Like so many families in the early eighties, the Snarts had only one car; and, of course, Lewis used it daily to go to work. Darlene sometimes got it on the weekend; but, for the most part, she did her shopping on foot, heading over with the baby carriage. It was only a strip mall, anchored by a small supermarket; but it had a hairdresser’s, which Darlene patronized weekly. Also, there was a launderette, though that was for weekends, when the car was available. After school, if there was no pick-up game in the park, Leo also sometimes headed over to the shopping centre, though not under Darlene’s ægis. He was reckoned old enough now to do what he pleased round the neighbourhood as long as he got home for dinner.
From a boy’s perspective, there wasn’t a lot at the mall. Besides the garage where his Dad gassed up the car, there were a barber, where Leo was taken, now and then, for a trim; a burger’n’ribs restaurant for family nights out; a shoe repair; a hardware store; and a dress shop. Teenagers hung out at the pizza joint; but, as far as Leo was concerned, that was simply food. Like any sensible kid, he headed instead for the so-called cigar store. This emporium had a long cash desk fronted by racks of candy bars, behind which Mr. Thornley kept cigarettes. At the back of the store were magazines and newspapers, comics and paperbacks; in between were shelves of knick-nacks, cheap perfume, and other gifts, fancy wrap and bows, and a twirly stand with birthday cards. If Leo took his time, he could kill a half hour easy, maybe even an hour; and it was certainly better to be out of the house rather than risk being told to mind the baby, against which the only defence was homework. Except at Christmas, when he had been compelled to save up and buy a gift for his stepmother, he spent his pocket money on candy and comics, and the occasional paperback. Or, if he saved up for a few weeks, he could choose himself a volume from the display of Tom Swift books, for which he had a passion not shared by either the school or public libraries.
It happened on a hot day in June. Not the full heat of summer yet; but the south wind came damp from the Gulf. His bedroom had been stifling yesterday, and hadn’t been much better in the morning even with the window flung open. However, the stores in the mall had already turned on their air conditioning; and Leo lingered in the back aisle of Thornley’s Cigar Store, knowing that he had extra money in his pocket that Dad had slipped him after their job on the weekend. Browsing along the low shelves of paperbacks, he picked up one that had a dragon on the cover, only to find that it had a girl heroine and put it back. A little further along the same shelf he spotted the crisp lines of a triangular ship approaching a globular space station. The blurb on the back of the book suggested the story was about sci-fi doctors—he flipped it over and saw red crosses on the white ship—but also mentioned aliens. He took a peek inside and was soon engrossed.
Above the shop door the bell tinkled. For a moment, his attention faltered; and he turned his head to see a gaggle of boys come in, joshing and shoving. He recognized Randy’s brother: the others were vaguely familiar from round the area. None was among his own friends: they were older, in junior high. So, knowing that Mr. Thornley would soon come over and suggest firmly that he either stop reading or buy the book, Leo turned back to the paperback, whose pages he flipped as fast as he could read.
“HI! DROP THOSE!!!”
That pried loose his attention. Leo turned to see Mr. Thornley lumbering back to the cash desk, where a big freckled boy with a shock of light hair had gone behind to grab packs of cigarettes. In an instant, the others scattered for the door; Mrs. Thornley appeared for a moment from the back of the store; and the big kid hurdled the counter. Mr. Thornley caught him by the back of his T-shirt with a long-reaching grab that yanked it down one shoulder; and the kid wriggled in his grasp. He almost got loose. Then, twisting round with a badly aimed punch at the store owner, he tripped into a stand of birthday cards, bringing it down and himself with it.
Leo stood very still, staring and silent, as Mr. Thornley pinned the boy to the floor.
“I called the cops,” said Anna Thornley, returning from the back room. Then, seeing Leo at the back of the store, she stalked down the aisle and collared him, too. “Got this one!” she said over her shoulder.
“I didn’t do anything,” Leo protested.
“Oh, yeah?” She looked at him with contempt. “What about that book?”
He still had it in his hand. It was perfectly visible—not in his pocket, or anything—and he was nowhere near the exit, let alone out of the store with it. “I was going to pay,” he said.
Which was true; but he wasn’t surprised to hear her scoff, “Sure you were.”
With a sense of inevitability, he heard a siren.
