J. E. Robinson


"It is not something you expect to find in this part of town,” the officer said, “but, it happens. A good kid falls into the wrong crowd, starts using—alcohol and marijuana at first, then cocaine or even crack or crystal. Then he starts stealing. They steal from their family first, then they steal from neighbors, then they steal from whoever. When we find them next, they’re as good as dead.”

           The officer seemed young to me, even with the blue stripe up his leg. He must have been no older than twenty-eight, and his face looked like he would start shaving in the morning. He didn’t move his lower lip...was that a retainer I saw? His uniform was standard black—save the blue stripe—and the badge over his heart reflected the back porch light.

          It was mid-June, late spring, and quite comfortable. Earlier that day, I had shooed a wren out of my screen door. Why didn’t I think to nail shut the upstairs porch door, when I first moved into the place eighteen months before? It went nowhere but upon the back porch roof, and, to get there, you needed a ladder.

         The ladder still raised itself against the porch. It seemed such an innocent, wooden in its nature, like it was waiting to sway beneath its owner on an apple tree. After consultation with his shift commander, the officer declined to take the ladder into custody.

         “We can’t get fingerprints off it,” the officer said. “I can’t collapse it to get it into the squad car. It’s yours. You can store it or trash it, if you like.”

         The officer seemed so very earnest. Have you really been around long enough to know the police don’t just catch the bad guys?

I knew who did it. Drug-addled, the boy’s profile was so distinguishable, I knew in the minute it flashed before me in silhouette.

         “Don’t, Josh!” I yelled. “Bring me back my wallet!”

         Last I had seen him, he had come to my door at midnight to use the phone. His thin arms were ashy, pock-marked. He stank as though he needed more than a bath. An equally young man waited for him in a truck. His eyes had a hollowed out brown look to them, so pathetic even I felt sorry for him.

         He seemed far removed from being the millionaire’s grandson, grandson of my landlord, a retired insurance executive, whose Midtown estate featured eight apartments and three houses, including mine, on which Josh cleaned air ducts, fixed windows, and repaired the roof. His grandfather was an old man, approaching eighty. I knew the last thing a grandfather wants is a bum for a grandson.


         “Robinson,” I said. “It should be under ‘J. Eric.’”

         “406 West—”

         “It should be PO Box 364,” I said. “Everything comes there: my magazine, my bill, everything.”

         The girl at AAA shook her head. “It says 406 West Fourth. It says you’ve lapsed.”

         “I’ve paid the membership through October,” I said. Indeed, it must have been true. I was most certain.

         The girl looked like she could have a girl of her own. She had a swimming pool tan and her hair was coifed to look bored. The computer screen shone in her glasses as she typed more information. It’s under ‘John Eric,’” she finally said. “Do you have a Driver’s License?”

         “Everything was taken,” I said.

         “It’s hell when they take your wallet,” she said.

I drove the neighborhood, looking for a wallet in the gutter. What was in there? A Driver’s License, a AAA membership card, my work ID and the key card to get into gated parking. The public library card was in there, as was the card of purchases at a used bookstore I was saving because I could get free books with my average...that was always worth a trip to St. Louis. Oh, and seventy-five dollars, cash, now in the hands of some crack lord. But what I had in there, more precious than anything, was the obituary of an old friend I had known since high school. I could never replace that.

         I have thought about what my friend would have said about someone entering my house and taking my wallet. Knowing her, she—ever the retired social worker—would have waved her hand and pronounced it was only money. “Next time you see him,” she would have said, “make him a sandwich. Then, call the police.”

My house is a two story, three bedroom Victorian of pumpkin clapboards and green trim in a Catholic neighborhood dominated by other Victorians, and some Queen Annes, that once housed riverboat captains who worked the Mississippi. Some houses were said to be haunted. When the stories were told, I attributed their bumps and bruises in the night to a wayward cat or to the house settling.

         I heard John at the porch door, and thought it was a squirrel.

         Once, I saw a raccoon scamper in early morning from the circle park across the street. Much larger than a cat, it raised its bushy back as if to say it was wild. They said raccoons liked shiny things, like pigeons and pack rats. Could they collect leather?

“You’re up early, Robinson,” the hardware man St. Peters said Saturday morning. “Didn’t you get to bed last night?”

         “No,” I said. “The party went on too long. I need the longest, sturdiest nails you got in stock.”

