The first time I shoplifted, I was eight years old. At that time, we were living in a huge house owned by The Community in a neighborhood of Steubenville known as Belleview, and Sister Helen was still living with us then. You would think living with a Catholic nun would exorcise the orneriness right out of most kids, but I guess my ornery streak was more impenetrable than most. It didn’t help that I was allowed huge chunks of freedom in those days to play outside. My sister Alysia and I would run around on summer days and not have to come back until the “street lights came on,” which was almost 9 o’clock!
Little did Mom and Sister Helen know, when I was supposed to be out waxing wholesome, I did things like look at the Playgirl magazines under my friend Virginia’s single mom’s bed; attempt to “run into” the boy I had a crush on (translation: walk back and forth in front of his house 20 times until he’d come out, hop on his bike, and ride right past me without so much as an up-nod ); go to my friends’ houses and watch MTV videos on the silver box of sin we weren’t allowed to own; use a wide vocabulary of words that would make a sailor blush; and literally walk MILES away from my home, looking for trouble.
On one such walkabout, my sister, Virginia, and I decided to go down the forbidden “Angel’s Trail.” I’m not sure why it was called Angel’s Trail, when, we were told, it was populated by vagrants, teenagers having sex, and derelicts who just ripped out pages of porn and hung them up on the trees, decorating them, I supposed, like Christmas in a whore house. We were forbidden to walk down this long, winding path of cement steps that led into downtown Steubenville, but we steeled our nerve and did it anyway. The beginning of the trail was right across the street from our house, and we set off at noon.
We didn’t encounter any flashers or fornicators, or anyone at all that day, and we got to the bottom of the trail in about an hour. It let off on a downtown city street we had coincidentally lived on when we’d first moved to Steubenville, so Alysia and I knew our way around. There was a Kmart type of store called “Treasure Island” just two streets over, and Virginia had a dollar in her pocket, so she said she’d buy us all a piece of candy. We felt very sophisticated rolling up into a store on our own, with money to spend in there.
But when we got to the candy aisle, we saw the money we had to stretch three ways was probably better split two ways. We could buy two candy bars. Virginia argued that since she had the money, she would get one candy bar to herself, and Alysia and I would have to split the other one. While this was completely fair and reasonable, I was a little asshole, and it just didn’t sit right with me.
“You probably stole that money from your mom’s wallet,” I barked at Virginia. “You should be glad I’m not telling on you. Instead you’re being greedy!”
“I didn’t take it,” Virginia answered, too quickly, her face turning the same shade of purple as the boxes of Nerds candies just behind her head.
“I’m sure you didn’t,” I said casually. “Your mom might not agree with you, though. Maybe I’ll just ask her and see.” With that, I strode away from the aisle, my own face starting to flare red in frustration at my missed candy opportunity. Alysia hurried after me.
“Wait!” Virginia cried, and caught up to us breathlessly. “Wait. I have an idea. You could just put some candy under your shirt. Steal it. No one would even notice,” she looked around, and so did we.
The store was almost totally empty, and there wasn’t a single “worker,” as we called them, in sight.
“We can’t do that!” Alysia protested. Ever the do-gooder, the yin to my yang, the angel to my devil, my sister was more often than not dragged along for the ride on my “adventures.”
“Sure we can,” I answered smoothly, making up my mind in that instant. I swaggered back over to the candy aisle like the Big Shit I thought I was, and picked up a bag of miniature Twix candy bars. I slipped it inside my IZOD shirt, tucked it under my arm, and started walking toward the exit. I expected the others to go to the cash register to pay for Virginia’s candy bar, and I would just meet them outside. A minute later, though, both girls were behind me, and we were all moving a little too quickly to the automatic doors.
“STOP RIGHT THERE,” I heard a booming voice shout.
I broke out in a run, but was grabbed by my shirttail, and the sudden repositioning sent the Twix bars flying out from under my sweaty armpit and sliding across Treasure Island’s dirty linoleum.
Virginia tried to lunge past the large, panting security guard but still holding onto my shirttail, he wedged himself between her and the exit door. Alysia stayed right where she was.
“Come with me, girls,” the security guard commanded, and steered us into an office at the front of the store. By then all the cashiers were staring at us and a few customers too.
We were all three crying by the time we got into the room. The guard heaved himself into his desk chair and assessed us.
“You know I saw what you did,” he said, needlessly. “Right there on those screens behind you.”
We all turned and looked at the screens, sniffling. I was beginning to sob.
“I-I’m so sorry, officer. I shouldn’t have taken the candy. I promise I won’t ever do it again, EVER,” I squeaked between shuddering breaths.
“And what about you?” the guard pointed to Virginia.
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” she protested.
“So you’re not hiding a bunch of stolen candy under your shirt?”
I sharply turned to look at Virginia’s stained AC/DC t-shirt and saw that it was bulging.
“N-no!” she answered.
“Well, if you’re not going to confess, then I’m going to have to get a female police officer down here to search you. Do you want me to do that?”
“No,” Virginia answered slowly. She lifted her shirt and three bags of candy, including Sprees, an assortment of Hershey bars, and Pixy Stix, fell to the floor.
