The Crown Jewels by Eileen Kelly

“No, it’s privilege, totally. Although some of it working opposite the way you’d think. For instance, here it privileges me to be female and, hmm. Middle-aged.”

Their friends, around the table, laughed.

“Tell them how it started,” her husband Barney said.

           How it started was by accident. Terry was browsing through her local CVS. She could claim, as proof of innocence, that she carried in her bag an Extracare coupon which would have paid for the lipstick in question. Then her phone rang – “probably Barney,” she said, and got another laugh, as their guests were eager for any excuse – and Terry, by sheer habit, had slipped the lipstick into a pocket. She was still talking when she walked out of the store. She didn’t realize for hours that she had taken it.

“It was the first time ever in my life that I quote-unquote stole anything.”

“Literally,” Barney said. “Like if the waiter leaves something off a bill.”

“No, so then I was curious,” Terry said. “So the next time I was in CVS –”

“Later that same day,” Barney said.

          “I just thought, experimentally, and if they caught me I could say, oh my God, I didn’t realize. I was curious! I put the lipstick–”

“What brand?” said one friend, and another: “Is it the lipstick you’re wearing now?”

Terry puckered up. She shared a look with her husband. “No, it was Revlon. Cherries in the Snow.”

          Big laugh.

“I put it in my pocket and walked out.”

“What’s the expression?” Barney said.

“Slippery slope?” someone called out.

“The thin end of the wedge,” Barney said.

            The next time, Terry explained, she did it for good. She had traveled to DC for a rally organized by their totally radicalized protest friend, Amy – Terry paused to point out Amy, down the table, who waved and acknowledged a couple of whoops – and the group that Amy was working with ran out of flyers. Well, Terry had an idea. The masses were assembling on a public expanse a short jog from the Hyatt. Terry approached one of the organizers, got a sample of the flyer they needed, jaywalked to the hotel, and proceeded to the counter, where she asked a young staffer for guest services. Directed there without question, Terry found a well-stocked office suite where she helped herself to a latte while waiting for the copier to finish printing five hundred copies of My Body MY COURT.

          “It’s the middle-aged white lady card,” said Terry, when the hilarity around the table ebbed. Barney would be happy about this dinner. She hoped he hadn’t drunk too much to have sex. She added, “I could walk out of Tiffany’s with a diamond tiara on my head.”

            One thing Terry didn’t mention at dinner: she was finding it difficult to stop.

            She entered the 4th Avenue-9th Street station with a loaded Metrocard in hand, but then the delivery guy pushed his bike out the emergency exit, and she slipped in. She collected a third lipstick, a fourth, and a fifth, although she did take the precaution of hitting Walgreens and Rite Aid, where she was not such a regular. She did not quite open her bag and stuff in a dress right there on the floor of Nordstrom Rack. But she did slip on a Kate Spade pavé crystal bangle and walk out wearing it. She rarely passed a sidewalk grocer without acquiring an apple, these days.

          Terry sat in a conference room overlooking Brooklyn’s Borough Hall while a junior team, led by Diamond and Aisha, discussed the arrest of a young client for shoplifting and its implications for her custody claim. She maintained a neutral face, but the effort left her feeling throttled. She had a greater appreciation for racial injustice than most people like herself, she believed, since dealing with its bloody consequences had been her job, really her life’s work. Only now Terry was grasping the evil on a different level. She wished that she could share her insights. I know, it’s so unfair! I could walk out of Tiffanys with a crown of rubies on my head.

          Terry held onto Barney, her arm over his barrel chest, her nose against his neck, while he stared at and occasionally poked his phone. Their bed was nearly as old as their marriage and sometimes gave her the impression that her head was in a ditch. “What’s up?” he said, at some point.



          “Nope.” She inhaled his particular, personal funk, and exhaled the entire day. The office, the subway, the apple plucked from the Court Street cart.

          “Cleo was in touch,” Barney said. “She wants to visit over break but she needs help with the ticket.”

          “She hasn’t texted me in weeks.”

          “She only texts me for, you know.”


          “Plane travel. She texts you for the important things.” Barney patted Terry’s arm and she tightened it across his chest.

          “I think she’s got a new boyfriend,” Terry said. She closed her eyes and tried to steady her breath. She had done something else that afternoon, an act she had been strenuously forgetting ever since and now made the error of remembering. She had been standing on the corner of Ninth and Fifth in her biscuit-colored day coat, waiting for the light and staring at the posters taped to the lamppost there. DOG FOUND, above the image of a roaring pitbull. Experienced babysitter. Roommate wanted. LOST, large tabby, answers to “Gloria.” The light had changed, and while her neighbors had passed, crossing the street, she had pulled each one of the posters down, shoved them in the trash, and ran across as the signal flashed Don’t Walk.

          Terry kept a roll of dollar bills in her coat pocket for give-away purposes. As she hurried from the corner she had peeled off five and pressed them into a cup held by a man who was stationed there most afternoons, on the bench outside the bagel shop that closed early. He had met her eyes; he recognized her.

