[This is part two of day-before-yesterday’s My Life as a Major Criminal.]
“Almost time,” Ben whispered to me at 2:50 p.m. Ben was literally my partner in crime. If I was Clyde, Ben was Bonny, except he would look terrible in a dress. But to pull off a caper Ben would put on a dress if that’s what was called for. He was the first person with whom I’d shared my plan; his help putting it together—and the help he would be pulling it off—was everything. Ben was Big Ben dependable, Ben Franklin smart, and Benjie the dog loyal. He was everything you could want in a cohort and friend. “This is gonna work.”
Keeping my eyes straight ahead I whispered to him out of the side of my mouth, “It seems impossible.”
“It isn’t. Don’t be such an old lady.”
At three o’clock the bell went off. Along with everyone else I rose and collected my belongings. In my peripheral vision I saw Ben doing the same with his stuff, natural as could be.
“See ya’ later,” I said to him, same as I might any day.
“Later, alligator.” If a career destroying institutions didn’t work out for Ben, he could definitely become an actor.
Against my every urge to frenetically burst through the people around me I nonchalantly winded my way toward the exit. Once outside of the building I stepped into the crowd flowing in the direction I was headed. With casual resoluteness I was booking right along when Diane Kimball and her Bambi eyes suddenly stepped between me and the place I had to be in thirty seconds.
“Hi, John. Whatcha doin’?”
”Nothing. Just … nothing. Why? Whaddaya mean?” Great. All I needed now was a screaming police siren on the top of my head.
“I mean where you going?” For the zillioneth time in my life I wondered: Was the whole purpose of beautiful girls to upset the universe?
“Oh, just over … somewhere.”
“I like somewhere. Want some company?”
“Yes. No. I mean, no. But yes. At some point, yes. But at this moment, no. No. I’m sorry, Diane, but I have to go.” As I quickly sidestepped Miss Roadblock U.S.A. I heard her whisper in my ear. “Good luck.”
My heart stopped. Which helped me turn back to her and reply with zombie calmness, “Whaddaya mean?”
“I mean good luck. Now go.”
“But who … ?”
“Nobody knows. Go.”
“And I love it. And now you’re blowing it because you won’t leave. Go already!”
Though at first I could barely move my legs as I walked away I resolutely picked up my pace. Screw it. If Diane knew, she knew. Diane wasn’t anyone’s rat. She was a good sort. I probably should have brought her in from the beginning. This thing couldn’t be stopped now anyway. It was on. It was done, even. Whatever happened now happened.
I let the crowd carry me along for awhile, and then broke from it to cross a walkway and plot of grass before coming to the three-sided cement dumpster enclosure at the edge of the parking lot. On the ground between one of the two dumpsters and the inside of the enclosure wall was a large cardboard box, exactly where I left it. I leaned against the outside of the enclosure, crossed my arms like I hadn’t a care in the world, and waited.And waited.
Ben came around a corner of the building I was facing walking straight toward me. The bulge was barely noticeable in the sweatshirt he had rolled-up and tucked beneath his arm. When he reached me he stopped for a moment to give anyone watching the impression that we were chatting. Then he casually slipped around to inside the dumpster enclosure, which hid him from any prying eyes. I heard the goods tumbling into the box, and then he reappeared at my side, his sweatshirt slung over his shoulder. He leaned on the wall beside me.
“No problem,” he said softly.
“Except that Diane Kimball knows.”
“Are you kidding?” My expression told him I wasn’t. Ben looked away. “Well, screw it. What doesn’t Diane Kimball know?”
“That’s exactly what I—look, look. Here we go.”
One of our cohorts had broken from the chaotic parade still making its way alongside the building across from us. A little guy with spectacles and a lurching gait who didn’t naturally draw attention to himself, he cradled a balled-up flannel shirt against his stomach. He nodded slightly as he passed us by. He disappeared into the dumpster enclosure, emptied his shirt, and ambled away again without saying a word.
“That’s two,” said Ben, squinting against the afternoon son.
“Here comes three. And four and five.”
“And there’s Michelle and Sharon. They’ve got their stuff. We’re in business.”
Over the next few minutes twenty-one more people sauntered our way, stepped into the enclosure, deposited their pilfered goods into the box, and casually walked away again.
When Ben and I were alone again I stepped into the enclosure and looked down into the box.
There was every piece of chalk and every chalkboard eraser from every classroom in my elementary school.
[The next morning teachers throughout the school pretty much just stand there, unwilling to begin their lessons by digging into their chalkboards with their fingernails. During that day’s lunch recess the box is discovered on the path that runs between the school and the orchard it borders. Atop the chalk and erasers is a note that reads, “Here’s your chalk and erasers back. It turns out we can’t use these. Because they don’t work on trees. Guess we’ll have to remain bad at math and english. Sincerely yours, the Orchard Leprechauns.”]