Short Stories 

 

 

 

Wednesday
Jan262011

Criminal Behavior by Joan Heron

 

 

CRIMINAL BEHAVIOR by Joan Heron

 

       The gold watch sits on a small table in the living room of my aunt and uncle’s house where I am visiting in upstate New York. It has a round face with black numerals attached to a worn, brown leather band.  It is 1942.  Most people are poor and the country is still recovering from the Great Depression.  I know few people who own wrist watches.  Passing back and forth from the kitchen to the other rooms, putting away laundry for my aunt, I keep looking at the watch and thinking about how it would feel on my nine year old wrist.

       After about an hour of looking, I pick it up and put it in my shorts’ pocket.  It’s wrong but I do it anyway.  No one will notice, it’s been sitting on that table for days. No one sees me except Rusty, the golden retriever lying by the fireplace and he doesn’t care.

       At different times throughout the day, I sit in the bathroom and look at the watch. I imagine my stylish self wearing a watch.  When people ask,  “What time is it Joanie?” I can lift my wrist like a grownup and tell them.  And wait ‘til I wear it to school.

      Finally, I hide it under my clothes in the dresser drawer.

     After lunch the next day my aunt says:

     “I need to talk to you.”  Uh oh.  My heart speeds up.   She stands over me in the bedroom, holds out the watch and asks quietly, “Joanie, how did this get into your drawer?”

     Feeling naked under her scrutiny, I am mortified, red faced and ashamed.  “I don’t know,” I shrugged.

      In the wrong and feeling awful about getting caught, I continue to deny my crime.  Now I had no watch and my aunt didn’t trust me.

     Maybe taking that watch wasn’t such a good idea.

     As a rule my thefts are smaller.  Back at home going to the grocery store is one of my daily chores.  I take advantage of these opportunities to buy cookies for myself.

     “Take Fritzie with you,” my father says.  Fritzie, my little brother, is a squealer so I try to go alone.

     “Papa,” I remind him, “Remember when he took my purse and swung it around so all the food stamps were lost?”

    Sometimes it works and I go alone.

       The cookie bins are my favorite part of the store. Each bin has a glass door. When I open a door, the sweet smell of chocolate or vanilla floats out, making my mouth water.   While the grocer gets the things on my list, I pick out some two-for-a- penny cookies that I pay for.  If it’s a long list, I have time to sneak a few free ones into my pocket.

       Six cookies. I savor the spoils in my pocket.  I’ll have two now and save the rest.

       Later, I sit in the bathroom and enjoy my sweets. Carefully licking my lips and brushing the crumbs from my lap into the toilet I avoid leaving any telltale evidence.

 

       “Do you know what you’re gonna get Mama for Christmas?” I ask Fritzie.

       “Yeah..that perfume she likes.”

       “I’ll get her a scarf.  And some pencils for Papa.  Let’s go shopping this afternoon.”

       We split up when we get to Woolworth’s eight blocks away.  I buy a pencil sharpener for five cents. I can see over the counter but need to stand on tip toes to reach the scarves. Ooo…this a pretty blue…Mama’s favorite color…the clerk is facing the other way….it fits in my pocket…got to get it completely in there while I make believe I’m still looking.

       She’ll like those pearl earrings, too …but I’ll get those another time.  She’ll wonder where I got so much money…wonder if Fritzie is finished….hope he doesn’t get caught.

       On the way home we compare our loot. “I didn’t find the right pencils…let’s go to the other five and ten tomorrow.”

       “We can hide the stuff under your mattress,” I say. “Put it in the middle so Mama doesn’t see it when she changes the sheets.”

       Our Christmas shoplifting continues for several years.  We were never caught and remain  At Large.

 

       Looking uptown as I cross under the Third Avenue El, I see my trolley rattling along the tracks. Have to be quick to catch it at the next stop.  After hoisting myself and my book bag up the high step, I show my travel pass and sit. It is 1945 and I’m on the way to my seventh grade class in mid-town Manhattan.

       We pass tenements with lines of laundry criss-crossing the spaces between them and grocers setting up displays of apples, oranges and other produce.  Children are walking to school, swinging book bags as they chatter and laugh.  Soon the scene changes to tall apartment buildings, some with doormen in uniforms.  The made over hand me down clothes I wear suddenly seem to say ‘poor’. Here’s my stop.  Soon I’ll be in the class with all those rich kids. There’s Suzanne getting out of a big car.  A chauffeur holds her door open. Bet she has more than ten cents in her purse.  She goes with her group to the ice cream parlor every afternoon. Limited to looking longingly at the pictures of banana splits in the window, I am so envious.

       Eating lunch in our homeroom, the dry cheese sandwich and apple seem so uninteresting compared to the juicy looking filling in the rolls and chocolate cookies the others have.  Many of their purses lie on top of the piano over by the window.  When a group goes to the bathroom together, I take three purses.  Taking only loose change, I quickly replace them. They have so much, they won’t notice anything missing. Heart thumping, I begin planning how to spend my riches.

       “I’ll have a strawberry sundae with vanilla ice cream and nuts,” I order from the high stool at the counter. “Oh, and two of those chocolate chip cookies.”  Mouth watering, I wait impatiently for my goodies to be served.  Trying to act like this is an ordinary occurrence, I nevertheless feel strange.  Finally, the sundae arrives.  Savoring every last scraped out morsel, I realize I will need a good story for my father about being late.

       “I helped the teacher clean the blackboards,”  I say, looking up at Papa with innocent eyes.

       After a few weeks of consuming illicit but scrumptious goodies, Miss Bernstein gets a solemn face as she begins: “We have a serious situation,” looking straight at me. Uh Oh! “Someone has been stealing money from their classmates’ purses,” Now they all turn and look at me.

