The Candy Tree
The first thing I stole was a tin of Copenhagen. I’d been trying to quit tobacco, and I’d gone three days without a dip. The cravings hadn’t been too bad. I had bought some of that shredded beef jerky that comes in little tins just like smokeless. It wasn’t very satisfying to have a salty wad of dried beef stuffed between my lower lip and gum, but it helped. I had been feeling pretty proud of myself, thinking I’d gotten my old nicotine addiction licked, then Thanksgiving day I was standing in line at the convenience store when I picked up a tin on impulse.
I had been thinking in terms of fixing myself something for dinner, nothing as pathetic as a frozen turkey TV dinner, but maybe some macaroni and cheese. I really like macaroni and cheese, eat it two or three times a week, but I guess that’s even more pathetic in a way than a turkey TV dinner. I was going to be spending Thanksgiving alone, not that I’ve ever been much on holidays anyway.
Then I saw the little tobacco display by the counter, and I realized that I didn’t care about eating. What I really wanted for Thanksgiving was to watch some football on television with a dip in my mouth. And after I finished the dip I wanted a beer. I wasn’t supposed to drink because I was on probation for a DUI, but I had a case of Miller waiting at home in my refrigerator. So I reached out and picked up a tin of Copenhagen.
The lady in front of me caused the whole thing. Maybe I never would have picked up the Copenhagen or gotten the notion to steal it if I hadn’t been waiting so long for her to finish up her business. She was one of those people who take forever. They pay for their gas with a credit card, then decide they want to buy a lottery ticket, and some scratch-offs too. Then they decide to chat up the store clerk, talk about what they’ll do with the lottery money if they win, etc. It just goes on and on. She was an old lady, probably lonely and depressed, seeking some human contact, but at the time I wasn’t thinking along those lines. I was just annoyed. I don’t know why: it’s not like I had to get someplace in a hurry.
I was standing there with a cup of coffee in my right hand and the tin of Copenhagen in my left. There was nobody else in the store. It occurred to me then, as I waited for the old lady to finish yakking, just how easy it would be to slip that tin of Copenhagen into my pocket. I was sure the clerk hadn’t seen me pick it up, and there was nobody else in the store. I let it fall into the pocket of my jacket. It was the first time in my adult life I’d ever stolen anything. I was dirt poor since I’d lost my truck-driving job over the DUI and was now working for minimum wage at BigMart. A tin of Copenhagen costs more than five dollars, and that had become a lot of money to me.
As soon as I did it, my heart started pounding hard and I felt sick. There were surveillance cameras in the store. It was a stupid, stupid thing to do, especially considering the fact that I was on probation. This time, I was sure, the judge would not be so lenient. I’d get jail time. Then I remembered I had gotten drunk the night before. Maybe they’d do a blood test and find out about that, too. How much jail time do you get for drinking while on probation and stealing Copenhagen?
The clerk knew me from my regular visits for coffee and tobacco. She was young, probably just out of high school, and had a large tattoo on her left breast. She often wore low-cut tops, and I’d snuck a few peeks at this tattoo as she made change, but I’d never been able to make out exactly what it was. A dragon? I could see one clawed foot and something like a wing, not much more. If I were younger, I’d flirt with her, ask her about it, and maybe she’d expose enough of her breast that I could see, but I was old enough to be her father.
When the old lady finally left, the clerk smiled at me and rolled her eyes. I smiled back. I’m not much of a talker. Come to think of it, even if I were a young man I probably never would have asked about the tattoo. I felt the weight of the Copenhagen in my pocket as I handed her a five.
“Nothing else today? Just coffee?”
She looked at me expectantly. I swallowed hard and shook my head. Of course she knew I almost always bought tobacco. She’d probably noticed I hadn’t bought any for a few days. But for a second I thought she had seen me steal.
“Trying to quit chew?” she said as she handed me my change.
“Good for you. I wish my boyfriend would quit. I won’t let him kiss me when he’s been doing that. I make him brush his teeth first. It’s so gross.” She blushed. “I mean, gross to kiss him afterwards, no offense.”
I laughed as I made toward the door.
“That’s OK,” I said. “I know it’s gross. My ex-wife used to tell me that all the time.”
Outside it was dreary and cold, but the air had that fresh autumn tang. I felt a little lift, like I’d just accomplished something. Even though I was worried about the security cameras, I was pretty sure I’d gotten away with it.
