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The Little Thief, a short story
The Little Thief
by R Patrick Hughes
I stole many times from my family and friends when I was a kid, and my father whipped me with a belt whenever I was caught.
“How many times do I have to beat you, Rodney,” he’d yell while swinging the belt against my rear end, “before you stop stealing?”
The whippings never seemed to stop me, though. Whenever I saw something I wanted, a dime in someone’s pile of change on their bureau, or a piece of candy on someone’s kitchen counter, whatever it might be, I had to have it. I had no self-control. I knew it was wrong, but I thought I had a right to it, so I took it .
The first time I sole from a store was in 1959, when I was twelve years old. After school let out for the day, I walked to the bus stop a block away. With time to kill, I went inside the corner drug store and looked at all the merchandise. What I wanted most were the ballpoint pens. There was a tower rack with a row of compartments containing a dozen or more pens, compartments with red pens, some with blue, some with black, and so on. I enjoyed writing and drawing in different colors and I wanted the pens badly, but I had no money. I never had any money.
I wasn't the only kid in the store. There were boys and girls handling items all around, and the gray-haired lady behind the counter glanced from one to another and to another. My heart pounded as I waited for the right moment to strike. I picked up an eight inch long red pen. It felt comfortable in my hand. I shifted my eyes a bit toward the lady, hoping she wasn't looking my way. The moment she looked at a girl and said, "Put that down, young lady, before you break it,” I slipped the pen inside the front of my shirt, letting it fall down to my waist, and walked outside.
I’d done it. I’d stolen the pen. I looked back at the doorway and no one came after me. I knew it was wrong, but the thrill of getting away with it excited me. Owning the pen was a trophy I’d use over and over again. Many days during the rest of the school year I'd steal another pen, collecting a nice assortment with different colors of ink.
During the next couple of years, my interest in pens shifted to model airplanes. The thought of flying bombers and fighters during World War II occupied many moments of my time. The scale models were so accurate, I felt as if I were handling the real thing.
When I turned fourteen, my parents increased my allowance to twenty-five-cents-a-week,
which was nice, but the model airplanes cost one or two dollars each, so I saved up to buy them as
well as the tubes of glue I needed to make them. I had bought and glued together models of many of
the smaller planes, the F4F Wildcat that was used by the Navy on aircraft carries, the P-36 Hawk used
by the Army Air Corps, and my favorite fighter, the P-40 Warhawk, which my father had flown in the
war. I loved their sleek bodies as well as the tiger’s teeth painted on the fuselage. I held the models up
in the air and flew them around my bedroom, shooting Japanese Zeros or German Messerschmitts, watching them explode and go down in flames. I was a great pilot, and had many kill-marks painted on the fuselages of my planes.
What I really wanted, though, were the bombers. They were bigger and more expensive, and I had to save up for a couple of months just to buy one. I was impatient. I wanted them right away. My favorite was the B-24 Liberator. I loved the blunt nose with the gun turret on it, and the four engines made it look powerful. If I had been in the war, that's the plane I would have wanted to fly. Being high in the sky over a target, dropping bombs, and fighting off the Messerschmitts or Zeros attacking us, would have been the greatest experience of my life. But the war was over, and I would never have the chance.
My friend Scooter and I enjoyed collecting the model airplanes. Neither of us had enough money to buy all the planes we wanted, so we got new ones the only way we could: we stole them. We trolled the aisles of the nearby five-and-dime store where models were stacked up on the shelves, trying to decide which ones we wanted and would also be the easiest to smuggle out. The smaller boxes, about the size of a paperback book, were the easiest and safest. After hiding them under our coats, we slinked out of the store, stopping every so often to look at something, as if trying to decide if we wanted to buy it, until we got to the door and walked outside. Once we were a block away, we opened our boxes and took out our booty. We'd study the large pictures of the planes on the front covers of the boxes and turn the boxes over to look at the smaller pictures on the backside, longing for the planes we saw.
Over the next several weeks, we managed to shoplift more models. My collection was growing. I had planes pointing in different directions lined up on the bookshelf of my bedroom. Sometimes, I'd set them out on my bed as if they were parked along the runway of an airfield. I had a few duplicate models, and lined them up at angles as if they were on aircraft carries.One day, my father walked into my room. "That's quite a collection you have there, Rodney."
He stepped up to the book case, examining the models. "This one brings back lots of memories.” He held the Warhawk in his hand, looking at it carefully, as if he were far away. He set the plane down. “I've noticed you getting more and more planes. You really like putting them together, don't you?"
"Yeah," I said. "It's fun."
"Maybe I should increase your allowance so you can buy more."
My cheeks burned. Then, one day, he surprised me by actually increasing my allowance. I didn't need to steal the planes any more if I didn't want to. Also, my mother and father had been urging me to find a part-time job. “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” my mother said. My interest had been shifting to other things, anyway. I had been thinking about buying a motor scooter, and I would need more than an allowance to do that.
A week later, Scooter and I walked toward the five-and-dime store. I said, "Let’s stop at the store. I want to apply for a job."
"You don't really think they'll hire you, do you?" Scooter asked, pushing a shaft of brown hair out of his eyes.
"I won't know unless I try."
We walked into the store. I talked to the manager in his office, and filled out an application. Afterward, I found Scooter in the aisle where the model airplanes were. We walked outside.
The manager ran out after us. "Stop, you two," he shouted. He lifted up Scooter's jacket and pulled a box from my friend’s hand.
I froze. I had no idea Scooter had stolen a model airplane. It had not even been my intention for us to steal anything.
"You two come with me."
Scooter and I followed him back inside the store to his office and waited while he called the police. Scooter stared at the floor. I shook on the inside, scared to death, waiting for the police to arrive. Then they came, two tall cops dressed in blue, carrying guns and handcuffs.
