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June 10, 2024


By Vivian Rinaldo

You're sure that tape recorder is on? And there's a tape in it, and it works now? Well, all I can say is it's about time. No, I don't really want a diet Coke; do I look like I need a diet Coke?

Okay, so I take things. I've done it for years. That doesn't make me a thief. It doesn't hurt anybody, and I don't take anything of any value.

No, I'm not a kleptomaniac. I have no mental disorder -- at least no more than any other woman I know -- and I certainly don't need therapy to help me figure out why I do it. I know why. Because I want the thing I take; it's that simple. Why else would anyone take anything? It's not rocket science.

My earliest memory of taking something that didn't belong to me? Hmmmm, well ... I guess it would have been when I was really young. We lived out in the boondocks of East Tennessee in a small tarpaper shack on a creek down a holler. I mean, if you want to talk about piping in sunshine ... that's how far out in the sticks we were. Think Beverly Hillbillies before Jed fired a shot into what turned out to be a fountain of black gold. No indoor plumbing (and no, I'm not kidding), coal stove for heat, and surrounding the house, chickens, coon hounds, and the smell of tobacco curing in the barn. The creek was our source of water; baths were a Saturday night event; and the nearest school bus stop was a quarter mile up the one-lane gravel road.

At the intersection of that gravel road and the old highway sat a small, concrete block building that has been whitewashed so many times, layers of paint flake off like snowfall in a strong wind. That was my papaw's store. He had a couple of gas pumps hardly anyone used; unless they were going across the mountain to town, most people still rode their horses up and down the valley. Now that building is the Claiborne County Coon Hunters' Association; a private club where men can sit, chew, spit, drink bootleg liquor, and compare their dogs. No one ever actually hunts; it's enough for them to get out of the house and away from their wives. The Association is made up of farmers who no longer farm -- men to whom the government pays subsidies NOT to grow crops -- and miners who no longer mine because they've all got black-lung, and besides, OSHA has shut down most of the mines in that part of the state for safety reasons.

Looking back on the early years of my life, I don't remember being particularly unhappy -- of course, I don't remember being particularly happy either. How many people can say truthfully that they remember how they felt as a child? Not many, I'd bet. To be frank, I only remember bits and pieces of those years; we moved away when I was 10. Some of the things I think I remember may actually be stories I've heard my parents tell; it's impossible for me to say whether or not these memories are genuine or part of the family lore. They're good stories, though, so I don't mind relating them even if they are partly or entirely fabricated.

We had chickens, as I said, and most of them were laying hens; we did have one rooster -- a stringy little red cock that lived for no reason but to torment me. I know this will sound anthropomorphic, but I am convinced that rooster had it in for me. I remember (or the story goes) that I could not go to the outhouse unless my mother was with me, broom in hand, to fight off the little monster's attacks on my defenseless heels. Pecking and squawking, he attempted to draw blood at every opportunity.

In addition to his relentless pursuit of my heels between outhouse and shack, this stubborn fowl would also lay in wait every school day morning and afternoon to prevent my passage across the yard to the road or back across and inside the screen door. I have always believed that he could tell time, because no matter how early or late the bus dropped me off at the end of the road, he was in the yard standing watch between me and safety, determined to get his pound of flesh before I could slam the wood-frame door behind me.

He never chased any other member of the family, and when my father finally tired of hearing me complain about him, he took the axe to the little bugger's neck. I wept with relief, and for some time, my unchallenged trips to the outhouse became occasions for celebration.

But I know you're not interested in that; what you're after is the solution to the problem of my taking things.

See? It all started at my papaw's store. There were a couple of other kids who lived further down the holler from me, and when the weather was foul, we would all wait for the school bus inside papaw's store. Even then, it was a gathering place for old men; there weren't many young men in that county, because most of them left as soon as they graduated from high school -- if not before -- seeking jobs, brighter lights, bigger adventures. The old men would sit around the wood stove in cane-bottom chairs and talk about the Good Old Days when a man could make a living on the land and didn't have to wait in line for hours for government cheese and peanut butter in a can. All these old men looked the same to me. They all had tattered but clean overalls, under which, depending on the weather, they wore long johns or flannel shirts. I always thought something frightening must happen to a man's arms as he aged, because I never saw any of them in short sleeve shirts, no matter how oppressive the summer heat. They must have been a sight when they stripped down to their skivvies, with their pale bodies and sun-browned hands, faces and necks.

