Little Thefts

by Martha Patterson

The Lost Dog

           Mrs. Mueller took her dog, a mutt, out for a walk every day, sometimes twice a day.  With her pink coat, frizzy red hair, and beaten-up black laced shoes, Benjamin Smith thought she looked like a harridan walking her dog.  Once she had complained to Benjamin’s mother that Benjamin played his radio too loud upstairs in his bedroom and she could hear it from next door.  He hated her.  

He peered at her from his bedroom window.  His parents had gone to Quebec for the week, and had left him to fend for himself.  He was sixteen.

Mrs. Mueller looked like an idiot to him, toddling after her speckled black-and-white dog.  What a crazy old lady, he thought, so hung up on the one thing that mattered to her – her singular pet!

On the Monday after his parents had left, Benjamin found the dog outside, whining for its owner.  It had escaped from the cyclone fence in her backyard next door.  It had evidently never done this before, but workmen had made a hole in the fence after repairing a drain and Mrs. Mueller, apparently, had not noticed the hole.  

Benjamin picked the dog up – it couldn’t have weighed more than eight pounds – and brought it inside and upstairs to his bedroom.  He laid down newspapers for the dog to relieve itself on.  He opened a can of devilled ham he found in one of the kitchen cabinets and fed the dog and gave it a big bowl of water.  

The next morning Mrs. Mueller knocked on the front door.  She looked frantic and her voice was querulous.

“Have you seen my dog?  He’s speckled, black-and-white.  A mutt.  Disappeared last night from the backyard.”

“No.”

“But surely you’ve seen him?  His name is Spot.”

“No.”  Benjamin hoped the dog upstairs couldn’t hear its owner’s voice.  “I haven’t seen him.”

“Sorry to trouble you.  If you do see him, give me a ring or a knock on my door.  Here’s my number.”

She handed him a slip of paper with her number written on it.  Benjamin noticed she had a bandaged wrist – she had probably sprained it from a fall.  She was old; she must be at least 70, Benjamin thought.  He closed the front door.

He went upstairs and played with the dog for a while, tickling its stomach and carrying it to his bed.  The dog wagged its tail and peed on the floor.  Benjamin wiped up the pee.

“There’s a good dog.  You don’t miss her, do you?  Stupid old woman.”

On Tuesday night he got some tuna fish from a can in the cabinet downstairs, put it in a bowl, brought it up to his bedroom, and watched the dog eat again.  The dog then relieved itself in the corner of the room, ignoring the newspapers Benjamin had laid out.

“Bad dog,” said Benjamin, scooping up the poop with a paper towel and carrying it to the toilet, then flushing.  “Bet you don’t miss her.”

That night he heard Mrs. Mueller out on the street, calling for her dog.  

“Spot!  Spot!  I know you can’t have gone far.”

Benjamin chuckled to himself.  It was his dog now.  But the dog had heard its owner and was mewling at the open window.  Benjamin closed the window, slapped the dog on its nose, and turned the radio on.

“Shut up,” he said to the animal.  The dog barked.  It was becoming a pain.  

Benjamin felt bad for hitting it, for his selfishness.  He picked it up, petted it, and snuggled with it in his bed.

“Good dog.”

Two more days passed, and Mrs. Mueller wouldn’t stop looking for Spot.  Outside the window, she wailed for her pet and seemed to be crying.  Benjamin almost felt sorry for her.

That night he remembered his parents.  

On Thursday, he carried the dog out to the back yard where the hole in the fence still hadn’t been repaired, and deposited the dog through the hole onto its own property, next door.  Then he pulled a piece of twine from his pocket and tied up the hole in the fence.

When he returned to his house, he used his cell phone to call the number Mrs. Mueller had given him.

“The dog is returned.  You’ll find him in your backyard.  I found him down by the supermarket, in the parking lot.”

He hung up without leaving his name.  

The next day, out his bedroom window, he saw Mrs. Mueller walking her dog again.  He could see the part of the fence where the hole had been, from his window, and it looked as though Mrs. Mueller had seen to it that the fence was repaired.  She looked happy with her dog, clumping down the street in her black laced shoes, with Spot on a red leash.  At least, she wasn’t wailing anymore.

Benjamin thought he had done the right thing.  And on Friday his parents would return from Quebec, none the wiser about his little “theft.”

  ###

   A Conspiracy

Mrs. Dickinson had lived on welfare with her little son for four years.  It had been 

that long since her husband, a car mechanic, died of a brain aneurysm.  She struggled with bills and more than once the electricity in their small apartment had been shut off.

