By Claire Robbins
Featured Image: Untitled by Tanner Pearson
The first package contained a light blue pair of Nike Huaraches, size 8. I took this as a sign that I should keep stealing packages: my son laced them up, and they fit perfect. He started jumping around, walking on air. We both laughed until our sides hurt, and then I cooked a box of macaroni for dinner, made with water and oil instead of milk and butter, But who cares, my son said, lifting up his feet to admire his shoes.
I only took packages from the porches of nice houses, but not nice houses with fancy doorbells. Some of the doorbells had cameras and attached to smartphones. I could see the older style cameras, so I avoided those packages as well. Everything had to line up perfectly for me to steal a package.
I drove a Ford transit van delivering flowers for a flower shop, which is how I came to realize that there were neighborhoods in my town that I never even knew about, full of nice houses with packages on porches. Some of these neighborhoods were gated, to keep people out unless they belonged.
I also delivered flowers to neighborhoods like my own with old houses falling into disrepair or bought up and cheaply brought to code by slum lords. There were widening gaps between the houses where condemned houses had been demolished by the city. Every once in a while, Habitat for Humanity would slap a cute little bungalow in one of the empty lots. But I never took a package from neighborhoods like my own. It didn’t seem right.
In the mornings, I clocked in to work and looked at the flower arrangements that were going out for delivery that morning. They stood in the cooler in the flower shop, and I read each tag before deciding on my route. Then I loaded the vases into the back of the van and drove off. Sometimes I had to gas up the van or air the tires or stop at the grocery store to pick up fruit for a fruit basket. Then after my deliveries, I helped process the flowers in the shop, while the designers put together bouquets for the next day. That was it, the entire job. Sneaking the packages from the van to my car was easy. I never took anything larger than a shoebox, and I slipped it into the backpack I kept on the passenger seat.
My son was supposed to walk himself to camp by nine a.m., and back home for dinner before it got dark. The first time he didn’t come home before dark was the summer before his seventh-grade year. I drove my car up to the park by his old elementary school, where I knew he liked to hang out. If I catch you out after dark again, I said, as he slid into the passenger seat, smelling like sweat and cheap body spray, his nails each painted a different color. He knew the threat was empty.
I thought, when I first started the job delivering flowers, that everyone would be happy to get flowers. I loved flowers, though I often wanted to take apart the bouquets and arrange the flowers differently, more simply, or just with one or two flowers of the same type, instead of all jumbled together, which seemed excessive, gaudy. Maybe that was just a problem with my brain, that I didn’t like the things I was supposed to like.
But it turned out that many of the flowers were a formality for funerals, or for sick people no one had the time to visit. Even the elaborate bouquets of romantic flowers were often an apology or a creepy come on.
It also turned out that the nicer the neighborhood, the more likely a woman was to be home alone in the middle of the day. Sometimes she had small children with her, and sometimes she was my mother’s age, but with flashy gold jewelry and too tight pants. It brought me some satisfaction that being upper middle class couldn’t buy good taste in pants and jewelry. The women looked like the flower bouquets: maybe they could have been alright in a different arrangement. Was I judgmental of them? Yes, but I always felt so much sadness seeping away from them when they opened the door and reluctantly signed for the flowers. It seemed like a curse that they were stuck in these houses alone all day, but a comfortable curse. Had they chosen the curse themselves? I didn’t know, but they seemed guilty by association. The husbands who sent the flowers might have been their jailers or their benefactors if life were a fairy tale.
Somehow, I’d always known that I didn’t fit in the stories people told about love. Or at least not in the right way. I had long hair and wore a push up bra; I’d had sex with men, to try it. Then I tried it over and over until I had my son at nineteen. But there was something inside of me, a sinking or a punching feeling, that just wouldn’t let go. Every time a man wanted to hold the door open for me, I wanted to bomb a city. Every time a friend complained about his child support payment or talked about how women are crazy, I had to swallow down a violent riot. My eyes screwed up into Molotov cocktails when anyone called me ma’am or miss.
