By Nancy Scott Hanway
August 1985. Katonah, New York.
“Nina! Come down here this instant.”
I felt dizzy, my mouth dry. I composed my face while trudging downstairs.
I had always felt an urge to steal small. When I shoplifted, I thought of the items I stole as abandoned cats in a shelter waiting for an owner. One of them mews at you in a certain way, purrs at just the right moment, or rubs its head against your hand, and you know it has to come home with you. I only took things that called out to me, and I stole cheap things—a little ceramic vase in the dollar store, a sparkly hairband from the pharmacy—so that I could tell my mother I bought them with my allowance. When I got older, and my mother let me go into Iowa City on my own, I used to hang around stores, steal things, and put them back—my own version of catch-and-release.
Aunt Eugenia sat in the parlor in a blue linen dress, smoking Virginia Slims, her white hair in a perfect chignon. A big rib cage gave her a military air, as if she had a chest full of medals. She wore three gold bangles that clinked as she smoked.
“Somebody stole diamond earrings from Reminiscence, that store downtown. They realized it right after you left.”
No one could have seen me. And besides, I took something that would never have been spotted—glass earrings from the five-dollar sale, right beside a sign that read “Rhinestones and Brilliants.”
One of the things I learned during my years of petty theft was that you have to stay calm. The minute you lose your nerve when you’re pulling a job, you’re bound to get caught. I used to experiment with body language during my catch-and-release runs. I looked behind me nervously just to see how quickly my emotions brought the clerks’ attention. I once got stopped at the door of Herberger’s Department Store, in Coralville, Iowa, just because I had acted afraid. The security guard was so convinced I had stolen something that he made me wait for an hour, for his female superior to get back from lunch, so she could examine my dress to see if I was hiding jewelry in the seams. They apologized, but barely.
“And?” I said, as aggressively as I could. “Somebody lifts some junk diamonds and you assume it’s me?”
“These weren’t fakes,” Eugenia said coolly. “They were real, an antique set of earrings worth a lot of money. They were being appraised.”
A low swinging sensation filled my stomach as if I had been dropped off a cliff. My eye twitched. I never meant to steal anything valuable. “Real diamonds?”
She stubbed out her cigarette in a heavy crystal ashtray. Her bracelets rattled. “It could complicate our lives if you were accused of shoplifting.”
Adults were always thinking about how their own lives might get complicated. I tried not to blink. “I didn’t do it.”
She stood. “Turn out your pockets.”
I flushed, relieved that the earrings were tucked safely in my bra. “Like an inmate getting searched for drugs?” I grabbed my pockets and nearly tore them out of my jumper.
“And I would like to search your room.”
I folded my arms across my chest, turning toward the window. “Go ahead, Warden.”
I used the time she was upstairs to secure the earrings. Rummaging around in a drawer, I found some Scotch tape and attached the tissue package to my bra. When Eugenia returned, I was sitting at the kitchen table, eating pound cake. I glared at her, then stalked past her upstairs, sat in my room, and worried about the fact that I had just committed felony theft.
The month before I had stolen $190 from an open cash drawer at “Chez Nous” boutique in downtown Iowa City. It was a place frequented by wealthy sorority girls, full of Coach handbags, Giorgio perfume, and bustling, stiff cocktail dresses. I pretended to search for a present for my mother, and then, taking advantage of the salesgirl’s brief moment of inattention, grabbed cash out of the drawer in full view of ten people and a security camera.
My mother told me either I could go live with her aunts, my only living relatives, in the small town in New York State where she was raised or I could attend the Mormon Home for Delinquent Youth on a mountaintop in Utah that Fred (her fiancé) had picked out for me. He refused to take me into his family until I had been, as he said, “rehabilitated.” (My mother, trying to look cheerful, told me that the home was right near Sundance.)
Fred was just another in her long line of disastrous boyfriends, so I was shocked when she went as far as to accept a tiny diamond ring. But more than that, I was furious at her for dragging me out to Iowa as a baby and keeping me from my true family: the wealthy great-aunts in New York whom I had never met. I was convinced that I belonged there, to a life of ease and comfort. I knew that if I could uncover my family history, I would feel a sense of belonging.
And now I was here, in the huge eggplant-colored mansion overlooking a reservoir. I opened up my screen and sat on the window seat, staring at the tangled garden below, listening to distant rumbling sounds from the highway. The store would call the cops. I was sure of it. They would search the house, maybe even search me.
