Spring 2015, Volume 18

Fiction by Matt Perron

Thief

The boy ran beneath streetlight, through tree-branch shadow, purse clutched to his chest, lungs burning. But it wasn’t pain that caused him to slow; something seemed wrong, the wife didn’t call for help, and he couldn’t sense her chasing him. He looked over his shoulder. Not only wasn’t she following, she was walking in the opposite direction, walking calmly. Perhaps she’d recognized him despite his hood. That’d ruin everything. He started back toward her, slinking along the edges of parked cars from one bumper to the next. No one would guess she’d just been mugged, the way she was strolling. He waited for her to turn on Henry, and then hustled to the corner.

She was close enough for him to hear her heels click-clacking on the granite. This was the block, and soon he’d know which brownstone. He followed another line of parked cars street-side until she turned up a stoop. So that’s where he lived. The boy crept under a tree, safely in the gloom between streetlamps, but close enough to hear what might be said.

She pressed the doorbell.

Mr. Coltana opened the door. He grabbed her hands. “Shit! What happened?”

“Fucker jumped out from behind a car on Strong Place and snatched my purse.”

“Did you call the police?”

“How? He got my phone, my keys, my wallet, everything.”

He hugged her and then gently cupped her chin and examined it. “Did he hit you?”

“Happened so fast; I think so.”

Was she bleeding? How could that be? All he’d done was snatch the purse. He moved closer.

“At least it’s not deep. Did you get a look at him?”

“Sure did. It was that punk from your school.”

The boy felt like an idiot. Why did all his plans turn to shit?

“But that’s impossible,” Mr. Coltana said.

“No. It was that rocker from the neighborhood, the one we’re always bumping into.”

“You mean Michael? You sure?”

“What kind of question is that?” She shook her head. “Trust me, it was him. Let’s call the banks and the police.”

Michael knew he’d get no credit for returning the purse now. Instead, he’d wait until they went inside, then ring the bell and drop the bag on the stoop. Later, he could deny everything.

Mr. Coltana turned sideways in the door to let her pass through, and in so doing, faced him.

He leaped farther into the shadows, but it was too late.

“Son of a bitch.” Mr. Coltana started down the steps. “Michael. Get over here.”

Sidewalk pounded against his heels through the soles of his worn sneakers. He was a fool to expect anything but anger, even from Mr. Coltana. Still, he’d been shocked to see his teacher charge down the steps. He veered around a surprised couple holding hands and then charged blindly across Kane Street. Footsteps behind him closed fast. A hand fell on the back of his neck, then slid to grab the hood. He struggled forward, but sweatshirt digging into his throat stopped him.

“You crazy?” Mr. Coltana snapped through ragged breaths.

Michael flinched and held the purse before his face.

“I’m not going to hit you.” Mr. Coltana switched his grip to his arm and took the bag. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Michael squirmed. “I was coming to return it,” he said. “Honest. But I got scared when I saw you on the stoop.”

“You hit my wife.”

“I didn’t even touch her.”

“Her lip is bleeding.”

“Maybe she bit it.”

“Did you know it was her?” Mr. Coltana shook his arm. “You did, didn’t you?”

“I followed her home to return it. I made a mistake. Can I just go?”

“You didn’t return it. I had to chase you down. This isn’t school bullshit. Street crime means jail.”

“But I meant to give it back.”

“We’re going to talk to your mom. Right now.”

The last thing Michael wanted was someone in the apartment. “She won’t let you in,” he said.

“Look. I’m trying to cut you a break. I could just call the cops.”

He shook his head. “Please, don’t.”

“My wife is probably doing that right now. In fact, I’d better call her.” He reached into a pocket, and tapped the screen of his phone. “It’s all here,” he said. “Yeah, I got him. Did you call the police?” He nodded no to Michael. “How about letting me talk to his mom first? It’s not like the cops won’t know where to find him. Thanks; see you soon.” He put the phone back in his pocket.

“She mad?”

“Of course she’s mad.”

Michael toed a crack in the sidewalk. “So she didn’t call the cops?”

“Not yet. You’re lucky she’s a good woman. You live on Hicks, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s go.”

They walked the short block past heavy stoops in ominous silence and turned onto Hicks. An iron set of blue railings and a rusted chain-link fence stretched along the opposite side of the street. The hum of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway carried up from below. Back when his father used to pick him up for visits, they took the highway out to his apartment on Staten Island. His dad drove a motorcycle and let him ride on the back. But that stopped happening last winter, and when the weather got warm, his father still didn’t come back.

“Which way?” Mr. Coltana asked.

Michael crossed his arms and scratched his elbows, then pointed up a stoop to a faded yellow door. “Here.” He took out the keys and led his teacher up the stairs, wondering if his mother would be angry or scared. Then again, what difference did it make? Her feelings never changed anything.