One day she took young Jonah, who was six, down to the drug store to buy aspirin.  Lately she had been getting a lot of headaches.  She could hardly work herself – she had only a high school education, no skills, and didn’t even speak Spanish, a talent that could have won her a job as a receptionist at a local dentist’s office.  They lived in a diverse neighborhood – there were a lot of Latinos as well as African-Americans there, too, so knowing Spanish would have come in handy.

At the drug store, she found the aisle with aspirin and spent a minute picking out the cheapest brand, the smallest bottle.  She noticed Jonah hovering around the counter at the front of the store, where Mr. Simpkins, the owner, was manning the cash register.

Finally, she picked the right bottle of aspirin for her needs and went to the front of the store to pay for it.  Jonah was standing near the door.  She looked at him tenderly, he in his little red Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirt and denim shorts, and the sneakers she wished she had money to replace, for they were worn and had holes in the toes.

She paid for the aspirin, Mr. Simpkins dropped it into a small bag, and Mrs. Dickinson headed to the exit.  She stroked Jonah’s blonde head as they walked out the door, and on their walk back to the apartment talked to her son about how much they would enjoy Spaghettios for dinner that night.

When they arrived home, she put the kettle on to make a cup of tea, and sat at the kitchen table while Jonah whistled to himself and was preoccupied with taking off his T-shirt.  It was hot July weather and Mrs. Dickinson was glad she had a tank top to wear, her only warm-weather top.  She swallowed two tablets of the aspirin with a glass of water.  

The tea made, she sat down again and watched Jonah as he turned on their little television to see if Sesame Street was on.  Suddenly he pulled a Hershey bar out of his pocket and started to unwrap it.

“Where did you get that?” Mrs. Dickinson asked sharply.  

“Don’t know,” Jonah answered, immersed in watching the TV.

“I know where you got it.  You took it from the drug store.”

“No.  I found it.”

“That’s called stealing, Jonah.”

“It’s only candy.”

“Mr. Simpkins would be ashamed of you.”

But Jonah was stubborn.

“He’s just an old man.”

“I disapprove.”

“Would it be okay if he gave it to me?’

“He didn’t.  You stole it.”  She was very annoyed.  

Jonah looked at her shyly and held the unwrapped candy bar out to her.

“Want half?”

Mrs. Dickinson paused.  She knew it was wrong to steal, knew she hadn’t given Jonah the dollar to buy the candy, she knew Mr. Simpkins trusted her and would have been appalled that her child had shoplifted from him.  But she felt a reluctant compassion for her little boy, and the struggles they’d gone through, and he was so young, she was tired, she had a headache, and she knew it was wrong, but she couldn’t help herself when she finally spoke.

“Well – all right.  If we share it, maybe it’s okay.  But don’t do it again.”

Jonah smiled at her and they sat there together, eating the chocolate in mutual conspiracy.

      ###

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

Ariella was an orphan, 18, and lived with her great-uncle in a cottage where she made quilts to sell in his country store.  But Uncle Jeremiah complained about shoplifters.

“In the old days, I’d have stolen from someone myself to recoup my losses.  They call that ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul,’” he told her.

“That’s an old quilting term,” said Ariella.  “When you take a piece of fabric from one part of the quilt to fill in another.”

“If only you’d only married,” he answered.  “Before your parents died in that car accident.”  Ariella wondered how their problems could be solved so easily with few suitable young men around, and she’d been so young at the time of the crash.

The next morning she went for a walk.  A man, out of breath, approached.

“Where is the museum?” he asked as she passed.  “I’ve lost my way.”

“Why not take a taxi from the village?” asked Ariella.

“I was robbed!” the man said.  “An old man tricked me and took my wallet.  One old guy, said his name was McCrory, stopped to ask for a light, and a second old man stopped, too.  I’m applying as curator for the Museum.”

“It’s just five minutes’ walk from here.”  Ariella wondered why he hadn’t been more careful. 

“Thanks for the directions,” he said, turning away.  He had a kind face that she’d remember.  

“Know how to rob a man?” Uncle Jeremiah asked later, tired, while sitting in his armchair.

“That just happened to a man on the road.  But really — you’d never steal!”

“But I have nimble fingers.  And I’m worried about income.  You don’t sell many quilts.”

 Ariella noticed his hands shaking.  The skin on the backs of them was wrinkled like the peel of an orange.  

“You know our neighbor, McCrory – he smokes too much.  Always asking for a light,” Jeremiah continued.

