Literary Orphans

Sticky Fingers
by Patti Abbott

600807_421301974643684_2019933504_nJulia Lorrain was the girl who stole things, and I was the one who knew it.

The first thing I saw Julia take was a pair of swimming goggles. I watched from a stall as Julia, as thin as a noodle of angel hair pasta, swept by the bench where the goggles sat, sliding them into her gym bag.  Why steal such a thing?  A box of exactly such items, and there for the asking, sat a few feet away in the Lost and Found. Her theft was both mysterious and exciting.

Seconds later, the owner of the goggles crashed through the locker room door, glanced at the bench, looked under it, slammed open her locker, and ran off to the pool to check there. On her return, Julia calmly denied having seen them, implying by her tone that losing your goggles or even looking for them was a bit ridiculous.

“Why do you need goggles?” Julia asked. “You’re not on the swim team, are you?”

“Have you seen them, Alison?” the girl asked, spotting me coming out of the stall. “My goggles?” She looked around again—in case they’d walked themselves back.

The word goggles had been voiced too often by then and began to sound funny.  I shook my head.

 “Guess I’ll have to check with Mrs. Henkly.”

Our noses wrinkled in unison. Mrs. Henkly, not known for being sympathetic, was prone to discussions of feminine products not disposed of properly. She was skilled at working the issue into almost any conversation. Some girls claimed Mrs. Henkly stockpiled used tampons found in inappropriate places as evidence of our transgressions.

“A new pair won’t set you back much,” Julia told the girl consolingly.

About two months later, I caught Julia removing a CD from a shelf at Michelle Kim’s house. We were all upstairs in Michelle’s room, sharing information about a test someone had already taken when Julia stood up and asked to use the bathroom.

“Can I use your phone, Michelle?” I asked a second later.

“There’s one in the kitchen,” she said, waving lazily in that direction.

Once freed, I watched Julia bypass the hall bathroom, heading downstairs. She crossed the olive shag carpeting in the living room and leisurely sifted through a shelf of CDs, making a selection. I would’ve loved to have seen her choice. Perhaps it was more the act than the object, I thought.  I’d been reading Karen Horney and her work on neurosis was a heavy influence at fifteen.

Julia walked over to the coat closet and slid the CD into her jacket pocket. And then, she dug into other pockets, looking for additional booty. A sudden footfall on the stairs brought her perusal to an end. As I hid more thoroughly, Julia slipped her jacket on and stood at attention.

“Brrrr. It’s cold in here,” she shivered as Michelle walked into the room.

“Can you give me a hand in the kitchen?” Michelle said. “Everyone’s apparently starving.”

I checked my coat once they were gone. I returned an hour later to the place I called home. The Osborns were okay. Better than the foster family I lived with the year before.  A boy named Peter lived there too, and we kept our distance from each other—Peter and I—as if bad luck could rub off.  If the Osborns had ever seen Peter naked they’d be quite disturbed by the missing pieces of skin, and the tender areas etched with initials or hieroglyphics. Hopefully, my oddities were beneath the skin rather than on them.

“Alison, you should feel free to invite your friends over here,” Mrs. Osborn said when I came in. She was wiping her hands on a dish towel, carefully slipping it over the rack above the sink. Obviously it was Mrs. Osborn’s idea to take in fosters because Mr. Osborn, a middle-school principal who clearly saw enough of troubled kids on his job, cut us a wide berth.  “If you let me know ahead of time I can bake cookies. My kids used to love lemon squares. Just give me a little notice.”

I could see she was already regretting the offer when the phone rang and she nodded toward it.

“Alison?” the caller said uncertainly. “It’s Julia. Julia Lorrain. Can you talk?”

Nodding again, Mrs. Osborn left the kitchen, mumbling something about checking on Peter. Knock first, I thought to myself.

“Hi,” I said.

“I put it back,” Julia said, “before I left. I know you saw me take it. You’re hard to miss with that red hair.”

“I didn’t mean to spy.” The cord was twisting around my neck as I looked for Mrs. Osborne. If you’re a foster kid, you’re always on the lookout for a potential reason to get dumped. “I came downstairs at Michelle’s to….”

“That’s okay,” Julia interrupted, “but I put the CD back.”

“Yes, well…what one did you take?” I had to ask.

“What? Oh, I don’t remember.” She thought for a few seconds. “Sticky Fingers, I think.”

 “You made that up.”

“Not a Stones fan, huh?”

“No, not that. Don’t you get it— the irony?” I asked. “Stealing a CD called Sticky Fingers.”

 “Right,” she said, still in the dark. “It was probably another one anyway. ”

“I wasn’t going to tell anyone, Julia.”

“Well, thanks. I don’t know what I was thinking. Sometimes I….”

“I know,” I said.

And I did.

Six months passed. Julia now avoided me as most kids did. I could imagine other parents saying, “Well we don’t know her real family.”

