~This story originally appeared in Missouri Review (1988).
Thief wonders if it will rain. The smell of it fills the air. Miles to the west, beyond the town limits, a line of black full-bellied clouds moves into the valley. He stands up to look at them from where he is working on his mother's roof. Two blue jays flap angrily around him, swooping and scolding. Thief is trimming branches from the tree where they have their nest.
"Yes, I see it," he says, waving his arms to drive them off.
The branches are low. If there is an ice storm this winter, the weight will pull them even lower until they scrape the shingles. They could put a hole in the roof. Thief has cut six branches from this tree and another dozen from other trees that surround the house.
He has also caulked the flashing around his mother's chimney, and cleaned the debris—dead leaves, maple seeds, twigs—from the gutters. Some of the seeds had sprouted in the decaying leaves. Thief pulled them out, tiny trees with three or four leaves and thin white hairs for roots.
He used eighteen trash bags to collect it all. As he filled each, he tied it closed, and threw it off the roof. Some split when they hit the ground.
He's been at work for three hours and has another hour to go, if the light holds. It's 5:30. He still wants to weed the flowerbeds on either side of the front porch. The statue of the Virgin in one of the beds is dirty, covered with cobwebs.
Thief has tried to take better care of his mother since his father died six months ago. He works around her house every Saturday, mowing the lawn, fixing leaking faucets, painting rooms, laying new tile in the bathroom. He's told her she should sell the house and, even though she says she won't, he wants it ready to put on the market. It is too large for one woman. There are four bedrooms. Two and a half baths. Thief thinks of how the house will look in the shorthand of the real estate ad: W of O'ville. 2-story. 4 br. 2 ½ b. fin bsmt. amenities..
The amenities are a new dishwasher, a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer with an icemaker and a cold-water tap, a new gas stove. Thief gave them to her from his hardware store.
His mother never uses them. She doesn't cook at home. All she keeps in the refrigerator is milk for her cat and a few beers for Thief. She likes her meals out, she says; she doesn't like eating alone.
Last month, she was in the McDonalds near the highway when Thief came in with two of the teenaged boys who worked in his store. They were going off to college and Thief was buying them lunch. He was going to give them each a hundred dollars.
His mother was in one of the plastic booths, hunched over her food, her back to the door. A Big Mac wrapper was on the table and she was drinking a large soda.
Thief put his arms around the two boys. "I don't know what I was thinking," he said. "We don't want to eat this crap." They had lunch at the Hyatt in St. Martinsville, eighteen miles outside of town.
He throws the last trash bag from the roof, aiming for the lawn, hoping the grass will soften the fall. The bag hits the front walk and breaks open. Leaves and dust fly out of the split plastic.
Thief climbs down from the roof, folds the ladder and carries it to the shed in the backyard. After the shed is locked, he remembers he left the box of trash bags on the roof. He doesn't want to take out the ladder again. He'll have to go into the kitchen to look for more.
There is a girl in his mother's front yard, bent over one of the trash bags, scooping the leaves and twigs into a neat pile in the center of the plastic. Thief doesn't know her. She is seventeen, maybe sixteen, very tall and skinny. Her T-shirt looks as if it belongs to her father. Harvard, it says. The sleeves fall to her elbows. Her blond hair is short, cut like the Beatles in 1964. Her jeans are too small, showing pale ankles and part of her calves.
"Hey, Thief," she says.
"Hey," he says.
She moves the toe of her sneaker in the pile she made, and looks down at it.
"What's going on?" Thief asks. Maybe she goes to school with his son.
"I came by to help you out." Her chest is flat as a boy's.
"I got to go inside to find some more trash bags," he says.
The girl follows him. "I need something to drink," she says. "And do you have any crackers or anything? Cookies?"
Thief hesitates in the front hall for a moment. If his mother comes home, what would she think about this girl being in the house with him? Once Thief was on the couch with a girl, their shirts off. His mother yelled at them to get out. The girl sat up quickly, covered herself with Thief's shirt, and ran out. Thief went after her, but his mother grabbed his arm. Not so fast, mister.
But it's Saturday. She won't be home for hours.
