Capers ~ Edith Pearlman

 

Picking up loose change — it was Henry’s idea.  An activity — not a crime, not even a misdemeanor.  And any sport that aroused his enthusiasm was worth playing.  It was so easy.  The stuff lay all around them.  It lurked under the mailboxes, and in the corners of the elevator, and on the sidewalk.  It could be fished from chair cushions at the movies.  Dorothy found oily coins in the gutter.  She washed them and sometimes polished them.  Once, in a diner, two quarters were lying on the counter near Henry.  Henry picked them up.  The counterman held out his hand.    “Those are mine, my tip from the guy before you.”  Henry relinquished the money.  On her stool Dorothy stared straight ahead.  Henry would have kept those quarters –would have stolen them.  Stealing was a crime.  Yet it was the counterman who looked ashamed … ashamed for Henry, maybe.

            The next morning she went downtown to do an errand.  On a busy sidewalk she  found herself plucking a purse from the gaping backpack of a careless young woman striding ahead of her.  The young woman was wearing a red knitted hat with a royal blue pompom.  Dorothy – who had owned such a hat, a lifetime ago — drifted sideways to a window display.  Heavens, she thought to herself, counting the money in the purse.  What are you doing.  Run after her, run after her.  Forty dollars and change.  Ahead, the pompom bobbed above the crowd of shoppers.  Dorothy stuffed the purse into her own handbag.  Take it to the police station, say you found it on the street.  Instead she entered the underground and boarded the trolley that would trundle her home.  Failing to hand the police a dropped purse was not a crime.  She could keep the thing; it might even be legally hers.  Or if she turned it in at the police station and that devil-may-care pompom didn’t bother to report her loss, the purse might devolve to Dorothy, the honorable rescuer of a found object.  Not until the trolley emerged from the underground into the light did she remember that she had not found the money.  She had swiped it.

            She confessed to Henry that night.

            “How much?”

            “Forty dollars, but even if it were forty cents …”

            “Some spoiled college girl.  Her daddy will make it up to her.”

            “Henry …”

            “Let’s try the horses.”

            The next day they took the train out to the race track and bet twenty dollars twice, and lost both times.  “So now you’ve made retribution,” said Henry in a merry voice.  They rode back in warm silence, holding hands.

            “Gambling is unreliable,” Henry pronounced that night.  “Picking pockets – that’s the solution.”

            “To what problem?” He glared at her, but she went on.  “Pocket picking takes training by a master, and Fagan’s been hanged.”

            “I’ll learn it on my own.  Remember how I used to play Debussy.  I can be light-fingered.”

            He’d made Debussy sound like Sousa, and he’d known that at the time.  Now

he reformulated the past – a habit of the elderly.  Morality too got reshaped, and ethics.  “Filching money from individuals is dangerous,” she said in a knowledgeable voice.  “Let’s bypass cash.”

            “Bypass?”  It was not a popular word.

            “Cash is useful only to buy merchandise,” she explained.  “Let’s go directly to the merchandise.  Stores.”

            He grinned at her. “What a girl I married.”

            She grinned back, but her heart was wilting.  This crumbling of old values must be a sign of dementia, mustn’t it.  Perhaps his was an encapsulated dementia, confined to mild misbehavior.  Maybe petty crimes would stave off worse senility.   She knew some poor old fellows who tried to fondle waitresses.

 