You’re female, so it’s just going to happen, my son told me when I started crying after someone called ma’am on the phone. And I wanted to punch my own kid when he said that because he was right, and I didn’t know what to do about it.
So, when I stole the packages, it was to hold back some sort of misplaced rage at the unfairness of life. I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t stupid. I thought at one point I was just a hurt person, but then, I started hurting others. Not by stealing packages off rich people’s porches, but by being a shit parent.
My son came home with what looked like a scrape under his eye, a little red gash. I sucked my breath in, What happened?
Nothing, he said, with the sass of a twelve-year-old who stays out after dark.
Your eye! I said loudly. You’re bleeding.
He stepped closer, and I saw the gash was actually a little heart, drawn in lip liner.
C’mon, Mom, he said, sounding disgusted. And that word, mom, felt like a stab too, but it was a familiar stab, just what he called me.
My coworker at the flower shop was named Jamie, he was sixty-ish, gay, and had an abusive boyfriend. He wore a scruffy beard and a gray ponytail, an earring in one ear. He was remarkably positive about going home to a man he thought might kill him. He said he had been with Marcus for thirty years, and Marc was much angrier after the stroke. Marc would fly into a rage if Jamie was late coming home.
Jamie was always trying to get me to line up in the parking lot of a church with him for free food. I need all the help I can get with Marc unable to work, and you need help with your son.
I had stood in food lines when my son was a toddler, carrying home bricks of frozen chicken and just expired yogurt and donuts that usually still tasted fine. There were always piles of summer squash or potatoes or some other surplus vegetable. Most of the other people in the line were older or older and disabled. I stopped going because I guess I felt ashamed. I could work, I did work, had some college. There was no discernable reason I was in that line and not in a house in the suburbs.
I went for long walks in my neighborhood to clear my head. Sometimes I walked out of my neighborhood and into other neighborhoods. It didn’t seem to matter what I was thinking about or how I was dressed, on cue, when I least expected it, a man in a pickup truck would hang out of a window and yell. Sometimes words, sometimes just a loud whoop to startle me. I would jump out of my body and float somewhere up above the scene, forced to understand how some man saw me, when I only saw the inside, which was a jumble of senses and thoughts stuffed into jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, nothing sexy about me.
There was nothing inherently female about me on the inside, I felt. Maybe some people felt female: my mother maybe, or a woman opening the door in the suburbs to take a vase of flowers into her hands, or Jamie when he spray painted roses while resting one hand on a hip, or my son, painting each nail with a different color of stolen nail polish. Although, I could never really see those people from their insides either, so perhaps we were all the same, just with different tolerances, different interests. I thought maybe if I cut my hair, I wouldn’t get catcalled.
Jamie told me his favorite flowers were gladiolas. I was prepping a giant bucket of white gladiolas one afternoon. Jamie had saved several oyster shells from the Chinese buffet, which he was spray painting gold and hot gluing to the outside of a vase. It sounds ugly, but it looked just fine. He told me he visited Florida when he was about my son’s age and went to Disney with his grandparents, which was magical, even though he was a little too old to still believe in magic. And then afterwards they all went to a gladiola farm and picked armfuls of flowers. The way he told the story, it sounded like the best day of his life, which I understood, but I hoped he would have another best day soon.
That day, when I left work, it was still early. I had a stolen package to open: a pair of Wahl hair clippers. I took the clippers into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. I thought if I were younger it would be easier to just become someone else. I put the clippers down and walked out of the bathroom.
Sometimes when I walked in the neighborhood, I saw people I wished I could become: people with short hair or who looked more like men or people who looked like they were ok with being women, people who never gave it any thought. I kicked the sidewalk and thought. There was one person in particular, with a shaved head and red baggy cargo shorts. I wanted to be them or at least be their friend, but I never knew how to say anything when I saw them walking. Sometimes I crossed the street to avoid eye contact.
I walked back into the bathroom and put the number three guard on the clippers. It took me about twenty minutes to cut all of the hair off my head. I was cute, undoubtably cuter than I had been with long hair. I looked like a potato. Next, I took off the push-up bra and put on a plain black tee shirt. I thought that my nipples were supposed to sit up on top of my pectoral muscles, but instead they dripped down towards my elbows.
