“Dirtbags like you make me sick,” says the old guy.
I yawn to show him how much I care.
“See that?” he says, pointing to the manger on the church lawn. “That’s what Christmas is all about. And you’re doin’ your best to ruin it. What’s wrong with you?” His scowl and huge gray mustache remind me of a senile Yosemite Sam.
“You’re violating my eighth amendment rights,” I warn him.
“I’m . . . uh, what amendment?”
“No cruel and unusual punishments. Like stupid guilt trips.”
“Funny. Why’d you turned to crime when you could’ve been a comedian?” The old guy tightens my handcuffs.
Ouch. I gotta learn to keep my mouth shut.
“Excuse me . . . er, officer? I’m Aubrey Gonzalez with WODN News,” says a voice behind us. “What’s your name?”
“Reserve Deputy Desmond Jefferson,” says the old guy proudly.
This isn’t how I pictured my onscreen debut, but I still don’t mind when Desmond turns me to face Aubrey and her camera. She’s smokin’ hot.
“Is this man under arrest?” Aubrey asks.
“Yes, indeed,” Desmond proclaims. “I caught him stealing from Baby Jesus!”
Aubrey’s face lights up like a Christmas tree. Her lame story about a living nativity just turned into a headline.
“Landon Carlson — or that’s what it says on his ID — wanted to get in the Christmas spirit,” explains my pal Desmond. “So he came to the living nativity here at First Lutheran. But seeing shepherds and angels didn’t do it for him. Oh, no — he needed something extra.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Well, Pastor Kincaid counts on me to keep an eye on things around here,” says Desmond, puffing out his chest. “I was a cop for 35 years, and I’m still a reserve deputy — that’s why I carry these.” The old guy pats the handcuffs on my wrists affectionately. “When I saw Mr. Carlson enter the building —”
“I hadda pee,” I protest. “Just lookin’ for the john—”
“Then why’d you wander into the Sunday School wing?” Desmond asks. He turns to Aubrey: “That’s where our nativity actors change into costume. When I found Mr. Carlson, he had Mary’s purse and Joseph’s wallet under his coat!”
“You did steal from Baby Jesus!” Aubrey says breathlessly, shoving her mic in my face. “Mr. Carlson, do you have any comment?”
“I’m outta work,” I moan, with my best puppy-dog face, “and I’m tryin’ to give the kids a nice Christmas—”
“You have children?” Aubrey asks.
“Four boys,” I reply. “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
“Well, Mr. Carlson, there are charities to help with . . . how old are they?”
“They’re a little old for presents, but they’re great writers. Ever read their stuff?”
Aubrey looks puzzled . . . then rolls her eyes as she gets it. Finally.
“Sorry, Ms. Gonzalez,” says Desmond, “but thieves have no morals or manners. I’ll be glad when the police take him off my hands.”
“No you won’t, you old fraud,” I snap. “This is the most fun you’ve had in years.”
Desmond glares at me. I glare back while Aubrey tries to think of another dumb question to ask.
I should know better, but I’m the one who breaks the silence, because I feel like I have to defend myself after everything Office McGuiltTrip just told Aubrey-the-Hottie. I know how the headline’s going to read — DIRTBAG STEALS FROM BABY JESUS — and I want to share my side of things.
“Look,” I tell Aubrey with a charming smile, “I realize that swiping Mary and Joseph’s money is . . . bad optics.”
“‘Bad optics’? Stealing is ‘bad optics’?”
“What I mean is—”
“But you admit to taking the money!” crows Desmond.
Terrific. I just half-confessed with a camera rolling. I try again: “I mean, when the door’s open and people don’t lock stuff up—”
“So if somebody forgets to close a door, it’s okay to rob them?” Aubrey asks.
Talking to a camera is harder than it looks. “C’mon, nobody lost anything. Look at ‘em over there.” I point to the Holy Family taking a selfie with a gaggle of kids. “Check out those waistlines: Mary and Joseph could afford to skip a meal. What’s 80 bucks to them — a couple less Whoppers?”
“80 bucks is the exact amount of cash Mary and Joseph were carrying,” Desmond points out. “How’d you know if you didn’t steal it?”
I keep shoving my foot farther and farther down my throat. I give it one more desperate try. “Point is, even if . . . somebody got away with a purse or wallet, the bank refunds money from bad charges. Like on debit cards. So what did they really lose?”
Desmond shakes his head in disgust while Aubrey goes to collect her camera off the tripod. I mutter, “I want a lawyer,” just like the criminals on cop shows after they say too much.
