Do Your Christmas Shoplifting Early ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
It was that time of year again and shoppers were packed into Dingle’s Department Store. An amazing profusion of tinsel and frippery, fake poinsettias and plastic snowmen, adorned every surface and hung from the ceilings. Cheerful holiday music blatted from loudspeakers. Children misbehaved, forgotten for the moment as their mothers and fathers focused their attention on the merchandise at hand. Sales clerks tried to smile but their smiles became more and more strained as the season wore on.
Out of the crowd emerged a girl named Geraldine Carew. She was a girl like many others, wearing a dark wool coat with a white faux-fur collar and an angora knit hat dyed red and green pulled down almost to her eyebrows. Her cheeks were red and round. Her appearance was, on the whole, a wholesome one. She didn’t look capable of committing any offense against God or man.
Geraldine Carew carried a shopping bag, weighted down with some towels she had bought for her mother. As she approached a display of ladies’ gloves laid out on a circular table, she placed her shopping bag strategically under the table and pushed a pair of gloves off the table into the bag. She then picked up a couple more pairs of gloves and examined them, trying on one pair to avert any suspicion, and then she picked up her bag and moved on.
On the end of a glass counter in the jewelry department was a display of earrings. She picked out three pairs and placed them in a row on the edge of the counter and bent over and looked at them, as if trying to decide which pair to buy. When she was sure nobody was looking, she flicked one pair off the counter into her bag and placed the others back where she had found them.
Coming to a display of moderately priced men’s wristwatches (the more expensive ones were locked inside the glass case), she stopped and began looking at them. She picked one up, put it back and picked up another. When a saleslady asked if she needed any help, she pretended to be deaf. After she had examined a dozen or so of the watches, she dropped the one she liked best into her bag.
In the book department she found a small volume of Keats, Shelley and Byron with a leather cover that was very rich looking. When the male clerk moved away to assist another customer, she dropped the book onto the floor, where it conveniently landed in her bag. She smiled at how easy it all was and took her bag and moved on.
A guitar pick found its way into her bag in the music department; in housewares, a small pair of salt and pepper shakers and an olive fork; in notions, a spool of thread and a package of needles. Finally, she had everything she came for and was ready to leave.
She made her way to the Twelfth Street exit, where people were in line to get in and to get out. She waited patiently and when her turn came she spun herself happily through the revolving doors, welcoming the cold blast of air on her face.
She had gone no more than half a block when she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder. Startled, she turned around and saw a tall woman with bright red hair like a clown’s and a pockmarked face (a face out of a nightmare) looking angrily at her.
“I think you forgot to pay for some things, didn’t you?” the woman said. “You’ll have to come with me.”
She considered running but believed the woman was equal to anything and might even carry a gun, so she went with her.
The woman took her upstairs to the part of the store where the offices were and shut her up in a small room with three plastic chairs and nothing else. After the woman had gone away again, she tried to open the door but found it locked. All she could do was wait and see what was going to happen.
In a little while a man came and got her and took her into an office where he sat her down in a chair facing a desk. He wore a dark suit and had a mustache that almost seemed to be drawn on as if he was on his way to act in a play. He looked at her and then sat down behind the desk and cleared his throat.
“I’m Mr. Pfeffer,” he said. “Head of store security. And what is your name?”
“Pearl Watson,” she said.
“Well, Pearl Watson, if that really is your name, don’t you know that shoplifting is a very serious offense?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He gave her a sad smile that drew his lips out to a narrow line and produced her shopping bag from the underneath the desk and began taking the things out and setting them beside the bag.
“If you can show me sales slips for these items, then we’ve made a terrible mistake.”
“I never keep sales slips,” she said. “I always throw them away.”
“So you had sales slips but didn’t keep them?”
“You should always keep sales slips. You never know when you’re going to have to return something.”
“It’s never been a problem until now.”
“What if I told you I think you never had sales slips for these things but that you stole them? What would you say to that?”
“It’s a lie,” she said.
