I was the one who said we ought to try it. I was the one with the cute little red purse filled with stolen cigarettes and bought cloves. I bought the purse at the K-town open market booths along with the scarves with the gold thread stringing through them. I was the one that brought the thermos filled with rum stolen from my mom and the stepfather’s Christmas party on New Year’s Eve.
I was my own bad influence.
I think my mother knew that. Or maybe she didn’t want to stop and think about the fact that all my pilfering could be done at home. I hadn’t stolen from outside our walls. It was her alcohol, her cigarettes, her stories of the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan sixties that I stole.
Perhaps it was just theft growing up. I used to steal her books because I felt she wasn’t good enough to read the great authors she had. How could she have Russians and Rod McKuen, and how-to books on the same shelf?
I used to steal her clothes because I thought she was no longer hip enough to wear them. Her wedding blouse for her second marriage was a bunch of ruffling madness; she’d paired it with a cool tweed skirt and go-go boots. I looked at her these days: short tidy haircut and turtle neck sweaters. She had no need for these things.
I stole her cigarettes because she didn’t seem to be very interested in cultivating a real habit. I wanted long cigarette holders like Marlene Dietrich might puff through. Something where I could say, ‘dahling,’ and give a slight tap tap of the end and the ashes would fall down like magic from a wand.
I stole her alcohol because she let it sit the counter half full and I knew it would go bad, turn to vinegar and flatten. I wasn’t stealing; I was saving, savoring, something she was ill-equipped to know how to do. I brought the contraband to school in my backpack in case I needed it. In case I needed to just chill at lunchtime and not let all the voices in the cafeteria freak me out. I stole because I needed to practice drinking so I could make out with the boy upstairs without anything else happening.
Contraband currency yields a safer pre-teen existence. That’s what you deal in. That’s what you trade with. It’s your poker game. Pony up. I’ll see your Salem Menthols and I’ll raise you some Djarums. What the hell are they? Says the kid on the playground hustling you. Exactly. When my mom had thrown all her cigarettes away to quit cold turkey, I hid them in my bedroom. I rationed them back to her late at night and early in the morning. Trading promises for nicotine. I was in seventh grade. I gave one to a fourth grader. He begged for it.
I traded the alcohol for rides home when I missed the bus. Sometimes I traded a hand on my thigh. Sometimes random German strangers. Not the whole way. Just a ride to almost the gate of the base, or to the next couple of bus stops. It’s not dangerous, if it’s not in America, they say. America was always just on the other side of the fence.
I accidentally stole this boy’s heart. He was ugly and shorter than I was, haircut Buster Brown style. He let us girls all know that his parents had money. His mother’s father was a count of some sort. They had three floors in their house. They had a house that they owned. They didn’t live on post or base or anywhere near Americans. He made bad clothing choices. Your family has counts! Where’s your Members Only jacket? Where are your topsiders, if not your Vans? He had a thrift store Boy Scout-like jacket that just seemed to be mocking those of us who had to shop at thriftstores.
He got to be in the smart classes with us, but he was kind of dumb. All the smart kids knew it. He could never answer a question correctly. He misspelled easy words. He wrote me a love letter and I corrected it. I showed it to friends on the school bus with him only a few seats away. We read it out loud. We took turns being bitches to him. Who does this guy think he is?
But sometimes we hung out with him anyway. Especially when we didn’t have money for soda or French fries or enough quarters for the Midway machine at the pizza parlor on the base up the hill from the school.
It was on such a day, after he’d bought us lunch and we’d gone in the candy and magazine store, a temporary trailer with near permanent status between the Commissary and the Base Exchange which carried Time, People, Hot Rod, and Playboy, that he slipped five tootsie rolls, three blow pops, a Reece’s and a giant gumball down his too skinny pants.
He didn’t run. We girls paid for our purchases clueless to what was in his pants. We finished up and stood outside unwrapping candy bars while the sky threatened to snow. He stood there with us for a few seconds, a blow pop in his mouth and a grin.
Then the security guard appeared and then the lady from the shop. Those girls bought candy, she said, created a diversion for him. We looked at Mike, who was still sucking on his stolen candy. They each took one of his arms as the shop lady and the guard looked at us girls. Mike looked at us smirking.
“Are they his friends?” said the security guard to the shop lady while not taking his eyes off of us. Even he could tell he didn’t belong with us. We in our Adidas jackets, feathered hair, and penny loafers. He and his mother’s picked wardrobe.
I forgot which one of us said it, but someone yelled No! In that incredulous teen way of saying ‘No’. I’d been staring at Mike. His face went red dye number 5 red. And then we turned and left him there. They didn’t tell us we could go. We just left. I got out three cigarettes from the latest batch of cigarettes I’d stolen that morning and we smoked them back to school. I heard a trace of the shop lady talking about calling his mother.
In a few weeks, he asked my girlfriends and I to host a party with him at his great big house. We said yes, of course, and brought my cigarettes and alcohol. One of the girls brought her moms’ prescriptions and her porn collection from under her bed. We invited kids that never would have hung out with him. His parents gave us clipboards with lists to check off of everything needed for parties. They gave us two spare rooms to stay in for the night with an adjoining bathroom where we locked the door to do shots of tequila. We got drunk enough not to mind when he came up to us to wrap his arms around our waists, a midget impresario, working the game room at his parents’ house. We sobered up every time he tried to lean in for a kiss. We kissed the boys we invited. Spun bottles on the game floor, kicked them into alignment when we thought no one was looking. The bottle never pointed to Mike. His parents checked on us at midnight. The time for parties to end is midnight, they said. They gave us new clipboards with cleaning checklists. We took down the decorations and vacuumed.
The counts made too much food and weren’t used to leftovers; they didn’t own any Tupperware. We watched as Mike and his mom and dad cleaned up by throwing everything from the streamers, and unused balloons to the barely touched vegetables and left over dip away. An entire tray of deviled eggs, and some Ritz cracker concoction that his mother got out of a book from the fifties were dumped unceremoniously into a Hefty bag. I’d hardly eaten; I was hungry but it’s hard to eat, drink, smoke, and suck face at the same time. I went with the easier prospects.
My girlfriends and I looked back at each other each thinking the same thing; we needed to retrieve the untouched chocolate cake now sitting on the very top of the Hefty bag, balanced by empty cartons and boxes. The icing would be smeared by the closing of the bag, now on their service porch. They’d be asleep in another hour when we’d retrieve the untouched chocolate cake and unused stack of paper plates. It wouldn’t be stealing.
Margaret Elysia Garcia won 2nd place in the 34th Annual National Chicano/Latino Literary Award given by the University of California for her short story collection 605 Freeway Stories; a story of hers was a Glimmer Train finalist last year. Her work can be seen in Best Fiction, Underground Voices, Penduline Press, Solstice Magazine and other small literary places. She lives in exile from her past lives in a remote corner of the Sierra Mountains. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Tales of a Sierra Madre @ www.writerchick-mama.blogspot.