By David Slater
The window that day was smaller than usual, but I was puny back then and squeezed through headfirst with no problem. I felt that rush that always swept over me while crawling into a strange house. Like I was perched on my bike at the top of a hill, not sure if I was about to have the ride of my life or plant my face into a rough-barked tree.
Below the window, within arms’ reach, was a sturdy cabinet with a smooth marble top. I braced my hands on the cold surface, and as my feet cleared the window frame I glided from an awkward handstand into sort of a sideways flip. I landed on my feet, steadying myself against the dining room table.
A shiver went through me as I surveyed the room to get my bearings. The shades were pulled against the afternoon sun, but enough light broke through for me to see that the house was a ritzy one. The dark dining room chairs were heavy and unscratched. Even a fine layer of dust couldn’t hide the matching table’s polished shine. As I moved from the room, I slid the small, folded stash bag from my back pocket. Then I froze.
To the right of the fireplace, a man who looked to be around sixty stood unsteadily in front of a plush armchair. His head was cocked at a weird angle and he held a gun loosely in his hand.
I may have been stupid back then, but I was no fool. Many nights that year I had gone to bed thinking about what would happen if I ever got caught in one of those strange houses. I worried about the cops, worried about ending up in a juvie home. But never had I considered that I could get shot.
I stood there now, dust specks dancing around me in a beam of sunlight, and literally tried not to piss my pants. The man motioned me into the room with a jerk of his head and pointed the gun at the plump, pinstriped couch. “Sit down, son,” he said softly.
I sunk into the couch, eyeing the gun and the off-kilter look on the old guy’s face, hoping that maybe the worst that was going to happen to me was that I’d soon be in a police car.
The man plopped wearily into his chair. I remained still as a rock as he sized me up. I was slight and looked young for sixteen, and I could tell he was having trouble getting a bead on me.
He had a thick head of silver hair and a long, thin face. His nose was straight but slightly large. His tie was loosened and his stiff white dress shirt was open at the collar. I could see where it had rubbed his neck a raw pink. His black wing tips were sturdy and neatly polished. Despite the expensive clothes, he looked slightly rumpled, like he’d been up all night with a toothache.
Across the room, I saw his suit jacket thrown over the back of a stubby couch. Lots of questions ran through my mind. Why is this guy home from work at two in the afternoon? How recently did that bottle of brown liquor on the table become near empty? And how the hell did he get to the gun so fast? At this point in my life, I hadn’t been in too many houses like that, but I assumed the families who lived in them didn’t usually keep a piece in the living room.
“What’s your name, son?” When I hesitated, he added, “Your first name will suffice.”
“Why are you breaking into my home, Richard?”
“Well…to rob it, sir.”
He squinted at me while he decided if I was being a smartass. I wasn’t. I was nervous and just being frank.
“Do you rob homes often?”
He seemed genuinely curious, so I was tempted to tell him the truth. But of course I knew better. I said, “I swear to God, sir. This is my first time and I’m so sorry I ever did it.”
“Your first time. I guess you’ve got my kind of luck,” he said, without smiling.
I just raised my eyebrows.
“Well, if it’s your first time, then I should assume it was not you who broke into my neighbor’s house two weeks ago? Three doors down toward Donaldson Street?”
Now, let me tell you. That had been a righteous score. A kick-ass stereo, expensive watch, and $300 cash right on top of the dresser in the first bedroom I went into. We were in and out in ten minutes.
“Absolutely not, sir,” I answered.
“That’s unfortunate,” he said. Without so much as a glance in my direction, he laid the gun on the end table and poured the remaining liquor into his glass. I noticed that his knuckles were slightly swollen and wondered if that’s what arthritis does to you.
Then he said, “You see, son, there’s a good-looking young man who lives in that house. He, too, is a thief. And he stole something that is precious to me.”
I wasn’t sure how he wanted me to respond, but I took a stab at it. “Was that thing taken from the house recently, sir? Maybe I could talk to some people I know? See if they’ve heard anything about it?” What an idiot I was.
“Oh, you could make inquiries, could you?” He looked into his glass and snorted. “No, Richard, the thing that Teasdale took from me, let’s just say he’s still in possession of…it.” He took a drink. “And I’m not, and perhaps never was.”
His eyes were unfocused and a dribble of booze slipped down his chin. He took a handkerchief out of his hip pocket and wiped his face. Then he narrowed his gaze at me.
“So now you’ve come to steal from me also,” he said, his voice rising. “Well why the hell not? It seems that everything I have is being taken by boys…”
He stared off in the distance for 15 seconds or so. I didn’t say anything. A few minutes earlier I had been afraid I was going to get shot. Now I was starting to worry about the old guy. He thinks his day can’t get any worse? I thought. Wait ‘til Dante smashes through the kitchen door. The guys in town didn’t call him “the Animal” for nothing.
And then I heard it. Not the sound of a door caving in, but a car starting up in the alley behind the house. Dante’s muscled-up Camaro.
I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I tried to show no reaction, but the man’s eyes burned a hole through me as the roar of the muffler became fainter.
“You thought he was coming to your rescue?”
Why shouldn’t I have thought that? He had always told me he would have my back. I didn’t think he was someone who would ever leave me jammed up like this.
“How’d you know I wasn’t alone?” I asked.
“I might not look like much anymore, Richard, but I’m still coherent enough to know a child your size doesn’t jump through a ten-foot window without assistance.” He frowned and cocked his head. “How old are you?”
