In Medias Res
After midnight in Lizzie’s Sonoma County studio apartment, a garage converted into a ski loft: beamed ceiling, redwood walls and funnel-shaped fireplace. On the radio, a phone-in psychologist. Lizzie nervously sets down her lemon grass tea, a fluted cup with roses, and calls. “I have this problem, you see, I uh shoplift. Compulsively.”
The radio psychologist tells Lizzie that stealing is a substitute for love.
Things Lizzie Has Stolen for Me
1. Two 100% cotton knit tops, multi-colored nubby boat neck and smooth cream scooped with large buttons down the front. The tiny curtained cubicle, I have tried on four things, the ones I want disappear down Lizzie’s tan pants. Then she switches the four-item tag with a two-item one that happens to be in her purse. Standing in the hall so the clerk is sure to hear, she yells, “Hurry up, I’ll meet you in the car.”
2. One facial mask, with Elastin, crushed almonds and thyme, a woman’s naked shoulder on the label. A health food store, in full view of the clerk, it falls into her pocket.
3. A purple sash, rayon from India. At Cost Plus nobody monitors the dressing rooms. Child’s play.
Lizzie fills her purse with socks and chemises and pepper mills. All she has to do is get some love and then she’ll stop.
4. Romika clogs, tan leather with low rubber heels, my Christmas present. While I ask the sales lady questions about jewelry, Lizzie is to my right stuffing them in her purse. “Those little cuffs there, how do you get them over your ears?”
Outside on Castro, walking swiftly (but not too fast), we make a great team like Robert Redford and Paul Newman. We could dye my hair brown to blend in.
5. One chocolate truffle, Amaretto creme. Lizzie pokes through the cellophane and pops it in my mouth.
The writing flows or gets stuck. Lizzie and 1 have never had sex, not even at the mud baths in Calistoga. We’ve slept together a few times out of necessity—her apartment is cold and there’s only one down comforter, it’s pale rose with tiny white petals or leaves. Once her hand went between my thighs, but she was sleeping.
True friendship is sharing the forbidden.
Each theft allowed Lizzie to breathe for a moment at the surface. The Sweat on her lip, the racing heart provoked a state akin to religious moods.
Five foot six, shoulder length black hair, size eight shoe and dress, Lizzie holds a tortoise-shell compact three inches from her face: brown liner, black lashes, dab of gray shadow. A warm creamy complexion inherited from her Mexican parents. No lipstick, she outlines her mouth with a brown pencil. Lizzie’s clothes: khaki, black, gray, beige, a rare blue or red.
The man I live with is in the shower, I shout through the curtain, “I know you don’t like it but I’ve got to put you in my piece. What name do you want?” “Fire Hose.” “Come on—how about Jorge?” “What’s this Jorge? I want Fire Hose.”
And then there was the time with Fire Hose. He and Lizzie were raised in the same Chicago neighborhood, the same high school, but met out here through me. A Dickens coincidence. Fire Hose calls her Lizard and squeezes her cheeks. She makes fun of his Spanish. “Do you know what Puerto Ricans call a bus? A wawa! For the dog on the side of a Greyhound, like bow wow, a wawa!” Fire Hose was driving his cab that night, Lizzie said, “Let’s get into bed and talk, it’s more comfortable.” Both of us in flannel nightgowns, we continue with the life of Edie Sedgewick. “Winnie, I’m going to sleep here, just ‘til Fire Hose comes home.” At six in the morning I tell her to move over. Three in a king-sized bed, it’s easy, both of them asleep and me in the middle: How far am I willing to share?
6. A can of Pure Maple Spread from Quebec. Safeway’s fisheye mirrors.
When Fire Hose and I got together he had moved back to the old neighborhood, so I spent a couple of months down the street from Lizzie’s birthplace. A year in San Francisco’s Mission District had not prepared me for this level of poverty, men sleeping in restaurant boiler rooms. My memory is full of dust and gravel, “Villa Lobos” scrawled everywhere.
Everything is bound to break wide open.
Lizzie calls her favorite method “exchanging.” Step 1: Buy the cheapest form of clothing available. Step 2: Hide the item on your person and return to the store. Step 3: Take five items into a dressing booth. Switch the item you really want with the hidden one. Step 4: Return five items to the attendant and walk out. Get caught? A race track driver could get killed, does that keep him off the track? A bank robbery at the movies, this masked James Dean holding the room on the tip of his rifle. Can you imagine a Chicana up there pocketing a jar of face cream at Merrill’s?
Bodega Bay, clam chowder and plate glass, we sit at a table watching sea gulls. Lizzie has a problem — she is content to hang around the house not doing anything in particular. Her response to my “What’s wrong with that?”: “You should talk, you with your writing and your intellectual friends.” I butter my sourdough. “Listen, writing alone won’t do it. Some of the unhappiest people I know are writers. And they don’t make that good of friends, not like you and Fire Hose. Did they really film The Birds here?”
