Illustration by Katie Fricas.

Illustration by Katie Fricas.

After sex with Ginger that first night, Scott’s own tenderness surprised him. He gently circled her wide wrists with his big hands. Then he stroked her pale, flyaway hair and her face, her skin so white she looked like she’d been raised inside of a box. She was a large woman all over, too, which excited him.

“I was a size eight once,” Ginger said, while they were still in bed, “but I was using then. Now I’m a size twenty.”

Ginger was soft and willing, and not nosy, which Scott also liked: when they had met earlier that night in a Wrigleyville bar, she hadn’t said a word about Scott’s newly shaved head, which was dotted with tiny nicks and scabs. It was a look Scott was experimenting with, now that he was a month out of Willicks Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in downstate Illinois.

Scott let go of Ginger’s wrists and placed his hand on her stomach. Her flesh gave to pressure, and it was warm. She was sweating lightly in the June humidity. Scott had almost forgotten about the feel of a woman, after five years inside Willicks—those five years that had taken him halfway through his forties. “I didn’t know there was a size twenty,” he said to Ginger.

“There’s bigger than that,” Ginger said. She paused. “I’d rather be fat than wasted all the time, though,” she added. “I’ve thought about doing Weight Watchers again,” Ginger said, slowly moving Scott’s hand away from her stomach. “But that’s just Narconon with recipes.”

“Stop obsessing over your weight,” Scott said, as if he knew all of her patterns, all of her insecurities, after one night. He did know that if you had one truly serious thing—prison, say, or a hefty body—you couldn’t completely get it out of your mind and your senses. It jacked you up inside.

Scott climbed on top of Ginger. “I’m no stick myself,” he said, slapping his large belly. “Anyway, you can hold me up, girl. That’s all I care about right now.” He laughed and kissed her.

Ginger’s eyes searched his face before she palmed the back of his head and pulled him toward her. “You’re probably a good man,” she said.

*

Downstate in Willicks Correctional Center, inmates who were soft and willing grew a curl of hair at the back of their necks: a “bitch tail,” the inmates called it. Something for another man to hold on to, if your tastes went that way. Sometimes Scott could hear the men together at night, but then you heard every human sound in Willicks. Sounds without language. One young inmate barely out of adolescence sobbed every morning his first month, sitting on the side of his rack with his face in his hands in an almost otherworldly grief.

Scott had nothing but disdain for prisoners who submitted to other prisoners or who griped or who simply fell apart. You should do your time with your mouth shut, he thought, and wait. Outside your mind, you’d find nothing but chaos and boredom; inside your mind, you had all kinds of room to roam around in. And you had to be careful at all times: prison could smudge out your personality. The cameras and the correctional officers, the “eternal presence,” as one inmate called it, could insert you into the crowd and then cancel you out.

There was so little time to be by yourself in Willicks. That’s what people didn’t understand, Scott thought. The worst part of the punishment hadn’t been the isolation from the rest of society but the constant company. Unless you were in Segregation, you couldn’t get a minute to yourself. 

Before his sentence for burglary with intent to sell, Scott had actually thought of himself as an ambitious man. He had reached for more even on his final job, when he and Benny, his partner in crime, traveled twenty miles from Chicago to rob some vacationers’ mini-mansion in suburban Elmhurst. Unfortunately, Benny had an estranged wife to whom he told everything, so it wasn’t long before the wife got mad and gave them up. Both Scott and Benny were caught at Scott’s apartment on the West Side, in the middle of a rainy summer afternoon, mosquitoes clinging to the screens, while they drowsed in front of talk shows.

There was something delicate about burglary—the first, the third, even the fifth and final time, when Scott and Benny got nabbed. There was something delicate about getting through the door or window, picking through a family’s possessions. It was an art, Scott thought. Precise. You had to stay focused and work quickly. You had to think like someone else, too. It took imagination. Once Scott found an envelope full of money taped to the bottom of a child’s toy box. Another time he found a Rolex wrapped in a paper towel in a laundry room cupboard. Burglary was its own kind of hard work. In Elmhurst, in the mini-mansion, Scott and Benny worked through a snarl of wires to unplug a new game console that they could barely fit into the already stuffed gym bag Scott carried. “Greed will break your back,” Scott had joked to Benny that night while they were driving away. 

*

For hard reasons that Scott still couldn’t separate from softer desire, he had asked Ginger to move in with him, and after only six dates. 

Ginger had been living with her parents, her sister, and her two nephews in a small bungalow in Bridgeport. Scott had been there once and encountered nothing but screaming—kids and adults alike. My place is no worse, he’d thought at the time.

“Now I can cook for you,” Ginger said one damp afternoon in late July, as she sat on the floor of Scott’s kitchen and opened a box of dusty canned goods.  