            A kind of tic developed, growing from her habit of flipping the bird to the laptop screen when she played the news. She started giving the finger to the paper while she read it on the subway. Then she found herself making the gesture whenever feelings washed over her, feelings that defied naming, which was happening often these days, and so her hands spent a lot of time under tables or in her pockets.

            Her office was going through some changes, as its long-serving top tier retired. It was the passing of a generation described by her boss, in a private conversation, and including herself among them, as “nice Jews.” She made the joke knowing that Terry would both get it and keep it to herself. This nonprofit, like many in their field, had been launched in Ronald Reagan times. Terry’s boss and her boss’s peers, well past retirement age, were at last retiring. New bosses were taking control, women and men who looked like the agencies’ clients. It was an excellent development. Terry had always been happy with the second tier. She couldn’t wait for her own retirement. She had no idea how she was going to spend it, except, she told Barney, as an expert jewel thief.

            One day she traveled to her program’s satellite office in the South Bronx. She swiped her Metrocard, a rare event these days, changed at Atlantic Avenue and settled in for a long ride on the 5 train. A typical commute brought two or three “Ancient Mariners,” as she privately called them, who could be heard launching into their sad tale at the car’s far end, giving Terry plenty of heads-up to dig out a dollar by the time the person reached her. There were five on this ride, five men who might or might not have been as wretched as they appeared. Five bills. She gave them each the middle finger as they walked on, with honestly no idea of why she did. The fifth time, her hand may have been out of her pocket. She caught a look of shock from a black woman who was sitting across the car, dressed in a lady’s day coat identical to hers. Terry smoothed her eyebrows with the finger, innocent.

            The block between the subway station and her program’s satellite office stood within the poorest Congressional district in the nation. Terry was not above mentioning this fact to impress her friends. She came to this site infrequently, but had done so over many years, and nothing changed: same check-cashing outfit, pawn shop, hair braiding salon, off-brand electronics store — now sharing indoor space with a produce stand — and the same bodega that endured despite its transient ownership. These days the operators were Yemenis, as she gleaned from its current name, New Yemen Deli. Terry entered, passing with a smile an ancient and unsteady black man who posted himself outside its door in all weather. He never extended his hand, so she never offered a dollar. Inside, a bearded man in a zip-up jacket and a New York beanie stood on a platform behind a plexiglass barricade of lottery ads and loose candy stocked in cubes. Behind him rose a wall of cigarettes, pain relievers, Axe body spray, Imodium MD, and condoms. Terry headed down the single aisle, past a man in an apron posted behind the deli meats and a couple of younger men, nearly teenagers, who sat in the aisle on overturned milk crates, talking and referring to their phones. What Terry needed was some quality iced coffee, but the New Yemen Deli only had sodas and energy drinks in brands unknown to her part of Brooklyn. She would have to drink the nasty coffee in the office. She headed toward the exit, folding a packet of Lorna Doone cookies into her hand as she did so.

           “Hey! Hey!”

            Terry turned, still in the doorway.

            It was the man at the cash register. “Abdo!” He shouted. “Abdo!” One of the young guys popped off his crate and flashed across the space and grabbed Terry’s wrist. He held it in the air and like Secret Service disarming an assassin yanked the cookies free.

            “Thief! Thief! Call the police!”

            Terry stuttered out a protest to the old man on the sidewalk, who backed away and let the door close between them. The cash register guy emerged in the aisle, followed by the deli counter worker, a man with a beard shaped like a domino, who wore a Mets cap and a hoodie sweatshirt under his apron. The young man, Abdo, pulled her on stuttering feet to the back of the store, where the fourth, really a child, ceded his crate. Abdo pushed her to sit. The store’s front door opened and all four men yelled at the shopper who was entering. He retreated instantly.

            Terry’s foremost thought was that she had to get a hold of herself, since she might have very slightly peed her pants. The man with the New York beanie, the proprietor, she guessed, shook his finger in her face. “You stole from me!”

            “What? That’s crazy.”

            “I saw it, she was stealing,” Abdo said.

            “I just forgot! I forgot I had it in my hand!”

          “She ‘forgot.’” Abdo made finger quotes. “She ‘forgot’ there is this paying part of buying something.” The proprietor laughed and then provided a translation, in Arabic she guessed, which allowed the deli counter guy to get the joke.

.           “Jesus Christ,” Terry said. “I’ll pay.”

            “It is the principle!” The proprietor appealed to the deli worker, then spoke again in the other language, maybe translating himself. The man with the rectangular beard nodded slowly. “There are thieves,” the proprietor said. “I must protect my business! You.” He moved his index finger closer to her third eye. “You stole from me.”

            “I don’t steal.”

            “Well, we will call the cops and they will handle it.” The proprietor began patting his various pockets. “Somebody, call 911.”

            “You are not calling 911. This is nuts!”

            “Nuts? You are a thief.”

            “It was an accident.”

            “Okay, you tell that to the cops.” He pointed to a TV feed overhead. “They will see.”

          Terry struggled to repress her tears. Then it occurred to her that crying might be better than not crying. “This is practically kidnapping,” she said. “I should be the one calling the police.”