“Do you want to end up in jail?”
“I didn’t do anything!”
“If your mother could see you now, don’t you think she would be very ashamed of you?”
“I don’t have a mother. She’s dead.”
He stood up and went around the desk toward her. She thought for a moment he was going to strike her but instead he grabbed her purse and opened it and dumped it out on the desk.
“Hey, you can’t do that!” she said.
The only things in the purse were some old chewing gum, a comb and lipstick, some balled-up Kleenex, a tiny mirror, a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes and a book of matches, a rabbit’s foot on a keychain with no keys, two movie-ticket stubs, a coin purse with two dollars and eighteen cents in it, and a ballpoint pen that didn’t write.
“You have no identification,” he said.
“Is that a crime?”
“I can’t even confirm that you are who you say you are.”
“That’s your tough luck.”
He put his hands on his hips, rubbed his chin, and then, quite unexpectedly, went out of the room. A full five minutes passed before another man came in and sat down at the desk. He was a different type of man than the first one, more the bullying type. He had sparse red hair and mean eyes. His voice was gruff when he spoke.
“Shoplifter, huh?’ he said.
She didn’t even bother denying it this time.
“If it was me,” he said, “I would just handcuff all you thieves to a post out in front of the store, no matter the weather, and put a sign on you that says, ‘This is what will happen to you if you steal from this store!’.”
“I think that’s punishment without due process,” she said.
“Shut up! If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.”
“Can I go home now?”
“Hah! We called the police and they’re coming to pick you up. They’ll handcuff you, take you downtown, fingerprint you, and throw you into a cell with a lot of dangerous criminals. It’s going to be a long time before you go home again. I hope you got yourself a good lawyer. Hah-hah-hah!”
“Where’s that other man?” she asked. Suddenly he seemed a very fine gentleman compared to this one.
“Mr. Pfeffer? He was called away on an emergency. I’m in charge when he’s not here.”
“I want to call my father.”
“You’re not calling anybody!”
She sniffled a little and rubbed her eyes, wishing she could make herself invisible and steal herself away just as she had done with the watch, gloves, and other things.
“Of course, there might be a way out of this,” he said.
“You could pay the fine to me, sign an agreement stating that you will never come into Dingle’s again, and we could let you go without getting the police involved.”
“How much is the fine?”
“Two hundred and fifty dollars.”
“I don’t have that much!”
“Surely your father would pay it for you if you asked him.”
“I don’t want him to know about this. I’d rather go to jail. I’d rather die.”
“Well, you certainly are in a fix, then, aren’t you? I hate to see a person as young as you are go to jail. ”
“Maybe we could work something out,” she said.
“I could work in the store without pay until the fine is paid. I could work in the toy department or any department! I’ll do anything to keep from going to jail!”
“Well, I don’t know. I’ll have to go ask the big boss about that. I don’t think it’s ever been done before.”
“Will you go and ask him for me now, please?”
He gave a much-put-upon sigh, stood up from the desk, and went out of the room, slamming the door shut.
She thought he would be back in a minute or two, but he didn’t come and didn’t come. After she had sat in the quiet little office with one window high above the street for a half-hour or more, she began to think she might be able to get away if she had the courage to try.
The door, to her surprise, was not locked. She opened it far enough to look both ways. She saw no one and heard nothing. Down at the end of the hallway, to the left about fifty feet, was a stairway. Fast, while she still had the chance, she put all the stuff back into the shopping bag, including the contents of her purse, and went out of the room, taking the bag with her and closing the door to the office as quietly as she could.
She made for the stairs on the balls of her feet, looking over her shoulder two times before she got there. She went down like a scared rabbit, careful not to fall head-fist.
All the way down the stairs she came to a door that opened onto an alleyway. She dodged around some trucks parked in the alley—she was sure she hadn’t been seen—and went around the building to the front of the store. She joined the flow of holiday shoppers on the sidewalk and soon it was as if she had never been there at all.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp