The first time I stole was in second grade. Our teacher, Mrs. Beamer, gave us silent reading after lunch recess, but I couldn’t read well, not like Logan Lee, who read big words— think “behemoth,” “colossal”—and he bragged he already read older kid books—Sarah Plain and Tall, Charlotte’s Web, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing— but his dad was the school principal, so why shouldn’t his son know how to read. I didn’t like him much. He called me Smelly Face, and since the name Logan sounded like “yogurt” to me, I called him Yogurt Head. Like I cared he could read.
Who needed books anyways? Books had few pictures and since the pictures were stuck between a bunch of words, they just didn’t do it for me. But then I found Hickory Farms holiday catalogue. When I reached into that bookshelf and discovered it—filled with pages of sausage links cut so the slices spilled off the log, and little jars of sauce, and cakes with pastel frosting, and baskets of bright fruit, honey hams, wheels of cheeses—I was in heaven.
At the time, I didn’t know the flavors, but I could imagine them as sticky-sweet, peppered tingles on my tongue. So, clap those hands, that’s when I learned how to read. The pictures and words finally made sense.
I started looking forward to silent reading time, ready to grab the catalogue from the shelf and disappear into Hickory Farms, a place filled with food and no people. I liked to picture this farm tucked away in the hills, a secret place where pears dripped off trees, oranges glowed through leaves, cows dotted the fields, and chickens scattered the grasses. A place where, somehow magically, foods popped forth. Every silent reading, I went there. Yet with summer coming, I’d no longer be in Mrs. Beamer’s class, and no longer be able to look at the Hickory Farms holiday catalogue.
Taking it seemed an obvious solution. First, I tried to slip the little catalogue in the back of my pants, but there was nothing to hold it in place. I didn’t wear undies—Ma said underwear was a waste on boys— and the catalogue slid out in front of Mrs. Beamer, but thankfully she was busy confiscating the WWF action figures Logan Lee brought. Did I mention, on top of being the ace reader of the class, he was also the kid with all the latest toys, including, as he liked to boast, a Super Nintendo at home. Secretly I wished he’d invite me over to play, but he never did.
But back to underwear. I needed to get some and guess who had a bunch of it: Ma. While she was out with one of her boyfriends, I snuck into her bedroom, a room of bent blinds and overloaded surfaces. Ma liked to keep everything: past knitting projects, spools of yarn, purses full of empty pill bottles, National Enquirer and Weekly World News magazines, a box fan here, a litter box there, Big Slurp cups everywhere, tons of clothes—she especially had a thing for jackets out of lost and found bins. “Just in case,” she liked to say.
I waded my way to Ma’s dresser drawers, full of lacy soft things. She kept them apart from her other things. She told me once that her undies were sacred, and she always wore undies unlike Auntie JoJo. Auntie JoJo, Ma said, didn’t wear underwear. Auntie Jojo also believed the government paid for her baby making. This was back in 1991 during the wave of welfare dependents, and people like my Auntie Jojo didn’t have the resources to get out of having children, but I’m getting off track.
Undies, yes, one strong enough to hold the Hickory Farms catalogue in place. I tried on lacey undies, stringy undies, sparkly undies, silky undies, all too big, but if I slipped through the leg holes of one very stringy pink pair, then it was tight enough around my waist like a rubber band, but small and hidden beneath my pants.
What risk! If Ma caught me, she’d take it another way. Also, if any of the kids at school found out I was trying on my Ma’s underwear, I’d be called mean names and not allowed to play tetherball or dodgeball at recess.
But for Hickory Farms holiday catalogue, I’d face the possible dangers. Who else to enjoy those well-taken photos, the foods so thoughtfully arranged on tables of candle and wreath, distant hills in the background?
I planned to tuck the undies, small and light, into my pants pocket, take them to school, and, during the lunch recess, slip them on in the bathroom. Then during silent reading, I’d tuck the catalogue in the band of undies, and throw my t-shirt, originally my older brother’s, over it.
At this part of the story, I’m often asked why I didn’t just have a backpack or lunch pail to easily slip the catalogue in. Well, I did have a bag with colorful zigzag lines stitched in it that Ma had given me. She said it was a special bag, one made of leather, a strong material, and that the bag had traveled all the way from Mexico. I took pride in that bag, except one day at school Michelle Davies had stolen Mrs. Beamer’s wallet from her desk and all our packs and bags were searched. It happened to be Burger Day at the school cafeteria—which was on a special program where lunches were free—and none of the kids liked Burger Day, saying the burgers tasted like “rat butt.” Except I didn’t think so. Everyone ended up giving me their burgers, and I stashed them, not one, nor two, but five burgers in my leather bag, for later meals. Yet, when the principal, searching for Mrs. Beamer’s wallet, pulled out the burgers, she looked at me all sad-like and quizzed me, “Why’re these burgers in your bag?”