I hear a car pull into the lot behind us, and Desmond proudly leads me on my perp walk over to the real cop. As the officer loads me into his backseat, I take one more look at the stable.
A shepherd boy and a teen angel are looking at me like I’m the Devil himself. Then Mary glances over and nudges Joseph. They stare and whisper. I can’t hear the conversation, but I know what they’re saying: I can’t believe that dirtbag walked into a church — a CHURCH! — and stole our sacred credit cards. I hope he rots in jail.
I harden my gaze and glare at the people around the stable until they all look away, even Mary and Joseph. I don’t need their judgy looks and stupid comments.
Still, I guess getting arrested makes you ponder life, because during the ride downtown, I can’t help thinking that things weren’t always this bleak. I didn’t know how unfair the world was when I was little, so I assumed everything would turn out great. But I should’ve known better: I was a foster kid. My life started off screwed up and got worse from there.
Once upon a time, I dreamed about a wife, a dog, and an SUV parked beside a white picket fence. Now, I’m 26 and living in a homeless shelter. Some days I hold a cardboard begging sign by the freeway. Other days I steal wallets from the Holy Family. Just like any fairy tale you drag into real life, I’m living unhappily ever after.
I’m not looking for sympathy, so don’t trouble yourself. But don’t get all righteous on me, either. I just took a few bucks from people who won’t even miss it.
Why shouldn’t I buy myself a Christmas present? Nobody else will.
* * *
I used to get Christmas presents. Do-gooders from the “Angel Tree” would bring gifts to whatever foster home I was in, and I loved unwrapping toy dinosaurs as much as the next kid.
But the year I turned 12, I realized the whole thing was a joke. The “Angel Tree” was just a way for middle-class drones to feel better about being selfish the rest of the year.
I remember I was 12 because I was staying with a family of Jesus Freaks at the time — I think they were Foster Family #8. They had a whole menagerie of “real” (biological) kids, including Derek, a pudgy boy with a buzz cut who was about my age.
Derek was a social reject at school. So naturally, he bullied me at home every chance he got. “You’re only here ‘cause God cares for orphans and outcasts,” he would piously remind me. “If my family didn’t obey the Bible, you’d be a bum on the street.”
“I’m not an orphan, my mom and dad just can’t take care of me right now,” I would piously remind him. “And you’re the outcast — everybody at school knows it.” Then I would chase him down and put him in a headlock.
Derek is the one who arranged my first run-in with the cops.
A few weeks before Christmas, I found an envelope from Dad — my real dad — on my bed, and it wasn’t mailed from prison this time. When I opened it, a pair of $100 bills fell out. It was more money than I’d ever seen.
“Landon, I’m out of prison and working,” the note said. “I’m trying to get an apartment so we can be together. Go buy yourself a Christmas present. Love, Dad.”
I knew better than to believe anything Dad said. This is the guy who walked out on Mom when I was four, which made her pill-popping worse and landed me in my first foster home. He’s also the guy who told me from jail that he was suing the state because he was innocent. Then on the same phone call, he made jokes about clobbering a cashier who didn’t empty the cash register fast enough. Let’s just say he’s not a man of his word.
But I couldn’t help hoping: Maybe he is putting his life together. Maybe he’ll get me out of foster care!
I spent a beautiful Saturday dreaming about life with Dad, and even better, what I could buy with 200 bucks. Brand-name sneakers instead of Derek’s hand-me-downs. A cheap phone, if my foster mom would add me to the family plan — her “real” kids had phones.
A few days later, Derek was taunting me about orphans and outcasts when I made a fatal mistake. To shut him up, I pulled the windfall from Dad out of my pocket: “If I’m an orphan, how come I have this?”
Derek’s jaw dropped as he stabbed an accusing finger at me. “You stole money!”
“Nuh-uh! My dad sent it in my Christmas card ‘cause he loves me.”
Derek didn’t believe it. He ran out of the room crowing, “Landon is a thie-eef! Landon is a thie-eef!”
Before I knew it, I was facing the Spanish Inquisition — or at least my foster mom, a stick-thin woman with stringy hair who always looked like she’d bitten a lemon. She was positive I’d gone over to Satan and implored me to repent for my theft.
“But the money’s mine; I didn’t steal it!” I insisted. “It was in the card from my dad — I’ll show you.”
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find Dad’s card in my mess of a bedroom, so Foster Mom threatened me with damnation. “God punishes the unrighteous, Landon. You know where sinners go when they die.”
