A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
When I was in college, I committed larceny twice. Forty years later, I still feel pleased by the first theft and ashamed of the second.
I was living with a lovely plump girl named Linda whose smile could light a room. She was generous and kind, an excellent cook, and loved the idea of being in love with a young unpublished poet. Her love seemed boundless, and I couldn’t believe my luck. We barely got by on part-time jobs, college loans and handouts from our parents, but we were young, so being broke was just fine… until Christmas came. At the end of the fall semester, our little apartment looked sparse with no tree or decorations to brighten the darkening days.
On the last day of an evening class, my best friend Sam and I were walking back to my place, and I was telling him how broke I was and how inadequate that made me feel, not being able to buy even a small gift for Linda. We cut through a dark parking lot behind a convenience store. In a corner of the parking lot, out of sight of the store clerk, stood a pile of Christmas trees. They had probably been unloaded from a truck at the end of the day and would be lined up in front of the store windows the next morning for sale.
I looked at Sam, and Sam looked at me. We quickly walked over to the stack of conifers, grabbed one from the back of the stack, and hurried off the lot.
There was a railroad track that ran behind the convenience store where it crossed the interstate on a high bridge, making a dangerous shortcut to a park, and on the other side of the park was the apartment where Linda and I lived. Without discussing it, Sam and I knew that if we crossed the railroad bridge, no one would follow us. We had to step carefully because there was no surface to walk on, just crossties with two foot spaces between them.
A few months before, my creative writing teacher, who was also my advisor, had jumped off this very bridge and been hit by the cars below. He was the first person I’d ever known who committed suicide. Later there would be others. This image was in my mind as I looked between the crossties under my feet and saw the cars flying by forty feet below.
Trembling with terror, and angry at myself for risking my life for a petty theft, I stepped off the bridge onto solid ground. Sam and I slid the tree across the wet grass of the park, past the swing set, and arrived at my front door. We told Linda we’d found the tree in the park, and she treated it as a gift from heaven. Although I haven’t seen Linda for many years, I still sometimes remember how her face lighted up when she saw the tree.
A year later, Linda and I had broken up. I was full of self-pity, drinking heavily, angry at everyone and everything. One evening, Sam and I were at the Knox Street Pub a few blocks from my apartment. We drank a pitcher of beer, but we were too broke to buy another. We sat there, glowering, feeling sorry for ourselves when the couple in the booth next to us got up to leave. A ten dollar bill lay on the table.
I looked at Sam, and Sam looked at me. Without saying a word, we moved over to the booth, and I slipped the ten in my pocket. The waitress, a nice person who was regularly propositioned by the drunken clientele, came over to the table. Her pretty green eyes scanned the table, and not seeing what she expected, she ran out the door, presumably to ask the last customers to pay. She came back in a few moments, looking at us suspiciously. She asked whether we’d seen a ten dollar bill on the table. Sam and I looked innocently at her and shrugged.
With hurt and confusion in her eyes, she asked us what we wanted to drink. We ordered a pitcher of beer. When she brought it to us, I payed for it with the ten dollar bill I’d stolen. In a feeble attempt to salvage my dignity, I told her to keep the change. She was furious, but she knew there was nothing she could do, so she took the money to the bartender and spoke to him with her back to us. The bartender glared at us over her shoulder.
Sam and I drank the pitcher of beer quickly and left. We never spoke about the incident again.
For a long time, I felt ashamed. About ten years later, I was in the old neighborhood and happened to drive by the Knox Street Pub. On an impulse, I went in. Since I’d stopped drinking by then, I sat at the bar and ordered seltzer water. I saw the waitress on the other side of the room, wiping tables. She was older and heavier now and somewhat beaten down by the years. She obviously didn’t remember me – probably just one of many men who had taken advantage of her.
I walked over to her, handed her a twenty dollar bill, and said that she had been kind enough to help me years ago and I wanted to repay her. I was too ashamed to tell her what really happened.
Copyright 2016 Michael Simms