If it's Tuesday, I must be in Stop and Shop. I'm there grocery shopping for my father. God only knows, what would he have done had I not left New York six years ago and returned to the Cape. When my mother died, I guess he would have starved to death because he can't purchase food. Or, at least, that is the general belief.
So, every Tuesday, I make the short trip, past the high school tennis courts, to his house to pick up his credit card. It seems like yesterday that he and I used to play together on those courts and now, he can't even buy a quart of milk for himself. I've mastered the technique of using the scan gun so I can get in and out of the market within twenty minutes, tops, before returning to his house and helping him unload his week's worth of frozen dinners, dog food, and treats that would make a second grader's heart skip a beat. I don't usually hang around. I know one day I will regret the fact that I am always in some kind of a hurry, that I fit the shopping excursion into my schedule as necessary evil, sandwiched in between other more pleasant activities. My father generally seems fine with my not sticking around. He likes to pretend that he is busy or has somewhere to go and dismisses me soon after the return of his credit card.
But, today, was different.
"Are you in a hurry?"
"Come on in and sit down, I want to tell you a story"
Well, an offer of a good story. I could hardly resist. So, into the sunroom we went.
"It was Christmas. I was about thirteen years old. We didn't have money for a Christmas tree. I wanted one for my mother but we didn't have the dollar to buy one. I went to the store that was on our street and the owner of the store asked me if I would deliver a tree to one of his customers. He told me to pick out five cents worth of candy. So, I took the tree and.......I kept it. I STOLE the tree! Later that night, there was a knock on the door. It was the owner of the store and the customer who bought the tree. I swore to them that I delivered that tree and they finally left. I LIED to them. Good thing my mother wasn't there. She was the superintendent of our building and she was busy somewhere. If she had been there.....I would not be sitting here right now. What I could never understand was how they knew my name and where I lived"
I'm sure I have heard this story before. Each time he tells it, he is dead serious. He's 92 years old and he says he still can picture it all vividly. He has a need to tell me that he stole and he lied. He seems so troubled about his evil-doings and has so much angst about his inability to figure out how he was found by the victims of his one-dollar heist. His eyes, once a true brown, are now a cloudy shade of grey, almost blue. They totally lack brilliance. They are similar in color to those of a newborn. As he tells his story, he squishes up his face as if he's studying a fleck on my face, about to tell me to sit still so he can swat it away. Over and over, he makes reference to the fact that he has stolen. He seems so pathetically remorseful, I almost want to rush out and find a priest to hear his confession and to finally give him a penance, if only to see his facial muscles relax again.
My father lost his mother a few years after the crime. She died suddenly, leaving him alone with a father who did not want him. I tried to tell him that the story was a nice one, that he didn't really do anything wrong, that the good he did for his mother far outweighed the deed. I tell him that he probably became a policeman because he felt it a duty to protect people and that he did such a wonderful job doing just that. I tell him that he was brave in that role. I also suggest that, had the shop owner known that this would be one of the last Christmas trees his mother would have, he would have had a kind heart. I did not let on that he had already told his story not once, but several times. Each time, I wait for him to start a flood of tears. Instead, the tears remain behind the wall, clouding up the eyes that were once brown and full of life. I wonder if he tells the story with the hope that the flood gates will open up, releasing him of his guilt for once and for all. Perhaps, one day, before his own time runs out, that will happen and he can enjoy just one more Christmas.