Petty Thievery by Bill Tope

Sturges supplements his poverty wage at the student union with petty thievery - what could possibly go wrong? By Bill Tope.

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"Man, I gotta find a new job," I told my boss Arno on the final day of work for the season. I had worked at the on-campus music festival held at the university each summer. Arno, a supervisor there, apparently felt that I had served him well, for he decided to use his considerable influence to get me a position in the Student Union, where he also worked when the festival wasn't running.

"Leave it to me, Sturges," replied Arno optimistically. Though only a year older than my twenty years, he exuded confidence and authority. So we quitted the natural outdoor amphitheater where the concerts were held, and made our way to the campus proper and to the Union, where Arno introduced me to Carl, supervisor of the day's shift janitorial crew. Carl was in the Civil Service but also supervised the students, who did basically the same tasks as his Service men but for half the money. Which mattered not at all to me, inasmuch as the wolf was at the door.

The interview with Carl was short and sweet. "Well, uh..." he glanced at my application. "Sturges, can you strip, wax, and power buff slate floors?" he asked me. I blinked in confusion and shook my head no. Carl was unfazed; Arno was his buddy, and so Carl was determined to be of service. "Ever wash windows with a Tucker Pole?" I shook my head again, only more rapidly this time. I hadn't the ghost of an idea what a "Tucker Pole" even was. "Well," Carl continued, "did you ever wash windows with a squeegee and brush?" Before I could answer, Carl pressed ahead with, "Don't suppose you know how to steam-clean carpets, do you?" Arno wanted to intercede on my behalf, but he was at a loss; he didn't know how to steam-clean carpets either.

"Look, Carl," I said, proving at last that I could speak, "I don't know how to do any of that stuff."

Carl nodded somberly and then asked, "Can you walk behind a dust mop to sweep a floor?" Arno later told me that my face brightened at once. Sure, I said, I could do that! "Report at ten o'clock tomorrow morning for work," instructed the older man, and hands were shaken all around. I had my new job!

When I was enrolled as a student at university, back in the 1970s, I lived anything but the high life. While tuition and books were no problem - I'd gotten an academic scholarship - room and board, meals, transportation, and incidentals were solely my responsibility, which was, I thought, then and now, as it should be. So it was with gratitude that I seized on employment with the janitorial department. I was given the weekend shift in the Union. It paid, as I recall, the bountiful sum of $1.65 per hour, which, by coincidence, was the current minimum wage. So you knew that they hired only the most-gifted applicants. As a full-time student, I was permitted to work just twenty hours per week, and not surprisingly, I was hungry most of the time.

One weekend, while wet mopping the cafeteria kitchen, I caught a glint of metal on the floor and bent to retrieve the tiny bauble. It was a key! I read the inscription on the meaty part of the key that you grip to turn it in the lock and noted that the name was identical to the logo on the many side-by-side refrigerators and walk-in coolers that lined the walls of the kitchen. Could it be possible? I was so hungry! Fitting the key into the first cooler, the lock turned over easily. I pulled the door open. There I found left-over pot roasts, hams, salamis, bricks of cheese - the works. Carefully locking the door again, I went on to the next refrigerator and found there dozens of desserts: puddings, gelatins, pies, cakes, strudels, and it just went on and on. I shut the door again and looked around. No one had spotted my breach. Good, I thought. I'd just keep this dirty little secret to myself and profit thereby.

What I hadn't counted on was Arletha, a very old - almost fifty - African American woman who was supervisor of the weekend shift of janitorial staff. Waiting till she found me alone, she remarked that she had observed my skullduggery. Rather than turning me in, however, she suggested that we could "all share in God's bounty!" And thus began an interlude of collegiate petty thievery.

An hour later, Arletha was bound for the tunnel beneath the Student Union, where the weekend employees all parked their cars. "I'm on a mission for God," she gushed giddily, bearing over her shoulder a tube of bologna that must have weighed thirty pounds. She was strong for her size. "This is for sandwiches for the Vacation Bible School," she explained, nearly tripping and upsetting her load. "Lord God," she whispered, gasping with excitement. "Sturges," she instructed me, "gimme those two Black Forest cakes in that last fridge." She had scoped them all out. I dutifully sprang into action and retrieved the baked goods, storing them discreetly on the floor in the back of her car. I worried, frankly, that the food service bosses might detect the absence of so much food. But Vic, a fellow-impoverished student worker on the weekend shift, told me not to worry after I shared the secret with him.

