I’m not much of a thief. But to console myself during the five sad years of my marriage to the lately deceased Mike Deming, who gave me two beautiful children, I began to pilfer little things. Can’t rightly remember if he ever knew of this. Probably not since we had a bad habit of not speaking.
Born in Texas, Mike took a job up in Ossining, New York, home of “Sing Sing” Prison. We lived on the top of a two-story furnished dump, with a lumpy bed where we forgot how to make love. He worked as a counselor at a bad boy’s school, founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, while I worked as a secretary at aryknoll Missioners, founded by Jesus Christ. I was the only Jew on the premises.
It was like working in a castle, an old castle in Scotland, with its stone walls and ringing footsteps when you walked down the corridors. Father Meehan was my boss, a dour thick-jowled man who would come into the secretary’s pool and say, “Take a letter, Mrs. Deming.”
But my favorite was Father Morgan O’Hara, who looked like Richard Burton, but instead of being a drunk, he had manic-depression. When his psychosis hit, you’d find him out in the parking lot jotting down license plate numbers. He was trying to solve the mystery of the universe, the great pastime of all successful manic-depressives, myself included.
I was not yet into thievery. I was never one of those teenage girls who stole lipsticks at Woolworth or tucked stockings under her sweater in the department store, but when my eye alighted on a small wooden box in the secretary’s room at Maryknoll Missioners, I knew I must have it. It was empty except for a few unimportant index cards.
With every good idea or pregnancy, there is an incubation period. At nine o’clock sharp, I’d walk through the large wooden double doors – “Hello Sister Marcella,” I would say to the gatekeeper – then walk into the secretary pool where Inez, Ellen and I sat at adjacent desks. When they were on break, I would walk over to my wooden box, lift up the lid and see the pretty little brass hinges that held top and bottom together. The wood was dark with ingrained lines. Oak? Birch? Maple?
Clearly, though, if I took the box, which I must, I would need another one to replace it and insert the index cards into the new box, the index cards that no on ever looked at.
Even prison and seminary towns have a K-Mart. Back then, Walmart hadn’t spread like a fungus across the land. One night I suggested that Mike and I go shopping at the K-Mart. He took a green hand basket, in which he would choose some magazines – Sports Illustrated (what Texan wasn’t a sports fan?), Time, and a couple of mystery paperbacks. I rolled my cart into the Stationery Aisle and picked out a yellow-colored file box – made of hard plastic, not natural wood – and tucked a package of index cards inside for good measure. Then I went into the Ladies’ Wear Aisle and found a gold chain-link belt on the floor. It had no price tag on it so I clinked it on over my jeans.
I joined Mike in the book nook and picked out a Family Circle magazine for its recipes. One article I will never forget. A family of four lived in a nice split level with the requisite barbeque in the backyard but lived on $29 of food per week. For snacks, they ate cut-up green and red peppers. This included their two smiling children, who must have been the laughing-stock of their elementary school. On second thought, perhaps they were home-schooled.
At the cash register I yawned and placed my items on the revolving belt as I took out my red wallet from my pocketbook.
The yellow file box made it through with the pilfered index cards inside.
My chain-link belt felt suddenly heavy around my waist but the checker never noticed.
It was official. I was a thief.
Of course I felt guilty. I worked at a Catholic mission and had always followed the Second Commandment, Thou Shalt not Steal. It was wrong, very wrong, but I let it slip by as easily as clouds in the Ossining sky. At work I replaced the beautiful old wooden file box with the newer uglier one. The fake one.
I was ecstatic. If you look in my kitchen today, some forty years later, you will see both yellow plastic box – I bought a new one for memory’s sake – and the brown wooden box on my white Ikea kitchen shelf. Recipes of all kinds are held in the tough yellow plastic box – my whole wheat challah, toffee-nut pear cake, and chicken divan – while phone numbers lie silently in the wooden box that is my only memory of Maryknoll Missioners.
Who knows about these stolen items? Not a soul.
I’m fond of saying I steal nothing today but men’s hearts, which is sort of true. I did leave Mike and am sorry he died of heart failure three years ago. He was a good man.
The only thing I steal now – and I am rabid about this – are paper napkins.
Should you care to pursue this harmless charade, there are rules you must follow.
Steal only napkins that the waitress will throw away when she cleans your table. Say, you’re eating at the Bonnet Lane Diner and you ask for extra napkins since you’re having the Spaghetti Special. After the meal, you find there is a tiny pile of leftovers.
Slip them into your purse and then transfer to your glove compartment to use for writing poetry, blowing your nose, wiping coffee spills or to wipe away bird doo on the outside of your car. The doo must be wiped off within a day of its deposit or else its acidity will eat into the car.
At the Dunkin’ Donuts, it’s okay to take a few extra napkins with your coffee. But only a few extra. Believe me, these serviettes will add up, and you’ll have trouble closing your glove box.
A word of caution. Not every napkin will do. Some have a vile smell due to printer’s ink. Subway napkins do indeed smell like the inside of a Philadelphia subway. Chick Fillet’s smell like gasoline.
Now go out into the world and capture your napkin passion. As for me, I no longer use paper napkins at home. I asked my ninety-year-old mother, who has been downsizing her home for the past forty years, to part with some of her fine dinner napkins.
Come over for vegetarian chili one night and you’ll put the pretty pink linen napkin in your lap. And, of course, I’ll show you my Maryknoll Missioners wooden box if you promise not to tell anyone about it.
Ruth Z. Deming, a psychotherapist and winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, writes poetry and prose from her home in Willow Grove, PA, suburban Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in publications such as Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Hektoen International. A mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people and families affected by depression and bipolar disorder.
Featured image courtesy of Robert Taleghany.