Things I successfully stole in high school before ultimately getting caught:
When I finally got caught: A powdery-teal button-up dress shirt, also for debate, from JC Penny.
It was dumb. I circled all of Juniors’ with the fucking top, at ten minutes ‘till closing time, running my fingers disinterestedly along stretchy, pre-pilled sweaters and leather-trimmed sweater dresses while staring up at the cameras. I veered into Women’s purses and cracked a few wallets open, and closed, and open. I swayed past the perfumes and scented candles, then cut through men’s ties. There was an appealingly shiny red tie with and embroidered pattern of silky squares, and I considered stealing it too, for my debate partner. We’d already picked out matching tops for under our suits.
There was a new suit jacket— legally purchased —in a shopping bag dangling from my arm, at the crook where wrist met pocket. I abandoned the ties and stomped lazily back to Women’s purses. There was already a stolen blouse crammed in the bag, filched from Dillard’s. I went around the corner, ducked behind the stack of wallets, dropped to my knees and slowly worked the tealish top into my shopping bag. My other friends only shoplifted in each other’s company.
The lights in Juniors were going out and a voice on the intercom was saying the store was fixing to close. I walked, briskly but comfortably, to the front exit that opened into the mall. Shit, fuck me, I didn’t even think to run out the closer door, into the parking lot. I was parked by fucking Sears, which was the easiest place to steal from of all.
I was halfway over the barrier and into the mall (without setting off the alarm) when a white guy in tight, high slacks and a white shirt and tie popped out from a little door in the wall and bounded at me. It was an admirably casual bound, like he was about to tell me I’d dropped my keys.
“Excuse me, excuse me ma’am,” he said, and a thin, ruddy employee with an oversize name tag also materialized, stepping into view from the other side. I froze.
“Excuse me ma’am,” the managerial-looking dude repeated. I was seventeen but had been called ‘ma’am’ since thirteen. “Why don’t we come back over here.”
He took my arm, lightly, and pointed vaguely around the corner. The ruddy, red-headed guy followed us. There must have been other shoppers and employees, but they didn’t seem to notice. It was all seamless, and calm, and I wasn’t even sure yet I’d been caught.
Just as easily they led me around the corner, past the elevators and dressing rooms into a sickly mauve passage, and through a small metal door into a room filled with security camera displays.
“Forgot to pay for that, eh?” the managerial guy said, pointing at my bag.
“I. Oops. Can I pay you now?” I said. “Let me pay you.”
The redhead sat down at the console and fiddled with one of the TVs.
“Took you awhile, there,” he said to no one, resting his flushed head on his palm.
“Ok, so here’s how this is gonna go,” said the managerial guy. Under the low-hanging office lights, he looked much older and grayer under the skin. “First you’re gonna give us your ID,”
“I don’t have it on me.”
He leaned back. ”Are you here with anyone?”
I shook my head. “I drove here.”
“Is there someone who can get you?”
“I took the only car.”
“Are you over eighteen?” the ruddy guy mumbled. The manager-dude didn’t appear to hear.
“I’m going to try this again,” manager said. “If you don’t have ID, we’ll have to call the cops first thing, and have them sort it all out, but if you have your card we can start to fill out the paperwork. Are you sure you don’t have ID?”
“Let me check my coat, just to be sure,” I lied, reaching into the mound on my lap. I fumbled around a while, flipping the coat over and emptying each pocket with agonizing slowness.
Ruddy took the shopping bag from my lap. He pulled both the Dillard’s and Penny’s shirts out, then the suit jacket.
“Here’s ours…What’s this?” he read the inside, “Oh, Dillard’s.”
“We’ll have to get Mrs. Winters run that up to ‘em,” manager-dude said.
Ruddy looked the jacket over. “You steal all this?”
“I bought that! I bought that, there’s a receipt.”
He pulled it out from the corner of the bag.
“Here’s my ID,” I added, and slid it across the desk to the guy in charge.
He started scrawling on a sheet of carbon-copy paper. Ruddy was turning a dial on one of the security TVs; I was walking backward jerkily in gray across the screen.
“Ah shit, she’s not eighteen,” manager said.
“She’s not eighteen?”
