No. 5, Sales Clerk (Age 15)

THIEF: A person who steals, especially secretly or without open force; someone guilty of theft or larceny.

I tripped over a pile of toys and fell onto the doorbell, depressing it a little longer than was necessary. Monica opened the door and called for her husband. She and Harold had moved into my neighborhood a month earlier, migrating from somewhere far more hip than Estherville. She was tall and statuesque, curving and goddess-like. He was a full foot shorter, balding and nearsighted. After a quick tour of the four-story construction site they called home, they pointed me towards their two-year-old daughter and rushed out the door.

I watched their car lights evaporate into the darkness and within minutes began the process of getting the little girl to sleep. Once she was tucked in bed, I prowled for food and exercised to Showtime Shorts. I spent the remainder of the evening talking on the phone, likely gushing to a friend about my first real live boyfriend. He was one year out of high school and was teaching me about “parking” on dirt roads and abandoned farm acreages. In turn, I was teaching him how prudish and resistant fifteen-year-old girls can be. It was a short relationship.

One night in the fall of ’84 Monica and Harold arrived home and asked if I could stick around a few minutes. Oh my god! How did they know I ignored their daughter and ate all their cereal?

“Sandy, we were wondering,” Harold said, pausing to help Monica with her jacket. I felt sick. I’m busted. I’m busted. I’m busted. I mentally reviewed the entire evening in ten seconds. Baby to bed, Captain Crunch, snooping in bedroom, Doritos and ice cream, television . . . .

“We were wondering if you’d be interested in working at our store during the Christmas season. We’ll pay you $5 an hour.” $5 an hour? I almost fell over.

“Yeah, sure.”

The ill-fated Montgomery Ward showroom was located on Estherville’s main drag, Central Avenue. A long counter divided the storage area and the retail sales floor exactly in half. My job was to take people’s order numbers, retrieve items from the back room, and receive payments. I also took catalog orders over the phone.

I was routinely bored in the overheated building. There was little to do except dream about the towers of edible Christmas goodies surrounding me. Despite my mastery of caloric restraint my brain thought of little else but eating. There were fruitcakes, boxes of tasteless chocolates, and shiny tins of nuts. I wanted the nuts, but they were expensive and ate up at least three hour’s wages.

The nuts were wrapped inside heavy plastic bags, tied prettily with green and red ribbons, and placed in the tin cans. On purchase a customer opened the can, removed the ribbons, and unsealed the bag. I figured if I opened a bag from the bottom, I could eat some of the nuts and then tape the bags back together so that nobody would notice. By the end of my clerking stint all the bags had about one third of the original nut-count remaining. Yet no one ever complained or questioned the steep price for so few nuts in a mysteriously wrinkled bag crudely held together with Scotch tape and ribbons.

Then my criminal mind started taking over. Day by day, I noticed Monica and Harold had an absolutely horrible method of keeping inventory. If some of those housewares and polyester fashions ordered long ago were to suddenly vanish, there would be little questioning as to their whereabouts. Why not just give the customer a fake receipt and avoid ringing up the sale? I memorized all the items sitting around long enough to collect dust. Then, when customers came in to pick up a long-forgotten order, I would push the inactive buttons on the cash register and whisper “Oops” a few times during the transaction, and as soon as the door closed behind them I’d pocket the money.

I was confident my thieving went undetected. Once, Monica and Harold asked me if I knew where someone’s poofy pink slipcover was, but nothing further was ever discussed. I hardly flinched, though they may have smelled something odd. I reeked of craftiness. And, also, I had some seriously nasty nut breath.

I only gave in to these criminal cravings on a few occasions, and every time I stole from the register I promised myself I wouldn’t do it again. This is the last time. I swear. But sure enough, I’d find myself prowling around the stockroom (cranky and ashamed of my belly full of cashews and pecans) making a mental list of how I was going to spend the money I’d extracted from the customer picking up an outdated Dust Buster. I wasted any money I didn’t earn honestly, spending it as quickly as possible on video games and junk food.

I needed a valid motive for stealing to temper my shame, so I blamed genetics. Hadn’t my own mother spent time in the slammer for grand larceny? Oh, did I forget to mention that? Weren’t the first few years of our lives spent wandering blindly amidst a seedy population of drug addicts and criminals? Oops. My bad. Looks like I left that part out, too. I decided that having guilt as my constant companion would be a testament to my goodness, to my inner humanitarian. And if intrinsically good people steal from people they like and who trust them, well, God only knows what the bad people are doing.

When the Christmas season drew to a close my services were no longer needed. When Monica and Harold gave me a $25 Christmas bonus and sent me on my way, I was relieved. Apparently there were never any cameras, and the weight of my crimes evaporated the instant I walked out the door. Tucked into my ratty corduroy satchel was $25 worth of Monica and Harold’s trust, and a half-eaten bag of Christmas nuts.


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