I can’t remember the last time I saw somebody wearing a trench coat in California. Not even in the middle of winter. Not in autumn. Not in Napa, California. But this man was wearing one. I watched him as he crossed my aisle. It was my second week working at Don’s Hardware Store. His footsteps were barely audible, but his trench coat was loud. I caught a glimpse of his face. His expression wasn’t furtive—in some strange way, he looked like a gentleman—and there was something vaguely familiar about his eyes. The rest was just a white oval, with a five o’clock shadow. That’s how I’d describe him to the police if it came to that.
Typically, when people wear extra clothing or backpacks into the store it’s a sure sign that shoplifting is about to occur. I kept my eye on him and caught a whiff of fresh cigarette smoke on his coat. I was in a bad mood that morning. Time ticks by and some of the minutes aren’t as sweet as the others. I was looking for a bit of revenge on the universe. Who better to receive it than a thief? Transference of anger—like when I’d met Carmen and she was abused by her ex-boyfriend, so I spent extra time and care on my paintings, to redirect. The solution to pollution is dilution. It works in relationships, too. But a psychoanalyst might tell me the reason was deeper.
The deeper reason is that when I was about eight my mom worked at a grocery store. It was a big box store in a nice, clean, brand-new plaza. The kind I’ve come to love like I love clean sheets, fresh milk, and my girlfriend. Mom worked in the frozen section and brought home half-melted ice cream bars every night.
One night she came home and her mascara streaked down her cheeks. She fell into my father’s arms. She had spotted a thief, as he exited the restroom with pockets full of products. When she tried to stop him, he pushed her to the ground, swearing at her as if she were the criminal.
I bet he wore a trench coat.
I began to tail the man, under the cover of the key cutting machine’s steady buzzing, as Jacob made a key for a customer. I felt my heartbeat quicken in my chest and I sniffed the air with my spike of adrenaline. An atmosphere of fresh wood from the lumber yard wafted across the top of the shelves. The smell of new boards being one of the main perks of the job. The only downsides of the job were the pay and the shoplifters.
Large wooden rat traps hung on a display at the end of the next aisle. I watched as the man slipped one into the deep side pocket of his trench coat. He didn’t know I was watching, but he looked back a moment after I’d ducked into the next aisle. I snuck upstairs and watched him on the cameras. I watched as he went through each aisle. He would steal one item and then grab another to bring to the front with him. Eventually, he couldn’t carry any more and he went to the register to make his purchase.
The manager of the store had taken off early that afternoon, so I clocked out without telling anybody. Then I grabbed my keys and went to my truck. I watched as the thief got into his car and started the engine. I started my truck and followed him out of the parking lot. My heartbeat accelerated. It was time to rob the thief.
I had to roll through two stop signs and run a red light to keep up with him. Finally, I made it to his neighborhood. Parked across the street, I saw him pull into his driveway and ascend his front steps. I waited ten minutes, watching and began to wonder exactly what I was doing there. Through my rearview mirror, I looked at myself in the eyes. My pupils were large in the dark blue circle of each iris. Inexplicably, my hair remained well combed, as if I were still back at the hardware store, peacefully stocking plumbing fittings. From the edge of its walnut layers, a bead of sweat streaked down my pale cheek. It dripped onto my sky-blue polo shirt, darkening the Don’s Hardware Store logo that lay over my heart.
What seemed like a great plan was starting to look like a waste of an afternoon. I should have been clocked in, making money. I took a deep breath and waited, trying to form a better strategy, but I drew a blank.
It was a nice neighborhood for a thief to live in. There were no potholes or cracks in the blacktop. It was a well-nurtured, quiet, tree-lined street. The houses were painted in their crisp, varying colors: barn red, diluted blueberry, and kale green. I cracked my window and listened to the rustling of the autumnal leaves. I took another deep breath and smelled their sweet decay. Winter would be here soon, then maybe there would be an excuse to wear a trench coat.
I stared at the house. It was a malignant tumor on the otherwise healthy body of the dignified neighborhood. I thought of robbing it with the thief inside. I imagined pummeling him to the ground and plundering his stockpile, but my hands shook and were unable to open my truck’s door. So, I made my decision: I couldn’t remove a tumor with these shaking hands. No surgery today. I made the responsible choice and drove back to work.