He put his arms up. “She’s not. Okay. We’re gonna have to call your parents, okay? Somebody’s gonna have to come pick you up, and sign for this-” he shook the carbon papers at me.
“Better get Eunice,” Ruddy said quietly.
“Do you…have someone who can claim you?”
“I took the only car,” I lied.
“Well, they’re gonna have to find one. We can’t leave until they get here to sign for all this,” manager-dude rose, smoothing dust from his slacks. “I’m going to go call your folks, kid-“
“Wait! You can’t, you gotta get Eunice to come in here before you go,” Ruddy said. He stood and pointed at the door with urgency, chewing his lip. I noticed he was wearing a pair of Cleveland Browns sweatpants, not retail associate attire.
The manager pushed a button on the receiver by Ruddy’s seat and spoke into the base. “Yeah, we got a minor loss prevention situation back here, a minor female, we need Eunice or somebody to come back here and um, chaperon? ” he looked at Ruddy, who shrugged.
Eunice was a bent-backed old woman with a shock of blue-white hair, who wore a mauve JC Penny’s apron and a cloud of perfume that was nearly visible in its strength. She came in smiling, her coral lipstick cracking at the corners of her mouth. The manager left as soon as she entered, taking my ID and my shirts and suit jackets with him.
“Oh you poor dear,” Eunice said, sitting on the edge of Ruddy’s desk. She motioned to a swivel chair. “Sit, sit, be comfortable!”
I did. “It’s gonna be awhile, anyway,” Ruddy said.
He showed Eunice and me the footage he’d collected. In 2x the natural speed, my tiny grayscale form tittered around the store, weaved in and out of displays, and eyed the cameras conspicuously before finally ducking down and shoving the shirt inside. Ruddy leaned over the console, watching me with unbroken attention and a mouth that hung slightly open and shone with spit. When the tape stopped, as the manager approached me at the exit, he rewound it and rested his red head on his hands.
“You seem so…nervous,” he said. “Like you don’t want to do it. You take so damn long. Why is that?”
“Did you not want to do it, sweetie?” Eunice asked.
“Well, I was worried about getting caught…I know you guys have the best security protocol of any department store. I knew I’d get out of Dillard’s, but I thought maybe you guys would catch me.”
I turned to Ruddy, whose eyes were wide and seemed transparently light.
“You obviously do have the best security and loss-prevention policy. At least this will sound good in my paper.”
“You’re writing a paper about this? Listen, ma’am, this is all highly confidential-“
“I’m doing a report on loss prevention, for school,” I said.
Eunice clicked her tongue. “Honey, I’m sure no teacher of yours would want you to take it this far.”
“I didn’t believe what I read,” I said. “Did you know Sears doesn’t even have real cameras?”
Ruddy nodded. “You don’t say.”
“It’s just big black plastic shields hanging from the ceiling. No cameras in there.”
He rubbed his chin. “Just like K-mart.”
“Exactly. No security or loss team at all, except one guy the whole district shares, who hopes around from place to place and keeps the stores open late one night a month. It’s like that in Old Navy, too. I used to work there.”
“Then what happened?” said Eunice.
I shrugged her question away. “I got another job. They racially profiled people. They didn’t have cameras but they made us follow black customers around.”
This part was sort-of true. Ruddy leaned forward and dragged his swivel chair closer to mine with a paddling motion in his legs. He got close enough that Eunice coughed pointedly at him.
“So what else?” he said. “What else did you learn in your, uh, research?”
“Dillard’s has a really lax shoplifting policy. They just try to scare you, and let you go. Giant Eagle makes you sign a sheet saying you’ll never enter the store again, but it isn’t legally binding.”
“Wow. How did you figure all this out?” Ruddy turned to Eunice as he asked this, to impress upon her how interesting this data was.
“I read online, and then I tried them out myself.”
“You could get in a lot of trouble, young lady.”
“Well she is in a lot of trouble. But I want to hear all about it. We can’t get data on stores like this!”
“Should hire me.”
He rubbed his chin, which was slowly erupting in untended gold-orange bristles. “Like a secret shopper. It’s kinda brilliant huh?”
“We’d be in a real pickle if’n we got caught,” Eunice said. “Or corporate would.”