"They get thousands of dollars in food every week here," he said with confidence.

"Yes," I said, "but don't they ever do an audit?" Vic was a graduate student and, inexplicably, had continued to work as a student janitor for almost seven years; he knew everything that went on in the Student Union.

With his hand, he batted away my concerns. "Shit, they rip off hundreds of dollars every month themselves," he pointed out. "They aren't about to question a missing salami or shit." With that, he scurried furtively to his vintage Lincoln Continental, where he secreted ten pounds of head cheese. Uck! I thought. There is no accounting for taste.

When we cleaned the upscale restaurant on the second floor of the Student Union, prior to discovering the coveted key, we had treated ourselves to the occasional potato baked in the microwave, an infrequent slice of cheesecake, and what have you. After I found the key, however, new culinary vistas opened up to Vic and me. Vic took to bringing to work a large skillet. After purloining two beautiful ribeye steaks, he fried them up with an expertise I never knew he possessed.

Arletha was temporarily sidelined when she fell on the stairs leading into the tunnel, a tube of Cotto salami cradled in her arms. She slipped, sprained her ankle, and was laid up for several weeks. I understood that the Bible School suffered piteously. Replacing her as supervisor was an elderly man, Alvin, who cared little for stolen foodstuffs; however, he had a monkey on his back all the same. Usually Alvin would arrive forty-five minutes late, dressed in a bright yellow coverall, and lit up like a Christmas tree. The first time we met, I could tell he'd been nipping and leaning in, I could discern the pungent aroma of marijuana and cheap spirits. We knew that Alvin would work out just fine, provided we assisted him in the pursuit of his own hobby. One weekend, as the steaks sizzled in the skillet, Alvin told me he was thirsty. He seemed unusually edgy.

"I've got to have something to drink, Sturges," he said desperately. He had been unconscious all morning and apparently slept off the buzz he arrived with.

"I'll fix you up," I assured him, and went in search of booze. "Vic," I asked my fellow thief, "what can we get Alvin here to drink? He's parched!" In my youth, I comprehended little of substance abuse and chemical dependency; this job was to furnish me a tutorial on the subject.

"No shit, man," Alvin piped up. "I've got to have it!" We searched high and low for potent potables but came up empty but for one thing: a one-gallon bottle of cooking sherry.

I uncapped the sherry and sniffed, pulled my head sharply back. "Ugh," I said, "it smells like gasoline."

Alvin practically ripped it out of my arms, tipped the nearly full jug back, and sherry gushed down his gullet. Vic and I waited breathlessly to see if Alvin would keel over from alcohol poisoning, but we'd underestimated him. "That's the bomb!" he cackled, grinning, and went on at length about the delightful "bouquet." He finished fully half the bottle before quitting time. Alvin didn't last all that long after all, however. One time Edgar, the departmental manager, came in on a Saturday and found Alvin sacked out behind some portable staging in the ballroom. Even that wouldn't have gotten him transferred out but for the fact that when Ed found the inert Alvin, he thought that the other man was dead and called the paramedics. Alvin wasn't fired - just transferred to a less conspicuous work site - because it was almost impossible to fire a Civil Service employee at that point in time. That and the fact that Ed was himself so drunk at the time that he vomited on the first responders and had to be taken by ambulance to the campus health facility for a case of alcohol toxicity. Ed, too, then took a brief sabbatical in order to recover his aplomb.

There came a point at which I knew that Vic was not quite right; there was a certain cognitive dissonance (I majored in Psych) that owed, according to my brand of 1970s shithouse psychology, to a lifestyle that didn't jibe with his sense of self. Vic had begun to behave as a gay man, or at least as he felt a gay man would behave. Now this was okay with me; I mean, I was enlightened, broadminded, tolerant, however you wanted to say it, even for the 1970s. I shared a college house in town with four other students, of whom two, a man and a woman, were gay and lesbian, respectively. Knowing that, I suppose, Vic had decided to come out to me. The manner in which he did it was a little shaky at best. First, he had to prepare himself.

