The Sunday Rumpus Essay: On Theft


If you steal a frozen chicken, do not put it under your arm. Frozenness numbs your armpit. You cease to understand the boundaries of the bird. Where are you in relation to the frozen carcass? How far does your numbness extend? It becomes difficult to feel anything. My advice is not to steal. My advice is to trace your icy path back to your feelings.


When you teach college freshmen, you hear many stories. The joys bubble up often, a sparkly scarf, new winter boots, new friendships; and the sadnesses, which they frequently try to bury, show up in the middle of things—love affairs broken, opportunities scuppered, dear ones lost.

Students are led to believe that freshman year is about beginnings, so the endings when they come, are unexpected and surprising. Ended affairs, friendships and the lives of loved ones often creep through the semester. They sometimes collapse in the students’ pages, a graveyard of bleached bones amid the type.


dahlia1I, too, was unprepared for endings the year I was a freshman, but they came anyway. The year was full of giddy fun and hilarity; the ridiculous laughter that comes with being a teenager still. Also, that year, my mother was divorced from her second husband. She crashed her car and nearly killed herself. My boyfriend left me when he got another girl pregnant. I lost two jobs. My roommate Stella’s mother died. What do you do with all of that, when you are eighteen, living away from home for the first time?

Stella had opalescent skin and strawberry blonde hair dyed the color of flames. She wore thick eyeliner and a don’t-fuck-with-me sneer, fishnets, and black industrial boots. Staunch. It was her idea to leave our dorm and look for a house off campus. We found a drafty wooden Victorian occupied by a guy we came to call Krazy Ken. He was ten to thirty years older than us—his uncombed long hair and wild beard made it hard to pin down­—and looked like a triad of Lord Byron, Tommy Chong, and Keith Richards. Ken grew pot for a living, as in pounds of it in remote plantations. He told us he was a hunter and we believed him—it turned out his true prey were my friends, whom he conscripted to be his sales staff on campus. Faye, his girlfriend, was a casualty of angel dust and too much Jefferson Airplane. Lacking insulation or double windows, our house was always cold and damp, and smelled of pot and Ken’s wet wool socks drying on a rack by the living room fire. We thought we had stepped into real adulthood.

To pay rent, we worked in a Swiss restaurant owned by a Dutchman, Hank Hoof. He ran his names together, and with his accent he said his name like “handcuff,” in keeping with his porn-y choice of waitress uniforms. I wore a short orange dirndl—a skirt with suspenders—and a white blouse edged in rickrack braid. I was an unlikely Swiss Miss, with my brown skin and dark hair.

When the place first opened, people used to line up down the street to get in, so I was told, but it had long passed its heyday. The window boxes were chipped, the wooden chalet framing crumbling, and the cuckoo in the clock no longer appeared. One night there was a single customer, as in one customer. He was a regular, who came several times a week for roast beef and gravy and maybe a flash of my thigh beneath the micro dirndl. I took his order, but forgot to pass it to the kitchen. An hour later, he was still patiently waiting for his meal.


I think of this when my first year students forget to turn in essays. There was certainly something about being eighteen that made basic tasks slip from my grasp. I lost the waitressing job. It was the second loss; I had previously failed at house painting. I once tipped a full pot of exterior matte white from the top of my ladder while painting an old guy’s house. It flew through the open front door and up the hallway. I crawled on my hands and knees across a carpet woven with vines and peonies, blotting and mopping with a cotton rag. I willed the old guy to look the other way as he chatted to his friend in the adjacent living room. I hoped the bright white splotches would look like flowers, but I was not asked back.


dahlia3Stella’s mom’s cancer returned and burrowed into her spine, ten years after it appeared in her breast. Stella and I hitchhiked fourteen hours to visit her in the hospital. She was lying in bed, strapped up in a traction device to relieve the pressure on her back. Her conversation slid out through clenched teeth. We hitchhiked back to school in the rain. I never saw Mrs. B. again.

The stealing had already started. Stella liked to fill vases full of dahlias: amethyst, gold, sapphire, and ruby blooms with emerald leaves, dazzling gems we plucked nightly from the loamy gardens of retirees living near us. Neither of us thought of it as theft.

After Stella’s mom died, household items began to appear. Handy things: a vegetable peeler and a potato masher, a small saucepan, a gallon soup pot. An iron, rolls of toilet paper, bath towels. Pretty things: shiny knick-knacks and velvet bed covers. Stella’s coat was like Mary Poppins’ carpetbag; she’d arrive home, unbutton and disgorge the contents of a kitchenware store or a haberdashery. There were knives and forks and socks and sweaters and dresses and hats and mittens. She’d change out of her fishnets and boots into an elegant dress and high heels, and pin her hair up into a French roll, a disguise to fool unsuspecting storekeepers. Once, she walked into an antiques emporium and picked up a huge nineteenth-century jardinière. She held it out in front like a spinnaker and sailed right out of the store.


We talk about stealing someone’s heart, the act of purloining passion that is not ours to take freely. We talk about stealing liberty, to take freedom through unjust means. Maybe this is what compelled Stella to plunder goods without paying. Her mother had been taken, her heart song snatched away. The stealing became her mourning.

