[Published in The Sun Magazine, Issue #376, April 2007]
At fourteen, shoplifting is fun. Like a sport, it takes a lot of skill. I have to be quick and gutsy and able to fool people. I put on my good-girl face and wear my cargo pants because they have deep pockets.
I started out with things that fit in the palm of my hand: candy, barrettes, nail polish, jewelry. Then I graduated to clothing, sometimes putting it on underneath bulky layers, sometimes stuffing it in my pockets. I am still amazed whenever I walk out of a store into the sunlight, loaded down with loot.
One day in early spring I get this crazy idea to steal a canoe for my boyfriend, Gregory. It’s the thing he’d like most in this world, next to scoring with me. We’re standing under an elm tree at the park near his house, Gregory’s arms wrapped around my waist.
“Come up to the lake,” he says. “For my birthday.”
Gregory’s family owns a lake house upstate, but I’ve never been there.
“I’ll have to ask my mom,” I say, already knowing she’d say yes, which is the total opposite of what would happen if Papa were here.
“She’ll say yes,” Gregory says.
“Maybe,” I reply, bending to pick up a twig, then snapping it. “What do you want for your birthday?”
“You,” he says, smiling and looking at me with his ocean green eyes.
He should have said “sex,” which would have been more to the point. Two girls I know at school are doing it, but I think it’s too soon.
Gregory tries not to pressure me, but lately every time we make out I feel his thing on my thigh or my stomach, his hot breath on my neck. He says things like, “Sure would feel nice” and “Are you scared?”
Three months ago, on New Year’s Day, my father left. He held my face in his Old Spice-scented hands and kissed my cheeks. “I’m not leaving you, mija,” he said. “I’m leaving your mother. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I love you. I’ll always love you. ¿Comprendes?”
I wanted to nod my head, but it wouldn’t budge. I’d known this was coming.
My father stood and looked around the living room. TV, DVD player, books—he left them all behind, taking only his Bible and one small suitcase. He walked out the front door and was gone. Next thing I knew I was on my hands and knees, eyes blurry with tears, picking pieces of tinsel from the Christmas tree out of the thick gray carpet.
Last week Mom told me Papa is moving away from New York to Las Cruces, New Mexico. I don’t know if this has something to do with me wanting to steal the canoe, but when I ask my friend Freddy and his big brother, Moose, to help me, I say, “It’s for Gregory.”
Saturday morning we go to the mall and, once inside, head straight to Sports Central. We pass dumbbells, tennis racquets, sweat suits, and sleeping bags, and then finally we’re at the canoes. There are two sizes: big and bigger. I figure bigger is better, so we hoist one high over our heads and make for the front like we own the place, angling the beast through the store’s narrow aisles. The dorky salesman with the striped tie actually grins at us as we leave. We navigate through the mall this way, quickly and confidently, and we get lots of smiles.
Back in the parking lot, Moose, Freddy, and I tie the canoe to the top of Moose’s Camaro. People passing by say things like, “Hey, that looks like fun!” We tell them, “It’s a blast!” and give each other high-fives and go crazy laughing.
I’m in the back seat and we’re about to pull away when it hits me. “We forgot the paddles,” I say, getting out of the car.
“Fuck the paddles,” Moose says.
“I’ll be right back,” I shout as I rush back across the parking lot to the mall entrance.
Once inside the store again, I find the paddles, take one in each hand, and head for the front of the store. Just when I am out the door and think I’ve made it, the guy with the striped tie—who turns out to be the manager—grabs me by the shirt.
“Not so fast,” he says. “Where do you think you’re going with those? You got a receipt?”
“Um, not exactly.”
“Didn’t think so.”
He takes one paddle and leaves me holding the other. He puts his free hand against my back and pushes me through the mall.
“Hey!” I say. “Where are we going?”
We keep walking, and I wonder how long Freddy and Moose will wait for me. Suddenly I spot Mrs. Delvecchio, my mother’s bridge partner, coming toward us. I slump forward, letting my stringy blond hair fall over my face, but she sees me anyway, stolen paddle in my hand.
“Miranda?” she says. “Miranda Muñoz, is that you?”
No, you nosy bitch, I want to say, but instead I manage a polite “hello” and keep on walking, saying that I’m in a hurry. She already has that I’m-going-to-tell-your-mother-young-lady look on her face. The manager keeps his mouth shut. I like this about him.
“You can’t call my parents,” I tell him. “They wouldn’t understand.” I see a kid in a wheelchair and say, “I’m their only normal kid. My sister’s blind—she can’t see anything, not even shadows. And my brother? He’s crazy. Last week he tried to hang himself because, you know Carol Lesser? The girl who got killed down by the railroad tracks playing chicken? She was his girlfriend. He was there when it happened, picking pieces of her brain off his NYU sweat shirt after the train squashed her head.”