I would run away tomorrow. Move to Utah to be near my mother. Maybe she would leave Fred. We could live together like we always had. I crawled over to my bed and lay down. Tears slipped down my cheeks. I was dreaming if I thought Eve would ever give up a man for me.
A little later, my great-aunt Wilma knocked on the door, not even waiting for me to answer before she poked her gray head through the opening. “Honey, can I ask you something?”
I lifted my face from the pillow. “No! I didn’t take them! Is that what Eugenia said?”
She limped in the room and sat down beside me, patting my back. “It’s not what I was going to ask.”
I wiped my eyes. “Why does she hate me so much?”
She stroked my hair for a second. “She doesn’t hate you. She hates shoplifting, always has. She calls it ‘McTheft.’ So you just didn’t get on her good side, that’s all. Don’t worry. We’ll do a job tonight, and then she’ll be in a better mood.”
“What kind of job?” I asked, but she was already hobbling downstairs. I assumed that it had something to do with the Presbyterian Church, for which Wilma edited the church newsletter. An entire stack of them sat on the dining room table. I knew about church work. In the foster home in Iowa, where I lived for a few months after I got caught robbing the boutique, everyone had specific chores listed on a sheet attached to the refrigerator with a fish-shaped magnet that said: “Jesus loves the little children.”
The first week I got punished for having suggested that the magnet should read: Jesus loves the little guppies. I wasn’t trying to be sacrilegious—I was just trying to make a joke. But the next day, under my name, on the chore list, there it was: “Neena – church bathrooms.” That meant I had to clean every one of the stained and rusty toilets at St. Korbinians, Mrs. A’s local Catholic church. One of the other girls told me that the problem kid always got the bathrooms, and that Mrs. A. misspelled your name until you behaved. “She wants to convince you that you don’t really belong unless you do what she wants.”
“I never belong anywhere,” I told the girl. “I’m used to it.”
While the aunts were working, I leafed through one of the Presbyterian Church newsletters, seeing to my astonishment that my name appeared in the bulletin, in the section on Gratitude. “Wilma Burd asks for prayers of thanksgiving as she welcomes her grand-niece Nina into her home.” A happy flutter in my stomach quickly faded. Just like my mother, they’d probably get tired of me. But anyway, as long as there were no bathrooms to welcome me to Katonah Presbyterian, I was okay.
At seven o’clock, Eugenia called sharply from downstairs. I was ready, but made her wait a few minutes while I washed my face, peering at an incipient pimple. They were both standing at the bottom of the stairs in silky flowered dresses, white patent leather handbags hanging over their arms.
“So are we going to the church in Katonah?” I asked.
“What do you think?” Eugenia said. “You think we’d do a job at our own church?”
I was right. They were already tired of me. I wouldn’t ask any more questions. My mother might have abandoned me here, but I didn’t have to like it.
The garage—an old and dangerous outbuilding behind the vegetable garden—listed sadly to one side. The paint peeling from its rotting boards had once been green. The doors opened barn style, so you had to grab a sharp iron latch and tug, scraping each door against concrete, and then prop it open with a rock. The car that sat inside was exactly what I expected two old ladies to own: white late-model Buick, tan interior.
Eugenia put a hand on the trunk, as if she were blessing it. “Got an engine from an old police cruiser. She can go from zero to sixty in five seconds, her top speed is one-sixty, and we beefed up the shocks and steering too, in case we have to do any off-road driving.”
I gave a short laugh.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“The thing about off-road driving.”
Wilma hobbled over to the driver’s side and lowered herself in. Then she revved the engine before guiding the car out of the garage. After Eugenia and I closed the garage door, I slid into the Buick’s leather seats, folded my arms across my chest, and slumped into the car.
Finally, after forty minutes of driving, I couldn’t stand not knowing. “Okay, so we’re not going to church. Where are we going?”
Wilma looked at me in the rearview mirror. “I’m glad you’re taking an interest.”
“To a retirement home,” Eugenia said.
“Do you have friends there?” I asked.
“Do you think we’d do a place where we knew somebody?” Eugenia clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “Didn’t Eve ever take you with her?”
“Take me where?”
“Wasn’t she doing cars on a regular basis? Or was she still doing banks like a total idiot?”
“She worked at a bank for a while.”
“Ah, well,” Wilma said. “Bad memories, I guess. So she was doing jewelry?”
I sighed. “No, she worked in a bar, and then she was mostly in Finance at the University.”
“Good place for her,” Eugenia said. “And I assume she never got caught?”