Back on track? Oh, yeah, the beginnings of my life of crime. I don't remember what time of year it was, except that school was in session, and it was cool enough to wear a coat. That's where I stashed the gum. Yes, I said gum. In the store, on the counter in a big glass jar next to the slicer where papaw made and sold baloney sandwiches, was bubble gum. I can't remember now if it was the kind with the wrapper that had a cartoon and a fortune around it or the naked gumball kind, but that doesn't really matter. I remember the murmur of old man voices and the smell of tobacco juice in the spittoons, but I don't recall if there were other kids in there with me that day. I sauntered over to the counter to lean and listen, and I spotted the gum. It had been there all along, but I had never really wanted a piece of it with the intensity that I wanted it that day. My recollection of that feeling is dimmed by the passing of time, of course, but I know that at the same moment it occurred to me that I wanted that bubble gum, my hand reached into the jar and took a piece and then slipped it into my pocket.

Well, obviously I knew it wasn't right to just take it without paying the penny it cost. Otherwise, I would have put it in my mouth right there on the spot and chomped away. As a child, I regularly attended a Baptist church infamous for thundering sermons and hours-long testimonies. No, I don't go anymore. It's boring, and there's too many rules. The gum? Oh, yeah. Well, certainly the fact that I didn't have a penny to pay for it couldn't have been a factor, because papaw would have just given it to me if I had asked. But I didn't want to ask. I just felt like taking it, and I did.

Isn't it funny how I remember that? My first taking -- I still don't want to call it a theft -- it isn't! I've taken many other things since then, but that one time stands out clearly in my mind. Wonder why? I never took another thing from papaw's store; I never wanted to.

I've never shoplifted, never really had the desire to. That's more of a thrill-seeking behavior, according to the exposé I saw on 60 Minutes. The things I take are insignificant; generally no one would miss them, but if they do, and they say anything about it, it doesn't pain me in the least to draw my eyebrows together in concern and tsk tsk tsk over the state of the world nowadays when you can't leave anything lying around for fear someone will walk off with it. It's really ridiculous for me to be here today, because none of this makes any difference, does it? Why should I stop taking when I'm not really hurting anybody? Well, no, certainly I wouldn't want anyone taking my things, but that's not the point. You just don't understand. Let me tell you about some of the things I've taken.

Everyone takes things from work. Yes, they do; don't act so shocked and disapproving. You know they do. Pens, pencils, paper clips, mouse pads, folders, labels, postage stamps, whatever ... And I'd bet none of them feels the slightest guilt about it. It's almost expected, very nearly required. It's not like embezzling funds.

Anyhow, sometimes I like to mix it up a little and take something someone might actually miss, but at the same time not be distraught over losing. And, of course, when a person who works during the day for a company takes something, if anyone ever says anything, they can always blame the theft on the cleaning people who come in after hours! Perfect solution. Because really, no one's going to fire the cleaning people over a missing stamp or ink pen, are they? So no one gets hurt. And anyway, cleaning people are always looked on with suspicion, aren't they? Usually they're immigrants or illiterate people of color anyhow, so who really cares? They fly so far under the radar, no one pays any attention to them unless they don't empty the trashcans.

What have I taken? Let's see, a lot of times it's food: snacks mostly, candy bars, a can of soda, that sort of thing. Occasionally I take small amounts of money -- always coins, because people never keep up with the loose change they stash in their drawers. I'm always careful, though, not to take all the change that's in there -- usually, if just some of the coins go missing, they'll never notice; however, if you clean out the kitty, they definitely will notice and might even cause a stink about it.

Sometimes I take other things that are more personal, but not vital. For instance, once I waited until a co-worker was off on vacation before I rummaged through her desk and took a little notepad that had "To Do List" printed at the top. It looked like something I could use, and I stuck it in my purse and carried it home to use for a grocery and errand reminder list. I didn't really need it, but I wanted it, so I took it.

Guilty? No, I don't recall ever feeling guilty about any of the taking. And I don't do it for the thrill, because the way I do it, there is little or no chance I'll ever get caught at it. As a matter of fact, I'd say I've probably taken so many more things than I even remember taking that it really has no impact on me at all. It's not like I've done something evil that will buy me a one-way ticket to hell. Naughtiness is not the same thing as meanness. I would never take something the other person couldn't live without. Like an inhaler from an asthmatic or a nitro pill from someone with angina. That would be wrong. What I do isn't really wrong, it's just ... well, it's just what I do.

I really don't understand why everyone is making such a fuss about all this. I mean, what's the difference between what I do and someone sneaking a free spray from a perfume bottle in a department store -- not a tester, either, but one that's for sale? Or walking through the grocery store produce department and popping a few grapes in your mouth that you won't be paying for? Or even not returning money to a sales person if they give you too much change back from a twenty? Really, would you do that? Of course ... you may think you're better than me, and I've been told that this kind of behavior is the mark of a budding sociopath, but I think that's just silly. Who am I hurting? I ask you.

