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Stop, Thief
The boy made a choice. And so did I.

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.

"Put it back," I say. Though he's the one in trouble, my own heart races. A whimper seeps from his mouth; a gurgle of stuttered syllables follows. "I'm s-s-orry. I'm s-sorry," he repeats.

He sinks to his knees and unzips the pouch. The zipper, never fully shut, now glides open with ease. He stares up and hands me the soda.

I'm struck by the glint of his eyes, framed by lashes so long that the wall of mascara in Aisle 1 lures buyers to compete with what comes to him naturally.

"Do you know why you're giving this back, besides that stealing is wrong?"

Puzzled, he shakes his head.

"Listen, it's not just wrong for you, it's wrong for my son. When he comes in for aspirin or paper towels, the manager follows him. The cops, too. They follow him because of you, because you're stealing."

His eyes widen, then shut. They turn to liquid but never full tears.

"Just leave."

At dinner that night, I recount the event. My young daughter looks up from her plate and asks, "Was he drinking that soda for breakfast?"

"Who knows?" my husband offers. "It's just good you said something. Maybe he'll grow up and be somebody. Maybe he'll be interviewed one day, and he'll say, 'Once, a woman stopped me in my tracks.' "

"Maybe," I murmur.

Many mornings later, I return to the drugstore, this time in search of toothpaste and a razor, the girlie-pink kind purported to glide up soapy calves without nicking delicate skin. At the checkout lane, I stand behind two teens, a girl buying a trio of frosted snack cakes and a boy with a king-size candy bar.

"Got a receipt for that?" the manager barks as they head out, peeling back wrappers.

"They paid," I say. I put on my sunglasses and head into the light.

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