I love a thief. No particular thief. I love a thief in general. I love a thief the way I love a cup of tea, a winter storm, a house of cards. Or how I imagine I would love a house of cards if I had a house of cards to love. We sell cards at the gift shop and sometimes I think about building something, only I never try. If I did try, and it did work, I wouldn’t let anyone breathe. I wouldn’t let the wind blow. Even though I love wind, when it is a thief. When it will steal your house or your hat or the fliers you intend to hang from every post in the city, announcing your loss. I love a thief because what a thief wants is unreasonable and magical and too much. And it could be any old thing.
The gift shop sells any old thing at three locations in Durham alone. I like it here, in this location. Near Ninth Street but not on Ninth Street. I was first hired as a secret shopper. I was supposed to pretend to inspect figurines or fancy address books or hard, expensive teddy bears for hours on end, nabbing shoplifters when they least expected it. In my third week, a scheduling mix-up assigned all of the secret shoppers to the same store at the same time. I recognized everyone from training; in fact, there were no real shoppers on the premises at all. No one recognized me, and no one found me suspicious. Even when I lingered too long in the greeting cards, opening each one that promised to be Blank Inside. Losing heart, I asked management for a regular job. I told them, of thieves, that I could never tell. I could always tell. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell on them. And, anyway, there were hardly any here. What’s here is the cash register. It feels good under my hands, messy with cash, low on ink. And the gift-wrap table, where I sit now, wrapping a Frank Sinatra box set. Easy. But I could, at any moment, be faced with a special, difficult shape. I might be the only one with hands that could manage it.
And so, when a man outside steals a dog tied to a streetlamp, I let him. I love him. Love the dog. Love the streetlamp for being lit, wasteful, in the afternoon. Love the dog’s rightful owner, a squat little woman in a fake fur coat. She looks out the shop window. She has an instinct for absence. She calls the dog’s name, Buckles!, and rushes outside to stand where, once, Buckles stood.
“Buckles?” says my customer, the one who thinks Frank Sinatra is going to really make someone’s day, make them keel over with gratitude. Her purse, she has already informed me, is made out of a rabbit. “Buckles? Well that’s her problem right there. Animals don’t really hear consonants.”
Sinatra is happy with his microphone. Who wouldn’t be. I tie him up with ribbon.
“You should always have your pet’s name end in a vowel sound.” She is letting me in on something, leaning in, and won’t take this package until she’s made her point. “You should name them Booboo or Fanny or Teeny.”
“Oh,” I say. A line has formed.
“What’s your name?”
“See? That’s a good one.”
She leaves the shop in a flourish of satisfaction tinged with pity. Most of the world, I guess, is named Charles or Kristin and is thus doomed to disappear.
There is a boy in line, holding nothing. His arms hang patiently at his sides. He steps dutifully forward as pink-cheeked customers give me gifts and I give them back. When it is his turn, he says, “Grandma,” and points out the window, where Grandma, petless, paces back and forth on the sidewalk, on a cell phone, squinting. The boy doesn’t say “My grandma,” though I assume she is his. Then the boy asks if I have any dogs.
“No,” I say. “You?” as if this were my job. Maybe the rest of the customers are also lined up to learn about my life, to ask me what I have or what I’m missing.
The boy doesn’t have a dog either, and this seems a sufficient background check for me to enlist his help wrapping gifts. He has nothing better to do, he admits, and the fact doesn’t seem to bother him. His name is Joel. Joel is good at pinning the ribbon down with his thumb, expertly getting it out of the way just in time. Clearly, he’s done this before. I start him with rectangles. Paperbacks, stationary. But soon he’s moved on to breakable knickknacks. To wind chimes.
The customers love it, feel they are having a more authentic holiday shopping experience.
“Is this your son?” asks one man, handing over a box of ribbon candy that is really, truly going to leave its recipient stunned with wonder.
“My grandpa,” I answer.
Joel thinks I am really, really funny, and tells me so.
He looks out at Grandma, who is undoubtedly unfunny. She is exasperated, talking deliberately at the police, or her husband, or whoever is on the other end of the line. Maybe the thief. Maybe she knows exactly who has taken Buckles. Buckles, the Putnam High mascot, stolen by those rotten Salem kids. Buckles, who has swallowed a rare diamond. Buckles, worth millions.
She waves to us, as if we are on a carousel. As if it is perfectly natural for Joel to have sought part-time employment this afternoon.
