Fiction: The Girl from Alberta
By Steve Passey
I lived among thieves, liars and cheats. No one ever made restitution. They wouldn’t even when they were made to. Thieves plead poverty, thieves plead need, and thieves bear false witness against those from whom they steal. Thieves plead, plead, and plead.
When I grew up there was a guy named “Arnie”. Arnie stole things. The family was hard, raised by a hard hand. They fought often. They fought each other, the police, the neighbors, and strangers too. They fought with fists and elbows and feet in steel-toed boots. Once they even swung shovels. Only Arnie stole. If someone stole something, large or small, cars or candy bars, we’d say they “Arnied it.” One time Arnie cut through the chain-link fence at the Yamaha dealer and stole a used dirt bike. Two weeks later he came in with the bike talking about trading it in on something newer. The dealer said “Sure Arnie, let our mechanic look it over for an hour and if it’s in good shape we’ll talk price.” Arnie went to get a burger and the dealer called the police. Arnie was arrested. I think Arnie’s dead now. He did a lot of time. Short sentences, one after another, two years less a day in medium-security places but out in half that for good behavior. In and out and unemployable, always, always stealing. Eventually stuff caught up and weighed too heavily and then he was in for more.
My dad’s old business partner had some money. He attracted all sorts. Everyone had a “business proposal”. One guy had a cattle deal he was pitching. He’d recruited a few other guys, farmers mostly, and he recruited Jim. He took their money and spent it – some on cattle, some on land, but most on who knows what - and they lost it all. Some of these guys had borrowed against their farms and they were mad. Some sued, all of them actually, all except for Jim. He just shrugged it off. What is it they say about throwing good money after bad? The others put good money into lawyers and got none of the bad back so that money was gone too. All of them except for Jim had something bad happen. Fires mostly, a barn here, a haystack there, nothing with people in it, but fires. Too many fires. One by one they dropped their lawsuits. The guy who pitched the deal and spent their money wound up owning a used car lot and bought produce from local farmers and resold it at roadside stands under a made up name. He left his wife for the babysitter but stayed with her until he died. He told people he was from England and had only been here a while. They’d nod and then, when he left, roll their eyes. I was told that his father was an honest man. He had sons too, one from each wife, and I heard they weren’t too bad. The oldest was riding a motorcycle and was hit by a car and knocked off the road not a block from our place. Someone called an ambulance. My mother ran out and laid a blanket on him. He lay under the blanket looking up at the sky and didn’t say a word. The dust from the collision and a hot and dry August hung over him and when it settled on his sweaty face he looked like he’d just worked a long shift in a dirt mine. A single red ant crawled on him. Hornets began to settle on the bumper of the car that had hit him, licking with long tongues and prying up with the edges of their jaws the splattered viscera of a thousand lesser insects crushed against car’s hard steel on its path to the intersection where it met the man and the motorcycle. The ambulance came and took him away. He had a broken leg.
A guy I went to school with “skimmed.” He took his employers money and put it into short-term investments of some sort. He’d keep the interest from these investments and return his employer’s money just before audits or tax time. Eventually some of the investments he made lost money and he wasn’t able to return the employer’s money. He was caught. His employer threw him out of the office. He wanted them charged with assault. He was charged and convicted with embezzlement. He cried in church and was forgiven – not by the authorities you understand (or his former employer – they did not attend the same church and were forgiven their trespasses in another) - but by those who speak for Jesus, having deemed themselves worthy to. “Hate the sin, not the sinner” they said, quoting nothing.
Someone in his church gave the sinner a job. He stole from them too; in the same manner as he had from his previous employer. Such is the strength of sin when matched with that of the sinner and abetted by the guarantee of Jesus’ forgiveness as given by his ambassadors. The cycle of charge/conviction/crying in church repeated. Another church member gave him a job, this one in another jurisdiction and once again, history rhymed. I find in his repeated embezzlements a type of optimism reflected in my own purchase of lottery tickets but with a reckless bravado that I don’t possess.