* * *
I never tried to steal anything from the convenience store again, but it
wasn’t long after that I started stealing at work. I knew this went on all the time. Shrinkage, they call it, all the merchandise that disappears for one reason or another, and employee theft was supposed to be a major contributor. I worked in the food section of the store. Our BigMart didn’t have a complete grocery, just handy food items like bread and milk and snacks. I was a stocker, and I was kept busy all day putting cereal and cola and canned goods on shelves that emptied faster than I could fill them.
The first time at work I stole candy. I’d accidentally torn a package of candy bars, those little miniatures like you give the kids at Halloween. At the end of my shift I took these candy bars to receiving to throw away along with some other stuff. This was an everyday thing. Anything damaged, you generally cut the UPC off the package to give to the ladies in claims and threw the product itself away. I was alone in receiving. I knew exactly where the security camera was back there, and didn’t think I was in range of it. I slipped a couple handfuls of the candy bars into the large pockets of my vest. The vests are part of the store dress code. Most of us hate them. They are a shitty tan color. On the front they have the name of the store on the left breast with a heart embossed below it that is supposed to symbolize how much we care for our customers. On the back it says, “Ask me for help!” in large white letters. One of the women who works in softlines told me she intentionally keeps her hair just long enough to cover the “Ask me for help!” on her vest.
As I walked to the time clock with my hidden candy bars, I felt like a squirrel that had stuffed its cheeks with nuts. I imagined somebody seeing these huge bulges in my vest and saying, “What the hell you got in your pockets?” But nobody did. My pockets were always full of crap, computer printouts of items that needed to be restocked and whatnot, so nobody was going to say anything. As I passed the manager’s office I saw that it was empty, and I stopped a moment to look at the bank of monitors over her desk, all the security cams showing the parking lot and the store’s interior. The one in receiving was focused on the area where the trucks were unloaded. I thought it was mainly used to monitor the unloaders, make sure they weren’t goofing off. The wastebasket I had stood beside when I pocketed my candy bars was well out of camera range. I went to the coat rack and put my jacket on over my vest, cracking the usual lame jokes with people who were starting or finishing their shifts. As I walked across the store I was panicky but also excited, enjoying the risk. The manager was up by the cash registers. I liked her because she gave me a job when I needed one very badly, just a couple weeks after I got fired from the trucking job because of the DUI. I felt a little guilty to be stealing from her store, but not much. It was just candy bars that were going to be tossed in the compactor anyway. She smiled and told me good night. I smiled back and gave her a little wave, wondering what I’d do if a candy bar fell out of my vest right about then. I half expected the security alarms to go off as I walked out of the store, but of course they didn’t. No security tags on candy bars.
* * *
I guess you could call me a weekend alcoholic. I never drank when I was working, but give me a day off from work and I’d get completely trashed. It’s been like that since I was a teenager. About the only time I ever tried to break that habit was after my daughter was born. Up until around the time Angie started grade school, I tried hard to be a good dad, and cut way down on my drinking. But somehow I gradually slid back into drinking heavy again, especially after I started driving truck. When Angie was in high school there were some really ugly fights between me and her mother that I can barely remember because I was always so drunk. It got so that whenever I was home Angie always seemed to be at a friend’s house.
* * *
Driving was one of my favorite things to do when I was drunk. You’d think I’d have enough of driving from my trucking job, but as soon as I got drunk I’d get behind the wheel. I’d drive to get something to eat. Or I’d drive to get more beer and drive around back roads drinking it. If you tallied it up, I’m sure I’ve driven drunk hundreds of times. I just never got caught until last August. Lately I’d gotten careless, had been driving on busy streets and highways when I was toasted. The next day I’d remember and it’d scare the shit out of me, but the next time I got drunk I’d do it again. Finally a cop noticed me weaving and I got to spend a night in jail and lose my job.
I was in the drunk tank for nineteen hours. They keep it cold as hell in
there. As I sat there on the concrete bench wrapped in a scratchy orange blanket, I thought a lot about how screwed up my life was, and wondered just how much of it was from drinking. In college I changed my major about five times and flunked a lot of classes. I finally finished a business management degree, but I never did anything with it. After that I worked three different factory jobs before I started driving truck. I got that job about the time Angie was starting high school. It was the best-paying job I ever had, and I liked it, but it probably wasn’t very good for me.
It got so I liked being alone. I hate to say it, but coming home always made me anxious. Things were always tense between me and Brenda. I don’t even like to remember that stuff, the nasty things we said to each other before we gave up talking at all. I built a big garage out in the back yard. I always had a couple old cars that I was supposed to be rebuilding, but mostly I just sat out there and drank. I had a television out there, and a wood-burning stove. Sometimes I went for two or three weeks without saying more than a few words to Brenda or Angie. I hid from them.
