The Red Owl store had only one check-out aisle, a broad, formica-topped counter the size of a town flag, with a cash register at the close end, where the checker stood making polite conversation while punching in the prices and jerking back the lever to register the sale.
“Nice tomatoes today, John.”
“Aren’t they though?”
“Tick, tick—shiick, shiick.”
Just behind the counter, the candy rack stood like a buffet, stock with candy bars, bubble gum, Life Savers, baseball cards, and penny candy wrapped in cellophane. Up above, a flat, wire dispenser advertising Kools held a couple dozen brands of cigarettes in separate chutes that emptied slowly when the clerk grabbed the bottom pack.
We found stealing cigarettes to be remarkably easy. As long as someone was taking her sugar and milk and Cheerios out of her cart and putting them up on the counter, we were free to roam behind the checker. I don’t remember the first time I pocketed a pack myself, probably because the job seemed so easy. AT first, one pack was plenty for an afternoon of smoking for us, but soon stealing cigarettes became something of a game. Once, my friend made it out with three packs of Kents, stuffing them down beneath his belt and into his underwear before flipping a dime up on the counter for two packs of baseball cars. What’s more, he got Henry Aaron to boot.
But we got caught. I will never forget that night in my bedroom. I’ll never forget the way my own father cried as he looked away from me and out the little circular window to the south. I was twelve, I think, and it was summer—the last week in June. I had pretended to be asleep because I knew that the jig was up and all of us were going to catch it; but my parents had snapped on all the lights and marched upstairs and stood there at the foot of my bed. And it all came out in tears.
Three times in two weeks my mother cried for me. That was the first. My father sat on my bed and talked slowly, trying to wrench out every last piece of information. But my mother didn’t say much at all. She couldn’t. She was choked up with tears. I was the baby, the only boy. She never guessed I could be stealing, and smoking, cigarettes. She cried out of sheer disappointment, I think. I say that because I’m a parent myself now, and I think I know what I I’d feel if my son or daughter did what I did as a boy.
Even then I understood that it was her disappointment that brought those tears. Neither my father or my mother hit me that night. They didn’t have to. I saw both of them cry. I never forgot that, and I never will.
My father sentenced me to two weeks of white-picket-fence painting in the backyard. In addition, I had to pay back John, the Red Owl storekeeper. So I went to the store with a pile of fifty-cent pieces, my father right there at my side, p ushing me forward, forcing me to tell the man what I’d done. The Red Owl is a shoe store now, and John isn’t selling groceries. But even today I cannot see him without feeling guilt.
For two weeks I saw nothing at all of my friends. For two weeks, our family ate around the kitchen table and talked so guardedly that it seemed our words were precious china.
When my sentence was over, we boys got back together. We were raising fan-tail pigeons in a coop out behind the garage where we used to smoke. We needed straw for bedding, so one day we tied a wagon to the back of one of our bikes and rode up to an old barn at the edge of town. We asked the guy who owned the place if we could have a couple of sacks of straw. He said okay, and we pedaled back to the neighborhood, three stuffed gunny sacks jammed in a coaster wagon swinging behind.
My father was gone off to work. My mother took one look at the loot and thought we were stealing again. This time she hit me—hard, as I remember, and often. I remember feeling her hand almost lifting me from the gravel as she swatted me, time and time again, half-running across the alley, pushing me along through the evergreens out back, across the lawn, and into the back door, then right upstairs, constantly thrashing away at my backside in an explosion of emotion that was, once again, full of tears.
I couldn’t tell her that this time I wasn’t guilty. I tried, but she was incapable of listening. I remember her screaming at me, and I remember thinking that nothing I could say could stop the torrent.