Polk Street, a local schizophrenic, the kind you can smell half a block away, leaning over a trash can, shouting into the dark part, “You made a big mistake You make a big mistake You made a big mistake You make a big…”
The Strand, I pay as Lizzie sneaks through the turnstile. The teenage hitchhiker doesn’t have a goal either, a little blonde visiting this movie from Dallas. Then she’s moving to Los Angeles to study with a world-famous sculptor. She sticks her thumb out on the way to receive it all. Finally, the homicidal maniac I’ve been waiting for ever since the previews. She smashes him in the face with a piece of art, it is large and lumpy. The terrified murderer lets her out and screeches down the highway.
I could have stabbed him with my fountain pen.
Lizzie feels all extraordinary calm at the moment of theft. Outside a jeweler’s window, she doesn’t think she will steal. No sooner does she get inside than she’s sure she’ll come out with a jewel: a ring or handcuffs. This certainty is expressed by a long shudder which leaves her motionless.
Breaking her diet with a huge slice of German chocolate cake, Lizzie asks, “Doesn’t the word ‘complicity’ sound like a woman’s name.” I smile and steal a bite.
Catalogue of Ancestors
1969. The summer I graduated from high school. The Calumet Region, affectionately called “Da Region” in gangster movies, Al Capone was its most famous resident, my father’s hero. Officially Northern Indiana but really a blue-collar suburb of Chicago on the Kennedy, you can drive to the Loop in half an hour. 1969, the summer of Ralph.
Ralph had the same strawberry blonde hair, the same green eyes, pale rosy complexion. We were inseparable and everybody thought he was my brother.
I should say Ralph and Nance and I were inseparable. Nance, straight brown hair and wire rims, so skinny, lived down the street. She was my lover in high school and college. Really we’d been doing it since we were eleven, but it had only been a year since we quit pretending to be asleep.
7. The back of a director’s chair, brown. I lost mine when moving. Lizzie walks up to a display chair, wriggles off the back and opens her sweatered armpit.
Summer at home — sheer endurance, hanging around the house, sticky and irritable. Just breathing the air was equivalent to smoking seven cigarettes a day. Ralph and Nance and I together, not love, a matter of sanity.
From the beginning we pooled our resources. Nance and I fried hamburgers at minimum wage, she at Nifty Burgers and I at A&W. Ralph wrote bad checks, supplemented by shoplifting. We worked well together. Nance and I would pay for Ralph’s movie, afterward he’d write a check for pizza. Nance and I would buy a package of buns, Ralph stuck the ground beef down his pants.
Suddenly Kroger’s and Sears became exciting.
Lizzie went to high school on Chicago’s South Side during the Martin Luther King riots. Black girls carried scissors in their purses eager for a lock of blonde hair to show off, like a scalp. Every bathroom was a war zone. Lizzie smiles over her burrito, “That was one time I was glad to be brown.”
His mother was a breeder, Ralph had four sisters and a brother, all red heads. His older sister kept a list of the men she slept with, beside each name was a date and rating. Apparently this catalogue filled several pages. His parents were divorced, the m0ther an alcoholic who cussed in a Southern accent. She had sex on the living room couch, the same one the twins peed on.
Instead of lemonade, Lizzie and her sister sold used Mexican lottery cards for a penny a piece.
A year of college under his belt and therefore world-wise, Ralph was plotting our corruption. He majored in French, so we started with Genet and de Sade. The three of us in cut-offs, sweating like crazy despite the fan. Nance and I sprawled across the floral bedspread, Ralph at my French Provincial desk, Simon and Garfunkel above his head. He reads out loud:
Ah, dear Eugenie, did you but know how delicate is one’s enjoyment when a heavy prick fills the behind, when, driven to the balls, it flutters there, palpitating; and then, withdrawn to the foreskin, it hesitates, and returns, plunges in again, up to the hair! No, no, in the wide world there is no pleasure to rival this one: ‘tis the delight of philosophers, that of heroes, it would be that of the gods were not the parts used in this heavenly conjugation the only gods we on earth should reverence!
Ralph lays the book down and licks his lips, “Well what do you two think of that?” “Wow, Ralph, it’s really neat.”
8. One clear plastic purse studded with rhinestones. Courtesy of the toy department at Thrift Town. I keep my little plastic animals in it.
In grade school Lizzie and her sister would shine a flashlight on the wall, pretending they were at the drive-in. Then they’d put a plastic bag between their mouths and practice making out.
Needing petty cash, Ralph stole a can of Lemon Pledge from the corner Walgreen’s. Then he forged his mother’s signature to a note requesting a refund. Half an hour later his little sister was back with the money.
