Thursday, February 21, 2013

Grand Romantic Delusions Chapter 11: The Thief

     "You know, I used to be a kleptomaniac," said Mary in the most matter-of-fact voice of which she was capable after five or six glasses of Scotch.
     "Wait," Lewis replied, "Serssously? 'Cause … because, that just does … that just doesn't seem like you. Like, at all. I mean, you're so … a … such a … so such …" Despite his usual reluctance to drink alcohol, Lewis had tried to keep pace with her drink by drink.
     "An uptight bitch?" Mary finished for him.
     "Well, no. I wasn't gonna say that!"
     "Of course you weren't," said Mary. "You're too nice for that. And, I think, you're too timid."
     "I'm not timid."
     "Yes, you are. You're a big ol' 'fraidy-cat, you are." Mary added, "You're afraid of everything."
      "I am not!" Lewis was indignant. "I'm just … don't like … I just don't like to make decisions, is all."
     "But isn't that just because you're afraid?"
     "Yeah," he replied. "But I'm … not … not scared of everything. It's just that … that one thing. Just … limiting my choices. I'm … not a coward, or anything."
     "Then prove it," insisted Mary. "Call me a bitch."
     "Because you wanted to say it, but didn't have the stones."
     "No, I—"
     "Yes," she interrupted him. "Yes, you did. Admit it."

     It had been a couple of hours since Mary woke up from her football nap. At first, Lewis had given her some space while she went to the kitchen and heated up a frozen entrée for dinner.
     "Where's Nita?" She had asked him over her single-serving lasagna.
     "The library, I guess … she went to go do some research."
     "Without you? You two are never apart." Knowing that the library wasn't open on Sunday nights, Mary figured Nita must have gone to that café she liked. Must have needed some time away from Lewis, she thought.
     "We are … sometimes." He decided to change the subject. "So, who won the game?"
     "Huh? Oh, Indianapolis, I expect." She thought a minute. "I mean, Cleveland was ahead when I fell asleep, but, you know … it's the Browns, so I'll assume they gave up a touchdown or two and handed the game over in the last few minutes."
     "Really?" Lewis stood up and went to the counter where he'd left the bottle Nita had given him. 
     "Yeah, that's how it usually goes. Unless they just get behind from the start."
     "You want a drink?"
     "Sure, I guess. What is that? The Macallan?"
     "Umm … yeah." Lewis looked at the bottle and held it up for Mary's inspection. "Supposed to be good stuff I guess. Nita told me to try it. It's … fifteen years old." He pulled a couple of glass tumblers out of the cabinet and returned to the table where Mary was sitting.
     "Also," he added. "Do you want ice or anything?"
     "That should be plenty good. And no, I'll take it neat." She watched as he poured them each a drink.
     "So …" he returned to the subject of football. "If they always lose, why do you continue to watch?"
     "Can't help it. The Browns are my team. It's just … tradition, I guess." She shrugged as he handed her a drink.
     "It sounds like being born Catholic," Lewis said. "At least from what Nita tells me."
     Mary laughed. "You wouldn't be the first person to compare football to religion."
     "Neither of them makes a lick of sense to me." Lewis grinned.
     "I'll drink to that!" Mary laughed.