In the squad car, he decided to answer their questions as Gramps had told him a P.o.W. should: name, rank, and serial number. Snart being an uncommon name, the connection was made. “The apple don’t fall far from the tree,” one of the cops sneered. Leo flushed; but he didn’t talk back. He knew perfectly well that, if grown-ups can’t punish you for what they’re really mad about, then they’ll get you for being rude. At least, that was true at school; and he figured a police station was much the same.
From what he’d seen on television, he ought to be allowed to make one phone call. However, it was one of the cops who actually dialed and talked to Darlene; and the phone never did get passed over to Leo. He was then sat on a bench at the side of the squad room to wait; and a policewoman came and kept an eye on him. For almost an hour he assumed Darlene would come any minute; but she never showed. Eventually, he concluded that she didn’t want to wake Lisa and couldn’t leave a baby in the house alone. Perhaps she phoned his father at the garage; perhaps not. At any rate, he didn’t come, either. At one point, a burly angry man stalked into the station demanding to “see his Joey”. He had short fair hair and a something of the look of the big kid who’d been stealing cigarettes. A while later, a lawyer came in to “see his client”; and this might have been Joey’s father’s attorney, unless it was another case entirely.
A couple of times the policewoman asked if Leo wanted a drink or the bathroom; but, to his surprise, she never questioned him about the shoplifting. He was glad about it, though, for he couldn’t see any way to clear himself except by snitching on the older boy; and that, of course, was wrong by every kid’s code. It did occur to him that Thornley’s Cigar Store might have one of those security cameras. If the store had ever been scoped out for burglary, it would be something that he ought to know already: that was just the sort of thing Dad was careful about. As it was, though, Leo had never even noticed. For a moment, he almost asked the police woman about the chance of VCR tapes, and then thought better of it: a kid his age probably shouldn’t even know about such things.
Behind the scenes, of course, statements were being taken and checked. Mr. Thornley made it quite clear that the little kid at the back of the store had got there long before the thieves. But Leo knew none of this.
Lewis did eventually come to pick up his son—after he’d finished at the garage for the day, had a beer with the guys, and gone home to find Darlene hadn’t even started dinner. He hardly got through the door before she was on him with the news; and he had to get back in the car, unfed, and drive to the police station, where he was met with knowing looks from the guys taking a smoke outside. “They’ve decided not to press charges,” was all the sergeant told him when he went in. Beyond the desk he could see Leo, sitting on a bench with a female cop beside him. The boy’s eyes lit up; but all Lewis could wonder was why the hell his own son had been fool enough to go shoplifting with a bunch of boys who couldn’t even pocket a packet of smokes without getting caught at it. And, if he’d been that dumb, then there was no saying what the kid might have blurted out already.
On the way home, Leo tried more than once to make excuses: “It wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.” Lewis didn’t want to hear his lies.
“You’ve done about as bad as you could, and you know it.”
Oh, he was well worked up by the time he pulled the car up the drive and round back to the garage. The one good thing was that, when they came in the kitchen door, Darlene had started fixing the meal. “You can hold that,” he told her. “I gotta take care of something else first.” He grabbed Leo’s arm. “He needs to learn a lesson about getting into bad company.” And he hauled Leo out through the living room to the front hall, and upstairs.
Darlene figured she knew the sort of “lesson” her husband had in mind; and, whatever Lewis had run into at the police station, Leo probably richly deserved it. After a short while, she heard a repetitious thwacking sound upstairs, nodded to herself, and turned the heat off under the frypan. The table was already set; so she sat in her armchair to skim through Vogue while waiting for Lewis to be done with the boy.
Upstairs, Leo lay across the bed where his father had flung him. He didn’t deserve the belt, in his opinion; and Dad would know that if he’d only listened. After the pain of several strokes, he was sure that any punishment he did deserve was done. But when he said “That’s enough, Dad!” and started to shift away, he found himself instantly held down and whacked even harder.
“Don’t you fuckin’ tell me what you get,” Lewis said, outraged by this insolence. He was far bigger and stronger than his son: one arm pinned the boy securely. “Get the police on us,” he hissed. “Haven’t I told you? Haven’t I told you?” His voice rose as he lost his temper completely. “Keep your fuckin’ nose clean, you little son of a bitch. Last damn thing I want or need, the fuckin’ fuzz down on us!” He punctuated his speech with the swinging belt.