Her lack of concern for Joel does not surprise me. People trust me with things. Their houseplants, their children, their boyfriends. In airports, I’m always the one asked to watch luggage so travelers can run to the bathroom. I’m the one who, after a long time away, will remember where the car is parked. Will have the keys ready, easy to reach. When my best friend could no longer stand her old lover’s love of poetry readings, she would whine, “Can’t Carey go with you?” I went on so many dates with Rick that, when it came time for him to propose, he asked me to marry him first. It was a practice run, he said. He got down on one knee and everything. I said yes but Nicole said no. When she told me the story, ruefully, over cheap wine, Nicole laughed. Did I really think this guy was the marrying type?
“You married?” I ask Joel. The shop has quieted down, leaving a single secret shopper, and Wanda, a regular. Wanda stalks the Beatrix Potter mice, exerting some kind of ownership by proximity. She’s always ready for them to go wildly on sale.
“Not yet,” Joel says. He doesn’t return the question. It must be obvious I am not married, although I do have a ring. I bought it when Nicole took me to Spain. She told me everyone would want to sleep with me and this would fend them off. I didn’t see what the problem would be, exactly, but the ring worked. It worked so well it even worked after the third day, when I only kept it in my pocket. It wasn’t until Rick proposed that I started wearing it regularly. A plain silver band. I kept my hand appropriately tense so he wouldn’t have to worry the ring up my finger. He said Yes? and I said Yes and it felt good saying the same thing as somebody. It felt good to be picked. After our brief engagement, I moved the ring over one finger and there it has stayed. Now, when I flip people off on I-40, it feels ceremonious. If they notice me, they shake whichever fist isn’t steering. We promise to cut each other off forever.
Tragically, the Beatrix Potter mice remain at full price, so Wanda shifts gears and settles for a discounted, porcelain Bell of the Month, February. I wrap it with her usual paper. I have Joel write Wanda on the tag. I say, “Birthday?”
“What? What birthday?”
“Is your birthday in February?”
Her birthday is October 11th, she tells me, as if it’s obvious. She gives me cash. It smells of gum and cigarettes, in that order. She takes the gift, loves it. I wonder what happened in February. Something terrible, I guess. Something wonderful.
Wanda and Grandma cross paths at the door. Wanda’s heart is full of purchase. Grandma smarts of loss and clutches her purse to her chest as if any minute the thief will resurface, greedy. The two women nod at each other in recognition.
Apparently dogs have been going missing all week. Maybe a gang initiation, Durham police have told Grandma, whose real name—Doris—is not a good name for an animal. She tells Joel and me that, in the good old days, gangs played ring-a-levio and Johnny-on-the-pony. She was in a gang. So was her late husband. Of course, that was New York, she explains. I don’t tell her I grew up in the north. I just nod in support because surely the Yankee thugs are, even as we speak, challenging each other to mean games of kick-the-can.
And then Doris starts to leak tears and I start to feel pretty bad about Buckles, about loving the thief and all. Still, I know I haven’t technically done anything wrong. I’ve read all about laws for witnesses and I’m in the clear. I don’t have to tell anybody anything I’ve seen. Not police, not Doris, even if she is wiping her nose with her fake fur sleeve. Besides, we’re talking about a dog here. This isn’t like the little girl who was in all the papers, the one who vanished from the crowded playground, was as good as dead, and then showed up in her driveway three days later with no memory of what had happened. All she could recall, she said, was that someone was carrying her, and that the teachers, and the girls lining up for double Dutch, and the girls sneaking cigarettes had all waved good-bye. The teachers, of course, denied it, and the kids said no one knew who she was anyway so why would they wave. The town believed them. And the girl almost believed the town when it said she was a liar and had never vanished at all. But there were the newspaper clippings, and late-night news footage of a town bearing flashlights and reflective vests, looking. There was the photocopy of the medical report. So what if it concluded that nothing had happened that was supposed to happen in the back of an unmarked van?
The girl was in my class, was in my row, was me, though when I remember her she always seems different from how I remember her. Since the day I didn’t vanish, I have felt like I’ve lost a part of myself. And not an imprecise part, like the girls in made-for-TV movies who say this in relation to the murky area around the heart. The part I have lost used to sit on my spine, between the shoulder blades, between the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae, like a set of wings, or the rubber band at the bottom of a thick braid. Even now, I cast my eyes over my shoulder, as if a hospital gown has blown open, expecting to see some magical limb newly detached, trailing me like a set of Just Married cans, still within reach.