I stammered and couldn’t speak. Explaining that all the kids, but me, thought the burgers were “rat butt” felt a dumb thing to say.
While I didn’t get in trouble, Ma did. She came home crying, asking me why’d I take all those burgers? I didn’t like to see Ma cry. The world seemed to end when grown-ups cry. She hugged me tight, and I let her, this time not wriggling away and saying I was too old for hugs. She told me if I took food from the school cafeteria again, bad people would come to our home and take me away, how they did my older brother, before he moved with his dad. I imagined people in lab coats. From then on, I stuffed myself with cafeteria food only at lunch time and never brought my bag back to school.
And there it is: why I had to rely on Ma’s undies, bunched in my pocket as I walked to school on the morning of the Hickory Farms heist. Already I’d gotten away with taking Ma’s underwear, and this emboldened me.
Throughout the day, I rubbed my fingers along the underwear’s elastic strings safely tucked inside my pocket. We had a secret, a mission. Yet, after playing a palm-slapping round of tetherball against Logan Lee aka Yogurt Head during lunch, I reached into my pocket for the undies to find them missing! I frantically glanced about, but the tetherball court was clear of any pink stringy lingerie. No sight of them flung in the line of kids waiting to play tetherball next. What to do? Not about to ask anyone if they’d seen a pink thong.
A shrill whistle blew and then a loud, raspy voice, the type of voice that made you want to pee your pants, the voice of Ms. Sharon, the meanest yard duty teacher. She shouted, “Who here thinks it’s cute to bring these to school? Who here thinks it’s funny to throw these at my feet?”
She held up Ma’s pink undies dangling like a drowned mouse at the end of her ruler stick. My face went dizzy-hot, my legs noodle-limp. All playground action came to a standstill. Even the wind seemed to halt, and the birds quit chirping. A basketball bumbled across the blacktop. No one spoke, but there were several stifled giggles and some moans, “Gross, a thong,” and some of the older boys nudged each other, whispering, “Those your sister’s?” But no one dared confess, especially to Ms. Sharon, known to throw you in the detention center without a cause.
“Someone better speak up,” Ms. Sharon said. “Otherwise you’re all going to find yourselves staying after school until the culprit admits to this tasteless prank.”
All the kids were looking at each other, trying to guess whodunnit, the giggles over. This became serious and soon fingers pointed— “Logan, I saw him do it”; “no, I seen Allison wearing ‘em”; “shut up, those not mine”. The chorus of voices grew louder and more desperate while the undies hung limply from Ms. Sharon’s ever fearsome ruler.
I stayed quiet, staring at the hole in my sneaker and wouldn’t it be nice to have the power of invisibility, where I’d just walk up and pluck those undies off Ms. Sharon’s ruler and run away, the undies appearing to be carried off by the wind and so fast no one could catch them.
Ms. Sharon, evidently fed up with us children and our name-blame game, lowered her ruler, tore the undies from it and tucked them in her back pocket of her jeans, on full lecture mode—how she was ashamed of our behavior, our inability to tell the truth, oh, you bet she’d be writing us detention slips right and left—and while she ranted, we all rocked on the balls of our feet. Sure, I could’ve fessed up, saved everyone from detention after school, but I worried not only would I get in trouble but Ma too, and I didn’t want to see her cry, and I definitely didn’t want the bad people in those lab coats to come. Finally, the bell rang.
Undie-less and detention looming, I ran to class, but noticed my shoelace was untied, and when I bent down to tie my sneaker, the most brilliant idea came to me. I unthread the shoelace, and tied it around my waist, armed once again to take the Hickory Farms.
During silent reading, I searched the bookshelves but couldn’t find Hickory Farms, shoved away in its usual space in the corner. I flung books off the shelves. Mrs. Beamer, from her desk, frowned and said, “Hunter, you have one minute to pick a book and clean up that mess.”
“But, Mrs. Beamer, the book I want isn’t here,” I said.
“Someone else must be reading it today. Pick another one,” she said, pushing her glasses up her nose, and turning back to her paperwork.