In the kitchen, Thief pokes into drawers and cupboards looking for trash bags. The girl opens the pantry and takes down a package of Oreo's. She splits the cookie in half, scrapes the icing off with one finger and puts the finger into her mouth. "Just how old are these cookies?" she asks. "God, I hope there's no maggots or anything." She takes three or four more and lays the package onto the counter. Thief picks it up, folds the cellophane closed, and returns it to the pantry.
What's your name?" he asks.
"Veronica Lake?" Thief asks.
"Who?" she says. "Saint Veronica. The one who gave her veil to Jesus when he was going to be crucified."
"How do you know me?" Thief asks. "Are you in school with Todd?"
"Everybody knows you."
"Oh, yeah?" Thief leans back against the sink. The girl is staring at him. He turns away, takes a glass from the cupboard, and draws a glass of water.
"My dad's got one of your pictures, signed. 'To Ray. All the best, Thief Kiley.'"
"Does he have it on the wall or something?"
"I found it in a box in the basement and took it. Do you know my dad?"
"Ray Curtiss. Raymond F. Curtiss. Junior. 'F' for Francis."
"No. I guess I don't know him. I used to sign a lot of pictures." He's surprised any of them are still around. He had a thousand of them, black-and-white posed shots of him stealing a base. It's been years. He doesn't want to think how many. He finishes the water, rinses the glass, dries it and puts it away. There is not a dish out of place in the kitchen. The Farberware shines from its rack over the stove.
"Gotta go," he says.
"Yeah," the girl says. She eats her last cookie and wipes her hands on the thighs of her jeans. "I need something to drink first." She cups her palm under the faucet and drinks from her hand. "Okay. I'm set," she says, turning off the water.
Outside, Thief locks the door and stands on the porch, jingling his keys in his hand. "I have to go into town. Thanks for offering to help, but I can't do any more until I get some trash bags. So—"
"You going into town? I gotta meet someone there."
"I'm going to Main and Chestnut."
"That's just where I need to go."
"Oh." He studies the girl for a minute. She is looking up into his face, folding and unfolding the hem of her T-shirt, showing a line of flesh pale as alabaster. She must never go outdoors.
"Okay," he says. "Gotta go."
He starts for his car but then decides to take his father's. He should run it through the car wash, have it waxed. Thief's is a brand new Buick and his father's is a four-year- old Lincoln. The Buick gleams in the daylight. Thief has had it a week and washed it once already. The Lincoln is covered with dust and leaves.
Like the house, his mother won't sell the car. Nor will she drive it. She lets it sit on the street where Thief's father kept it parked. It's a good car. She could get a lot for it. Only two-thousand miles on it. Leather upholstery. Power everything.
Thief gets in and starts it. The engine is rough. It dies once and he starts it again. Through the passenger window, he can see Ronnie's hips and flat belly. He flips the switch to unlock the door. When she gets in, he locks the doors and lets the engine run.
No one has even started the car in a long while. In the last few weeks of his father's life, Thief or his mother ran the engine for ten or fifteen minutes every day. His father asked about it. "Did you run my car today?" For maybe two weeks after the funeral, Thief's mother still went out to run the car every day and then did it every other day, and then every few days, and less and less frequently, until it has been maybe six or eight weeks since anyone has gotten into it.
Thief pushes the accelerator to the floor until the engine runs smoothly. The girl puts on her seat belt and reaches over to turn on the radio, a pop station out of Wheeling, West Virginia. Thief doesn't know the song, but the girl does. "Everyone Wang Chung tonight," she sings. "Everybody have fun."
What does that mean, "Everyone Wang Chung"?
Sometimes Thief runs ads on the station. "Hi, this is your old buddy Thief again and I've got a sale going on. Everything in the store's a steal." He wonders if one will come on while he's driving the girl into town.
She pushes the button to lower her window. "Neat," she says. "This your car?"
"Didn't think it was your type."
Thief pulls away from the curb. Leaves and seeds blow across the windshield from the hood. So dry, they click like insects flying into the glass. Some blows in through the girl's open window. She raises it and brushes the dirt off of herself and onto the seat and floor. Thief will have to vacuum.
"Can you stop at Main and Stella?" she asks.
"I guess." It's two blocks on the other side of his store.
