Midday in the Garden Center of Good and Evil

Midday in the Garden Center of Good and Evil

My experience with shoplifting came when I was in 9th grade. After an 18-month stint living with my mother, I was glad to be back in my hometown, but it seemed different somehow. My lifelong friends had made new ones, and I didn’t like being treated as the new kid by those who had lived there only a year. My absence during the formation of cliques had brought me both happiness and despair. Through my parents’ divorce and my subsequent moves, my older brother was my only constant friend.

He and I formed a heavy metal band called Mace and Chain, with him on guitar and me on bass. He was two grades ahead of me, and few my age were interested in playing music on their own time. School band was fine for them, but otherwise music was passive. They didn’t realize that all rock stars were once kids. For the most part, they still are.

We practiced in a local church’s somewhat onorthodox sanctuary. I thought it unusual for church services to be held in a rented office space, but was glad we had use of its four walls and hanging tile ceiling. There we stood, playing Judas Priest and Ratt songs as we glanced around at the Bible verse posters. I was uncertain our souls would survive it, but I played on nonetheless.

Our inside connection for this arrangement was our drummer’s father, the founder and minister of the small, upstart Christian church. In addition to fitting perfectly the cliché profile of the wild preacher’s kid, Mitch was a kleptomaniac.

This guy would steal anything, and he was crazy enough to do it when people were looking right at him. On trips with the high school band, he took things from fast-food restaurants and motels. As he ordered his hamburger and fries, he pulled off a sign that read, “No bills larger than 20 accepted at this register.” From a motel in Louisiana he took a metal light cover and eventually mounted it on his drum trap, jokingly calling it the “cymbal” of the fun we had on that trip.

There was no monetary reward in this kind of theft. It was strictly for the thrill, and to make others laugh. I suppose there was something funny in seeing a guy pull a stolen McDonald’s pepper shaker from his pants. To this day, I don’t know what.

The largest item he ever allegedly took was an outdoor trashcan at a fast-food restaurant. This might not sound like much to someone unfamiliar with these monstrosities. It was made of concrete encrusted with tiny brown pebbles and had a plastic, dome top with a hinged lid. They were made so bulky, I guessed, to resist weather and theft. Mitch had enlisted a friend with a van to help him with that one. He was a suspect, but nothing ever came of it. Not surprisingly, his father denied that his good boy would have anything to do with such a heinous act.

Mitch sometimes stole as favors for other people. When kids his age saw he had a knack for “getting things”, some of them took advantage of his skills. This time, a very popular girl asked Mitch to “get” a pair of sunglasses at his so-called “five finger discount” price.

In this case, Mitch chose me as his accomplice. One day after school, my brother had to get something from our house, so I rode with Mitch to the church for practice. He said he needed to stop at the store to get something; I should have known by the camouflage pants he wore that he was on a mission. They were the kind of hunting pants that have various pockets all over the legs — quite normal in that town. If I had thought about it just for a second, I would have realized what he was about to do. Scared to death of getting caught, I never would have gone into the store with him. It was my personality to keep risk as far away as possible.

With me close behind, Mitch went directly to the Accessories section and found the carousels with the sunglasses on them. I was worried then because I had overhead Kerri’s request for a “free” pair of shades. It hit me why he had worn those pants on a hot day, and my heart sped up. Mitch asked me if I liked any of them, and I quietly nodded at each cool pair he showed me. I felt horribly conspicuous, for the first time having to — what was it they said in the movies — “act natural,” and I was angry with Mitch for getting me involved.

After he had picked out three pairs of sunglasses, my partner in crime led me to the Garden Center section — the one place in our local discount store that lacked those Orwellian smoked-glass ceiling surveillance domes. As we walked past a birdbath with a heavy, steady flow of water coming from its concrete boy’s mouth, I barely heard it over the beat of my heart and the soles of my shoes. Mitch casually strolled over to the aisle with large bags of grass seed on the lower shelves and hose-reel boxes on the top. I could tell he had done this many times. The sunglasses weren’t contraband yet, but if I didn’t stop him they soon would be.

As he unzipped his left thigh pocket, I made a pivotal decision. I said nothing as Mitch handed me the sunglasses, and to my questioning look he gave only a sinister smile. I could have just walked away with the shades and returned them to their carousel, leaving them and me untarnished. While such an act would have been noble under the circumstances, I was terrified to do anything that might bring attention to me. So far we had made it okay, and since he was good at this, we could probably make it all the way out of the store. After that, I would never have anything to do with stealing again. Just this once, and then I would be out of the shoplifting business for good. Besides, I cared a lot about what others thought, and I didn’t want anyone to think I wasn’t cool. When Mitch motioned for me to slip the sunglasses into his open pocket, I quickly shoved them to the bottom, just above his knee. He zipped it shut and turned to grab a bag of grass seed.

“It’s our cover,” he explained as he hoisted the bag over my shoulder. I looked at him again, with a puzzled expression.