He finally did do some time. He came out much heavier, much softer than when he went in. I was surprised. I thought they let you work out in prison. I’d seen too much television I think, where guys went in to prison and pumped iron. When they came out they didn’t steal – they took. I thought that the division between embezzlement and extortion was that one was baptized in churches and the other in prison gyms. But he came out fat, and there was his church waiting for him, a safe place to cry and defer judgment.
Not long after I saw him I went for lunch with friends. We went for Chinese food. The restaurant had a huge aquarium. While we sat a catfish in the aquarium ate another fish almost its own size. It choked the other fish down with the contortions and contractions of its own body and swallowed it whole until the catfish, eyes bulging, was distorted with the shape of its victim. I don’t know anyone who took like that, but I know lots of thieves, liars, and cheats. I know people who witnessed them in amazed silence just like we witnessed the catfish.
I should have gone to church I guess, but I just worked. I worked for my parents. One day a guy came in with a forged receipt. He claimed we were double-billing him. It was a good forgery, and we hand-wrote everything in those days, but my mom noted that the date was funny – he’d actually made it out for a Sunday. He’d taken an old receipt and altered the date. That’s all. We weren’t open Sundays. Not then, not ever. He shrugged and walked on out as if he’d tried to be reasonable and we just wouldn’t. When the fat fuck died a few years later I clipped his obituary out of the local paper and wrote “Died From Being a Piece of Shit” on it and put it on the bulletin board in the staff room. Everyone knew the story.
I took over the business. I fired a guy who embezzled from us. He was having client’s send payments to a mailing address he’d arranged. I called him at home and left a message that we needed to talk – there were “discrepancies.” I never heard from him again. I had to fire him by mail. I went to the police. They asked “how is this theft, and not incompetence?” I wondered what the detective meant. Was it the thief’s incompetence or mine? You feel bad when you get stolen from. You are ready to blame yourself. But the detective came around. The guy received a six-month sentence but no order for restitution. He got away with what amounted to lunch money. You know, whatever it is you have seen the courts have seen worse. The day after this hit the paper his niece phoned me and spent an hour telling me how he’d stolen from other people too, mostly family. She said that at his father’s funeral he’d briefly reconciled with the family, but that they had caught him in his father’s garage sweeping car parts off of shelves into garbage cans and putting them in his truck. The old man had been a collector, as were the sons, and some of those parts were worth something. Some of them were just the kinds of things collectors hoard hoping that someday they will be worth something. He was swept them all off wholesale with his arm into those cans as fast as he could while the others were in the house at the wake eating the funerary food good neighbors brought and speaking softly. Someone saw or heard something and the wake moved into the garage. They caught him. His oldest brother beat him hard, real hard – he actually choked the parts-thief until the thief defecated in his pants while lying on the floor surrounded by old carburetors. His brother would have killed him had the others not pulled them apart. The thief got up and got into his truck and drove away without a word. Didn’t threaten, didn’t plead. Just left. She had other stories too. She said she couldn’t tell me all of them. There wasn’t enough time. They never ended.
Years later, years, I drove by him on the street. He was grey with cirrhosis and didn’t have long to live. He was wearing a bathrobe and pajama pants. He looked like hammered shit. I wondered what he looked like after his brother beat his larcenous ass but cirrhosis is worse than cuts and bruises. He waved at me and said “Nice truck.” He didn’t even recognize me. I swear this happened.
When he died I read his obituary and wondered if his niece might clip it, write “Died of Being a Piece of Shit” on it and tack it on a wall, a fridge, or a board somewhere. I won’t guarantee that she did. People are funny and often reconcile with the dead, or just forget them, happy enough not to have to deal with them again. They do whatever makes them feel good about themselves according to their tenets at the time, and times change. I imagine these funerals where there is mostly quiet, until someone thinks of something good they can say about the deceased. They’ll speak it aloud, and one or two will nod, but most hold silent knowing what they know. Among the silent there is always one man who thought briefly of bringing a shotgun and a shovel to the affair, just to make sure the thieving son of a bitch is really dead and buried and not just engaged in another ruse.
