Gone in a Blink
We’d been away from the house at least three hours, at a matinee of Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.” Had we picked a shorter film, we might’ve interrupted the afternoon break-in. Come face-to-face with two thugs in the middle of our living room, puzzling over how to disconnect the stereo. Or in the bedroom, my jewelry box snug in a pillowcase, as they upended the queen-size mattress to search, as the police explained, for money and weapons.
“They touched our sheets,” I kept saying. “We have to wash our sheets.”
The night before, my husband Tom and I had burrowed into a winter cocoon on the couch, watching episodes of “Arrested Development” on DVD. Now the box set was gone, along with all but two discs from our collection. Two of Tom’s favorite movies, “Hoosiers” and “Saving Private Ryan,” had landed beneath the coffee table. We sat on the couch again, stunned, watching a policeman lift a fingerprint off the stereo receiver the burglars left behind.
The police told us twice that our case was a low priority, which we could understand, of course, given murder and fire and rape and fatal car crashes on I-465. But to complain to us about the Indianapolis Police Department’s recent merger and resulting backlogs, while we’re surveying a stranger’s large boot prints on our hardwoods and taking measurements to board the back door?
“It’s only stuff,” we kept saying, even before we catalogued what was missing.
Only stuff, true. But our stuff. And somebody came into our house and stole it.
I should be used to it by now. My life is littered with memories of stolen goods, my mind housing them as if inside a storage unit. It could be naiveté. Maybe it is my open, trusting face, which must resemble a bowl of milk, or a “Kick me!” sign. I can see myself at three years old, when I instructed my favorite doll, Mindy, to wait on the grocery store window ledge until I returned. I hadn’t wanted to carry her through the aisles; instead I would help my mother shop, my greedy hands free for grabbing cookies and unnaturally colored cereal. It did not occur to me to place the doll in the shopping cart’s baby seat; the window ledge seemed as good a place as any.
Mindy had a barrel-shaped torso and eyes that opened and closed with every movement. Her only outfit was a pink suit of overalls over a small white shirt. “I’ll be back soon,” I said, likely wagging a finger at her. “Stay right here.”
When I propped her on the ledge, she blinked her assent. Of course she was gone by the time we’d finished shopping, still gone even after we searched and searched.
It would be the first of many thefts, and I became expert at rationalizing their occurrence. Years later as a teenager at volleyball camp, another girl emptied my dorm-room dresser of practice clothes while I showered. She took my Gap shorts, a Steve Miller Band concert T-shirt, and those hideous “bunhuggers” we used to play in, which were basically the equivalent of underwear. Little good can be said about someone who steals another girl’s bunhuggers, yet I could understand the adolescent desire for clothes. Even a goofy concert tee, even paisley boxers, which we’d buy in too-large sizes and roll down to our bony hips.
And I could also understand why the Walkman was plucked from my high school locker. Same with the two different car break-ins for two different cheap pull-out tape decks. (Asking to be stolen, as I had not pulled them out.) Music was a necessity to me, not mere entertainment, and I assumed everybody felt that way. Following the thefts, I heard every irksome ping and rattle of the engine without my mix tapes to drown out the noise. Still, tape decks were replaceable. I had suffered no real harm in their disappearance, not like those people you read about in the newspaper, the elderly who’d been robbed of their prescription medicines, or a carjacked Meals-On-Wheels volunteer.
Wallets must be chief among stolen items; I’m a three-time loser, most recently in the workplace. My checkbook/wallet combo had been inside my bag on the floor of my cubicle. I was on the phone, and startled the janitor when I turned to wave hello. Her shocked, guilty expression only registered the next day, once I discovered what was missing. I’d never seen the young woman before that night, I explained to my boss, who interviewed me when I reluctantly revealed a possible suspect. She was new to the office, and I had grown used to the regular janitor, a kind, chatty woman in her mid-fifties with whom I exchanged nightly greetings and weather reports.
In twenty-four hours, the replacement janitor wrote hundreds of dollars worth of checks on my account. She charged flowers and sneakers on my debit card. But she was black, and a janitor; I was white, working in the office she cleaned. Before I learned the extent of her sticky-fingered prowess, I felt like a stereotypical accuser naming a stereotypical suspect. My hunch was accurate, and I hadn’t wanted it to be.
It took five phone calls before the sneaker company took me off their mailing list. With each new catalog, I was reminded of the bank clerk who made me write my signature a dozen times, ensuring against customer fraud. And I was reminded that the thief had all my personal information. I received a letter from the district attorney’s office requesting my testimony. Apparently the former janitor had a record and was part of a well-known local family of crooks. And, she knew exactly where I lived.