Downstairs, Darlene frowned; but she didn’t go up. Leo was Lewis’s son. This was his business, not hers.
Upstairs, belt hit bruise one time too often. Tears welled, grew to sobs, and then to shameful begging and desperate wriggling. “Fuckin’ coward, take it like a man!” Lewis yelled, and whacked away.
The baby joined the wailing; and Darlene decided enough was more than enough. She set aside the magazine, walked in a measured fashion up the stairs, and pushed open the door to Leo’s room. “Lewis,” she started, “he’s waked up Lisa with all that yelling. Don’t you think—”
She got no further. Lewis swivelled silently, and hit her—not with the belt, but a round back-hander across her face. She stumbled back, staring in shock. Then, without another word, she turned on her heel and left. Lewis heard her steps go along the hall towards the baby’s room. Stunned, he looked down at the belt in his hand, then round at his son, who was scrambling away backwards over the other side of the bed, his wide eyes fixed on his father. For a moment, Lewis almost said something; but then he headed downstairs.
He drove for hours round town, stopping off at a Big Belly Burger only when his stomach complained too hard about the lack of dinner. It was well after midnight when he finally returned. The house was dark, which was no great surprise, given the hour. He let himself in and went upstairs quietly. In Leo’s room, the boy was a dim lump on the bed that didn’t budge when he flicked on the light. He went over and looked down at him for a long while. Leo’s face was half-buried in the pillow; but he could still see tear stains on the lad’s cheeks. Gently, he turned back the covers, finding his son had changed into PJs. Carefully flipping up the tail of the top, he saw broad purple bruises crossing Leo’s back. He didn’t try pulling down the pants: he could guess the marks would be worse down there. Biting his lip, he left the room, closing the door gently.
His—their—bedroom was empty. This was a surprise. He’d assumed, if Darlene weren’t waiting up to yell at him, then she’d go to bed. Then he thought to check the baby’s room, only to find that empty, too. Lisa was not in her crib. Quickly going back to their own room, he checked the closet. It wasn’t empty; but it was pretty picked over.
So she’d gone in a huff back to Mother. Anyway, that was what he guessed: it was a classic woman’s ploy. Other guys had had it done to them after a row: it figured that Darlene would try the same. And take the baby with her, of course. (Just as well: he’d no wish to be changing diapers, and no idea how to warm a bottle.)
He’d no fancy to sleep in a cold bed alone, and went downstairs. There he turned on all the lights and got himself a drink. As for the note, he found that on the kitchen counter. It said pretty well what he expected.
When Leo woke the following morning, he wriggled sideways out of the bed to avoid putting any pressure where it hurt. He took a quick shower, letting the water do most of the cleaning, dried as delicately as he could manage, and dressed stiffly. His father was already up. When he saw him in the kitchen, Leo stopped in the doorway warily; but Lewis simply looked at him and said, “Food’ll be on the table in a minute.” Leo hung round the table without sitting down; and Lewis came out after a bit with a jug of syrup and a platter piled high with pancakes. He looked at his son consideringly, and suggested the boy fix his plate at the table but take it to the couch. “Softer on your ass,” he said kindly.
Pancakes were a rare treat.
They sat, in not quite companionable silence, until nearly the end of the meal. The clock on the wall said 7:43 when Lewis said, “You can stay home from school for the rest of the week. I’ll write you a note.”
“Darlene’s gone to visit her folks for a bit."
“Yeah, she said.” Leo thought about this for a moment and added, “She told me she’d’ve liked to take me with her. Only I’m not her son. She didn’t have the right to.”
His father did not respond.
After Dad was gone to work, Leo climbed painfully back up the stairs to his room, where he spent most of the day lying on the bed chain-reading his way through his favourite books. Midday, his stomach took him down to the kitchen, where he foraged in the fridge for leftovers. At some point he woke up, found he was lying on a half-squashed comic, and realized he must have napped. His father came in around the usual time, bringing take-out for dinner. They ate in front of the television, where Lewis clicked the remote until he found a cop show. Since Leo had no new homework, he curled up on the couch with as little weight on his sore ass as he could manage, while Lewis spent most of the commercial breaks pointing out procedural idiocies. Finally, the news came on; and Leo headed upstairs for bed. Once he managed to find a fairly comfortable position on his stomach, he fell deeply asleep.