            Sometimes she still felt a craving.  Early in the morning, say, when dawn turned their gray walls an intense lilac she liked to think of as whorish.  Her hand would creep across the bedclothes like a blue-veined mouse.  He’d be sleeping on his back, which he wasn’t supposed to do because of the apnea.  Snoring, stopping, snoring, stopping.  She’d shake his shoulder just hard enough to make him turn over – away from her – onto his side.  Usually he didn’t wake up.  That was okay.  He needed what rest he could get.  He slept so poorly, waking frequently, finally waking for good — for bad, really: waking cranky and staying cranky until the lunchtime beer, which turned him cheerful for a little while and occasionally even amorous.  And so, sometimes, in the early afternoon …  But he always needed the pill, and they had to wait an hour, and she was dry no matter how much of that old lady’s gel she slathered on; she might as well just brush her teeth with it.  And at that hour the light pouring into the bedroom showed them plainly to each other.  The grooves on his face were often greasy.  His scalp was pale as an oyster under what hair was left.   Keratoses lay on her chest like pebbles.  Her own hair had never achieved whiteness; sunlight cruelly revealed its similarity to straw.  And if he were to kiss the hollow of her neck, which he had loved to do long ago, entering the silk purse above before the silkier purse below, that’s what he used to say – he’d find the hollow filled with loose, shuddering skin like crème fraîche.  And it took him so long to come, pounding insistently as his younger self would never have done; and it would have taken her even longer, probably forever; but, spent, he rolled away, leaving her chafed and sad.    Long ago, during the decade following their marriage, they’d had to snatch  pleasure between jobs and child care and the sleep they were always short of.  In the several decades afterwards sex was peaceful and considerate.  Even ten years ago they were still warm with each other.  But the best years were long ago, in college — parietal rules still in force, then; immoral behavior still punished by expulsion.  In college their problem was finding a site for immoral behavior.  They had a few favorite places.  The top floor of the University art museum, a storage space for painting and sculpture waiting to be repaired, where they kept company with dark Annunciations and cracked nudes.  The boat house down by the river – they lay under overturned canoes.  In early fall and late spring they visited the ocean, just a bus ride from school, its beach deserted by the end of the afternoon. 

              She liked to recall a particular October day.  The water, too cold for more than a dip, rippled in shades of Wedgewood and slate.  They watched it for a while.  Then he fell asleep.  She grew chilly, and the one beach towel they’d brought lay on his chest.  Carefully she slid it off, pausing to admire the auburn hair that curled there; then she wrapped her own body in the towel.  “Dolly,” he said, opening one morning-glory eye.  “You thief.  That towel is mine.”

            “Not any more,” and she was on her feet and running.  It took him a few groggy minutes to get up and run, too.  They ran across the length of the beach, half-naked boy chasing girl in bikini.  Her long brown hair, thick then, flew behind her: the striped towel waved from her hand.  She was headed towards a wall of low rocks that led from the road to the sea.  He’d catch her when she started scrambling over them.  Wisely she didn’t try to run further.  Instead she turned abruptly and faced him, and he thudded against her as if shot by a cannon.  She dropped the towel.  They stood in a panting embrace.  It wasn’t foreplay, really: it was simple hugging, love throbbing from one heart to the other.  When at last this exchange satisfied both, their thumbs entered each other’s waistbands; in seconds the lovers were lying on the sand beside their apparel.  Who cared if anybody  walked by.

            Soon afterwards they married.  They raised two calm daughters.  They traveled some, bought new books at the bookshop, made charitable donations.  As they aged they went on doing what everybody in their cohort did – paid the condominium fee, shopped for groceries, went to a movie and modest restaurant once a week.  They joined a bird-watching group.  They tended their ailments.  But they’d become too weary for travel, and their tastes in reading had narrowed – thrillers, now, and old novels: all available free at the public library.  They cancelled their subscription to the Symphony; they had an excellent stereo system at home, and the series cost so much.  Tuesdays were free at the museum, so they dropped that membership too.  They dropped the New York Review.  Staying au courant could break their fragile budget.  The pensions, the annuities, the long-term health insurance: all were sufficient; and yet – again like their cohort – they felt pinched.

            “I’ll try it first,” said Dorothy.  “I’m an experienced shopper.”

 

            At a convenience store Dorothy waited until she was the only customer.  Then she slipped a quart of milk into her reusable shopping bag and pushed the little cart to the cash box behind which stood a melancholy Mexican woman – no, indigenous: she had an Aztec face; she was ready to be plundered.  Dorothy turned her cart around and wheeled it to the refrigerated items and shoved the milk back into its case and removed it again and this time placed it in the cart.  She pushed the cart to the woman and paid for everything that was in it.

            She tried sneaking milk from the Russians, too.  Again her nerve failed.  A stout orange-haired woman stood behind a counter dishing take-out chicken and kasha, and her twin served up last week salads.  The whole place smelled of fish.  Dorothy thought helplessly of the suffering of these people, generation after generation.  At the cash register stood  a younger sister of the other two.  Dorothy took the quart of milk from her shopping bag and laid it on the counter with the rest of her groceries.

            At the 7-11 the cashier looked slightly feeble minded.  There was no way Dorothy would prey on him.

            Each time she told Henry she’d stolen the milk.

