By Betsy Phillips. Betsy blogs for the Nashville Scene and is the author of the book A City of Ghosts (sold at East Side Story). You can read more about her writing and book at http://betsyphillips.net.
The window the two burglars were crouched under was open. Their intended victim liked the way the noises of neighbors carried on the thick night air. It made him feel less alone. But this meant that, when the thieves began to plot against him, he heard their every word. He was sitting on the couch, in the dark, clutching a threadbare velvet pillow to his bare chest. This is how he sat most nights, as still as the grave. Even if they had seen him, they might not have realized it. His uncanny stillness often rendered him nearly invisible.
“I’ve been watching the house for days,” the first one said. “There’s just one guy. He works the night shift, I’m guessing. I never see him moving around in there until like three, four in the morning. And then he sleeps all day.”
“You’re sure he won’t be home?”
“Not for hours. I got in there the other day just to look around–” This bit of information caused a barely perceptible wrinkle to form on the brow of the man on the couch. How had he failed to notice? People come and go, he reminded himself. If you get too worked up by their presence or passing, you become grief’s monster. He stayed calm.
The first burglar continued “–and it’s like an antique store in there. I got a pocket watch they gave me $400 for at the pawn shop. It was just sitting out on the kitchen table, where anyone could grab it.” Oh, so that’s where that went. “Just stick to the jewelry, maybe the silverware, if it looks really old. But he’s got stuff in there that’ll catch your eye. Listen to me, Larry.” Larry was the second burglar’s name. He smelled slightly sweet, like gas station cigars. “Don’t be tempted. All that weird stuff can be traced too easily. Don’t take it.”
“Yeah, Bub,” Larry said, “I got it.” They went around to the back of the house. The man on the couch heard them break the glass on the back door. They’d be in soon enough. He tucked his fingers under his thighs, checked to make sure his lips were pressed together, and then shut his eyes. This was a superstition of his. He believed that, if nothing about him might gleam in the dark, then he would remain unnoticed. Almost always, he was right.
“It’s like he’s some kind of neat-freak hoarder,” Larry said, looking at the precisely arranged rows and piles covering every surface.
“I told you this place was something else,” Bub said. Bub was running his hands over the collection of earrings in neat rows on the credenza in the hall. “I mean, there’s got to be forty pairs of identical ruby earrings. I can understand forty different pairs of earrings, but forty pairs of the same ruby earrings?”
But you can’t give your lover a dead woman’s jewelry, thought the man on the couch. Surely, everyone knows that. And each pair, though appearing identical, was distinctive to him. The pair that Thalia wore was obviously not Oksana’s, which had a completely different feeling than Gudit’s. He could bear to part with the earrings, if necessary. He’d parted from many things over the years, but he preferred not to.
That was how he remained calm, striking the right balance between saving and losing.
“Cufflinks,” Larry huffed. “Like you said, all the same. Rubies.” Garnets, you idiot, thought the man on the couch. And again, he bristled at the idea that this fool thought they were all alike, as if the red rock at Joel’s wrist could ever be mistaken for the gem that sat at Kim’s.
“Those are garnets,” Bub said.
They were sweeping his things into bags by the armfuls, like hurried children in a candy store. He wondered if they would try to kill him once they noticed him. He wondered if it was normal to not be nervous about this. Surely, surely, one of they might succeed, right? But it’s harder than you’ve been led to believe. He remained calm.
And finally, when they came around to his side of the couch, busy dropping rings into their pockets, he stood. He had been tall, once, and, even though he no longer was, he had the bearing of a man who is used to standing out. To the burglars, it was as if he’d appeared out of nowhere.
Before they could scream, he’d knocked them both to the floor. Bub was up and running in the time it took the man from the couch to lean over Larry and latch on to his neck. In earlier times, he would have been nervous about losing one to drink from the other, but he felt certain Bub wouldn’t leave the house. It was an extraordinary thing—the men you think are the best will flee out into the night, never once turning to look back … not for mothers, not for lovers, not for children. Once in a while, they might save a family pet.
It’s the ones you think have no honor–these thieves, for instance–who are more likely to stay and attempt a rescue. That would be impossible, of course.
As the man from the couch had his dinner, he contemplated Bub. Bub obviously had an eye for the things that interested the man. And though Bub was burlier than the man’s usual companions, he thought that, in a finely cut suit, with garnets at his wrists, he might be quite striking. And, as they all were eventually, he would be quite tasty.
When he finished eating, he calmed himself and went after Bub.