The man sitting across the metal table from me seems to be in charge. He looks a little like my dad, and my dad looks a little like Elliott Gould, and I've always really admired Elliott Gould as an actor. Maybe I equally remind him of someone he admires, actor or not, and this recognition will give way to clemency.
"Am I going to jail?" I ask.
He picks up the offending item and points it at me. "We'll get to that in a minute," he says. "First thing I want to know is: what made you think you could get away with stealing from my store?"
The detainment area where they've brought me is little more than a glorified broom closet. Two folding chairs, a folding table on which they've placed the offending item, metal shelving in the corner stacked dense with dot matrix printing paper, two monitors. The other man stands by the door with his arms folded. I imagine they practice this regularly, the staging of interrogation. I'm ashamed to say it's working.
I want to know what happens next. In the minutes, hours, days ahead. Our dog is at home and he needs to pee and he needs to eat. I have to be at work tomorrow. My wife will be wondering where I am. I tell them all this as evidence that they have the wrong man, that I'm a responsible person with a wife, a dog, a job. Please.
You and I watch a lot of television in bed. Police procedurals are your favorite. On one of our laptops resting on my lap we'll watch hour after hour of Law & Order in all its manifestations, the dog at our feet, cat on your chest: Criminal Intent, Special Victims Unit, even sometimes reruns of the original franchise if it's been so long we forgot how they ended. You love the interrogations. You love it when they break a man, catch him in a lie. It's interesting then how easily you accept what I say, even when you know I'm lying. Even when I know you know I'm lying. When you ask if I used the last of the half and half and I say no, you know I'm lying but you keep it to yourself. When you ask if I've been drinking. It's easier for me to tell you what you want to hear. I think maybe that's what you want too and that's why you ask.
On top of your dresser sits a vase we use for the flowers you often bring home. Usually tulips because they're cheapest, but sometimes hydrangeas, lilies, daffodils. You hate roses. Whatever you get the cat jumps up on the dresser and chews at the leaves. We'll find their remnants later in little piles of vomit throughout the apartment. This doesn't stop you from bringing flowers home. You've accepted that the little piles of vomit are the cost of bringing home your flowers.
They wait until I'm nearly out the door to stop me. The man who doesn't look like Elliott Gould puts a hand on my shoulder. It's the most unnatural thing in the world to feel a hand on your shoulder in a public space. A violation. I turn around and recognize him from browsing through the aisles. He had a shopping basket with him that he doesn't have now. "I'm going to need you to come with me," he says. The hand remains on my shoulder as he leads me past the checkout stands, all the customers staring at me. "Oh shit!" exclaims one of the younger customers.
He leads me to the detainment room where he confiscates the offending item from my pocket and hands it to the man who looks like Elliott Gould. When Elliott sees what I've taken, he looks back at the other man to confirm, shakes his head. I agree that this really is a preposterous situation. "Listen," I say. "Can I just pay for it? I mean, I meant to pay for it. Please. I have a credit card." I explain the dog, wife, job.
Elliott shakes his head. "That's not the way this works," he says.
"How does it work?" I ask. "Am I going to jail?"
He asks me where I live. He asks me what I do for work. He makes a Xerox copy of my driver's license. He explains that they have to calculate the value of the item, and if the item is over a certain price they contact the police to take over, cite me, maybe take me to jail. If the item is under that price they handle it themselves. "A fine," he says. "Admission of guilt. You'll also be banned from the store for a period of time."
I nod enthusiastically. I have no intention of ever returning to this store. "What's the certain price it can't be over?"
"I can't tell you that," he says. He asks me how much money I have on me. I show him: three one dollar bills, a credit card and nine quarters. The quarters are for laundry, which I was planning on doing after I took out the dog.
Sometimes I bring home flowers too. On our anniversary or your birthday or Valentine's Day I'll buy you flowers and put them in the vase on top of your dresser. You'll rearrange them when you get home because you're much better at flower arranging, remind me that I have to clip the stems at an angle. Maybe once or twice a year I'll bring home flowers for no special occasion, if we had a fight the night before or when you're so sad you can't get out of bed or say something like, "I guess it'd be nice if you bought me flowers once in a while just because," I'll bring home flowers the next day to show I'm the kind of husband who doesn't need a special occasion to bring flowers home to his wife. You smile when you see them, so surprised, and give me a kiss.
We used to get in arguments about the flowers. Before we were married, when money was tight. You had filed for bankruptcy and were just starting a new job and I argued that flowers were a luxury we couldn't afford. "They just die after a couple of days," I said. We were fighting like we often did about money when you admitted that often you didn't actually buy the flowers. Sometimes you just took them.
"Like shoplifting?" I asked. "What if you get caught?"
"I don't get caught," you said, like until then you'd never even considered the possibility, like stealing flowers was too whimsical and romantic to be considered a crime. It is very whimsical and romantic, I'll grant you, but whimsy and romance and crime are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
I made you promise me. "Please," I said. "Don't steal any more flowers." I conjured the inevitable scenario of you in an orange jumpsuit talking to me via telephone through a plexiglass partition. If flowers were really that important to you then you should just buy them. "Do you promise?" I asked. "Please promise me."
"Okay," you sighed reluctantly. "I promise."
The offending item is a dongle. It plugs into my phone and connects to the car outlet so I can listen to my podcasts while I drive. At least that's what it's supposed to do. I never get a chance to try it out. It comes in a package of three different colored dongles, but I only need the one. Black. I could just buy the package, throw the rest away. It's only twenty dollars. But also I could just open the package, take out the one I need and put it in my pocket. The checkout lines are long and I have no moral qualms against shoplifting from Wal-Mart.
The man who doesn't look like Elliott Gould drops the package with the remaining dongles next to the dongle confiscated from my pocket. He's still trying to determine the certain price it can't be over, if that price is just for the dongle I stole or the full retail price of the package. It's been over an hour since they brought me back here. If they let me go soon I can still make it home before you, take out the dog, pretend like this never happened.
For how long is my moral authority compromised? I absolutely can't tell you you can't steal flowers anymore, unless it's as a cautionary tale, describe my afternoon in the detainment room of a Wal-Mart and say, "See? This is why you shouldn't steal flowers." It's not really moral though. Maybe Elliott Gould is looking at me like I'm a bad guy but you wouldn't. Stupid, maybe. Careless. "I don't get caught," you said. Maybe that's the only difference.
Elliott Gould tells me I'm a lucky, lucky guy. They won't be calling the police on me. He has me sign an admission of guilt. The fine I'll have to pay through the mail, after I get a letter from the store's attorneys, but I won't be allowed to shop here for the next twelve months. He still won't tell me what the price was that would have escalated my punishment. I don't know why it's so important to me, why I keep pushing. I should probably let well enough alone, but I want to know how close I came to imploding my life. It's nice that they have that number, a tangible threshold beyond which you might never come back from, and I want to know what it is.