Married? No, I got close once. I was engaged for a while, and I was okay with it until he started talking about moving in. Suddenly I realized that I was about to make a terrible mistake. I really don't like living with anybody. Privacy is really important to me. I don't ever feel lonely because I like my own company, and I can have a many-sided conversation in my head that is way better than talking to most people I've met. People are tiresome. They expect things from me that I'm not prepared to give -- time, attention, concern, sympathy. It's all too exhausting. So I broke it off.

You're thinking I'm gonna claim multiple personality disorder to explain everything I've ever done. No. I would never do that because it's a crock. Remember when John Wayne Gacy tried to pull that trick? What an idiot! No one would believe that guy had two personalities. From what I've read, he barely had one.

I have had friends -- sort of -- sometimes even I get tired of the sound of my own thoughts, and I need someone to remind me that I am not entirely alone in the world. When it suits me, I can spend some time around people. Not many at a time, and not for very long. Occasionally I'll join a group or a club and go once or twice, maybe single out one person to hang out with for a while, but eventually they get on my nerves, and I just stop answering the phone and the e-mail. There is this one person I have gotten to know who isn't too bad. She invites me over for coffee sometimes, and we talk about stuff. Very casual, no pressure. I get the feeling she doesn't really like being around people much more than I do. It's funny.

Children? No. Why? Now I know you're going to judge me about this, but really, it's better. People have always thought I was selfish because I chose not to have children, but believe me when I tell you no one would want me for a mom. And besides, I don't really like kids much. Oh, when they're brand new, they're okay. You can hold 'em all you want, they smell good -- most of the time -- and they don't give you attitude. But they're more work than a puppy, and so far I haven't been able to manage a dog either. No, any potential kid of mine would have to be born already half-grown and able to take care of itself.

Let's see, other things I've taken. Well, of course, I've never taken anything out of anyone's purse or wallet. That would be invasive. That's stealing. Also, you're a lot more likely to get caught doing that, aren't you?

You think that I do this because I envy people who have things I don't have, and I'm getting even with the "haves"? That's ridiculous. Why do I say that? Well, I'll tell you something that will show you how stupid that theory is.

One time I worked at this school; it was a parochial high school. No, no, I worked in the office ... ordered supplies, collated copies, kept up with teacher evaluations and so on ... didn't have to deal with the kids at all. Anyhow, the school had a staff lounge where people could go on breaks, and there were cupboards where you could keep food and stuff and a fridge and all the free coffee you could drink any time you wanted it. Well, the nuns who ran the place rode to work in a van from the motherhouse; because they were there all day, and they didn't have money to go out for lunch, even if they'd had a ride, they brought boxes of food and snacks in and stored them in the cupboards in the lounge. I liked 'em all pretty well -- the nuns I mean; most of them were fairly nice -- a few were puckered up like a dried apple. But certainly no one would consider them "haves", would they?

So this one day I happened to be in the lounge by myself; I had gone in there to make coffee because some dumbass had left the pot turned on and nearly empty, so what was left in there was charred and stuck to the bottom of the pot. I was standing at the sink scrubbing the coffee pot, and one of the nuns came in with a box full of granola bars and tea bags and popcorn and stuff. We spoke ... she was one of the unpuckered ones that I liked ... then she left. I went ahead and got the coffee started, and then I opened the cupboards to see what all she had put in there. Just curious, you know. The shelves were marked with little slips of paper that said, "SISTERS' FOOD". They had some cereal in there, and some boxes of fruity tea bags, and a bunch of granola and cereal bars -- the real good ones, not the generic Kroger ones. I wanted one of those cereal bars, so I took it. I put it in my pocket and when the coffee was done, I went back to my office and ate the cereal bar with my coffee. Simple. No big deal, and I'm sure if I had asked, the nun would've been glad to give me one. I didn't ask. Do you get it? I wanted it, and I took it. No one would ever miss it, it had practically no value, no one got hurt by my taking it, so I took it. That's how it works.

And now you think I should feel guilty about these things, and that I need to analyze why I do them, and try to stop doing them. Why? Who does it hurt? It's not like I get stuff and then throw it away and waste it. I use everything I take. I wouldn't take someone's last nickel or their last tea bag or their last ballpoint pen, for crying out loud. This hurts no one. And really what difference does it make why I do it? I don't know why, except that I want to.

Morally wrong? A sin? No, I guess I never thought much about that. I'm not religious; actually, to be perfectly truthful, I've taken things from churches, too. Ha ha ha ha ha. I can see I've shocked you now. It's true, though. Just a pencil now and then or one time I took home a little New Testament someone had left behind. If they'd really wanted it, they'd've taken it with them, wouldn't they? Yeah, their name was in it. I tore out that page and threw it away.