He takes me to the security office, but it’s locked. “Back in fifteen minutes,” the note says. The manager pulls me away. We pass Limited Too, where I’ve stolen skimpy shirts and belts, but I swear up and down to him that I’ve never stolen anything before. He opens a door that says EMPLOYEES ONLY, and then we’re in a concrete hallway that smells of rotten food. I expect to step on a rat. It’s cold, and the hairs on my arms stand up like little soldiers. Then he leads me through another door to an employee lunchroom that reeks of cigarette smoke. Lockers line the grimy walls. Two vending machines and four tables with chairs are crammed close together, but no one else is here. The manager stands with his back to the pay phone, jingling the change in his pocket. “Want a Coke?” he asks, stepping toward the machine.
“Thanks,” I say, nodding.
He motions for me to take a seat, then sets down two cans and sits across from me. I notice he’s wearing a Sports Central name tag. CHARLIE, it says.
“Is that your name?” I ask, pointing to the tag.
“Mr. Harrigan to you,” he says. He loosens his striped tie, and for the first time, I get a good look at him. He’s tall and skinny and has pasty white skin and an angular face. His gray eyes have droopy lids, which make him look sad, and his left shoulder twitches. He reminds me of my father, who I wish my mom would quit talking about. I’m sick of hearing how poor his parents are, how self-righteous he is, and I sure as shit don’t want to hear another word about my parents’ former sex life. I don’t want to know that he never wanted it, except to make babies. Or that he called it God’s work, which drove Mom crazy.
“It’s not normal,” Mom said once, looking at me in her vanity-table mirror while she brushed her blond hair. Papa used to call her his golden girl. He never expected to marry a gringa, but he couldn’t resist Mom’s sweetness and generosity, as well as her beauty.
“Men are supposed to want it,” she said, putting down the hairbrush. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
Despite what she says about Papa, Mom prides herself on being one of those parents who never bad-mouths the other parent after a divorce. Can’t she see what she’s doing? It makes me wonder what idiotic things I do without realizing it, aside from the obvious, like stealing, which suddenly seems incredibly dumb.
“My parents would be so mad if they knew,” I say to the manager. “It’d be a real disappointment.”
“How come you didn’t think of that before?” he asks.
“Well,” I say, “I should have. I can see that now, but my friend dared me. This is so unlike me!” I squeeze out a few tears, wipe my eyes with the back of my hand.
“Doesn’t sound like much of a friend to me,” he says, passing me a napkin.
“I know. But she’s popular,” I say. “My mother would kill me.” I stall, trying to think up a good lie. “Mom is a violinist, and honest to God I don’t know who’s strung tighter, her or that valuable instrument of hers. She’s always calling it that—her valuable instrument.
Sometimes I feel like throwing it out the window, like she threatens to do with my stuff when I don’t pick up after myself.”
Mr. Harrigan smiles a little.
“You know somebody like that?” I ask.
I bite my lip and look down at my hands. “Yeah, well, my parents have my life all planned. I’m supposed to go to Harvard. This would kinda blow that, you know? I get straight A’s and was voted most creative in seventh grade, probably because of an art prize I won.” Suddenly I remember a piece of art I once saw in a magazine. “I made this church out of milk cartons,” I say. “You know, the little ones they sell at lunch in the cafeteria? I glued fifty of them together, papier-mâchéd it, then sprayed it gold and cut out windows, which I covered with colored cellophane to look like stained glass. I called it Our Lady of Miracles.”
I look up into his gray eyes and say, “Do you believe in God, Mr. Harrigan?”
He looks at me real serious, then nods. “I do,” he says. “Absolutely.”
“I thought so,” I say. “Are you Catholic?”
He reaches down the front of his shirt and pulls out a medal on a skinny silver chain.
“Saint Christopher,” I say. “My favorite saint.”
My aunt gave me a similar medal, which I used to wear to church on Sundays. Mom never wanted to go; she went because Papa made her. He knew everybody at Saint Michael’s. Though I never admitted it, I liked church, especially the stories, the stained-glass windows, and the organ music. I also liked looking up at the priest’s colorful, embroidered robes while kneeling to take communion and being forgiven for my sins.
We haven’t been to church since Papa left.
The pay phone on the wall behind Mr. Harrigan rings. I jump. For a second I think it’s my father, then I realize that’s impossible. He’s been calling me three times a day for the past week, ever since Mom told me he was moving. At home when the phone rings, I know it’s him, so I don’t pick it up. I stare at it, waiting long enough for the voice mail to record his message, and then I dial in to retrieve it.
“Miranda,” he said in one of them, “it’s Papa. We need to talk. I don’t blame you for being angry, mija, but I got a good job, and I need to look after your grandparents. Las Cruces isn’t that far from New York. I’ll send you a plane ticket at Christmas, and maybe you can spend the summer here, too.”
The messages have been piling up. I listen to them from my cellphone at school in between classes, even from Gregory’s house. “Mija, I love you.”
Yeah, right, I think. I save the message anyway.