“Steal from me!” I seemed to project to the world, without quite knowing how or why this came across. “Maybe you need my stuff more than I do!” Perhaps the person who purloined my coat that one winter in college had heard this cry. Maybe he’d been cold. But he couldn’t have known that it wasn’t just a coat. This was my dad’s 1960s black leather motorcycle jacket, which, after years of my regular requests, he allowed me to take back to college. His motorcycle days were long gone, yet the jacket remained in the front hall closet like a kind of totem. My sister Katie and I would regularly model it in front of the mirror. Katie had moved to Seattle, and my dad handed over the jacket to me with little coaxing. I might’ve worn him down. More likely, he was relieved to avoid sparring daughters.
My boyfriend assured me the coat pile in the attic corner was secure – it was his friend’s house party, after all. Later, as usual, I turned into a dumb record, revolving around a single repeating line: “I should have known better.” When it was time to leave, the beautiful vintage jacket was gone, along with my wallet in the pocket. Inside was less than twenty bucks, along with my fake ID – so much more valuable than currency to a nineteen-year-old.
I’d babysat and worked a series of minimum wage jobs since I was a preteen, and my parents described themselves as “comfortable.” But college was the first time I understood the relativity of “comfortable” when it came to money. I’d grown up comfortable with practicality. In Syracuse, I parked my beat up Duster next to shiny SUVs with vanity plates. Girls in my freshman dorm headed to Cancun and Grand Cayman for spring break; I shared a ride home to Indiana.
I don’t know for sure, but I bet whoever stole the black leather jacket could have afforded a more expensive version. He surely didn’t care about the history and memories attached. I speculated that he could’ve paid for my car in cash, if he’d deign to drive an ’85 hatchback. The walk home from the party brought snow and temperatures in the twenties. I wore a T-shirt and jeans, drunk and sobbing and refusing my boyfriend’s coat (“I don’t deserve a coat,” I wailed.) My teeth chattered, but I seethed on the inside.
Also in the leather jacket’s pocket: a $13 Clinique lipstick I’d agonized over buying. No one in my family understood my frugality. Despite our financial comfort, I scrimped like it was the Depression. I wore a favorite pair of shoes long after they developed holes, and sparingly applied drugstore face moisturizer to make the bottle last longer. At my mother’s urging, I charged a replacement lipstick to my bookstore account. Which is the more telling detail: that I had the luxury and inclination to expend such energy on the cost of a lipstick, or that my college bookstore had a Clinique counter? The slender silver tube, I mentally acknowledged when I made the purchase, probably was small enough to palm from the counter. But I’d never stolen, never shoplifted.
My one and only theft would be a year or so later, home in Indianapolis on summer break, at an antique store. I’d found a photograph of three flapper women from the 1920s who could’ve been me and my two college girlfriends. The price: one quarter. But the elderly woman behind the counter was interminably slow, processing a line of customers five deep. The store, covered in a blanket of dust, kept making me sneeze, and my friend and I grew impatient to leave. Without a word, I slipped the yellowed photograph into the back pocket of my jeans.
Almost a decade later, I returned to the musty shop and purchased a small bottle of glycerin, thinking I might use it to make soap. The bottle cost three dollars; I paid with a five and did not accept the change. “Was that appropriate?” I wondered in the parking lot. “For inflation?” My husband eyed me in the particular way that precedes his laugh of disbelief, maybe admiration: that I believed this transaction mattered, that I needed to pay someone back.
We live on the city’s Northside, barely within the bounds of the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood, on a street lined with compact, neat homes and well-tended gardens. A few miles in one direction are some of the city’s grandest mansions and historical landmarks. A few miles in the other direction, public housing.
This is our first house, which sits less than two miles from the antique store where my life as a thief began and ended. (We need not count the odd Starlight mint or caramel from the Brach’s bins at the grocery. My transgressions were few, and store managers surely anticipate taking a hit on open barrels of candy placed at child’s eye view.)
This time insurance would pay us back, minus the deductible. Finally, a return on stolen goods. Compensation. Even so, I’d never felt angrier or more violated over a theft. They had touched our sheets. They’d rummaged through every closet and dumped out our desk drawers on the floor. Most of our valuables were secondhand items from generous family members, and most were stolen.
The greatest loss cost the least: my hodgepodge jewelry collection, which I knew the thieves would discard when they discovered its relative worthlessness. They – whoever they were, I always picture two – did not know I cherished these items solely because each of my grandmothers had worn the costume necklaces and bracelets, the rings so narrow they’d never fit my fingers, which are permanently crooked from years of playing volleyball. The value of these pieces lay in the stories each held.
My maternal grandmother bought the fire opal necklace in New Zealand, on a rare trip out of the country in the late 1970s. Years later, she mailed the lumpy business envelope for my twentieth birthday, with her characteristic scrawl: “Wanted you to have something of mine while I’m still alive.” She lived seven more years.