In many of the yards on Thief's mother's street, people are raking leaves. One man is putting up storm windows even though it is only October.
"Who's Todd?" the girl asks.
"Todd. You asked if I went to school with Todd."
"He's my son."
"Where does he go?"
"Up at the high school. He's a freshman—sophomore."
"I'm a senior. I don't know him."
Thief turns onto the road that becomes Main Street inside the town limits.
"Where is he?" the girl asks.
"What do you mean?"
"Todd. Where is he when you're doing all this?"
"I guess he's with his mother."
"You're not married anymore."
Thief looks at her out of the corner of his eye. "No."
"I don't think that's really—" he says, but the girl interrupts him.
"I thought you were younger," she says.
"You know. A son in high school. My dad is forty-two."
"I'm thirty-four," Thief says.
"I guess that's not too old." She puts her window down again and stretches her arm outside the car, her hand cupped to catch the wind. "Why are you so uptight?"
"Uh huh," she says. She brings her hand back into the car and raises the window then lowers it and raises it again.
"You'll wear it out," Thief says. A pickup passes going the other direction. A hand waves. Thief honks and watches it in his mirror, unsure who it was.
"See? Uptight. You think, 'Oh God, who was that who saw me with this skinny girl?'"
"It's all right," she says.
Thief glances at her. She is looking out her window, pulling idly on a strand of her hair, wrapping it around a finger over and over again.
"Your dad go to Harvard?" he asks.
"My mom. She never finished or anything."
After a moment, the girl says, "It was my fault. I came along and that was that."
Thief looks at her.
She says, "Ha. Ha. Ha. Life is funny." Her tone is of someone reciting something from memory, like a line from a play.
"Ha. Ha. Ha. Life is funny. My mother always says that. Ha. Ha. Ha. She was real smart and got a Kiwanis scholarship and everything. But then she met Raymond F. Curtis, Junior, of Osterville, Ohio, and baby makes three. That was the end of Harvard. Then she decided that if she couldn't be good at school anymore, she would be good at being a mother and have lots of babies. But, after me, she couldn't have any more. So that's why she says it. Ha. Ha. Ha. Life is funny."
Thief is unsure what to say. "I should know your dad."
"It's not a big town. What's he do?"
"I don't know," she says, shrugging.
"You don't know?"
"There's your store!" she shouts, pointing, bouncing in her seat. One of Thief's high school boys is loading a fifty-pound sack of marble chips into the trunk of a woman's car. Thief passes without honking.
"Does it make a lot of money?" the girl asks.
"What kind of question is that?"
"Oh. Stop there. Stop there." The girl points to the lot of the Shell station next to the Catholic church. There is a car wash going on. A girl in shorts and a bikini top waves a hand-lettered sign at the curb, "FHA Car Wash—$5." Other girls yell, "Car wash! Car wash!" waving towels at the drivers who pass.
"Go over there," the girl says, putting her hand on Thief's shoulder. She waves to the girls.
Thief had planned to go to the automatic car wash behind his hardware, but he turns into the lot.
"Yea!" the girls shout, jumping up and down. One gives a kick like a cheerleader at a football game, her fist waving in the air.
When Thief stops the car, the cheerleader leaps onto the hood with a soapy sponge before he switches off the ignition. Another girl sprays her with a hose. She laughs and whips the sponge through the air, splashing white foam.
"Let's get out," Ronnie says, unlocking the doors. "Getting out," she yells. Thief pushes the button to raise her window, then pushes the buttons for the other three windows. He wants them tight so the upholstery doesn't get wet.
When he gets out, Ronnie is talking to three of the girls. She points at Thief and the girls laugh.
"Don't jump on the hood too hard," he tells the cheerleader. Ronnie and the three girls move beside the car. Ronnie loops her arm through his.
"This is Thief," she says. "Barbara, Mary, Cindy."
"You went out with my sister," one of them says. Thief doesn't remember whether she is Barbara, Mary or Cindy.
"Oh yeah. I thought you looked familiar. What's she doing?" he asks, not sure who her sister is.
"She's going to Ohio State. She wants to be a teacher."
Thief nods. "Yeah. That's right."
"Thief used to play baseball," Ronnie says.
"That was a long time ago," he says.
