Jeff Burt works in mental health and has work in Amarillo Bay, The Nervous Breakdown, Atticus Review, and forthcoming in Per Contra. He has published poetry in Indiana Voice Journal previously.
Born Late, Just Sayin’
On my twenty-first birthday, I turned my father Ed over to the cops for fourteen burglaries he had committed over the summer. I found the contraband in my uncle’s RV abandoned in our back lot, the rust and ruin of his generation—a VW bug, the RV, a couple of early-model well augurs, and two prototype hospital beds with gleaming yet pitted chrome and working lifts. The county had red-tagged the property the previous autumn, but they gave my father one year to clean it up. Instead of jettisoning junk, he had hoarded, pushed, compiled and collected into the corners of the RV and the seats of the VW. Then he stole stuff.
It wasn’t as if the RV held a treasure trove of high cash value pawn-worthy items. The stuff Ed stole had all the marks of one’s man junk equals another man’s treasure. What he stole was junk.
The copper chocolate pitcher with the matching copper sugar and cream containers, totally pitted, might have gone for twenty dollars at a yard sale, and maybe fifty dollars online. But to my Ed, it was part of his Swedish history, the copper, Swedish copper, but he wasn’t Swedish. When I questioned him what he could possibly do with the copper, I expected him to say he was out of money and would sell the copper for cash.
“Cash? Not on your life. This is heritage copper. Heritage copper doesn’t sell. It’s a hand me down, a legacy.”
“You mean you stole it for me?”
“Damn straight. Did you think I was going to sell it to pay for your college? You must have been born late.”
Born late was his often-repeated diagnosis for my poor thinking. Like being born late was a genetic deformity. Like cerebral palsy. A sentence to a life of dysfunction, early death.
He saw my ill fit it as a natural consequence of birth order. In my case, that I was born so damn late in his life, when he was fifty, and mom was forty-three, years after she had been told she would never conceive again.
Born late. Meaning no energy to raise a son. Meaning no desire to spend time with me. Meaning no concern if I flunked seventh grade and had to do it over again. Twice. Meaning few hugs, less love. Meaning never being in sports or music. Meaning being in art with cans of spray paint running as fast as I could into the night away from the strobes of a cop car. Meaning not amounting to much, and not wanting to amount to much. If I wanted excuses for a deformed life, I had many available.
My school counselor flipped “born late” as if it were a hot tortilla in her hands. Maybe, she told me, it has two sides, the one that your father means, and the other what you can make it. Maybe born late means you will grow into something beautiful, do something beautiful, later in your life. Not everyone is a butterfly on the first day.
After two sessions with her, I hated butterfly stories. Flowering. Budding. It made me hate spring.
I had decided to spend a few days in town to return the stolen items while Ed was in jail and then committed to a psych ward for evaluation. Ed was well liked as eccentric people are well liked, which means not at all, but given a sort of charming distance at which to operate. So when I first contacted the adjacent neighbors, they tittered and smiled and gave a gee whiz shrug and almost to a person said they had reported the burglary as a matter of concern for safety, not the value of anything stolen. They didn’t want the fuss, and the police had told them their items would be impounded for a year and they were quite happy with that. The women actually inquired about Ed, as if he were a friend.
Ed had accumulated a pass on his evil and errors, as if his eccentric nature was an avenue for their own, and thus the sins were discountable at the very least, and even forgivable and already forgotten.
I became discouraged. The piles of junk didn’t move. I did have success in moving the two augurs, sold for $1200, which paid some of Ed’s bills and some of my own, and allowed me to buy clean bedding, since the old sheets in the house not only smelled old, but in some cases were ripped from stress rips from the yanking Ed would do at night to extricate himself from the mummy-like wrap he would encumber himself in. Maybe more like a spider web that caves in when the body touches it and becomes so enmeshed that the prey is snared.
In every corner of his home I found hidden objects, all accumulated since my mother died. In a small polished wooden box suitable for holding ashes, a biodegradable urn, concealed a tarnished gold locket, and inside the locket a picture.
Even in the two bathrooms little things hid. Gnomes in the medicine cabinet. A troll in the towels stacked against the wall on chrome shelves. Angels, which my mother detested, on the shower caddy. It got to the point that every time I entered the bathroom to take a leak I’d feel like a new pair of eyes was watching me, so I pulled them all out and stored them in a Ziploc and placed them deep in a drawer in a kitchen so either they couldn’t get out or I would never have to see them again. I had not been so afraid to pee since junior high school.