Scott tapped cigarette ash into the sink and watched Ginger put cans of kidney beans and peas into the cupboard. He didn’t dread living with Ginger. Nervousness overtook him only when he looked around his studio apartment: two large people in this rectangle full of cigarette smoke and some scuttling cockroaches. What else was there room for? 

Ginger got down on the floor to open another big box, this one full of clothes. She paused in her unpacking. “Thank you, Scott,” she said.

“It’s okay, babe,” he said. He leaned over and brushed her hair out of her face. He felt very protective of Ginger, of her ample body and open smile, and her willingness to ignore the parts of him that he didn’t want her to know about. Her restraint was a kind of generosity. And when they were in bed together, he still had room to spare. She was warm, cushiony, yet part of her was obscured. Being heavy, Scott knew, gave a person a kind of privacy. 

On their third date, Scott told Ginger that he’d been in prison. He told her the story of the burglary in Elmhurst, of his earlier offenses, even of his petty thefts as a kid, and then he’d taken her hand and insisted that he was guilty but he had absolutely never used a weapon. He wanted her to see a former unwelcome impulse in him, some predictable pattern that was now safely broken. Besides, what had another inmate once said? “Confess your sins before a woman discovers them herself.”

Now Scott helped Ginger hang up her clothes in his shallow closet, shoving over each set of outfits to make room for the next. “I’ve got something in every size,” Ginger said. “You never lose hope,” she added, laughing.

Scott pulled Ginger to the bed, which was freshly made with flowered sheets. He hadn’t lived with a woman in ten years, and his ex-wife was a distant memory, but he hadn’t forgotten how women left their mark on every part of a man’s place, right from the beginning. Now the whole closet smelled of dryer sheets.

After they kissed for a few minutes, Scott looked steadily at Ginger. This was the time for a man to say something welcoming or reassuring or even mundane to a woman, some statement that would show her that he saw her for who she truly was and that he knew what she had taken on. Women craved the right word, but Scott didn’t know what that word was. He watched Ginger’s face light up in anticipation.

“Take my clothes off,” Scott said suddenly.

“Really?” Ginger asked. She wrinkled her brow. “That’s kind of different.” She started to pull Scott’s tee shirt over his head.

“You don’t know what you’re really hiding until a woman uncovers it for you,” another inmate in Willicks had said. “You’re a hopeless romantic,” Scott had told him. “Nothing wrong with that, boy,” the inmate had said.

*

Toward the end of his stint in Willicks, Scott had enrolled in the horticulture program. Horticulture was the best thing to take on; it was vocational, something Barry, the program director, said would give you a skill set, a job you could really use once you got released. Scott was the best in his class, Barry said.

After release, Scott got a job with a company called ChicaGoGrow, which provided care to indoor plants and gardens in downtown office and apartment buildings. ChicaGoGrow hired a lot of guys on parole from Illinois prisons. The CEO had even won an award from the mayor for his re-entry program. So Scott wasn’t that surprised in August, three weeks after Ginger moved in, when Benny showed up on the payroll.

“I have a girlfriend,” Scott told Benny, after a few wary backslaps. “Ginger. We live together.” He watched Benny’s rabbity face for his reaction, for a trace of envy. The two of them were in the back of one of the ChicaGoGrow vans, along with the cultivation tools, spare hoses, and flats of hostas and impatiens. The vehicle surged through Loop traffic.

“Not a good idea, man,” Benny said, shaking his head and grimacing. He revealed to Scott the results of some extensive dental work, no doubt courtesy of the Illinois Department of Corrections. “You can’t let wanting some action get in the way of common sense,” Benny said. 

“Ginger gives some stability to my life,” Scott said. He thought this was true. He wasn’t breaking any laws, anyway, and you often had a woman to thank for that.

“And what kind of woman has a name like Ginger?” Benny asked. “Is she a kid?” He stretched his long legs into the van, upsetting a flat of plants.

“Thirty-two,” Scott said. “All grown up.” He and Ginger held hands like teenagers, though, wherever they went. 

“Hot?” Benny asked.

“Pretty skin,” Scott said. “Light brown hair. Curvy. She’s nice.” He paused. “She was engaged to a carpenter once.”

“And I bet she wants to get engaged again,” Benny said. “Did she tell you what happened?”

“That’s her business,” Scott said.

“It’s yours now, buddy,” Benny said. “As soon as you gave her a key.”

Scott had forgotten what had always pissed him off about Benny. The man made so many forceful false pronouncements that you almost started to doubt yourself. The fact was, Scott thought, as he and Benny sat in silence in the lurching van, Benny wasn’t happy unless everyone was wallowing in shit like he was. In the end, Scott felt sorry for him. The guy so desperately wanted to think he was a better person than he ever could be.