The pair of fat Buddha earrings had been a joint purchase between me and my best friend in the ninth grade; we took turns wearing them. Also gone: the fake diamond drop earrings, the “something new” for my wedding day – I bought them as an inexpensive gift to myself. And I had been wearing my gold St. Christopher’s medallion for less than a year before the burglars carted it off. The necklace was a birthday gift from my husband, to commemorate completing the first draft of a novel in which the main character wears – and incidentally loses – such a necklace.
I was angry over what we lost in the break-in, but also that I couldn’t rationalize this theft. They would sell the electronics, the CDs and DVDs, and likely spend the profits on drugs. The cops provided a card with the pawn/vice unit’s number. It’s an exchange, one explained, patiently answering my questions. He had softened with my growing distress. I’d been calm until I discovered the missing jewelry.
No, he said, you probably won’t hear from us. No, the fingerprint could come back in a week, or maybe ten years. Maybe it’s your print. Get your stuff back? They’ve headed to Cash America Pawn and are getting high by now.
I appreciated his honesty. But the explanation offered me no comfort.
Need is one thing. Hunger, clothing, love, shelter – that’s need. I would like to conjure a valiant, romantic Robin Hood redistributing the wealth, even if ours was a relatively small plunder. But to get high? To break down our back door and steal to finance a habit? I personally like coffee and dark chocolate, and can’t help buying books and CDs we have no room for, but I understand the concept of earning money to support my addictions. I understand want versus need. When I can’t afford, I go without.
Burglars, clearly, play by different, infuriating rules. They had forcibly entered our home, which our realtor and everyone who enters call a charming bungalow. The melting snow on the garden path out back still held their fresh tracks to the alley. Later, I discovered two duffel bags were missing, surely used to haul away our goods.
That is not need.
No more, I suppose, than we needed those things. I have yet to replace the laptop or the digital camera, or accept the latest castoffs from family. We have another computer, and a film camera. It’s not that I don’t want a new digital camera and laptop; I had used both regularly. The fact is, I’ve proved to be an untrustworthy owner. I fear the replacements will be stolen again.
After the film, we’d rushed out of the house as soon as we saw the back door gaping open. We knew you were supposed to wait for the police. Somebody might still be inside; don’t disturb the evidence. And we had just spent three hours in a darkened theater, watching a movie in which nearly every character gets shot in the head. We preferred to be outside in the January cold, even if that meant assuming the worst. For some reason, I pictured cereal and rice dumped on the worn kitchen linoleum, shaving-cream obscenities on the bathroom mirror. The crooks proved me wrong. They were professionals, not vandals, and they left our pantry and bathroom untouched.
The police, stationed about a mile from our house, took twenty-five minutes to arrive; they’d heard the wrong street name on the phone. We were shaken, but we tried to be understanding. This was a burglary, not a murder or rape. We weren’t pinned inside a burning car. “Whatever’s gone, we can replace,” I said like a mantra, standing on the sidewalk and staring balefully at our house. “It’s only stuff.”
I wanted to believe it. For the theft victim, anger and helplessness have no target without a culprit; maybe not even then. I know which relative took money from my purse all those years ago, along with the tiny travel-size toiletries from my overnight bag. But she since has chosen a solitary path, virtually shunning the family. Her absence and silence cause a pain far greater than anger or helplessness, more costly and irreplaceable than sixty bucks and a perfume sample.
Sometimes the only comfort you can find is in made-up explanations. I learned this early, as a three year old at the grocery store, tearfully insisting that my doll Mindy had to be somewhere.
“I told her to stay right there,” I explained to my mother. She dried my face with the hem of her T-shirt before giving me a hug.
“I know it feels bad,” she said, in the trademark soft voice she still uses. “But think of it this way: maybe somebody needed a friend like Mindy.”
Despite the sick feeling in my stomach, I could sympathize. Mindy had been an awfully good friend to me, forgiving the lousy shag haircut I’d given her. I had left her on a dirty grocery store window ledge, and she hadn’t complained. I imagined that she waited, as instructed, for as long as she could. My parents never tried to buy me a replacement Mindy, which I appreciated. They knew as well as I did that she was one-of-a-kind, and now she was gone.
Almost thirty years later, a stolen doll makes more sense to me than our home’s burglary. I think of my mother’s words: the doll was a friend. Mindy might’ve provided comfort. I understand why someone would want that, even deserve it.
No one should have to steal for comfort. Certain things should belong to everybody. But we all learn, many of us at painfully young ages and through experiences far more horrific than a stolen doll, that not everyone has the things they should. And that is the best comfort I know how to make up.
words: Sarah Layden (Vicariously Yours), original publication: REAL
image: 'timegauge' - Jeff Crouch, Texas (more)
another stolen blueprint: I was a teenage thief (#16)