The next few days gave him plenty of time to think. Eventually, as the bruises began to fade, he came to realize that his punishment had not been undeserved. “Pay attention to your surroundings at all times,” that was what Dad said. One of the first rules he’d ever learned, and he’d ignored it. Yet rules were rules at all times—and “all times” included afternoon in the mall, not just when the two of them were out at night. Leo should have paid attention to the sounds that his ears were trying to tell him: the footsteps of the big boys dispersing round the store; Mr. Thornley coming out from behind the counter; his calling “Anna, get out here.” Vaguely, Leo had registered all this: he just hadn’t put it all together. But he should have. He should have understood the store owner was trying to track all of the boys simultaneously, which was impossible as they’d dispersed to confuse him. He should have grasped that Mr. Thornley knew they were not just looking round but fingering, and then secretly pocketing, odds and ends that took their fancy.
Leo had never shoplifted at the cigar store. With the skills his Dad had taught him, he could have robbed the place at will; but, in fact, he always paid for anything he wanted. Mostly this was habit, since he had spent his pocket money at Thornley’s for pretty well as long as he could remember. Certainly, morality had nothing to do it: he’d long since realized that Dad’s night time forays were counter to the Seventh Commandment he’d been taught at Sunday School. Then again, he’d also long since figured out that church was as much part of their cover as Dad’s job at the garage. No, it was another of Dad’s rules that had kept him honest at the mall. “Don’t shit your own nest,” that’s what Dad said. It was why, whether they robbed a house or a business, they always did it in another part of town.
Leo had ignored his Dad’s lessons. He’d just stood there in the store, oblivious to the real world, too engrossed in the adventures of the space crew in the story. That was his mistake; and, since it was his mistake, his Dad was right: everything that happened afterwards was his fault; and he had deserved to be punished. The whacking had been too hard—he was quite well aware that Lewis’s temper had taken things further than should be—but it had been earned.
The next week, he went back to school protected from truancy by a note saying he’d had the flu. Darlene had still not come home. Leo wondered when she would. Certainly, his Dad talked as if she’d be home any day.
A week after that, when she still had not returned, Lewis called her parents’ house, pointing out his natural annoyance at Leo’s misbehaviour and the reasonableness of punishing him soundly. Her mother, a bit stiffly, said that was hardly the point. The next day, Lewis went round in the evening in his good clothes with a bunch of fancy red roses. He made sure to sound suitably contrite; but they insisted Darlene didn’t want to talk to him. Her father did finally unbend enough to say that they would pass on a message. Still, she neither phoned nor came home; so, a day or so later, Lewis went—without Leo—to break into their home and have a good look round. His wife had clearly stayed there recently, for there were used diapers in the trash; but her clothes were gone. He could only conclude that she must have been scared off when he’d come round to apologize. He checked the address book in the living room, but found only the crossed-out phone number for the apartment she’d had before their marriage and below that his own Hadley Street number. He didn’t doubt that her parents knew more than they said. All he could do for now, though, was wait for her to come to her senses.
As Lewis had feared, Leo’s arrest, however brief, brought their quondam colleague back to the attention of the local police. Late in the summer, a squad car spotted him minding his own business and pulled him over for no particular reason. They asked to see his licence and registration, and proceeded to take the liberty of searching the automobile. In the trunk they found burglar’s tools—or, at least, what they called “burglar’s tools” when they charged him. On those grounds, they got a search warrant; and Leo came home from the park to find cops infesting the house.
They did not, of course, find any contraband: his Dad was far too savvy not to get rid of loot fast, have secure hiding places for his smaller tools, and store the rest of his equipment elsewhere. Nevertheless, with his record, Lewis had no chance of getting bail even though he hired himself a good lawyer. Meanwhile, the Snart file was reopened at Central City Social Services, and a new social worker assigned to the case. On the face of it, the disposition of young Leonard seemed straightforward: a call went to his grandfather; and the boy and his suitcase were driven over and dropped off. Leo unpacked in the bedroom where he’d slept so many years before, and put his clothes away in the closet and old chest-of-drawers. Dinner was a can of beans split between them; and he filled up on bread and butter.