The van stopped in front of an office tower, and Scott and Benny scrambled out. Scott tipped his head back: cottony clouds hovered in a symmetrical patch of blue, suspended, dead even, it seemed, with the crown of the building. Ginger worked as a receptionist in an accountant’s office in Schiller Park, close to the O’Hare runways, but she really wanted to work in the Loop, she said, where everything looked new and shiny.

Inside the office tower’s atrium, Scott set up Benny’s stepladder, then his own, then they both climbed into raised planters framed in slick gray marble. Scott used the trowel to make holes in the mulchy soil for replacement plants. These plants were babies, miniatures of what they would soon become—“fledglings,” Barry used to say as a joke. “You treat them gentle like a little bird,” he told Scott. “Like their bones will break.”

Scott could smell the potting soil and the loam, the faint scent from the impatiens to his right and the deeper green odor of the hosta and peace lily leaves. He had never seen himself working with plants—he could take or leave nature in general—but Barry had taught him what he needed to know and then left him alone as much as possible in the prison garden and in the small greenhouse. 

“Hey, Scotty,” Benny called over from his raised bed. “Come to the taverns with me tonight.” 

“I don’t think so,” Scott said. He remembered too many humid nights with Benny inside bars or out in cold back alleys, smoking cigarettes and weed while Benny made stupid plans, broke them open, then crafted new ones out of the same parts until, in the case of the Elmhurst burglary, he had made the whole thing Scott’s idea.

“I met some chicks,” Benny now yelled. “Wait’ll you see.” He climbed out of the planter.

“You didn’t waste any time,” Scott said, laughing. Benny had always thought of himself as a ladies’ man, even though he was married. “Ginger’s cooking dinner,” Scott called.

“Just for the record, man,” Benny called, “you’re whipped. And already, too.”

Devonne, their van driver, strolled by, looking steadily at Scott and then at Benny. ChicaGoGrow had snatched up Devonne upon his release and immediately promoted him; they knew a leader—a huge man who wouldn’t take any shit—when they saw one.

“Two more hours and then you can go, so shut up,” Devonne said.

For dinner that night, Ginger served pork chops and canned succotash. “You won’t believe it, honey,” Scott said. He cleared his throat. “Saw an old friend at work today.”

“An old girlfriend?” Ginger asked. She carefully put down her fork.

“No, no,” Scott said. “My partner in crime, Benny. The guy I used to rob with. The company hired him because he’s out now, too.” 

“Don’t get involved with him, Scott,” Ginger said quickly. “Please. Promise me.”

Unfortunately, Scott thought, he was already stuck with the guy. If you knew Benny at all, you were stuck with him.

“I’m counting on you,” Ginger said. “I don’t want any trouble for you.”

“That’s all past, honey,” Scott said, shaking his head.

“That should mean the same as no,” Ginger said. “It really should, Scott.” She plucked at her apron. “And don’t say you’ll stay out of it and then I find out you gave in.”

“Maybe if you met Benny you’d see what a harmless fuckup he is,” Scott said. Inept, he thought, not a good thief. When you came down to it, Scott always had to remind Benny to keep it together. “Sober minds when committing crimes,” inmates used to say. That was him now, Scott thought. Sober, serious—but law-abiding.

Ginger stood up and began to gather their plates. She sighed. “Just promise me,” she said.

“Okay!” Scott said. He lit a cigarette. “Let’s have him over for dinner.”  

“Good God, why?” Ginger asked. She turned from the sink.

“I don’t know,” Scott said, shrugging. “I just want to. One night, Ginger.” He wanted to be open somehow—to go beyond what even Ginger asked from him. In the end, he thought having Benny over would be a gesture for Ginger’s benefit; it would show Scott in contrast to Benny, a man Scott thought could never truly be rehabilitated. 

“Okay, we can have him over, but I’m trusting you, Scott,” Ginger said. “Ask him, but you’re responsible.” She hesitated. “I’ll make chicken,” she said.

That night in bed, as he pushed into Ginger, Scott pressed his face into her pillowy breasts. “Come on,” he whispered. He’d once been with a woman who screamed during sex; another just took deep breaths, as if she were doing yoga. But when Scott had sex with Ginger, she smiled simply and sweetly at him, as if they were on a walk in the park.

“I need some encouragement, baby,” he said, once they were finished. He sniffed her palm. It smelled like bread.

“What do you mean?” Ginger asked.

“Encouragement. Right here.” Scott opened his arms. His gesture took in the tiny apartment and everything it displayed, everything except for him.

Ginger rolled toward him, and her eyes narrowed as if a light had suddenly snapped on. “Do you love me yet?” she asked.