            His own effort had been a failure.  At a department store he put two pairs of socks into his jacket pocket and walked out.  But when he got to the subway station the socks were gone.  Somebody had picked his pocket.  Somebody who knew what was in it.  Somebody who had seen him pinch the socks.

            “We’ve got to work as a team,” he said to Dorothy.  “One the distraction, the other the sleight-of-hand artist.”

            She was silent.

            “Do want to run your own operation, Dolly?” he said, and chucked her under the chin.  “Is that what you want?”

            She wanted him, as he once was, but she didn’t say that.

 

            Department stores became their theatre of operations.  They learned on the job.  Some merchandise could be delicately edged off a counter by Dorothy while Henry and the salesperson discussed the similar items lying there for inspection.  In this way they acquired a pair of suede gloves, an infant jumpsuit, a pen, a small picture frame, a jar of imported chutney.  At the fine jewelry department she charmed a pair of man’s cuff links into the right sleeve of her coat.  Then, reviving the ‘tell me all about yourself’ smile of her middle years, she rested her left elbow on the glass case and invited the jeweler to tell her all about semi-precious stones.  Meanwhile she thrust her right hand into the coat’s pocket and left it there until first one link and then the other dropped from the sleeve into her curled palm.

            What to do with the booty?  Well, they ate the chutney.  The picture frame became a wedding gift.  They gave the infantwear and the pen and the gloves to Good Will.  Poor people would put them to use, not guessing their market value, appreciating only their utility.  Redistribution – that’s what Henry and Dorothy were engaged in, Dorothy told herself.  And although she worried about the immediate future of the duped salespeople she wasted no pity on the big stores themselves, who could swallow their losses.  Her sympathy centered on the agitated Henry.  His spirits soared immediately after a snatch but plummeted a few days later.  “We are not sufficiently exercising our talents,” he grumbled one day. “We should start thinking about banks.”

            “Maybe stagecoaches,” she said lightly.  “What shall we do with these beautiful cufflinks?”

            He shrugged.  “Good Will.”

            “Somebody will spot their value and fence them.  You should wear them, Henry.  To a party.”

            “When were we last at a party?  All we go to is funerals.  When it’s my turn – bury me in them.”

            “Okay,” she sighed.  “Banks, then.”

            He brightened.  “I’ll read up on alarm systems.”

            So off they went off to the library, arm in arm.  And there was the latest Le Carré, with a waiting list six months long, traveling like an ordinary passenger in the returned books cart.  Henry picked it up, also found a book about installing your own alarm system, motioned Dorothy to exit blamelessly through the theft-detecting turnstile.  Then he carried Le Carré to the same stile and handed it across to her — “You forgot this, dear,” — and returned to the desk to check-out the alarm book.  Such darlings, anyone who saw the pair might have thought.

            They read the Le Carré right away – Henry first – and then, early one morning, they slipped it into the library’s return box.  The book about alarms went in too.  “Too complicated,” said Henry.  “We need an expert,” he groaned.

            “We need a vacation,” she offered.

            “Where?” sounding sulky.

            “I mean … time off.”

            “To do what,” sounding exhausted.

            “The other day … I found our old birding glasses.”

            So they joined the birders again, and took some nice walks, and heard some lovely sounds, and made some new friends, and gradually went back to their old ways, thrifty but not stinted, careful but not stingy.  Honorable.

           

            The remission lasted several months.  Then one day they read of a luxury hotel opening downtown, and within it a number of high-end boutiques.

            ‘Let’s look it over,” said Henry.  “For old time’s sake.”

            “ ‘That old gang of mine,’ ” she sang.  “Can we declare our criminal career a success.”

            “Some of it was cruel.”

            “Cre-wel, also broidered,” employing new tangential, illogical speech she had recently developed.  It had alarmed him at first and now amused him.  “’By the pricking of my thumbs,’” she continued.  Quotations floated through her conversation as if dislodged from the walls of her brain.  She sounded learned until you noticed their irrelevance.  She often forgot where she’d put things.  Once he’d found her pocketbook in the freezer.