Over the months since the funeral, he had been taken to see his grandfather a few times. He’d found him dull company. The place had seemed oddly empty without Grammie there; lunch had been kind of catch-as-catch-can; and there’d been nothing much to do. A couple of days after he and his suitcase were dropped off, the social worker came round to do a proper home evaluation. She also was not impressed; and, after talking with the old man for a while, she concluded that he was suffering from grief and depression. If changes weren’t made, the situation would not be appropriate.
“I’ll be okay,” protested Leo.
“I don’t think he’s even taking his medication,” she pointed out. “The dishes are piled high in the sink. There’s hardly any food in the fridge. And, if he can’t care for the place properly himself, then he needs to hire someone to come in and clean.”
“I don’t want the boy taken away,” said Gramps, rousing to the threat. “Give me a few days. I’ll get things fixed up.”
It was left there, at least for the moment. Galvanized, they went to the store, picking up sausages, chops, and bacon; bottles of pop and beer; cans of soup, spaghetti-Os, and chili; bags of frozen French fries and peas; ice-cream, brownies, and pie; and—it was Leo who thought of this—cartons of milk and juice.
As Gramps got out the frypan and started dinner, Leo tried to remember how he and Dad used to clean house before Darlene came along. After a while, he went into the bathroom and straightened up the towels. Then he came out, got a mop, and dealt with the linoleum both there and in the kitchen, working round Gramps’s feet as he moved from fridge to stove. After they ate, by default of sticking things in the dishwasher (“I’ve got two good hands,” Grammie had always said), Leo washed the dishes in the sink while Gramps dried and put away. The next day, Gramps thought to shift the furniture in the living room and sweep the dust bunnies away. After that, Leo recalled something of Darlene’s notions of cleanliness, and helped Gramps scrub the bathtub. An hour or so later, he cleaned the john.
On her next visit, therefore, the social worker talked over Leo’s head to Gramps about arranging his transfer to the local school for the fall.
In fact, just before the beginning of term, the judge bought the lawyer’s argument that the “burglar tools” were related to Lewis’s job at the garage. All charges were dropped. Lewis collected his belongings, got his car out of impound, and came to pick up his son.
His arrest had been a minor matter, mentioned at most in an inch on the back page of the local section of the Central City Tribune. Even so, he knew the neighbours could hardly have missed the upheaval next door. “Oh, a break-in,” said Lewis easily, when asked. “Goddawful timing, when we were just going on vacation.” This led to questions about the trip (“Coast City,” he lied) and the damage and loss, which in turn led to his coming home the next day with a wholly unnecessary pane of new glass to replace one ostensibly broken round the back. He didn’t even lose his job. “Give a dog a bad name,” he griped to the garage owner, who commiserated. After all, the charges had been dropped.
So, in the event, it was all a tempest in a teapot, more or less—at least from Lewis’s point of view. It was a couple of months before he dared to pull another burglary; but, in other respects, it didn’t take long for things to return to the status quo ante. Which is to say, ante Darlene. As for Leo, he headed back to school in the usual way, where he settled into the fall term with a new teacher in a new grade. When asked what he’d done that summer, he copied Dad’s lie. “Okay, I guess,” he said when pressed.
Still, there were shifts in his life. The social worker’s words bore heavy on him. He’d lost his Mom; he’d lost his Gram; and he’d lost Darlene just as he’d got used to her. So he no longer waited for Dad to get the idea of taking him over to his grandfather’s. Instead, at least once a week, and sometimes more often, he skipped out on the usual after-school activities with his friends and took public transit to make a visit on his own. Often enough, when he got there, he found it necessary to wash up the previous night’s dishes, have a brisk sweep round the floors, and haphazardly clean the bathroom. Sometimes, he suggested an expedition to the grocery store to refill the fridge. And, every time he went, he checked whether Gramps had been taking his heart pills. “You don’t need to nag,” he was told. But he knew he did.
From Randy, Leo learned that Joey, as a first offender from a decent home, had been let off with a warning; however, the Thornleys had banned him and all his friends. Randy’s parents were furious, and had grounded his brother for a month. Nervously, Leo steered clear of the cigar store himself for several weeks. Finally, the craving for new reading drove him to venture trepidatiously inside. Mr. Thornley said nothing; so he edged to the back of the store and browsed the week’s comics. When he left, he pulled out his pocket money, handed it over, and got his change. A candy bar deep in his pocket, though, left the store free and clear. Why not?
He’d already paid the price.