Which is why I ask Joel if he loves that dog. We are in my apartment now. Doris has asked me if wouldn’t be too much trouble to watch Joel until 6 p.m. She still has to pick up a few gifts for somebody and she thought she’d have him home by now and her coupon expires today and you can’t just stop your life. My shop closes at 6:30 and still no Doris. I live across the street so I tape a note to the door and go out of my way to cross at the crosswalk, something I never do on my own. And Joel follows me up the narrow stairs and says my place smells like pizza and I say it always smells like pizza, I live above a pizza parlor. I always say it that way. Parlor.
“I don’t know about love,” he says. “Buckles is okay. Kind of boring. Grandma makes him bacon.”
I say I can make us bacon: breakfast for dinner, something I always wanted when I was a kid, but he says he only likes dinner for dinner. I have to look up the number for the pizza parlor downstairs and I give Joel twenty bucks and he picks it up. In his absence, it occurs to me that my place is a mess, and I clear away the worst of it. I’m no good at keeping things where most people would want to keep them. Some of it is on purpose. Take the clutter on my windowsills: excess fabric from skirts I’ve hemmed, fistfuls of hair yanked from my own hairbrush, shiny scraps of junk mail promising “Carey, you may have already …” I leave my window open, even in the cold. My hope is that a bird will come along and take these bits for his nest. Nicole says birds don’t work that way. And that birds definitely don’t work that way in the winter, not even in Carolina. I say maybe some of them do.
To be fair, much of the mess is just mess. Dishes with fossilized bits of rice. A couch buried in fading newspapers. Used condoms which, frankly, I think Rick should be responsible for, but what are you going to do.
Nicole doesn’t care that I’m sleeping with Rick. When I told her, certain this would bring an end to our friendship, she put her hand on my shoulder as if I was a child. “Aww, that’s really sweet,” she said. “Pity sex.” It wasn’t clear who she thought was pitying whom. I should have railed against her. “It’s not like that!” But it is exactly like that. We are each pitying ourselves. So far, it seems to be working out. I like that Rick never wants me to call him anything other than Rick. I like that he doesn’t believe in promises or secrets. When I told him about my vanishing, he told me that he had bad dreams about his teeth falling out, an even match. When I thumbed the spot between his sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae and asked if he’d ever felt like something belonged there, he said maybe and asked me if I’d ever seen a magician saw a woman in half. I hadn’t.
“Hmm,” he said. “Have you ever even seen a magician?”
“Hmm,” he said. “Neither have I. Not really.” Then he held me like not seeing a magician was the most remarkable thing that had ever happened to either of us. Then he flipped on the radio and made waffles. He’s still in love with Nicole and I’m in love with the girl that I was for those two days where nothing in particular happened except that I was nowhere to be found. Together, we find it reasonable to ache for something unreasonable.
The thing about being stolen, I tell Joel between bites of pepperoni, is that someone wants you. Someone can’t live without you. That guy could have taken any dog, but he took Buckles.
Joel’s chewing has slowed. He swallows, takes a gulp of soda, swallows again. “Stealing is wrong,” he says, and looks me square in the eye. “It’s stupid.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“What guy?” he says.
“You said ‘that guy.’ What guy?”
“I assume it was a guy, Joel.”
“Why? Don’t girls steal?”
“All of the time. Only girls steal things they can hide. Jewelry. Clothes. Maybe a dog if it was the tiny kind that could fit in a purse. Guys steal big things. Regular dogs, real estate, cars. Guys steal things they can hide behind. Or inside.”
Joel says I am being sexist and I say I am impressed that he knows that word. Then I tell him about how Wanda pocketed December and April while I was making change from her fifty-dollar bill. That she steals as much as she buys. I don’t stop her and no one knows I don’t stop her because she brings most of it back, trades a Precious Moments for a crystal paperweight. Joel asks why someone would steal something if they weren’t going to keep it. I tell him that some people like the rush of the taking more than the keeping. Sometimes when they bring it home it lets them down. I ask him if this has ever happened to him.
“Last Christmas my uncle gave me a BB gun. But my mom said I can’t use it until I’m ten. So I have to wait a whole ’nother year.”
“That’s not the same thing,” I say. “That’s totally different.”