The next day when I came into work, Jamie looked me up and down. I was wearing one of my son’s short sleeve button-down shirts with jeans. The shirt was a little too short. Something’s different, but I can’t quite put my finger on it, he said with a smile. I laughed, unsure if this was better or worse for me. This way of looking, or of being looked at rather. Jamie didn’t treat me any different, but I did find him watching me out of the corner of his eye, maybe relearning how he saw me.
I was on my last delivery of the day: a “finesse” vase, which is eighty dollars’ worth of pink, orange, and purple roses. The price doesn’t include a vase, so it was about a hundred dollars all together, more with the delivery fee, which didn’t go to me directly as I was paid hourly. The house was exactly like all of the other houses in a subdivision I truly had never known to exist. I considered houses like this evidence of excessive wealth: two car garage attached to the house, paved driveway, porch columns and peaked roofs, but I was fairly certain the people who lived in these houses considered themselves middle class, as a form of denial. If they all lived in these neighborhoods, and had no reason to come into my neighborhood, they wouldn’t know how wealthy they were, they would just see themselves exactly like their neighbors and coworkers. They might have some vague idea of people living other lives, but we were hardly human to them.
The woman who answered the door could have been my age if she had aged poorly or much older if she had aged alright. She was holding a small dog back with her foot. She took the vase of flowers and went back into the house to set them down, while the dog bolted past me and onto the front lawn.
Shiloh! the woman called, but the dog didn’t stop rolling on the lawn. Shiloh, come! she yelled. I handed her the clipboard and a pen, so she could sign for the flowers, then I turned around and slowly walked towards the dog. Shiloh was long haired, dark brown with black spots, a pretty dog, I thought. I crouched and held my hand out for the dog to sniff. He rolled onto his back, and I rubbed his soft pink belly before grabbing him up tightly and carrying him back over to the house.
Thanks, babe. The flower woman took the dog. I blushed. Hey, I don’t want to get you in trouble, but do you want a beer? flower woman asked.
Yes, all right. This is my last delivery, so I don’t think anyone will notice. I paused, unsure why I had agreed. I didn’t like this woman, but something about her calling me babe had destabilized me. I usually would have flat out refused, but I’d also never been invited in on a delivery.
The inside of the house was cool, cold even, compared to the eighty degrees outside. The floors in the entry way were gray tile. I followed the woman into a bright kitchen. All of the appliances were stainless steel. I looked down at my arm to make sure I wasn’t stainless steel as well, but I was still flesh. The dog sat on my boots, and I bent to pet his silk ears.
He likes you, the woman said. I’m Scarlett, by the way. I knew her name, because I had taken the flower order and then written: “For Scarlett, my beautiful wife” on the little card and tucked it into the plastic card holder in the vase. I thought it was a stupid thing to write, but I wrote it anyway. Scarlett pulled open the door of a giant refrigerator, my eyes widening at the amount of food inside, widening at how bright the lights were in the kitchen. I wondered if my face looked as tired as Scarlett’s did under the lights.
I’m Aaron, I said for no real reason, other than I could have been.
You’re cute, Scarlett said, handing me a bottle of beer. Her fingers touched mine as I took it, and then reached up to touch my collar, which sent a shiver through me. I drank the cold beer, sitting awkwardly on a bar stool, and made up a life: I was putting myself through college, trying to save up money over the summer, so I could focus on modern literature in the fall. I thought the modern part was a nice touch, but I wasn’t really sure if that meant now or in the past. Scarlett was an artist, she said, but there was nothing I would consider art in her house, so I was inclined to believe she was inventing a better self as well.
How do you see me, Aaron? she asked. I looked at her face, unsure of what she meant. I thought she might want to sleep with me, but I didn’t really know how to with a woman, and I wasn’t really attracted to her, although I was flattered by the attention. Maybe that wasn’t what she meant though. She had a pretty but bland face, freshly washed dark brown hair in a messy bun. Her clothes were what you might expect from someone who lived in a gaudy house in a subdivision. But something about her was honest or unexpected, and that was redeeming in my eyes.
