By Val Haynes
First of all, I didn’t start out being a shoplifter. It’s not something I was consciously aware of doing, at least not that first time anyway. The other times, I admit I was guilty, even planned on stealing, but not that first time.
The first time it just kind of happened and after the first time, it became easier and easier. In my career as a shoplifter and thief, I have taken: a man’s Piaget watch, $2500 from a pot-dealer, two pairs of jeans (brick red and blue), and $100 from a hard-luck alcoholic who happened to be my boyfriend at the time—oh yeah—and a skirt full of candy from the corner deli down the street from where we lived.
The hundred dollars was for the shaking I needed to stop and the candy was for all the times I had to go to the Saturday matinees empty-handed. I feel remorse about the $100 (my friend needed to pay his rent and his twisted face revealed the anguish my stealing had caused), for everything else I don’t care. My stealing didn’t make a bit of difference to me or anyone else. But the first time—the very first time I stole—it was for my mom. That first shiny thing I stole was a heart-shaped pendent in gold-toned quilted metal. It was my Rubicon—my maiden voyage into a career from which there was no turning back.
You see, I loved shiny things. I still do.
It all started with my Pa. See, when I was little, my Pa called me “Princess.” He called me that name so much I started to believe it, I guess. In third grade I wore a metal and rhinestone tiara to school seven days straight till finally Sister Mary Catherine made me stand in the corner saying it was a vanity.
The tiara didn’t go with the plaid blue uniform worn at St. Peter’s Academy anyway, so it didn’t bother me much, having to give up wearing it to school. Still, I loved shiny things and their clean brightness. Diamonds and bracelets, those kinds of things. You could put a ring on your finger and change your world. People did it all the time, like when they got engaged. Of course, I was too young to think about getting engaged or anything like that. I just thought diamonds and rings and necklaces, stuff like that was, well life-changing. Maybe those things only changed the way you thought about your life. Maybe wearing jewelry and seeing it day-to-day reinforced a kind of possibility—that things—good things were possible. Even for me. Not just people in shiny magazines. Maybe I’d grow up to be a princess after all.
Back then, my favorite place was Adel’s, the small jewelry shop I passed each day on my way to school. Adel’s was an island of shining prospects despite its location wedged between two abandoned store fronts on a side street littered with other shiny things like beer cans, broken glass and foil wrappers. I didn’t mind the street so much; it’s that Adel’s stood diagonally across from the El Dorado, a smelly old man’s bar, where my Pa spent most afternoons seated on a barstool.
He became a “regular” when one of our town’s chief employers, a paper-mill, went bankrupt. I didn’t understand why he drank instead of getting another job. I suppose he resigned himself to being out of work in the same way I resigned myself to being called names other than “Princess.” You just get tired and give up the ghost.
Both to and from school I walked this street never once passing in front of the El Dorado for fear I’d see my pa’s scowl or worse, his grin. If he grinned he was happy and I would have to go in and suffer the embarrassment of one of his drunken exhortations about how I was such a good girl and such a smart girl, all that kind of crap. I was hyper vigilant about avoiding him especially those days.
It was Christmastime and he was drinking more and more—getting stranger and stranger. There were mornings when I found him passed out on the john, mornings when I woke to find my mom with a black eye, mornings when the car we once owned mysteriously vanished. The winter I turned thirteen I passed Adel’s so often, on my way to do some errand for my mom, that old man Adel practically invited me in as I paused for a quick peek at the window.
One December afternoon the shop’s window glittered with the traditional colored lights and garland of the season forcing me to a full-stop while I stared mesmerized by the shiny display of rings and bracelets and watches. I had yet to buy my mom a Christmas gift and knew I wouldn’t be able to afford anything from the shop. Still, I planted myself in front of the window my gaze focused on the polished array of silver and gold.
Since my Pa lost his job I no longer received an allowance and the only extra money I had saved was from baby-sitting. I wouldn’t have much to spend on gifts this year. Still, I went in. There might be some cheaper items in the back of the store. I remembered that old man Adel kept a saucer of mints on the display counter. I went in for a mint and a closer look at the sparkly selection of jewelry.
Inside on the countertop suspended from a velveteen display rack was a row of chains and necklaces. That’s where I saw it. The watch. I’d never seen any thing like it before. It was a pendant, really. Heart-shaped. In the center of the heart was a watch. The pendant hung from a gold chain dangling near the edge of the rack. I fingered the pendant with care fascinated that there was a small watch inside the heart. I wanted it for my mom. For Christmas.
I closed my eyes and pictured her mouth forming a small oh of surprise as she cooed over the pendant’s beauty. It was seventy-five dollars more than I had. Despite saving all the money I earned baby sitting, I knew I’d never be able to save enough to buy the pendant by Christmas Eve.
Later that day around suppertime, while I helped my younger brother assemble a model airplane, my mom called to me from the kitchen.
“Could you pick up your father, Connie? I know you just got home but I don’t think he should walk home alone tonight.”
“It’s okay, Ma... I don’t mind.”
As I walked down the El Dorado’s street through the dusky twilight, I looked up at the streetlamps. They groaned and flickered on one by one in the wake of my footsteps crunching against the crisp, clean snow. It was funny how the flakes disappeared as soon as they fell into the lamplight. I noticed a small crowd of people on the normally desolate street.
It’s the holidays, I thought.
I saw myself in my second-hand winter coat reflected in the empty storefronts and paused. I thought about my ma and my brothers and sisters, how they seemed so innocent. I thought about how my ma, especially, was always going on about miracles and Jesus and heaven. Sometimes I wished I could make her see it was all a lie meant to keep people from doing things. From being who they really were. I wanted to believe but I thought only suckers believed in miracles and Jesus and heaven.
I passed Adel’s stopping briefly and raised my hand to wave at the old man who for once didn’t seem to notice me outside in the cold. Maybe he’s ignoring me, after all, it’s not like I’m a paying customer, I thought. Without thinking, I saw myself make the sign of the cross before I entered the shop.
The old man hunched behind the counter, busy with a woman wearing too much lipstick and a brown, old lady, fur coat. He held out a charm bracelet and she practically snatched it from his hands.
“It’s for my niece, her first year at Cornell. She’ll be home for the holidays and I want to give her something really special,” the woman chirped.
I tapped on the counter to get the old man’s attention and noticed the exaggerated arch of the woman’s penciled in eyebrow as she turned her head to look at me. The woman stared straight through me while she went on and on about her niece.
“Got any more of those mints, Mr. Adel?” I asked.
Sure enough the old man while in the middle of helping the woman turned his back to fill the empty saucer from a supply of candy he kept in the back of the shop.
It happened in an instant. I grabbed the pendant and shoved it into my coat pocket, the one without the hole in it. The woman was too busy toying with the bracelet to spot me and I figured that before Adel noticed the pendant missing I would be long gone. I felt like I'd unzipped my skin as I flew onto the sidewalk. It took me all of five seconds before I realized I was under the El Dorado’s faded awning.
As I skipped across the El Dorado’s threshold I saw my pa slumped across the bar. I wasn’t sad or scared; I wasn’t even ashamed of him. I tapped his shoulder and he lifted his head and grinned at me in that sad way drunks have.
"Hi ya, Princess."
I smiled and hummed along to the tune playing in my head. It was a song I heard while listening to Dr. Laura’s radio talk show.
I was just thinking.
I needed a little white gift-box.
Val Haynes. a writer, actress and singer, is earning her Master of Arts in English at the University of Albany, SUNY.