The Caretaker – Part Two

So he’d ceased all criminal activity.  Immediately.  It was like being hit with a magic wand by his fairy godmother.  In a moment of crise de conscience, he figured out a way to get the money he’d embezzled from the city back into its coffers.  The more deeply he fell in love, the more all the illegal things he’d done weighed down upon him.  How he wished so badly he could undo them, could stand before his dear Beatrice as a man guiltless of any wrongdoing ever.

In the darkest hours of deepest night, he would lie awake, cursing himself inwardly for having been such a terrible person, totally bereft of any moral compass.  One particularly black night, he looked up the word sociopath in the dictionary, had a trembling premonition that he might find his photo alongside the definition.

And then, as if as a punishment, Beatrice became ill.  They’d been married just shy of ten years when she was diagnosed with cancer.  To further tear him apart, Beatrice had suffered greatly, often crying out, the pain unbearable.  He grew to believe, the more protracted her suffering, that his beloved wife was actually being punished in his stead.  Her dying, a final relief from the ever increasingly excruciating pain seemed interminable.

As his wife’s illness progressed, his ceramics work turned to weird sculptures, each stranger than the last, dark and twisted.  His bass playing devolved into jarringly disjointed and discordant outbursts that made little sense to him, almost uncontrolled in their nature.  The once pristine yard began to revert to a wilder, unkempt state.

By the time Beatrice passed away, he was a physical and emotional wreck.  He didn’t have enough years with the City and County to retire early, so he took the penalty, settled for a smaller pension.  And while he sat there in his house, feeling it and the rest of the world crumble around him, he felt those old criminal impulses rear their ugly hydra-like head.

He fought these urges as best he could, his memory of Beatrice doing its best to prevent him from recommitting to the high-geared kleptomaniac life he’d led.  But it was no good.

He walked through the Ala Moana Shopping Center, nauseated, but driven on.  Macy’s?  Why not.  One store was as good as any other.  He remembered how great the amount of merchandise he’d taken from this place when it was the east end anchor store of the shopping center, the biggest Liberty House in the State.

Entering at the street level, he surveyed the scene, looked around at the security camera set up, remembering how easy it had been when no such measures against shoplifting existed.  He wandered the floors, more interested in spotting plainclothes store security than examining any particular merchandise item.

After he’d evaluated the store from bottom to top, he decided that women’s clothing looked the easiest area in which to take something, anything.

“May I help you, sir?”

The young woman startled him out of his near trance.  “Oh, no, no thanks,” he glanced at her name tag, “Claire.  I’m just looking.”

“Searching for anything in particular?”

“No, no, just wandering and wondering.  She’s hard to shop for, my wife.”

The young woman smiled.  “I know what you mean.  I feel the same way about my mom,” she said.  “I can never figure out what she might like.  Anyway, just let me know if I can help you.”

He thanked her.  Moved on slowly.  And then he noticed the girl.  With the backpack.  Darting looks around her.  Geez.

She looked maybe sixteen, seventeen, was walking the rows of clothes too nervously, too quickly, an amateur who radiated guilty intent.  If he were store security he’d be on her for sure.

The girl stopped, reached out wildly for a bathrobe.  Unslinging her backpack, she clumsily tried to stuff the garment in it.  Was failing miserably.

Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a woman, so obviously a security person that he called out to the girl, “Hold on,” walking quickly to her side.  “They’re about to arrest you,” he whispered, nodding toward the security woman who’d stopped a few rows of racks away. “The second you walk out of this store, they’ll stop you.”

The girl looked up at him, an expression of surprise, a mix of puzzlement and terror.

“Let’s go pay for that,” he said, nodding toward the cashier bullpen.

She gulped, looked back at the security woman, then followed him to the register.

“My granddaughter,” he said, “she found something I think my wife will like.”

He took the bathrobe from the girl and handed it to the cashier.  The girl stood there looking like a caged animal longing to break free.

“I’m glad you two were able to find something,” said Claire.  “This is a beautiful robe.  So soft and fuzzy.  I would love to get this myself.”

He smiled.  The teenager still looked stunned.

“Come on,” he said, encouraging her.  “Let’s go.”

He was thankful it took little encouragement to get her moving.  She followed him out the door.

“That was foolish,” he said.  “You looked guilty before you even tried to take this.”  He handed her the bag with the robe.  “They were probably watching you from the time you came in.”

The girl stared at him.

“Go on,” he said, “say something.”

“Say . . . what?” she said.

 “Ah.  You know, young lady, you’re not much of a shoplifter.”

That this made her smile surprised him.  They continued down the mall.

The girl said, “No, no I’m not.  But I needed this.”

He had to laugh.  “You needed a bathrobe?  Who needs a bathrobe that much?”

“I did,” she said.  “It’s for my grandmother.”

This was interesting.  “Why, is it her birthday?”

“No,” said the girl, “it’s not.  She’s old, her circulation is bad.  She needs warm things to wear.”

“Why not just buy it?” he asked.

“No money,” said the girl.

“Ah, I see.  Well, I have a strong piece of advice for you.  If you’re going to keep trying to steal things, you’d better start small.  And for goodness sake, don’t bring a backpack in with you.  They’ll be suspicious right off the bat.  When you walk around the store, don’t look around you like you’re expecting to be caught.  You’re not a criminal, you’ve got to tell yourself.  You’re just a normal shopper, got it?”

The girl stopped walking, stared up at him open mouthed.  “Wow, mister.  How do you know so much about it?”

“I, well, I used to, well, never mind.  Just take my advice.”

“Yeah, right, it’s good advice, I guess,” said the girl.  “You’re kind of like a school counselor, if counselors gave out advice on breaking the law.”

He laughed.  Then so did she.  “That’s good,” he said.  “Yeah, that’s a good one.  The evil school counselor.  That’s me.”

“Thank you,” the girl said, lifting the bag slightly toward him.  “How can I get the money to you for this?”

“Ah, so then you do have money somewhere,” he said.

“Well, no, I don’t.  Maybe if  you give me your address, I can get it to you when I have enough.”

“Nah,” he said, “don’t worry about that.  Forget it.  Just be safe.”

“Be a safe shoplifter,” she said, smiling.

“No no no.  You know what I mean.  Hey, you got any paper and a pen in that backpack?”

She took out a notebook and a pen.  He wrote down his name and number.

“If you ever need money,” he said, “please call me.  I’ll help you.”

“Thank you, thank you so much,” said the girl.  She looked at the paper.  “Mister Lee.”

He watched her disappear into the crowd, thought about Beatrice.

It was lunch time.  He was hungry.  Too bad that Lynn’s Delicatessen no longer existed.  A pastrami on rye sounded so good right at that moment.

He headed down to the food court.  The place was packed.  He settled on a Lahaina Chicken plate, then found a seat. The chicken was good, some of the best fried chicken he’d had in a while.

“Excuse me.”

He looked up.  He immediately recognized the Macy’s security woman who had been about to nab the girl, but he pretended oblivious surprise.

“Yes?”

“I work at Macy’s,” the woman said.  “I saw what you did for that kid.  That was good of you.”

“Oh, yes, the girl.  Yeah.  Well, I didn’t want to see her get arrested.  The last thing young folks need is to have records.”

“You were like her guardian angel right then.  All swooping in and saving her and whatever.  You’re a real good person.”

He laughed.  “Well, hardly.  But I’m glad I could keep her out of trouble.”

“You take care,” the security guard said.

“Thank you.”

He sat there amid the crowd and the noise.  It was the first time he’d felt good since Beatrice had died. Looking up, he wondered if maybe she were watching over him.

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