Jess Walter: “Thief”

02/26/2012 § 5 Comments

Originally published in Harper’s, March 2012.

When I was much younger, perhaps ten or so, I dabbled in light and simple theft — palming a chocolate bar at the local bodega, purloining a slightly-too-expensive comic book, the stray soda down the pants. I had a poor role model in my endeavors; he was fine with the stealing, so long as we could grab him a pack of cigarettes every now and again. I was never caught, never even suspected, but one day, after stealing thirty dollars worth of books from my public school’s book sale, I had a guilt-induced breakdown. I hid the books behind the radiator, hoping that they’d burn up with at least as much shame as I was feeling. After a few sleepless nights, I eventually broke down, woke my mother up, and confessed the whole thing. I would never steal again, and if I accidentally walked out of a shop with something, I’d head right back in to pay for it. If I was given incorrect change, I’d point out the difference. These feelings are stirred up in me again by Walter’s bang-on-the-nose story about a hard-working father, Wayne, who finds that one of his children — the Girl, the Middle one, or the Little one — has been stealing quarters from the jar of change in which his family painstakingly saves (as his parents once did) for a once-every-two-years trips. And although the money matters — this isn’t a wealthy family — what really boils his blood is this:

“It ain’t the money, Karen. This is our vacation. You want one of your kids to steal from their own goddamn family? You want your kids to do this? To be like this?”
“Come to bed.”
Wayne’s hands are shaking. One of his kids. Christ.

As it turns out, Wayne’s anger goes back to his own childhood, to the one time he stole from his family’s Vacation Fund and then spent the whole trip dreading the discovery that they’d be two dimes short. “You want your kids to do better than you did,” he thinks to himself, and it kills him — a blue-collar worker, through-and-through, who knows the value of labor — that his children, who he hopes will go to college, who he prays will be better than he is, may in fact be snakes. His worries give us brief introductions to the three children — who his friends constantly refer to as good kids (“Get A’s. Polite. Not shitheads.”) — and their differing personalities. Middle’s the soft intellectual of the bunch, the one who digs around in his nostrils as if looking for a 3 Musketeers or something (as the dad ruthlessly jokes), the Girl’s the typical rebel– “Wears her jeans too tight. Pretends to walk to the bus stop and gets in that knucklehead’s Nova. Tapes album covers all over walls–like this jackass guitar player with curly blond hair above her bed: FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE” — and Little’s the selfish, brooding one (“Looks up from his Legos like you interrupted church”). Any one of them could have done it, for any number of reasons, none of them good, and that’s the point. And through it all, Walter always knows exactly how to pin down a detail in the fewest number of words. He doesn’t waste time, either; these terse scenes and descriptions generally accomplish multiple things at once. A quick scene in which the daughter tries to share her music with her father acknowledges that she’s not a brat; another interaction between father and sons points out the sort of insular games the brothers play with soldiers, but also acknowledges the father’s time spent in the military during peacetime (“in the Navy after Korea but before Vietnam”), just one more semi-shameful thing on the father’s mental mantel.

The climax of this perfectly paced story comes with the father pretending to go to work on his day off, and instead sneaking back into the house, into the closet with a few beers, so that he can keep watch on the Vacation Fund and hopefully catch the thief in action. And it’s here that Walter pulls off his greatest feat, shifting from the third-person to a matter-of-fact data dump and then transitioning into a first-person confessional, all of which perfectly frame the scene and set the mood. Wayne, of course, cannot bring himself to look through the slats, even when the thief appears. It would kill him to know which one of his children is doing this. Instead, the author writes this:

The closet is three feet by five feet. The whole house is just 900 square feet. It’s set on a fifty- by sixty-foot plot of grass and dandelions, across from a vacant lot, in a neighborhood of postwar clapboards and cottages. The house cost $44,000. The interest rate is 13 percent. The father works rotating shifts at a dying aluminum plant–day, swing, graveyard–for $9.45 an hour, and he comes home so tired, so greasy, so black with soot and sweat that he’s unrecognizable, and yet every day he gets up to do it again. He sits in that closet with a beer, his head between his knees.

Fact, fact, fact = shame, shame, shame. Followed by this KO punch of a line, and the reason why I’d already rank this among the top stories of the year (emphasis in bold is mine):

In the hallway, the thief burns with shame, the quarters two hot circles of mourning in my palm.

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§ 5 Responses to Jess Walter: “Thief”

  • I just finished this story in Harpers and loved it. That last line was simply brilliant.

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      I know, right? I read a lot of short stories — more than are worth blogging about, but I try to keep at it anyway — and it’s amazing how many miss the things that should be most obvious: a first line that grabs you, and a last line that shakes you. I can tolerate some flaws between those two points (though obviously I’d prefer every line to knit itself into the next), but if these pieces are absent, my attention will ultimately falter, too.

      • True. Though sometimes I find myself initially disappointed by a last line and then a day or a week later it clicks in my head and I realise it was actually brilliant. In the stories I write I often find myself putting more work into first and last lines.

        Very interesting blog by the way.

  • Barbara says:

    Hello! Don’t even know if you will even see this comment, but I’ll try anyway. I just read this story in the collection We Live in Water and don’t get it. I feel like a fool, but I don’t know who the thief is. Please enlighten me.

  • g anderson says:

    Thanks, Aaron. I ran across your comments while looking for the original story from Harpers. That story impressed me when I read it a couple years ago, and I wanted to re-read it after reading the latest piece in Harper by Jess Walter.

    Thanks again for your commentary!

    Gregory Anderson

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