Immature, even juvenile reaction to a perceived need? Oh brother, please. You're saying that my taking something is the same thing as a teenager with an attitude. That's stupid. In fact, that might be the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Yes, I certainly do know the difference between right and wrong, and I am under no illusion that what I'm doing is right, but what's that got to do with it? I'd bet that most people, if they're honest, would admit to taking things. See, the thing is, after I've taken and I'm done with whatever I took, it's like it didn't happen. I don't sit around feeling guilty and trying to figure out how to make amends. I don't go buy a duplicate of the thing I took and try to sneak it back where it was so no one knows. I don't ever give it another thought, except that I wanted it and I took it.

Why can't you understand that this is not a mental problem? It's not! How can I explain it better so you understand? Okay, how about this? You go to WalMart, park in the parking lot, and start toward the store. As you're walking along, you spot a twenty-dollar bill on the ground. Would you pick it up and stick it in your pocket and feel pretty damn good that you are twenty dollars richer than you were before? Or would you take the twenty into the store and try to find the person who dropped it so they could have it back? I mean, really, where's the difference? Because I know who I am taking things from and you don't? Aren't you still stealing if what you put in your pocket didn't belong to you?

One day I was at work, and my boss had gone home early that day because her kid was sick or something. I wandered into her office to find the scotch tape, and I saw that she had several bottles of that fancy imported water on the shelf beside her desk. I felt thirsty, so I took one and drank it. The next day, I heard her saying to someone that she was sure she had x number of bottles of water there, and she thought there were some missing. I minded my own business. It would never have occurred to her that I might have taken it. She probably thought one of the cleaning crew had swiped it, but so what? She'd never accuse them, and she didn't ask me if I took it. It was a bottle of water. And really, how anal would you have to be to keep track of something like that?

When I was a teenager, I sometimes took cigarettes out of my mom's pack if they were lying around on the coffee table. I figured they were family property if she didn't have them in her purse. She never missed 'em; no harm, no foul.

As I got older, I occasionally snooped in people's medicine cabinets, and if they had something I thought I could use, I'd take it. Like a Xanax or some floss, maybe, or hand lotion or a disposable razor. You know, the kind of things people wouldn't miss, or care about if they did. One time I took a Loritab, you know? Good thing I didn't swallow it before I got home, because that damned thing made me sick as a dog. My stomach was torn up for days. I didn't take stuff like that any more after that.

Remember that friend I mentioned before? The one who was a lot like me about spending time with people? Well, after I'd known her for a while, I'd be at her house and if I had to go to the bathroom or something like that, I'd snoop. Her master bathroom was upstairs off her and her husband's bedroom, so I'd always use that one. One day I was up there and she was making coffee and the dishwasher was running -- it was really noisy in the house. I wandered around in their bedroom for a while, sliding drawers open very carefully and looking, but not moving anything. Using my fingernail, I opened a drawer in this small armoire, and there was all this jewelry in there that I'd never seen before. As a matter of fact, I'd never seen her wear any jewelry at all, except for her watch and wedding rings. Some of the stuff was kind of tacky, like Avon jewelry, but some of it was nice. She wasn't a very good housekeeper, so I wasn't surprised to see that a thin layer of dust covered everything in the drawer, too. There was this one piece. It was a pin, about an inch long, shaped like a lighthouse. I love lighthouses, and I knew she'd never wear the pin, and the drawer it was in was pretty crowded with stuff, and I knew she wouldn't miss it, and I wanted it, so ... I took it, not touching anything else, and put it in my pants pocket. With my fingernail, I kind of spread out the rest of the stuff so there wouldn't be a bare spot. Then I went back downstairs and had coffee. That was months ago, and she never mentioned it.

The funny thing about that pin is that I knew I could never wear it anywhere she might see it on me. Not that I thought she'd recognize it, or that I thought she would challenge me about it -- she probably never remembered she had it at all. Of course, none of that matters now.

So ... where do we go from here? I've told you everything I can think of that would explain what I do. I still don't understand all the carrying on about it. This last thing I took just happened to be a little bigger and more valuable than what I usually take. I'm not sure why I took it, because I have very strong feelings about this particular subject. What are the odds that the person I took it from would need it? It was covered in dust; it was obvious to me that it had been up on that shelf in the closet for years, and I know they never used it. How could I know that a burglar would break into their house when she was home by herself, or that she would try to be a hero and go for the gun in the closet to defend herself, or that the burglar would finally realize she was home and instead of merely burgling, would rape and kill her? How could I possibly anticipate that? I mean, what are the odds?

Article © Vivian Rinaldo. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-02-19
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