I Was a Thief and a Coward

After all these years, why can't I forgive myself?

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My dad's best friend owned the local used bookstore in our neighborhood. It was dark and dusty, like all good bookstores should be. A labyrinth of shelves topped high with classic paperbacks and dog-eared coffee table books—their pictures faded, their pages yellowed—created a maze in the tiny store.

As an avid reader, I lived there. I'd walk over with my sisters, deposit them at the local drugstore, give them money for cokes and fries at the counter in the back, and wander over to Pete's.

Pete Granger was tall and thin and quiet, just like my dad. He had a quirky sense of humor and a shy smile. As a regular customer and a family friend, he discounted the books I bought so much I swear he lost money every time I stepped through the door. He even bought six stone paperweights I'd painted zodiac signs on (hey, it was the '60s) and displayed them in the window. He gave me $18—$3 each—and they sat there for years, getting dustier and dustier. Not one of them ever sold.

An insecure 14-year-old, I suffered in junior high. I had zits and braces and an aura that shouted "kick me"—and the cool kids did. I couldn't talk about it with my parents. My mom would only tell me they were jealous, which was so far from the truth, I didn't know if she just wasn't interested in my emotional health or trying to get rid of me. Either way, there was no relief to be found there. It never crossed my mind to talk to my dad. Not in his job description.


But I could talk to Pete. I'd sit on an old chair behind the counter at his store and we'd gab about books and life. He knew I had a terrible crush on Nathan Hoffman, and how badly I wanted to be friends with Chris, one of the cool girls at school who sat behind me in homeroom. He encouraged me to reach out—this from a single guy in his early 40s who was so shy he'd never married. But I listened.

And it worked. Chris and I started to hang out. She loved to read too, so one day, trying to impress her, I took her to Pete's bookstore. He winked at me when I introduced her and gave us the run of the shop. We spent hours in the mystery and horror section, and soon had a stack of books so tall there was no way we could afford to buy them.

"Let's steal them," I whispered.

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The look on Chris' face was golden. She was in awe—of me. Emboldened by her admiration, I snuck the pile of books out through the back door and hid them behind the trashcans in the alley. I sauntered back in.

We hung out for a bit, trying not to look suspicious, said goodbye to Pete, and then hauled ass out the front door and around the block to the alley behind the store. The books were gone.

Kids are sloppy and obvious, and when they're up to something, they project it like a neon sign believing they have everyone fooled. Pete knew I stole those books. And when we left, he slipped out the back door and got them.

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I was so ashamed of myself I stopped going to the bookstore. He never told my dad.

A couple of years passed and shy, sweet Pete met a woman who had a 7-year-old son. He married her and adopted the little boy.

One day, he drove by in his old beat-up VW—his little boy in the passenger seat. They both looked so happy. But their happiness was short-lived. A year later, a truck hit Pete's VW a few blocks from the store. Both he and his son were killed instantly.

The day I stole the books was 50 years ago. Yet, lately, random events, snippets of conversations, odd flashes of memory bring my past to life. Stuff I haven't thought about in decades could have happened yesterday. Looking for special meaning, I examine all of it, no matter how trivial.

I wish I hadn't stolen those books. I wish I had apologized. When I try to forgive my 14-year-old self—I was just a kid—I can't. Pete forgave me. That was who he was. But I've never forgiven myself.

I know I would have apologized when I was older. A little maturity and life experience helps us tackle the hard stuff. I would walk into his bookstore and it would be the same, only dustier and now filled with hipsters. We would laugh about my lame attempt to impress the cool girl and probably laugh at the hipsters, too, then open a new box of mystery books sitting on his counter. I hold this vision close when I feel the sting of tears at his memory and I hope that someday I'll be able to forgive myself. Pete would be happy.