He began using drugs - not pot or other recreational substances, but powerful mood elevators, barbiturates, muscle relaxers, what have you. God knows where he got them, likely from the campus psychiatrist, who was a notorious pill peddler. However, he over-medicated horribly, and it was no small wonder that he was able to stand up, let alone operate a vehicle and report for work. One morning we were in the basement of the student union, in the break room, waiting for our shift to start.

"Hey Vic, what's up?" I greeted my friend.

"I am sho screwed up," he slurred in reply. "I can't even shit straight!" Alarmed at this response, I regarded the always-together Vic with concern. Discreetly, I sniffed. He had been drinking Annie Green Springs Apple wine; I would know the scent anywhere - it was very popular in the 1970s. Then I watched as he extracted from his shirt pocket a large pink tablet that was likewise recognizable to me - it was a Quaalude! Powerful stuff, particularly if you're not used to it.

"How much wine did you drink?" I ventured.

He batted the question aside, like he often did, and then replied, "Jush one bottle."

"C'mon, fellas," said Carl, our new boss, entering the room, "we have to set up a thousand chairs in the ballroom for the concert and..." He was interrupted by my waving and pointing to Vic, whom, as he soon realized, was going to be useless today. "Vic," he said, "are you alright?" Vic immediately began crying: deep, heart-wrenching sobs. We both tried to reassure Vic that he wouldn't be fired or even disciplined. Carl said he was going to begin putting the chairs down, and could I stay with Vic for a while? I nodded my agreement. Next, Vic began talking about suicide. Yikes, I thought. Having never, at that point in my young life, conversed about suicide with others, I was immediately concerned.

"You don't want to talk like that," I counseled my friend.

"Why not?" he demanded, laying his head down on the table and sobbing some more. Tears began puddling up on the table. "No one cares if I die," he reasoned. Vic had no family, no roommate, and no friends other than those at work. He was basically just terribly lonely.

"I care, Vic," I told him earnestly. "Things wouldn't be the same without you, man." I was out of my depth; Psych 301 hadn't covered this. Not remotely.

Apropos of nothing, Vic blurted out: "You are what you eat, and I'm a dick!" The supposition we'd all had was exposed. Next, he began talking about his friend Tony, who, he said, beat the hell out of him. This was evident by the swollen jaw and the black eye he sported. But he had told everyone that he had gotten them in a bar brawl in defense of "this Mexican chick" he supposedly dated. Vic was originally from Texas, so perhaps he had a Mexican paramour at one point in his life, but that ship had sailed.

The conversation just went downhill after that. Vic began naming people - movie stars, people he'd known, people we both knew - and speculating on the length of their penises.

"No wonder Buzzy has lots of girlfriends," said Vic, referencing a student government figure we knew, whom he said had "a twelve-inch cock." I blinked at this. But I didn't ask how he came by this information. A man that Vic repeatedly fixated on was the porn actor John "The Wad" Holmes, who had been in thousands of skin flicks. "Fourteen inches!" marveled Vic. straightening up in his chair, "He could screw two chicks at once, one from each end." His anatomy and logic failed me, but I let it ride. It was Quaalude logic, I figured. Subsequently, Vic took a three-week sabbatical in order to get clean.

As a replacement, the weekend shift gained Glen, a worker who took petty theft to whole new levels. Glen was a housemate of mine, and I got him hired at the student union. That was also the time that I found new employment outside the university. Seeing that Vic wasn't right, with his drug and alcohol problems, I ceremonially bestowed "the key" on my friend Glen and filled him in on the particulars. He assured me he would put it to good use. And did he ever.

Whereas Vic and I had wolfed down the steaks and purloined enough ham or roast beef to make a few sandwiches during the week, Glen outdid us all. When he came home that first weekend, he bore a huge metal tray, loaded with fifty ribeye steaks, plus ten pounds of real butter, and a half dozen fruit pies. Not content with that, he next took furniture - tables, chairs, desk lamps - from the various offices and meeting rooms in the Union.

