Adele and I hear the dreaded scuff-scuffing at the exactly the same moment. It is the treacherous sound of approaching fleece slippers chafing against the hard wood of our dining room floor. We freeze, like prey animals hoping not to be spotted. My mother appears at the doorway to the den and peers in. Her eyes flicker. Her head swivels like a slow moving surveillance camera on a rotating cantilever. Deadly thermal guilt beams shoot from her brain causing exactly the same anxiety as seeing a blue flashing police bubble in the rear view mirror. Behind her, sunlight floods in from the kitchen window. The sinister backlighting filters through her hair and throws an incandescent halo around her silhouette as if a stage effect has been arranged to dramatize her arrival.
“What in heaven’s name are you doing?” My mother asks, her eyes a rapidly shifting spotlight between us.
Adele and I glace at each other from where we are sprawled across a heap of floor cushions. Po peeks out from the covers of her sofa cocoon. We’re wearing rumpled pajamas and sleep-dust is still gluey in the corners of our eyes. The manic din of Saturday morning cartoons blares from the TV set we are parked in front of. Pretty obvious.
I poke at the cheerios in my cereal bowl uncomfortably. Po tugs a thread loose from the frayed edge of her blanket. This must be a trick question. Even if she can’t see the cartoons, the Foley-table clangs and boings should give it away.
Looking back, I realize that my mother was as bewildered as we were. She had grown up in a home that was strictly Old Testament. Her father was an orthodox man of God who preached sacrifice and subjugation under God’s almighty thumb. The childhood she’d known was Crusades grim with parental discipline so oppressive it would have made Stalin blush.
There was no trick in my mother’s question. It was confusion, a matter of context. To her, frivolity was the devil’s jurisdiction and therefore always suspect. She would never understand the allure of animation. Comic books and cartoons were a complete mystery. Wyle E. Coyote might as well have been the devil himself.
“We’re just eating a little breakfast, Mom,” Adele explains skillfully deflecting my mother’s focus from the Road Runner’s depraved exploits. Breakfast was acceptable, right? “We’ll be done soon - a couple more minutes.”
My mother’s eyes narrow. We begin shoveling huge spoonfuls of milky cereal into our mouths. Her squinched face and the billowing white sleeves of her gown and black bathrobe make me think of pirates. I imagine that she has a patch across one eye and a parrot on her shoulder. Arrrr.
“Well okay,” she murmurs, cinching the sash of her robe a bit tighter, “but get a move on. You need to be outside weeding the azaleas before the sun gets too hot.”
My mother pours a cup of coffee and pads back to her bedroom with the morning paper tucked under her arm. I smile at my sister’s shrewd thinking – easily an hour’s reprieve. We settle back into carnal repose, returning to our cartoons and the warm languor of Mephistophelian sloth.
Occasionally my father would catch a cartoon or two with us on mornings like this, but he knew not to settle in. He would lean against the doorjamb or sit on the arm of the sofa, his sunglasses and keys in hand, trigger-ready to bolt.
Saturday evasions were essential. Sunday’s were thoroughly exhausted by church. We were hauled there every week like Stockholm hostages for indoctrination. There was Sunday school at nine, followed by church services at eleven and then we were back again by five for Sunday night services. Wednesday nights were more of the same. Some of the church people were okay but the bulk of the religious teachings were laced with humiliation. A lot of rules were involved and they were all black and white. Any deviation was attributable to Satan, or at least to depraved impulses, which fell directly within his purview. The main gist seemed to be getting us to feel ashamed and nervous about just about everything we did so it would feel really great to agree to let God make it better. At least Sunday night prayer meeting was followed by snacks.
The crummy part about my mom was that you could see this fundamentalist view had become her own crown of thorns. She had capitulated under her father’s stern hand and agreed to drag around his terrible cross. Beneath this heavy load was a freer spirit. She had renounced the sweetest part of herself and would disavow that freak for the whole of her life. The universe could implode from the weight of such dissonance.
The neglected middle child is the inclined agent of rebellion. I sheltered my mother’s essence and nurtured her unrealized freak. By the time I was seven, the devil and I had become pretty well acquainted.
“Hey, Satan,” I wonder aloud. It's late in the evening, well past midnight. The devil and I are playing poker under my bedcovers with a flashlight. Satan is winning.
“How do you suppose I might get some real stakes for this game?” I ask him, fidgeting over the last few pennies of my allowance money. Satan glances up briefly, laying down a full house, aces high.
“Steal it,” he says bluntly.
The devil disappears into a mist of sulfurous fumes promising to return for another game when I have more cash.