When I was in junior high, I had some strange habits. I let my fingernails grow on my left hand but kept the fingernails on my right hand clipped. I drank from containers, be they aluminum or plastic or cardboard, without my lips touching the containers, which led to almost a daily wet spot on my shirts, and a continuously damp sleeve from wiping my lips and chin afterwards. I had taken a peculiar liking to using chalk. By using chalk I do not mean writing on pavement with those sticks of chalk that resemble dynamite, and I do not mean using those neon chalks to make graffiti art on the sides of buildings. I mean I ingested chalk, I scraped it and crushed it and snorted it, and even though it gives a short, mild high and can make you sick to your stomach, the dryness, the absolute desert aridity of it, gave me pleasure, and every afternoon after school I snorted chalk.
Ed pulled me out of my depression. He didn’t say just be yourself, which at thirteen is nearly impossible to know. He said we were all thrown into a lake and it was sink or swim, and if I found something that was making me sink, I better not think long and hard about it, and give it up pretty quick, because the alternative to swimming wasn’t exactly a good thing.
Sink or swim. Not so hard to comprehend. Ed was sinking. And I owed it to him to pull him back up.
It occurred to me that committing more quizzical burglaries while Ed sat behind bars might do damage to the prosecution’s case before the case went to court.
I hadn’t stolen a thing my whole life—not candy, not paper from work, not thumb tacks, notpaper clips. Regardless, Ed, my Ed, had gotten away with thirteen burglaries before getting caught on the fourteenth, and if he could get away with thirteen, I figured I could get away with another three or four more, and throw off the prosecutors.
I worked over a checklist for several hours to make sure I had it down correctly.
One: the burglaries must be in the neighborhood.
Two: the items snatched must be “precious,” but not necessarily valuable.
Three: the items must be portable, such that an old man on foot could steal them and not be noticed lugging anything around.
Four: the items must fit into the curiosity shop of the RV, meaning it had to be something random, not something already in the RV.
I watched the Daley’s house for a few hours. The Daleys were packing out their SUV with a dog bed and dog paraphernalia and then finally the dog, a Schnauzer wearing a little red sweater. A dog with a red sweater was like a flag telling me “This is the Spot.” Obviously, with all of the packing, either the dog was going away for a while, or they all were. Either way, they would be gone for a while.
The forecast was for rain overnight, and because I would have to wriggle on the ground and possibly leave prints. I figured the rain would, literally, cover my tracks.
When they pulled out, I could see that she was doing some serious talking, and he was doing some serious talking back.
When I walked through their backyard, I didn’t see anything on the windows, and looking in back entrance from on top of their garbage can, I could see the alarm had not been set, and the door had a simple bolt lock and a compression lock on the handle—easy enough to pop.
I took a hammer to the handle and a shoulder to the bolt lock, and after three hard hits, the doorframe yielded, I could see the bolt, and was able to push it back with pliers. I didn’t need to wait long—in the hall on the way to the kitchen hung three old spoons, silver serving spoons, filigreed, definitely old and worth something, but also something that no one would use any more. So I took those and split.
The second house, the no-name and no-number on the mailbox house, had a man that went to work early, around six o’clock, and a woman who left the house in gym clothes. After the woman left on the third day, I carefully wound my way around the empty walk wary of older woman looking out windows, and slipped in between the house and a rock wall, slithered on my belly to a window, broke it, and clambered down into the basement. The dog never barked. In the basement was a treasure trove of oddities—parts of a model train, horrible looking German china, the kind that has a delicate figurine done in a filthy dark color. The object I took, though, was a rolling pin, marked “Fuller Fowler’s Flour.”
The cops were over at the house that night. It rained, about an inch, just like forecasted.
I could not find a third house within nine blocks on any side of Ed’s house. A third house without significant risk, that is. And that’s when it hit me, my Eureka moment.
I would rob Ed’s house.
He had some old, chipped crystal candle holders, a couple of ancient cloth tape measures in an ancient sewing bureau my mother had used for twenty years before she died, a collection of thimbles which I had heard could actually be worth some coin, a signed book by Mayor Daley who had grown up in the same town as Ed, a fan that worked by a foot pump, and three handmade quilts done by my grandmother, though two were soiled and the remaining one severely tattered at the end that reached to the floor and one of our dogs had lain against every night of its life.
I decided the two soiled quilts were the best, since they were folded at the end of the bed in the bedroom closest to the back door.
I did a fresh break-in job on the back door and took the tools with me, and went to a foreign movie at a small theatre and ate a bunch of popcorn and talked to the refreshment clerk so that she would remember me, then went to the mall and tried a bunch of tennis shoes at Footlocker, and concluded with several games of pool. I dumped the tools in a dumpster near a gas station the opposite way of the pool hall and home.
Then I went home. I had both been robbed and had robbed in the same act.