         “I got three inches,” he said. “You gonna drive something today?”

         “I need to nail shut a door.”

Sometimes, I am grateful not to have children. Kids cost money, cash I rarely have. They cost time I want to keep. They cost patience I ain’t got. And, when they go bad, they go really bad.

         Sometimes, I wonder whether it would be worth having a kid if the kid had gone bad. Needless to say, it would be an unenviable headache. Wouldn’t it also be embarrassing, too? Would the kid understand how horrible his going bad would make me feel?

A thought went through me. When I found him, I wanted to nail Josh’s prick to a burning house, and give him a hatchet.

         It was just a thought.

I was listening to Gatemouth Brown when there was a knock on the door. It was Saturday afternoon. Soon, I expected to be lost in Donizetti. It would be a beautiful sound, one I would fall for like a lead shoe. I wanted no visitor. Visitors were bad.

         It was Josh’s mother, Mary, my neighbor, a fortysomething woman who supported herself by waitressing at the casino downtown and cutting grass on the side. Her chin sunk like it needed teeth. I wished I could give her a lower plate. Indeed, she would look better with a lower plate.

         “I heard there was some excitement here,” she said.

         “Someone broke in last night and stole my wallet,” I said.

         “Do you know who it was?”

         “It was Josh,” I said.

         She rubbed her chin. She really needed teeth in her lower plate. “It probably was. How much did he take?”

         “Between fifty and two hundred.” It was my best estimate. I never count cash in my wallet. “Probably closer to a hundred.”

         “I’ll tell my dad,” she said. “He’s going to be mad. What if I give you a hundred? Will that call it even?”

         Where would she get a hundred. Maybe, from her father, the millionaire. Now, I felt like the thief in the night, taking cash from someone who can ill afford it.

         “Really,” I said, “that’s not necessary.”

         “Yes, it is,” she said. “Yes, it is.”

Once a victim of crime, even the victim of a crime easily understood, you feel anger. You feel alone. I felt that if I saw the perpetrator up close, I would want to kill him. I understand that is natural. It comes from all the energy built up from an assault upon person or property that comes when a criminal barges into your life. Then, you think about the potential injury that could have happened to you or your family. The anger grows. Police are inadequate. You demand Batman.

         But, Batman isn’t real. You are in sore need of real. You must protect your things, and the things of your family, before crime visits you again. But, you are told the odds of being victim once more are long. It is hard to believe. All you know is you want to keep from being victim that first time.

The nails I selected are long and thin. Cold steel, milled to be efficient, they were meant to build houses. When stricken, the nails sang like an anvil. The porch sounded like a smithy’s shop.

         Josh’s mother was talking to a friend in her yard while I nailed. She looked up at the noise, toward the porch door, as I nailed. Perhaps that struck her that Josh had struck.

I was at my dining room table when I saw the old man come.

         He was a tall man, well over six foot, with hands large enough to catch a basketball. At eighty, he was a bit stooped, and still went tot he office three days a week. Often, I would see him carrying a large satchel bursting with insurance papers, which he put in the backseat of his Cadillac, the only car large enough to accommodate his tall frame. Typically, he walked with his head down, watching his body lumber by as though it was monster in a movie.

         I met him at my back door.

         “I understand there was a break in,” he said.


         He was embarrassed by the whole thing. It was, after all, the old man’s house. The old man’s house had been broken into and something of value was taken from it. A sense of rage seemed to inform the embarrassment. Then, he made the inevitable statement.

         “I understand it was Josh,” he said.

         Now, it was my turn to be embarrassed for him as he confirmed what I already knew. Josh, the unreliable, unstable drug addict, Josh, the good kid, in and out of programs that never seemed to do the trick, Josh, the dependent grandson who had stolen from the old man and his wife, and would have stolen his grandparents blind had they not changed the locks periodically. I could feel the old man feel sorry for his grandson. The boy had a child, but no access to any work.

         “They read that and it is all over,” the old man said. “No one wants to hire a drug addict.”

         I told the old man I felt for him. Having worked with drug addicts before, I understand the pathology, that constant search for money to fix a fix that would fix whatever hurt they felt. In the end, it is impossible to do anything for an addict until he decides to do it for himself.

         “I am sorry you have to go through this at this time of your life,” I said.