At the same Walgreen’s they posted a list of all the people who had written bad checks. When Ralph’s name appeared for all the neighbors to see, his mother nearly went insane with rage. Then she found the letter where he admitted being gay, he hadn’t even told his college girl friend yet, and his mother kicked him out. That’s how he started sleeping in Nance’s Hungarian grandmother’s basement for $25 a month.
Nance and I had never talked to a gay person before. Except the high-school teachers, but they were always pretending. I couldn’t deal with the women, the thought of growing up stiff and contained with a short ugly haircut was pure terror. Not for Nance, who fell in love with Judy Garland in kindergarten, she was looking forward to being a middle-aged dyke. She still is, except she teaches graduate school. It was easier with the men, I didn’t have to become one. Especially my senior English teacher, it was rumored that in college he got down on all fours and howled at the full moon. I liked that.
9. A green vinyl footstool, rectangular with four buttons on top. The landlord had stored it in Lizzie’s garage for a yard sale.
Ralph told us homosexuals wore mascara and picked each other up in cars. Then he described various sexual acts, using as many Latin names as possible. Nance and I had already tried a couple.
The further I progress, reducing to order what my past life suggests, and the more I persist in the rigor of composition the more do I feel myself hardening in my will to utilize, for virtuous ends, my former hardships. I feel their power.
When Lizzie was in the hospital, her sister slept with Lizzie’s boyfriend. Not buying, not receiving. Taking.
Sitting on the front porch petting the dachshund, Ralph said, “You’ve got to go to college, it’s your only way out.” He made it sound great — drugs and parties and cutting classes.
And it was great. For all those reasons. But what a waste, after four years I graduated with honors and no idea how to support myself. My mother paid for it with kitchen work, mopping floors.
Really it was no big deal. Nance and I had been having sex for seven years but technically we were virgins. Ralph was available. The day Nance’s parents left on vacation we got drunk on sloe gin, spilling it all over the new kitchen cabinets. Whenever I hear the Beatles’ White Album it all comes back. It was sickly sweet and red and sticky.
Climbing into Nance’s bed, Ralph gave a brief lecture on penis size, then demonstrated. What I remember most is laughter: we knew this was a ridiculous situation.
We never did it again, and communal living continued as usual.
Sears will replace your paint if it doesn’t cover. Lizzie and her sister want to do their bedroom, they buy half the amount needed, then take back the empty cans and complain about the pink showing through.
Ralph had been writing bad checks for two years, on three different accounts. He kept detailed records, could tell you to the penny how many thousands he owed. He seemed to actually enjoy reading all the threatening mail.
I stupidly told my mother about our financial arrangement. “How can you eat that pizza, knowing it was paid for with a bad check?” My mouth full of mushroom and pepperoni.
We knew we were perverts so we wallowed in it.
Ralph didn’t give us any warning. One day he gave the grandmother a rent check and disappeared. Nance and I were pissed. When it bounced, we received the full brunt of her Eastern European Immigrant fury.
The last I heard of Ralph he was living in Indianapolis and had changed his name to Lee.
My personal weakness is sales. That’s why I love Macys — you can live your whole life through sales. All it takes is patience and the Sunday paper. You can buy it or visit one of San Francisco’s many coffee houses Sunday afternoon. There is always a copy of Macys California lying around.
50% OFF CUBIC ZIRCONIUM — SWIVEL INTO G.E.’S 25” REMOTE COLOR CONSOLE AND SAVE — COSMIC HEART WITH PEARL, REG. 100.00, SALE 67.00 — YOUR CHOICE $12-25% OFF SELECTED LEOTARDS IN COMFY COTTON / SPANDEX BLEND
I had to wait three months for my red leather gloves, but it was worth it.
Every teak item is half price except the wine rack Lizzie wants, so she peels a $20 pink sticker off a cheese saver and puts it on a wine rack. After paying, she uses the same sticker to buy another. Later both are returned to the Macys in Sonoma at a $40 profit.
Fire Hose is sitting at the kitchen table when we get home, he doesn’t know about any of this. I say, “You should see the wine rack Lizzie just got, it was a real steal.” She squints her eyes and hits me.
I take Lizzie to Old Wives Tales, figuring feminist books can only do her good. She whispers, “Let’s get out of here, I can’t stand all these words.” “Lizzie, these books were written for you.” “No they weren’t, they make me feel stupid.” So we drive to Thrift Town instead.
10. One full slip, non-cling apricot with minimal lace. A pink $4.99 sticker superimposed over the $22 tag.
Adrian, a friend of mine from work, tall, blonde, well mannered, his father the vice president of a bank, far too antiseptic for my taste. Lizzie sees him at my kitchen table and is so attracted she runs into the bedroom. I follow. “What’s the matter?” “He’s so clean I feel like a cockroach.”
It’s the same with stealing — a touch of the magic wand and bam! she’s a cockroach from 18th and Blue Island.