I break the seal on the playing cards I had the foresight to purchase at closing time. The only game I sort of know is solitaire, and Joel doesn’t feel like teaching me anything better, so we play side by side, kneeling at my coffee table. Pretty soon I’m not playing solitaire at all, just randomly sorting the deck into little piles. I let myself fashion a roof. It stays, but it doesn’t count. Does it. Joel notices, doesn’t seem to care. I simply don’t like games, never have. I once tried to like solitaire, though, just like I tried to be bookish. I could have used something to do while impossibly alone. But neither took. What took was sitting on the bench at the edge of the playground, swinging my legs. Together, then separately. If the other kids were far enough away, I’d make up what I thought sounded like jazz standards. The rhythm syncopated with my kicking.
What took was a stranger to me, an absolute stranger. When he lifted me, I stopped my kicking, the opposite of what the girls in made-for-TV movies did when they were kidnapped. He ran for the both of us, so the others wouldn’t follow and claim the gift he’d promised me alone. It reminded me of my first ice-skating lesson. After I’d smacked my skull on the ice, a little on purpose, the instructor, a former Ice Capades performer who was too old for her ponytail, hooked her arms under mine and skated me across the rink. I moved with the urgent, specific speed of a grown-up. Everyone else was stuck with the group, learning how to fall down properly.
He let me sit in the front and told me he was so lucky to have finally found me. I said I’ve been here the whole time and he laughed. Yes, you have. Yes, you have. I said I know about strangers. I said this better be good. And that was the first time he really looked at my face. Until then, he seemed fixated on my shoulders, hands. It will be good, he said. I promise. I thought of all of those unlucky people we were dashing away from. I imagined my teachers noticing an empty desk, wondered where they’d come up with another student to fill it. She could have my pencils. She could finish off my glue stick. There was hardly anything left, anyway.
“Besides,” he told me. “I’m not a stranger.” His name was Duke. He knew my mom, he said. He used to babysit me when I was little.
“I am little,” I said.
“You know what I mean.” There was an edge in his voice, the same one in the throats of my parents and teachers. Duke swallowed his and laughed again.
I rolled the window down for the wind.
When the phone rings around eight o’clock, I assume it is Doris, for whom I’ve left three messages. Instead, it is Nicole, who wants to meet for drinks. She’s got some new guy she’s showing off. Can I be there in an hour? Rick’s already said yes. It’ll be so great for all of us to be together.
I tell her I’ll try my best; I’ve got a bit of a situation.
The thing is, Joel really wants out. In addition to Doris, I’ve tried calling his folks, who have neither cell phones nor an answering machine. Their phone rings and rings and I look at Joel and Joel looks at me like what do you expect. He wants me to drive him home, says he’s home alone all the time, it’s fine. There’s a key hidden in a coffee can by the side door. Only I can’t drive him home; I don’t have a car. He says everybody has a car and because I am worried I snap at him, “Do you have a car? I didn’t think so. So everybody does not have a car.” He glares at me a little, then gives it up. He asks me if stores are even open this late. I say some of them. Not all of them. I say I bet she’s getting something really special for him.
He is not convinced.
Or, I say. Maybe she’s saving Buckles.
This seems to revive him for a moment. Maybe, he says. But then he’s staring into my fridge, which is practically empty. There isn’t even any bacon. I was lying about breakfast for dinner. “Carey?”
“How come you don’t have anything?”
When they asked me about it, they really wanted to know if I had seen a penis. I could see it in their faces. They liked the amnesia thing, thought it meant I was repressing something really horrible. They had been waiting their whole careers for me. Suddenly, I was the gift, theirs. I hadn’t intended to be a liar, I was just confused. When they said where have you been, I said I don’t know. But I did know. I was at the King’s Inn on Lexington next to the gas station where my dad wouldn’t stop after dark. And then it was doctors. Two days of cold, eager hands feeling around my body, everyone but my parents disappointed that there was nothing to find. Weighing me, one nurse observed, “There’s nothing to you.” Before they started asking why I ran away, they suggested, Maybe somebody made you do something. Maybe somebody made you look at something.
By now, of course, I recognize that Duke was a pervert. I mean, of course he was. And a dangerous one. But try telling that to the girl at the King’s Inn. She won’t believe you for a second. He had a gun, which if this were a made-for-TV movie would be slung suggestively in the hip of his jeans. He kept his in his backpack and on the King’s Inn phonebook. He said the gun was to protect me, not to hurt me. And he let me carry it around and press it into the flesh of his back if I wanted, to prove it. He wasn’t wearing a shirt anymore. I held the barrel like a fat crayon and pushed it into one of the bones of his spine. After, when I touched the muzzle, it was warm, like the wet nose of an animal.