They entered the one-bedroom apartment. Coupons and dirty clothes littered the grimed floor. A TV blared from a corner next to an unmade cot. Stacks of dirty dishes covered the stove top and counter. Worst of all, a random city of beer cans and liquor bottles covered almost every flat surface. Before Dad left, the mess had been smaller and more rare; back then the bottles only meant that his parents would be sleeping late, and that he could pour himself a bowl of cereal and watch whatever he wanted on TV. Now it didn’t mean anything, except that Mom wasn’t expecting company. She was asleep, mouth open, on the couch. Loose skin sagged from her jawline, and a sharp hip poked against her jeans.

Michael picked up a crumpled magazine from the floor and placed it on the coffee table. The place didn’t look any better.

“Wake her up,” Mr. Coltana said, turning off the TV.

If he woke her up, she might start yelling. And then Mr. Coltana would yell back. That’s when bad things started to happen. Michael gave him a pleading look. “I-I…I don’t want to.”

“You should’ve thought of that before you mugged my wife.”

Michael approached and saw spittle leaking from the corner of her mouth. No wonder his father never came around anymore. He shook her by the arm. “Mom, wake up.”

                                               § 

Someone shook her. But she was sleeping, and sleep was good. She tried rolling away, but the jostling continued until she was forced to open her eyes. “Huh? What? What is it?”

Michael gestured toward a strange man.

Her first instinct was to hide the glass, but then she remembered the state of the apartment. She’d have to bluff it. “Who the hell are you?” she blurted. Did she slur? She didn’t think so. Good; talking was easier once she got used to it.

“Jim Coltana,” the guy said, “one of Michael’s teachers.” He stuck out his hand.

If she wobbled, the kid would be mortified, so she stared until he dropped it back to his side. She could fool him, just like she did the people at work. Then again, the manager had been sniffing around the lumberyard lately. He made her so stressed that by the time she got home, she needed a glassful to take the edge off. “That doesn’t give you the right to break in,” she said. “Get the hell out before I call the cops.”

“I didn’t break in.”

The guy looked like a teacher, dressed in his blue sweater and worn brown cords. And he was handsome, tall with flecks of gray in the whiskers shadowing his lean jaw. But even absent the wedding ring, he’d never notice the likes of her. Her breasts had come down, and her formerly muscular legs had withered skinny. The guys she could get weren’t the kind of people she could bring home to a son. Sometimes she loved Michael for this, other times she blamed him for her loneliness. “Funny,” she said, “I don’t remember inviting you in.”

“Michael snatched my wife’s purse.”

“He did what?”

“He stole my wife’s purse.” He held up a bag, as if its presence represented ironclad evidence.

She looked back at the boy.

He turned away, unable to meet her gaze.

“That true?”

“But I gave it back.”

This required quick thinking, and she didn’t feel up to it. She moved her feet to the floor and sat erect. Still, she felt adrift, unable to focus. What she needed was a drink. “Wait in your room, Michael. We’ll discuss this later.”

Michael looked at the guy.

“Your mother and I need to talk,” he said.

“And close the door!” she shouted, and waited until he did. “Sorry,” she said, lowering her voice. “Could you tell me what happened?” She rested her elbows on her knees and rubbed her temples as he spoke. It didn’t make her feel any better. When he finished, she leaned back into the couch and exhaled. “Don’t know what I’m going to do with him.”

“I want you to know that I care about your son, or I wouldn’t be here.”

She nodded dully, still at a loss for what she should say to get rid of this guy.

“Lots of people at the school have been trying to contact you, Ms. Salvano. First about his grades, then about his escalating reckless behavior; no calls were returned. And now my wife’s lip is bleeding.”

“He hit her?”

“She doesn’t really remember, but even if he didn’t—”

“He’d never hit a woman,” she interrupted. “And what’s more, he’s no thief.”

“Maybe so, but he obviously wants attention and doesn’t seem to care how he gets it. Does your house always look like this?”

“Party over the weekend,” she said. “Just haven’t cleaned it yet.”

“I see. Anything else that could be causing him to act this way?”

She wasn’t slow enough to miss his meaning, but pretended to be. “Michael is a good boy,” she said, “but his father’s absence is hard on him.”

“Have you brought him to see a professional?”

“A psychiatrist?” she said. “My son doesn’t need a shrink, if that’s what you mean. What he needs is a responsible father and some compassion and understanding from his teachers.”

“The school can offer counseling.”

“You’re not labeling my kid.”

He stepped closer. “Getting pinched for street crime will ruin his future a lot quicker than any label.”

“Trust me. That won’t happen again.”

He moved right to the edge of the coffee table. “Not if we don’t do something about it.”

“What’s this we stuff? Who the hell are you? Back off!”

“That boy is crying out for help.”

“And what does this have to do with you?”

