John W. Marshall

The Dead Shoplifter: A Report From the Poetry Frontier

I truly believed, for a few hours, that I helped murder a shoplifter. The incident is difficult to forget, and I hope telling it helps it slip behind me. If there is a point to this story, let it be how sad the lives are of people who steal, how sad it is that ownership and possession hold such sway over all of us, and how sad it is that my wife and I are sometimes unsafe in our store and sometimes grow wary of others. We do get some comfort from our companions, our witnesses--William Blake, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, and the few thousand others whose shadows shoulder in among their books.

It was a Saturday, an agreeable one early in July, so people were out taking sun, pleasantly fueled by the money that flows at the start of the month. For us, five or six people in the store at once is a rush, both in the senses of business and adrenaline. That day the chimes hanging on the door were kept busy.

Sometime after noon, when two people were browsing the store, a strange young couple came in. He was over-dressed for the warm weather in a trench coat and knit cap, a kid on the chubby side, with busy dark hair springing from under the cap and a wispy beard. He was probably in his early twenties but came into the store like a toddler, arms spread out, humming loudly, and turning around in gentle circles. She came in after him and was as nondescript as he was arresting.

A poetry bookstore may not be different from other stores, but it seems like it is. We attract an odd crowd, at least some different individuals, so his behavior did not concern us enough to usher him out. But we did both pay him extra attention. I assumed, calling upon my much younger days, that he was tripping, that he had taken LSD and was out wandering wherever the flow took him.

His girlfriend stayed back by the door as he rolled his way past the till, past my wife Christy offering him help, past me staring at him, and in toward the shelves. My mistake was in identifying with him, in assuming he was like I was at his age. Something was up, though; I could feel the caution on my skin, so I kept an eye on the young woman near me, standing numbly in her drab yellow synthetic coat with her lifeless flat brown hair and her rocky complexion. She didn't move, and he barely did, except for spinning slowly around and making some sort of gurgling sounds. Christy had gone out on the sales floor, I knew to stay near him.

A couple minutes of odd tension went by, and I decided to let it go. I so thoroughly hate being suspicious of people—Christy and I will tell you it's the worst aspect of retail—that I forced myself to stop thinking about this guy. I wanted my regular life, my peaceful life, and decided I could take it back.

Before the couple came in I had been about to go up the street to a bakery. Christy was tidying shelves, an act that kept her a presence on the floor, so I told her I was going out for a snack and asked if I could pick up anything for her. She looked at me like I was nuts, but I didn't want to worry anymore, so I responded with a shrug. At about that same moment the spinning character asked if he could get a drink of water. He'd seen the water cooler in the short hall by the bathroom. I said okay, but hung around until he came back. He brought his little paper cup, offered it to his vague companion, and drank it down when she declined. I figured that was that and took my leave.

I'd only gone maybe a block and a half before I changed my mind. Something was too weird about the couple. I went back and opened the door and saw they weren't there; nobody was there but Christy, and she was giving me a glare that meant no good. The spinner had been looking at books by Jim Carroll, Emily Dickinson, and Charles Bukowski, a predictable group but for the Dickinson, and now a book by each of them was missing. I ran up the block and looked around the corner, then ran down to the other corner. There was no sign of the couple.

Christy and I spent some exasperated minutes talking about how this happened. She said the girl—with a scary, dog-like devotion—had gone and stood by the spinner at the bookcases. They didn't speak to each other, but that's probably when the theft took place. Either she had shielded his actions, or she had gotten the books. Then they left. He had continued to turn lazily while his friend stayed thin as a shadow.

We stood there, tense as could be, each of us asking why I'd left and why Christy hadn't seen enough to stop the theft. Why had I left? Why hadn't Christy caught them? Those first few minutes felt awful. We've been in the business ten years now, and we've had books stolen by professionals and amateurs before, but the instant reaction has always been to point a finger at the self and the partner. It seems to be impossible not to try to blame someone other than the thief. And the guilt spreads out from there. When I realize books have been stolen, I feel like I back into a "cave," and anyone who approaches is my enemy. It is a remarkably sick feeling.

Our next step, the welcome step, was anger. Anger at the asshole who would steal a poetry book, who would heedlessly make a difficult living more difficult. We meant nothing to that guy; we didn't exist; we weren't real to him. He lived in a cramped world and probably expected to be hated like we hated him then.

I was fairly convinced the thief was a junky—the warm clothes on a hot day and the soft cloud he seemed to inhabit—and it hit me that maybe we could will him to overdose. He was occupying some psychic space other than the standard, rational one, so that was where we might be able to get to him. Let's wish him dead I told Christy, and she was game. Right then he was close enough to our souls to have us trembling. There was a rope connecting us—the unity of the thief and victim—and we took our rage and gave that rope a yank to see if we could do him harm.

If someone with any sensitivity had started into the store right then we probably would have scared them off, the two of us standing there, in the midst of shelves of poetry, wishing the worst ill on an already messed-up guy. We were enraged, and this was our catharsis. After all, who truly knows how this world works? If he had walked back in right then we would have told him to give back the books, then get out and stay out for life. Neither of us would have hurt him. But he wasn't around, not physically, so all we could do was wish him the worst. The day went on, as days will. We closed the store. We ate dinner. We went to bed.

Then there it was, on the front page of the Sunday morning paper: a young man had been killed after being caught shoplifting cigarettes from a supermarket about eleven o'clock Saturday night. The store was maybe two miles from our store. The young thief had been seen behaving strangely, then he tried to leave with a carton of cigarettes. The night security officer, a young man himself and inadequately trained in security, had tackled the kid and put a choke-hold on him, which did the kid in. I read the whole piece before I sat down in the kitchen. I was convinced that he was our junky, and we had indeed gotten a piece of him. I called out and told Christy about it, and it scared her. I will confess here that I felt some pride in the notion of having that kind of power, but I was also afraid of it. And I certainly would never have killed the kid for stealing.

Later on I saw another report of the death on TV, and this one was more nearly complete, including a mug shot of the victim from an earlier arrest. The dead man was tall and skinny; he wasn't our thief. The questions remain: did we have some power and were inaccurate with our aim, or was this a coincidence, or was the truth some third place between the two? I don't know. But I do know that was a bizarre weekend, a weekend fat with the kinship and fragility of all things and fat with strong emotions. In other words, a weekend full of what poetry at its best illuminates.

That's the end of this report from the poetry frontier. Take care of each other and, whether or not you write it, read some poetry.

Copyright 1997, John W. Marshall

John W. Marshall co-owns Open Books: A Poem Emporium (2414 N. 45th St., Seattle, WA 98103 / 206.633.0811) and is an editor of the literary magazine Fine Madness. His writing has appeared most recently in Talisman, Hayden's Ferry Review, Switched-on Gutenberg, and other magazines.

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