I look down at the clutter of objects in my hand and worry that I’ll be caught shoplifting this time. Some might call it nonsense, being that these are, after all, my own things. But only I know why the thought is so persistent.
Fwip. Twenty years ago to the day, not much more than a wean, I gathered the courage to enter the county store alone. I found myself, finally, standing before a rack of note pads, and scanned the selection one last time to ensure that I’d grabbed the finest specimen. Fwip. As my eyes flicked from cover to cover I worked off some of my spare adolescent energy by running my notepad of choice across the inner lining of my windbreaker. Fwip. The sound it made was soothing, right up until the store’s security guard lowered his immense hand down upon my right shoulder where it clamped like a jumper cable.
“It might be a good idea if you paid for that, mmm?” he said, his other hand going to the place where his gun holster had been when he was still on the force, back before the incident.
The specific flavor of guilt I felt is one that I imagine is unique to humans. Sure, there are higher mammals who are quite capable of guilt–you haven’t seen anything if you haven’t witnessed first hand a pod of remorseful dolphins. But the brand of guilt I prefer to wallow in is the guilt of the innocent. Intent doesn’t figure into the matter–if it’s something I’m physically capable of, then I may as well be guilty.
I immediately jerked the notepad from the inside of my jacket and held it out, away from me, away from any conceivable pocket or orifice. “I’m buying it,” I said. “I was planning on buying it, I mean. I wasn’t taking it, I was just…” I made an anemic sweeping motion with my hand, but I may as well have been waving a bloody knife over an eviscerated baby. The heat of the guard’s hand fused the joints of my shoulder into a heavy unmovable mass, and I was fixed under his gimlet gaze.
But the guard suddenly unhanded me and continued his stroll down the aisle, as if the implicit condemnation hadn’t melted me into slag. “Just make sure you do then,” he said over his shoulder.
“I will,” I croaked. “I am.” Even after I paid for that notepad though, even after I’d taken it home, I regarded it with dismay. It felt stolen to me.
And ever since that day I’ve harbored a deep-seated fear of putting anything near my pockets when I’m in a store. Today I can feel the cameras on me as I make my way down the aisles, and imagine the bank of monitors in the darkened room in the back, a compound eye fixed on my nervous hands. Possibly it’s because, in a fruitless search for my shopping list, I’m now holding in my hands a pen, my Palm, my car keys, and a wadded up scrap of paper, all while trying to steer my cart around the other patrons. Steering is difficult with full hands, but I don’t really have any choice in the matter. This is what it’s come to: I can only take things out of my pockets now, and then out they must stay, forever.