrs. Peck was calling Mott "Mr. Simon," I was thinking, "Simple Simon met a pieman, going to the fair?"
"I'll grant you, Dani, Mr. Simon takes a little getting used to. But Mr. Simon can turn a garbage heap into a Garden of Eden. The man knows something about flowers and trees that the rest of us will never know, even if we read all the gardening books in this library. Mr. Simon knows how to make things bloom."
"Yeah, well?he gives me the willies."
Mrs. Peck put aside the book she was working on. "Let's just change the subject," she said. "Are you returning that book?" She looked at the Nancy Drew book I held clasped in my hands like a hymnal.
"Yes," I said. I set the book on the desk.
"At this rate, young lady, you'll have read every book we have before summer is over."
"There's not a whole lot of action at our trailer, so I guess I'm getting a lot of reading done," I said. Back home I prided myself on my reading prowess, but Mrs. Peck's prediction was strangely depressing. Reading was my escape. What would I do if I actually did read every book in the library? Play with Stephanie? Yeah, right. That would be a laugh and a half. All my sister and her goofy friends liked to talk about were boys and clothes and music. I, on the other hand, had higher and more exciting aspirations.
"Got anything new, Mrs. Peck?"
"Since Monday? I'm afraid not, Dani. We're a library, not a newsstand. Though we may get some new books in a couple of weeks, I'm told."
The library was considerably smaller than the city library back home, but it still had a lot of interesting books. Half a dozen shelves stretched out in either direction from the librarian's desk in the center of the building. One side was labeled Non-Fiction and Reference. The other side included sections labeled Children, Young Adult, and General Fiction. Mr. Gruber, owner of the drive-in restaurant, sat in a sunlit corner reading the newspaper--or at least appearing to read the newspaper. I think he was sleeping.
I looked out through the glass of the front door again, but Mott's wild dance had ended. He'd resettled himself in the dirt and was quietly digging with a trowel. I guess the bumblebee had gone elsewhere.
I walked to the nearest bookcase and ran my finger along the shelf of mysteries. There weren't many, at least not as many as in L.A.
Read that. Read that. Read that, too. Shoot. I've read all of these.
"There's more to life than just mysteries, you know," Mrs. Peck called. Her orange flower print dress clashed monumentally with her curly red hair. She looked like a burning bush. "Louisa May Alcott wrote some great literature that I loved as a girl," continued Mrs. Peck.
I couldn't keep my eye off a particularly bright flower on the shoulder of Mrs. Peck's dress. The word "literature" made me bristle. It made me think of school, and I wanted to think only of vacation. Even though I had gotten all A's this past year (well, a B+ in phys ed), I didn't want to think about school on vacation. I'd be going into junior high in September, and Stephanie, who was a year ahead of me, frequently moaned about how much homework she had to do there.
"I'm on my vacation now," I protested. "The way I figure it, I can read what I like now and save that other stuff for school."
Mrs. Peck nodded. "I suppose I shouldn't be pestering you, dear."
Just then, a low roaring sound came from outside, getting louder and louder, making the library vibrate. It sounded as if a plane was going to crash into the building. But I knew there were no airports anywhere around. I wondered if it was an earthquake.
Even Mrs. Peck turned to look outside. Mott Simon stood, gazing out at the road, his hands clamped over his ears.
The roaring grew louder. And louder. Then we all watched (even a groggy Mr. Gruber) as a dozen or so large motorcycles drove slowly past. The riders were big guys with long dirty hair and red bandanas and black motorcycle jackets.
"Wow," I said, after they'd passed. "What was that all about?"
I had seen motorcycles like these back in the city, but they didn't seem as noisy there. Here, in quiet Three Rivers, it was like standing under a Saturn rocket. Mrs. Peck looked at me in a funny, shushing way. For some reason she didn't want to answer my question.
After the roaring ended, and my heart quieted, and Mr. Gruber went back to his paper and his nap, I moved on to the Hardy Boys section. I was disappointed to discover there were only a half-dozen titles.
"Do you have any more Hardy Boys books anywhere?" I asked.
I know it sounds silly, but I half-hoped Mrs. Peck might say, "Why, of course, Dani, we have several boxes of never-before-read volumes squirreled away in the back room--reserved only for our best readers, like you."
Instead, she opened the wooden three-by-five card file on her desk and flipped through the cards--her fingernails showing evidence that she chewed on them. One card for each checked-out book. There couldn't have been more than ten cards in the box.
"There's one title that hasn't been returned," she said.
My heart quickened.
"But it's been out so long I'm not sure it's ever coming back. Harold Dawson's parents split up at the end of the school year, and I think he's gone to San Diego with his mother. Probably with the book, too."
I craned to get a look at the title on the card, written in Mrs. Peck's small, curlicued handwriting.
"I've read it, anyway," I said. The ink on the card was a pretty, pale violet, like some of the flowers I had seen Mott Simon sitting among out front.
"Do you have 'The Big Sleep' by Raymond Chandler?" I asked.
Mrs. Peck's eyebrows rose above the frames of her glasses. "Even if I did, Dani, I wouldn't loan it to a young girl."
