Thursday, June 9, 2016

Turning to Crime

From 1993

Every morning the cat comes in through the window and wakes me up licking my face. I greet the day with superstitious dread, remembering old wives' tales of breath-snatching cats and smothered sleepers. The smell of her breath as her pink tongue exfoliates my face unnerves me. Sour milk, Tender Vittles, mouse; her breath smells like none of these things because she eats like we do: badly and infrequently. She smells like ant bites and the heat of the middle of the day, and that's it. She is skinny and parched like the asphalt my car is parked on.

My roommate Susan and I are both recent recipients of Russian degrees, and in the small Florida town we're currently exiled in, jobs requiring Russian-language skills are scarce. We are forced to be resourceful for our income. And the closer it gets to rent day, the more resourceful we become. Susan starts talking again about Chris, that guy we know who has a Chinese automatic weapon disassembled in his closet. I try to convince myself that I really look like someone who would purchase a pink fishnet halter top and thus it won't be obvious that I'm trying to return shoplifted clothing. What I'm talking about here is turning to crime, and sometimes it is a comfort to make yourself believe that you have so very little to lose.

But I can't think about all this right now. I can't be late, I've got to wait. Rat and Dinghy's Sour Smell, Rave and Dammit's Sure-Fire Hell; no, Ray and Donna's Seafood Grille: that's where I work, and where, later tonight, I'll wait on a table that will leave me nine cents on a 33-dollar tab, because that's just the kind of place it is. But now, in the hot Florida morning, I'm still optimistic as I find and smoke Susan's emergency cigarette. Perhaps, I tell myself, this will be the day that our fortunes turn around.

Two shifts and twelve hours later, I'm driving us home. Susan's agreed to give John, the recently paroled cook, a lift to his duplex.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," sighs Susan, reaching into her apron and pulling out a wad of ones and fives. "My school loans are coming due. Creditors are calling me. I've already borrowed money from everyone who still talks to me."

"Hmm," replies John, "Do you have a tampon?"

"What?" says Susan.

"Cheaper than papers." John rolls up a joint in the powder-scented paper and passes it to Susan. "What about your insurance scam?"

"Oh," says Susan. "Well, Rich was all set. He kept leaving his windows open so I could break in and move out all his stuff. Man...he was insured for like $6000, and he lives in such a bad neighborhood that no one would ever have suspected it was someone he knew."

"So?" says John. "He's giving you half? Three thousand?"

"Yeah, well, the day before I was actually going to go do it, somebody broke in and stole all his stuff. Can you believe that?"

"Scumbags," says John, shaking his head. And then, after a silence: "I could, uh, maybe help you out if you wanted."

Turns out that John scored some stuff the other day, he says, some "really good shit."

"But I got to get it out of my house because the guy I took it from knows me. I could go to jail for this, definitely. Let me just put it at your place until I find my buyer, and then I'll give you half."

"Half?" says Susan, considering. "How much is it?"

"A hundred pounds," says John, "No, wait, man, I'm serious. It sounds like a lot, but I'm telling you, this is good quality stuff. I'm going to have zero problems unloading it. I can take it down to Cedar Key; there's this guy I know there. It's just going to be one day. Two, tops. No problem. Nobody even knows I know you. Come on, man. Help me out."

We ended up giving John the key to our apartment and staying over at Dave's on the night we picked for the drop-off. If John were caught, we decided he would just claim that he'd stolen our purse and found our key and stashed the stuff in a stranger's apartment. Susan and I vowed that if we were questioned we'd just consistently blame each other so there'd be no chance of conviction.

The night passed in sleepless anxiety, and all the next day at work I stared distractedly out the plate-glass window at the parking lot, waiting for the police cars to come screeching through the haze of August heat. At last, it was 11:30 and time to go home.

As Susan and I climbed the stifling stairwell to our second-floor apartment, trepidation over this dirty business mingled with a prickly kind of excitement over being involved with something verboten and also possibly dangerous. I fished for my key on the dark landing and Susan and I looked at each other. There it was, we both knew, right there behind door number four. Not contraband, if you just looked at it the right way, but food, and rent. Maybe even something left over for the cat. This could be the push we needed to propel us into a different kind -- a better kind -- of future. So open that red door, Robin and Susan, and don't be afraid. Turn to crime. Now is your chance.

I swung the door open and there, in the middle of the kitchen floor, wrapped up tightly in brown paper and sporting a cheery logo, was our fortune, our future, our salvation, our...shrimp.

We should have asked John what he meant when he said "stuff." We should have asked how he'd managed to steal 100 pounds of anything truly valuable. We should have known that no matter how much Tom Waits we listened to, we'd never really be criminals, but merely liberal arts majors.

We stood there in the doorway, Susan and I, and looked at the one hundred pounds of peel-and-eat shrimp stolen straight from Ray and Donna's walk-in freezer and melting straight through our un-airconditioned apartment's wooden floor. The ice it had come in had long since disappeared, and the smell of slightly off seafood was settling in for what promised to be a long, long stay.

The cat came in this morning and woke me up licking my face. I still worry that she means me some kind of harm, and am even more unnerved by the smell of her breath. Sour milk, Tender Vittles, mouse? No, it doesn't smell like any of those things. It smells like, what else? Shrimp.


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