         Perhaps, that was the wrong thing to say, a little platitude meant to make the speaker feel better. At the time, it seemed the right thing to say. It did made me hurt less. Was that bad?

I had to get a new pharmacy card. “It was lost,” I told the clerk.

         “Use this form and put in all information,” she said. “Bring it in and we’ll issue a new card to you.”

         “You can’t just use my phone number and give me a new card?”

         The clerk was a young woman, a mother of two small children, who didn’t see them much on weekends, because of her hours. She didn’t need a hard time from me. She just wanted to be done with her shift and go home.

Before Josh robbed me, he would come by late at night asking for money. He had checks he sometimes tried slipping through the door, like a lover extending a hand on visitation day. Once, he asked for three hundred dollars to bail his son’s mother out of jail.

         “I don’t keep that kind of money in the house,” I said.

         Insistent, he slipped a check through the door, then retracted it. He seemed hurt when he put it back into his pocket. He looked like I was rejecting him. He seemed to ask “how could you do such a thing?”

Within fifteen minutes, I had used five nails. Two in the door, three in the window. The ones in the door went all the way in. When the landlord checked the door, he couldn’t get it open. “You got that fastened, but good,” the old man said. Josh, the wiry, wouldn’t get that open. He was just too small.

Before long, the old man’s son Peter appeared at my door. “I’m here to change your back light,” he said.

         I knew Peter. I had seen him working around the old man’s house before, when Josh was too out of it to help. Besides, I had Peter’s son Ian in class. He was a quiet boy, that Ian, tall and solid, like his grandfather, with a pierced brow over eyes the bizarre shade of brown that made the young women in class swoon. Ian said nothing about his family. When I saw him playing Frisbee at his grandparents’ on the old man’s birthday, he looked away, a bit shy. He moved away from his cousin Josh.

         Peter jumped on my porch rail and removed the light. Height had skipped Peter. He seemed comfortably under six foot.

I made a list of all the places I had to get to. First and foremost was the need to get a new Driver’s License.

         “You should be able to get the police report,” my young officer had said, “then, you can go to the Secretary of State’s office.”

         That was a warming prospect. In Illinois, the Governor and Secretary of State were engaged in a running feud over budgets, personnel, and hours. The Governor had cut the Secretary of State’s office budget. The Secretary of State soon found himself unable to replace staff. His district offices, used for licenses and for motor vehicles, did work “by the rule,” with no overtime allowed. No new staff anywhere. In each office, long lines started at seven-thirty in the morning and lasted until five. Everywhere were handwritten signs placing long lines squarely at the steps of the Governor’s mansion. The Secretary of State likened the Governor to a used car salesman.

         It would be understandable if they were of different parties, or from different parts of the state, but both the Governor and the Secretary of State were Chicago Democrats from the North Side...so much for unity.

         The prospect of putting a toe into that maelstrom hurt my back. Why put up with that mess, and be in the middle of it?

         I put off going to the Secretary of State. After all, maybe my wallet will show up.

A few days before Josh struck, I went to the neighborhood grocery store to get a few things. Not much, just ingredients for baked Mostaccioli. I was certain I had forty dollars, at least, in my wallet.

         I picked up my ingredients. Hamburger, pasta sauce, grated cheese. I went to the checkout. It was about five dollars. Sure, I have it. No problem. The wallet open, all the cash was gone. I was sure I had it. Where did it go?

At night, I heard sounds that were not sounds. It had been years since I had done that. The house settled, the floorboards creaked, and my thought went to Josh returning. How can I treat you, Josh? Do you come here so often because you want to sleep with me? Really, you are too messed up for me. Look at your arms. See yourself in the mirror. A man must be a fool to fool with you.

         He was gone as fast as he came, and he disturbed not a thing. Until our next rendezvous, Josh, I will be here waiting for you. Until then, rough trade, please play safe.

Every night, I have checked the doors and windows. Once at dark, again at ten and midnight. Every night, I make sure everything is locked tight. No one hung around.

         Later at night, I think, if I were a dog person, I would get a dog. Surely, a dog could hear Josh trying to climb up the ladder to the porch door. Then, I get other thoughts. I see me getting a pistol from my grandfather’s house and having it ready. I would need to clean and oil the thing, and become qualified, but I think I could use it. Josh, try sneaking away with my wallet again. I’ll blow your fucking brains out.

