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by Roberto Ontiveros

Laina was not the kind of klepto that ever got caught, or rather: I was the only one who noticed the fountain pens behind her ears when she walked out of the office, the silk ties cinched into a sash belts and the suspicious bulkiness she sported under pink scrubs on laundry day; Ray Bans in the Lost and Found were not lost for long when Laina was on the clock.

I assumed the girl could not help herself.  But once we started seeing each other outside of work, Laina’s sticky fingers compulsion seemed less OCD and more Did you see?  The woman was not shy about walking out of a Target with booze, birthday cards, candies, anything she could pocket or purse; it was not even a thrill these days, she explained to me on those nights her husband was working and we met for drinks, just a very silly habit that hurt no one until it suddenly did.

And right now the habit was hurting Mrs Guzmán. “She can’t find a bracelet that I thought was all rhinestones but nope.  It’s real and it’s rare, and a gift from her dead hubby Franco, no less.  She feels for that bracelet all the time while watching her morning shows to remember him.  Now she is just rubbing her wrist in confusion.”

Sensing that Laina was asking for my help, I kind of enforced the vibe that I was no longer her partner in crime.  “So what do you want to do about this, Laina?”

“I can’t go back there, Rick.  I mean it would not be wise.”

Laina was one of our recent hires and she quit the caregiving gig before she could even get canned.

We had a goodbye party for her that was all confectionaries and compliments and then, right before she clocked-out for good, she walked into certain rooms to say so long to any residents too sleepy for sheet cake and decaf coffee, and that is where she spotted Mrs. Guzmán’s bracelet on a Reader’s Digest, and thought very little about trying it on for size.

“So what’s the problem, Laina?  I mean, you can even say it was a goodbye gift if your guy asks.”

“The problem is that Mrs Guzmán’s daughter Vicki called me up just now asking about it.”  I knew about Vicki Guzmán; the woman was very involved in her mother’s well being which was not as typical as you might think at an early stage Alzheimer’s facility that charges five grand a month.  Vicki was at Mercy House every Sunday night to go over the laminated list of coming activities and kind of make certain that her legally blind (but still seeing colors) mama was not left out of any Bingo fun.  She even got management to give out all our home phone numbers under the ruse of just in case of an emergency calls.

“I should have just told that Vicki ‘No.  I don’t know what you are talking about, lady,’ that’s what I should have said, but I was kind of walking on eggshells with Carlo and he was listening to me talk and getting ready for work, so I was not thinking straight.  Man, that mama Guzmán is loved.  That can happen to us too, you know, being on the easy chair at like eighty because people care enough to pay and pay every month. Something to shoot for, or even just appreciate when you see.”

Carlo was the man Laina was supposed to be leaving soon.  If Outsiders-era Patrick Swayze had a darker pill-popping little brother that would have been Carlo; she met the guy at a rehab and now he works security at the one Walmart in town where Laina did not steal.

“What did you say to Vicki Guzmán?”

“So instead of saying what I should have said,  I went: ‘Oh, I am very sorry, Vicki. I found your mother’s bracelet when I was vacuuming and I already turned it into the office, turned it into Rick the recreation guy, who was watching the floor with me that night, so go ask Rick.  He will know.’  I said all that not thinking.  So, you know, you might have to know where that bracelet is.”

“Jesus.  By when Laina?”

“Do you work tomorrow?

“Yeah. I do.”

“Then, by tomorrow.”

So that night Laina met me at the dive that had become our place, this neon-silly set-up, trying to look like what the 1980’s thought the 1950s was, by the motel where I paid month-to-month to live in a world of styrofoam cups and baby soaps.

Laina was in our booth and she had that stolen bracelet set out before her, resting on a cocktail napkin as if awaiting an expert’s appraisal of carat and clarity.

She was sort of slow-spinning the oval extravagance with her index finger when I sat before her.  With her black hair pulled up in a bun and her Lost and Found sunglasses on, Laina was pulling some kind of incognito look and already appeared anxious to leave.

I kissed her on the forehead before sitting across from her.  She smiled and took off her specs; her hazel eyes, obscured by the barest bloodshot over otherwise bright sclera. “This is what you need to return for me – well, for you really, so you don’t get in trouble or end up on a list of possible suspects at a place I no longer work.” 

I knew Laina was extra careful about palming only very low level products these days: office supplies mostly, like envelopes and Sharpies and copy paper, and nothing over five bucks like allowing herself this very petty theft was some kind of compromise that held together many ceremonies of civility.

“Let me get you a drink,” I said.

“It will be my third.”

“Okay, so then let me get you a drink and then let me drive you home.”

Laina nodded at the gesture.

We were done sneaking around and she was really going to try to make it work with Carlo.  She was thirty-three, and Carlo, a teenage-looking 22-year old, was her second husband.  “There is no big mystery here,” Laina explained. “I just want to grow up before I grow old.”

