I defended them when they first got caught. I couldn't believe that they would do what this damn security guard was saying. Abby was only 6, and Sarah, 10. I was outraged when the guard stopped us outside the mall department store. He grabbed Sarah's arm.
"Hey, what the hell are you doing?" I shouted. "Get your hand off of her." The girls looked as dumbfounded as I was. It was cold that day and they were wearing their puffy winter coats with attached hoods.
"Your girls were shoplifting in there," the guard said.
"Bullshit," I said. "My daughters don't steal."
"Then you won't mind if I search them." He was a big guy, with his belly rolling over the belt of his rent-a-cop outfit.
"You put one hand on either of them and I'm coming after you."
"Then I guess there's nothing left to do but call the police."
"Call the damn police." I looked to the girls, confident of their innocence. They looked away.
"You'll have to come inside while we wait, sir."
I glanced at the girls again. Abby looked like she was about to cry. "OK, screw it. Search them," I said. "But be careful how you do it."
It didn't take long. The security guard reached into the hood of Abby's coat and pulled out a pink rubber ball and a tube of lipstick. He held them out to me, saying, "I saw the big one drop them in there." Sarah stared down at the pavement.
"They didn't know what they were doing. I'll pay for the damn things." I felt my anger moving in a different direction.
"You're lucky this time," the guard said. "I'm not going to call the cops. But none of you will be allowed in this store from here on out. Am I understood?"
"Screw you, man," I muttered, grabbed hold of the girls' hands and hustled them away. When we were home, I told them to sit down at the kitchen table. "Why'd you do that?" Neither spoke. "You know we don't have to steal, don't you? I can buy you what you want."
"Not always," Sarah said.
"No, not always. That's right," I said. "But still you don't need to take things."
"I'm sorry, Daddy," Abby said.
"What about you, Sarah?"
"I didn't really take those things. They were in Abby's coat."
"You put them there," Abby said. "I didn't even know."
"Still," Sarah said. "I'm not the one."
"You are the one." I said. "At least admit what you did. Then we can move on here."
"You wouldn't have bought me the lipstick. I asked before."
"You don't need lipstick."
"I do." I felt the situation slipping away from me. "I want you to go to your room and think about this. We're going to talk about stealing again in the morning."
"Me too, Daddy?" Abby asked.
"You too what?" I snapped. Abby started to cry. Her big sister took her by the hand and led her upstairs to their bedroom. I sat down in my easy chair and turned on the television.
The next week, it happened again. We walked out of the Lucky Store on Greenwood Ave., me carrying two big paper bags of groceries and Abby trailing behind. As we walked back to our beat-up old house, the one that didn't have any heat (except the little trash burner in the kitchen), I noticed that Abby was chewing gum. "Where'd you get the gum?"
"I dunno." She was hanging on to my shirttails, the way she always did when we were out in traffic.
"You don't know where the gum in your mouth came from?"
"OK," I said. "We'll figure this out when we get home."
By the time we got home, the damn grocery bags were wet and falling apart, and Abby had spit out her gum.
As I unpacked the groceries, Abby stood by the wood stove as if she was trying to get warm, even though there was no fire in it. I put the last bottle of milk in the fridge, then took the soggy bags and tore them into pieces and stuffed them into the stove.
"Want a fire?" I asked.
Abby nodded. She still hadn't taken her coat off.
"Wanna help me get the wood?"
She nodded again.
"Aren't you talking to me today?" I was feeling sad for her and for myself. I wanted a better life for both of us. And I didn't want to be mean to my kids, though sometimes lately I couldn't seem to help it. "I'm not mad at you, you know."
"You're not?" She looked up at me and smiled.
Then I felt even shittier. "Come on, let's go out to the garage so I can cut up some wood."
"Are you going to use the buzz saw?"
"It's called a table saw."
"Why is it called that?" Abby loved to ask questions. She would do it all day, if you kept answering.
"Because it's mounted on a table."
But why is it called 'saw'? What does 'saw' even mean?"
"I don't know. I guess I never thought about it."
It was even colder out in the garage, where I had stacked the wood pallets. Abby sat on an old director's chair and watched while I worked. When I'd disassembled a couple pallets, I took the boards over to the saw to cut into short pieces. I put on my protective glasses and turned on the saw. The noise immediately filled up the garage. I could see why Abby called it a buzz saw. I didn't notice until too late that she had walked right up to the side of the table saw as I began pushing the boards through.
"Daddy, why does it make that sound?"