So I called the cops.
Ed came out of jail all smiles.
“Some stupid sucker robbed my house,” he laughed, spit spouting from his lips.
“Yeah, what a sucker,” I said.
“Blew all these cases, eleven, twelve, I don’t remember how many.”
“That’s because you didn’t do them, Ed.”
“Oh, I did them, did them all except my house. The bugger took two blankets, that’s it.”
“Two quilts, Ed.”
“Quilts, kilts, no matter. I loved them quilts, by the way. Pissed he wanted those.”
“Yeah, and I still wonder why he wanted those copper chocolate pots.”
“He took those?”
“Once. Put them in your RV, remember?”
“Yeah, I saw them in there. I think I put them in there.”
“No you didn’t, Ed. The sucker put them in there. You just found them.”
Ed laughed. “That sucker is my guardian angel.”
“That he is.”
“Where are you staying?”
“Were you there when he broke in?”
“Staying there. But not when the police got called.”
“Lucky you. It could have gone bad for you.”
“Lucky you were in jail at the time.”
“Yeah, lucky me. If I had been home they might have me for all the thefts.”
“But you weren’t. And now you’re free.”
“Free, except I can’t stop thinking about that stupid sucker.”
“Yes, he gave you quite a gift.”
“Gift? He’s gonna haunt me forever. I hate his guts.”
“Hate the man who set you free?”
We stopped talking which helped me keep both my sanity near and my anger at a distance. I showed him the doorpost and the break-in. He put his fingers all over the marks on the frame, got down on all fours and inspected the carpet. Satisfied with my cleaning, he went straight for some chocolates in a gaudy urn, threw them back in his mouth as if he were shooting baskets, and then disappeared into this bedroom and did not come out until the smell of pizza brought him around.
“You know I found Jesus when I was in jail,” he said when he came for the pizza.
“Didn’t know he was in jail,” I countered.
“He comes for sinners, you know. That’s who’s in jail.”
I looked at him. He was serious. “You mean you really met Jesus?”
He nodded. His nose hovered about three inches from a couple of pieces of pepperoni. “I don’t know who broke into my home and saves me from hard time, but it sure seems suspicious that I found Jesus and then someone breaks into my home. Pretty surreptitious, you know.”
“Surreptitious? You mean serendipitous?”
“I mean fortunate. Like good coincidence.”
“Don’t know about karma. This ain’t no coming around what’s going around. This is providence.”
“How many times have you found Jesus now? Four?”
“Four. And he’s been good to me every time.”
Sometimes with forgiveness comes repentance. Not always. So, with Ed, since I was staying a few days, I waited for the repentance stage to go away.
Sometimes with forgiveness comes inspiration. Since he was forgiven, I was inspired to leave.
You know how this goes. Dad wants the son to stay. Son realizes that he had nothing really going anywhere else and decides to stay. Dad and son bond. Dad forgets he’s a follower of Jesus, and the two live peaceably ever after.
Ed woke me up the Monday after he’d been freed and told me to pack my bags. Now.
“Now? It’s seven in the morning.”
“Now. You’re living on borrowed time. You’ve got to get outta here.”
“Why? Why now? Not that I want to stay.”
“Cuz the cops are gonna know it was you who broke in here. And that you loved your Dad so much that you did it for him.”
“But that’s not why I did it. I did it because you’re not in your right mind. You’re sick, Ed, mentally.”
“Me? I’m not the one who robbed his own house. That’s pretty sick.”
“Sick? That was pure genius.”
“Which looked really good until another house got broken into last night.”
“What?” I sat up.
“They’re gonna catch you, Louie, sure as you’re sitting there.”
“I was home with you. I didn’t rob anyone’s house.”
“I can’t be your alibi for the whole night. I wasn’t home. Not all night anyway. ”
The last I saw of him were his hands held out for cuffs, hands held out for about thirty steps until he figured out they were not going to handcuff him. He looked pathetic, weak, but he positively glowed. It was an inner glow, to be sure. Then his right hand popped up and gave me the high five sign. I high fived back.
“No, stupid,” he yelled at me across the long room. “Five times I’ve found Jesus. Five times. I’m forgiven.”
He was in jail, and irresponsibly happy. I pitied the inmates. I pitied the guards.
I went to Ed’s house and lingered for a day, found out the hospital beds sold for almost fifteen-hundred dollars on e-Bay.
Fifteen-hundred dollars. That gave me rent, food for a month, and I could pay Ed’s minimal bills and the minimum on my credit card. In one month, Ed would be two months from getting out. If I worked on the VW, I could get maybe three thousand for it, and I could stay until he got out. Not that I wanted to stay. Just sayin’.