"For the St. Louis Cardinals," Ronnie says.
"Everybody knows about that," one of the girls says.
"It was only for a year," Thief says.
Ronnie grips Thief's arm tighter, pulling him closer. "We're going to the dance together," she says.
"What about Ronnie?" one of the girls asks.
"Oh, Ronnie," Ronnie says. She wrinkles her nose and curls her upper lip.
"I thought you were Ronnie," Thief says.
The girls laugh. "Her boyfriend is Ronnie, too," one says. "Ronnie and Ronnie. Isn't that cute?"
"We're not together anymore," Ronnie says.
"Since when?" one of the girls asks.
"Since I decided." Ronnie takes Thief's hand, squeezing it.
The cheerleader is cross-legged on the hood, making circles with the sponge. "It's really dirty," she says, when she sees Thief looking at her. "Five dollars—I don't know."
'I'll pay you ten," Thief says.
"You must be rich," she says.
"Come on," Ronnie says, pulling his hand, leading him away from the girls. "They're going to be a while."
"I have to get back to work pretty soon," Thief says, looking over his shoulder at the car. The leaves and bags are still scattered in his mother's yard; there is not much daylight left.
"I want to go in here," Ronnie says, pointing to the church.
"Isn't it closed?" Thief says.
"It's a church," she says, pulling open the door.
They stop for a minute in the vestibule. Thief's eyes adjust slowly to the darkness. It is a small church with only ten pews on either side of the nave. He and the girl are the only two people inside.
"You have to whisper," Ronnie says. She slips her hand from his and walks down the aisle. Thief has not been here since his father's funeral. And before that? Maybe his wedding, fourteen years ago. The church hasn't changed since he was a little boy. There are stained glass windows, rough, colored shards of glass pieced together, depicting nothing. Along the walls are the Stations of the Cross. Unpainted bas-relief plaster. Jesus is sentenced to die. Jesus falls the first time. Jesus falls the third time. Jesus dies.
In the front is the altar, bare except for the white cloth. On one side is the baptismal font with a ceramic dove suspended over it by wires, as though it is swooping over the water in the font. Next to that, tiered rows of candles burn in their red glass jars. Some churches have replaced candles with electric lights, but not this church. When Thief played for the Cardinals, his mother asked him to light a candle in every city he visited with the team. In Chicago, he put in a dollar and pushed a switch.
"Come here," the girl whispers, motioning with her finger. She points to one of the stations. "See? St. Veronica." A woman is on her knees, holding up a cloth to Jesus. "When he gives it back to her, his face is imprinted on it like a painting. They still have it somewhere. In a museum in the Vatican."
The girl catches Thief's hand again and leads him to the other stations, telling him about each one. At the last, she says, "Jesus is laid in the tomb," pronouncing the final "b."
When the men lowered Thief's father into the ground, Thief's mother turned her face away. She pressed it into Thief's shoulder. For the longest time, he did not know whether to put his arms around her or keep them at his side. When she took her face away, there were dark stains on the breast of his blue suit.
"I think it's time to go back," he whispers.
"They're not finished yet," she says. "Come here." She leads him to the front of the church. "I want to light a candle." She draws a long matchstick from the tray of sand in front of the candles and touches the match to a lit candle. There is a brief flash as the match catches. She lights two candles and slides the match into the sand again.
"Now you have to kneel and pray for somebody," she says. "And you have to put two dollars into the money box." She taps a small, slotted brass box hanging beneath the tray of sand. Thief slips two folded bills into it and kneels. The girl bows her head but then looks up at Thief until he bows his head and folds his hands.
This is crazy, he thinks. He wonders if someone will come in. Besides, whom should he pray for? This morning, his mother was still sleeping when he came to work at her house. He thought she would be awake, but she was in bed, asleep on her side, clutching her leather-bound bible like a child holds a stuffed bear. For a moment, he wondered if she was dead, but while he stood in the doorway, she let out a sigh and moved her hand until the bible was tucked under her chin. Thief left quietly so she wouldn't wake and find him watching her.
The girl stands.
"Ready?" Thief asks, getting up.
"I want to do one more thing." She takes Thief's hand again. "Come on."
Thief doesn't move. "No, I got to finish that job."