*

Benny came by the following Saturday night. He wore a button-down shirt and new-looking jeans. He brought three packs of cigarettes in a plastic bag. 

“Something for the host and hostess,” he said, before sitting down on the love seat. “Hi, Ginger,” he said. He smoothed his jeans.

“I’ll work on dinner,” Ginger said, returning to stirring mayonnaise into a bowl of cut-up potatoes.

“Ginger’s a good cook,” Scott said. 

“I’ve got to get out of that fucking job,” Benny whispered, ignoring Scott. “They don’t pay me enough to put gas in a car, if I had one. I’m about done with busses and the L. Took me over an hour to get here.” 

“They’re not supposed to pay you enough for a car,” Scott said. “Be real, man. The job’s just the last part of being inside. Plus you’re the one who’s got to live a million miles away in Berwyn, for Christ’s sake.” 

“The whole thing sucks,” Benny said.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Scott said. He couldn’t admit how much he liked the job, the plants, how for the first time he felt he’d really prepared for something in his life, how finally a series of past experiences had reached inside the frame of his days and transformed into better things. 

“Ready,” Ginger said, placing the bowl of potato salad and a platter of fried chicken on the card table. 

They ate in silence. “Very good,” Benny finally said. “Really.”

Ginger beamed.

“It’s great, honey,” Scott said.

Ginger bit delicately into a drumstick. She had one small spoonful of potato salad on her plate. The week before, Scott had found six Hershey wrappers in the kitchen trash. If the only things Ginger hid from him were food wrappers, he was happy. Besides, it soothed him to think that Ginger lived a parallel life with small secrets when he wasn’t at home. 

After dinner, Benny got into Scott’s recliner, took up the remote, and turned on the TV.

“Make yourself at home, buddy,” Scott said, laughing.

“The Cubs are on,” Benny said, distracted, changing channels.

Ginger sat down on the love seat next to Scott. “I’m going to leave the dishes until later,” she said.  “We’ve got company.” She looked at Benny and then took Scott’s hand. “Are you in a relationship?” Ginger suddenly asked.

“Honey,” Scott said quietly.

But Benny didn’t hesitate. “I’m in a relationship with my wife’s lawyer,” he said, not turning his eyes from the baseball game. “I hate the guy and he hates me. We’re a fucking couple.”

“What’s holding it all up?” Scott asked. 

“What’s holding it up,” Benny said, “is that my wife is still in love with me.”

In the moment that followed, a ballplayer on TV cracked a hit. “Really,” Ginger said. “How about that.”

“She’ll get tired and give up,” Scott said. “She’s just holding out for more money.”

“She’ll be holding out until she dies, if that’s the case,” Benny said. He finally looked at Scott. “Tell me that a woman who calls you every day to yell at you doesn’t love you.”

“I’m afraid I would say no about that,” Ginger said. “I’m just being honest, Benny.” Scott heard her stomach rumble.

“No harm done,” Benny said. “But I know what I know. Do you have anything for dessert?”

“No,” Ginger said quickly. 

An hour later, Benny was asleep in the recliner. 

“Should we wake him up?” Ginger asked.

“Let’s put a blanket on him and see what happens,” Scott said.

Ginger laid her patchwork quilt over Benny’s legs. “Let’s go to bed,” she said, taking Scott’s hand.

Scott woke up to the sound of a drawer opening in the kitchen. He waited for his eyes to adjust, breathing shallowly. Ginger snored quietly next to him. He heard a cupboard open. Before Benny had come over that evening, Scott had told Ginger to put her purse in the closet. “An old precaution among thieves,” Scott had said. “Just in case.”

Another drawer opened. In Willicks, you could hear some men come alive at night, hear their grunts and whispers, and if you stayed quiet, you had the power, through your silence, to vanish. As if when no one heard you, you ceased to exist. Scott felt that power when he and Benny were in a house they were about to rob; he felt it even now. You could sidle past the row of family photos on the sideboard, stick your hand gently under a couple’s mattress, and, if you wanted to, leave your own body. You could evaporate into a mysterious breath in your prison cell or on the pod in Willicks or in a stranger’s living room or in your own apartment. You could change at will and pick your incarnation. Not a witness or a participant, but just the opposite: like a dim shadow on the wall. Now the apartment was silent. Scott closed his eyes and drifted off.

When Scott woke up in the morning, Benny was gone; he’d left Ginger’s patchwork quilt dribbling over the side of the recliner. He’d also taken the three packs of cigarettes he’d brought.

*

Nothing changed at work over the next few weeks. Scott never said anything to Benny about what he’d heard at the apartment that night because Scott knew that Benny was only following his nature and his training, which in Benny’s case were the same thing. And, before Ginger, Scott couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t have tried robbing a friend himself. But Scott felt he had turned some corner and Benny was as stuck in one place as he’d been when they were thieving.