I trimmed off a year for good measure. “Fifteen, sir.”
“You have lots of nerve.”
“Sir, I’m so sorry…” He cut me off.
“Quit the ‘sir’ nonsense,” he snapped. “I meant it as a compliment. Nerve is something I’ve always lacked. Would you believe I’ve spent my whole life being afraid? Always feeling like I was ten minutes late, rushing to meetings and hurrying home from work so I wouldn’t inconvenience Margaret…” He took another sip and became quiet.
I looked past him to a large, framed photo on the mantle above the fireplace. Obviously, the guy’s family. Four of them, sitting on the front steps of a house. On the first step, a boy of around 12 and a girl who looked a bit younger. Behind them, a fine-looking tanned mother, and the man, looking probably ten years older than her, but much younger and happier than he looked now. The whole thing was like a TV ad for a life insurance company.
The old guy must have caught me staring at the photo. “Ah…you’re admiring the old family portrait? Thomas is the boy. Haven’t heard from him since I made his last college payment. And my daughter? It seems like the only chance of seeing Julia would be at one of her meetings. Children of Frigid Parents or some such…”
He trailed off, took a sip of his drink, and whispered, “Lovely girl, really. Just needs to work a few things out, she says…” Then he looked at me, sat up straight, and cleared his throat. “And Margaret? Well, I believe I told you where she is. So now you know the entire family!”
I didn’t have any clue what to say so I just sat there, scared and alone. When Dante and I had started this stuff six months earlier, I thought it was a game or something. We were a team, like a couple of circus acrobats. The way we could get me through any window with just a few precise moves was beautiful. Dante would crouch below the window – you’d be surprised how many people leave a window cracked open, or at least unlocked – and make a stirrup with his hands. I’d put my foot into it and he’d quickly hoist me up to the ledge.
And then would come that rush, better than a bong hit. It was the danger, sure, but also the unusual feeling that I was good at something, and that Dante needed my help.
Of course, by the time my head had cleared and I’d opened the door for Dante, I would want out as soon as possible. But Dante never seemed nervous. While he filled his bag, he would check out people’s bookshelves, go through their closets, try on their hats, that sort of stupid stuff.
After every job, Dante and I used to go to the Meadowlands Diner, right off Route 17. We always sat in the same booth, next to a window that even back then was made translucent by years of accumulated grease. We went there often enough that the waitress had our order down pat. Dante got onion rings and a bacon cheeseburger with a fried egg on top. He called it a “one-eyed cheeseburger.” No matter what time of day it was, I got steak and eggs with home fries. Dante never gave me any grief when I poured warm syrup over everything on my plate. But he also never had much to say to me when I tried to draw him into a conversation.
I looked again at that photo on the mantle and thought back to a month earlier, in a big house on Elmwood Place, when Dante pulled me over to laugh at a framed picture of two square-jawed brothers in matching V-neck sweaters and blazers. The older one had his arm around his brother and their similarly cocky smiles made it clear that they knew they would rule the world someday. Believe me, I never wanted to be like those guys, either. But I remember how, as I pulled away, I saw Dante’s and my reflection in the glass. He looked handsome and imposing, with his dark skin and longish, slicked-back hair. I was even trying to wear mine that way, but I looked at my reflection that day and realized it just wasn’t working. Nobody was ever going to mistake me for a young Dante. And the truth was, I already had a big brother. But he had left town two years earlier, just like my dad three years before that. And I knew neither would care even if they found out I was skipping school and getting boosted through windows by the toughest and dumbest guy from our neighborhood.
For the first time in a while, I thought about my mom, who had been busting her ass behind a receptionist’s desk her whole adult life, and always gave me her last dollar, no questions asked, without ever complaining. And as I sat there in that dark house, I realized how it was going to kill her when she found out about this whole racket I was involved in.
I could feel my eyes dampening when the man clapped his hands loudly. “How else can I entertain you, Richard? Would you like to hear the one about how I lost my desk at work today?”
“Yes. My desk. A younger man got that, too. A desk I’d had for nearly twenty years. And my office with it.”
There in that living room, I looked up at him, and his shaking hands and his gun that he just kept picking up and putting down, and I asked myself what the hell I was doing there. I started getting dizzy just thinking about how I’d been left hanging by Dante, and about how my mom’s heart was going to sink when she got the phone call from the Lyndham police. I looked at the old man again, at his tired face and the gun he held loosely in his hand. And I really wanted to tell that poor guy how sorry I was for breaking into his house; how truly sorry I was for making such a mess of everything. But I didn’t say a thing.
He stared intently at me, and I felt like he could see right through me, see how weak and worthless I was. He buttoned his shirt and slid his tie back into place snugly against his neck, like he must have done a million times before. Then he cleared his throat and whispered hoarsely, “I don’t suppose you want to hear any more about my life, son. I’ve probably told you more than enough.”
I figured he was heading for the phone. Instead, he sent me a tired flash of a grin and said, “You’d better leave now, Richard. Just close the door behind you -- and promise me you’ll only use doors from now on.”
As I stepped off the porch, I noticed a large tree in the manicured yard. In my dreams, it’s an oak, but I don’t really remember what species it was. What I do recall is the symphony of bird song that came from deep inside it. I couldn’t actually see the birds; all I noticed were the leaves shuffling in the breeze. When the shot echoed through the open dining room window, what seemed like a hundred starlings exploded out of the tree. They cast a long shadow of shame over me as I ran.