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PRIVATE LIVES

Published Jan. 19, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

I think I was 3 when I got my first shorts with pockets and learned the hard taste of dishonesty. Pockets were great. You could put shells, lizards, rubber balls from gum ball machines, bladeless pocket knives ... just about anything in them. Pants with pockets were a step up, a movement closer to being like my father. He held keys, pocketknives, a wallet and hundreds of dollars of change in his pockets. And it was flushed with the maturity of wearing pockets that I went into the Key Largo Shopper with him.

Mr. Lawson, the owner of the store, would give me and my little sister tiny toy chickens made of wire and feathers. The checkout ladies knew our names and would peer down at us from behind their cat-eye glasses and say: "Greg, how are you today? Karen, aren't you a beautiful young lady?"

So it was probably not much of a big deal for me to slip a pack of cherry Life Savers into one of my new pockets on that particular day. I should say that I don't really remember this. I remember it from hearing my parents recite it in front of their friends. But it's still as clear as an old black-and-white movie.

When I climbed up into the passenger seat of the panel van my dad used for work, I tore into the Life Savers. I must have connected what I had done with the power of purchasing. People brought things to the checkout counter and then left with them. After I had done the same thing, I was proud. I had candy. I had pockets.

Things were perfect until the moment when my father said: "Where did you get that?" It was not the question but the timbre of his voice that told me I was really in trouble. Before I could respond, before I could think up my first lie to cover a theft, he leaned into my face.

"You stole those from Mr. Lawson!" he said. "You are going to walk back in there, tell him what you did, and give those back." My heart beat heavy in my chest, and I wanted to cry. Somehow, I walked back into the store, my dad behind me, the terrible roll of candy in my hand.

Mr. Lawson waited near the counter on which I had seen him slam a hickory nightstick to terrify shoplifters. He smiled at me. Even at this point, I was planning on explaining what had happened, saying I was sorry, and waiting for punishment. It didn't happen that way.

"I stole these ... I'm sorry," I said and turned back to my father, my face in my hands, crying, as ashamed as I would ever be.

I imagine Mr. Lawson realized that I didn't know what I was doing, that perhaps he winked at my father, who said, "Sorry about this," and that that was the end of the whole thing.

It wasn't until years later, when I was 17 and applying for a job as a bagboy at the same store, that I remembered the incident. When I interviewed with Mr. Lawson, the son of the previous owner, I was terrified he would remember, that a picture of me when I was 3 years old was pinned up in the office with the word "shoplifter" printed across the bottom in black marker. But I was hired and learned to stock and bag groceries. My assignment on my first night _ this is true _ was to guard a shoplifter until the police arrived.

Eventually, I asked Mr. Lawson's wife whether she remembered my past life of crime. We had a good laugh over it, and it was clear that to her and her husband, it was just a toddler's silliness. But even now, I remember the tone of my father's voice, the way I felt when I confessed.

If I should have to steal to eat, to survive, I may do that. I would not begrudge Jean Valjean his stolen loaf of bread.

As much as I would like to say so, my strongest aversion to theft is not that it is immoral, not that it is illegal (though those things weigh on my conscience). It is the hard and bitter taste of that first experience, of my father's voice, of facing the smiling grocer, that keeps me from taking what I want.

Gregory Byrd lives in Dunedin. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.

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