The only difference between most of my classmates and me was our skin tone and language. I struggled to learn Spanish. But together we were small town Catholics, suffering through life and mass at Our Lady of Refuge.
Mexicans outnumbered everyone at my school, and it seemed at the time that the Mexicans were cool and us white kids were dorks. To counter this, I wore shirts buttoned to my neck, a silver crucifix dangling under the stiff pointed collar. My black Z. Cavaricci pants tapered tight to the ankles above my black suede Playboy loafers with the thick and heavy pewter crests stamped to the uppers. I dressed like the Chicano boys around me, who themselves imitated their Pachuco fathers. I got into fights and stole packs of Garbage Pail Kids cards from Ken & Sons Produce. I stole candy and baseball cards from the Safeway Supermarket in Prunedale, Castroville’s neighboring town, when I let mom slip away to conduct our family’s grocery shopping. Even when not at school, when with my little brother and our neighborhood friends, who were all white kids, I wanted to impress them with my daring. All this I did because I assumed that that was what made one cool—like the Mexicans I found myself surrounded by—and not a dumbass.
This school sat in Castroville, California: population: 6,724; elevation: twenty-three feet above sea level; distance from said sea: one mile; between said sea and said town: a sea of artichokes. Hence, Mom dropped me, my brother, and our buddy Timmy Boy off at Northridge Mall so we could watch a movie. Neither Castroville nor the nearby town of Prunedale—between the two of which my house sat amidst oaks and strawberry fields—had a theater, or a mall, and mom had to drive us twelve miles into Salinas, or fourteen into Monterey, if we wanted such entertainment. It was summer in 1989. We watched Batman, the one starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.
After the movie we wandered the mall, scoped out the high school chicks, tooled around Hot Topic, goggle-eyed over the knives and Megadeth T-shirts. We spent our shitty allowances on stickers and the Guns n’ Roses T-shirt with the band’s crossed guns and roses logo because that was a shirt dad would let me wear, unlike the Iron Maiden T’s I really wanted, with a ghoulish Eddie screaming and stretching a clawed hand out for my soul. It wasn’t that my father thought of heavy metal as Satan’s music or anything. He just thought it was tacky and ugly, and, looking back, it was, even if that ugly tackiness is badass. Thus, we had with us shopping bags and these bags factor importantly into this narrative.
We ended up at JC Penny’s department store, where I talked Timmy Boy and my brother into stealing T-shirts. Genius I was, my plan was simple: walk into dressing room with three T-shirts, put one into Hot Topic shopping bag, walk out of dressing room to replace two T-shirts, leave store, rendezvous outside (except I would’ve used the verb “meet”) in the parking lot.
Imagine Terence Trent D’Arby dropping softly from overhead speakers.
The T-shirt I wanted was of Michael Jordan slam dunking. I replaced one of Larry Bird and another of Magic Johnson. Who would want their T-shirts? Magic won the MVP that year, but he hadn’t any finesse, not Jordan-esque finesse. Bird was out most the season with heel spurs and he looked almost literally like a bird, with that long face and big nose. No one had style like Jordan, Sir Air, winning his fourth scoring title that year. And Jordan had whooped up on some Dominique Wilkins in the Slam Dunk contest two years in a row.
In the dressing room I stashed the Jordan shirt into my bag, then rummaged around. I even removed the shirt I was actually wearing and put it back on, just to make the oomfs and shoves one breathes when one changes clothing.
I waited on a bench outside for my brother and Timmy Boy. It was going late afternoon and the sun hung orange. This skinny mulleted guy in a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and ripped jeans asked if he could look inside my shopping bag. You ever get that sinking in your gut? It’s like the first drop on a roller coaster. I’d gotten myself busted.
Mullet hauled me to a back room where they held shoplifters and called cops. On the way, my arm in his white-knuckled grip, he said, “Don’t try to run; I’ll tackle your ass down.” I was going to turn thirteen years old and scared shitless. I wasn’t running anywhere. Besides, I was chubby and slow. My Little League coach wouldn’t even let me lead off when I reached base, afraid I was too slow and would get picked off.
In the back room my brother and Timmy Boy already sat, heads hung, shoulders heaving, which made me go, too. Game over. We were going to juvy. Timmy Boy’s stepdad was a cop and his dad was an asshole. No mercy. The tears pooled on the linoleum at my feet. No shirt buttoned to the neck or Playboy loafers could make me look cool.
The head of security wasn’t a mullet like the guy who’d caught us; he was an older, balding man. He had to have been someone’s dad, or grandpa, even. He saw what we were: stupid kids—not hoods, not budding criminals—because he asked what we preferred: call the cops, or our parents?
Timmy Boy’s dad (his real dad) was furious when he picked us up. He was most mad at me, because I was oldest. He said that I was to set the example. Why wasn’t I responsible? What kind of person was I, showing kids how to steal? Turns out my brother had pussed out and didn’t go through with it, but security had hauled him off to find us as he wandered around, nine years old and worried where me and Timmy Boy had gone. But Timmy Boy, you might have thought this was the beginning of a lifestyle. His parents divorced and his mom remarried, shacking up with this dude who fathered Timmy Boy’s step brother and sister, siblings his mother doted on in ways Timmy Boy dreamt about.
Dick—his father—had also remarried, to a woman with sons a few years older, long-haired hesher kids who smoked weed and spat dirt from the tires of their dirt bikes in Prunedale’s hills. One of those guys is now dead, a suicide. I haven’t seen Timmy Boy in a long time, but we think he’s been popping pills so long he’s addicted and keeps his baretending gig to pay the rent and to keep that drug habit and a co-conspiring gambling one going. But back then, that day, I didn’t say anything and sat in the back of the Subaru quietly, worried about what would happen when mom and dad saw me.
Home, Mom let me know just how disappointed Jesus was. I cried and cried, and said I was sorry. She handed me my missal, ordered forty Rosaries. She said next Saturday I would go to confession. I hated confession. I can’t imagine anyone actually likes it.
Mom said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do when your father gets home.”
No amount of Jesus can prepare a child for this dread. I think this is even the subject of a Chris Rock routine, or something like that. My father hardly ever got mad, and he never spanked us. But when he was mad he yelled. But none of those things really scared me. What scared me was some inherent shame—knowing that my mother and father were disappointed in me. So it was scary when mom said this. I must’ve done something so bad, that when dad got home he was going to be mad, and he was going yell, maybe even hit me, though he never had before. The threat that that could happen lay behind my father’s yelling, like another person lived inside his voice. That person was one who—even if he did not yell or never touched me—was now disappointed in me. No amount of eternal damnation could compare with this earthly shame.
When my father did come home, he walked into my bedroom. I just let the tears out because there was no way I could stop them. He sat next to me on my bed and said, “You’ve had a pretty bad day, huh?” I nodded. He said, “Are you sorry for what you did?” I blubbered that I was. Dad said, “You gonna do something stupid like that again?” I shook no, of course, that I would not and I meant it. “I guess you’ve learned your lesson.” And Dad left the room. I’ve never stolen anything since.
At Reconciliation the following Saturday I confessed to stealing the T-shirt. I never confessed to my other thefts, of baseball cards or chewing gum, or the knife I stole out of Chuck Calderon’s jean jacket.
Blank percent of Americans agree that blank. And so being oneself, à la Emersonian self-reliance, is as much a dream. Individualism is nostalgia. Since Little League I’ve been trying to achieve it.
JAMIE IREDELL is the author of two books: Prose. Poems. a Novel., and The Book of Freaks. He’s published in literary magazines such as Hobart, PANK, The Literary Review, and Opium. He lives in Atlanta.