The five of us lived in a large, three-story private residence in the city. Known as The Big Yellow House for the awful mustard-colored paint on the building's exterior, it was soon loaded with purloined university merchandise, a fact that sat rather uncomfortably with some of the others. In place of a conscience, I fostered the notion that this was now Glen's schtick, although I did eat the steaks and slather the stolen butter on the stolen bread. Thinking that we were, by proxy through Glen, sticking it to the man, I was conveniently forgetting about my own hand in this growing fiasco.

I was studying at the kitchen table one afternoon when I heard drumming at the front door. John, the house manager, went to answer the summons. Moments later he was back, saying that "Bruce is here and he wants his Buffalo wings." I did a double take, and John continued to stand there, staring at me.

"What Buffalo wings?" I asked. "And who's Bruce?" Wordlessly, John led me to the door, where an immense man of about forty stood with two large aluminum pails, waiting expectantly.

"You Glen?" he snarled.

I shook my head no. "Nuh-uh," I said. "What's this about Buffalo wings?" I asked him.

"I paid, through a buddy, a feller named Glen, forty-five bucks for twenty pounds of Buffalo wings. How 'bout 'em?" I was about to tell Bruce that Glen wasn't there when the man himself burst through the door. He dug out a small notebook and addressed the big man,

"Are you Bruce?" Bruce confirmed his identity. "Wait right there," said Glen, and he went to a chest freezer he had purchased several weeks earlier and disinterred several plastic bags of wings. Plunking them into Bruce's pails, he shook hands with the man and led him outside. Once back in the kitchen with John and me, Glen grinned stupidly - stupid like a fox.

"This shit has got to stop, Glen," said John somberly. "That's the third person to show up here today to collect their 'merchandise.' Glen looked pained.

"I'll make it up to you guys," he promised and, taking out a bulging wallet, extracted over four hundred dollars, enough rent for the entire house. "Rent's on me this month, okay?" To John's everlasting credit, he refused to even touch the cash and told Glen in no uncertain terms how to file the dirty money. So Glen became persona non grata at Big Yellow. Glen, meanwhile, was just getting more and more out of control. He fancied himself less a lurid opportunist and petty thief than an organizer, an entrepreneur, whatever. Soon he had other riff-raff working for him.

One day, Glen confided that he'd gotten the combination to a safe in the Union from a girl who worked there and whom he had seduced. He was set to grab a thousand dollars the next week. The plan fell apart, however, when Glen was caught pilfering a four-gallon pot of mac and cheese - and he didn't even like mac and cheese. Campus police were summoned, Glen was patted down, and the key was discovered. He claimed that he was starving and that the kettle of mac and cheese would be the first thing he'd eaten in two days. The Dean of Students, who was a woman and yet another of Glen's romantic conquests, took pity on him, believed this was the first incident of thievery, and allowed him to escape retribution. But she did fire him.

Which would have been the end of it had Glen not made a singularly tragic mistake: he was unfaithful to Carole, the aforesaid Dean of Students. Once she saw that he had played her for a fool, her wrath was implacable. Given the circumstances - Glen being caught red-handed and Carole's brother being the States Attorney - things did not look good for Glen. The cops arrived one morning about three a.m. and perp-walked Glen from Big Yellow and into the paddy wagon. Search warrants were served, and an estimated $40,000 in stolen merchandise was seized. Plus there were the drugs: with the infusion of cash, Glen had reinvested his liquidity in cocaine, pot, and LSD. Not a word was said about my involvement; no one pointed an accusing finger at me. "I'm protecting you, Bro," Glen whispered when I visited him in the county jail prior to his trial.

When Glen got on the stand, however, he sang like a bird. And his favorite tune was, "It was all Sturges's idea." But there was just too much evidence against Glen, and he was sentenced to eighteen months at the Menard Correctional Facility in Chester. He cried so loudly, however, that they gave me six months just for general principles. I could have easily beaten it, but I had no funds and had to be satisfied with a public defender who was overworked, under-skilled, and incurious. The landlord evicted everyone from Big Yellow, and today it's a bed and breakfast or something.