When I still wouldn’t repent, she literally snatched the cash out of my hand before calling my caseworker. “I won’t have a thief under my roof!”
Since I’d been in trouble before for skipping school, my caseworker decided to get the cops involved. In no time flat, a muscle-headed clown in mirrored sunglasses showed up and put me in the back seat of his cruiser.
I tried pleading my case through terrified tears: “Please don’t take me to jail! My dad sent me the money, I swear.”
“Nobody wants to put you in jail, kid. Admit you took the cash and it ends right here.”
I didn’t know yet that cops couldn’t care less. So through sobs, I tried telling him what really happened. I might as well have been talking to a wall.
For the longest 30 minutes of my life, I prayed hard enough to make Foster Mom proud: God, I swear I’ll never be bad again if you get me out of this.
Finally, my foster mother walked out to the cop car — and she was holding Dad’s Christmas card. I overheard her embarrassed, apologetic voice as she explained her mistake. “I found this card in Landon’s room, and . . . well, I think the money’s his after all.”
The cop rolled his eyes and shrugged. What did he care so long as he didn’t have to figure out what to do with me? “Don’t give your foster mom any more trouble,” he said as he turned me loose.
I assumed that Foster Mom would offer some godly repentance when we got inside the house. Boy, was I wrong.
“You’ve put this entire family through a lot of trouble today,” she snapped. “We’ve welcomed seven foster children into our home, and never once had to call the police.”
“How is this my fault?”
“You should have told us what your father sent. It would have prevented a . . . misunderstanding.”
There were a million things I could’ve said, but I stuck to the important one. “Fine, but you know the money’s mine now. Where is it?”
“I put it away,” she said. “I think it’s only fair that you help pay for the groceries you’re eating.”
My jaw literally dropped. I couldn’t even speak for a long moment. Finally, I choked, “You mean I don’t get . . . and you think that’s fair?”
“All gifts come from God,” she said. “As your foster mother, I have a responsibility—”
“But it’s MINE!” I shouted. “Who’s the disobedient thief now? You’re the one goin’ to hell!”
“That’s enough!” she snapped. “Go to your room.”
“What did I do?”
“And if I hear another word, you’ll stay there tomorrow too. Understood?”
Well, I definitely said another word. Then I added a bunch of words with four letters. But I didn’t mind the time in my room: I escaped Foster Mom’s Jesus lectures.
When Christmas came two weeks later, I got gifts from the “Angel Tree” as usual. But as I was taking the meager haul of unfunny t-shirts and a handheld video game up to my room, it hit me — something I should have realized years ago. Nobody gives you anything unless there’s something in it for them.
Dad sent money because it made him feel better about being a felonious deadbeat. “Angel Tree” donors buy presents because the warm fuzzy tides them over through 364 days of selfishness. The Haves keep what they got while the Have-Nots get their money confiscated for “groceries.”
Conclusion: the only way to get anything is to take it for yourself.
That’s why things started to mysteriously disappear from my foster home over the next few weeks. A $20 bill that was left on the kitchen counter. A carton of ice cream from the freezer. A North Face coat that Derek bought with his Christmas money. (His money, of course, didn’t have to pay for groceries.)
Foster Mom searched my room, but I was too smart for her: I kept everything in my locker at school. Oh, she knew what I was doing; that’s why I got shuffled to a group home after the holidays. But she couldn’t prove anything. By time I left her house, I’d taken back my $200 with interest.
I bounced around in state-sponsored “care” for six more years. When I was with a decent family, I got what I needed from shoplifting. When I was with jerks, I took my share at home.
Of course, the problem with foster care is you have nowhere to go once you’re 18. My caseworker helped me get an apartment and found me a job stocking at Kroger, but that was stupid. C’mon . . . with my shoplifting record?
After I got fired, I crashed with my real mom and her boyfriend. But I moved out when I discovered she was using again. For a while, I was sleeping in a tent in decent weather and riding the Metro all night when it was cold.
The best thing I had going, which lasted almost a year, was sharing an apartment with one of my old foster brothers. But then some money went missing from his bank account, and, well . . .
It’s a long story. But, yeah, I took it.
You go ahead and think I’m scum while you drive home in your SUV. I’ll never have a white picket fence like you, but I’m not stupid enough to live on the crumbs you toss me under the table. I’m going to take back what life took from me.
If God sends people to hell for that like Foster Mom said, then okay: I guess I’m the Devil.
Copyright 2019 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.