I scoured the rows of desks, the books kids were reading, and then landed on none other than Yogurt Head with my Hickory Farms sprawled out on his desk. He wasn’t even looking at the pictures, instead fiddling with a toy car under his desk—a toy I later stole—and I walked over to him, yanking the Hickory Farms off his desk. He tried to grab the catalogue back, saying, “Let go, Smelly Face.”
And remembering what my older brother often said, I snapped, “Suck dick,” and added “Yogurt Head.”
Logan’s eyes went baby-wide. The whole class looked up from their silent reading, some gasping, some giggling, some looking clueless like they didn’t know what I said.
Mrs. Beamer looked up from her desk, sighing. “Hunter, those are not school words.”
With a groan, she pushed off her chair, and shuffled toward me, pointing to the time-out corner. I marched over and hunkered down, clutching the Hickory Farms catalogue so hard the pages bent.
“What’s going on with you today?” she asked. She took her glasses off and rubbed her eyes, looking more tired than mad. “Is there something you’d like to talk to me about?”
I shook my head, wishing I could hide. Usually a quiet boy, grown-ups assumed me a bit spacey, a little slow. Eventually I believed, yes, I lacked the brain power others around me had. Why couldn’t I read? Why did I get so easily distracted? Questions adults asked me, soon became my own questions.
Mrs. Beamer said I looked ill, and would I like to go to the nurse’s office?
I nodded because being sick always got me out of trouble. Nurse Peggy was called. She came to our classroom, took me to her office and examined me, finding the shoelace tied around my belly, which prompted her to asking me who did it, and I told her me, and she asked why.
“Because I felt like it,” I said. She pursed her lips, clicked her pen, took my blood pressure and my temperature and weighed me, clicked her pen once more. I began to feel I was in trouble again, that I’d done more wrong than I knew, and what if the lab coats found out. The whole time I was clutching the Hickory Farms holiday catalogue, and no one took it from me, so I didn’t dare say it wasn’t mine, especially since more questions were being asked, like, What did I usually eat for dinner? When was bedtime? Did I brush my teeth? All these questions were shutting me down; I didn’t know the right way to answer them. What answers did she want?
“I don’t have to talk to you,” I finally said.
Nurse Peggy, grandmotherly with white hair, spectacles and wrinkly hands, didn’t ask more. In fact, Nurse Peggy—after calling my Ma, who didn’t pick up, and then my Grams, who did pick up—had a brief talk with Grams when she came, which ended in cuss words on Grams part, something about don’t you say how to raise her grandbaby, he’s a fine, fine boy, taught to be mindful and eat his peas, why, the boy would eat leather if you asked him too, he’s that well-mannered. Such was what Grams said, but I spared the more sailor-like version. Grams grabbed my arm and told me as we walked out the door, “This town can be full of snobs. Your Ma, she tries hard, see, but people think it something else.”
All the way home, I gripped the Hickory Farms holiday orders catalogue. Applaud loudly. Victory, all mine. Once home, I ran to the gully that was behind the trailer park. I scrambled along a secret deer path weaving through blackberry bushes and pines on down to the pond, covered in a lawyer of green algae. At the edge of the pond, a little grove of bushes sheltering flat moss-covered boulders. I crawled under the bushes, and sat cross-legged on the moss, dried out and flaking due to the oncoming heat of the summer. The wind shifted triangular light through the branches and the woods seemed to sigh, finally, finally. At last I could look at my catalogue in peace. At last, here in my quiet space with the tilted shadows, the high-whine of mosquitos, the solo chirp of a cricket, I could allow myself to enter Hickory Farms, where all the foods grow, and are loaded in baskets, arranged on trays, displayed on large dinner tables for invisible families.
I laid out the Hickory Farms holiday catalogue on a rock and smoothed it out, rubbing away creases, bending back crumpled pages and flattening its cover, a photo of a honey ham with glistening, ribbed skin, the slices spilling over onto a gold platter. I’d memorized the order of the log. First the new additions, then the best sellers, next the holiday meats, the cheeses, the fruits, the sweets, then the gift baskets, boxes and tins and finally the items on sale. Drumroll! I opened the pages, and I’ll end here. I could go further, tell what happened to Ma, how Grams became my guardian, and how I started stealing headphones and Gameboys, even shoes and lunch boxes, later bikes, lawn furniture, keep going, and then there was juvie, then there was writing it down. But this story isn’t about all that, the real things outside of Hickory Farms. No, this is about me, under the bushes, looking at that holiday catalogue, finally something I owned.
J Saler Drees was born in and has lived all over California. Recent works have been published in Blue Lake Review, Hypertext, OxMag and RavensPerch. Forthcoming work can be found in Evening Street and Shooter Literary.