kathleen-powers-vermaelen Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen teaches writing and is pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Literature at Stony Brook Southampton. Her work has been published in Proteus, Beginnings, PKA’s Advocate, MotherVerse, Main Channel Voices, The Southampton Review and The East Hampton Star. She lives with her husband and two sons in Bayport, New York. _________________________________________________________________________________________
10_gallon_hatTHE THIEF OF YOUR HEART
by Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen

The telephone rings.  I roll over, look at my alarm clock, swear and pick up the handset. “Someone had better be dead.”

“Sorry to disappoint.  How are you, Mo?”

I should hang up, but I don’t.  I click on the bedside lamp, push my sheets away and scoot into a sitting position against the cherry headboard. “It’s 2:13 a.m.  I’m tired, Jeff.  Any other questions?”

“Yeah.  You alone?”

“I wouldn’t have answered the phone otherwise.”

“Good.  Got an important request to make.”

“So important you had to call me now?”

“Yeah.”  He pauses.  “Please don’t get married on Saturday.”

“Ugh…”  I knock the back of my skull against the wood.  “Jeff, we’ve been over this.”

“Let’s review.”

“Fine—if we must.  Michael loves me.  I love him.  He asked.  I said yes.  We set a date, and that date is this coming Saturday.  Itold you this months ago.”

“But why are you marrying him?”

“Your head’s a big black hole, you know that?” I frown at my reflection in the dresser mirror across the room as if it’s his, not mine. “You are density defined.”

“I just want to understand, darlin’.  All downsides acknowledged, we’re still pretty damned good—”

“We were good, Jeff.  Past tense.”

“We’ll have to agree to disagree there.”

I can’t help but smile.  Arguing with Jeff is so much more fun than arguing with Michael.  “Fine, so long as we’re clear that I’m getting married on Saturday anyway.”

“You’re breaking my heart here, Mo.  Don’t pretend you don’t know.”

The conversation should end now, but I linger on the line.  He counts on my allowing our talks to continue past the point of usefulness, and I oblige him without fail.  “Where are you calling from, anyway?”

“Work.”

“What—you mean you’re on your cell phone, outside some Oyster Bay Cove Victorian, casing the place?”

“No, I’m on my cell phone inside a Port Washington Dutch Colonial, and I’m working.”

I sit bolt upright.  “You’re robbing someone’s house as we speak?”

“Yeah, that’s my job.  What of it?”

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, says the voice my head, in the case against Jeffrey Bender, I give you Exhibit Number One.

“First off,” I say, “stealing isn’t working.”

“Hey, you think this isn’t work?  Try it sometime.”

“Oh, I think not.  I enjoy my freedom.”  I lean back again, focusing on the ceiling.  “What’s their name?”

“Whose name?”

“The family whose home you’re robbing.  No doubt you’ve seen it somewhere.  The mailbox, the doorbell—”

“Underwood.”  I remain silent, so he adds, “Don’t worry.  They’re rich bastards.  They won’t feel this at all.”

“Is that how you justify yourself?”

“Hey—a man’s gotta eat.”

“There are legal ways to accomplish that, you know.”  Over the line I can hear the clinking of booty in Jeff’s bag while he moves about, collecting more.  “How are you able to talk if you’re busy pinching stuff?”

“Oh, I’m hands-free.”

“Are you kidding?”  I struggle to envision him—dark glossy hair, dark bedroom eyes, dark clothes hugging his fine frame as he strolls though strange dark rooms, helping himself to someone else’s belongings while chatting on a headset at complete ease, as if he’s meandering around his own apartment.

“Modern technology be praised,” he replies.

“Aren’t you supposed to be listening for someone?  What happens if the Underwoods come home?”

“They’re on vacation.”

“How do you know that?”

“Timers.  They’re everywhere, so the Underwoods plan to be away for a while.”

“What if they’re coming home tonight?  What if they flew in on the redeye and their car is turning onto the block right now?”