I turned my head, barely able to hear, and saw her raise her hand toward the table and the spinning blade. Holding tight to the wood with my right hand, I swatted Abby away with my left and felt the back of my hand connect with her face. I switched the motor off and took a deep breath. "Goddamn it, Abby. What the hell were you doing?" I looked down and saw that she was sitting on the garage floor, her face pale except for the pink streak where I had struck her. "You could have lost your hand. Don't you know that?" I bent to pick her up, pulled her up into my arms and held her tight. I'd never hit one of my children before. I must have started to cry.
"Don't cry, Daddy. I won't do it again."
We stood like that for another few minutes.
"Can we make the fire now?"
"Sure, baby. Let's go do that." I put her down and picked up a stack of kindling. "Let's go inside."
I made spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. It was the girls' favorite. During dinner Sarah told us about a boy in her class who was teasing her.
"What'd you do then?" Abby asked.
"I smacked him," Sarah said. "Right in the face."
"You shouldn't do that," I said. "There are better ways to handle things."
"But he wouldn't stop," Sarah said.
"You could have told the teacher, couldn't you?"
"No way. She just laughs and says, 'He's flirting with you'."
"Your teacher's a shithead," I said.
"Yeah, I know," Sarah said.
"Let's clear the table and do the dishes. Then we can talk about the other thing."
"What other thing?" Sarah asked.
"He means stealing stuff," Abby said.
"Oh that," Sarah said.
"Yeah, that," I said, wishing I had someone around to help me through this.
Sarah was in high spirits, talking nonstop. I think she was happy about standing up for herself that day in school and I was pleased that she'd been strong enough to deal with her problem, though I still didn't like the idea of her hitting someone.
"So listen," I said. "There are certain things that are not OK to do. Do you guys understand what I'm talking about?"
"Sure," Sarah said. "That's like the Ten Commandments. Mom told us about them."
"Well, that's not exactly what I mean," I said, the mention of Carolyn setting me back. My ex was now a committed churchgoer. Born-again, she called it. "You don't have to believe in fairy tales to know the difference between right and wrong."
"But Mom says that we're all God's children and that we'll all go to heaven and be saved, if we do right here on earth."
"That's why I don't like you going to see your mother. She's filling your heads with all that crazy bullshit."
"Mom says it's not OK to use swear words," Sarah said.
"Fuck Mom," I yelled.
The girls began to giggle, and I took a deep breath and tried to get back on track.
"Look, all I'm trying to say is that it's not OK to take things that don't belong to you. It's not only wrong, but it's illegal."
"What's ill-eagle?" Abby asked.
"It means it's against the law, dummy," Sarah said.
"Don't call her that."
"But she is," Sarah said.
"Why don't you try to be nicer to your little sister? Anyway, I don't want this to ever happen again. If you want something or need something, you come and talk to me about it."
"But what if you don't have the money and we really need something?" Sarah said.
"Then you have to wait. You can't always have everything you want right when you want it."
"I wish I could," Sarah said.
I turned to Abby, "So, where's the gum?"
"It's upstairs in our room."
"Go get it," I said. She slid off her chair and ran upstairs. Sarah and I sat looking at each other while she was gone. I felt like Sarah was thinking she'd rather be with her mother, making cookies and listening to Jesus stories. I was glad when I heard Abby coming back down the steps. She put a yellow package of Chiclets on the table in front of me.
"So what are we going to do now?" I asked.
"I don't know," Abby said.
"I know," Sarah said. "We'll give them to poor people."
"Poor people don't need gum," I said.
"How do you know?" Sarah pushed her bottom lip out. She looked then just like her mother.
"That's not the point," I said. "Anyway, I want Abby to decide what to do."
"I don't know," Abby said, close to tears.
"What would be the right thing, baby?"
"I could take the gum back to the store," she said quietly.
"I think that's a good idea."
"They're going to yell at her," Sarah chimed in. "And make her go to jail."
"No they're not." I reached into my pocket and pulled out a dollar bill. "Give the gum and the money to the lady at the register, and tell her what you did." Looking at her frightened expression, it was all I could do not to say, No, forget about it. Let's just all go watch television. "You go with her," I said to Sarah. "But let Abby do the talking." Sarah jumped up, glad now to have a part in what she probably saw as an exciting adventure.
After they'd bundled up and gone out the door, I went back into the kitchen to make lunches for the next school day. I opened the refrigerator door and stared inside it, but that's as far as I could get. "Damn," I said out loud. "Damn, damn, damn, damn." Then I went and sat back down at the kitchen table and waited for my precious daughters to come back home.