The Little Thief

            I grew up in a house without any acknowledgement of religion.  I didn’t even see the inside of a church until age ten when I went to the wedding of a girl who used to babysit my brother and me.  The wedding took place in the First Methodist Church in downtown Bloomington, Indiana.  I couldn’t believe how beautiful the stained glass windows looked with the light coming from outside.  My father studied and taught the Old Testament, but he sure didn’t believe in it.  My mother started going to church after my parents divorced, but she didn’t ever mention religion when they were married.

            Although nobody ever told me that God watched and judged my actions, I still always felt that someone or something was watching.  My parents framed the gatefold from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the one with the four mustached men standing shoulder to shoulder in their satin uniforms – which hung it at the foot of my crib beginning months after my birth.  I grew up with that picture staring down at me, and it took me until age seven or so before I had any clue as to their identy.  I felt that they were there to watch me; and judging from the looks on their faces, they remained passively amused by my every move.  Their eyes seemed to follow me around the room.

            In addition to the Beatles, I felt very strongly from a very young age that I had an audience somewhere, somehow.  It wasn’t a sense of God per se – it felt more like a live television audience.  I saw my life was an endless, mostly mind-numbingly boring sort of cinéma vérité.  I often imagined a narrator’s voice inside my head describing the action.  “Now the hero will commence to spoon sugar onto his Wheaties…not too much, but just enough to sweeten the milk…he is incredibly skilled at spooning sugar; observe that he rarely spills a single granule.”  Everything I did inspired reverence and awe from the off-camera announcer.

            My brother had a best friend in the neighborhood, a kid named Pete.  He lived around the corner, but our backyards faced one another.  Pete had an older brother named Tony, a serious kid with glasses.  Pete’s parents enjoyed conventional things such as golf, recreational boating, and home decorating.  My mother admired Pete’s parents, though I suspect my father considered them dull and conventional.  Once they built a weird, sprawling concrete and glass addition onto their ranch house that consumed most of the back yard.  For months during the construction they had this giant dirt pile that became our favorite place to play.  I found several real Indian arrowheads that had been buried deep beneath the yard.

            One time during the early fall when I was about seven, we went over to Pete’s parents’ house for dinner.  Before dinner, the adults chatted over drinks in the living room as my brother and Pete talked animatedly in the basement about the Chicago Cubs.  I wandered alone through the house, exploring.  I wandered through various rooms, picking things up and putting them back to appear undisturbed.  In Tony’s room, on his desk, I saw a neat stack of one dollar bills.  Without thinking about it, I picked up the stack of bills and stuffed them in my pocket. 

          I nervously felt the bills in my pocket as I sat and ate dinner, wondering what I would buy.  I thought I might buy a new G.I. Joe, or perhaps a real army helmet from the army surplus store.  I felt slightly nervous, but I didn’t feel the least bit guilty. 

            Then on the way home it occurred to me that I would have to explain to my parents how I suddenly had all this money – six dollars as it turned out.  I had an idea that I’d pretend to have somehow found the money in our basement.  As soon as we arrived at the house, I went straight to a large walk-in closet in the basement that connected to the large bedroom that my brother and I shared.  I waited a few seconds and then shouted, “Hey, mom, come look what I found.”

            My mother, brother and father all came down the stairs and directly into the closet as I held up the stack of ones.  “I was looking for something on the shelves over here, and I found this money.  Can I keep it?”  With hardly a second’s delay, my brother chimed in.  “Hey, that’s my hiding place for money, and I hid that money there.”  Of course I knew he was lying, both because I’d stolen the money, and because my brother would never have misplaced money.  Back then he was the biggest tightwad in the world.  I knew exactly where he his his money, and I knew he kept count down to the penny. 

            Our father looked us over with a furrowed brow, thinking it over.  After a moment, he spoke.  “Well, it seems there’s only one solution,” he said.  “Since Jacob hid the money and John found it, they should each take three dollars.”  My brother quickly agreed, and there wasn’t much I could do about it.  I revised my thinking, calculating what I could buy at Air Way with only three dollars.  Not much.

            Then, almost immediately, the phone rang.  My parents disappeared upstairs for several minutes and then returned with grave looks on their faces.  “That was Tony’s parents,” my mother said.  “It seems Tony’s lunch money for the week has gone missing, six dollars to be exact.”  My stomach dropped.  “John, do you have something to tell us?” 

