I Prefer a Thief With Good Taste

Untitled

Pennington’s Hoax is available at Amazon or directly from W&B Publishers

Even if you had my address you might not be able to find the house. After winding around a state highway for several miles out of town, one must eventually leave the main road for a series of country roads that eventually lead to a curving path. Provided that one’s GPS is still getting a signal, there is still a ways to go. If one doesn’t miss the turn, which is almost as obscure as the one leading to the Bat Cave, the gravel path that seemingly leads to nowhere gives normal people pause.

There are only four visible houses at that point, and none of them are mine. The gravel path descends and rises beneath a double row of looming trees until one reaches the fork. GPS has surely gone out at this point, so does one take the direction posted with signs warning about the consequences of heading any further in that direction, or does one choose the other path with the gate and more signs about prosecuting trespassers? Those who continue on the correct path will wind through more foreboding forest while trying not to imagine the various creatures that lurk in camouflage.

My office window is on the front of the house, and a year ago I was typing away on Pennington’s Hoax and promoting Murdered Justice when two suspicious cars emerged from the last part of the wooded driveway and stopped at the garage as if they owned the place. They were foolish, if you ask me. This area is very pro-Second Amendment, and I hear gunshots on a regular basis. The wise person assumes that every household is heavily armed.

After a few minutes, the trespassers got a clear indication that people were home, so they drove away casually; too casually for someone who had made an honest mistake.

Until that point, I had let my guard down. I had abandoned my city ways of staying alert, being aware of anyone who might be watching my movements, and checking doors when leaving the house for even the briefest errand. My assumptions about spooky driveways and menacing signs as deterrents to unwanted visitors had been wrong! I dragged out all the security tools, put more items in the safe, inquired about security monitoring, made a list of potential house sitters, and devised escape routes should the house actually become invaded.

After that, I no longer left electronics on the kitchen table when going to the store or even going outside for more than a few minutes. I secured any documents that shouldn’t be in the wrong hands, and filed a sheriff’s report after alerting the neighbors. No one has come back in a year, but I was reminded of the incident when going through some papers and saw a reference number for the sheriff’s case that I filed.

If someone broke in, I have lately realized that they wouldn’t want what they would find. There are bigger and newer televisions in other houses, newer electronics elsewhere, and not much that would fetch more than a few pennies wherever they might take their plunder. I recently read a short article entitled “A Burglar’s Goal is Your Bedroom.” Supposedly thieves are looking for our cash, jewelry, and firearms.

I considered the article’s advice and began to wonder about the motivation of thieves. Jean Valjean took bread. When I was a little kid, someone broke into our house and stole our washer filled with laundry while we were at church. That particular theft was so odd that one wonders if the thieves might not have been innocent people told to drop by and pick up an old washer. Finding no one at home at the wrong address, they broke a window, climbed in and wheeled the old Norge out the door. Breaking the window was not the act of an honest person, but a washer? Who steals a washer—and an old one at that? The robber was surely someone who had grown so tired of using a Laundromat that they would beg, borrow, or steal to avoid one.

Loaves of bread, old appliances, electronics, and firearms all lack the elegance of an art thief. Jewel thieves, for that matter, are much more chic in books and films like To Catch a Thief because they are after some gaudy necklace or a specific stone. Whether art or expensive jewels, the thieves must love what they have stolen so much because they can never sell it, share it, or show it to anyone. Demanding a ransom is their only course of action, but laying aside their motivation, art thievery requires a level of appreciation and a clever mind to pull off a heist.

It’s difficult to imagine a modern thief scaling a tiled roof like Carey Grant in the pursuit of something exquisite. I once knew a private art dealer who never watched television, but decided to break down and buy one. He’d had it three weeks, and it was still in the box when the thieves slipped into the garage one night before he could close the door after pulling his car inside. They forced their way into the house at gunpoint, eyed the art hanging on every surface of the house, took the TV and ran. I saw him after insurance paid his claim. He used the money to buy another nice piece and never replaced the TV.