At least this is about how my parents pictured events going down. In truth, the reasons I stole $15 from my second grade teacher’s purse were probably more complex.
I’d had to spend most of the previous year in the hospital for a small malignancy. There had been surgeries and complications and finally chemo; soon after which my dad had been transferred and we moved down to Florida. I was having trouble adjusting to the new school. Private hospital tutoring had put me ahead of the curve so I was bored with my lessons, on top of which I was insecure and scrawny. I had grown three inches taller during convalesce but lost half of my body weight. Every virus that breezed past clung to me like lichen to a wet stump so I was often kept inside during recess. I hadn’t made many friends yet.
One such day when I had a cold I was left alone at my desk where I was to stay resting my head on my folded arms until they returned. My teacher had gone to the playground with the other children
Satan dropped by to keep me company.
“I’m tired of resting,” I complained. “I want to be outside with the rest of the kids.”
“I hear you,” Satan comforted, his humid, hot breath aqueous against my skin.
Satan was sitting close up next to me with his great head in my lap. He had arrived as an enormous Black Labrador, his physique as ripped as a timber wolf. I scratched between his ears and ran my hands through his silken coat. His fur was soft, like Russian sable. He nuzzled my hand affectionately.
“Maybe we could look around the room a little,” he suggested innocently. “You know, stretch our legs. What do you think?”
“Sure,” I said. “I guess that would be okay.”
We walked first to the Reading Circle. It didn’t feel the same as when I was there with my rowdy classmates. With the lights off and the children gone, the room was grey and bloodless. It reminded me of the hospital at night. With my forefinger, I traced the outline of the block alphabet letters that were tacked to the bulletin board behind the arc of little chairs. Even the letters felt kind of hollow.
From there, we strolled up to the front of the room. I wrote my name slowly in cursive on the blackboard, making sure to join all the letters together just right. When I erased my name, chalk dust fell out of the felt. I banged the eraser against the slate board a few more times to watch the chalk fly and then pushed the residue across the aluminum tray that ran underneath. I scooted the powder off the edge into my cupped hand and blew the flakes in the air over the devil’s dog head so it sprinkled like snow as it fell across his arched back. My friend chuckled and shook his massive black pelt back and forth. The dust scattered out in an iridescent calcium cloud around him
We poked around the shelves in the Activity Center for a while where jars of buttons and seeds and popsicle sticks were neatly lined up beside stacks of construction paper and scraps of fabric. We watched ants tunneling in their Plexiglas farm and examined a poster that catalogued matter into solids, liquids and gases; then, we wandered along to the back of the room. I stopped short at the edge of Mrs. Gary’s long desk. Students were never allowed back here alone. I peered cautiously across the polished oak grain. A brown leather blotter with a calendar pad was stretched across the top. It posted parent meeting times and assignments with their due dates. The ceramic mug she used for coffee, with the red A+ painted on the front, sat at the edge of the blotter. Her grade book was nestled alongside a gingham jar full of pencils; and papers were clipped and stacked in piles of various sizes, waiting for her attention. I liked coming back here when I had a question. Mrs. Gary looked me right in the eyes when I spoke, really listening, and she always answered my questions like she meant it. Sometimes she would put her arm around my waist and give me an encouraging hug. She smelled good, like lavender and talc.
I chewed at a hangnail as I indexed the things on Mrs. Gary’s desktop. I stretched out my timid hand across a tall stack of papers till my fingertips grazed the clear crystal apple that sat on top holding the papers in place. I quickly pulled my hand back leaving the precious weight undisturbed.
Satan snorted and brushed past me indignantly, tramping behind the desk like a storm trooper. He pawed at her stuff irreverently pushing the lid off a small brass box and sniffing the paper clips sheltered inside.
“Hey,” I whispered, “cut it out.”
Satan ignored me. He stuck his black nose into a low open drawer and snuffled a plastic bag full of butterscotch candies.
I moved around my teacher’s chair quickly, careful of the cornflower blue sweater draped over the back. I replaced the brass lid back on the box and gently shut the desk drawer, nudging Satan away with my knee. He trotted to the far side of the desk and lay down curling up like a cub ready to nap. I squatted down next to where he’d settled. He licked my cheek. It soothed me. He dropped his head next to Mrs. Gary’s leather satchel and sniffed, burrowing his black nose into the half open bag. A plaid Heritage thermos poked out of one pocket and a raison colored glasses case was tucked into another. In the middle compartment, cherry red and inviting, lay Mrs. Gary’s handsome wallet.