Devonne was always yelling at Benny to work faster, be neater, stop with the cigarette breaks, and get in the goddamn van. “Look at Scott, man,” Devonne said to Benny one cool day in early September, as he shot the van out into rush-hour traffic. 

“Look at him what,” Benny said, picking dirt from underneath his fingernails.

“Don’t get me in trouble, Devonne,” Scott said. He looked warily at Benny. To an inmate, praise from a keeper like Devonne was worse than censure.

“Shit,” Devonne said, finding himself behind a bus. “Look at Scott, I’m saying, if you want to see someone who’s going to advance. Always on time, no fucking around. Et cetera.”

“Advance to what, Devonne?” Benny said, interrupting. “To be you, behind the wheel? No, thanks.”

“Hey!” Devonne said, slowing the van and turning in his seat to look in the back. “You want to be disrespectful, you can do it somewhere where you’re not getting paid.”

“Do you believe this shit?” Benny asked, looking at Scott. 

“You’re pressing your luck, man,” Scott said. “I’d knock it off.” 

“Well,” Benny said. He went back to his fingernails.

At home, Scott no longer found food wrappers buried in the trash can. In fact, Ginger had lost weight. According to her, almost thirty pounds since she’d moved in.

“I wish I could afford new clothes,” Ginger said one night, ironing one of her dresses in a smaller size. “This looks kind of weird, all faded. And it’s too short. Maybe I should just go to Goodwill.”

“You lost the weight kind of quick, didn’t you?” Scott asked. He went through a series of stances when Ginger talked to him about her weight: concerned, interested, supportive, silent, enthusiastic, inquiring. None of them seemed to apply lately. Ginger wanted the perfect word from him so she could—what? Forget she’d ever been fat? As if Scott could ever forget he’d been incarcerated. He didn’t even have any prison tattoos: he had enough memories of where he’d been. But there was nothing that marked his improvement, either.

Ginger losing weight made Scott watchful and wary. He approached their meals together with a stomach that was sour as well as empty. Fat people—and he knew this because he was a big man—were either invisible to thin people or they were the focus of insulting thoughts or comments. If Ginger got thin, people would really see her, even seek her out; she’d be new. 

“I lost the weight too quick?” Ginger now asked, stopping her ironing. “Are you an expert on diets these days? I’m fine.”

“Okay,” Scott said. He turned back to the TV.

“You should be proud of me,” Ginger said. “Today for food I had a granola bar and a small bag of chips. I didn’t even eat the dinner I made. You ate my hamburger when I didn’t want it, if you haven’t forgotten.”

“Okay,” Scott said. He wasn’t proud of her; he felt sad. All that hunger, all that wanting that never went away. He knew that heavy people always missed food, no matter how long they dieted or how thin they got. Everyone always missed something that had once given them their shape—not their literal shape, but, in a way, part of their design.   

“By the way, those cookies are for you,” Ginger said. “The ones on the counter. For me they’re all look but don’t touch.”

“I want to stop talking about food,” Scott said. 

“What do you want to talk about?” Ginger asked. She turned off the iron.

“Money,” Scott said.

“The other great subject,” Ginger said. “What’s to say? We don’t have any.”

“I think I’m getting a raise,” Scott said. He tried to be happy for Ginger, so now she could try to be happy for him.

“How much?” she asked.

“A dollar an hour. If it goes through. Devonne said it would, and he’s been solid with me all along.”

“I bet Benny’s mad,” Ginger said.

“What’s he got to do with it?” Scott asked. “Besides, I didn’t say Benny wasn’t going to get one.”

“You didn’t have to,” Ginger said.

“Good for you, Scott,” Scott said.

“Of course, honey,” Ginger said. “I’m sorry. Good for you. Hard work pays off. It’s not like you’ve been handed anything in your life.”

*

Scott and Benny were working close to each other in a patch of native prairie plants that sat under the huge skylight in an apartment building lobby. Weeding and deadheading, they moved along after they finished each clump of plants, sliding their foam rubber kneelers as they went. Devonne was out on the sidewalk having a smoke. 

“I hate this job the most,” Benny said. “It’s like we’re pulling weeds in a vacant lot. This shit ain’t prairie.” He paused and looked around. “I’m telling you,” Benny whispered. He was continuing his relentless chatter about yet another attractive larceny he had cooked up, the third one in as many weeks. 

“These people, my sister’s neighbors, they’re stupid,” Benny said. “You go up the back stairs where my sister lives, and you get to their deck, which has a racing bicycle locked to fucking nothing, and a door, my sister says, a door that doesn’t even fucking lock right. They’re asking for it.”