* * *
I began stealing things from work almost every night. At first it was small food items like those candy bars, stuff that would have been thrown away anyhow. Then I started taking other things. There were plenty of opportunities to steal when I was back in receiving. I’d walk to the back bins where there was no security camera and see what I could find. There was always pallets of stuff back there, and two or three times a day I’d be digging through food pallets looking for things I needed to stock. If nobody was around I’d see what was in some of the smaller boxes on some of the other pallets. One night I took some pocketknives, five of them. I had to take the whole box. Otherwise somebody might notice a box with one pocketknife missing from it and suspect something. I shucked the knives out of their packaging and stuck them in various pockets. The packaging I threw in the trash compactor. The compactor was supposed to be kept locked because of exactly the kind of thing I was doing, but it almost never was. This felt like my first serious theft, and I would have jumped a mile if somebody had walked up behind me right then, but nobody did. I walked out of the store at the end of the day with the knives in my pockets, scarcely giving it any thought.
There were usually shopping carts full of clothing items back there too, waiting for the people who worked in softlines to hang them up. I stole socks and ties, always things I could fit in my pockets. Then one night I took a shirt. I cut the tags off of it, including the security tag that I knew would make the alarms go off when I was walking out of the store. Then I quickly shucked the sweatshirt I was wearing, put the shirt I was stealing on, not bothering to button it, and put my sweatshirt back on. I tucked the collar of the shirt down under my sweatshirt where it wouldn’t be seen. The tags went in the compactor. I had to work another hour, but I enjoyed it, the edgy feeling that came from knowing I was taking a terrible risk, that I might get caught.
As I walked out of the store wearing that shirt, I realized that there was no stopping me now. I’d have to keep right on doing it. That scared me, but I decided that as long as I was careful, I’d be all right.
I took whatever small things I happened to have the opportunity to steal, whether I had any use for them or not. I stole DVD’s, computer games, small toys, pacifiers, safety pins, paper clips, scotch tape, envelopes, beef jerky, moisturizing lotion, aftershave, toothpaste, salt shakers, Vienna sausages, egg timers, candles, needles, thread, jeans, long underwear, wallets, ketchup, soup, ramen noodles, matches, incense sticks. One day close to Christmas they had the receiving doors open for hours because it was so packed that they were pulling pallets of stuff outside and storing them on the overstock trailers we have on the back lot. It was freezing cold in receiving so I was wearing my coat as I searched through the food pallets looking for what I needed to restock. I cut a hole in the pocket of my coat and shoved three cans of Coke down into the lining. I managed to get them more or less evenly distributed around my waist, but I felt like any second I was going to bump into something and Coke was going to come spraying out of my coat. I was almost sure that this time I had gone too far, that someone would notice the bulges, but nothing happened. The next day it was cold in receiving again, and I left the store with a flashlight, a bottle of bacon bits, and six pairs of socks jammed down into the lining of my coat.
Most of the stuff I stole ended up in what I called the guest bedroom, even though I never had any guests. At one time it had been Angie’s bedroom, but she had taken all her things out of it after she got her own place. The last year of our marriage Brenda had taken it for her bedroom. At first I threw what I stole in the bottom of the empty closet, but after a while I just began to toss it anywhere. I kept the door shut, and every night I’d walk in and toss things on the bed, the dresser, the floor. I was getting quite a collection. I never did anything with most of it. I didn’t even eat the candy bars.
* * *
I was drinking again when Angie called a few months later, but I hadn’t had much. I’d been to see my probation officer the day before, and I only had to see her one more time before my probation would be done. I was celebrating with a little bourbon. I’d had maybe a half pint when Angie called to tell me I was going to be a grandfather.
“Well, that’s something,” I said. I never know what to say when people tell me these things. I lit a cigarette, trying to think what else to say. Awhile back I had gotten the stupid idea of weaning myself off Copenhagen with smokes. I had figured I could smoke just five or six cigarettes a day and gradually taper off entirely. Now I was hooked on Marlboro Lights. At least a pack a day.
“You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?” Angie said.
How could she tell? Could she smell my breath through the phone line?
“Just a little.”
“Aren’t you on probation?”
“No,” I lied, “I finished it last week.”
“Weren’t you trying to quit? Maybe you should go to AA.” AA again. She was like a public service announcement.
“I don’t drink every day. I don’t drink when I’m working.”