“I used to want to be a priest,” I tell Mr. Harrigan. “I wanted to stand up in front of everybody on Sunday and spread the word of God. I used to fantasize that women could be ordained so that it might be me standing up there.” This is the first true thing that has come out of my mouth, but I don’t know what I’m going to say next. Then I see a box of Hot Tamales candies in the vending machine and it reminds me of a book report I did on Mexico, where I’ve always wanted to go. “Can I tell you something I’ve never told another living soul?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says. “Go ahead.”
“I was in Mexico last year with my Aunt Maria. During siestas I could never sleep, so I used to wander around the neighborhood, and one day I found this little church. A mass was being held, but there were only a handful of people there, and I joined them. Afterward the priest asked me where I was from. He was surprised to meet an American girl who could speak such good Spanish. He invited me to come back for Sunday-evening mass.”
I pause, waiting for the next line to come to me. It doesn’t take long. “Sunday, when my aunt and I got to the church, every pew was taken, so we stood in the back. One of the altar boys walked right toward us, and he told me that the priest wanted to talk to me.”
“The priest?” Mr. Harrigan asks.
I nod. “He was on the altar! The boy led me down the center aisle. I had a New Testament pocket Bible my father had given me, which I held real tight. When I got to the altar the priest told me in Spanish that there were some American tourists there that day and asked if, after he gave the homily, I would say something to them in English. I had no idea what to say, so I asked the Lord to give me the words. And He did! My Bible opened to 1 Corinthians, that passage about forgiveness.”
I can’t help marveling at my own bullshit and wondering where it’s all coming from.
“I read the passage, and later a group of gray-haired ladies from Kansas told me how nice it was to hear English at mass, how what I’d said meant a lot to them. How important it is to be able to forgive one another.” I lean forward in my chair. “Do you think that’s true, Mr. Harrigan?”
He stares at me. His eyes seem kind of misty, and he’s not moving except for that twitching shoulder of his. He puts his Coke down on the table, clears his throat, and says, “You’re an unusual kid, you know that?”
“You must take me for a total idiot,” he says. “That’s the most incredible bunch of lies I’ve ever heard. Did you honestly think you could bullshit your way out of something like this?”
My heart races, and sweat breaks out from every pore of my body.
“You’ve committed a serious crime. And it’s not just the paddles. I bet you and your friends didn’t pay for that canoe you walked out with either. Am I right?”
I nod. My eyes fill with real tears this time.
Mr. Harrigan takes a pack of gum from his pocket and offers me a piece. I try to say “No thank you,” but my voice sticks in my throat. He unwraps a piece for himself and pops it into his mouth. I wonder how I can be watching someone do anything as normal as chew gum when I’m this fucking scared.
“What are you, fifteen, sixteen?” he asks.
“Fourteen,” I tell him.
He shakes his head. “I’d like to let you go,” he says. “Really I would. But I’m afraid you wouldn’t learn your lesson.”
How can I tell him he’s wrong? How can I say how ashamed and humiliated I feel, not only about the canoe, but about my life? How can I utter one more word to this man and expect him to believe me? I sit silently, clammy and cold, praying, God, if you get me out of this without my father finding out, I promise to get my shit together.
Mr. Harrigan rubs the back of his neck like he’s tired. “What would you do if you were me?” he asks.
I can’t speak, so I say nothing.
“Out of words, are you?”
He crosses his arms over his chest and stares at me for what seems like a long time. When he finally moves it’s to reach into his pants pocket. He pulls out his wallet and tosses it, open, onto the table. Facing me is a photo of two pimply-faced kids with braces, a boy and a girl.
“They’re mine,” he says. “Twins. Same age as you. They live with their mother in Chicago. I doubt anything like this would ever happen to them, but if it did, I’d want them to be given the benefit of the doubt. So that’s what I’m going do with you. I’m going to let you go, but you and your buddies are going to bring back that canoe first thing tomorrow morning, and for the next three weekends, since you’re so good at lifting things, you’re going to haul a bunch of boxes off a truck for me. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
I feel hot and cold at the same time but manage to nod again.
“There’s got to be some kind of future for a kid with your imagination,” he says, putting his wallet back into his pocket. He stands up. “Do me a favor. When you get home, tell your father you love him.”
“OK,” I say.
By the time I get to the parking lot, Freddy and Moose are long gone. I walk the three miles back to my house, and on my way I pick up a couple of cardboard boxes from the A&P. Once I’m finally home, I fill them with everything that I have ever stolen: nail polish, jeans, jewelry, and all the rest. Then I call Gregory.
“Can you give me a ride to the Salvation Army?” I ask.
After we drop off the boxes, he drives me back to my house and we sit in the car in the driveway.
“You know if we go up to the lake we’re going to do it,” I tell him. “That’s why you want me to go. But I don’t want to. If you want to break up, that’s OK. I’ll understand.”
Gregory doesn’t say anything, and he doesn’t reach out and hug me like I want him to. Before I know it I’m slamming the car door, heading into the house, and picking up the phone.