Scott was cutting the dead blooms off of a coneflower. Echinacea, Barry said inside his head. Stop, Scott said to himself. Stop paying attention

“Don’t they know what kind of company your sister keeps?” Scott asked instead. Benny’s sister, Teresa, had a solid reputation as a weed and OxyContin dealer. 

“Listen,” Benny said, sitting back on his heels, clippers in hand. “I’m coming to you first with this.”

“First before who, man?” Scott asked, laughing. “Who else do you see since you got out? And this isn’t a fucking investment proposal. Again. And keep moving.” 

“You’re getting to be a real bitch, you know that?” Benny asked. He stayed still. “I’m saying I could use some cash. So could you.”

“Not interested,” Scott said, snipping some dead blades of cheatgrass. “No way.”

“Don’t you want to buy Ginger something?” Benny asked.

“Like what?” Scott asked.

“Like an engagement ring, idiot,” Benny said. “What else?”

“Nope,” Scott said. “Not there yet at all.” Ginger had never said a word about wanting to get married. She just kept pulling old clothes out of the closet and cooking food she’d never eat and having sex with him several times a week. She still smiled placidly underneath him, too, even if she’d become a little short-tempered out of bed. 

“Just come with me and see,” Benny said. “That’s all I’m asking. It’ll be a laugh, okay?” He slapped Scott on the back.

“That’s enough,” Scott said, flinching.

Scott watched as Benny ran his eyes across his face. He was scanning, calculating. Scott had seen him scan bartenders, women, marks, cops. Benny read people. Something Scott himself rarely did.

“Racing bike sitting out in the free world,” Benny said. “Say the word, my friend.”

Scott hesitated. “Do you even have a plan?” he asked. He wanted to see what Benny could possibly come up with on his own.

“My sister says she ran into them taking out the garbage,” Benny said, “and they said they were going on a trip, would she keep an eye on the place, look out for suspicious activity, and so forth.”

If these were North Side yuppies, they probably had all sorts of time-wasting shit, like more bicycles, golf clubs, multiple laptops. Once Scott and Benny had folded up someone’s NordicTrack and taken that with them, too.

“By Sunday, they’ll be gone,” Benny said. 

Scott couldn’t help it: Ginger’s face loomed up inside his head. Her new, narrow face, with the tiny patch of slack skin under her chin. Her smiling, believing face. Scott wanted to take back his interest from Benny, but it was too late. Once you even suggested a commitment to a job, you had to go through with it. People thought there was a kind of loyalty among thieves, but it was all just a game of chicken.

Benny paused. They were standing next to the piece of prairie, like two farmers discussing cultivation or harvesting.  “Monday at 2:00 a.m.,” Benny finally said. “If they forgot something, they’re coming back before that to get it. I’m just going to keep on talking, buddy, and you keep on listening.”

“Where’s your sister going to be?” Scott asked.

“Out of sight,” Benny said. “Her specialty.”

“I’m so sick of this guy,” Benny said, watching as Devonne came to check on them. “He’s a CO without the uniform. This whole business is prison without the uniforms and three hots a day.”

“I never got my raise,” Scott said, looking absently at the prairie.

Benny raised his clippers at Devonne. “We’re cool,” he called.

“Better just finish this off,” Scott said. 

*

That night, Ginger made fish sticks and salad. They rarely had food that wasn’t cooked. Scott felt as if he were chewing through the downtown prairie garden.

“At least eat this,” he said to Ginger, while he poured more ranch dressing on his lettuce. “There’s no calories in it.”

“There’s calories in everything,” Ginger said. She was eating a Twinkie, one tiny bite at a time.

“I’m looking at some right now,” Scott said, nodding toward Ginger’s plate.

Ginger stopped chewing and glared at him. She held up her hand. “Twinkie,” she said, counting off. “Cheese crackers from the vending machine. A Coke. That’s it for the day.”

“You’re going to get sick,” Scott said. “You’re living on crap.”

After dinner, Scott and Ginger made out on the couch. Scott was repeatedly astonished by his desire for Ginger and by the fact that she returned it so willingly. But he was also shocked lately by the ribs and other bones that had emerged from Ginger’s once soft middle, her hips, her pelvis. He didn’t mind—he’d been with thin women before—but the bones didn’t seem to be part of Ginger’s real body. 

While they got ready for bed, Scott watched Ginger’s thinning body knock around inside her light blue nightgown like a clapper in a bell. Once she fell asleep and started to snore, he got out of bed.

He pulled out the trash can from underneath the sink. He knew from experience that you could find out a lot about a person from what they didn’t want. The houses he’d robbed had kitchen cans full of barely spoiled bananas and peppers and whole packages of fresh pasta; in garages he’d found garbage bags full of clothes, some of them with the tags still on them. Closets with boxes of shoes, their soles clean. But now he had to worry that something dangerous Ginger was using had taken the place of food. In Willicks, the real addicts always found ways to hide crack, pills, booze. Every day, COs in their latex gloves swarmed some guy’s cell, turning over the mattress and working the toilet partway off the wall so they could look for contraband taped to the plumbing.