"Come on," the girl says, pulling lightly on his hand.
"Really," Thief says.
"Just one minute."
Thief looks down into her face. A strand of hair slides across her cheek. She tosses her head to flip the hair away.
"Okay, just a minute."
She squeezes his hand and leads him to the confessional at the back of the church.
"There's no priest in there," Thief says.
"It's all right." She leads Thief inside. The door closes behind them. It is a small space, smaller than what Thief remembers from when he was a boy. It is pitch black. Their breathing seems too loud.
"Kneel down," she whispers, tugging on his arm.
They are pressed side-by-side on the small kneeler. Thief's face is inches from the screened window through which the priest would listen. His eyes start to adjust. A small crucifix hangs on the wall in front of him, a tiny pewter Jesus fastened to a black cross. It is the same one he looked at when he was a boy waiting his turn, listening to the muffled drone of the priest and the penitent on the other side of the confessional. The priest would slide back the wooden door that covered the window. Bang. Bless me Father I have sinned my last confession was a week ago I disobeyed my parents eight times and used bad language twice and had impure thoughts five times. Terrible weight on a boy's soul, but nothing that could not be erased by three "Our Fathers," three "Hail Mary's," three "Glory Be's," and a good Act of Contrition.
For the first time, Thief notices the girl wears perfume, a musky, subtle odor unlike the over-sweet, candy perfumes the other high school girls wear. It seems the girl is leaning against him more than when they first knelt. Is he leaning closer to her?
There is a sound like muffled, distant thunder. "What was that?" he asks. Is it raining?
"Nothing." The girl slips her hand through his arm.
"I better get going," he says. He tries to stand, but the girl holds him down.
"I want to tell you something," she says.
"I want to tell you something." She is squeezing his upper arm hard. Outside the confessional, there is a slow and steady ticking. Is it rain on the roof?
"What?" he asks, settling back onto the kneeler.
"Ronnie and I come here sometimes. He likes it in here. In the dark, like this." She is squeezing his arm even tighter, making it sore.
"Did you know I'm still a virgin? Even my mom doesn't know that. She sent me to the doctor for the pill, and I take them. I have to, because she asks. 'Did you take your pill today?' She gets so serious, and she never asks when my dad is around. She wants me to go to Harvard."
Thief doesn't know what to say. How hard is the rain? The bags of leaves and twigs will be soaked when he gets back to his mother's house.
"Ronnie and I come in here and pretend we're dead. Out of the world— you know?"
Thief doesn't know, but he nods. Can she see that?
"We hold our breath so there is no sound in here at all. Do you want to do that?"
Thief is going to say, no, but he hears himself say, "Sure."
"Okay, when I count to three, hold your breath."
"One," the girl says. "Two. Three."
She inhales sharply. Thief puffs out his cheeks. He looks up at the crucifix and counts in his head. There is no sound except the ticking from outside. It is slow; too slow to be rain. He counts in time to the ticking. When he reaches fifteen, his head starts to feel light. The girl is not squeezing his arm as hard anymore. When he gets to thirty, her hand drops away. She sighs long and low and slumps away from him. There is a bump when she hits the wall.
Thief lets out his breath slowly. His head buzzes, but he takes the girl's arm and straightens her, bearing her weight against his side. After a moment, she coughs.
"Did you pass out, too?" she asks.
"Are you ready to go?"
"Yes." He starts to stand, but the girl grabs his wrist abruptly and pulls him closer to her. She kisses him quickly on his cheek.
"Now we better go," she says.
They stand, but the girl slumps against him. She giggles. "I'm still dizzy," she says.
Thief opens the door and they step out into the church. His mother is kneeling three pews up, turned around to look at them. In her right hand, laced through her fingers, is her rosary. The clicking was the beads against the pew.
Can she see well enough to know it is he? He steps back into the confessional.
"Come on," the girl says, taking his hand. Thief shakes her hand from his.
"Come on," she says again, holding the door for him. After a moment, she lets it close.
Thief does not know how long he waits, but when he comes out, no one is in the church. He stands just outside the confessional for a moment, wondering if his mother had seen him. He thinks of a word she uses: sacrilege. His cousins coming to Thief's father's funeral in jeans. A divorced and remarried teacher at the high school taking communion.
