Saturday, January 30, 2016
Christmas or Bust
I didn't go to jail for it or anything. But I think of the time I got caught shoplifting at the lingerie store up at the Champlain Mall in Plattsburgh as the beginning of my life of crime. It was supposed to be the first Christmas after my mother and stepfather kicked me out of the house when I was still 14 and crashing at my friend Russell's place with the bikers down on Water Street in Au Sable Forks.
They were letting me sleep on this ratty couch they had, because I was dealing weed then and kept them supplied on credit. But mostly when I hung out there, I stayed in Russell's room. The bikers were older than us and were heavier into drugs. I saw one of those guys once rub a line of coke straight into his eye, which kind of grossed me out. Plus they drank a lot.
Russell was 16 and worked days part time at The Video Den. At nights we used to ride up to the mall in his Camaro so I could deal a little weed to the other kids. And we would hang out until the stores closed and hit on the girls. But mostly nothing was happening, so we'd sit around on the benches and watch all these cheesy couples doing their Christmas shopping, which was pretty depressing.
At Christmas the malls are filled with people who feel rotten because they don't have enough money, so they fight a lot. The carols and blinking lights and the guys in Santa suits are supposed to make you forget your troubles. But it's the opposite. At least for me it was, which was one of the reasons I liked to get high before we went there.
This one night, about 10 days before Christmas, I didn't have any weed. And I was thinking about my mother and stepfather, how it would be the first time they would be alone. And I wondered what they'd do on Christmas Eve.
What they usually did was get smashed on this eggnog and bourbon mixture my mother said was her mother's secret recipe and watch TV specials. Around 11:00 when the news came on, we'd open the presents we got for each other, hug, and say thanks. And then they'd go into their room and pass out. And I'd smoke a joint in the bathroom and watch MTV with Willy, the cat, until I fell asleep.
It was OK but not exactly ideal. But we had a tree and lights in the windows and all. And last year was cool because I got this excellent suede shearling jacket from my mom. And my stepfather gave me a Timex watch so I could start coming home on time, he said.
I got her one of those long silk Indian scarves that she seemed to like a lot. And for him I got a pair of lined driving gloves. Everybody was happy in spite of the eggnog.
But a lot happened since then. For one thing, the main thing, I guess, I got kicked out of the house for stealing and pawning my mother's coin collection that she had inherited from her mother and that she was someday going to pass on to me. But it also had to do with my getting a mohawk and my ears pierced and screwing up in school.
And even though they never caught me at it, they knew I was heavy into weed, which was why I had stolen the coins in the first place. When I left, it was sort of by mutual agreement, I guess. They would have let me come back if I wanted but only if I could be a different person than I was, which was not only impossible but unfair because I didn't know how to keep myself from getting into trouble anymore.
I must have crossed the line back when I was a little kid, like five or six, after my real father took off and my stepfather moved in and married my mom. My stepfather was OK. But I know he didn't mind at all when he and mom found out I stole the coins and they got to boot me out of the house. I knew my mother wanted me to come home. But no way I was going back as long as it didn't make the both of them happy to see me.
So I started imagining this scene. I get Russell to drop me off at my mom's and stepfather's house, which is really only a mobile home except it's got a foundation under it and a deck in back like a regular house. All my stuff, including my trademark dirt bike, is in Russell's car. And we unload and set it on the sidewalk.
But also, I've got this huge bag of presents for my mom and my stepfather, truly excellent items like a toaster oven and a Crock-Pot and maybe some jewels and a fancy nightgown for mom. And for my stepfather, a Polaroid camera and a portable sander and a Polo ski sweater. Then Russell takes off and I'm alone.
The house is dark except for the string of lights around the front door and the electric candles in the windows. And I could see the Christmas tree lights blinking through the curtain in the living room where I know they're watching The Cosby Show or something. It's Christmas Eve. It's snowing a little.
They're really sad because I'm not with them, and they don't know how to let me come home without acting like what I did to them doesn't matter, stealing the coin collection, smoking grass, getting a mohawk and all, and living with Russell and the bikers, and not going to school anymore, which they probably know about by now, and dealing weed for Hector, the Hispanic guy at the Limbo, which they don't know about. Although, I wonder what they think I've been living on all these months, charity? Also, they don't know that so far I haven't gotten a tattoo, even though Russell has two very cool tattoos on his arms and is always after me to get one.
Anyhow, in this scene, I go up to the door and knock. And when my mom comes out, I say Merry Christmas, mom, just sort of flat and normal like that, and hold out the bag with all the presents wrapped in this incredible shiny paper with bows and everything. She starts to cry, and my stepfather comes to the door to see what's the matter. I say the same to him. Merry Christmas, Ron, which is what I call him, Ron. And I show him the bag of presents, too.
My mom opens the door and takes the bag from me and passes it to Ron and gives me a big hug. Ron shakes my hand and says, come on in, son. We go into the living room, and I distribute the presents to them. And all is forgiven.