When the class returned from the playground, I was asleep at my desk. I lifted my drowsy head and stretched looking around for Satan; but, he’d gone. I fumbled in my desk for the book we needed for our next lesson. My hand brushed the row of pink roses on the front pocket of my dress. I tried not to think about the two crisp bills that were folded inside.
I confessed the whole thing to my teacher the same day. Mrs. Gary called my parents for a conference after school.
I fidgeted in my chair at the Reading Circle as the conference began. My mom and dad looked even bigger than usual in the diminutive chairs. I hunkered as low as I could in my seat, watching their expressions twist as my teacher explained what had happened. To say they were upset would be like saying Hitler was naughty. They were furious. They fumed as if the single, deliberate intent of my actions had been to make them look foolish.
There was a long silence, the kind of silence that fills up the atmosphere inside you with shame that threatens to burst.
“I don’t understand,” my mother finally said, looking at me like I’d turned into something, not even someone, unrecognizable and dirty. Her voice trailed off into a whimper, muffling her throaty half-sob lament. She shook her head and hunched her shoulders gravely.
“Don’t we give you everything you need?” she continued. I guessed she wasn’t really looking for an answer. “Why in world would you need to steal? Steal!” Shame rimmed the edges of the tears in her eyes. I thought I might drown in those salty pools.
“You’re in big trouble,” my father said, his voice low and sharp. I knew he wanted to shout; possibly he wanted to reach out and slap me. His eyes narrowed into biting arrows. I felt those arrows piercing deep into my heart’s center. “You should be ashamed of yourself, young lady,” he muttered; and, like my mother, growled it a second time for emphasis, “Ashamed!” Then he asked me, like I could explain it somehow, “Why did you do it?”
“That’s it?” he asked, “That’s all you have to say for yourself, young lady?”
Tears burned my eyes and throat. What could I have said in defense? I was depraved - a thief. Of course they were mortified. I did steal. Steal! I was ashamed. Ashamed! I deserved to be punished. Punished!
There was silence again. The pressure inside me expanded until it seemed like every good thing inside me was pressed into a dense lead weight of disgrace.
“Perhaps the situation isn’t quite so serious,” Mrs. Gary interjected. Her voice was soothing and kind, like the patter of soft rain in early morning hours. She smiled and took a moment to breathe slowly, like she was showing us all how. “Children don’t know what to do when they’re in distress. So, they act out. Sometimes it’s just a way of letting us know that they need a little bit of extra help.”
I will always be grateful to Mrs. Gary for giving me this out. I had violated her trust and stolen from her but she spoke up for me, without actually taking my side, so my parents could accept her point of view. They talked for a bit longer. I never said a word. I watched my parent’s postures ease as Mrs. Gary affirmed their frustration. I listened as she gave them a way out too; a context for thinking about things to mitigate dereliction. I saw their faces soften and find mercy. Yes I was still, and for all times would remain, their larcenous daughter, never again to be trusted; but, for this horrible moment I was granted clemency.
“Well,” my father said finally, clapping his hands down on his knees, “for starters, no television for a month. That will give you time to think about what you’ve done - how you’ve disappointed your mother and me.”
“…and God,” my mother added, her voice still trembling.
“That’s right,” my father said. “You know you broke a commandment, don’t you? ‘Thou shalt not steal’.” I watched him turn this idea over in his head. “And,” he continued, “as the bible says, ‘An eye for an eye’.’” He took my allowance away indefinitely, to make the point.
The ride home was quiet, which was fine with me. I kept my head down, heavy with remorse and laying low just in case. I was sorrier than I knew how to tell them so I said nothing. Anyway in that moment I was giving silent thanks to Mrs. Gary. I had gotten off easy and I knew it.
Later that night Satan showed up for a game of cards.
“Ready for some real action?” he asked, riffle shuffling the cards, “Now that you’re a high roller, I mean.”
“No can do,” I told him. “I’m broke.”
I explained about the money - that I had admitted to stealing it and had returned it to my teacher; that my family had found out and my allowance had been cut.
“You confessed?” the devil asked, less a question than an exclamation. He shook his head slowly back and forth in disbelief. He turned on his heels to take his leave for better games; but then before abandoning me to suffer my broken fortune alone he pivoted half way around and regarded me solemnly. He studied my posture and desolate grief. I saw a light flicker briefly in the devil’s dark eyes, as if he were recalling his own youth or at least a trace of the past. The devil snickered. He looked at me squarely and then gave me a wink.
“Rookie mistake,” he said, and with a flourish of smoke, he vanished.