Apparently we can leave the front door unlocked and a Rembrandt leaning against the wall next to it. It can sit there for two weeks, but if you try hiding your laptop in the underwear drawer while working in the garden, you may never see it again. As I continue to lament the decline of civilization, I have to ask where all the tasteful thieves have gone?

We must solve the opioid crisis, address wage inequality, and improve education at every level so that those who are going to steal can develop an aesthetic sense and go back to nicking nicer things.

© 2018 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

Five Houses Down

Remember to close your curtains after dark. If I’m passing by an open window, I’m going to slow down and see what I can see. Though I’ve been rewarded enough through the years to continue indulging my guilty pleasure, it matters not what someone might be doing. It’s just that I’m curious about what’s going on whether driving by a lonely house on a dark country road or gazing at all the neighboring windows from a high-rise hotel room.

Is someone on the phone? What are they talking about? Are those people having a party? Why are all the lights on in that house on the hill with only one car parked in front? The house over there is completely dark at 8:00 every night. What do the occupants do each day that requires them to get up so early? Every residence triggers a long list of questions and provides hours of speculation.

IMG_7852

The immaculate house a few doors down. Lacking curb appeal, I’m left to wonder what the owners do all day.

The fifth house east of my childhood home has fascinated me for decades. My mother once remarked that the little white house standing back from the road was so well kept; yet she never saw anyone outside. Keep in mind that we couldn’t see the house from half a mile away unless whizzing by it in our rush to reach the highway, but one would think in 40 years that we’d see someone in the front yard at some point.

Except for meticulously trimmed boxwoods to camouflage the front steps, there are only four other small plants along the front, which do nothing to mask the raised foundation. There are no grand flowerbeds, no colorful borders, nothing to be mowed around or anything to please the eye. The owners are clearly not trying to attract attention or provide visual interest.

In a real estate listing, the smallish dwelling might be described as “cozy” or “quaint” or “meticulous,” but this well-maintained abode raises so many questions in my mind. In an area outside of television cable service, there’s not a satellite dish attached to the slightly pitched roof, and speaking of roofs, I’ve never known this house to need a new one. The white shingles are always in good shape. The lawn is never out of control, but in more than four decades, I’ve never seen anyone mowing it. There are no trees on the front of the lot, and those four plants along the front would take no more than ten minutes to prune, and that would include getting out the tools and putting them away.

There is no barn or garden shed, and the carport, which was added later, no longer has a car in the drive, nor is there anything else stored in it. My last trip to the neighborhood had me slowing down. There was a vehicle in the drive as I passed on the way to see my parents, but there were no cars on the place during the rest of my stay.

I believe someone lives there, and they have the means to keep the place up, but my casual research indicates these people do not enjoy gardening, being outside, watching TV, or getting involved with the neighbors. The backyard is unfenced, there are no pets running toward the road, the house faces north, and some of the windows are high, which indicates limited natural light.

It’s true that I haven’t been around much in decades, but when I was younger, I went by that house at least twice a day. There were never additional cars on holidays, no kids playing in the yard, and there were certainly no eye-popping light displays. These people didn’t even light a candle in the front window.

In my imagination, these two people—perhaps now only one—have been sitting in the dark for almost 50 years discussing anything but gardening, animals, food, exotic travel, and whatever is coming on television tonight.

When I was six, my sister took me trick-or-treating after a battle over my last-minute costume. I liked the idea of dressing up and going out, but I was never keen on asking people to give me candy, which has resulted in my becoming one of those adults who doesn’t like asking for help.

We’d just moved in a couple of months earlier, and perhaps we saw a porch light and mistook its meaning. Dad drove us, and Karen walked me to the door. That Halloween night was the one and only time I’ve ever gotten close to the house though I have passed it thousands of times. The lady of the house dropped pennies into my bag while her husband complimented my costume.