They don't have any presents for me, which embarrasses them, naturally, and they apologize. But I don't care. All I care is that they really like what I got them. And they do.
Later, we're drinking eggnog and watching TV. And Ron looks out the window and sees my bike and all my clothes and things out on the sidewalk with the snow coming down. And he says to me, son, why don't you bring your stuff inside?
When I got busted for shoplifting, it was in this fancy lingerie store called Victoria's Secret. And I was already out of the store with a green silky nightgown stashed in my jacket pocket. A black security guard, a dude I actually knew and had once sold some grass to, put the arm on me and turned me around and took me into an office in the back where the manager of the store and the head security guy were.
And after they hassled me for a while, I told them my mom's name and telephone number. The black guy who busted me had to go back on patrol. And when he left the office, I looked real hard at him. But he didn't care. He knew I couldn't pin him for anything without pinning myself worse.
And then, of course, a half hour later, here they come, my mother and my stepfather, her looking frightened and upset and him just burned, but neither of them talking to me, only to the store manager and the head of security. While they talked, they made me sit by myself in a storeroom next to the office where I stared at the no smoking sign and kept wishing I could get high. And a few minutes later, my mother came out wringing her hands with her face all red from crying.
They want to arrest you, she said. And Ron agrees with them. He thinks it would be good for you, she said. But I'm trying to explain that we've all had a lot of troubles on the home front this year, and you're just reacting to that. I'm trying to get you off, do you understand? Do you? I said, yeah, I understand.
Then she said, if you'll go in there and say you're sorry and say that you'll come home with us and stay away from the mall, I think they'll forget about the shoplifting. And Ron will go along. This could be your last chance, she said. Come on.
And she took me by the arm and led me back into the office where my stepfather was joking with the store manager who was a bald, middle aged guy, and the head security guy who had a gun strapped to his waist. The three of them were buddies now, and they looked at me and my mom like we were insects. Go ahead, my mom said to me, and she pushed me forward a step. Tell them what you told me.
I hadn't told her anything. But I knew what she wanted me to say. I felt weird, like I was in a movie and could say anything I wanted and it wouldn't make any difference in the real world.
They were all staring at me, waiting. So I looked down at my feet and said, My friend was going to lend me $50, but he didn't get paid in time. See, there you go, my stepfather said. The kid doesn't know right from wrong.
What the hell did you want with a woman's nightgown? he laughed, holding up the gown with his thumb and one finger like it was porno or something, like he thought I was going to wear it myself. No way I was going to answer him. So I just stood there.
And after a minute or two with no one saying anything, my mother took my arm and led me back out to the storeroom. Listen, mister, she said, really upset. I'm going back in there one more time. And, remember, I'm the one putting myself on the line for you. If I get them to let you go, you have to promise me that you'll come home with us and that things will be different. Do I have your word on that?
Yeah, I said. And she left and went into the office. I could hear them arguing through the wall, my mother's voice high pitched and pleading, my stepfather's voice low and grumbling, and once in a while some comments from the store manager or the security cop.
It seemed like hours, but it was probably only a few minutes before my mother came back out all sad smiles now. And she gave me a big hug and kissed me on the cheeks. She held both my hands in hers and looked up at me and said, It's all right. They're going to let you go.
Ron finally came over to my side on this. He's going to meet us out front by the Sears entrance with the car. My goodness, she said, smiling. You're getting so tall, honey. It was true. I was taller than she was now.
When we walked out into the mall, I saw Russell sitting on a bench over by the fountain goofing with a kid I didn't know and a couple of girls from Plattsburgh High who were smoking cigarettes and pretending that the guys weren't there. Listen mom, I said. All my stuff's over at Russell's place. I'll go by there with him and bring it over. You and Ron go ahead without me.
She seemed a little confused. What? Why can't we just stop off there with you and get it now? No, no, I said. The place is locked. I got to get it with Russell. I don't have a key. Besides, I owe him $20 for the rent. I can't get my stuff until I pay him. Can you give me $20, mom?
I was already thinking about getting high with him and the girls he was talking to and riding around Plattsburgh in his Camaro. No, she said. No, of course I can't give you any money.
I don't understand. Don't you know what just happened in there? Don't you know what I just went through? -- Listen, mom. Just give me the money. I need the money. -- What are you saying? -- Give me the money.
She looked at me in a strange way, like she didn't recognize me but almost did. Then she reached into her purse and pulled out a $20 and passed it over. Thanks, I said. And I gave her a kiss on the cheek. I'll be back later after I get my stuff from Russell's.
She seemed shocked and put her hand to her mouth and took a few short steps away from me, then turned and disappeared into the crowd of shoppers. And as I crossed over towards Russell and the other kids, I remember saying to myself, now I'm a criminal. Now I'm a real criminal.