by Pamela York Klainer
Rose was the middle of ten children, and while they were growing up her mother always put plenty of white bread and potatoes on the table. The big pot of soup had meat bones for flavor but only scraps of actual meat, and her six brothers ate a lot. So did her sisters, who were pushy and hardly ever gave Rose the chance for a modest second helping. Rose remembered leaving the table hungry most of the time, and when she’d grown up and married she’d vowed she’d never do that again no matter what it took.
She’d done so well with her vow that now, having grown old, the doctor said she was too fat and would have to lose weight. Rose was the queen of the fixed price senior citizen special full course meal, and she didn’t take kindly to the thought of giving up any of her food. The salad course she could probably do without, if the doctor insisted. She liked creamy dressings and skipping salad would save a lot of calories. She loved dessert, and that was non-negotiable. She was partial to fruit pie, and sometimes vanilla ice cream came with it at no extra charge. Rose thought she deserved ice cream after a lifetime of scrimping and saving. The owner of the Greek diner sat up by the cash register with a fat unlit cigar in his mouth. He looked to Rose like someone who could easily give his patrons free ice cream with their pie.
Rose’s little bonus, as she thought of it, went beyond the ice cream. She began to feel entitled to the extra rolls and pats of butter that were left over after she’d had her fill. She knew they couldn’t serve the extra bread to anyone else, or they weren’t supposed to, and so to Rose it was hardly pilfering. She’d wrap the rolls and butter in her napkin and slide them quickly into her big purse, and that was the end of it. She always smiled at the Greek on the way out and said the service had been very nice, and if he’d seen her take the rolls he didn’t seem to mind.
Rose couldn’t remember when the packets of salt and pepper and sugar and the single serving jelly containers began to seem like fair game. She figured the diner bought them in bulk and what was on her table could hardly have cost much. The packets had their own wrapping and didn’t need a napkin to keep them clean, so Rose got to sliding them in her purse just after she’d taken out enough dollar bills to pay her check and leave a small tip. She always left a tip because she didn’t want the waitress to remember her as someone cheap or desperate, someone who might steal.
Rose really wanted the ketchup and mustard too, because she sometimes bought hamburger meat or a pack of hot dogs to keep in her tiny shared refrigerator, but she was afraid the plastic bottles would leak and mess up the inside of her purse. And condiments cost a pretty penny, as she knew from her own modest grocery shopping. Someone might care if they were gone, and Rose had no need to be greedy. Better to be modest in the taking – and successful – rather than acting brazen and getting caught.
By the time Rose progressed to swiping the spare rolls of toilet paper in the restroom she felt like a pro. No one questioned her taking her big purse along when she left her seat and headed toward the small bathroom stuck behind the kitchen. She figured out quickly that she had to pull the cardboard cylinders out of the toilet paper rolls, then press the toilet paper flat so it didn’t take up as much room. Paper goods were expensive, and if she could nab two rolls a week it would save her buying toilet paper at the grocery store at all. Two rolls a week was easy, because the diner was generous with bathroom supplies and readily put out new.
She kept smiling at the Greek on the way out the door, and leaving a small tip for the waitress.
On her walk home Rose passed a pawn shop, and as long as it was daylight and not time for a rough crowd to be hanging around she’d stop to look in the window. There were china cups and saucers, the kind she’d had to get rid of when she lost her apartment and had to give up her stuff. There were pretty painted figurines with what looked like real gold flecked here and there. There was jewelry, and suitcases, and sets of pots and pans. Really the place looked just like a department store, Rose thought, only she knew that people left their things here in exchange for a few dollars to get them through until the end of the month. Maybe some people expected to get their stuff back, but surely that wasn’t what was in the window. By the time something made it to the public display, Rose was sure whoever brought it knew it was gone forever.
The figurines gave Rose the idea. When you walked into the Greek diner you passed the cash register, then the cooler where they kept the pies, and then there was a set of shelves with a display of Greek treasures. There was a hand-lettered sign that read “Our Greek Heritage”, and around the sign were a map of Greece and a bottle of Greek wine and a statue of somebody with long hair and a beard sitting down with his chin in his hands. There were woven peasant blouses and a Greek orthodox bible and all kinds of painted figurines flecked with gold, just like Rose had seen in the pawn shop.
Roses’ stomach began to churn at the same time her excitement grew, and she wondered if taking something to sell instead of to eat would be a sin. Rose was a Catholic although she barely went to church anymore; too much getting up and down and having to shake hands with perfect strangers. She was a rosary-clutching kind of Catholic, preferring to say her Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s while the mass was going on. She’d liked it better all those years ago when the mass was in Latin so the priest’s mumbling with his back turned didn’t distract her from her private thoughts. Now they looked at you, and spoke English, and you were supposed to at least pretend to pay attention. Rose was well versed in sin, which had been a heavy focus in her Catholic school. She knew stealing was a sin, and a mortal one – the kind that turned your whole heart black. Taking the rolls and butter and salt and pepper and jelly and the toilet paper wasn’t a sin. She was just taking the extra, and why did the diner put so much of that out anyway if they didn’t expect people to help themselves? But taking a figurine would be different. What if the gold were real gold, and not just paint? Rose would have a little extra money in her hand, maybe enough for a bus trip to Atlantic City. She’d always wanted to go to a casino. And with so many figurines on the shelf the Greek would hardly miss just one. In a way the figurines were extra. Who’d put valuable figurines on a shelf right in the middle of the diner if he really cared what happened to them?
Rose was convinced. Her teachers had always said she was smart, even if she’d had to drop out of school at sixteen and go to work. Except for that she might have become somebody. Well, better late than never. Rose thought that nabbing an extra statue and turning it into cash was pretty smart. She wouldn’t get any cheering crowds, as she had always wanted, but she’d still feel like somebody who was different from all the other hobbling old ladies who showed up at four thirty for the senior citizen meal.
The actual theft was almost too easy. When Rose entered the diner the Greek was just climbing off his stool to go to the bathroom. A flock of diners came in at once and wanted to be seated, distracting all the waitresses. Rose saw her chance and smoothly swiped a figurine on the way in, then sat down and had her dinner. She thought it extra bold to do it then, instead of on the way out, and she had a satisfied smile on her face all through her meal. The waitress noticed and asked Rose if she had won the lottery, and Rose replied, “Even better.”
The pawn shop guy was unimpressed with the figurine, saying the gold was only paint and he had a whole shelf full of these already. He gave Rose five bucks and not a penny more. She looked at the worn bill, not enough for a bus trip but her first real winnings. She was undeterred by the meager haul, knowing she’d get better with time.