There are transients in my good middle-class, Catholic neighborhood. The Salvation Army runs a pair of homeless shelters just two blocks from my house. Equally far away, the food pantry and a clothing resale shop have folks hanging around from seven-thirty on Monday to five-fifteen on Friday. One of the new churches, a Pentecostal church that occupies an old Congregationalist building, keeps a soup kitchen going.

         As early as six AM, the transients stroll from shelter to soup kitchen to resale shop. Usually, the transients are young, sometimes pushing babies. When they have no place else to go, they congregate in the park across the street.

         I have never talked to them, never looked them in the eye. But, I have started to keep an eye on them. Why should I? They have never bothered me. They were not the ones who stole my wallet.

I heard an argument once. It was a parent-child argument. I had heard that before, been in more than my share, as a matter of fact. It becomes shrill for most who have to endure it as spectators, almost impossible to take, the louder it becomes. It can be a most unbecoming thing to witness. It makes you want to cover your ears.

         “What are they arguing about?” my mother asked. She, over for dinner, also stood at the kitchen sink, watching. “If it was Black folks arguing like that, someone would call the police on them.”

         I had to agree. But the police had already been there, letting Josh off for some reason.

         “You lost your fucking job!” Josh’s mother shouted through the door.

         Josh, drug-addled, incompetent, just looked at her. I knew he had been working at the neighborhood grocery store, stacking shelves. Did they let him go so quickly?

         A man in a buzz-cut came looking for Josh once. My house was Josh’s last known residence. Josh, did you fail him, too?

         Soon, I saw the old man walk the park with Josh. The old man had his fists set like a pugilist. A true heavyweight, he could hand Josh his teeth with a punch. They went around and around the park, talking. When it was over, Josh got his bicycle from his mother and pedaled to—where? Only he knew for sure.

I have to remember something about drug addicts: they can be very charming. Early in the morning, groomed, and in long sleeves, they had smiles that could sell ice to Eskimos, sand to Arabs, and the Brooklyn Bridge to Ed Koch. It is second nature to them, as effortless as breathing. Their existence depends upon the ability to con. To them, all life is a con.

         One summer, I worked with drug addicts in a group home for the mentally ill. We had to lock up the household chemicals. No matter. They still conned their way into them for a quick huff.

Late one night, Josh came to my door. “I got no money. I need to get my kid some diapers.”

         “Can’t you go to your grandfather?” I asked.


         I took pity upon the boy. Besides, Josh’s kid, a two year old, was a cute kid. “The only thing I got on me is a fifty,” I said. “You can pay me back when you get paid.”

         I handed the cash over. That was the last time I touched that fifty. Really, I could have given him more.

Later that June, it turned hot. I took to pouring used dishwater upon my impatiens. Resilient, they stood up to the washing, shedding some leaves and wanting more. I did it twice a day, morning and evening. At night, I stood at my back door and watched the flowers molt.

         No one stepped upon my ground at night. The light would have switched on otherwise.

         Yes, I was looking for you, Josh. For you, I had a big surprise: an ax handle hard against your head, my voice, womanish, emotional, and shrill, demanding that obituary you had taken, so meaningless in comparison to the money, most meaningful in comparison to memory. I would send you to the hospital for what you did. You were such a fool to have stolen from me. Easily, it would cost your soul.

         “Who are you looking for?” my mother asked. She was visiting that week.

         “Just the wind.”

I needed a new work ID. Luckily, the lady doing the IDs is an old friend. Dressed in shorts and in an old t-shirt, I went to her office on campus and stood in front of the blue screen, ready to get my picture taken.

         “What’s your Social Security number?” she asked. Even as an old friend, she can be so formal. “Step away from the screen,” she directed. “This is your third ID?”

         “The first was while I was Staff,” I said.

         “So, this is your second for Faculty,” she concluded. “You know this will cost you.”

         “How much?”

         “Ten smackeroos.”

         I could have told her this friendship stuff was awfully expensive.

On Father’s Day, I bought a new wallet. It was better than the old one. A trifold rather than a bifold, it promised not to crinkle up my bills when I put them in. It had a special place for my Driver’s License, whenever I would get it. It felt elegant, true leather, soft to the touch.

         If Josh took that one, I would break his neck.

Josh’s mother approached, head down, as I retrieved store bought ice cream from my car. “I’ll give you money on Friday,” she said quietly.