     Since then, they had moved to the living room. The TV, volume low, was tuned a local news program—likely airing some story designed to scare old people.
     "I would, if …" Lewis paused a moment. "I mean … I was looking for a word, but … it was like. That wasn't it. I don't … I don't even like that word."
     "But it fits me."
     "No … no it don't. I mean, It doesn't."
      "Uh-huh." Mary giggled. "And I'm uptight, too. I know. You know. Everybody knows it. I don't even care."
     Lewis narrowed his eyes. Nita was right—a few drinks and Mary was like a different person. Maybe now was the time to find out … wait. What was it Nita had wanted him to find out?
     "And you," Mary continued, "are a coward—a big, cuddly coward."
     "Now hold on a second," Lewis was getting upset now. "You … you're changing … subject. You were telling me … something." He struggled to remember.
     "It's not important now," she said. Somehow, Lewis realized, despite the fact that she was smaller and had had more to drink than he had, her speech wasn't as halting or slurred as his.
     "No," he said. "No. No, no, no, no … you can't. Like … you can't drop something like … like that, and then … walk away from it."
     "Something like what?" Mary grinned innocently. Lewis wasn't buying it—he searched his addled memory.
     "Klepto … Kleptomania! You're a maniac!" He laughed heartily, and doubled over, falling away from her and towards the left armrest of the couch.
     "You got me."
     "So … like." He sat up and looked at her intently. "What's that all about?"
     "I don't know," she replied. "I just … sort of got a kick out of taking things."
     "What kind of things?" Lewis furrowed his brow. "You ever take anything of mine?"
     "No, it's not like that." She drained her glass and began pouring them both another. "First of all, I haven't actually stolen anything in years. I mean, I stopped a long time ago—before you and Nita met. Hell, it was well before Nita and I even met."
     "So, you're a recovering klepto?" He asked. "Is it like that? Like … they say … with alcohol … like you're always an alcoholic, even if you don't drink."
     "I don't think so," she said. "I don't struggle with it or anything. It's not an urge. At least … not any more."
     "But it was."
     "Right—it was definitely an urge for me back then."
     "So what kind of things did you steal?" He picked up his glass, looked at it meaningfully, and decided he'd had enough.
     "Well, at first it was things I needed, or, at least really wanted."
     He sat his glass down on the coffee table and asked, "Like what?"
     "For example, a toy or a book or something I really wanted, but knew my parents wouldn't buy."
     "So this was … like, when you were a … a little kid?"
     "That's when it started, yeah." She took a sup from her glass. "But it carried on into early in my twenties."
     "Wow. So, it got worse?"
     "Yeah … I went from small toys and books I actually wanted to things I had absolutely no use for. Dumb stuff—like salt shakers or tire-pressure gauges or goofy little knick-knacks. One time I stole a grout-cleaning brush and a package of cat-nip. I didn't even own a cat!"
     "Didn't … did anyone … like … notice when something went missing?" He stood up, too quickly, and sat back down. "I think I need some water."
     "Just stay there, I'll get you a glass." She rose and went into the kitchen while continuing the conversation. "I never took anything from individuals. I was strictly a shoplifter. And only from big stores—never from little places."
     Lewis closed his eyes and put his hand over them, leaning back on the sofa. "Why's that? Too … risky in a small … a small place like that?"
     "It wasn't because of the risk," she replied from the kitchen where she was retrieving a jug of water from the fridge. "I just felt guilty stealing from a little mom-and-pop place. Same reason I never stole from friends or family or any individuals. I felt like I could justify stealing from a big faceless corporation."
     "Stealing … is like … stealing is stealing."
     "Of course it is. I know that now. I knew it then, I suppose." She returned with a big plastic cup and the water jug and sat next to Lewis. "It just didn't feel as much like I was hurting anyone, you know? I mean, with a little place, you actually know whose bottom-line you're affecting. Besides, stealing from someone you trust and whose trust you have is just bad form."
     "But with a big company … it's not … personal?"
     "Exactly," She handed him the cup and watched him take a big drink. "Don't handle your booze too well, huh?"
     "Don't," he started. "Don't often drink … whisky. Beer … mostly. And not … and … normally not much. I don't … I'm just a … one or two drinks … at one time. Always stop after the third."
     "You'll be all right," she smiled at him. "You'll have a headache in the morning, but you'll live. Just drink plenty of water."
     "Thanks." He raised his plastic water cup in gratitude and took another big gulp. "So why did you do it?"
     "Well, like I said," she continued, "at first it was about getting stuff I wanted. We didn't have much growing up, and I knew my parents either couldn't or wouldn't get me some things, so I just … took them."
     "'At first,' you say. What about after that?"
     "After that it became an urge. That's when I started stealing things I didn't need. That's when it became about the thrill."
     "Thrill?" He looked puzzled. "How can getting a free tire-pressure gauge be a thrill?"
     "That's just it! It wasn't about the items any more. It was about the thrill of getting away with something. No, wait—that wasn't it, either, really." She thought a moment before continuing, "I guess it was really about the risk."
     Mary sat quietly for a moment. How could she explain it? How could she put into words that feeling—the euphoria of knowing that, at any moment someone might spot what you were doing and the game would be over, but—no—not today! How could she describe the pulse-pounding sense of being alive that she would feel as she slipped out right under the nose of the cop standing by the door, or the elation at stopping to talk with a clerk with a stolen item right in her pocket—only a piece of cloth holding the secret—just  one look at the unusual bulge in her coat between freedom and a trip to the police station? How could she make Lewis—poor indecisive and naïve and trusting Lewis—understand how it felt to get one over on The Man and do it right while He was looking at you? Impossible!
     "Yeah," she said, coming out of her reverie. "The risk of getting caught, and then getting out without anyone noticing. It became addicting, I guess. It got so I could hardly go into a store without having to steal something—just for the sense of danger. It was like watching a spy movie or playing a good stealth game, but better—because it was real. It was a hell of a rush."
     "See? That's what I meant earlier," he sat up straight in his seat. "That is totally not how I ever saw you in my mind. It's not that you're a …" He lowered his voice before continuing, "a bitch. It's that you seem so honest … and you don't like silly games. You don't like bullshit, but you're not … like … I dunno. You're just … so normal."
     "I am so not normal." She felt herself blushing, despite herself. "But I'm glad I have at least one person fooled!"
     "I see that, now," he said. "But then it begs the question …"
     "What question is that?"
     "In what other ways are you not normal? What else are you hiding?"
     "I'm not really hiding anything," Mary said. "It's just that my abnormalities are internal. They don't manifest themselves in ways that other people would notice."
     "I know someone who has noticed."

     As if on cue, they were interrupted by the sound of the kitchen door being loudly thrown open. Nita entered the room carrying, of all things, the book that Mary had left at the BMV.
     Mary asked. "You found another copy?"
     "No," said Nita. "This is the very one you lost. We need to talk."
     Lewis stood up and made to leave.
    "Where do you think you're going, mister?" Nita gave him a look that stopped him dead in his tracks.
     "Umm … I thought you two—"
     "You misunderstood," replied Nita. "We all need to talk."
     Mary pointed at the TV screen where the nightly sportscast was playing. "Look at that! The Browns won after all!"

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