My Life of Crime

My friend Mark from Devon, England is here and we’re in the library. He has applied for a library card so he can check out books during his stay, but more importantly, so that he can download ebooks and audiobooks to his tablet when we take to the road.

Next to the checkout desk is a big bin full of non perishable food. It’s for the library’s annual food-for-fines event, where for every food item you donate they will reduce your fine by $1. I have several cans of food at home that my tenants left behind and I know I won’t eat, so this seems like the perfect place for them to land. I haven’t wanted to just throw them away.

“Excuse me,” I say to the librarian. “How long will you be collecting food?” 

She shrugs. “The drive is over,” she says, “but as you can see the food hasn’t been collected. You can donate as long as it’s still here, but you missed the deadline for reducing fines.” 

“I only owe 25 cents,” I reply, “so that’s okay. I just want to give you some food.”

She smiles. “If you get back here with it in the next couple of hours, I’m pretty sure you’ll be in time.” 

As Mark and I turn to leave, I spot a can of Trader Joe’s coconut cream. That’s just what I need for the recipe I want to try out in the new ice cream maker I found at a yard sale a few weeks ago. Every time I’ve gone to Joe’s to get some they are out of it and can’t tell me when they’ll have more. And I can’t find it anywhere else for less than $5 a can, which is way beyond my budget.

A few hours later we’re back at the library, with a small box of canned food in the pannier of Mark’s motorcycle. “Here’s the thing,” I say as we walk across the parking lot. “I’m going to put this food in the bin, and then I’m going to take the can of coconut milk out of the bin.” He raises an eyebrow, then grins and opens his mouth to say something, but I shush him. “I might need you to distract them,” I tell him. “You know, if they’re standing close by, and watching or whatever, just tell a joke or something.”

“Tell a joke?” he asks. 

“Yeah, you can think up a joke, right?”

“Uh, no,” he says. 

“Fine, just ask a question or something. Get them to walk with you away from the food bin.” By way of answer he rolls his eyes.

We walk inside and I see the food bin is full to bursting. Not one, not two, but three librarians are standing nearby. I discreetly walk over and kneel down on the floor, setting my helmet down and opening the box of food. I stand up with a can of food and lay it gently on top of the pile. Three pairs of eyes gaze at me. “I’m just donating some food,” I say. They all smile as one. I bend over and pick up another can, and another, until I have only one can left. They are all still standing there watching me. I look around for Mark, but he’s sitting at one of the computers with his back to me. So much for distracting the staff. Slowly, I move my hands over the food in the bin, as if I’m trying to find just the right place to put my item. I gently lift up and resettle a jar of spaghetti. Now one of the librarians is helping a patron at the counter, an elderly gentleman with a large pile of books. Another is on her computer. The third one, however, is still standing there, with nothing better to do it would seem than to watch me. “You’ve gotten a lot of food,” I say, as if this weren’t obvious. She nods. I place my can of beans next to the can of coconut cream, and spend a few seconds making like I’m pushing it securely into the pile. “Thank you,” a voice says, and I look up to see her nodding at me as she walks past, heading towards the children’s department. “Oh, you’re welcome,” I reply, and as soon as she turns away I quickly grab the can of coconut cream and duck back to the ground, dropping it into my small box and closing the lid. But not before I see that there is a second can of coconut cream buried under the first. 

How much coconut cream do I need for my recipe? I wonder. Surely two cans would be better than one, I can make twice as much ice cream. I stand back up but it’s too late, the first librarian has finished helping the old man and while she isn’t exactly staring at me, she is looking in my direction. I smile at her then pick up my box and my helmet and walk pointedly over to Mark. The single can of coconut milk is rattling around in the box. “You were supposed to distract them,” I whisper. “I’m busy,” he says. “Besides, you got it, right?” “Yeah,” I tell him. “But there’s another one.” He shrugs. “You’ve got time. I’m going to be another few minutes here.” I sit down and think about it. I don’t want to be greedy, maybe I should just let it go at the one can. A few minutes pass. I did leave at least six cans though. And two boxes of food coloring. If I took the second can of coconut cream, they’d still be up four cans. And really, how many people are going to want coconut cream? Isn’t that kind of a specialty item? It’s not like beans, or rice, or spaghetti-os. We’re talking about poor people here, people who are hungry. They’ll want cans of food they can open and eat outright, not cans of something they have to cook in some exotic recipe. I glance over to the checkout desk and see there is only one librarian there. Nonchalantly I walk over to the food bin. I spot the can of cream and edge close to it, pretending to be just hanging out there while Mark  finishes up. I wait for my moment. 

Finally there’s no one at the desk. Quickly I step toward the bin and reach my hand in. I don’t see the coconut milk right away though, I must have dislodged it earlier. Glancing furtively around me, I rummage around for it. In my haste I bump a can close to the edge, which falls to the floor with a loud thud. I freeze and close my eyes. Suddenly I know what’s going to happen. This gigantic tower of food is going to collapse, and I’m going to be arrested for shoplifting. “Look,” I’ll say. “It’s not how it looks. I put the cans of coconut cream into the bin by mistake. I didn’t mean to donate them, they got into my donation box by accident.” 

“Those cans of Trader Joe’s coconut cream were already in the food bin,” they’ll say, calling me out on my lie. “You didn’t donate them.” 

“Okay, you’re right,” I’ll admit. “But it’s not what you think. I need that coconut cream. I’ve been to Joe’s no less than five or six times to buy coconut cream, and they’re always out of it. It’s not like I’m stealing, I mean I gave you six cans of food and two boxes of food coloring. That’s eight for two! Some of them were even organic. And I’m poor too,” I’ll remind them. “I’m one of those people who could easily qualify for food from the food bank. I have no money!! I could go to the food bank and get the coconut cream from them, I’m just saving time, that’s all.” They won’t care though, they’ll handcuff me and set bail and I won’t even be able to pay it. 

When I open my eyes Mark is standing beside me. “Be quick,” he hisses. He is standing between me and the closest librarian. I look into the bin again and there is the can of coconut cream. I reach in, snatch it up, and drop it in to the box with the other. Tentatively I look around, ready to start protesting, apologizing, explaining. But nobody is paying us any attention. “Shall we go?” asks Mark, and with a sigh of relief I follow him out the door.

The next day I make butter pecan ice cream. It is fantastic.

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