It had been a while since we’d finished eating, but as it was my turn to do the dishes, I was still in the kitchen. I finished washing, dried everything, put it all away and went back to the table to eat cookies: my dessert and only recompense for my work. So much silence suddenly felt strange and a presentiment came to me: grandfather. I sprang up and went to the living room to find my mother, who was on the sofa watching TV.
“Dad!” she exclaimed and got up also.
We went together to the old man’s room. In fact, he had escaped again. He always managed it: sometimes he went through the window, sometimes he stole someone’s keys or waited until we got careless and left the door unlocked...his strategies were diverse. What never changed were the consequences. Grandfather was a nutcase, crazy, borderline. Truly. He had a compulsive need to show that he was smarter than everyone else. That’s why he escaped when he’d had a fight with my mother or with one of us, or when he felt we’d somehow hurt his self-esteem. At least that’s what the doctor told us: it was his way of punishing us. He went out to the street, got on a bus and went shoplifting. He was good at it and generally outwitted security guards, mirrors, sensors and closed-circuit cameras.
He came home with his bag full of junk: candies, pantyhose, cans of tuna, face creams, scented candles...but when he really wanted to punish us, he let them catch him. And yes, then the problems began. He called us—or made those from the store call—so that we would go to rescue him. And off we went, sometimes my poor mother and I. We’d talk to the clerk, explain that the old man was touched in the head, apologize and pay for or return what he’d stolen. Some people were nice and didn’t take the issue to their supervisors. They even found the old man funny.
But others got ugly, threatened to call the police and only calmed down if we paid triple what the merchandise cost. It wasn’t always possible, of course. Then there had to be a fight. But even at that, grandpa was thoughtful: he went to cheap shops and only pinched cheap things; he never messed with jewelry, for example, although I know he fantasied about doing that.
So once again he’d gotten into trouble. Or was going to do so. We called his cell, resigned. From the kitchen table his favorite song—We are the Champions—began to play. Great: he didn’t take it with him.
“He’ll come back,” I said to my mother who was looking at me with her usual worried face.
“Your brother is going to be late,” she answered. “He has to finish a team project.”
“Well, I’m not going to look for Grandpa. I have no idea where he is.”
My mother continued looking at me without saying anything, her eyes glassy with anguish. But I didn’t want to let her manipulate me.
“He always goes a different way,” I explained.
She began to wring her hands.
I didn’t pay attention to her. I went back to the kitchen for a glass of tamarind juice, put some ice in it and went to my room. I stretched out on the bed to listen to music, to see if I could go to sleep and when I woke up maybe my headache would be gone. But suddenly I felt my mother watching me from the door. I jumped up. No one was there: the door was closed. It was the result of sixteen years of familial moral conditioning. I simply couldn’t free myself of it. I went back to the living room, where my mother was still wringing her hands. I put on my sweatshirt, which I’d thrown on the back of the sofa.
“Give me some money, then.”
With more anguish than if I had continued to refuse, she gave me a bill she already had ready—she knew me well—and still had the gall to tell me to hurry, not to dawdle.
Once in the street, the question was: right or left? To the left was the mercado, the Blue Angel movie theatre and the train station: more or less shabby shops; to the right, downtown with its plaza and portales; then the mall and the park. I took that road.
In the first block there was a sporting goods store, a gift shop and a tobacco store. I didn’t even look: none of that was in my grandfather’s line. At the beginning of the second block I began to look inside: books, music and DVDs, perfumes, stationery, lingerie, flower shops...Not his taste. Also on that block was the bakery El Tiempo Perdido, so I stopped to buy myself a madeleine since I had money. The owner’s daughter waited on me, a girl wearing glasses who I liked and was thinking of inviting to go out one of these days, when her mother wasn’t keeping her sharp eye on me. I walked on while eating and that cheered me up a little.
I reached the March Plaza—our brand-new downtown mall with two floors of about twenty shops each and four movie theatres. I scouted the first floor, then the second and there...there I found him. He was in a men’s clothing store and I immediately saw the objective of his present mission: the ties. It wasn’t a bad idea: a tie took up little space, wasn’t heavy, could be easily hidden. The old man was making as if he was looking at them with an expert eye without being able to decide between a red one with white dots and a blue one with diagonal green and yellow stripes. I know my grandfather’s methods: the one he was thinking of taking wasn’t either of those two; that one was already in his jacket pocket. Now he would choose a jacket and go to try it on; there he’d remove the magnetic clip from the tie with a special tool he’d designed himself...and he’d be done and gone.
Nevertheless, whether because they already knew him there or because his behavior seemed suspicious, one of the clerks was sneakily watching him. He surely had realized it; he had the same sixth sense beautiful girls have, who always seem to know when someone is looking at them. However, it put the mission in danger. And I didn’t have the slightest interest in being trapped again in one of those humiliating situations—rescue, explain, apologize, pay, smile shamefully—so it occurred to me to do what I’d never done. I walked directly toward the young woman who was keeping her eye on the old man and asked her if she had black socks. She took me to the back of shop and there showed me several types, that I examined indecisively. Finally I thanked her and went to look at jackets. Grandfather was gone.
Of course, he waited for me outside.