I think you’re surprising, but I also think you have too much money and you’re bored. I was scared she would be upset with me, but she started laughing.
You’re right. At least about the money and being bored. It’s my husband’s money, though, and I think I want a divorce soon. She stood up and placed her empty beer bottle in the sink. I knew it was time for me to leave.
I set my beer in her sink and tucked the stool back under her counter. We should go out sometime, she said. I like you. I didn’t know where she thought we should go or why she would like me, but I let her put my number in her phone, knowing I wouldn’t answer. Don’t be a stranger, she said as I got back into the van.
My son rushed into the house a few minutes after I got home. He was breathing heavy, tears in his eyes. Hey, hey, what’s wrong? I asked. He stumbled through an explanation: how he put a pop can in the spokes of his bike as he pedaled through the neighborhood, so loud a cop pulled him over, the cop’s hand rested on the gun the entire time he was talking to my son.
We had both seen too many pictures of boys my son’s age and older shot by police, and even though he is half white, it’s still hard not to worry. I pulled my son into a hug. He was tall enough to rest his head on my shoulder, which I hadn’t noticed before. I didn’t know if it was normal for a police officer to speak to a child with his hand on his weapon. It seemed like everyone lately was talking about good cops or bad cops, but how could that distinction have any meaning if all the cops trained their hands on their guns? All I knew for sure was that my son was good, even if he was in trouble for acting bad.
For dinner I made rice and vegetables. While I was chopping the vegetables, different scenarios ran through my mind: if my son had biked away, if he had shouted fuck you, if he had thrown a rock. My son ate his dinner in front of the tv, but when I handed him his bowl he said, You know I was polite and I kept my hands up, like you told me.
I smiled at him and told him I hadn’t wanted him to need to know how to talk to the police yet, but I was glad he remembered. I told him that if he could, he should memorize the numbers on the police officer’s uniform, so that I could file a complaint, if we needed to. I didn’t know how to file a complaint, or if anything complaint-worthy had happened. I didn’t know anything, but I figured I could look something up on the internet.
I can do that, he said, stuffing a forkful of rice in his mouth, and I knew he could. His memory was much better than mine.
That night in bed, I logged into the child support portal, just out of curiosity. I checked occasionally to see how much my son’s father owed in back child support. The balance was $13,548.70. His monthly payments had been reduced to a little over a hundred a month, even though they had originally been seventy dollars a week when I first went to court after I learned it was mandatory to establish child support if your child was on Medicaid. My son’s father hadn’t showed up to our court date, but sometimes he showed up for visitations. He didn’t have overnights because he didn’t always have a safe place to live, but the two had a good relationship.
I clicked through the child support portal to look at the previous payments. In the last year, I had received one child support payment of twenty-three dollars. My son’s father had briefly worked as a seasonal greenhouse worker, so they must have garnished his wages. He frequently worked for under the table wages, and his health was poor, so sometimes he didn’t work. When he was working, money was taken out of his check for his child support to his other two kids as well. I figured he just wasn’t able to maintain steady work, but I also didn’t call in to enforce his payments which would just lead to arrests and not more money for us. He was no good at all to my son behind bars. It was just another way that I felt as though I had less value than other people, and because of it, my son suffered. I felt I couldn’t blame my son’s father, because he had his own problems.
Scarlett seemed to have the opposite problem I had: she was valued too much.
I fell asleep and had the dream I have frequently—I’m walking through my neighborhood, feeling good. My muscles feel strong and capable. The sun shines. Then I start to notice my shoes have holes in them, and my shoes fall off, and I walk my feet into painful bloody stumps. The sidewalk begins to crumble. I remember I left my son at home alone, but I’m no longer in my neighborhood, and I have no idea how to get back. I’m worried men will start shouting at me, yelling about my body, but when I look down, I have no body.