“These people don’t fly the redeye.  Besides, who comes home on a Wednesday?  Ooh… nice.  This here must be Waterford.”

I sigh. “You don’t have the common sense God gave a goat, Jeff.”

“Clearly.  I keep calling you even though I’m getting nowhere.”  He awaits my clever response.  I have none, so he says, “Look, don’t worry about me.  I’ve got things under control here.  Let’s talk about you.”

“What about me?”

“Everything about you, baby.  First, tell me what you’re wearing.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“C’mon. For old times’ sake.”

Snorting, I look down at my clothing.  “If you must know, I’m wearing an extra large men’s t-shirt and Michael’s boxer shorts.”

“Oh.”

“And what are you wearing, Jeff?  A ski mask?”

“I’m wearing a ten gallon hat that’s so huge I had to cut eyeholes in it to see through.”

I have to chuckle.  “Marvelous.”

“And that’s all I’m wearing.”

“Thank you for that visual.”

“Ditto, Mo.  Now, about this wedding…”

“What about it?”

“Big mistake.  Think about this great chemistry we have.  If you marry this Michael guy… well, that’ll make our relationship more complicated.”

“We have no relationship, Jeff.”

“Remind me why.”

“You call at quarter after two in the middle of a burglary and you have to ask?”

“You must have a good reason.”

“I do.  You’re a crook.”

“Oh, c’mon.  What’s Michael do for a living?”

“He’s a lawyer.”

Jeff snickers.  “Do I even need to draw a parallel here?”

“Laugh it up, felon.  He’s a criminal defense attorney.  You may need one soon.”

“Sweetheart, I’m a professional because I don’t get caught.”  An odd pop comes over the line. “Nice fridge.  Must’ve cost them some bucks.”

“What—you’re robbing their icebox, too?”

“I got the munchies.”

“Oh, that’s right. You said a man has to eat.”

“Now you’re catching on.”  I listen while Jeff raids the Underwoods’ refrigerator.  “Nothing in here but condiments,” he says.  “Don’t these people shop?”

“Not before they go on vacation.”

“Oh, I forgot.”  The pop sounds again and footfalls follow—Jeff is moving out of the kitchen.  “I’ll have to wait, then.  Next stop, the master bedroom.”

I lean forward to rest my freckled forehead against my bent knees.  “I wish you hadn’t called me while you’re at this, Jeff.  I feel like an accomplice.”

“Nah, you’re more like Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Having you scold me while I’m in the act?  More like a pain in the ass.”

“Sorry.  I still have a few morals left.”

“And here I was, thinking I’d driven them all out of you.”

“You wish,” I say, sitting back.

“And you worry way too much.  I’ll make it up to you, okay?  How about a Claddagh ring?”

“What?”

“Mrs. Underwood has a Claddagh ring here.  You’re Irish, right? With a name like Maureen, I’d presume—”

“I don’t want Mrs. Underwood’s Claddagh ring.”

“A heart pendant, then?  One with real diamonds?”

“This is surreal.  You sound like you’re shopping.”

“Look, I’m gonna take this stuff anyway.  I’d be happy to make a gift of it.”

My grip on the handset tightens.  “Jeff, leave the necklace and ring.  Mr. Underwood might have given them to his wife on a wedding anniversary.  You’re taking more than jewelry.  You’re taking memories.”

He’s silent at first.  I expect a burst of mocking laughter, but he doesn’t give me one.  “Okay,” he says instead.

“Really?”

“Really.”

I’m stunned.  It’s the first time he’s ever heeded me. “Thank you, Jeff,” I say—
but then I overhear the ping of the ring and the tinkle of the necklace’s chain sliding over the crystal in his bag.

“Don’t know why you’re so sentimental about someone else’s stuff,” he says, more plinks sounding as the rest of the jewelry box’s contents find their way inside.

Now I’m pissed. “I know you took the ring, Jeff.  I heard it.”