"I'm twelve," I said. "And anyway, I've seen the movie," which was true.
"I'm surprised your parents would allow it. I guess it's different, in the city."
"I guess," I said. But I didn't see why it was different. We weren't that far from the city. It's not like we were in Siberia.
Mrs. Peck rose from her desk and walked silently on thick-soled shoes to where I stood. "Here, dear, try this," she said, handing me a hardback book with its corners bumped up and a dark cup stain on the back cover.
"To Kill a Mockingbird," I read aloud. There was a picture of a tree on the front, and the author's name: Harper Lee. It sounded like they'd gotten the first and last names mixed up. I wanted to be tactful, but I also didn't want to read such a boring looking book. "No thanks," I said, trying to hand it back. "I don't think I'd like to read anything about killing birds. I love animals."
"It's not about killing birds," Mrs. Peck said. "It's about justice."
She must have seen I was unimpressed, because she added, "And it's also a detective story. Of sorts."
The "detective story" part of her description got my attention. But the "of sorts" part had me a little worried that we were talking about literature again.
"All right, I'll try it," I said. I didn't see much else on the shelves.
Then I had an idea.
"Would you have any books about how to become a detective?" I asked.
The question brought forth a genuine laugh from Mrs. Peck. It was such a pleasant and musical sound I found myself smiling along, rather than being offended, as I suppose I should have been.
"No," Mrs. Peck said, "No, I'm afraid we don't have anything like that." She folded her hands atop the book in front of her and gazed at me. "What is it with you and detectives, anyway?" she asked.
"When I'm older, I'm going to be a detective and work for the LAPD, or maybe for the FBI," I said.
"I see," she said.
I reached into the back pocket of my cut-off jeans, extracting a handful of items, and placed them on Mrs. Peck's desk next to her rubber stamp pad. There was a stick of spearmint gum, a wad of packing twine, and a nickel-colored washer I found on the sidewalk outside the Laundromat. There was also a white piece of cardboard the size of a business card, but cut somewhat unevenly. I handed it to Mrs. Peck, who held it at arm's length and peered at it.
"D. Deucer," she read aloud-perhaps a little too loudly because Mr. Gruber in the corner stirred again, and his newspaper rustled. "Private Investigator, #14 Trailer Isle, Three Rivers." She handed the card back. "Very impressive, Dani. Still, I suppose it takes more than a clever name to become a detective."
"That's exactly why I need a book about detecting," I said, "To learn the ropes. I'm good at puzzles. And I think I understand people pretty well. At least, that's what my folks say. I just need to learn some of the procedures, practice my skills, that sort of thing. You know?"
"I'm not sure how much detecting we need around here, dear. Three Rivers is a fairly quiet place."
"I don't mean just around here. I'll be going back to Los Angeles after the summer is over. There's lots of crime in L.A."
Even as I said that, I realized how awful it sounded. That was my home I was talking about.
"I would start with little things," I said, "You know, around school and at home. Like who trashed the teachers' bathroom, or who stole someone's lunch, or what happened to Dad's watch. That sort of stuff."
Mrs. Peck smiled. "It sounds like you wouldn't be very popular if you solved some of those crimes."
"Maybe not," I said. "But justice isn't about being popular; it's about doing what's right. You can't compromise justice."
Mrs. Peck's eyebrows rose up in thin red arcs over her eyeglasses.
"Compromise justice?" she said. "That's quite a sophisticated concept for a girl your age. Admirable, though. But I'm not sure justice is always as straightforward as you describe."
"What do you mean? Either something is right or it's wrong. It can't be both."
She picked up the copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, slipped the card from the pocket in the front, wrote my name on the first blank line in violet ink, and placed it in her card file, right behind Harold Dawson's card for the presumably lost Hardy Boys adventure.
"When you've finished this," Mrs. Peck said, "let's talk."
She smiled, then gestured toward the library door. Outside, Mott Simon still rooted through the flowerbed in the midday heat, streams of sweat pouring off his forehead. I don't know what he was doing, but he looked even more a mess than when I'd first seen him.
"Now, be careful out there, riding your bicycle along the road. It can be dangerous, with all those tourists headed for Sequoia, and the road being narrow."
"I know," I said, "I'll be careful."
Outside in the heat again, I mounted my bike, and pressed down on the pedals to get a jump on the ride uphill. Mott Simon looked up at me, holding a limp flower in his hand like one of the rag dolls I used to have. But he didn't say anything. I was grateful for that. He just looked at me, blinked, and then turned back to whatever it was he was doing in the dirt.
For a moment, I thought I heard the low rumble of thunder in the direction of the mountains. But it was probably just the motorcycles, farther up the canyon now.
The sun felt hot on my skin, and I squinted from the glare. Pumping as fast as I could, I reached the crest of the curve where the road wound through town. The breeze against my face felt cool and refreshing, a welcome relief from the oppressive heat.
It was very nearly noon, and I'd promised to meet my sister at the drive-in restaurant. Even though the town seemed sleepy, I remember I had the oddest feeling that things were about to change.