“If I kept coming here without buying anything, I would look suspicious.”

“Look, if we’re going to do this, let’s just get on with it and get out of here,” I said as I started to put back the bag.

“No way, man. I’m telling you-”

“Mitch! How the heck are you?”

I froze. Somewhere behind me, someone had seen us, and he was talking to Mitch.

“Umm… Mr. Dubois. Hi. Just getting some grass seed for the Johnson’s yard,” Mitch replied. He didn’t seem nervous.

I, on the other hand, was either thrilled out of my pants or about to wet them.

“You still taking care of their yard? I tell you, son, I just might have to ask you to come mow mine again. That Riley boy just isn’t getting the job done. He’s leaving grass untrimmed around the trees, and he’s not even bagging. It’s starting to look bad, Mitch.”

“Oh, really?” Mitch asked. I could have killed him. He was getting us deeper into conversation, and I just wanted out of there.

“I don’t believe we’ve met, son,” Mr. Dubois said to me.

I didn’t believe we had, either, but at the moment I had no problem with it.

“Oh, Mark Woodson, this is one of my neighbors, Mr. Dubois,” Mitch said as politely as if Mr. Dubois was all that stood between him and the last piece of lemon meringue pie at a church potluck.

The man reached out a hand to shake mine. I carefully balanced the bag with my left hand as I offered him my right. “It’s umm… nice to meet you too, sir.” I was a little shaky, but it was nothing unusual; it was very hot and the bag was heavy.

His handshake was firm. “Same to you. Say, are you one of Dr. Woodson’s boys? You tell him I have a couple of teeth he needs to fill.” I hated when people said things like that. My dad was a dentist, but I wasn’t his secretary.

“You bet, sir,” I said. The effort to hide my anger kept me from losing my composure. I was about to get us caught, but it was all Mitch’s fault.

“I tell you what. It’s nice to see young people out here working so hard.”

A crackle came from a speaker that I could not, and can’t to this day, locate.

We had been caught. There was some camera in there that we couldn’t see, and Mr. Dubois was the last person we would talk to before becoming hardened criminals rotting away in juvy hall. In a weird moment of recall, the Styx song “Renegade” started up in my head. The jig is up, the news is out, they’ve finally found me.

The speaker sputtered again, and the ominous voice from the other end called out, “Could Mr. Jim Dubois please come to the checkout area? Jim Dubois, come to the checkout area please.” I wiped sweat from my brow and hung my head in relief.

“Well, boys, it was good seeing you, but that’s probably my wife. She always has me paged when she’s ready to leave. A man just can’t spend any quality time looking at lawnmowers these days. Nice to meet you, Mark. Maybe Mitch will bring you to church sometime.”

Oh, he already does. Why don’t you come listen to us sometime? Bring the wife. She just saved me.

Although our journey to the check-out lanes went without incident, I was a wreck. We had our cover item and we were on our way to pay for it. Were we nuts? Stopping to pay for something when Mr. Steal there had a pocketful of hot sunglasses? I just didn’t see why we had to do that. People left stores empty-handed (and sometimes empty-headed) all the time.

Mitch scanned the cashiers for the prettiest girl and in he went, just like any normal paying customer. We were doomed. Susan Hardy, a Customer Service Representative, was the last pretty girl I would ever see, except for the Kathy Ireland poster above the toilet in the corner of my cell. Why had I gone through with it? I could still back out. We weren’t out the door yet. I could tell Susan that Mitch was trying to shoplift, and she would see me as a hero. Maybe she would even kiss me for saving her store from such a debased person. Who was I kidding? She would think I was a big geek, Mitch would dump me as a friend, and I probably would not be in our band anymore. I couldn’t let that happen, so I tried my best to look nonchalant.

“Hey, Suze,” Mitch said. It was a social event now. He was flirting with the girl who could put us away.

“Hi, Mitch. Hi, Mark.” She smiled the most beautiful smile I had ever seen. Oh, yeah, she likes me. My tension eased up a bit as I slammed the bag of grass seed onto the counter. Man, was I tough.

“We’re playing Stacy’s party this weekend. You gonna be there?” Mitch asked.

“Sure. Wouldn’t miss it.”

We might actually get away with it. Again my mind went to music. “Wanted Man” by Ratt. We covered that tune, so I knew it well.

Susan shot the bag’s UPC code with her red laser gun and announced the price. Mitch paid her and threw the bag over his shoulder this time. He pointed at me when she held out the change, and I quickly put my hand out to accept it. Her hand lay in mine for just a second before she turned it over and let the change tumble into my palm, but it felt like forever. That had never happened to me before. Had she done it on purpose? Usually cashiers carefully place the money in your hand, holding it by the tips of their fingers, trying to avoid skin contact. There was a message in that touch.

As I, a newly minted accomplice, walked out of the store, one thought glimmered clearly in my hormonally hazy head. I hope I see Susan at that party.

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