“You did?  Good ears…  Okay, I’ll put it back.  Listen.”  An abrupt, static-laden thud sounds, as if a microphone has been dropped.  “Hear that?  That’s the ring going back.  Mrs. Underwood will be confused as hell about my taking everything else and leaving that, but what the hell—always leave ’em guessing.  Right?”

“And the necklace, Jeff.”

“Oh, c’mon.”

“No negotiations.”

“Okay, fine.”  Another scratchy thud.  “See that?  You’re a good influence.  You can’t marry another guy and leave me to this life of crime.  I need a decent woman to straighten me out.”

“And how long will that take?  Fifteen years to life?”

“Ouch. You make me sound like such a lose—AHHHHH!”

I jump off the bed into a standing position.  “JEFF?  What’s happening?”

“Holy shit.”  His cackle mimics the Mad Hatter’s. “One of the timers just popped the corner floor lamp on.  I swear, I almost flat-lined!”

I scowl, settling on the edge of my mattress.  “Nothing about this is funny.”

“Oh, I’m all right.  Nothing’s happened.”

“Not yet, it hasn’t.”  I grasp one knee, bracing for what I’m about to suggest.  “Jeff, listen to me.  Dump the bag out on the floor and leave.  You’re too smart for this.  Walk out now and start over—tonight.”

“Why should I?”

“Because you don’t want to end up in jail.”

“They’d have to catch me first.  If they do, I’ll tell my lawyer a sob story, get the charge knocked down to trespassing, pay a fee and be off like a prom dress at midnight.”

“And then what?  You’ll rob houses again?  Jeff, please. Think things through for once.”

He’s quiet for several moments.  “If I stop, will you call things off with Mike and give me another chance?”

I hesitate.  “No.”

“You didn’t say no right away.  That means you still feel something, Mo.”

“Does it matter?  I’m getting married this weekend.”

“You can’t marry one guy when you’ve got feelings for another.”

“Oh?  What book is that rule in?”

“Why rush into marrying a guy you don’t really love?”

“But I do love him.  And I respect him.  Most important of all, I trust him.”  My throat tightens, so I work at controlling my voice.  “There’s more to a relationship than reckless passion, Jeff.  That’s why I ended ours.  There’s just no trusting you.”

I expect this to penetrate the imagined force field that prevents reason from getting through to him—yet another mistake on my part.  “Aw, baby, you can trust me,” he says. “When have I ever lied to you?”

“When?  Less than two minutes ago.”

He sucks in a breath.

“Jeff?”

“Flashing lights in the driveway. A patrol car—”

“What?”

“Gotta go, Mo.  Later.”  I hear a cracking sound—a chair falling over—and his feet pounding the floor before the connection goes dead.

Sickened, I hang up the phone.

Sleep proves to be impossible afterward.  My remaining hours in bed are spent propped up against my headboard, my posterior numbing, my mind churning with unanswered questions.  Did Jeff manage to elude the cops, or is he in the back of a police cruiser, hands cuffed behind him?  When will he call to let me know?  Should I pick up when he calls?  Why did I answer the telephone tonight—and why do I always stay on the line with him?

The dark blue night gives way to a pale rose-colored dawn, and the creeping orange glow of sunrise overtakes the horizon.  Meanwhile, head and heart do magnificent battle.  I didn’t lie when I said I love my fiancé.  He’s considerate and hardworking, two essential qualities that Jeff lacks.  Michael bests Jeff without effort.  Still, I haven’t let go of this thief of mine.  He has me.

Stop stalling what’s inevitable, I tell myself.  You know what this means, what you need to do.

The phone rings again, and of course, I lift the handset.  “Is this your one phone call?” I ask.

“That’s why I love you, Mo,” Jeff replies. “You’re so witty.  No, I’m not in jail—I’m back in beautiful Astoria, kicking it with a cold one.”

“Got away clean, did you?”

“Clean as a nun’s patootie.  Lost my ten gallon hat when I jumped the fence, though.”

“How unfortunate.”

“Yeah.  So, have you thought about what I said earlier?”

“I have.”

“And?”

I answer by hanging up.

story by Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen, all rights reserved

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