            For my fittingly brutal punishment I had to walk back to Tony’s house by myself, knock on the door, and return the six dollars to Tony.  When I rang the bell, crying buckets, all four members of the family came to the door.  Tony’s father stepped solemnly out of the screen door and looked at me straight in the face, his bushy eyebrows raised expectantly.  I handed him the money and stammered a few words of apology.  I scanned their faces, and they all held the same solemn look.  For weeks afterward I remembered the way they’d looked as I imagined what they must have been thinking.  “Well,” they must have thought, “there’s a kid who’s already started going wrong…prison can’t be but a few rough years away.”

            I didn’t do much stealing after that, save for a can of Binaca breath spray I shoplifted from the Osco Drug in fifth grade.  I’d seen the ads and it just looked really awesome, and I couldn’t afford the five bucks.  I ended up spraying it in my mouth once or twice.  Other than that isolated incident, however, I didn’t ever want to experience the humiliation that I felt over having to return that money.

            Clearly the episode tought me an important lesson, which I thankfully took to heart.  It’s a little troubling to me, however, that I didn’t feel bad about stealing the money at the time.  Sure, I was very young; but I don’t remember a lot of wrestling with the moral issue when deciding whether or not to steal the money and deciding how to conceal the crime.

            So what if I’d gotten away with stealing Tony’s six bucks?  Would I now be a hardened criminal?  Would the guilt eventually have eaten away at me to the point where I’d have ratted myself out?  Would I have gotten the G.I. Joe and carried on with my life just the same?  I have no idea.  What I do know is that somewhere along the line I developed a sense of morality on my own, and I suspect that stuff like my failed foray into petty theft helped in a way religion might have helped someone else arrive at the same place.  With or without God as my co-pilot, I’ve picked up a thing or two here and there to the point where I feel okay about taking a crack at trying to instill a sense of right and wrong in my own kids.  I don’t want to give my parents credit to the extent that I would suggest they actually knew what they were doing back then, but perhaps they did a thing or two right after all.  I don’t remember much from my early childhood, but my memory of that walk and the images of the faces at the door as I returned the money stand in stark relief.  I still shudder a little.


I don’t remember much of my life prior to 1976. I remember little isolated moments from a narrative I’ve managed to piece together. I’d spent my entire life to that point, my first nine years, on the same Indiana block around the same group of kids. My best friend Eric, red-haired and two months younger than me, lived across the street and three doors down. His dad built a tree house that we slept in most weekends during the summer. We walked seven blocks to school and went sledding on saucer sleds in the winter. At age five we rode our bikes to the grocery store a half-mile away. The old guy next door to me wore a jumpsuit to work in the yard and smoked a pipe that smelled like rotting apricots.

Then everything changed in 1976. After second grade in 1975, Eric moved away to upstate New York . I didn’t really know what to do without Eric; we’d spent every free moment together since age four. My parents fought every night for a long time, maybe a year or two. My brother and I didn’t sleep much as we listened from our beds in the basement. They managed to keep it together during the day, but at night it would all come out. We couldn’t make out our father’s hushed, steady words, but our mother ignored his pleas to keep it quiet. Occasionally we would peek through the door to the kitchen and try to hear all of the words. The air smelled of cigarettes.

One day in the late fall of 1975 our parents sat us down in the living room. Our mother smiled weakly as she sipped her coffee. My father spoke first. “I’ve…I’ve decided to get an apartment. I have some things going on, um, at work and, well, I…we think it’s best for now. You’ll still see me plenty, though.” I can’t remember what else was said. At eight years old I didn’t understand what was happening. I think they asked if we had any questions. We didn’t even know what to ask. I tried to imagine what the apartment would look like. I hoped at least it would mean an end to all the fighting.

My brother and I didn’t talk about it much, if at all. We never really spoke about the fighting or the troubling things going on in the house. Sometimes we would talk about things indirectly, such as acting things out by creating characters with our stuffed animals. The animals said what we had trouble voicing. My brother is two years older, but I don’t think he understood things any better than I did. Nothing was ever really explained, not until much later anyway.