“I see your son almost every day.”

“You see lots of kids every day.”

“That’s true, but it was your son who just mugged my wife and then followed her home with the bag. What do you think he’s trying to say? Think it might have something to do with the state of this place? Or the state of you?”

“Michael!” she shouted.

The boy stuck his head into the room.

“You trying to tell this guy something about me?”

His mouth curled into a sneer.

She recognized the contempt, but was glad to see it for once. He was on her side.

“No,” he said. “I got nothing to say to him.”

“So there you go. If anything is missing, I’ll make sure he returns it.”

“Ms. Salvano—”

“He’s my son,” she interrupted, “and I’ll decide how he’s raised.”

“I don’t think you get it. My wife is planning to go to the police as we speak. I came here to work something out with you so that I have a chance in hell of convincing her not to press charges.”

“What you do in your house is your business, and what I do in mine is mine. See yourself out.”

He stood looking down at her for a moment, judging, then abruptly turned and left. She thought for sure the son of a bitch would slam the door, or at least leave it open, but he simply closed it behind him.

No sooner had he left than Michael went into his room, slamming the door behind him.

She rose to her feet, stumbled, and knocked a can from the coffee table. Black sludge dribbled onto the floor. She reminded herself to remember to clean out the ashtrays, and stood outside his door. “What’re you doing in there?”

“I’m on the computer.”

She considered going in, trying to speak to him. But she couldn’t think of the right thing to say. And whenever she tried to talk to him about important things, what she said always seemed to come out mangled and wrong. “Okay,” she said. “I’m going out for cigarettes.”

No answer.

She supposed he had a right to be mad. His father hadn’t liked her drinking much either, at least by the end. But back when they were kids, Joey was always the one with weed, and sometimes a little coke. He always knew where the parties were. Once Michael was born, a lot of that stuff slowed down, at least for him. He didn’t start judging her, though, until that day they rode his motorcycle to Jones Beach while Michael was in summer school. She’d sneaked damn near a fifth of vodka into a water bottle, and sipped until she’d worked it dry. On the way home she lost her balance and, by some miracle, only caused them to wipe out in the grass alongside 495. Joey broke his ankle and couldn’t ride the rest of the summer. After that he started cussing her out, blaming her every which way for drinking around the boy. If he cared so much, where the hell was he now? Out on Staten Island collecting blow jobs from that bike-show twink, no doubt.

The roar of the highway greeted her on the front stoop. She looked at the fence, thought about climbing it and then dropping to let traffic spread her pieces over three lanes. But it was only a passing thought. She couldn’t do that to her son. Tonight she’d hit the store across the highway because if they recognized her, they never showed it. Crossing the bridge, she had to laugh at herself, acting like walking over here to buy booze was like going to Connecticut or something, like that made it okay. She ordered a pack of Marlboros and a pint of peach schnapps at the counter. The stuff was a little sweet, but it was only about 40 proof. She’d thank herself when the alarm went off for work in the morning.

“Out of peach schnapps,” the clerk said.

She looked behind him at the bottles scarce on the shelves. Liquor stores in the old Soviet Union probably had a better selection. She supposed she’d have to put that fancy place all the way over on Atlantic in the rotation if this dump went under. So be it, it was a sign, might as well get what she really wanted. “Make it a fifth of Smirnoff.” She exchanged money for the bagged bottle. Outside she thought of lighting a smoke, but decided to wait until she got home. Cigarettes tasted better with a drink.

She opened the apartment door and looked for the light under Michael’s door. Out—he must be sleeping already; it’d been a hard day for him. She crept to the freezer, eased the cubes from the tray, and then carefully placed one, two, and then three into the bottom of a glass she found on the counter, without even a tinkle. She poured a tall one, took the first sip, and hid the drink behind some empty beer cans. If the kid came out of his room, she didn’t want him to see it. The thought of Michael made her feel as warm as the vodka blooming in her stomach. The look he’d given that nosy son of a bitch: priceless. After another sip, she hid the glass again and lit a cigarette. Some of the rough feelings from her walk to the store lingered. Maybe she should peek in at him. She liked to watch him sleep. He looked so peaceful, with eyes tranquilly closed, that she could see the baby he’d once been in his face. The knob silently turned, and she opened the door a crack. Light bled into the room from behind her, and revealed the twisted blankets of his empty bed.

 

 

 

BIO: I attended Northeastern University in Boston. Upon graduation, I worked at an orphanage for traumatized children and then for a computer company, testing protocol analyzers. Im a graduate of the Arizona Writers Workshop and now reside in Brooklyn, where I teach in a middle school.

My work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cadillac Cicatrix, Compass Rose, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Gemini Magazine, Sanskrit, The Dos Passos Review, RiverSedge, and G.W. Review. I also won the Table 4 Writers contest in 2014 for my story, Rent Control.