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My pile 

Crime doesn't pay - but I did

I'd be the biggest klepto of all time if not for the fact that I'm afraid of getting crapped on by the karma gods. And this is especially painful to admit since I hate the whole concept of karma. Seriously. I believe you should do good things simply because you're a good person, not because, ultimately, you have your own damn agenda in mind.

And I'm not all that good of a person, but still I can't comfortably fit thievery into my life, otherwise I'd have a pile, I tell you. My own mother was a master thief. She took a six-deck card shoe off the top of a blackjack table in Las Vegas once, and you practically have to be David Copperfield to pull that off. But truly, what fun is a card shoe? Even if it comes with the chain still attached, at best it's just something you can swing across the room and hit your sister in the head with. Other than that, it has no use.

That's just it — my mother never stole useful things, like the stack of hundred-dollar chips right next to the card shoe. No. She only stole stuff she thought people wouldn't miss, like pool cues, ashtrays, hospital gowns, patio furniture, fireplace mantles, etc. We had piles of this stuff, and I constantly lamented that my mother was not the kind of klepto who came home with watches and earrings and other practical items.

I found this out when I tried to place an order. I wasn't even being all that demanding, I thought. It seemed simple enough to me, to walk into a toy store and steal a trampoline, especially since my mother had recently come home with a 100-pound potted tree she took from a local hotel lobby. But that day I learned there's some kind of inner code among kleptos — they actually don't consider themselves thieves.

"I don't steal," my mother gasped, angrily grinding her spent Menthol into an ashtray printed with the tiger and little Negro logo of a Sambo's coffee shop. "If you want a brand-new trampoline, you have to pay for it your own goddamn self."

Paying for it myself meant hours of door-to-door cupcake sales, in which I usually ate half my inventory. I also tried to sell caramel apples and blond brownies, but they weren't as easy to push. There is just something about a cupcake being sold by a grade-schooler that sends housewives running for their wallets. If you tell them there's a purpose to the sales, that's even better.

I had some great stories for why I was selling cupcakes, too, all culled from conversations I'd overheard coming from my parents' bedroom, like the one about how I had to help pay for my brother's education so he could get a college degree and do all the things my father never got to do. Or the one about how my sister lost her shoes at the park and our family was gonna have to live in the gutter if we had to keep buying her new pairs. But the one about needing money to put food on the table didn't fare too well, not surprisingly, since cupcakes are actual food and there I was holding a whole tray. In this particular case, though, I found the truth worked wonders.

"I'm selling cupcakes on account of my mom won't steal me a trampoline," I'd say, and I sold pan loads. At 10 cents apiece, though, I never did make enough to buy myself a major piece of playground equipment, so I didn't get the trampoline. Instead I just amassed big pile of dimes, which I decided was better than a trampoline. I liked how a mess of dimes felt against my palms, all small, slippery and flat. I took them out of their metal bank every day and played with them, letting them slip through my fingers, laughing like a mad little miser. "Mine, mine, all mine!" I'd cackle.

Then the pile mysteriously started diminishing. At first it was just one or two dimes at a time — an amount someone wrongly thought I wouldn't miss. Then one morning my pile was downright paltry! My father was home that morning because he just lost his job selling trailers again, and I'd overheard my mother being really upset because she personally decorated some of the trailers at the big trade show, and she was lamenting the loss of two carved mallard ducks and other accessories she'd paid for and wanted back. But when my father left a job, he didn't go back, and those ducks were gone for good.

That morning, when my father gave my sisters and I our lunch money, he doled it out in dimes. I didn't say anything. Instead I waited patiently, and eventually my pile of dimes began to grow again, as I knew it would. After that I took my pile to the swap meet every weekend until I found a carved duck. The lady wanted $5 for it, and I thought about telling her one of my stories, but in the end opted for the truth and she let me have it for half my pile.

The part she liked best, she said, was that I wanted to give it to my father to give to my mother. That and how I'd earned all those dimes my own goddamn self.

Hollis Gillespie's new book, Confessions of a Recovering Slut, and Other Love Stories (Regan Books), is now available in bookstores. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's All Things Considered.

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