The King’s Inn had cable. I told Duke my dad would kill me if he knew I was watching cable. Then I said I hope we stay at the King’s Inn for a year. Then I said where is my present. Duke’s backpack held oversized boxes of candy, the kind I’d only see at movie theaters. I said is that it? What’s so special about candy? He said no, that’s not it. I said good because I don’t like sweet things; I like salty. This was one of the only truths I knew about myself, and my mom was the one who pointed it out in the first place.
Duke said maybe I could give him a little present first. And I must have had some semblance of self-preservation, because I stared at him square in the eye and said I don’t have anything for you. Then I changed the channel from weather to different weather. Then I locked myself in the bathroom. He didn’t move a muscle to stop me.
I don’t know how long I was in there. It felt like hours. I heard him talking to himself. And then I heard the television. And then I heard someone laughing but it was a bunch of people laughing, maybe in the next room, a party. But maybe a laugh track, where everybody was just pretending to laugh, where no one was a real laugher. And then Duke knocked on the door and said he’d be right back. He had to go pick up my present. Don’t go anywhere, he said.
He was gone for two days. No one tried to clean the room. I ate the candy and watched the Channel Five newscaster talk about how I was missing. They put up a picture of a girl who was wearing my clothes. They admitted that no one could remember what I was last seen wearing. Jeans, my mother guessed, incorrectly. So they went through my hamper and announced what I had not been wearing. Not a pink sweatshirt. Not cowboy boots. Occasionally, I’d check the window for Duke’s van. And then I was just looking for Duke. Or anybody really. Eventually, I walked home. Not in a baseball cap. Not with a green cardigan tied around my waist. It didn’t take long.
I didn’t tell them because they had it all wrong. They thought I’d care about the stupid lump in his pants. I didn’t. When Duke asked me if I’d ever seen one, I said only like a million. I was exaggerating to make a point. I’d only seen three. Ryan Stanton’s (he was proud), my dad’s (he was mortified), and Gus’s (he was in the public park and always showing it to everybody). The truth was, I felt like Duke was the thing I had hoped for every day on that playground. A recognition that I had been misplaced. That where I belonged, there were better things to look forward to than double Dutch at lunchtime and smoking cigarettes and having a job and dropping dead. There was at least one ridiculous gift out there that said Carey, a gift too big to fit inside a regular car. But something about me was fundamentally wrong. He had changed his mind in the end, left me doomed to that house, those kids.
Things were worse when I came back. Everybody’s favorite new game was kidnapping. They played it all wrong, always cupping their hands over each others’ mouths and saying, “Shut up.” I didn’t dare correct them. Didn’t say that Duke kept encouraging me to talk. To say his name or to come up with a new name for him, any one I wanted. I didn’t want to accidentally admit my memory to these kids, get Duke in trouble. Once, they asked me if I wanted to be it. I said “What’s it?” and they thought I was making fun of them. I wasn’t. Ryan Stanton made a gun with his hand and pressed it into my back. “It is you, loser.” In high school, I dated him, because that’s what you did if Ryan Stanton asked you to. He thought I was mysterious. To cultivate this, I stood him up on a regular basis. In retaliation, he stood me up. We were always standing each other up, growing dependent on that pull of disappointment. Eventually, thankfully, things like that end.
Rick stops by to see if I want to walk to the bar together. He puts his hand out to shake Joel’s and says, “Hey, man,” and Joel smiles for the first time in a while and says it back, even shares a bit of that smile with me. He likes me again, because Doris is on her way. Much of her evening has been spent hunting for her car in the parking lot, convinced that a gang has taken that, too. When she calls, Buckles is yelping in the background. I never get the whole story.
I tell Rick he can go; I’ll look for him later. But he settles into the couch and says he’d rather stay here, with me and the kid. He doesn’t even ask why Joel is in my apartment, or why we’re waiting for an old woman and a dog who will never fully know his own name. The only thing he asks is what kind of bird came along to clear my windowsill. When I say it was me, that I took everything and threw it away, he is not discouraged. He says that it wasn’t everything. It wasn’t even close. My hands are empty. My windows are foolishly open. Though I’ve lived here since I left home three years ago, though it’s been ages since I stopped wishing for Duke to return, there is something different about my apartment tonight. It almost seems to have taken a shape a person could manage, make beautiful. Here may be something a person would want to keep.