“We were brilliant!” He said with ridiculously infantile enthusiasm. And from his pocket took not one but two ties.
“Pick which one you like,” he said. “It’s your share of the haul.”
More for amusement and to save words than for anything else, I took the funniest of the two ties: yellow with Simpsons drawings. We went home in silence, grandfather walking behind me like a dog satisfied with his outing. I told my Mom that nothing had happened, that I’d intercepted her father before he could do anything, and gave her back her money, less the price of the madeleine. She didn’t ask anything else and the rest of the afternoon passed peacefully.
That night, when I was the only one still up and was on the computer checking Facebook, the old man sidled up to me and said in a whisper:
“Listen, today’s operation was really cool. What do you think about us becoming partners? We’d be unbeatable.”
I raised my eyes from the screen and stared at him.
“Come on,” he insisted. “We’ll do some easy operations to train, and then we’ll hit the Gina jewelry store, what do you think? I’ve already studied it thoroughly. Made the whole plan.”
I couldn’t keep from smiling. The idea wasn’t so crazy. Grandpa might be a nutcase, but in this matter of stealing things he had talent.
“Can I think about it?” I asked him, with fear of sounding like a girl deciding on her first date.
“Think about it from now until tomorrow. Shoot! You’re going to see that you won’t regret it. We’ll be the dream team and then we can even specialize in works of art or something high-end like that.” Thus he ended his discourse of persuasion and retired to his room with a face full of reverie.
I stayed a while longer on the computer, of course thinking of the proposition. Yes, it sounded tempting, but there were things that gave me a bad feeling. That’s why I told him I needed to think about it, not because I wasn’t interested. I went to sleep with the question in my mind and the next day carried it with me everywhere like a buzzing in the ears.
Grandpa didn’t look for me or try to escape to the street or do anything crazy. He passed the time listening to his old Emerson Lake & Palmer records. Why wouldn’t he be calm? What did he have to lose? If we got into some big trouble, he anyway was already old: he had lived all that he had to live. He wouldn’t spend many years in jail in any event. And they might even reduce the sentence due to his advanced age. On the other hand, for me...the reformatory, the stigma of society, the suffering of my parents. But what if we did nothing more than the jewelry and quit there? With what we would take we could resolve the immediate needs of the family. My father could pay the bank, my mother wouldn’t have to work so much. At least for some months... and I could buy a MacBook Air and some Converse...But how would we manage to sell the stuff? We’d have to wait till things cooled down, as they said in the movies, and meanwhile we wouldn’t be able to sleep in peace a single night. And surely grandpa would want to do other robberies. He could blackmail me if I didn’t accept; then where would I be?
My good and bad angels fought like that all day, without either one claiming a clear victory.
Finally at night, the moment I feared arrived: grandfather came to see me at the computer. I felt him approaching long before he got there. And well, I had no answer for him, hadn’t decided anything. But he didn’t ask me.
“I don’t know what you’ve thought, he said, but I think that I’m backing down.”
I laughed with disillusionment in spite of everything. “You’re not going to invite me to join your dream team?”
“There’s not going to be any such thing. I’m retiring. Starting today, I’m a new man. No more commotions, no more humiliations for the family.”
“Are you serious, Grandpa?”
“And do you think Mom’s going to believe you?”
“She’ll believe me because I’ve never promised her before. And I’ve never not kept a promise. Whatever you think: I may be a rat, but I’m honorable.”
I felt like a heavy weight was lifted from my shoulders. Goodbye help for my parents, goodbye MacBook Air, goodbye self-esteem, goodbye all of it. But how cool it would be to no longer have to monitor grandfather, no longer see my mother twisting her fingers with worry; that alone would be a great help to her. When I was convinced that the old man was serious, that he wasn’t playing an idiot joke, the idea came to me of turning the tables on him.
“You’re going to give it up then? I was ready, man. I even had my backpack prepared.”
“I already told you.”
“I liked you because you were a bandit. Now you’re being a coward.”
And so I continued teasing him, not just for a few days, but for all the months of life that remained to him. Because, truly, grandfather kept his promise and never went back to thieving. But neither did he go back to having the sparkle in his eyes he had before when he managed to escape our vigilance and go to rob the stores. Without that spark, the little that remained of his vitality dried up like a puddle in the sun.
It would have made him happy to know that at his funeral, in spite of my mother’s scolding and the critical looks of many of those in attendance, I wore the Simpsons tie that was the first and last thing that we stole together.
Agustín Cadena was born in Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, México and teaches at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. Essayist, fiction writer, poet and translator, Cadena has won national prizes for fiction and poetry. His over thirty books include collections of short fiction, essays and poetry, novels, and young adult novels. Cadena is also a translator and has translated numerous works from English to Spanish. His work has been translated into English, Italian, Greek, Urdu and Hungarian. Cadena blogs at www.elvinoylahiel.blogspot.com
Patricia Dubrava teaches writing and literary translation at the University of Denver. She has two books of poems and one of stories translated from the Spanish. Her translations of Agustín Cadena’s stories have appeared recently in Exchanges, Asymptote, Cagibi, Cigar City Poetry Journal, 2019, and one is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, 2020. A selection of essays from her blog is scheduled for 2021. www.patriciadubrava.com