In the summer of 1988, I had a job stealing rolls of quarters from my oldest brother Michael. I was 12 and a fairly seasoned thief; I had been stealing single dollars from my mom's giant purple purse and had learned how to listen like a thief and anticipate behaviors. I had learned to steal from Walgreens by cutting a small hole in the pocket of my winter coat so I could push the stolen item in the pocket and bury it in the stuffing. I learned how to not look guilty and to only steal small items in small numbers and I always bought something and would not steal sometimes just to throw off anyone looking for a pattern. When I was 10, I had constructed a small team including a friend and my disabled brother Tony and I taught them how to distract 7-11 cashiers with confusing requests for foreign newspapers and nonsensical crying while I made away with goods and met them laughing in the alley with their cut. I knew how to hide things and how to lie to people and I knew that I would be a good enough actor to get out of any trouble but I knew I would never get caught and I never did, not even in 1988 when I made the job full-time.
My brother just turned 18 and was heading to college at Vanderbilt at the end of the summer. He worked for my uncle that summer doing odd jobs and my uncle expected him to be ready to work at any hour and it was not unusual for him to show up at 6 in the morning and get Michael out of bed to go to a warehouse to buy used jeans or drive out to his house in Wisconsin to skim his manmade lake called Lake Bower. My uncle was an asshole and terrible to work for but he paid well and paid in cash. He didn't pay in regular cash but in 100-dollar bills and, to Michael's initial dismay, rolls of quarters, worth 10 bucks each. My mother, preparing to send her first child to college, saw solace in the quarters because she had been worrying herself sick about him doing his own laundry for the first time. She said, “These quarters are going to come in really handy when you do your laundry.” My brother would mutter and nod and she would say, “Michael, for your laundry. Quarters. For laundry.”
My mom was and is still delusional about how people use money and for some reason she thought that if Michael had quarters, he wouldn't be able to use them for anything but keeping himself clean. I remember when I was in college, every letter from my mom would end with either, “Clean your room” or “Do your laundry.”
In the summer of 1988, I worshipped Michael but I had absolutely no respect for his privacy. Except I did not exactly worship him, the boy about to go to college, but I worshipped his things and the access into his life that his things brought me. I just turned 12 and I was on fire about being anyone but myself. When he was gone, I devoured his yearbooks, read every inscription, every “Wish I would have known you better” and “See you around dude” and “Good luck in college” and the ones I looked for every year—the quiet and carefully written ones in the rarely used pages with plenty of space for reflection, apologies, sadness and anger, always from girls. I used to read them over and over again, trying to imagine a day when people would make difficult choices that had to do with me. I loved to know that my brother was living a life full of complication and drama. I didn't care that he was a quiet and private person. I didn't really care about knowing him, my brother who wouldn't let me hang around his friends or listen to his music; I only cared about knowing things I wasn't supposed to know, and he was the only person I knew who had any secrets, had anything worth hiding.
I was hyperaware of the conversations about the quarters and I was delighted to find out that they were not going to the bank. My first mission was to find out where he was hiding them. Because he is a member of my family, of course he was hiding them.
I looked in all of the obvious places—underneath his bed and drawers, and then the less obvious places, like inside pillows and at the bottom of boxes holding previously important things, like baseball cards and sports trophies. No luck. I looked inside the removable black steel vent in his bedroom floor, then searched down the pipe with a flashlight. Nothing. Then I remembered that my grandfather had once showed me a hollowed out book with another book hidden inside. When I pulled out the first book from my brother's shelf, one by C.S Lewis, I didn't even need to open it. The rolls were hidden behind the books, not in the books.
I took one to start, carefully sliding the book back into place, I went straight to the bathroom and ran the water and unrolled the roll of quarters onto a white towel and thought to myself, “I am going to eat so much Goddamn candy.”
In 1988, when you were 12, it was hard to spend 10 dollars. And since my mom was always snooping around my room, I couldn't risk having a lot of quarters in my pockets or hidden in drawers, so I bought as much candy as I wanted for myself and spent the week giving candy away to my friends and strangers at camp. I was a god. When I gave a girl who was a grade ahead of me a pack of Bubblicious watermelon gum (her favorite flavor), she looked at me and said, “Where did you come from?”
I shrugged, didn't ask for anything in return, and went back to work.
So, the first roll was stolen and I didn't hear any rumblings. I went back for more. After my next theft, I retired to my room and sang my favorite song, Michael's favorite song, triumphantly from my bed: “The Killing Moon” by Echo and the Bunnymen:
“Under blue moon I saw you
So soon you'll take me
Up in your arms
Too late to beg you or cancel it
Though I know it must be the killing time
Michael overheard me singing his song, burst into my room, and screamed, “Stay out of my fucking stuff.”