“You drink too much. You know you do. I don’t want you to end up like Grandpa.” I didn’t want to talk about that, or even think about it. Dad was hardcore. He drank himself to death before he reached sixty.
“I’ll send you something for the baby,” I said. I was thinking about all the stolen merchandise in her old bedroom. I had some baby things back there: pacifiers, teething rings, toys.
“I just want you to get sober. That is the best thing you could do for the baby.”
I didn’t say anything. I was trying to figure out how to finish this conversation.
She said, “I was thinking the other day about the candy tree in our back yard. Do you remember that?”
“Candy tree?” We never had anything in the back yard except a sick little maple tree that I nursed along until it finally died.
“Yeah. You don’t remember? I must have been in second or third grade, and you told me to get my coat, you wanted to show me a candy tree in our back yard. You took me back there and it was that little tree that we used to have. It wasn’t much bigger than me, and you’d taken these little candy bars, those trick or treat ones, and you’d taped a whole bunch of them to the branches. I knew you did it, but I went along with it. I acted like I was surprised to see a candy tree back there. We picked all the candy bars off of it and put them in our pockets.”
The memory came back then. A cold day in October or November. All the time I’d spent taping candy bars to that tree, laughing to myself over the joke. I remembered that I’d come up with that when I was walking around the back yard looking for something to do so I wouldn’t give in to the temptation to get drunk. God, how many times have I actually tried to quit?
“It’s one of the happiest memories I have from when I was a little girl.”
I guess then would have been a good time to say something like “mine too” or whatever. But I’m not very good at conversation, I always just sit there and there’s these long silences while I wonder what I should say, or maybe I’m just embarrassed to say it.
“Well, that’s something,” I finally said.
* * *
After I hung up, I poured myself some more bourbon and walked back to the guest bedroom. I sat on the bed, surrounded by all this trash I’d stolen and drank my drink. It didn’t take me long. Then I was suddenly in pain. It spread through my chest. My whole body tightened up like I was having convulsions. I couldn’t breathe. It was the strangest thing. At first I thought I was having a heart attack. Then the tears were running down my face, and I knew that I was just crying. I heard myself crying out loud, so I grabbed some clothes I’d stolen and pressed them to my mouth, afraid that somehow somebody would hear. I don’t know what got into me. The last time I could remember crying like that was when Mom died more than twenty years ago.
Finally it was over. I wiped my face and went to the kitchen to get a drink of water. I felt like I had when Angie was born. I wanted to change. I got some garbage bags. Everything I’d done this past year, all the stealing and drinking when I was on probation, seemed insane to me now. I don’t know what it is. It’s like I need something like this, becoming a father or a grandfather, before I see how completely stupid my behavior is. I started stuffing it all in garbage bags. My God, there was a lot of it. I more or less filled three garbage bags. I took it out to the car, throwing one bag in the passenger seat and two in back.
I backed out of the drive and headed down the street. I didn’t know where I’d dump it. Probably stop somewhere along a country road and throw it in a ditch. It wasn’t until I passed the jail that I remembered I’d been drinking. So now I was driving drunk. First time I’d done that since I got arrested. It was definitely time to sober up. But since I was already drunk anyway, I decided to stop at a liquor store and get a six pack. I’d drink just a few more and throw all this shit away. Tomorrow I’d start fresh, try to fix some of the mess I’d made of my life. After I got the beer I drove out into the country. I wasn’t worried at all about being drunk. I’d driven drunk hundreds of times and gotten away with it. When I got caught that last time, I’d been stupid. I’d been driving right down a busy street in the middle of town. This time I’d stay along the back roads where there weren’t likely to be any cops. And after today I’d put that stupid shit behind me, all the drinking and the stealing too.
I began tossing things out the window. It was kind of a ritual, drive a few miles, toss something out the window, drive a mile or two more, toss something else. I was feeling fine. I had a country music station on, one that played the oldies like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. I was remembering a lot of other times I drove along these back roads drunk. All those good times I’d had alone. It seemed like a terrible waste, though, throwing all this stuff away.
Then I saw a mailbox, one of those big ones you see out in the country. I pulled up, opened the box and put a handful of things in there. Some washcloths, a Barbie doll, and some sandwich bags. I finished the beer I was working on and set the empty in there, too, then closed the box. I drove on to the next box. I wasn’t even sure where I was, a rock road that passed some river-bottom farms. The mailboxes were pretty far apart. Tomorrow people would be talking about this, the strange things they found in their mailboxes. Maybe it would make the paper. I passed a newly planted field. There was a truck loaded with bags of seed corn, a boy standing nearby. I waved at the boy, feeling like Robin Hood, and he waved back.