            “Ohhhh.” The proprietor reared back in irony. “You play it that way. Well, I have proper papers. I am the business owner. You –”

            Terry stood up, feeling she had to, even if there was hardly space with the men looming. She leveled her finger at the one called Abdo. “You grabbed me,” she said. “You grabbed me, that’s assault.”

          For a moment the young man just looked at her, calmly. Then he lifted his hands. “She’s right,” he said, and stepped away, and with a rush Terry pushed through, palming past the deli worker’s barrel chest. Having got clear of the men she paused and hooked her bag on her shoulder and straightened her skirt. The proprietor argued with Abdo, still banging his finger in her direction. “But she is the thief!”

            “No, she is right,” Abdo said.

            “It is my business.”

            “We will be the ones in trouble.”

            “That is unfair.” The older man stomped his foot. Then he stomped a few more times as if trying to get the gesture to work. He fumbled over his chest and hips and then raised his phone in triumph. “I will call 911!”

            Terry yanked the door open and ran. Clutching her bag to her ribs, she ducked the old drunk man, who had not gone far, then dodged past a father with a stroller, a woman with a granny cart, past teenagers, past drivers standing outside their livery cabs. On the exposed steps to the train she stumbled and caught the railing, which kept her from plummeting a two-story height but not from banging her shins. Her hand landed in a muddy footprint. At the top, a platform offered a panorama: pennants extending from the pawn shop to the No Standing sign, an awning flapping free of its frame, and down on the sidewalk the four men from the bodega and a collection of pedestrians staring up at her. Terry fumbled for her Metrocard as she ducked into the station. Overhead a noticeboard flashed the news of a 5 train arriving in zero minutes. A female clerk sat blankly in the booth. Terry gave up searching through her pockets and was wiggling her fingers uselessly inside her bag when the train rolled into the station.

          She had witnessed the young person’s technique: hands planted on the turnstile and legs double-hurdling underneath. But that was beyond her powers. She got one leg up and shimmied her crotch across the barrier and reached a toe to the ground and hauled her other leg over and then sprinted into the car as its doors were closing.

          The subway moved on. Beyond the windows at Terry’s back, blocks and blocks of apartment buildings stretched deep into the Bronx. The half-dozen passengers sharing the car stared at her. It wasn’t even clear why. What had they seen? She was the white lady on the train. She was breathing hard and probably looked pretty freaked out. They rolled past the juvenile facility, past its razor wire and the exercise fields that were never anything but empty. There were clients of Terry’s program in that jail. She felt her way to a flip-down corner seat, the seat for people in extreme states. She found her phone, wiped her nose on her knuckles discreetly, punched in the code, saw the texts and emails from her colleagues, and thumbed out her response: So sorry, felt ill on the subway and am headed home. Apologies to the team.

          Perfect safety, to Terry, was to share the sofa with Barney in her little house in Brooklyn while really anything played on the big flatscreen. Curb Your Enthusiasm tonight. Her husband was stretched out, heels on the ottoman, he would be snoring within the half hour. Terry had a third glass of wine in reach. She tucked her legs underneath and burrowed into her husband’s body.


          He opened his eyes.

          “I think I want to change my job.”

          “I thought this was the last job for both of us.”

          “Maybe I don’t want this to be my last job,” Terry said.

          “I thought you loved that place.”

          “I totally do. But maybe I want to change. I still have half a decade.”

          “Or more. With the market tanking.” Barney sat up, fumbled around his lap, found the remote, and froze the screen. He blinked at her. “What would you do?”

          “Something completely different.”

          “Well, don’t quit first, okay?” Seeming satisfied, he returned his attention to the TV.

          She nodded, staring at his head.

          “Do you want a new husband, too?” Barney added, with a yawn that reminded her he had eaten raw onions at dinner again. Terry smiled and wrapped her arms around his neck.

          That night she woke up thinking she had heard a scream. But their bedroom was quiet, except for the snoring and beyond the windows the city’s hum.

          Terry stood before the mirror in the entryway, applying her new lipstick. She pulled her coat on over her pajamas and spent another moment looking at her face. Then she did something that she had never done at this hour before, she left the house.

          Even now there were other people out. Across the avenue, down the block. It was easy to avoid sharing the sidewalk. On Fifth the corner bodega and a dive bar were open, more people on the street, but nobody gave her paisley trousers or her slippers a second glance. Some men had stepped outside the Shirley to smoke. At the sight of one she did a double-take, only because his face was so pretty. She would have liked to have had the freedom to stare. Instead she walked on, unseen, and came to the corner of 9th Street, to the lamppost where shreds of the postings she had ripped down still adhered and new signs sprouted in their place. Need a Room. Found Your Cat. She ripped each one off, tearing top to bottom, and let them litter about her as she crossed.

Eileen Kelly lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she write for an organization that serves incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and pursues progressive criminal justice reform. She has an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she was a winner of the Hopwood Award in the novel. Her novel, Romper, will be published by the Flexible Press in 2024