“Oh, hush, Eugenia, show her the tools,” Wilma said.
Eugenia scrabbled at her feet for something, eventually pulling out a paisley sewing bag with a wooden handle. “See this?” she said. “You’ll learn eventually. Tools of the trade. Feel how heavy it is.” She unbuckled her seat belt and turned around to hand the bag to me.
I nearly dropped the bag on my foot. Inside was a long plastic ruler and something that looked like a huge screwdriver with a cup attached.
“Dent puller,” Genia said.
“What do you use it for?”
“Removing the ignition, of course,” Genia said.
“Sweetie pie,” Wilma said. “It’s absolutely the quickest way. Surely you and your mom discussed this, sometimes. We taught her how to steal a car, after all.”
Someone had taken all the words in the English language and changed their meaning around. “I don’t understand.”
“Steal a car,” Eugenia repeated. “I taught your mother, and she was very good at it.”
All I could do was stare. She spoke in calm and measured tones, so I didn’t think she was joking.
“You’re planning to break into a car,” I said, enunciating as clearly as possible so that there could be no mistake. “And take out the ignition.”
“Of course, sweetie!” Wilma said.
“What did you think we meant?” Eugenia asked, frowning at me.
My stomach turned over in fear, and a rush of air whirred in my ears. Something was very, very wrong. I couldn’t even answer.
We were slowing now, nearing a retirement home that looked like a movie set, with fake-looking columns and a shiny plastic white fence around the gardens, which were full of yellow marigolds.
“So you’ve never done this before?” Eugenia asked. “She never took you along?”
“No,” I said hoarsely. “Never.”
Wilma held up a hand. “Wait. I need some direction here. Sister, tell me where to park.”
“Over there.” Eugenia pointed to an area where the road bordered the parking lot. “What time is it?”
Wilma checked her watch. “Seven forty-five. Bingo hour. They’ll be on the other side of the home.”
“Show time.” Eugenia jerked her head toward me. “You pay attention.”
Frantic, I tried to mouth some words, but couldn’t speak, like in dreams where you’re trying to yell but find yourself unable to make a sound. Eugenia grabbed the bag, opened the car door, and gave us a gay wave.
“Thanks for the ride!” she called.
“Now you see how important we consider the acting,” Wilma said. “If anyone was around, they wouldn’t pay any attention. Just an old lady getting dropped off by relatives.”
Eugenia stepped carefully along the sidewalk toward the parking lot. She craned her wrinkled neck, as if she were examining an architectural detail on the building. With her back to the building, she then used a car window to check her perfect white chignon.
“She’s looking for security cameras,” Wilma said. She took out a piece of Juicy Fruit gum, placed it in her mouth, and chewed nervously.
Eugenia approached a silver Cadillac. She placed her bag down on the ground, reached into it slowly, and pulled out the thing that looked like a long plastic ruler.
“She’s going to pop open the door,” Wilma said. “Watch carefully.”
“This is getting ridiculous,” I said. “You don’t have to keep up this big front.”
“What?” Wilma asked. “What are you talking about?”
And then in a flash I understood. And here is what I concluded in that split second where my brain raced to keep up with current events: My mother had put them up to this, as a test to see if I would take the bait. She loved little moral tests. She had told the aunts about how I had robbed the boutique, and the three of them hatched a plan. Would I participate in a criminal enterprise? If I refused right away, then I’d get to stay with them. They would know that I was a true Burd, a true member of the upright clan of DAR members, Junior League ladies, country club tennis players. If I agreed, it would demonstrate my dishonesty, and I’d get sent to the delinquent home.
“What I mean is that I know what’s going on.”
Eugenia slid the ruler between the frame and door, popping the lock.
“Oh, my God!” I exclaimed. “Is that your car?”
“Keep watching, dear.”
“Stop!” My brain kept going in circles. Of course, it had to be their car, or maybe it belonged to one of their friends. There was no other way.
“Stop what?” Wilma twisted around, confused.
“Who does that car belong to?”
“What are you going on about? Look! She’s already got the door open.”
Eugenia slid herself into the car, tugging at the bag of tools.
Wilma gasped, “There’s a guard. I wonder if she sees him.”
A security guard strolled along the sidewalk near the parking lot. He scanned the line of cars until he got distracted by the sky, which was getting dark with storm clouds. Heat lightning flashed and low rumbles of thunder sounded.
Eugenia leaned over the wheel, studying the lock. When the car turned over, I unbuckled my seat belt and moved toward the door. “I’m going to go ask her what’s going on.”