Although I was sentenced to just six months, they tacked on three months for bad behavior. Some things never change. In the prison, I was put in a cell with - you guessed it - Glen. At the time, there was a work requirement for all inmates, and so I got a job in the cafeteria. When Glen likewise got a job in the kitchen, I should have smelled trouble. We were busted four weeks into our scheme: taking a five-gallon drum of peanut butter and ten boxes of saltines; we sold them to the other inmates for the universal prison currency - cigarettes - and soon had a nice little nest egg, with which we purchased contraband Annie Green Springs Apple wine. We had to get through the long nights somehow. When they searched our cell and confiscated the snacks, one bull told us,

"You guys just don't get it, do you?" Glen smirked, fired back at him, "Whadda they going to do, put us in jail?" The screw made a feint toward the custom recliner in the corner of the cell, but checked himself. The chair had come mysteriously from the office of the Warden - as pretty woman named Naomi Ferguson. Like I said, some things just don't change.


  1. Good story. I was fully engaged from the opening. The pacing, dialogue and story line were well done. The characters were well-developed and believable. I dont have high hopes for Sturges. Especially if he doesn’t change the company he keeps. And don’t even get me started on Glen! Nicely done, Bill.
    -David Henson

    1. Thanks, David, for your complimentary words; it means something come from a talented writer such as yourself. I think you’re right about Sturges; as a matter of fact, he gets into more trouble later on. And Glen? Would you believe that the real life Glen works today as a manager of a janitorial crew. True. Or is it?

  2. Well told! Engaging characters, compelling action - super description. One of those stories that is almost a novel in a shortened format. Great pace and rhythm throughout.

    1. Thanks a lot, David. I was happy with the way it turned out; would have been prouder if I’d written “Rory and Lawrence,” but we do what we can, I guess. I thought my story was enhanced by the presentation, including the AI image; it even looked a little like Vic!

  3. To paraphrase George Saunders (from his notable book A Swim in the Park in the Rain), a story is “a continual system of escalation.” “Always be escalating!” Bill Tope’s story epitomizes this wisdom.
    What a fun and silly page turner. But the stakes keep getting higher and higher… until of course it all comes crashing down!

    Saunders also writes that an important feature of any beautifully ended story is that we can imagine the lives of the characters continuing on beyond it. (A prison sitcom easily plays in my head with these characters…)

    Truly great craft Bill!

    1. Adam, if my story made you smile, I was successful in my efforts. Thanks very much for reading and for taking the time to offer your very welcome comments. By the way, when are anxious readers going to hear more of your hapless hero, Harold. Thanks again.

  4. Bill Tope we should take this place over. Don't tell Charlie, he might not approve. More fun and crime that I ever had in college in the early '60s - different drugs (mostly pot and pills) and different crimes. Is there any nonfiction basis for this? Except for jail it sounds like endless fun.

    1. Hi Doug! I don’t know about a takeover—sounds like too much work. There is a non-fiction basis for some of this: Arletha really did lug a 30-pound bologna down the stairs and into the tunnel, but as to the rest, you’ll just need to use your very fertile imagination. Take care and thanks for writing. And thanks for writing your stories.

  5. This is a very entertaining and well crafted story, Bill. In the beginning, I got the impression that Sturges might be able to sort himself out if he removed Glen from his life. Clearly, he was not ready to change in any way at the end of the story. This is realistic ... However, I wonder where Sturges will be ten years later. Will he remain like Glen? There might be another story worth writing...

    1. Thanks, Rozanne, your comments, as usual, are astute. I’m presently working on a prequel to “Petty Thievery,” wherein the feckless Sturges works as a security guard at the university music festival—the job he had before he became a petty thief. I see readers have been giving the errant Glen a bad rap—and deservingly so. Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m looking forward to seeing more great stories from you. Rozanne.

  6. The pace on this is great, and with your writing it goes without saying the character depictions are second to none. There is a crescendo to this one as the stealing of food gets worse and worse, but it still comes as a shock to learn its $40K worth and the prison sentences. Even though its a realistic story I also felt the sense of a metaphor (I don't know if intentional) as these guys need a job to pay bills and buy food, but find themselves with access to food better and in more abundance than their wages pay them.