A 34-year-old man and a teenaged girl whispering together in a confessional.
It is quieter here than anywhere Thief has ever been. The silence seems to have substance; it floods his ears, roaring. He shakes his head to clear it.
As he leaves, something near the altar catches his eye. The ceramic dove is gone. The wires swing slightly, visible when the light takes them.
Outside it is dark and raining steadily. The girls are gone from the station lot. His father's car sits where he left it, but it is clean now, glinting under the yellow glow of the Shell sign.
Thief gets in and drives back to his mother's house. After he parks the car, he gets out and automatically flips the switch to lock the door. In the dome light, he sees something shining on the floor of the passenger side. The dove from the church.
He picks it up. It is light; its wing tips are thin as paper. He gets out of the car and shoves the door closed with his hip, remembering too late the keys are in the ignition. Holding the bird gently in one hand, he tries the door, knowing it is locked. He'll have to get the spare key from his mother.
The front door to the house is locked, but his mother keeps a key on the lip of the doorframe. Hugging the bird to his chest so that he doesn't drop it, he takes the key down. By the time he gets the door open, he is soaked, his shirt plastered to his back and chest. Water runs out of his hair and down his face and neck. It is cold on his skin.
"Mother?" he calls, but there is no answer. "Mother?"
If she is having dinner, it is a late one. He sees her talking with the priest, telling him what she saw: She heard them laughing, actually laughing.
In the living room, he sits in his father's chair, with the dove in his lap. He turns it to look at the face. It's amazing how good a job the artist did. Amazing.
He wonders how long he will have to wait for his mother to come home so he can get his keys out of the car and drive the bird back to the church. He wonders what she will say when she sees him with the bird on his lap. He wonders if, for the briefest of moments, she will think the bird is alive and only resting there.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
For a long while, I've been fascinated by a class of major leaguer called "the cup of coffee" player—men like my character here or the main character of my novel, The Might Have Been, who reach the major leagues but whose careers there last only long enough for a metaphorical "cup of coffee": a game, a week, a month. Reaching the major leagues at all is a terrific feat; I once read that roughly one out of every hundred kids who play high school baseball will ever reach the minor leagues and only one-tenth of those will ever spend even a moment in the major leagues. Then, to be good enough to get there but then end up not lasting but a moment seems sad or even tragic to me.
Over the last couple of decades, I've had the chance to research the lives and careers of players who were like my characters and to interview perhaps two dozen of them as well. Some of the players saw their brief time in the major leagues as a gift, appreciating the fact they got there at all. One of the players I talked with, Doug Clarey, who had four at bats in the major leagues in 1976, and hit a pinch hit game winning home run for his only hit, told me, "I had my moment in the sun, which very few people get. It was a tremendous privilege to be able to play up there."
Others had a difficult time letting go. One of the most poignant stories I've come across centers on a player named Glenn Gardner pitched 17 games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1945 but was back in the minor leagues the next season. He spent years more in the minor leagues, sinking to lower and lower levels until he ended up a player manager at a class C minor league team in New York State in his 30s. He died in his 40s; his death certificate cites cirrhosis as the cause; he was working as bartender. When I researched him in the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, I found in his file a letter his widow had written to the Hall of Fame not long after Gardner's death, asking, "I was wondering if I were entitled to any kind of benefits from the Hall of Fame which I certainly can use."
I have no idea if Gardner's disease, early death and obvious financial difficulties were a direct result of his chasing his dream of getting back to the major leagues, but the evidence conjured a certain kind of life for me.
Both in "Car Wash" and The Might Have Been, I was interested in exploring the question: "What do you do when you find out that you can't do what you dreamed you'd do? What do you do with your life when the dream ends, when it turns out that you can't forever be who you thought you were? What kind of life do you have then?"
ABOUT JOSEPH M. SCHUSTER
Joseph M. Schuster is the author of The Might Have Been (Ballantine Books, 2012). His short fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, Missouri Review, and The New Virginia Review, among other literary journals. He is a member of the faculty of Webster University in St. Louis, and is married and the father of five children.
Note: Joseph M. Schuster is a member of the Redux Editorial Board.
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