“He’s forgetful,” Ariella answered.  “He must be 80.”

“I don’t trust people who smoke.”  

“Our neighbors are kind.  And that man who got robbed yesterday – he was attractive.”  

“A stranger — not worth a second thought,” answered her uncle.   “Let me show you one of my magic tricks.”  He balled his loosened necktie up in one hand, shoved it up his sleeve, and a moment later pulled it out from his other sleeve.

“Well, you’ve shown me card tricks,” said Ariella, amused,  “but I didn’t know you could make a tie vanish and re-appear!”  

***

“Money!” scoffed Cousin Jewel, who’d come for supper the next night.  “Always a problem.  I’d cheat on my own taxes, if I could get away with it!  But your father really should have let me be your guardian, Ariella.  Because I’m a woman.”    

Ariella smiled.  “My father thought Uncle Jeremiah had better prospects.”

“Yes,” said Jewel, “not getting by as a low-paid teacher like me.  Jeremiah, your hands are shaking!  Go see a doctor.  …By the way, did you hear the museum hired a new man?” 

“We don’t need new people in this village,” Jeremiah said.

“New people are fun!  I gave that man directions,” said Ariella.  “He’d had his pocket picked and I felt awful.”  

Suddenly there was a knock on the door.  Ariella answered it, and, to her surprise, there stood the man of whom they’d just been speaking.

“Come in,” she said.  “I met you on the road, remember?  I know you got the job you were after.  This is my Great-uncle Jeremiah and my mother’s cousin, Jewel.”  

“I was paying visits,” the guest said, entering, “hoping I could discover who robbed me.”  He sat in the chair Ariella offered.  “My name is Thomas Cummings.”  He stared at Uncle Jeremiah, who looked away.

“Everyone’s pretty honest around here,” said Cousin Jewel.

“I imagine so,” said Mr. Cummings.  “But I could swear I’ve met this man before.”

“Forgive my hand held up to my face.  I cut myself shaving,” said Jeremiah.  “Could have been old McCrory who was the thief.  A neighbor.   Sorry —  I’m going to have a nap before dinner.”  He left the room.

Mr. Cummings stood suddenly.

“He –” said Mr. Cummings, “he’s the old man who robbed me!”  

“What are you talking about?” said Ariella in shock.  

“I’m sure of it!  And I made a report to the local police!”

“You’re not welcome to stay,” said Ariella hotly, “if you make terrible accusations like that.  I’ll show you the door.”

But Cousin Jewel put her arm on Mr. Cummings’ sleeve.

“Now, just a minute.  Your uncle always boasted of nimble fingers, and this man’s new in town, and shouldn’t we give him our ears?”

“Cousin Jewel!  That’s a betrayal of my uncle!”

“As it happens, I believe Mr. Cummings,” said Cousin Jewel sharply.  “Mr. McCrory’s as honest as Jesus Christmas – but Jeremiah’s been acting nervous.  He likes performing magic tricks.  That’s how he stole your money, Mr. Cummings.  But his store is losing income.  Can’t you take pity and stay for dinner?  The money can’t have been much.”

“Fifty dollars,” huffed Mr. Cummings.

“Then I’ll return it myself.”  Cousin Jewel took bills from her purse and handed them over.  “I hope that takes care of it.  We’ll all have dinner and the matter will be forgotten.  If the police come, I’ll put them off.”

Suddenly Mr. Cummings seemed calm, as if he’d been presented with a nice cup of hot tea.

“Well, never mind,” he said. 

“We’re sorry.  And now tell us about your new job,” said Cousin Jewel cheerfully.  

“Forgive my anger.  Working at the museum will turn out well.”  He smiled at Ariella.  “You’re pretty as a painting,” he said.  “And you and your cousin are kind.”  He laughed good-naturedly and Ariella suddenly felt bashful.

“Ariella makes beautiful quilts,” said Jewel encouragingly.  “She’s talented, and loyal to everyone.  And I believe you both have all the optimism of youth.  Let’s eat.” 

So Ariella happily led the way to the dining table, imagining good things about to happen in this forgotten little town.  

THE END








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4 Responses to “Little Thefts”

  1. Little Thefts | Defenestrationism.net Says:

    […] « Little Thefts […]

  2. Little Thefts | Defenestrationism.net Says:

    […] read the suite from the beginning […]

  3. Maureen Brady Johnson Says:

    Sweet, little trio!

  4. Elissa Forsythe Says:

    Little Thefts! Vivid descriptions of characters in short but poignant stories.

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