I'm working on the screen window with my box cutter. Once you make a big enough cut at the corner to grab onto a piece, the whole thing will strip off like the skin off a chicken. Then, just put one foot in, slowly, slowly. It's a job full of risks and excitement, but not one where you want any surprises. Usually it's just a fast in out job. I scope the place out beforehand, so I know exactly what I want and where it is. I get in by saying I'm offering a free security system estimate. I've got the whole scam down the ID card, the uniform, the clipboard with the company estimate sheet, everything. And on the way out I smile wide. "Thank you, ma'am. Hope to hear from you soon."
People ask me sometimes, the few I confide in, how I got started in the business. I've got no quick, easy answers.
I do remember the first time Bill Webber and I slipped the packaged fishing lures down our shorts. We were nine or ten. We had to wait until the rotating camera on the ceiling at E.J. Korvettes turned the other way, make sure no one else was around, then quick, no sudden motions, smoothly slip the packages off the pegs and down the front of our pants. Then we strolled to the next aisle to look at the baseball mitts and bats. We picked up the bats to test their heft, just like we were shopping. We left then, taking our time, joking with one another, our hands always at our sides to avoid suspicion. Once outside, on our bikes, we headed to Harms Woods and found our tree, the fallen one over the Des Plaines River. We dangled our legs over the sudsy flowing water and pulled up our booty. It was just like our very first Christmas.
"Did your Dad smack ya'?" Charlie asks as we're drinking beer at Syd's. He asks the same thing every night.
I put my beer mug down and look at him.
"Now, why the hell would he do that?"
"He was a boozer, right? Left you and your mom with some floozy? Spent the mortgage on the horses?"
We stare at each other dumbly, then break out laughing.
Charlie's my best pal. We worked together for a while, but I broke it off. He knocked a lamp off a desk. It was the longest minute of my life. We got out of the place quick. Afterwards, we had a little talk, and I told him. We were sitting at a table in
Syd's then, too. Charlie hadn't even touched his beer.
"Oh, Jake, come on. One little mistake. Anyone can make a mistake."
"A mistake, yes. Little, no. All it takes is one and you spend the next ten years in stir."
"But Jake," he said. He was so sorry looking. I thought he was going to wail. "How'm I gonna manage without you? You're the best."
It was true. I figured my success on a little luck and lots of careful planning. Twenty nine and I'd never been caught. Maybe that was the problem. All those years as a kid, slipping lures down the front of my pants, cassettes into my socks, watches in my inside jacket pocket, X-rated
videotapes in my lunch box. And, when I graduated to house cracker, there were a few close calls, a German shepherd or two I hadn't counted on, a few quick escapes, but I was never collared.
But you can never be too careful, and with two guys you can never tell if the other guy's meeting your standards. You can't be responsible for him. That's why I went solo.
I remember my dad rocking me in his arms. I remember the smell of his pipe tobacco, the feel of his warm hands on my back, the deep, soothing hum of his voice. He didn't play the horses, drink or hit me or my mom. He sold advertising space for a local radio station. Never lost his temper. Never left us. We lived in the suburbs, had a vegetable garden and a nice patch of lawn.
"Puzzling, truly puzzling," Charlie says. Charlie never knew his dad. His mom worked as a waitress all her life. They lived on the west side, right under an El platform.
"He taught me to take pride in my work." We both laugh again. Charlie and I laugh a lot. We have a good time. But solo, outside of Syd's. He's doing okay, on his own, Charlie. I tell him to be careful. Not to get into something that's going to be more than he can manage on his own. He's like the little brother I never had.
Or was. I keep forgetting.
It was around Christmas time. He still hadn't gotten his girl, Crystal, anything yet.
"A nice easy little job," he said, smiling at me, over his beer. I grabbed his shoulder and looked into his eyes.
"Charlie, what do I always tell you? You've got to start a job with a clear mind. No booze. You're setting yourself up if you're lubed."
He laughed. "Lubed? Two beers, Jake, that's all I've had. Two lousy beers! What's that gonna do to me?"
He pulled my hand off his shoulder and stared at me, gritting his teeth, spitting the words out at me: "I don't work for you no more, Jake, remember that."
I'll always remember him that way, that anger in his eyes.
I read about it the next morning over a blueberry donut and a cup of coffee. On page seventeen it was. Just a little piece: "Burglar Shot by Homeowner on Addison Avenue." I knew right away.
It was one of the houses Charlie'd been scoping out.
I've got the other foot in now. There's nothing so exciting, even today, than that first step in.
I hear a sound. The bathroom door opens.