            And then…

I watched her entering the dressing room at Gimbel’s Department Store with a wraparound skirt in her hand, exiting a few minutes later without it. I hadn’t meant to follow her—or at least not at first. I’d spotted her on the train platform as I biked across a culvert. I locked my bike, stepping onto the last car as the train pulled out. Afterwards, I tailed her back to the train station and sat several cars behind her. But she found me.

“Look, do you want it?” she said. When she saw my face, she added, “I saw you in the mirror outside the dressing room. That red hair again. If you’re going to be a spy, you need to wear a hat or something.”

She unbuttoned her coat and modeled a brown woolen skirt. I nodded. Fosters never had enough clothes. She pulled the bow, and the skirt came undone, revealing a pair of jeans beneath. I took the skirt, folded it, and stashed it in my purse. When I looked up again, she was sliding into the next car, her slender frame only needing a crack to escape.

This began a relationship[ of sorts.  Julie Lorrain stole things and gave them to me. We never discussed our arrangement, and I wasn’t sure if she was buying my silence or my favor, whether she’d no real desire for the goods—just for the thrill in stealing them. Perhaps she stole for other people too. I poured through Karen Horney, Freud, Jung.  Was it kleptomania? Did she get a rush? I didn’t ask, just enjoyed the booty.

Despite the length of this arrangement, we avoided a discussion—and even much contact. We were like two thieves who’d agreed to part ways after the big score. I found it surprising that neither of the Osborns ever queried my growing wardrobe, putting it down to their advanced years. Or to a basic lack of interest despite their good deed.

It all—and I do mean all—ended abruptly when Mr. Osborn suffered a heart attack.  Peter and I were relocated to new foster homes within days. Mine was in another suburb, and consequently, I attended a different high school. I was sad to leave the few friends I’d made, poor Mrs. Osborn, and, most of all, Julia. I wasn’t sure if it was the trinkets or the girl I’d miss.

Julia and I turned up at the same summer job four years late. Now twenty-one, we were hired as waitresses in a resort town on the Delaware River. I was pretty much on my own by then, although my last and kindest foster family gave me a bed and a dinner whenever I needed one.

The restaurant was called The Canal House and featured a lot of bawdy entertainment, mostly for the gay population in the arty town. Julia and I circled each other warily for a few hours before she approached me.

“In case you’re wondering—or should I say wanting — I gave up shoplifting after high school,” she said. “My parents put me in therapy. Found my little storage unit.” She sighed, wiping the damp tray she held with her checkered apron. “I get that rush in other ways now.” She paused. “No, that’s a lie. I had to give the rush up and settle for sex and booze instead.” She laughed but there no real mirth in it. She slapped the tray against her thigh.

 “I still have the Mickey Mouse watch.”

We made a bit of conversation then and more in the days ahead, but it was always strained—too much uncomfortable history between us perhaps. Often I found her staring at me thoughtfully. She’d probably say the same thing about me.

On a Monday night when the restaurant was closed, I heard a hesitant knock. I thought first of the middle-aged man, too often seated at my station at the restaurant. Or the bus boy who lived down the alley. But peeking out the window, I saw it was Julia and opened the door.

She came in silently and looked around. “Wow. Pretty basic. My place is across the river. You can get a better deal over there.”

“It’s bleak all right,” I said, “but cheap. Tips are good at the Canal House though, aren’t they? I should be able to make my tuition.”

Julia nodded. “Last summer, I made a good chunk of change. On a decent Saturday, you might pull in a hundred bucks. Sometimes more. On the fourth last year, I made over $200.”

She flopped down on my one decent chair, and I grabbed two beers from the fridge. I held a glass up, and she shook her head.

“Always seems colder from the bottle. So what’re you studying?” she asked, taking a long sip. She was much prettier than I remembered. Her hair was nearly blonde now—I guess with some help—and she was even leaner if possible. “You’re out in State College, right?”

“Psychology,” I said, nodding. “Which is useless without a Ph.D. I don’t know how I’ll afford grad school unless I get an assistantship.”

“Oh, you’ll get one,” she said. “Always were a brain.”

“And you?”

 “Nursing. I barely made it through the chemistry, but now it’s all practicums so I’m okay.”

 “The therapy helped, huh?”

She shrugged. “It’s always gonna be there—the itch—that is. But it’s under control.” She tipped the bottle into her mouth, swallowing hard. “An admission here. You were the only one I gave things to. “

I’d thought about this over the years. “Why me? Because I was on to you?”

“Partly. But also because of this.” She set her bottle down and reached across the table, placing her hands on top of mine.  I started to pull away and she shook her head. “Wait. Listen to me a sec. I was crazy about you, Alison. When you moved away, I nearly went nuts. You never came back to visit. Not once. A couple of us even tried to find you but had to give up. They really do seal those records.”

I couldn’t think of what to say.

“You never realized it? I was sure you did.”

“I’m not gay, Julia. Maybe you have to be gay to recognize something like that in another woman. Or older than we were then.” This was a lie, I realized then. I’d known it.