I don’t know what the police think. I think they think everyone is no damn good. I know a boy, slow on the uptake but good-hearted. He wanted to be a cop. He wanted to bust thieves. His next door neighbor was a retired cop. He taught law-enforcement classes at the community college now. The young guy went to talk to him, to ask him “what is it really like?” The old cop told him that ninety percent of being a uniformed police officer is breaking up bar fights at 2am and domestic disputes at 3am. Blood on your shoulders, vomit on your shoes, waiting for children’s services to show up and find a bed for the kids while their parents are in different parts of the system.
The kid heard him but went in for a cop anyways. Eventually he dropped out. He couldn’t pass the written exams. He had the heart for law enforcement but not the head. Someone else will have to put in time with the blood and puke before they get to chase thieves.
My clients told me of the thefts made against them too, of liars and cheats and the absence of restitution. A man who sold trucks told me that he had once sold two brothers, two farmers, two identical trucks on the exact same day. They had money these guys, inherited money and money made from the “supply managed commodities” they raised. Protected by a wall of quota and subsidy they always had cash. They had this idea to each get the exact same truck. Over the next two years the one brother drove his only a little while the other drove his more. He drove it hard too. Eventually he drove past the warranty, drove past by many thousands of kilometers, and blew the motor. The main bearings dropped right off of the block and the internal organs of the motor fell out and lay in pieces not even fit for salvage. He walked into the dealership, closed the manager’s door behind him and told him that what they were going to do was to put through a warranty claim on his brother’s truck (it was still under warranty) but actually install the new motor in his truck, the high-mileage one with the blown motor. He said that if they did not do this he and his brother would never buy again. The dealer refused and he hasn’t seen the brothers since. It’s been years. They still farm and they still complain like farmers do, about anything and everything, to anyone who will listen. My client wonders if anyone actually defrauds warranties for them. He wonders who would do that for them. I can think of a few. Someone will listen. Many cheats have to be abetted to be perpetrated.
My rivals suffered too. A married couple who had only one employee, a secretary/bookkeeper, was summoned to their accountants. “You are short of what you should have” he said. He was referring only to money. Before he could say “I think there has been a fraud” the wife jumped up and told the husband “You tell me who she is, you worthless son of a bitch, and don’t you think this won’t cost you everything you have. I’ll take you both down.” She thought he’d been slipping money to a mistress. This was magnificently funny. He had no mistress. He golfed and that was all. Had there been some sort of un-celebrity magazine for men deemed least likely to cheat he would have been their “Most Faithful Man” in three out of five years, with the alternate year selectees being dead men. The accountant saved the husband’s life when he told of internal fraud. They hired an expert in forensic accounting at some expense who took less than a day to tell them how and how much. Worst of all: The bookkeeper had been embezzling from them since her third week of employment. She’d been there eight years. I do not know if the wife ever apologized to the husband for accusing him of having a mistress. The forensic accountant told them to sue their regular account – he should have known. They demurred.
I know other women who stole. One embezzled from a daycare she kept the books for. It had to close. I think she got away with $30,000. She was a client of ours. I am not sure if it was the terms of her sentence or probation but no one ever saw her face-to-face. She placed her orders by phone, at odd hours. There would be voice-mails at 5:45am or 9:45 pm. Nothing during working hours. Maybe she didn’t want to be seen. For sure no one wanted to see her – she stole from a daycare.