Ruddy rewound the tape. “You seem, so much, like you didn’t want to do it.”
“I was worried. This is gonna ruin my life, college-wise,” I said, fiddling with the bottom of my coat. I could usually cry about anything, at that age, but insincere tears weren’t in the having that night.
“Should have been more careful, stuck to the books.”
“We had to pick something novel for our MLA research papers. We had to do field research.” I looked back up at them. “It was dumb.”
Eunice patted me on the knee. “What class was this for?”
The answer rose up from the depths. “Behavioral Economics. It’s like psychology and econ all in one.”
She shrugged and looked to Ruddy, who was nodding sagely once again.
“I always wanted to study that.”
“I don’t know what half this stuff is, that you people learn about anymore,” she said.
She pulled a folded-up Sudoku puzzle from her apron’s front pocket and snatched a mechanical pencil from Ruddy’s desk.
“What did you study?” I asked.
“Sports Management and Business,” Ruddy said, patting the Browns logo on his sweats. “Didn’t take, though. I had to drop out when Sheila thought she was pregnant.”
“That’s too bad.”
“It wasn’t for me anyway,” he said. “I just wanted an excuse to watch the games and profit off it, you know? I got my Browns van for tailgating, that’s all I need.”
Eunice looked up from her game. “I been meaning to check it out, it sounds like a real beaut.”
“What is it, customized?” I said.
“Oh yes, very much so,” said Ruddy, reaching into his pockets and turning them out. Finding nothing, he patted around his desk and checked the breast pocket of his polo. “It was a VW beetle, one my parents had for years…I replaced all the upholstery with bright Browns orange suede, brown carpeting on the bottom, white trim…shoot, I had a picture somewhere…”
“But that’s not the half of it,” Eunice said.
“Oh did you pimp it out?”
He nodded. “TVs, little Toshibas, in the back seats, a big ol’ ice bucket built into the floor in the center row, Laz-E-Boys screwed into the metal tracks where the old seats were…I wish I could show you. I poured all my extra money from the job into this thing, I love it, except for student loan payments of course..,” he kept digging around.
“You kids,” Eunice said, shaking her head and smiling down at her Sudoku. “Ought to be blowing your time and money on work, on babies. Learn to play an instrument. Something.”
“Look at how happy it makes him, though!” I said. “At least he has something to devote his time to, you know, that he’s enthusiastic about. At least he’s creating something.”
Ruddy rose. “Shoot, I can’t find the pictures.”
“I mean,” I added, “It beats hanging his happiness on rooting for the Browns.”
They both laughed. Eunice tapped me again on the legs.
“I’m going to the lockers, I know I have a Polaroid of the van back there,” Ruddy said, taking a paper cup of mold-black coffee with him. He pointed at Eunice. “Keep her out of trouble, Erika. You watch her.”
We all chuckled as he went out. I realized I’d forgotten about the shoplifting charge, the potential court case, and my dad presumably speeding over to the mall in a flushed-faced, hoarse-throated fury during this whole exchange. In the calm and in Ruddy’s absence, the consequences were starting to seem real.
“Say, Eunice?” I asked. “Why do you have to sit back here with us? You’re not a loss prevention person, are you?”
“Oh, no dear.” She eased into Ruddy’s chair, her face wincing, her hips popping sonorously. “I sell the Cookie Candles. I’m back here so you can’t say anyone laid a hand on you, or raped you or whatnot.”
She reached into her pocket. JC Penny was in the middle of its annual candy coupon sale, where individually-wrapped chocolates with coupons inside were handed to incoming customers. She pulled a fistful of the brick-shaped, shining chocolates out and extended them to me.
“Here honey, eat something.”
“How are your folks gonna handle this?”
I decided not to lie. “It’ll probably give them a fresh thing to argue about for the divorce.”
“It’s fine. It’s good that it’s happening.”
“Oh dear that is never good.”
“Don’t you think if two people are miserable enough that it’s better for them and their kids to get some release?”
“Oh there’s no release from it, don’t matter what you do.”
Ruddy came back in, a Polaroid of his van waving in the air. He dropped it on my lap, along with the pink Charlotte Russe bag containing my (legally purchased) suit jacket.