"Here they are officers. I've been watching them for a while now. I was pretty sure they were stealing. Then today, this one tries to divert my attention by applying for a job while this one hides a box under his jacket. When they walked outside, I stopped them and found this under this boy’s jacket." He picked up the model-airplane box.
I wanted to say I didn't have anything to do with it, but I was too nervous to speak. I kept thinking of my father beating me with a belt. I couldn't think straight.
The policemen took us outside and ordered us into the backseat of their squad car. They drove first to Scooter's house and told his mother he'd been caught stealing. I shivered with fear as they drove down my street. I knew all my neighbors were watching me and wondering what I had done. The policeman told my mother, who stood in the front doorway of my house, practically in tears. She said, "I don't believe you." I slithered down in the car seat.
When the policemen brought us to the police station, we walked down several grey hallways to a large office. Back in the distance, the iron bars of the cells reflected glimmers of light.
"Empty your pockets," an officer said to us.
I dug into my pockets and pulled out the contents, placing everything on the high counter."What's this?" the officer asked, picking up my tiny pocket knife, a toy really. He opened it, pulling out the half-inch-long blade. "Look at this, Pete."
Pete looked over and said, "Carrying dangerous weapons, huh, boy?"
"A real hood," the first officer said. "What's your name, again, Rodney Harrisburg? That's funny: I was born and raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania." The officer chuckled as if enjoying some kind of private joke. "Well, Mr. Harrisburg, I don't like your kind." He looked at the officer doing the paperwork on the other side of the counter. "Hand me the paddle, Joe."
Joe reached beneath the counter and pulled out a three-foot-long wooden paddle, with six or eight holes drilled through the wider end, and handed it across the counter.
"Mr. Harrisburg," the officer said, "put your hands on the edge of the counter and stick your ass out."
I did as he said and, bam, he swatted me with the paddle, practically lifting me off the floor. My butt stung and my eyes nearly watered, but I fought back my tears.
He hit me again. I cringed, my butt squeezing tight.
He handed the paddle back across the counter to Joe. "Behave yourself, Mr. Harrisburg. There's more where that came from."
The policemen led us into another room. Scooter and I stripped down to our underwear and put on grey prison jumpsuits, my backside still aching. Then they led us into a large cell, where we sat behind iron bars and waited. We were the only prisoners. It was surreal: nothing but grey walls, barred windows, a wooden bench that we sat on, and a bunk bed across from us in the small room. I didn't like the thought of spending the night there, maybe even several nights.
It had been hours since our arrest when I was taken from the cell and led back into the front office. My father stood scowling at me, his arms folded across his chest.
After I changed back into my own clothes, a policeman emptied onto the counter from a large brown envelope my wallet and other belongings. Everything was there except for my knife. I wanted it back but was afraid to say anything.
In the car, my father looked over at me, his eyes stone-cold looking. "What are you, stupid?"
I had never heard this tone of voice in him. I stared out the window. For the first time in my life, I felt like a criminal.
"I had to cut short my overtime to get you out of jail. Never in my life would I have believed you'd steal. Don't we give you what you need?"
I couldn't answer him. I couldn't say anything. I just wished I were someplace else.
"Tomorrow morning, you have to appear before a judge. What am I supposed to do, get you a lawyer? We can't afford one." He gritted his teeth a moment. "I'll plead with the judge not to put you in jail. I'll get on my hands and knees and beg if I have to."
I was shocked. I'd never heard my father talk like this before, talking as if he were powerless and afraid.
"I would never have thought this of you. Stealing...I can't believe it."
The next day, we went to see the judge. My father and I sat in his chamber, just the three of us. Judge Simonian was an older man with a short beard and a black robe. "I should send you to jail for a while, but, seeing this is your first offense, I'll be lenient. I'm placing you on probation, son. If you stay out of trouble until you're eighteen, your record will be sealed, as if this never happened."
I was grateful my father didn't have to beg or plead. I would have crawled under the chair. "Thank you, judge," I said as we left the chamber.
In the car, my father said, "You think this is over? It isn't."
We drove to the five-and-dime store where I had been caught stealing, although I was really innocent. Why hadn't I told that to the judge or to the policemen? I hadn't because I knew they wouldn't believe me, anyway. Besides, I had stolen from the store in the past, so maybe I was guilty, after all.
My father and I walked into the store and met the manager.
“I’m sorry I stole from you.”
“It’s okay, son,” he said, “if you learned your lesson from it.”
“I have,” I said.
We left and my father asked me, "Are there any other stores you've stolen from?"
I had to be honest. I couldn't lie, not now. "Yes. I stole from O'Brian's Drug Store." It was a few stores down from the five-and-dime.
We walked inside the drug store and found the owner. My father said, "He's got something to tell you."
Mr. O'Brian looked at me suspiciously, his forehead wrinkled. He was much taller than me, almost a giant.
"I stole some stuff from your store," I mumbled, "some models and things."
He stared at me a moment or so. "I'm sorry to hear that. I wondered why my inventory was off.”
“I’m willing to pay you back.”
“Ah, that won’t be necessary. At least you were brave enough to tell me."I hadn't been brave. I had been scared. "I won't do it again, Mr. O'Brian, I promise."
"I'll take your word on it, son. Thank you for coming in and telling me."
We walked out of the store. I couldn't believe nothing had happened. I couldn't believe that I was a criminal, and everyone was forgiving me. I didn't know what to make of it. I'd done something wrong. And they were nice to me, except for the cop who paddled me; he probably thought he was serving me justice. It had only made me mad enough to hit back, to be a hoodlum for real. But everyone else was nice. Everyone else trusted me, and I never wanted to betray that trust, never again.
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