            They went downtown on a Thursday afternoon.  They broke their date for a movie-and-early-bird special with the Halperins.  They gave the excuse that they needed to meet with their financial advisor — an imaginary personage.  They got dressed up for the expedition, and Henry wore his favorite vest, a fiery red.  He had acquired it in a busy men’s store simply by taking off his raincoat, putting on the vest, resuming his raincoat, and walking out.  Dorothy’s hair was in a loose bun these days.  She wore a long flowered skirt and snug black jacket, both of which she had purchased some years ago.  She could have passed for a Renoir girl grown old.  She had no idea how eccentric she looked, Henry thought – or how beautiful.

            The large circular hotel lobby was beautiful too, in an austere way, all brown plush and rosewood.  In the smoking room, a nickel rested in an ashtray.  Smoking was not a crime here.  “Come, darling,” said Henry.

            “O my darling, O my darling,” she sang, and put the coin in her pocket.

            A corridor of glassy stores led away from the lobby: window after window of tempting things – leather bags, jade elephants, a pyramid of face creams.  “That substance promises the return of an eighteen-year old complexion,” Dorothy read aloud through the window.  “Complete with blackheads,” he promised.  Antique books, men’s accessories, luggage, timepieces.  A tiny place called Silk.  “There’s a Security Guard,” Henry remarked.  “Oh, look at that chess set.”

            But Dorothy had dropped his arm.  She was lingering at the doorway of Silk: scarves, shawls, handkerchiefs, even gloves, even belts.  She floated in.  “Are your worms kept in humane conditions?” she asked the saleswoman.

            “Madame?”

            “I’d like so much to see the scarf in the window, the one where blues shade into one another – yes, that one,” and the saleswoman cupped the item in her hands as if it were a baby and then laid it on the glass case as if it were a baby’s blanket.  She from her side and Dorothy from hers marveled at the colors of the chiffon.  The woman seemed sincere, but of course she could not feel the power of the blues, the way they called forth Dorothy’s seemly life: the ink of the river at night seen from under a canoe, the ocean’s  mauve at sundown; the blue-green of shore reeds, the silver of spray.  The brightness of Henry’s young eyes and the cloudiness of his aged ones.  Her bridesmaids’ gowns had been robin’s egg blue; here was that shade repeated exactly in this fluid fabric.  Here were the veins on her hands.  Here was the sapphire of the Paris sky at evening.  Here was the blue-purple shadow of one statue’s head on another’s paler back in that storage room at the top of the art museum.  Here was the cobalt ring of the glaucoma probe.  Here was the blue-gray ash that covered the nickel in her pocket. Last was the lilac of her bedroom at dawn.

            “How much?” said Henry from the doorway.

            “Five hundred dollars,” said the saleswoman.

            “Well, well,” he stammered, not knowing what to say next, wondering how much those damned cufflinks would fetch.  But he didn’t have to say anything or to fence anything; Dorothy was in charge.  She walked towards him, throwing the scarf over her shoulder as if to demonstrate its versatility.  On a hunch he turned sideways and she nodded and slid past him and began to walk very fast towards the lobby.

            “What? – Madame! – shit.”  The saleswoman came out from behind the case apparently hoping also to slide by Henry.  But he had turned again within the doorway.    His hands gripped its silvered glass jambs.  His legs were apart on the silvered glass threshold.  “Do not pass,” he intoned.  The saleswoman ran back to the case and pushed a button somewhere behind it and picked up a glass telephone receiver that had lain unseen on its glass cradle.  Henry, having given Dolly time to mingle with the crowd, began to stroll.  Then he saw her loping ahead of him, the scarf bunched over her shoulder; again it was playing the part of a baby.  He exchanged a glance with it, and walked as fast as he could, his pulse objecting.  He could hear Security tramping after him, not too fast – an incident of thievery would be poor public relations.  Dorothy reached the lobby.  Henry had almost caught up with the graceful sprite, her bun loosening, the scarf now floating from her hand.  She wheeled suddenly, and they collided, breast to breast and heart to heart.  Mouth met mouth too.  The scarf fell to the floor.

            Some people in the lobby looked up, as indifferent as aristocrats.  The Silk saleswoman edged past Security, dropped to her knees and crawled to the scarf and pressed it to her heart.  Then she stood up and walked away.  Security remembered something he had to do, and vanished.  Henry and Dorothy unstuck themselves from each other and left the hotel hand in hand and hailed a cab.

            “You should have seen those geezers going at it in my back seat,” said the cab driver later to his partner.  “Something like that, it gives you hope.”

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