“You get right back in here,” Wilma cried. “That guard will spot you in a second.” She pressed the automatic locks so that I couldn’t get out. “What is the matter with you?”
“Aunt Wilma, please, just tell me. Who owns that car?”
“I have no idea. Some old granny or grandpa who takes it out once a week, just to keep the engine happy.”
I sat there shaking my head.
“Haven’t you ever seen anyone steal a car?” she asked.
Tears came to my eyes. “I think you’re really cruel.”
Wilma said, “Oh my God in heaven.” She kept glancing anxiously at Eugenia, now backing the Cadillac out of its space. Wilma put the Buick in gear, and we followed Eugenia as she drove out of the nursing-home lot past the highway entrance. Wilma kept eyeing me in the rearview mirror.
“What’s all the crying about?” she asked.
“This is so extreme. Trying to pretend that you’re stealing a car.”
“But that’s what we’re doing.”
“That’s impossible.” I was now crying in hiccups, out of frustration. “Come on, you’re my great-aunt. You’re a Burd. We don’t do that.” Now I had caught her. She was going to admit that it was all a big setup.
At a stoplight, she looked at me in the rearview mirror until we were staring into each other’s eyes. “Oh, goddamn it. Surely it’s not possible. She had to have told you.”
“Told me what?”
“I’m about to be very angry at your mother, dear. Or with you if you’re putting me on.”
Hunched in the backseat, I stared out the window, tearing at a hangnail with my teeth. Occasionally I stopped to wipe away a tear. Neither of us spoke as we drove for about another half hour out in the suburban neighborhoods around White Plains. In front of us, Eugenia gunned the motor and swerved down a dirt road. In the fading light, I saw a run-down ranch house and a collection of cars sitting up on blocks in the yard. Before we got within sight of the house, Genia stopped the car and opened her door, both legs out at once, her spectator pumps dangling. Wilma pulled in behind her as Eugenia, dragging her sewing bag, hustled over to the passenger side of the Buick.
“That went well.” She looked back at me, smiling. “We’ve got an employee who lives down that road about a mile from here. When we get to a gas station, I’ll call her from the pay phone and tell her to pick up the car.”
Headlights blinked on across the road in an empty lot, shining straight into the car. Wilma swore, “Damn, who’s that?”
The other car turned on flashing lights and a siren. Wilma put the car in reverse and gunned the motor, hurtling back across the dirt road, fishtailing the turn. Dust and stones flew around us, pelting the sides of the car. Afterward she floored the accelerator and we shot ahead, going so fast that I found myself hanging onto the door handle.
A siren wailed. Red lights flashed. Wilma checked the mirror and pressed the accelerator. “Maybe I should stop, Genia. Make something up.”
“No, go on. We can outrun them.”
The needle of the dashboard flickered across the top: ninety mph. We rocketed down the road in a cloud of dust, rocks clacking up against the belly of the car.
A low cratering closed my throat. I sobbed, “Please! Stop!”
“Got to get off these dirt roads!” Eugenia yelled. “They can track us from the dust.”
“What do you think I’m doing?” Wilma snapped. It was the only sign that either of them was afraid.
We tore around a bend until we reached a fork in the road. Suddenly Wilma turned off onto a long, wooded avenue, then pulled into a driveway, creeping up the hill until we reached the house at the top, a mini-mansion with a fake thatched roof. Below us, sirens blazed along the road. Police cars careened past the end of the driveway.
My breathing eased, but I couldn’t stop crying.
“So who turned us in?” Eugenia said.
“Don’t know,” Wilma said.
A light turned on at the house, and a woman appeared at the door, peering out at us. “Can I help you?”
“I guess we made a wrong turn.” It didn’t even sound like Wilma’s voice. She made it cracked and tremulous, like a bona fide old person. And then she did a slow and laborious three-point turn and headed down the driveway, pulling back onto the highway, driving a sedate forty-five miles per hour.
I was still crying, terrified. I couldn’t stop myself.
“What is wrong with you?” When I didn’t answer, Eugenia turned around and peered at me. “What’s wrong with her, Wilma?”
Wilma rolled to a complete stop at a red light, then took a turn into a gas station, pulling up to the car wash, where we waited in line behind a station wagon that was covered in mud. When we entered the car wash, sudsy water gushed against the windows, obliterating all traces of our chase.
In the half-dark of the car, I took a deep breath. My mother always was a coward.
Copyright 2014 Hanway