I wanted to show him I could help, could get us money just as well as he could. I was tired of his having to give me a haircut in the sink with a bowl over my head, tired of having to wear his pants to school, the same pants he’d been wearing since the seventies I think, the ones that made my legs sweat bullets in the summer, all thick and cordy and brown. He tried so hard for us, and I was old enough to try too.
This was about two years ago, I was thirteen and still played hacky-sack in the courtyard or hold’em in the cafeteria. Back then, I was smaller than everyone else, probably because I didn’t eat much, and not many people larger than me took any notice, either because they couldn’t see past their noses, or they didn’t care to. I fit nicely into the background, and could easily stand beside a person without them noticing and so began to push the skill with my friends, stealing cards from their back pockets when they weren’t looking, and then with complete strangers, trying to get address books so we had people to prank call at dinner-time.
It was sometime during those care-free moments that Dad lost his job. We were already done for, me and him, and this time would be the worst, I could feel it. We were late on rent, had little to eat and only the kindness of neighbors to help us along. I was afraid that soon, we wouldn’t really have neighbors to speak off.
So instead of address books, I moved to wallets. Easy ones, that I could put back. From people who looked like they had way more than us in the grocery store, completely unaware and in the midst of battling over the nicest cuts of meat. They wouldn’t miss it, I thought. And Dad will be so proud of me, that rare large grin on his face as I hand him a wad of cash, a big ball of it, so meaty our mouths will water.
Soon, I was looking for any opportunity to grab a wallet or a twenty here and there. I had seven hundred dollars by then, and knew rent was five. The extra two was for the electric we hadn’t had for a week, for some good food, or a good pair of pants that actually fit. Could have stopped there, I know I could have, not to mention it was getting harder and harder for me to withhold my secret from Dad, who seemed to be pleased I was getting out and about more, but I had decided to set my goal for an even thousand, and wanted to fulfill it. It would be enough to cover everything. Enough to make him so happy he would hug me tight and everything would be alright.
It was while walking home from a little excursion into a movie theater crowd, that, not quite lost to my then frequent daydreams of hot pepperoni pizza or of going to a party with a nice pair of shoes, a car with an open window caught my eye. I was down a side-street, not well-lit, a park behind me and a warm row of houses across the street. The wind blew, covering all but the sound of blood rushing in my ears, for on the car’s passenger seat was a thick white envelope, the letters R-E-N-T scrawled on the surface. Looking around and finding almost no one on the street and my face hot with excitement, I quietly slipped my hand under the package and took it as my prize.
Still standing by the car, I had to look, had to see how much it was. In it, the thick wad of twenties made me swoon, thicker than the wad of cash I had already collected. Paralyzed by the smell of it, I barely heard one of the doors across the way slam, the girl’s laugh at having been so silly as to forget her rent, only coming to when she began to scream – first at me and then to her landlord – that I was stealing her money. It took a second for my flight instinct to kick in, and it was that, I think, which allowed her landlord the time to catch me before I made it even two blocks away.
And wouldn’t you know it? The rich property owner was married to a cop. Though she had a kind face, she grabbed me by the scruff, made me give the envelope back, and took me down to the station, where she had me sit in a room full of officers and drunk or crying (or both) weirdos while she called my Dad. Well, called Cathy, who got a hold of Dad and told him what had happened. It wasn’t until she asked me how to reach my parents that I realized Dad was going to find out. Fear and panic began to settle in then; he would be mad, wouldn’t want me around for a while, might even hit me, though he never had yet. Then again I hadn’t been in that much trouble before.
The officer talked on the phone to Cathy a lot longer than I could have expected, and something in her expression seemed changed once she hung up the phone and came to tell me my father was on his way. It took him awhile to arrive, almost two hours, and in that time I got more sympathetic looks than I had ever received. What had Cathy said?
And then he was there, a man who usually seemed too small stood as tall as I had ever seen him and talked to the officer at the front desk who pointed toward where I was sitting. He looked at me quickly, before returning his gaze to the officer talking to him about what had happened. As he stood there nodding, I noticed a small furrow in his brow as it increased across his forehead, the sight causing sweat to build on my own. After signing a few papers, and talking a bit more, the officer turned around and beckoned for me to join my father.
“You’re free to go,” he said.
“We’ll walk home,” said my Dad quietly.
Our home was still a good half an hour ahead of us when Dad stopped and motioned for us to sit on a nearby bench. I couldn’t look at him yet, and felt so ashamed. Where was the glory I had imagined? Where was his smile? When he finally opened his mouth to say something, I couldn’t hold myself in anymore, and began crying hard, like I hadn’t since I was small. But instead of letting me wear myself out, or scolding me for crying like I thought he would, Dad put his arm around me and pulled me close to him, like he had’t done since I was small, not saying a word.
“I’m sorry,” I sobbed into him, “I just wanted . . . I just wanted . . .”
“I know what you wanted. But is that a way to get it?”
“I’m so stupid.”
He tugged at my shoulder a bit before leaning back.
“It’s over now. Stupid or not, it’s behind you. Have you learned from this?”
“I . . . yes.” I put my head back down, realizing that my fists had been clenched tightly into my palms, and so relaxed them.
“Then what more can I ask for than that my son learn an important lesson? We’ll get through this. I don’t know how, but we will.”
Looking back up, I couldn’t help but smile.
“Yes,” he said, looking at me kindly, like a father should look at his son.
“I still have seven hundred dollars in my room.”