“So what happened to the pretty little pickpocket I met at work?”

Laina started to rub her left eye while she opened her right eye wide as if trying to consider where a contact lens had slid off to.  “Last week I walked into the kitchen and saw Carlo there, sitting at the table with all this internal debate happening in his head.  Thinking hard and painful, I could tell.  The phone in his right hand.  He was all dressed for work in the fake cop outfit.  I did not know who he was trying to call but he looked like he was really ready to make that call.  He could not look me in the eye when I came in and asked how he was doing, for like almost a full minute he just shook his head, looking down at his shoes, then when he did finally look at me he just stared like I was a sick animal.  He said he could not find his bank card and that he just assumed with zero doubt that I took it.  ‘Because that is what you do,’ he said.  When he realized this was how he thought about me he felt sick.  He did not know what to do or say so we did not talk about it at all.  He was about to call the bank to check his account but he did not want to know.”

Laina said this and offered up a kind of embarrassed smile. She brushed a strand of hair behind her left ear and then closed her eyes, and kept talking: “I put my arms over him like to assure my guy, and then I asked him if he had checked everywhere, like maybe the card fell out of his wallet where he was sitting.  He stood and saw the card right by the leg of the table and made no look of surprise or relief when he picked it back up and slid it into the wallet.  He sat back down and still held the phone.  And right then I saw that there was no trust.  I had messed that up.  No trust.  He knew who he married.  But maybe I could sort of meet him halfway.  ‘I don’t know if I can stop being how I am,’ I told him like it was some kind of vow, ‘but I do not have to hurt anyone.’”

“And that worked?”

“Well, he acted like he bought it, and that is when I came to my senses and knocked things off with you.  And yeah, like a hardcore boozer working down to a six pack a night, going very small time crook worked and worked for a week but I messed up my last day on the job with this bracelet and now… now I am even feeling guilt.”

Laina’s fingers were aligned as if in prayer before the stolen object.  I placed both of my hands over her wrist like we were in love in an Archie comics  malt shop panel and Laina smiled again and shook her head.

I took care of the bill which is something I never did with Laina, because not only did she always insist on paying for her own way on our nights out but she liked to use Carlo’s card too like covering my drinks was all part of the same kink.

I pulled the bracelet up off the napkin from her and linked it onto my left wrist.

“Looks nice on you, Rick.”

“Yeah, I can pull it off.”

Laina grinned her approval, and suddenly looked well enough to drive herself home, but I wanted more time with her so I politely asked for her keys and she slid them over in grateful compliance.

If Laina was surprised by her recent capacity to feel guilt I was a bit shocked at how jealous I felt when she asked if we could stop by the Walmart where her husband worked so she could go inside real fast and say hi.

I watched her skip off to the sliding doors and sat parked in the lot staring out at a shopping cart someone had not bothered to push into its metal brothers.  I checked my phone, which I always had on mute if it was not just turned off,  and saw that while I was talking to Laina, someone had called eight times.  I knew it was Vicki Guzmán, and I felt like a genius for never setting up my voicemail.

Laina knocked on the window and I turned to see her standing with her husband, and they were both smiling like all was okay.  Her guy was in the basic fake cop blue security guard outfit.  I lowered the window.  “Rick, this is my Carlo.  He wanted to say hi since you two have never met and I talk about you so much, and when I told him how nice you were to offer to drive me home so I was not all tipsy on the road he wanted to thank this gentleman he has never seen.”

I could feel my face blooming into a genuine blush.  I nodded and offered a tiny smile, feigned in an attempt at convivial composure.  “Nice to meet you, Carlo.  And I am sure you must hear this often but you are a very lucky man.”

Laina’s husband, who was about eleven years younger than me, voiced his maturity by saying: “No one has to tell this guy, and doesn’t everyone else know it too.”

The couple started to kiss goodbye in front of me.  I looked straight out of the windshield, and when I heard Laina talking to her husband in low private tones about what time he would be off and if she should wait up, I saw the light on my cell phone go for Vicki Guzmán’s ninth ring.

The next day before I clocked-in I walked right over to the lift chair where I knew I would find Mrs. Guzmán.  The seventy-nine year old woman could not see well at all these days, but liked being right before the big TV when the Price is Right reruns we had on tape were playing.

“Hey there, mama.  I believe I have found something that you lost.”

“Tell me, mijo.”

“This bracelet, this really pretty diamond bracelet right here. You lost a bracelet I heard and look what I found on my rounds.”

“I can look all you want but I won’t see a thing.  This show I am watching right now is just a box of green and red laughing and clapping.”

I clipped the bracelet back onto the woman’s wrist.  She made no sound of thank you, but began to rub the stones in fast familiarity as she continued to watch the cathode colors of her morning routine.

Roberto Ontiveros is an artist, fiction writer, and literary critic. Some of his work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Santa Monica Review, Huizache, and the Believer. His recent collection of stories, The Fight for Space, was published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press.

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