I meandered around for an hour or more filling mailboxes. I began filling them up full, wanting to finish with the job. Pretty soon the bag on the passenger seat was empty, and I pulled one of the bags up from in back to start working on it. Now I was headed toward town. The houses were closer together. It was a fine spring day. I waved at a woman hanging wash. A few houses down I stopped at another mailbox. I reached into the garbage bag beside me and pulled out a ceramic figurine covered with glittery stuff. It was a knight facing off with a dragon. The dragon was guarding a little crystal ball that was filled with water and more glittery stuff. It was the kind of thing a kid into fantasy, Harry Potter and stuff like that, might have in her bedroom. I shook it and watched the glitter swirl, then I set it in the mailbox. It was like a little theater in there, the knight standing with his sword raised high, the dragon grinning, showing all its teeth. It had the crystal ball gripped tight in its claws. The knight was all suited up in his armor. You couldn’t see his face, but I thought he was probably scared shitless. Things weren’t looking good for him at all. He was going to be dragon lunch. I watched the last bits of glitter settle. Then I finished my last beer and set it inside the mailbox and closed the lid.
I drove on toward town, still filling mailboxes. Somehow I ended up on the highway, but I still kept pulling over for the mailboxes. Once I turned off too sudden, I guess without signaling, and a semi blasted its horn as it went past. I decided it was time to quit for today. Tomorrow I could finish. I took the highway on into town, thinking I’d get another six of beer and drink it at home. There was a gas station not too far from my house that sold beer.
I was just a few blocks from the gas station when I saw the cop car. It was right behind me, and I had no idea how long it had been following. Then it flashed its lights.
I was very calm. I had been through this before. I pulled over and parked, proud of being able to park alongside the highway so well when I’d been drinking so much. I rolled my window down and got my license out of my wallet. The officer who walked up to stand beside my open window was just a kid. He looked like he was barely out of high school. His hair was cropped so close that he looked bald. After he studied my license for a half-second, he said, “Where you coming from this afternoon, Tom?”
I had no idea, but I said, “Plainville.”
“Have you maybe had yourself a little something to drink?”
“Step out of the car, please.”
I got out of the car. There was another cop there, an older guy.
“What’s in those garbage bags? You got beer in there, having yourself a little party?” the second cop said.
“Just some things. I was going to give some stuff to my daughter. She’s going to have a baby.”
They led me over to the sidewalk.
“Are you sure you haven’t been drinking?” the young cop asked, “You were doing some weaving back there. We saw you cross over the center line.”
“I might have had a little.”
“OK,” he said. “Tom, what I want you to do is walk along the edge of this sidewalk here, put one foot right in front of the other, heel toe, heel toe, and walk as straight a line as you possibly can.”
I knew all about this. I’d done this before. Damn, I’d meant to practice, but then I’d decided I’d never drive drunk again so there was no point in it. But I could do this. This time I could pull it off. I mean, I’ve faked being sober hundreds of times, and people were usually fooled, or at least they didn’t say anything. I lifted my right foot and felt my balance shift. But if I brought that foot down without putting it right where it belonged, heel to toe with my other foot, I was going jail for sure. So I tried to keep my balance, my arms swinging wildly. I raised my foot higher, then still higher until I was poised like a place kicker who had just kicked one toward the goal posts. Weren’t they going to be impressed? How could I be drunk if I was standing like this with one foot raised high in the air? I brought the foot slowly down, wavering, and managed to get it more or less in place, but when I went to lift my other foot, I caught my ankle behind my calf, then I was down on the sidewalk.
I was on my side. I heard a car horn. I pushed myself to my knees. God, it was a beautiful day. There were young trees nearby covered with white flowers, and I thought about the candy tree. All those candy bars I taped to the bare branches that winter so long ago. And for what? The young cop had his hand on my shoulder. I glanced down and saw that it was his left hand, that he was wearing a wedding ring.
“Don’t get up yet,” he said. “Put your hands behind your back, wrists together.”
I put my hands behind my back and he cuffed them tight. I was perfectly calm. It would be a while before I had to make any decisions or think about anything at all. Right now I’d have people telling me exactly what to do. They would lock me up and feed me and tell me when and where I could come and go. Depending on what they made of those garbage bags full of stuff in my car, people might be telling me what to do for a long time.
“OK, Tom, let’s get up,” the young cop said, and then he had a hand under my arm, lifting me to my feet, lifting me easily. There was something very firm and strong about him. I doubted that I had ever been so strong myself, even when I was young.
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