Scott plunged his hand inside the trash can. He touched damp paper towels, mush that felt like old food. He smelled coffee and something rotten. He rooted around. No wrappers, no scent of chocolate or sugary food, and no glass pipes, jerry-rigged soda cans for smoking, syringes, squares of scorched tinfoil. No tiny Baggies. He put the trash can back under the sink.

Scott sat in the recliner and watched Ginger sleep. Her hair spread across her pillow; the strap of her nightgown had slipped off of her shoulder, and he could see the faint outline of the top vertebra of her spine.

The apartment was stifling, the windows open, even though it was late October. From all of the other studio apartments and one- and two-bedrooms in the building, heat rose up to the top floor, to Scott and Ginger. Scott could almost see it curl around the recliner, the card table and chairs, the ripped love seat, the mattress on the floor. He could almost see it fold around Ginger while she slept, mingling with the diminishing warmth her own body put out. He felt so smothered by the heat that he took off his boxer shorts and sat back down in the recliner. The heat was part of his home life, a contrast to the growing cold and the Lake Michigan wind outside that cut into him and Benny when they took their smoke breaks. Tonight the heat seemed inescapable, restrictive, almost brutal. Like his puny job and paycheck, like Benny’s gripes. Even like the tightly controlled work territory Devonne drove them through.

Ginger turned over and sighed, then continued her gentle snoring. She had laid out her clothes for the next day on the card table; her purse was on one of the chairs. Scott imagined embracing Ginger while she wore the loose black pants and purple blouse of her outfit; he imagined feeling her ribs, her broad breastbone, her wide and bony shoulders, all of her less like someone reducing and more like someone waiting to fill up. He wanted to wake up Ginger and feed her all of the leftovers in the refrigerator, the crystallized ice cream in the freezer, all of the meals she’d missed. She would eat for him, if he asked. What would he do for her? He would give her his full attention, tend to her large shape, love her the way she still loved him, as he had first appeared to her. 

Ginger’s eyes opened; her eyelids fluttered, and then she smiled at Scott. She opened her arms. “Come on, honey,” she whispered.

Scott hesitated, then he shook his head slowly. Ginger turned over. He lit another cigarette.

*

At 1:30 a.m. on Monday, Scott stood in an alley on the North Side, contemplating the apartment building, waiting for Benny. The building’s Dumpster was on his left, its first layer of odors a reeking spread of cat piss and shitty diapers. He didn’t want to hang around long enough to smell any deeper. The fall wind off the lake felt like it was slicing through the back of his canvas jacket. Soon enough, there’d be the deep cold of the Chicago winter, when the waves stalled in mid-roll and transformed into peaks of ice.

He heard two dogs in the neighborhood exchange barks. Then silence. Benny had said he was going to come around the front of the building for a final check and meet Scott in the back. Scott had crept out of his own apartment only an hour before, leaving Ginger breathing deeply in sleep, her outfit on the card table as usual. He’d taken the bus to North Avenue and then walked the rest of the way.

On Scott’s right were the stairs, smelling of new lumber. Behind the stairs was the back door to the ground-floor apartment, where Benny said his sister lived. Benny was right. She was nowhere to be seen and her place was dark. When Scott had walked up to the building, he had checked for lights in the other two apartments: both dark. The vacationers hadn’t even left a lamp on a timer. 

Scott had brought an old backpack with a short crowbar he’d stolen from the van, one of Ginger’s bath towels, and his work gloves, all of which he’d hidden at home under the sink, behind the Comet and Windex. These tools were last resort, though. Benny said he’d bring a bump key—a key that fit nearly 90 percent of all locks. It was a burglar’s best friend, but it was noisy to manipulate. Scott didn’t ask Benny where he’d gotten the key. The less he knew about those details, the better.

Several large clouds skimmed the quarter moon. The dogs took up barking again. All of the back windows in the apartment building were blank, dark.

Benny’s bus could have broken down. He could have lost his nerve. His sister could have warned him away. But in that case, Scott thought, Benny would have buzzed his cell phone. 

Scott looked up to the top deck and began to carefully climb the stairs. It was a matter of seeing if he could still do it. Already his mind was firing. How much jewelry could he fit in the backpack? Would the yuppies have left their laptops behind? What would he confess to Benny that he had taken?

The stairs and decks smelled of new cedar, heavily fragrant, with a sour edge. Crossing to the stairs that led up to the third-floor deck, Scott noticed a clock in the kitchen on the second floor, its red numbers showing 2:24. There was a small table, books piled on one corner, and a canister with cooking utensils on the stove. 