“Right,” she readily agreed. “You don’t necessarily figure out you’re gay by sixteen. Or even at 22. Women especially. I didn’t know that’s what it was—all the wonky feelings stirring up–until college. I thought I just admired you—or wanted to be friends.  Something like that anyway.” She stood up and walked around the table. “Do you have a boyfriend?” Her hands were on my neck now. Light, caressing, practiced. “Out at State or here?”

“Not at the moment.” I shivered. “But I have, of course.” Had I really? “Summer, you know. Just doesn’t seem worth the effort. Look, Julia…”

“I know. I know. I’m going too fast. But I’ve waited too long not to push things along a little. And look, Red, a straight girl with your looks would’ve someone by now.”

Her voice was very certain. Was this true?

“There may not be a lot of straight guys in this town—but the bartender—who’s pretty damned cute– has been giving you the eye since you turned up.”

I shrugged. “I’m a very focused person. And right now….”

 “I bet it’s never worked out for you, has it?” She was whispering. “I bet you’ve never come with a guy. Don’t even know what it feels like. To really have an orgasm?”

I didn’t say anything, but it was true. I had had sex, but it never went anywhere. Perhaps she was right.

“Look, I have to go,” Julia said abruptly, rising. “Just when…well, just when. Shit. I have a late date on Mechanic Street. Nothing momentous, but I can’t stand her up.” She turned to look at me. “Think about it, Alison. Think about me.” She was gone before I had time to react.

For a few days, Julia kept her distance, working on the day shift, I guess. And then, she was at my door again, and this time I let her do the things women did. It happened several more times, but much like the thefts, we never talked about it. The third or fourth time, she brought me a necklace, and the sex was even better.

“Do I have to bring you a gift each time?” she teased. “Come on now. Isn’t the sex enough? Have you ever had a better lover?”

“No,” I said. “You’re very good at it—as far as it goes.” I regretted it the minute I said it.

“And what does that mean—as far as it goes,” she asked, putting her hand between my legs again. “No man will like you here—“ she grabbed me hard—“as much as I do.” In a second, she was on top of me, straddling me. “They may say they do, but they don’t.” Her eyes glittered in the candlelight as her hand reached back. “College boys know very little about what a woman needs.  And they care even less. They just want to find a place to park their car. Which garage it’s in is immaterial.”

“I know. But all I’m getting from this…whatever it is… is an orgasm I could get for myself. Do you see what I mean? I have to want to give you the same…consideration. Not just take what you can do for me.” Like the presents, I thought. “Isn’t that it? It’s gotta be reciprocal, right?”

Her hand froze, and I went icy with it. “Maybe not right away, but yes,” Julia said with a frown. “You can’t imagine it—not ever?”

“The idea of it repulses me. I’m sorry, but there it is.” When I saw her face, I repeated it,  “I’m so very, very sorry.”

And I was. In so many ways, being with Julia would be easy. She’d be so grateful, and she had nice ways to show it. And I did like what she did to me. Was I the most selfish bitch on earth?

She got up and dressed in a hurry. She wasn’t at work the next day, and I heard she’d gotten a job as a bartender across the river. Halfheartedly, I tried to track her down, but what was the good of it? I couldn’t give her what she wanted. And the things she gave me were better not to take. I’d learn not to want them—even if I wasn’t certain what they were.

On my last day of work in that resort town, I came home to find my room piled sky-high with merchandise. Clothes, jewelry, and electronic goods were tucked into every corner, the tags still dangling. Was this a last attempt to seduce me? Did she still think she could buy me? I was in a daze, trying to figure it out, when I heard the knock at the door.

I threw open the door and found two uniformed officers standing there. “Miss Bagley?” the taller one said, looking down at his notebook. “Alison Bagley.”

The room behind me was lit up like a Christmas tree. It was more like a warehouse than a room. There was no way I could hide it.

I nodded reluctantly.

“There’s been a series of thefts. Someone spotted you with a TV set a few hours ago. Your landlord said, you’ve been hauling stuff in here all day.” He looked at me over the top of his glasses. The other guy blocked the door. “Is that right?”

“Getting ready to split your boss said,” the other guy added.

I stepped aside, noticing for the first time the red wig handing from the closet hook, the blue jean jacket identical to the one I had on.

It was ironic. Maybe Julia understood the term now. Maybe she was a master of it.

I was going down all right, just not in the way Julia, my sweet Julia, had wanted.

 

O Typekey Divider

More than one hundred of Patti Abbott’s stories have appear in print or online. Recent stories appeared in PANK, UNDERGROUND VOICES, THE HUFFINGTON POST and KWIK KRIMES. Snubnose Press has published her two ebooks, MONKEY JUSTICE and HOME INVASION. You can find links to some of her online stories at http://pattinase.blogspot.com

zoo

O Typekey Divider

–Art by Bostjan Tacol