I clocked back in and pretended that nothing had happened.
I repeated to myself to forget all about it, but the next day the thief was back. He wore that abhorrent trench coat and he had those same, vaguely familiar eyes. This time I went straight to the cameras and watched his every move. Same routine: steal one thing, buy another.
My legs carried me down the steps and out the front door of the store. When I passed the time clock and punched out, it wasn’t my finger that hit the buttons—it was an arc of electricity from the lightning storm that was my nervous system. It was time to settle the score.
Following him to his house was easy this round. I kept my distance, driving like a DMV tester was in my passenger seat. It was my second day clocking out without permission; maybe I’d lose my job. In that case, I’d have to make sure I got my money’s worth out of the endeavor.
The thief pulled into his driveway, left his car running, fed his cat, and then drove away. Time marches on and some moments are lucky. This was one of those moments. It’s launch time. I told myself. I began counting down from ten, scanning the neighborhood for anybody who might be watching.
Finally, I opened my door and got out of my truck. I tried to shut the door quietly, even though the neighborhood looked empty. I assumed everybody was at work. Nevertheless, it closed like the sound of a gunshot. I knew it was all in my mind. Nobody was listening. It had barely made a noise.
As I scampered across the driveway to the front door, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was a mid-sized, healthy-looking, brown rat. We turned to each other and for all of my mind, I swear that he winked at me. Then he scampered too, all the way across the driveway and behind the garage. For some reason—probably fear, maybe instinct—I followed him. It was there that I found a well-groomed backyard of laser-cut grass and a spotless glass door. I tried the door. It slid open soundlessly.
Once inside, however, I found no trove of stolen goods, no piles of big-screen TVs still in their boxes, no stacks of 9v batteries ready to topple over, no trash bags full of unchewed bubble gum. It was just a normal, respectable house. It had chocolate-colored, custom wood cabinets, swirling green granite tile, and a cheesy, chrome alcohol cart. It looked like the house of an accountant, or a dentist. It wasn’t a thief’s house. I wondered for a moment if I had the right place.
Then I saw the wooden rat trap on the hutch. It was the same brand, the same product, the same one he had stolen. Its thick, ominous spring sat there waiting to be pulled back and baited. The mission re-focused in my mind. The thief deserved what he had dished out. So I zipped down the hall, searching for a master bedroom where I might find some valuables to make my trip worth it.
The giant clock ticked in the living room as I walked past, and I smelled the clean, heavy fragrance of fresh laundry coming from a small room off the hall. At the far end of the house, the master bedroom door was ajar. The room was dark inside, barely illuminated by the red angular shapes of an alarm clock’s harsh digits. I threw the light on and searched the bedside drawers that lay still next to a giant, unmade mattress. I found nothing, no thick envelope of cash, no polished antique pistol, no heirloom jewels in a velvet box. I found only earplugs, a TV remote, and a generic-looking paperback crime novel. Then I heard a sound, like something small, scratching. Had the thief let the cat inside? Was he home?
I ran into the hallway, hoping to escape outside to my truck.
That’s when I saw it. The rat from the driveway was scampering across the living room floor, enjoying the new domain afforded it by the sliding glass door I had left open.
Was that what I had heard? The sound had seemed louder than a rat, but something about the rat’s presence gave me courage. If he was brave enough to stick around, so was I.
I dashed back down the hall and tried another door. It opened into a smaller room, a dark office, that flooded in light when I pushed open the curtain, the cluttered desk waiting under the window like a trophy. There had to be something worthwhile here. There wasn’t. Bills, a wireless keyboard, a bottle of aspirin, an empty coffee mug, there was nothing on top of the desk worth anybody’s time.
Then I heard a different sound. A jingling and a hiss.
Was it keys in the front door? Couldn’t be. I figured it was just the sprinklers. It came from the backyard. But sprinklers usually come on at dawn, so that the sun won’t evaporate all the water. It was hours past dawn. Maybe somebody had turned them on manually, not realizing I was in here and that they should be calling the police—or beating me to a pulp. An image of the rat popped into my head. The fearless rat: sneaky, wise, cheese-loving. He wasn’t worried about sprinklers. He wasn’t even worried about the cops. I did have reason to be worried about the cops. I didn’t have reason to be worried about the sprinklers.