Scott got to the third-floor deck, out of breath and trying not to gasp. He wanted a cigarette. There was no sign of a bicycle. He carefully set down his backpack and slowly worked open the zipper.

A window in the door, closed blinds, bars. He heard a car go by on the street, but there was still no movement in the alley. Maybe it was a good thing Benny wasn’t there, because he’d probably be whispering, complaining about the cold, about Scott’s slow fat-man’s climb up the stairs.

Scott put on his gloves, took out his crowbar, stuck its teeth under one edge of the lock, and gently pulled back. In the past, he’d been able to blow a lock with little fanfare and almost no noise. He had a “gentle touch,” Benny had said once, giving a rare compliment.

Scott pulled and released, pulled and released, until he saw the lock starting to separate from the wood. Then there was a soft snap, and a long crack spread across the bottom of the window in the door. He had to work quickly. He gritted his teeth and yanked on the lock. The wood splintered under his crowbar, and then he was able to pry open the door. Scott waited, breathing heavily, but heard nothing from the apartment below him. He slid his forearm, wrapped in the towel, across the section of broken glass. Then he slowly opened the door wide enough so that he could enter, and he let pieces of window fall onto his towel. He placed the towel on the floor.

He let his eyes adapt to the dark. There was nothing in the kitchen but an old table, scarred and listing, without chairs. No appliances. Scott skirted the towel and stray pieces of glass and walked carefully out of the kitchen. In the living room were a paint-roller pan, a roller, and some drop cloths. In the bedroom: a crumpled cigarette pack in a corner. 

Scott gathered up his tools and backpack and ran down the stairs as quietly as he could. When he got to the street, he slowed down and took deep breaths.

He walked to the bus stop, trying to look casual. His first thoughts formed the most positive scenario, and for that reason he rejected them almost immediately: Maybe he had the wrong apartment; maybe Benny’s sister had made a mistake; maybe Benny realized his sister’s mistake too late to call Scott.

None of that could possibly be true, though. The real scenario was that Benny had simply decided to fuck him up. To leave him hanging, not for a crime but for Scott’s own stupidity. In Willicks, one step forward meant someone grabbed you from behind and snapped you back. One step forward was uppity, and Benny liked to stay behind, where he could watch ambitious men act like morons. One step forward was Devonne liking Scott’s work: the kiss of death.

Scott wanted to crawl under the covers with Ginger. He would keep tonight to himself. What did his transgression matter since he hadn’t stolen anything and since the apartment wasn’t even fit for occupation? What did it matter that he had nothing to give Ginger? And what would it matter if he never said anything to Benny and just let it ride? Benny would have his cruel joke, and Scott could keep some dignity. Silence among thieves covered botched jobs, embarrassing slips, sometimes even one man and not the other winning the game of chicken. 

Scott got off at the bus stop two blocks from the apartment building. He walked into and out of smears of streetlight glow. There was no sign of light in the east yet, over the lake. There was a TV flickering in the window of one of the apartments in his building and a light on in a kitchen on another floor. Otherwise, everything was silent and dark. Scott knew he wasn’t the only criminal on the street and probably not even the only brainless one. Had any other thief been taught a lesson tonight? Right now, Scott’s shame was stronger than his memories of prison, of the past failures he had brought on all by himself.

When Scott reached the door to the apartment, he stopped. He thought he heard the TV, which meant Ginger was awake, which meant he’d have to come up with a lie right away to explain where he might have been and what he was doing with the backpack. He unlocked the door. 

Inside, Ginger was sitting on the edge of the bed in her blue nightgown, crying quietly. She didn’t look at Scott. He heard water running in the bathroom. He waited in the doorway for Benny. Benny’s presence would explain everything: Scott’s own stupidity, the imminent loss of Ginger. The life he had made that was now swiftly departing.

But the man who emerged from the bathroom and made his way to Scott’s recliner didn’t have Benny’s smirk or even a triumphant strut. He had a tired, questioning look, a rare look of silent regret that he turned on Scott. Scott closed his eyes against it. But Benny’s voice was inside his head. Did you really think you’d left me behind? Benny’s voice asked, his words banging around in Scott’s mind. Did you really think you were a lover and not a thief? You’ll always be just like me, man. Forget everything you’ve learned. You’ll always be a criminal mastermind and a fool, both at once.

Judy Doenges

Judy Doenges was born in Elmhurst, Illinois. She is the author of a novel, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, and a short fiction collection, What She Left Me, which was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book. Her stories have been published in The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Nimrod, Green Mountains Review, and in several anthologies. She is the winner of a PEN/O. Henry Award.

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