When my wife and I were planning to get married, Pete Kaufmann was going to be my best man. We decided to “shop local” for tuxes.
Oswego’s one and only tux shop is called Schmutzer’s. It hides in the corner of an old, fieldstone building like many of the port city’s businesses, a few blocks from historic Fort Ontario.
During winter, it is hard to see over the snow banks in Oswego, and Pete and I drove past the place twice before we saw Schmutzer’s understated storefront. The hand-lettered window had a small placard in the corner brandishing the familiar logo of a national tuxedo chain. It looked dark, but a small sign on the door said “open.”
The door struck a small bell as we entered. We stomped the snow off our boots and shook off the cold. Behind the counter was the thin man with his back to us, working on a sewing machine.
“Be with you…” he said with the shadow of an accent, snipping a thread. “Just a moment…”
My eyes adjusted to the dark, little shop. Sparsely decorated, there was a small tuxedo display in the corner, a mirror, a short pedestal for fittings. Behind the counter hung a framed newspaper clipping next to a curtained door.
The old, yellowed clipping featured a photo. In it, a well-dressed family posed in front of a row of identical clapboard buildings. The bespectacled father squinted as he towered over a plain but pretty woman. At their feet were two curly-haired girls. One, finger-in-mouth, stared at the camera. The other, dangling a doll at her side, looked upward. The caption underneath it read: Fort Ontario Refugees Dragutin and Ana Schmutzer with Children—1944.
“Can I help you?” The man asked.
A thick pair of glasses looked back at me, with the same squinting eyes from the clipping. I looked again at the picture, thinking it was either his father or that time had been very kind to him, since he must be near 80 by now.
He folded his work neatly on the counter. It was a daisy printed dress—too small for a child. He smiled up at us. “For my daughter. Her doll needs a new dress.”
I looked at the photo on the wall, double checking the date. He must have read my face.
Before I could ask, Schmutzer said, “Yes, that is the doll.” He touched the picture gently. “I made that dress, too, but it was ruined.” He sighed and turned back to us. “So, what can I do for you?”
We took off our winter coats, and I explained the wedding plans. We all sat at the small table with binders of tuxedo pictures before we decided. Schmutzer brought out some paperwork just as a high-pitched whistle screamed from the back room.
Schmutzer stood. “Excuse me one moment, gentlemen. Radiator issues.” He went through the curtain into the back room. The sound soon ended.
Schmutzer returned, setting his pipe wrench on the counter. We were back to business. “Names, gentlemen?”
Pete went first.
“Kaufmann?” Schmutzer asked. “Two Ns?”
“Yeah.” Pete responded.
“I once knew a Kaufmann.” He sat still—off somewhere else. “Karl…” He removed and cleaned his thick lenses with a handkerchief. “Karl Kaufmann. We shared barracks with him.”
“Barracks?” Pete asked. “Army?”
Schmutzer laughed a single, loud “ha!”, then said, “No.” He replaced his glasses, then muttered to himself, shaking his head. He looked at the picture on the wall. “Refugee Camp.”
I interjected. “Hey, Pete. Could that be your Grandpa Karl?”
Pete shrugged. “Probably. He came over during the war. He doesn’t like to talk about it.”
At this, Schmutzer stood and went to the counter.
Pete turned to me. “Hey, do you think we could stop in and…”
Schmutzer screamed behind Pete, but before Pete could turn around, the pipe wrench thudded into his skull. Schmutzer had swung it like an axe at the back of Pete’s head. Pete fell from his chair, twitched a moment on the floor, and stopped moving. Unblinking and silent, he was dead.
Schmutzer stood panting and then looked at me.
“Please, no!” I pleaded, arms over my head, scared that I was next, but no blows came.
Schmutzer dropped the wrench to the floor and held up his open hands to me. Then he collapsed and sobbed.
“Karl murdered my girls. My precious, precious girls. Now…we are settled.”
I ran out the door and called the police from the store across the street, but by the time they arrived, Schmutzer was gone.
At Pete’s funeral, I asked his Grandpa Karl about his connection to Schmutzer. He stared into the past for a long time before replying.
“Damnedest thing.” He said. “I used to take the camp kids out onto the lake. We got caught by the wake of a freighter a few hundred yards off shore…our boat capsized. Those poor girls drowned. I nearly drowned myself trying to find them, but they sank like stones.” He rubbed his eyes. “The only thing they found was Marta’s doll on the beach about a mile up the shore. It just about ripped their folks in half with grief. He ended up killing himself when his wife passed a few years later. It ate him up.”
“Impossible,” I said. “Schmutzer’s the one who murdered Pete. I saw it happen.”
Wide-eyed, Karl threw my own word back at me. “Impossible,” he sighed. “Schmutzer’s long dead. Pete had an aneurysm.”
“No. He was hit with a wrench.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. “Pete died of an aneurysm. Sudden and painless. The coroner told us himself. Aneurysm.”
“I saw it happen. I spoke to him. He knew about you.”
He shook his head at me. “Aneurysms run in my family. Pete’s my second grandkid to die that way.”