Bennie Lou tapped her cane repeatedly against the metal leg of the desk. I heard the store manager sigh heavily. I whispered to Bennie Lou, “Stop it, Ma.” She looked up at me and mouthed what?
“The tapping. Stop the tapping. It’s annoying,” the store manager said to Bennie Lou. It wasn’t the first time we’d been in his office but I still couldn’t remember his name. Four times in the last six months, he had caught Bennie Lou stealing some little knickknack – a 6”-tall, ceramic angel, a tin box, and a leather pouch filled with marbles. Today, it was a coffee mug with World’s Best Daughter emblazoned in a cartoonish font.
“She stole it for you, huh?” the manager asked me as he filled out the theft report.
“Me?” I laughed nervously. I felt guilty by association already, and now Bennie Lou implicated me with this stolen mug. “So, what do we need to do now? Is she going to jail?”
Please, please, please, say yes, I thought to myself.
The manager ignored me. “Bennie Lou, I’m not pressing charges against you. You’ve been a loyal customer of Country Jack’s Gifts for as long as Jack can remember.” Jack Humphries was the owner of Country Gifts; although semi-retired, he still had a hand in the day-to-day business.
Bennie Lou batted her eyes for a second, as if flattered, then bit her lip. “Yes, you’ve been downright kind,” she said. “I don’t know why I do it. I tell myself I’m not going to take anything without paying and then I go and do it anyway.”
“Well, Jack wants me to file this report with the police but he doesn’t want you locked up. I guess that’s for the police to decide. But you can’t come in here anymore, Bennie Lou. ”
The police officer stood in the doorway, folded his arms and kicked gently at the doorjamb, looking bored. He said, “Ms. Langley, you will get a court summons. Most likely, the judge will fine you $500 and you’ll have to attend a class, maybe do some community service. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I do, sir. Thank you, sir.” Bennie Lou stood up. “Am I free to go?”
“Yes,” said the manager. “Remember: don’t come in.”
Outside, I confronted her. “Ma, why do you keep doing this?”
“I can’t help it.”
“OK, well, I can’t keep an eye on you all day long. Maybe we should talk about the Village Green Home.”
“I’d rather be in jail.”
“You got a problem, Ma. “
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. I do it because I want to see Jack. I want a memento of him.”
“Country Jack? Jack Humphries?” My heart panged a little, hearing Bennie Lou was in love like some shy 12-year-old. “You can see him every day at the Grill. He sits on the same stool every morning.”
“You sound like a teenager,” I said.
Bennie Lou sighed, looked up at the sky. Cumulus clouds had puffed themselves up, stuck their chests out at us. “I’m 82. I just want pieces of him. I don’t want all of him.”
“Well, how ‘bout I bring you home his empty sugar packets? Or the newspaper he leaves behind? I’ll go in there and steal them for you.”
“OK,” she smiled. I patted her on the head. I thought how Bennie Lou would probably steal again, maybe an eggcup or a tree ornament. She’d probably be arrested; eventually she’d have to stay at the Village Green Home. But today, she was in love.