Lizzie has never slept with a Latino man.
11. One blue rolling ball pen. When I find mine in her purse, she pockets me a new one.
SAVE $10 ON THE ROYAL WITH FAST ONE-STEP ERROR CORRECTION
Church Street Station, Dos Equis in the food section, Dan in his pale skin and weathered leather jacket that once was brown. He used to steal food and books. I ask, “Did you need those things?” “Of course.” “I mean, could you have gotten them otherwise?” “No.” I lean back, shake my head, “That’s not the same as doing it for sport.”
Dan won’t be that easily defeated. He pushes aside his glass and takes a drink from the bottle. He once knew a man who only wore white T-shirts. Whenever they got dirty, the man’d just go out and steal some more. That reminds me of Jerome, he does the same thing with thrift stores. Whenever his shirts get dirty, Jerome says, “It’s time to do the laundry,” and heads for the Salvation Army to buy a couple clean ones.
Dan is surprised, says he’s seen Jerome in some pretty nice shirts. But he’s holding his mouth that funny way, staring intently. This means Dan is thinking “Another Superficial Conversation.” Soon he’ll try to change the subject to something like structuralist literary theory. So I hold on to Jerome’s clothes, innocently ask, “Don’t you think that sometimes he could be a bit more choosey?”
A cockroach from 18th and Blue Island crawled out of Macys with a $20 pepper mill on her back.
Writing about his job as a sheet metal worker, Dan uses “synchronicity,” “semiotic,” “metaphorical level of exchange.” I say, “Why the big words? You trying to sound smart or something?” He looks down the subway stairs then back at me. “I want to use a vocabulary I’m not even supposed to own.”
PRO-MAGNALITE 11-pc. SET SALE $190 WITH BONUS
Taking out my Fast Pass I said, “ Dan, that’s a good story, I think I’ll put it in my piece.” He smiled, so I guess it’s okay. I wouldn’t want to be accused of stealing his life.
To me a friend is someone who raids my refrigerator without asking.
Imagine a roommate who marks an X on every egg.
Any tag with a green slash through it is half off. Lizzie immediately goes out and gets a matching green marker.
She finds a copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in my study, the light is on all night. Over coffee and scrambled eggs, a T-shirted Lizzie, no make-up: “Winnie, I am Gregor Samsa.”
Three of the men I know are reading Derrida but none of them understand him. They admit this to me, not one another. Each time I hear the story my response is the same, “Don’t you think that’s part of his appeal, that he’s incomprehensible?” Dan’s the only one who sees my point.
Knowledge — something to be locked up? The only way to get it is like Dan, to steal.
Gregor Samsa crawled out of Thrift Town with a clear plastic purse on his back, it was studded with rhinestones and sparkled.
Lizzie wants to write a piece on shoplifting, to get it out of her system. I volunteer to help, suggesting scattered paragraphs, each one small enough to fit in your pocket, and nobody sure where anything comes from:
If I am accused of using theatrical props as fun fairs, prisons, flowers, sacrilegious pickings, stations, frontiers, opium, sailors, harbors, urinals, funerals, cheap hotel rooms, of creating mediocre melodramas and confusing poetry with cheap local color, what can I answer?
How much are you willing to put out for this?
$22.50 RAVIOLI HEAD
Lizzie has never talked to Dan, but she saw him once at my reading last summer. Afterward, driving down Valencia, she exclaims, “How can you control yourself around him, he’s so attractive.” “You don’t know him, it’s easy.” Then I add, “He lived with a Mexican woman for eight years.” Lizzie switches on the turn signal and for a moment looks hopeful.
No work for over a month, I think twice about buying a burrito. Lizzie has gone back to Sonoma. After two days with her I could own anything. Old Wives Tales, a new book on female psychology, $16.95. They are so trusting here, so easy to slip it in my bag. How did this thought slip past my censor? Ripping off a feminist book store and me a woman writer, there could be nothing worse. I leave immediately, not trusting my hands, my mind.
FREE KNIFE SHARPENING
The atmosphere of the planet Uranus appears to be so heavy that the ferns there are creepers; the animals drag along, crushed by the weight of the gases. I want to mingle with these humiliated creatures which are always on their bellies. If metempsychosis should grant me a new dwelling place, I choose that forlorn plane, I inhabit it with the convicts of my race.
When I pay full price for something I feel defeated.
Lizzie gives her homeopath $80 for a kleptomania remedy. She just takes this white powder and avoids coffee and sugar for the next three months.
12. One Chemex coffee maker, four-cup capacity. This one’s disputable. A month ago in Cost Plus she remarked how easily it would fit into her purse. When I get it for my birthday I ask if she bought it. Lizzie turns her back to me and chops onions, “Yes.” “Come on, don’t lie to me.” “Winnie, leave me alone.”