         “That’s really not necessary,” I said.

         “Yes, it is,” she said. “My son stole from you, I insist.”

         I still thought she could use the money for a lower plate.

Having been robbed, I think I have an idea what it must be like to be raped. My personal space had been violated so thoroughly that I began to see evil in everything nearby, unwilling to grow closer. If I were raped, there would be people to talk things out with, even if one is a man. With whom do you speak when it was just your wallet being snatched? The attitude on the part of law enforcement is there are bigger fish to fry, crimes more serious and threatening for their overworked staff to pursue. And those of us with personal property, even identity, gone, are left to fend for ourselves, an emptiness left when personal effects are out somewhere, somewhere out there, unaccounted for when the daily inventory is tallied, like a child spirited away. In our society, when personal possessions are the sum of the person, it is a hollow feeling.

The nails felt cold, like a man of steel, ready and willing to pierce a man like the Dead Man nailed to the Cross. Touching them sent shivers up my spine, even in the heat. Were they milled differently, they could have been bullets. Think of that! Bullets lodged in my porch door. Might I have had Grandpa’s pistol and aimed at Josh as he headed for the ladder? Might I have missed him—or did I hit him with another shot, and did he fall? I am sorry, old man. I shot your grandson. But he shouldn’t have stolen in and spirited away my wallet.

         You could go mad thinking over possibilities. But, I forget: I’ve already been very mad, indeed.

When I first looked for my wallet, I thought Josh may have run off with my gold watch. The watch was a gift from my late grandfather, purchased at an old five-and-dime for my high school graduation. I was the only grandchild to receive something from him. Mom thought it was because I was the one named after Grandpa’s son.

         The gold watch was long past its practical uses. Its clasp was broken; the band had too many links in it; the watch itself had a battery welded inside that needed replacing; the hands were loose. Really, the watch couldn’t keep time if it were Chronos leading a college marching band.

         I would have wept bitterly if Josh ran off with my gold watch. Aside from some antique furniture and a few old pictures, the gold watch was the only memento from my grandfather. For a short while, the thought of losing it intensified my anger at Josh. It was a mere five-and-dime watch, plated gold, made magical by its purchase by a senile old man, who spent his money on nothing. But it was mine. By what right did Josh have to make it someone else’s?

         Come morning, I found my gold watch on the dresser, where I had put it. It was protected by my Bibles, one a gift from my Sunday School, given a few days after I received the gold watch, If that wasn’t a miracle, what is?

While my mother was visiting, she heard fiddling from the basement. It was dusk, a little late for someone to be doing work.

         “There are so many sounds in this house,” my mother said, “the place seems haunted.”

         I knew the sounds. Some did seem spooky. I went to the basement door. A miniature light marched out of the darkness like a kiss.

         Perhaps it was the old man. He kept a workbench in my basement, per terms of my lease.

         “It’s me,” the old man said. “Just doing some work.”

         I was relieved. At least, the old man would lock the door when he left.

When I initiated my complaint after the theft, my young officer said the case would be assigned to the detectives. June was already over, and not a peep from the police. O, my dear plainclothesmen, when will you arrive?

After Father’s Day, I took to sleeping with my wallet and keys in my pillow. That way, Josh wouldn’t know where to find them. I thought about installing a safe, but that would prove expensive. After all, safes are excessive, a bit unnecessary, unless you have cash or expensive jewelry in the house.

         I wondered, did the old man next door, my landlord, take to sleeping on his wallet and keys? Really, he must have had a money belt, which he wore at all times. Perhaps he had a safe in his house. He is rich enough to keep a safe in the house. Perhaps, with Josh around, he had to change the combination to his safe often to keep the kid from getting into it.

A box of nails remained on the floor in front of the porch door upstairs. I would like to think I had nailed them through the floorboards, up through the hardwood, so that whosoever may come through the porch door would impale his feet upon them, like a tire. I thought that would prove fitting for Josh. He stole my wallet; he ran away. He come back to steal again; there, he stay.

         But, the box of nails remained on the floor unused. Some time, I think I shall pick it up and put it away.

         They are threatening nails. Were I Josh, were he to return, I would look through the window and see the box of nails and know someone had discovered my entry way and someone was there waiting for me. It would send a shiver up my spine. If he had nails, could he have bullets.