An old poem chimes by Harold Monro, “Overheard on a Saltmarsh.” The strange pleading between a goblin and a nymph tells of obsession—the one howls for what he cannot have, the other will not give up what she stole:

Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?

            Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them?

Give them me.           


Give them me. Give them me.


Then I will howl all night in the reeds,

Lie in the mud and howl for them.

            Goblin, why do you love them so?

They are better than stars or water,

Better than voices of winds that sing,

Better than any man’s fair daughter,

Your green glass beads on a silver ring.

            Hush, I stole them out of the moon.

Give me your beads, I want them.


I will howl in the deep lagoon

For your green glass beads, I love them so.

Give them me. Give them.



Why do we fill our empty spaces with gleaming baubles when it is the entire dazzling moon we desire? We try to grasp light between our fingers, keep love permanent, capture our dear ones in amber. No amount of drinking, cutting, or stealing will suffice.


Leaving home hollowed me out some. My mother’s last year’s of marriage to my stepfather, then her divorce, made her unavailable to me. I flailed about in my late teen years, trying to figure out life beyond high school routine and my mother’s rules. Scrambling about in that first year of college, it felt monumental to just show up on campus. I remember: a professor with a terrible stutter, a class on Grimm’s fairytales, an American lecturer who showed slide after slide after slide of Gothic cathedrals, my feet going numb in the winter frost, accompanying Stella to a department store to steal dresses, and a duck egg blue dress with black piping and a wide black belt which I shoved under my coat. Nothing of Stella’s burden was obvious to me then. If she wept, it was behind the closed door of her bedroom, muffled by her mandala-patterned bedspread and Indian cotton pillows.

Breaking the law left me feeling dazed, not daring. Ultimately, I didn’t want stuff that much. My good girl programming, a Sunday school thou-shalt-not-steal echo, made me feel uncomfortable and shifty. I did not have a mother-sized void to fill—mine was alive and may as well have been perched on my shoulder telling me to be good. When I tried to steal a frozen chicken from the corner store, I failed. My bird-numbed arm would not hold. The fowl slid down, thunk, on to the counter. I laid out the bills to pay for it. The storekeeper did not ask why the poultry emerged from my jacket—a magic trick gone wrong. Life was more absurd and sadder than I could manage.

dahlia4Stella and I never discussed her dead mother or the thieving. No one encouraged us to talk or write about our anguish. What could be said? We stumbled on through our freshman year, until the last semester. Krazy Ken’s even crazier girlfriend Faye had a psychotic episode and pulled a knife on us, I don’t know why. Stella moved in with friends. I answered an ad to live with four engineering students. My boyfriend cheated with a tall, thin blond law student named Pip. She had a voice that dropped two octaves whenever a man was in her radius. He never discussed it with me, he just dropped out of view, stopped visiting, stopped calling. Pip’s unexpected pregnancy and subsequent abortion had sucked his energy, he told me years later, when I met him in a French restaurant in another city. His paunch hung over his belt slightly and he worked as a direct mail executive, so the sting seemed very distant. At the time, it was sharp enough to make me transfer to another college and begin again.

I never intentionally stole again, although the next year I took a can of tuna from the grocery store around the corner from my student apartment. Woozy from having my wisdom teeth removed a few hours earlier, I walked out with my money in one hand and the can in the other. My mother was present then, her warmth supporting me in the courtroom as I was processed and fined. I was grateful for her there, steadying me.


Stella was the first of my friends to marry, the first to have children and the first to really become an adult, no longer adrift. She survived breast cancer and outlived her mother in years. One of her daughters visited me recently—between trips to Burning Man and Bali, cycling solo down the Pacific coast from Canada to Baja California—such an intrepid young woman, nothing flaky about her. We laughed at the stories her mother told her—the time I thought I could fly because of a penicillin allergy, the time we left henna in Stella’s hair overnight and turned it bonfire orange—and grew quiet recalling the stealing and the unfinished grief.

The freshmen in my classes appear so worldly next to my eighteen-year-old self. They visit counselors. They talk to each other. They write about their desolation, their endings. They thaw out their numbness, on the page. We may say we are “at a loss” when we are unsure how to proceed. We may clutch at smuggled trinkets instead of mourning. Sorrow cannot be blotted out by stealing, or by silence. When all we love cannot be reclaimed, words will at least help us remember.


From the forthcoming collection The Miles Between Me (Curbside Splendor, 2016).

Photos licensed via Creative Commons: Soubhagya S. Behera; Becca S.; Torbakhopper. 

Toni Nealie is the author of The Miles Between Me, an essay collection about homeland, dispersal, heritage and family, published by Curbside Splendor. Recent essays have appeared in Guernica, The Prague Review, The Offing, and The Rumpus. Her essay "The Displeasure of the Table" was nominated by The Rumpus for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from New Zealand, she holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. She teaches, writes in Chicago, where she is Literary Editor of Newcity. More from this author →