So, I continued my search.
But I found nothing.
Suddenly, the clock rang out. It burst forth with its persistent ding-dong as the swinging golden pendulum below it rocked back and forth in its teasing monotony. This place was an abyss for me, I had accepted the fact. Now all I could do was damage something or leave. I chose to do both.
The clock kept ringing and time was inching upward to hysteria in my mind, building a crescendo on the steady sound of the clock’s mindless mechanism. In those sweat-drenched moments, I feared I’d begin to share the rat’s more specific qualities: fur on my fingers and elongated teeth. I shook my head and searched on through the garage, hoping to find a hammer or a baseball bat.
What I found was a large, shiny crescent wrench. I was carrying it in a death grip as I realized what was happening to me. I was losing my hold on reality. I dropped it on the kitchen counter, then turned and left the house into the backyard.
Suddenly, I remembered my fingerprints. I had still committed a crime. I had to go wipe my paw marks. I couldn’t just leave them behind, like the droppings of a pest.
I ran into the master bedroom. I took off my shirt and wiped everything I touched. But the DNA? I thought. What about my fallen skin cells and all those stray hairs we are constantly losing? I began wiping the ground with my hands, trying to collect the fallen remains of my existence. I looked down at my hands. They were covered in lint. Suddenly, anxiety gripped me. It tugged and squeezed, pushing me onto my knees into a pile of broken flesh.
I had lost control.
In a moment, I regained a semblance of reason. Fight or flight, I thought. So, I ran. Down the hall, aiming for the sliding door. That’s when I saw him.
He stood straight ahead of me, in the middle of the living room, a well-used cast iron frying pan in his hand. His arm flexed and ready. I froze and the pendulum clock let out a resounding tick. A noise usually silent but for the situational high-tension wire that ran invisibly across the room, deadening the air.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I work at the hardware store,” I answered.
“How did you get in?”
I couldn’t speak. He pointed the pan at the couch. “Sit down,” he said.
I collapsed on shaking legs, leaning back against the cushions of the couch in defeat. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Cherokee. I’m a hardware store worker.”
“You said that. Why are you here?”
I was choked up mentally. For a second I forgot my reason for being there. I kept my mouth shut.
He squinted at me with those vaguely familiar eyes. “You didn’t answer me. Why are you here?”
“You stole from my store. I wanted revenge.” My voice sounded like a cough.
He laughed and I couldn’t figure out why. There was pride in his laughter. It was a riddle to me. Then he took a sharp breath and his laughter stopped. His eyes drifted wildly, losing focus with mine. It was as though he was looking past me, but there was just a wall behind me.
In an instant, he raised the pan above his head and brought it down with all his strength, through the air between us. In the next deadly instant, I felt a brief, sharp, clawing across my shoulders. I figured it was my brain leaving my body. Then I realized I’d heard a dull thud; the smacking of the pan against the back of the couch; and the glimpse of the rat, jumping off the couch and running across the floor of the house and out the sliding door.
“Escaped, again,” the thief said.
I felt vomit rise in my throat. I thought I had been murdered.
“That’s not your store,” he said finally and tossed the frying pan to the soft beige carpet by the TV.
I thought about making a go for the door, but my legs couldn’t move. “It’s not yours, either,” I said.
He looked at me quizzically, “You’re not a normal young man, are you, Billy?”
My courage gathered some steam at his words. “You’re not a normal thief. What kind of a man who has a nice house needs to steal rat traps? What’s wrong with you? That store isn’t your property.”
Then he smiled. “Yes, actually it is. I own that store. I’m Don.” I stared blankly, confusion and understanding dawning together. He continued, “Once in a while, I check to see if you guys are watching for shoplifters. Some say I get kicks in strange places. I think it’s a pretty reasonable thing to do. You must not have been with us very long if you don’t know who I am and what I do,” he said.
I suddenly felt very foolish. I scanned my eyes across the room, looking for the rat, for support. He was gone, on to bigger and better things.
“Oh,” I said.
He nodded in agreement, then shrugged. “But, hey, look on the bright side—at least you got yourself a raise.”