Michael knew I was trouble but couldn't prove it.
A year before, I witnessed one of the saddest scenes in history. I walked into the kitchen before school and saw my mother in tears, with a giant pair of silver scissors, snipping into the garbage can a Penthouse she had pulled out from the stack of towels in the bathroom. I watched pearl necklaces, curved white couches, yacht decks, and giant tits get reduced to slivers that fell upon eggs shells, bread crusts, and empty cans of tuna. My mom said, in between snips, “Not in my house,” and my brother cried too, taking in all the shame but he saved a look for me. That issue, the one being snipped, had been missing from his collection for a while; his porn stash was very well hidden in the vent, a place only my father would have looked. Michael looked at me, wiping away tears and he mouthed the words, “I know it was you.” It was true. Mom found the magazine because I had stolen it and poorly hidden it, between towels in the bathroom. Who would look under the second to last towel in a pile? My mom was probably trying to hide something there herself and that is probably how she found it.
I was too young to be blamed and Michael knew that. I didn't care about tits yet but I knew he did and he was fucked. I fucked him.
I took my time with the next heist. I took a week off and then stole two rolls. Knowing I would not be able to keep up my candy charity at school without attracting attention, I decided on another route. I went to the bank and exchanged the two rolls for a 20-dollar bill. It was the first time I had a 20-dollar bill of my own and I was going to make it count.
If there's one thing my family values, it is money you find on the street. When you found lost money, you were proving to the world that you were paying more attention, if only to the ground. My mom and dad to this day go on long walks and look for change on the sidewalk and brag about their winnings. When my mom was a kid, her father would take her to the Main Street El Station in Evanston when the snow started to melt because that is when all the fallen change would show itself. Me showing up with a 20-dollar bill, saying I found it on the street, telling a long story about the wind and the chase, was not only believed but also welcomed with open arms. Michael even gave me a high five. They were so happy for me and I was able to spend my money as I pleased, publicly.
It took me a few weeks to spend that 20 but when it was gone I missed the danger and checked out the bookcase again. There were over 20 rolls of quarters saved. They were spread behind Michael's bookshelf full of books; books he had to read for school, like Walden and Catcher in the Rye, and also books he loved, written by people he had no idea were Christians.
I continued to steal new rolls as the weeks went by and even though I couldn't spend the money, I hid it and would sometimes, when I was alone in the house, spread it out on my bed and sing songs that I learned from Michael's music. I'd sing them straight into the ceiling:
“All I'm saying
I la la love you
And I don't mean maybe
All I'm saying
I la la love you
And I don't mean maybe”
On the day before the family was going to drive Michael to Nashville, he discovered that over 300 dollars was missing from his bookshelf. When I came home from camp, Tony was out in the front lawn inexplicably hitting golf balls into the distance with no care for where they landed. I passed him and walked into a house that just didn't feel right. I could hear my brother screaming upstairs and my mom was trying to calm him down. “It's gone, it's all fucking gone!” He was livid and I knew exactly what I had to do, which was to frame my disabled brother Tony for my crimes.
Ok, I know that sounds bad. And it sounds bad because it was bad. But what you have to understand is that while he had Cerebral Palsy, which involves him having a less than average IQ, he was also a thief and often my partner. He just wasn't my partner in this caper but he was guilty of many other things and was worth sacrificing. I was only worried about myself and I felt like there was no other option. It was either him or me and there is no honor among thieves.
My relationship with Tony had also been conflicted. I would defend him to the death if someone made fun of him but he was also my brother and brothers are cruel to each other. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I truly understood how different he was. When I was 12, I just understood that I could manipulate him into doing just about anything, including taking the fall for my crimes.
While Michael was screaming and slamming doors about his loss, and my mother was on the phone with my dad, I ran into my room and pulled out all the remaining money. I went into Tony's room and got one of his socks, a white pair with a yellow stripe that was distinctly his sock. I transferred all the money into this sock and then did what only a budding sociopath would do, which was to sneak into my parents' room and hide it in their floor vent. I left the vent slightly open knowing that my dad would notice. I took some of the paper from a roll of quarters and sprinkled it in Tony's garbage can and put a handful of quarters on his desk. I then took the other white sock with a yellow stripe and put it in the middle of the floor. My heart was beating really fast and I then ran back to my room to practice my lines.
“I would never steal from my family.
Mom, Dad, I did not do this.
I am not lying. I would tell you if I did this. I didn't take any money.”