The third-floor apartment was in a large, non-descript building near the Indiana University campus, where my father taught English. It was called Poolside Apartments, though the tiny pool never seemed to be fit for swimming. The apartment had two identical rooms, a bathroom, and a tiny kitchenette. In one room he set up a trundle bed, built some shelves for the stereo with stained wood boards and cinder blocks, and he set up a card table with folding chairs. For the other room – our room – he bought a new television (our first color set) and set up bunk beds. The apartment had greenish carpeting with several large spots, maybe piss stains from a prior tenant’s contraband pet. The windows looked out to the back of a decrepit party house that seemed deserted during the day but came alive hours after we went to bed.

During the year my father spent in the apartment, my brother and I stayed over practically every Saturday night. It doesn’t seem that my father wasn’t all that involved in our lives prior to moving in to the apartment, but during those weekend visits we had his full attention. That winter we developed a routine. We’d come over on Saturday to watch Indiana play basketball. That was the year they went undefeated; we didn’t miss a game. At night my father would cook a frozen pizza and we’d watch a show called Almost Anything Goes, a sort of proto-reality show where teams representing suburban towns would participate in wacky games. Then we’d get up on Sunday and my father would cook pancakes – humble beginnings for a man who would later become a world-class cook. Sometimes we’d go to the student union on campus and shoot pool, or we’d walk a few blocks up Hunter Street to the IGA for Twinkies or Gatorade. I loved those weekends.
Almost immediately following the separation both of my parents pursued new romantic interests. My brother and I began to understand that he really wasn’t coming back to the house. My father’s new girlfriend was a slim beauty in her early twenties named Nancy. The first time we met Nancy, I asked her to sit while I drew her portrait. She sat very patiently, and I did my best to make it look like a photograph. I didn’t know how to draw blonde hair so I made her a brunette. I wondered if she would be my stepmother, and if I would call her mom. I didn’t think that would ever feel right. After a few weeks my father didn’t talk about Nancy, and I didn’t ask. I saw her once a few years later. I said hi, but she quickly looked away.

Sometimes we’d to go to this pizza place a few blocks down the main drag from campus called Café Pizzeria or another place downtown called Rapp’s Pizza Train. Both places had juke boxes with lots of great rock music. I wished I knew the names of the bands. I know the names now: I heard Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin and Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix. I wasn’t even sure what instruments made the sounds I loved. One song I especially loved – Rock n’ Roll All Nite by Kiss. I knew some of the words, but I didn’t know the name of the band or the name of the song. I told my father that I wanted to buy a record, a “hard rock” record – like what we heard on the jukebox. I wanted that particular song, but I felt too embarrassed to say the few words I knew. He took me to a place called Schoolkids Records, the place he went to buy his jazz and blues records and everything by Dylan and the Band. I thought if I looked at every record cover in the place I would know which record to buy.

I chose the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record, because it had a picture of a cool guitar piercing a heart on the front cover, and the guy looked sort of tough. My father talked me out of buying it, however, and urged me to buy The Eagles Greatest Hits. He didn’t have to twist my arm, because he told me it was hard rock, and the front cover had a picture of some kind of skull. I thought it might be the right record. Anyway, I hoped it would be.

We brought the record back to the apartment and I eagerly placed it on the turntable. I felt let down when I heard the songs, though, because it sounded sort of like the country music my dad listened to on the radio. He apologized, explaining that he thought it would be harder rock. I didn’t like it much at first, but I listened to it all the time because it was my record – my first record, other than a couple Glenn Campbell records my parents gave me when I fell hard as a toddler for the Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour. Eventually I started to like the Eagles record more – particularly the song Witchy Woman, because it was sort of like hard rock and the lyrics seemed sort of creepy. Many thousands of listens later, the album still holds up for me. Later that year this badass kid from my class named Jimmy brought Kiss Alive to school, so I knew what to buy the next time we went to School Kids. Sometimes Jimmy brought Skoal tobacco to school.

After the fall of 1976 my father moved to a rental house, and then later he bought a beautiful old limestone house three blocks from our mother. Our country celebrated its Bicentennial, and that’s all anyone wanted to talk about for weeks. My parents finalized their inevitable divorce, and things were shaky for a few years. My brother and I bounced back and forth between our parents’ houses in various experimental joint custody arrangements, and the fights continued. We had a well-intentioned Sunday family meeting with the four of us, which often degenerated into bickering or worse. My brother and I learned to sit and wait. Eventually everyone ended up okay, but we endured some tough times.

But during that one year things felt okay. For that short period of time my parents seemed happy to be moving on to the next phase. It didn’t feel like the end of our family; it felt like an adventure.