The lack of candy on hand indicated they weren’t expecting trick-or-treaters. I was surely the only kid they’d had that year or perhaps ever. I can recall the husband facing me, standing on his wife’s right, and I think she had blond hair. It could’ve been gray. I have always remembered them being “really old,” but I was six and anyone over 35 could have admitted to being 40 or 70 and I would have believed them. Considering how much time has passed, they couldn’t have been too old that night if either of them are still living in the house and keeping it up.

I was more focused on the coins the lady dropped into my bag. I was ready to reconsider my stance on begging if every knock on the door resulted in cold, hard cash. Because I was blinded by filthy lucre, I missed a wonderful opportunity to steal a glance inside a house that has haunted my imagination for decades. I can’t very well go to the door now and introduce myself as that six year-old kid who came trick-or-treating one time over 40 years ago. The sight of my gray hair would shock them into realizing how long they have been sitting in there night after night as the years became decades and faded into the past. I’ve lost my window of opportunity to know what they’ve been doing in there all this time.

© 2017 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

Seek and Ye Shall Find

A notification recently appeared in my in-box calling for short stories. One of the preferred topics was One’s Crazy Family Members. I was disappointed to learn that only one submission at a time would be considered, as I could probably send 300 pages to them and still not begin to scrape the surface.

A few of my family members have always feared I’d write about them. Their assumptions have been correct. If some aspect of their lives is worth reading about, they should consider how interesting they are. However, no one has complained so far, but people see themselves differently than others do. I’ve not experienced anyone walking over to me at a family gathering and yelling, “I don’t appreciate your telling the whole world what a terrible driver I am!” For one reason, the person in question has great faith in his driving skills. The other reason I’ve never been accosted is my decades-long absences from family reunions. In most cases, I tend to stick with material and people who can’t get their hands on me without holding a séance.

Writing about the dead is a lot more fun. I don’t have to censor my words, I can build up or tear down the plot without worrying what Great-Aunt Maudelle would say if she read about that time her granddaughter danced on the tables at an OSU frat party. When the guilty are still alive, I have to change OSU to SMU and make everyone a Methodist to lend them a sense of decorum.

I recently submitted my DNA for testing. A close relative had already told me that her results were as white and bland as a cotton bed sheet, having not revealed so much as a hushed-up secret marriage or a passenger on a boat load of prisoners coming from England. After my results were posted, I was contacted by a verified “fourth cousin or closer” whose ancestry contains a number of regions on the globe outside of “Great Britain, Western Europe, and the Iberian Peninsula.”

I am intrigued by the various reasons people explore genealogy. Some are looking to connect with distant relatives while some closet royalists seem to be searching for that shred of evidence that put 7th Grandmother Elspeth into the King’s bedchamber circa 1539. A lesser noble would do, preferring dukes and earls to knights, but few researchers seem to realize that such distant and unseemly ties to the sovereign will not get you into the royal enclosure at Ascot.

I do think there are some interesting stories that turn up from time to time. Some friends have turned up a variety of characters while others get a greater sense of how their families ended up in the United States. I found a document indicating that some centuries old uncle had enough of a gambling problem that the man’s father-in-law had to make specific exclusions in his will to protect his daughter’s interests.

I suspect a great deal of genealogical motivation falls under the category Greener Pastures. Having spent a lifetime with the same old faces staring back at them from across the Thanksgiving table, a segment of researches are hoping their luck might be better with a new set of cousins. The pontificating egghead and his cousin who spends her time repurposing used bleach bottles into apparel eye each other with disdain. “We have nothing in common,” they tell their friends. “Nothing. Nada. Zilch.” But family is so important.