     “I think I know who the thief is.”

     Things seem unreal.  Her voice is coming from far away.  This can’t be happening.  They’ll kick me out.

     “No action will be taken if the stealing stops.”

     Whew. Safe for now.

     Unease remains.

      But ice cream has never tasted as good as that sticky, syrupy strawberry Sunday I illegally enjoyed when I was eleven.

     The girls start talking to me again after a few weeks. Tessa is the only one who seeks my friendship.

     “Can you come to my house after school?”

     Although nervous about going to a rich girl’s home, I am pleased to be invited.

     The apartment on Park Avenue is huge.  Ornate gold frames on the pictures, brocade coverings on tall windows and furniture with curlicues around the edges render me speechless.

     “I’ll ring for the maid to bring us some soda and cookies.  What kind of soda do you want?”

     “Any kind.”  Trying to act like this is normal is hard.  “Let’s start the homework.”

      On the way to the front door I ask: “How about coming to my house on Thursday?”

     “OK,” she smiles.  “I’ll ask my parents.”

     Tessa stares at the boys playing stickball on my street and the women sitting on their stoops shelling peas. The shocked look on her face makes me cringe. I feel ashamed of my poor neighborhood. This is so different from her block.  Walking up the stairs in my building, the curse words written on the walls become bigger and uglier. The electric wires bootlegging electricity from the light fixture say poor at every level.  Tessa doesn’t say anything but I know she is taken aback.

     We don’t visit each other again but remain friends in school.

 

     Feeling poorer than ever, I have a new idea for stealing money.

     “I lost my purse,” I tell the student on duty at the Lost and Found.

     “Come in and look around,” she tells me while opening the bottom half of the split door.

     “This blue one,” I say feigning relief.

     The next day at the Lost and Found, “This was in the third floor bathroom,” I say as I hand over the same blue purse, minus the cash.

 

       A few years later, budding breasts and curvy hips make stylish clothes and bathing suits become more important.

     “Let’s go to Bloomingdale’s,” Pat says to me and Donna. “None of the stores around here have nice bathing suits.”

     “Yeah.  I want one.  Mine is well…my mother’s old one.” I confess.  “Donna, don’t you want a new suit?” I encourage my hesitant friend.

     “I don’t know…Will we be back by five? I have to take care of my baby sister?”

     “Sure. It won’t take long. The trolley stops in front of the store…and we can zip in and out.”

     “OK.  Let’s go,” Pat is hurrying us along.

     These two friends are so different from each other.  Donna’s pretty brown eyed face often shows apprehension.

     “My father will beat me if I am late…or dirty my clothes…or leave the block…” are some of her fears.  Tentativeness is typical of her approach to our adventures.

     Tall, willowy Pat’s cat eyes flash with audacity.  “Let’s cut school this afternoon,” she proposes at least once a week.  I am a willing participant and watch her phone the school with:  “Zis is Miz. McCarzy,” imitating her mother’s French accent. “My dohtair an’ her fren Zhoahn  et ici a’ mi howze. Zey boz’ haz ze bad stomach.”

     When the school calls back later, Pat resumes her act to assure the caller the girls are “ a leetle bettair,” and they will be in school tomorrow.

       We have fun for awhile with our illicit free time, drinking wine, shoplifting and trying on her mother’s clothes.  Pat helps me with my French homework.  I help her with Math. Of course we overdo the class cutting and eventually the school actually speaks with Pat’s mother.  Another time for me to be ashamed and mortified by getting caught.   Allowed to remain in school we do not cut school again.

 

       On the bathing suit day, we ride the trolley to Bloomingdale’s. Looking forward to wearing something more fetching than my mother’s turd colored wool suit, I am excited and a little worried at the same time. Cringing at the memory of the old suit which hung down my thighs and weighed me down when wet, I think….Yes I definitely deserve a new suit.

       “We’ll split up when we get to the store,” Pat instructs.

       “And just keep the suit on under your clothes,” I add. “don’t try to put it in your bag …it’s too big.’

       Donna nods slowly, still apprehensive.

       “We’ll meet back at Joan’s building.”

      Pat and I walk in confidently with a nervous looking Patsy between us.  We go up on the escalator and separate before arriving at the bathing suits.

     What fun!  Here’s a red one…not for me…hmm…black…I’ll try it.  Suits on hangars await my attention.  OOOO..I like this blue one…smooth satiny …two piece… Dressing quickly, I walk casually to the escalator and out the front entrance.  Pat is half a block away.  When I catch up to her, we giggle.

     “We did it.  I got a blue one,” giving Pat a glimpse under my blouse.”

     “I got the same one…in yellow….Here comes the trolley.”

     On the ride home, we plan our next visit to the neighborhood pool, wearing our new suits.

    We sit on the front stoop of my building and continue laughing and talking.

    “What will you tell your mother?” I ask.

    “She won’t notice until I’ve worn it a few times…then I’ll say you gave it to me.”

    “I’ll tell mine you gave it to me, also.”

     Donna is late.  We don’t know what to do.  Where is she?  I hope nothing happened.

     Finally, we see her coming down the block. She looks unhappy.

     “The guard stopped me on the way out and took me back to the office.”

    “Oh hell!  Did he call the cops?”

    “No but he threatened to call my parents and I cried.  He told me not to return to the store and let me go with a warning.”

    We are all scared after that and stop stealing.  Christmas shoplifting ends also.   However, guilt does not stop me from enjoying that pretty blue suit all summer long.

 

 

This is a chapter from Joan Heron's new book about her growing up in New York. As yet untitled...due out this spring.

 

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>