Another woman embezzled. There was a fair amount of sympathy for her because she had embezzled to put her son through rehab. The boy was addicted to alcohol, to crack cocaine, to methamphetamines, to vices of every kind. He was weak in body and soul. He had pilfered from her to pay for these things and she took money from her employer. She forged checks. Still, some sympathized. I remember reading about her conviction in the paper. It was only ten days before Christmas and with the wind chill the temperatures were in the minus 40’s. You could not walk into that wind but that it put tears in your eyes and the tears ran and froze on your cheeks. You had to walk with your head bowed. The wind and cold made penitents of everyone but who knows what anyone thinks when they are alone with themselves. There was some sort of probation and censure, but she got another job and soon enough, embezzled there. This time she was feeding her own habits. Video Poker. She stole money to gamble and when caught she plead again that it was for her son’s rehab. She needed to have some luck at the machines and then everything would be alright. I do not believe this. With thieves even their intentions are lies. They’ll say anything. They steal because they can and because they believe they can get away with it. That is all they really believe. She’s dead now. I think she had a heart attack. I don’t know if her heart was broken by her son or if it was just a compounding interest of arrhythmia induced by every knock at the door, because those who steal fear every knock at the door and their hearts skip many beats.
I went to weddings, cowboy weddings where they held a bridal dance, had a money tree, and passed the shoe (a cowboy boot) for money for the couple and everyone was pretty much tapped out by the time the affair ended. At one cowboy wedding a fight broke out and you could not tell side from side and everyone – men, women, and children – threw punches and glasses and the curses rang over all our heads. Felt hats, many newly purchased, littered the floor in black and tan and were bent when stepped on and kicked in the fray. The fight broke up of its own accord with no explanation just the same as it started and I saw two men up at the bar, their shirts torn from their backs but their hats recovered and back on their heads, having a beer together. One man put his arm around the other and I believed that they were friends, then foes, and now friends again. I went to Mormon weddings where I moved through the receiving line with people who had bounced checks to me and to anyone else dumb enough to take them and then sat down for fifteen minutes for beef on a bun, eating in contemplative silence across from these petty grafters, before getting up and going out while the receiving line moved along and others came to sit in the same seats and eat the same beef, the same buns. I went to so many weddings. The liars and cheats and the upright men and honest women who had never lied, never cheated, all started to blur together. They all looked the same.
I sold the business. I was tired of people stealing from me or trying to steal from me. I got divorced. I wandered. I met a girl from La Cañada. I fell in love with her voice. I flew to meet her and when I got off the plane, there she was, as beautiful as the morning sun. It didn’t last. She professed to be an atheist but prayed every day for the deaths of Republicans, Catholics, and the entire state of Texas. She bought me many small gifts and was generous, but she yelled at me all the time and I never understood why. I think that something had been taken from her, taken by the dishonesty of a man or of men, Texan, Republican, or Catholic, and it made her both generous and cruel at the same time. Either that or she was just a big-city girl with big-city ways. Like I said it didn’t last, but at least she did not steal. She owed no restitution. Not to me, not to anyone. Life was getting better.
I came back home. I met a girl from Alberta. She had an ex-husband, a man with no conscience and proud of it. He had stolen from her family using every pretense imaginable. He just stole and stole. Someone was assigned to watch him at family gatherings because he’d go through coats and purses. Once he’d stolen tools from an employer and sold them for a fraction – an almost insignificant fraction - of their worth. He didn’t come home at first. He bought new clothes and then round after round of drinks at place after place on a Monday night in January until he was out of that money. He was temporarily very popular with the people who drink on Monday nights in January. Is this not the goal of every thief? To be King or Queen? If only for a day - or even for an hour? Eventually he was thrown out of some place. She had to pay his cab fare for him when he got home. He had holes in the knees of his new trousers and the elbows of his new leather jacket from rolling on the pavement, drunk. The cab waited outside while he raged and she cried. They had no money for food. He was fired but never charged, and never made restitution. It had happened before. No one knows where he is now, or if he is alive or dead. If he lives, he steals. She’s just glad he’s gone.
Some segments of The Girl From Alberta have appeared in part at The Airgonaut, Roi Faineant Press, Bombfire, Sledgehammer, TheMolotov Cocktail, Spelk, and ExPat Press.
Steve Passey is originally from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the short-story collections Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock (Tortoise Books, 2017), the novella Starseed (Seventh Terrace), and many other individual things. He is a Pushcart and Best of the Net Nominee and is part of the Editorial Collective at The Black Dog Review.