My dad came home and Tony and I were brought down to the living room for grilling. Mike glared at us, his eyes swollen from crying. Tony is a terrible liar and it seems like he is lying when he is actually telling the truth. I held up and delivered my lines flawlessly. Tony stammered and looked guilty as hell. Dad told us to wait there while he searched our rooms and everything worked perfectly. He followed the trail I set and found the evidence he needed to convict Tony for stealing Michael's quarters.
I was sent to my room, vindicated, and that is when I heard the first hot slap and first scream.
Dad was spanking Tony, and Tony was bawling. Dad always spanked us but this was different. You could feel the rage through the floorboards, through the carpet. I could have just closed the door and drowned out the sounds but instead I went to the staircase to watch.
Dad had thrown Tony over his lap and pulled his pants down to his ankles. You could see the growing handprints on his white ass, and my dad's hand was raised ready to strike him again and again. Tony was crying and saying, “I didn't do it,” over and over, and as my dad's hand descended, I yelled out, “I did it. I stole the money,” and my dad's hand quivered and turned to mush. He looked down at what he was doing and everything about him just sunk. Tony wiggled out of his lap and ran into my mom's arms. My dad started crying, something I had never seen him do, and I bolted to the bathroom and locked the door.
I expected the door to cave in with kicks and fist and splintered wood but nobody came after me, nobody did anything, not for a very long time.
I decided that I was going to spend the rest of my life in the bathroom. I made a little bed out of towels and even though I didn't have any food, I had plenty of water and a working toilet. I waited in there for over an hour and I heard bodies pass by the door but nobody said anything to me and I kept my mouth shut.
The first person to talk to me was my mother. She hissed at me, “Your father is laying in bed crying. I hope you are happy with yourself.” I couldn't even imagine that image, my dad, the man who popped his own dislocated shoulder back in without wincing, the man who duct-taped broken fingers and kept playing basketball, the man who walked into a vortex while river rafting to save Tony's life while Michael and I watched helplessly from the rocks, was crying in bed because of what I had done. I yelled out through the door that I was sorry, that I was sorry to everyone, that I would pay him back, over and over again. I said I would leave the family if they wanted me to; that they never had to talk to me ever again.
My mom told me to come out and eat dinner. I said I didn't deserve dinner and she said, “Don't act like a martyr.” I didn't know what that word meant but I knew what she meant.
After about an hour, I opened the door and slinked downstairs to the kitchen. At the table there was a plate filled with Chicken Parmesan and spaghetti. It was cold but it was good. After I finished, I washed my plate, something I would have never normally done, but since I was now a villain, I had to suffer.
At night, Tony would normally sneak into my room and we would play card games or talk about baseball, but that night my door stayed shut and I fell asleep thinking that my life was never going to be the same.
My family tends to leave for trips at 4 or 5 in the morning. Sure enough, the next morning, I was woken up by my mom and told to get dressed. When I was a little kid, my Dad used to carry us to the car, and part of me wished that he would do that again, but I was 12 now and I didn't deserve to be carried.
I volunteered to sit in the middle for the trip, a duty that would normally have involved fights, bartering and bribes. Like I said before, I deserved to suffer.
My dad pulled into a Shoney's later that morning. I told my family that I did not want breakfast and that I would just stay in the car while they enjoyed their breakfast. It was 1988, and it was in Ohio, but there was no fucking way my Dad was going to let me sit in the car by myself. “Ok,” I said, “I will go but I am not eating.” Nobody cared.
In the restaurant, I sat and watched my family pile on food from the buffet. Eggs, French toast, pancakes, sausage, bacon, biscuits and gravy, English muffins, fruit. About halfway through the meal I somehow found myself at the buffet holding an off-white and chipped plate and I punished myself by taking very small portions of about 20 items.
Somebody made a joke, a joke about how much I loved Shoney's, and everybody laughed, even my dad. I did love Shoney's and normally I would be in the car begging my dad to stop at Shoney's even if we had just eaten there an hour before. Tony, Michael, and my mom and dad were laughing at me, with me, about me, and could see all of the tension and the anger disappear. I would have to pay the money back but the situation was never mentioned again. My family didn't dwell on things because that would involve actually talking and that is not what my family is good at doing. We are good at hiding things. I learned a lesson that day as the family headed to Nashville to drop off Michael at Vanderbilt. I learned that people loved me and that I could take advantage of people and hurt people and that I could be forgiven.
I looked over at Michael and I sang quietly and under my breath:
“This monkey's gone to heaven“
Chris Bower writes and teaches in Chicago. He is the host of the Ray's Tap Reading Series and is a founding member of the Found Objects Theatre Group. You can find him at holdmyhorses.com.