Stop, Thief

XX Files
Wanda E. Fleming is a freelance writer. Her essays have appeared in The Post and Skirt! magazine. (Courtesy Author)
By Wanda E. Fleming
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Years ago, I witnessed a woman in a super-market stuff lamb chops down her coat. Though clumsy, the theft was swift. She moved on, clutching her bodice and holding a basket, empty but for canned peas. I froze, thinking how sad, how odd, how cold that meat on her chest must feel.

"Do you think she was a klepto or just hungry?" my husband asked as I unloaded groceries onto the kitchen counter.

"I don't know," I offered.

The woman was tiny, with a body that had surely once been touted as petite or gamine. Now she stooped and had tracing-paper skin with veins that looped to an interstate of purple and green.

"Should I have said something?"

"Like what?" he asked. " 'Stop, thief!'?"

Today is different. Before the act unfolds, I sense it coming. I'm scanning the drugstore shelf for my favorite deodorant, the super-industrial kind that will artificially plug my pores, taking me dryly from teacher conferences to preparing a dinner for my in-laws. As I search the containers, I see him -- a child of 9 or 10, 11 at the most.

He and I stand in a chain pharmacy. It sits in a well-to-do neighborhood of popular restaurants that serve not food but "cuisine" and shrimp that is never spicy fried but "Crispy Dangerous." Here students from the nearby schools flood in before morning classes. They congregate and gossip, sometimes chatting to a hornet's buzz. And they buy what passes for breakfast: potato chips, cupcakes and dye-drenched sodas.

Most mornings, a crossed-arm manager stands guard, eyeing the buyers as they crowd the snack-food aisle. But right now, it's so early that the caravan has yet to arrive. It's just me, my deodorant and the boy.

It's his dawdling that rouses my attention. Blinking furtively, he peers at me, then over his shoulder. In his third pass of back-and-forth glancing, he gambles on my seemingly intent hunt for toiletries. He unzips the front pocket of his knapsack and thrusts in a bottle of orange soda. But a glitch ensues. The pocket is too short, the bottle too tall. He fails to calculate that the soda must lie at an angle. The zipper refuses to close. Squeeze, push. The seconds tick.

One aisle over shops a police officer who visits the store so often that I know her face immediately. I saw her reading greeting cards. We've already shared morning salutations. Her stern countenance is surpassed only by a severe haircut and biceps so chiseled that any squirming thief could be brought to his knees with one arm twist.

As the child scurries past me with his pilfered beverage, I reach out for the hood of his coat. I pull him in and press my hand on his back.

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