Rather than treating close friends as though they were family, the professor and the bleach bottle milliner much prefer blood relations. They get on the computer, sign in and desperately start searching for better relatives in Nebraska. As they both joined the same genealogical research site, their best matches turn out to be each other. There are a few other matches, but they’re secondary. The researchers are desperate and reach out to the rancher in Arizona and the dental hygienist in Michigan. Those people are either too buy, too uninterested, or too satisfied with their relatives to respond to an urgent inquiry by someone claiming to the child of a great-great-grandmother’s sister.

I enjoy a peak into possibilities, but I don’t see it as becoming a regular pastime. I was cured of any such cousin curiosity after hearing that I had relatives out there who owned a sporting goods store in New York. I got it all wrong. I was thinking New York, weekends in the Hamptons, sailboats, polo mallets, and gins and tonic in the clubhouse only to find out they were upstate and catered to more of a fur-trapping-on-the-Hudson clientele. Sometimes you leave home only to find out that you never had to.

© 2017 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

We Need a Woman Like Dorothy Parker Again

Ever since that morning in high school English class during my sophomore year when I was first exposed to Dorothy Parker, I have been in love with her words. “Ah, what an easy, peaceful time was mine, until I fell in with Swifty, here. I didn’t know what trouble was, before I got drawn into this danse macabre.”

Stories by and about Dorothy Parker.

Stories by and about Dorothy Parker.

I didn’t even know what danse macabre meant at that point, but thank goodness for footnotes in textbooks to explain, making the jokes in Parker’s The Waltz (first published in The New Yorker in 1933) even funnier and causing me to laugh out loud while my classmates looked around wondering what was going on.

I’ve been writing since fourth grade when we were hustled up the steps into the gymnasium and sequestered in a back classroom where a tall woman with very dark hair entered and explained that we were now taking a course called Creative Writing. I wasn’t particularly good at poetry, but I liked the technicality of haiku. What I loved best, however, was writing the story prompts the teacher provided.

“You’re a tomato about to be sliced,” she said, or “A flower about to be picked.” I was so thankful to have this class for three years, and aside from a few snippets here and there, my grammar school classroom memories center around Creative Writing classes with Mrs. Hampton.

Aside from term and academic papers, I didn’t have time to write much else until I was a grownup, but I never forgot Mrs. Parker’s wit and withering commentary. I’d find other writers with similar bite such as Florence King and Molly Ivins, but Dorothy Parker remains my favorite.

“What fresh hell is this?” “This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.” “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” She was known for all of these and more, and I can only aspire to come up with such laughter-inducing statements, which have lived for decades beyond Mrs. Parker’s death.

I recently read Ellen Meister’s Farewell, Dorothy Parker, a novel about a New York film critic named Violet Epps who communicates better in writing than in person. She encounters Parker’s ghost after visiting the Algonquin Hotel where the writer drank with other notables in her day, and Mrs. Parker is just as robust and scathing in spirit form in current day New York as she was in life.

Mrs. Parker was one of the famous wits of the Algonquin Round Table in an era before television, Internet, endless news cycles and printed material for every imaginable subject pushed clear thinking from our heads. She was one of the few, the clever, the truly intelligent, though I wonder how she would manage in our world where we’re subjected to the competition of constant prattling opinions, inaccuracy and outright mendacity delivered without flair by too many people whose cleverness is all in their heads. There seems to be a lack of word choice missing from today’s general punditry and critiquing whether or not the reports are accurate or far-fetched. Lie to me if you must, insult an anticipated book or film, or make some comment about a movie star’s dress at the Emmys, but do so with intelligence and dexterity I’ll remember for many years.

I was once told of a young relative who’d been caught lying to her grandmother about who was at fault for cutting to shreds a few yards of new material. “I don’t know what happened. Those scissors just flew into my hand!” The kid may have been a liar, but her explanation made me laugh. She was punished, and I would have punished her, too, but I maintain to this day that her sentence would have been lighter because she’d entertained me.

If you’re feeling nostalgic for clever writing and sharp delivery, I recommend getting reacquainted with Dorothy Parker.

© 2016 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1