I woke up in a panic. My bed felt monumentally safe, as if its comfort meant something. My room smelled like the vanilla candle I had burned on the shelf next to my bed the night before. I marveled at how safe I was, marveled that the world of my dream was not in fact my entire life. I reached for my phone and saw that Scarlett had texted me, “Hey Erin, want to meet up again soon? Let me know when your next free day is!”
It took a second for me to understand who the text was from, and that I was the intended recipient. Scarlett had misspelled my fake name, which seemed fair enough, but also insulting. I hadn’t even considered that she might see me differently than the lies I had told her.
“Yeah,” I texted back the next morning. “I’m off Sunday. Afternoon works for me!”
That Sunday, my son showered after lunch. His hair was wet, and he looked handsome in his black framed glasses and white tee shirt as he left the house. I watched him from the window until he turned the corner and disappeared around the block. We had a window I left unlatched that he could slide through if he came home before I did.
I didn’t want Scarlett to know where I lived, so we met at a park a few blocks from my house, not the one my son played at. I was wearing jeans and a tee shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I walked over to Scarlett’s car when she pulled up. Her windows were down.
Hi, Erin! She smiled at me and told me to get in the car. This is weird but let’s go shopping.
Oh, I looked over at her after I buckled my seatbelt. I don’t really like shopping. Plus, I don’t get paid until next week, and that money will all go towards bills.
Scarlett patted my arm, like she thought I was not very smart, which was actually true. Every day I felt less and less smart. I could have stayed home and cleaned the bathroom or walked clear across town and back. Instead I was trapped in a car with a stranger who thought that I had a woman’s name as a fake name.
Babe, she said as she moved her hand from my arm back to the steering wheel. And honestly, babe was much better than Erin. I’m trying to spend as much of my husband’s money before he notices.
What? I looked at her, then shut my eyes. I had no idea why this was happening. It felt like the part of my dream right before I woke up; it was outside of my control.
We pulled into the parking lot of Costco, which seemed like an odd choice, if Scarlett was trying to spend as much money as possible. But I’d never even been into a Costco, so I had no idea what to expect. Scarlett told me to take a large cart, and she took another large cart. We wheeled through the enormous store, and she took giant packages off shelves: name brand snacks, bulk bags of shredded cheese, frozen hams. I walked around the store to the clothing section, where Scarlett picked out Puma sweatpants and matching jackets, packages of socks and men’s boxer briefs. I figured my son could just about fit into a men’s small, so I put two packages of everything Scarlett handed me into my cart.
We loaded almost five thousand dollars of groceries, clothes, and a 55-inch TV into Scarlett’s small SUV and drove away. I marveled that it was possible to spend so much money, that she had just pulled a credit card out of her wallet and swiped it like I might for forty dollars’ worth of groceries or twenty dollars’ worth of gas. I told Scarlett where to turn until we were stopped outside the house I lived in.
Your place is cute, Scarlett said. Do you have the whole house, or is it divided up into apartments?
I told her that my apartment was half of the downstairs, and there was a third apartment upstairs. It was a good place, I thought, as she followed me onto the porch. I tried to look at the house with her eyes. Scarlett didn’t know about my son, so my life must have seemed carefree or hopeful.
It started to rain as we carried first the TV and then all of the groceries from Scarlett’s car to the porch, where we piled them next to the front door. Little pieces of Scarlett’s hair began to curl in the rain. I walked with her back to the car once all the boxes were on my porch and stood awkwardly as she got into the front seat. She told me she would text soon, and I watched her drive off.
As I unlocked my front door, I heard a crash in the back of the house, and my son summersaulted through the kitchen window. He jumped up, grinning. He was fine, totally fine, but soaking wet. A puddle of water spread around his feet. He ran over to give me a hug, and I started to stop him, but I was already wet, so I wrapped my wet arms around him.
Claire Robbins (they/them) teaches at a community college and serves on the board of a youth arts collaborative. They have published short fiction, essays, and poetry in Nimrod, American Short Fiction, Passages North, The Boiler, River River, Harpur Palate, and elsewhere. Claire currently serves as one of the fiction editors for Third Coast Magazine.