“Oh look at that,” I said. The van was bright orange with matte Browns Bulldogs on the side, one throwing a giant, meatball-looking football. Ruddy and a few other pasty Clevelanders were drunk in and around the van; glass bottles were smashed around the tires and between feet.
“Guess this was before they banned glass at the games,” I said.
“Yeah,” Ruddy sighed, taking a swig from his cup. “One idiot goes and pelts a Ravens head coach and leaves some shards in his forehead and that ruins things for everyone.”
“Oh, I didn’t tell you the best part! The horn, it’s a recording of ‘Cleveland Rocks’!”
“Wow, that must’ve been hard.”
He took the photo back and tapped at it. “Took all spring. When I first rolled up with this beauty, I tell you, I was royalty. People are still vying for a chance to party in it with me.”
My knowledge of football already expended, all I could do was nod. I didn’t feel like chatting either of them up anymore. When Ruddy sat near me with his feet dangling off the edge of his desk, I felt a chill rippled from my cheeks to my calves, without knowing why.
On the monitors the store lighting went out. We watched a half dozen employees walk onto the icy parking lot.
“Sorry we’re keeping you long, Eunice,” Ruddy said.
She was working intently on her puzzle. “No matter. I’ve missed my bus already so another half hour isn’t no trifle.”
The phone rang. Ruddy answered, said “Uh huh, okay,” and looked at us both.
“Folks are almost here. Let’s go.”
We walked in a line to the rear exit. The store was robed in darkness. The jewelry and perfumes were locked up and the cash registers were covered in green tarpaulin.
“It’s funny,” Eunice said, “Being the last ones in here always makes me want to steal.”
“Internal loss is a bigger problem financially than customer theft,” I said. Ruddy stared at me.
“You did this for a project,” he said.
The manager was waiting for us at the exit. He handed me my ID.
“So, this shirt was originally fifty-two, buy lucky for you it was on sale for thirty-six. So that’s probably gonna be a fifty dollar fine in court.”
“I have the money now, can I just pay you?” I asked idiotically.
“I’m afraid that’s not how it works.”
Eunice squeezed my shoulder, making me jump. “Hon, do you want some more candy? Please, take some.”
I did. We stared at the glass doors. A few cars cruised across the lot, my stomach tensing each time.
“What about Kaufman’s?” Ruddy asked.
I thought a moment. “They pursue community service for underage shoplifters. They…are very aggressive about investigating internal theft.”
“Hm. Makes sense. Got an offer from them,” he said to the manager.
“Don’t tell me that,” he replied.
My dad’s taupe 1999 Camry sedan pulled across the lot and parked where the pavement met the store’s curb. Keeping the lights on and the engine running, he threw the door open and strode to the glass doors, which the manager held open for him.
“Sir, we have it all settled so she’s free to go-” The manager began to say.
I don’t remember what he yelled. I can’t remember much of anything he ever yelled, really. Something about how I kept ruining my chances, how I was doing this to him at the worst possible moment, how I needed to get my fucking head examined, maybe, something about how the family was being driven apart. Maybe some vague threat about disownership or my leaving the house, or something. I don’t know long it lasted or what the content was, just the volume and the fact it was in full view of the employees.
I wonder if either one of us had the optics of it in mind, as he screamed at me and I ducked my head instead of arguing back, like I typically d
We waited in silence for another ten or fifteen minutes, when my dad’s brother pulled into the parking lot. I ran out and he hugged me, saying he didn’t know what happened and didn’t need to know, that he was sorry, as if he was apologizing for the blood we had in common.
I was never charged. I haven’t stolen since.
I always thought my dad’s explosion spared me from being charged with shoplifting, or perhaps that my lies about doing a ‘paper’ on shoplifting worked. I retold this story to my sister recently, who is pretty well-versed in shoplifting law via a retail job of her own.
“You didn’t leave the store,” she said. “You haven’t committed a crime if you don’t leave the store.”
Huh. It was all optics, from all sides.
Erika D. Price is a writer and social psychologist in Chicago, Illinois. Her work has been featured in Full of Crow, Red Fez, EFiction, and in Liar’s League NYC’s reading series, among others. Her novel Corpus Callosum is currently in press. For more, see erikadprice.tumblr.com
–Art by Felicia Simion