“Why would you DO that?” I shouted. “You HAD money!”
“Well I could only get two candy bars, and you were going to get a WHOLE BAG of them!”
“You’re so stupid! This was ALL YOUR idea. It’s all your fault,” I sobbed.
“I’m pretty sure you both broke the law today, and it’s both of your faults,” clucked the guard. “The only one here that has any sense is that one,” he said, pointing at my sister, who though innocent, was shivering like she was next in line for the noose.
“What-what’re you going to do to us?” I stuttered.
“First, I’m going to call your parents. Then I’ll decide if I should have you sent to juvenile detention,” he said with a twitch in his cheek. “What’s your number?”
After I gave him our number, I started praying. Dear God, please, please, please don’t let him send me to juvy. I’ll do anything. I’ll say 100 rosaries. I’ll never steal again, God. I’ll never, ever dangle wet tissues over Sister Helen’s nose while she’s napping. I won’t lie anymore, God. I’ll do anything!
I listened to the conversation the guard was having with my mother, my whole body cringing. It was fairly brief. He hung up the phone and told us she was on her way. He tried Virginia’s mom next, but she didn’t answer. Virginia exhaled loudly.
“Whelp, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you,” he muttered, eyeing her. Virginia wasn’t crying anymore, and her lips were pressed in a line I recognized as defiance.
She better not screw this up for us, I thought to myself as I telepathically beat her with a life-sized Pixy Stick.
Mom got there about 25 minutes later, and she’d brought Sister Helen with her. I noticed that Sister Helen was wearing her nun’s habit, which she didn’t ordinarily wear. She was what I’d refer to as a “granola nun,” which of course is a hippie nun who does yoga and eats things like all-natural peanut butter and wheat germ. What she really did not do was dress up like a penguin on a daily basis, but there she was, all decked out in somber black and white.
When they entered, the guard stood up abruptly, raising his eyebrows at the sight of them.
“Uh, uh, Mrs. Brown?” he stammered in my mom’s direction.
“Yes that’s me,” she answered without looking at him. Instead, she was glaring down at me.
“And who might you be, Sister?”
“I’m Sister Helen, and I live with these children and their mother,” Sister answered sternly, also glaring at me.
“Oh. Oh, I see,” said the guard, although it was clear from his befuddled expression that he did not see. Most people in the world did not cohabitate with nuns. I was painfully and daily reminded of this fact by classmates, school secretaries, teachers, bullies, neighbors, grocers, friends, Romans, and countrymen.
“Well, seeing how you have such a good influence at home, little girls, I’m really surprised this happened,” he said, deferentially nodding at Sister Helen. My mother jerked as if she’d been stung by a wasp.
“They have two good influences at home, sir. But kids make mistakes, and my daughter and her friend have made a colossal one. I promise you, we’ll see that they learn their lesson,” my mom said, imperiously. She was using big words. This meant she was mad at him now too, I thought with some satisfaction. Now at least hopefully the anger towards us would be watered down.
The guard stood up and said, “I sure hope I don’t see you girls in this store ever again. I won’t call the authorities but you’re banned from coming in here; that’s your punishment. Is that understood?”
We all nodded.
“I’m very sorry this happened, Mr., um, Angelo,” mom said, peering at his name tag. “I’ll see that Virginia’s mother knows about this too.”
The guard ignored her, but said to Sister Helen, “You take care, Sister.”
“Bless you,” Sister said over her shoulder, as we all paraded out of the office and through the double doors that led outside.
I squinted in the harsh daylight after the past 60 minutes of thinking I’d never see the sun again. Mom tugged on my arm, unnecessarily dragging me to the car while Virginia and Alysia jogged to keep up.
Mom was silent all the way to Virginia’s house, a sure sign of impending doom. She had a talk with Virginia’s mom on the porch, which ended abruptly when her mom roughly yanked her into the house and slammed the door.
“Why are you dressed like that, Sister?” I asked, watching Mom do her tight-lipped march back to the car.
“Never you mind,” Sister muttered, turning back from the front seat to give me an apprising glance.
Mom got in the car, slammed her door, and pealed out of Virginia’s driveway.
“WHAT were you THINKING, little girl? And what were you doing so far away from home, both of you?”
“It-it wasn’t MY idea,” Alysia stammered.
“Oh. I see. So your sister has taken away your FREE WILL, is that it?” Mom retorted.
“It really wasn’t her fault, Mom. And she tried to stop me from stealing,” I said with my head drooping.
“You BOTH are getting spanked, BUT GOOD!” she vowed.
I sort of snorted, because even though I hated being spanked, it was kind of a funny statement. My butt was going to feel anything other than “good.”
“Oh. That’s funny, is it? You, young lady, are not leaving the house, except for church, for two weeks! How funny is that?”
Not funny at all, as it turned out.
I did learn my lesson, but only temporarily. I didn’t know if I could actually be sent to juvy for my crime that day, but I’d made a promise to God that if he got me out of it, I’d never steal again. It would be 8 years, and much higher stakes, before that promise was broken.