Ruth had found one silver earring lying on her bureau, opened her jewelry box, and discovered the burglary. She’d opened the top bureau drawer and saw, instead of the little white cardboard box, a faint outline of dust where the box had lain, and she was stricken with loss. The items in the box had belonged to
Ruth’s mother. The wedding band etched with forget-me-nots, the gold locket, the ivory cameo with the raised but barely etched body of a woman, the choker of pearls. In the burglar’s hands. Ruth could no longer touch them, could not put on the gold chain with the wedding band askew, a circle off center as it
hung on an angle from the chain. Lost. Another part of her mother who had died the year before. More loss. More than she could take? And then the fear. The burglar. Who was he?
Ruth and Ben, her husband, had come home from visiting
their daughter at college, a train trip from Wesleyan in
Connecticut. Ben had found a window jimmied open in the sunroom
and called the police, who said the usual things: professional
job. Be glad the house wasn’t trashed. Recovery? Unlikely.
We’ll call you. Yes, a security system might be a deterrent. Chevy
Chase is an easy hit, close to the District line and you’re only one
house from Connecticut Avenue, the police said—as if Ruth and
Ben should have known better when they’d bought the house. As
if the burglary were their fault.
Now, when Ruth would come home, she would stand in the
doorway and yell, “Anyone here?”
The policeman’s words.
Now, questions in Ruth’s head, whenever she took off her
clothes to shower, while she studied her small breasts in the mirror
and saw, instead, her mother’s large, soft breasts that her
mother had said she’d ruined by binding them when she was
young in the 1920s, when her full-bosomed top and round bottom
were anything but the flapper’s desirable flat shape.
Ruth was often naked with her mother. When her mother
was young, she’d be naked—to keep her clothes dry—when
she’d bathe Ruth. She was an efficient, practical woman. She’d
straighten the linen closet naked. She could be seen changing a
light bulb naked. If something needed to be done, Ruth’s mother
did it. Nakedness had nothing to do with what needed doing.
The burglar, Ruth thought, was efficient, practical, neat. He’d
not taken any of her costume jewelry. He’d not taken the cheap
silver earring she’d found on the bureau.
One night after the burglary, while she stood naked, while
she looked at her breasts that her husband and other men had
touched—her breasts that none of these men had spoken of, her
breasts so unlike her mother’s—she wondered what she’d feel if a
man, if Ben, found words. Or was this moment, while making
love, this moment of body, of mind, of touch—ineffable?
“Recovery? Unlikely,” she said out loud. And then, “The burglar.”
The burglar, who was dissatisfied with the contents of the little
white box that he’d tossed into his briefcase at the end of his
search. The burglar, who touched the old items and assessed
their value—less than he’d hoped—an 18-carat gold locket (in
the shape of a fleur-de-lis, oddly sealed with black glue where it
had been opened, something inserted inside), an ivory and malachite
cameo, an 18-carat gold ring (size 6), a small 18-carat gold
chain, a string of pearls.
Ruth wondered what it would have been like if she had been
home when the burglar arrived. Would he have seen her naked?
Would he have admired her breasts? Would he have thought her
old? She did not think of rape or violation. She saw the burglar’s
hands, her mother’s cameo with its bare-breasted woman carved
in ivory—in his hands. And there Ruth was in the cradle of her
mother’s arm. But her mother is old, her hair is white. There Ruth
lies, inside the crook of that old arm. Did her mother fear that
she might drop her? In the mirror Ruth saw her mother’s drooping,
comforting breasts in her own small ones that lay against her
own chest, her breasts that no longer stood. Out loud to the mirror,
to the burglar, to the man who had her jewels, who could
give them back if he chose, she said, “The test of time.”
The burglar wore a pinstripe suit. He was college educated. He’d
gone to law school. His life was like a game, entering other people’s
houses, neatly removing valuables, understanding something
about them. He stole for fun at night, practiced law at his
leisure in the daytime. He loved a married woman and did not
feel the need to be faithful to her, but did not sleep with anyone
else. He hadn’t found anyone else he wanted to sleep with.
He decided to give the pearls to his girlfriend, to fence the
rest except the locket. He didn’t know what to do with the locket—
identifiable, old, probably not valuable because of the crude
seal. He knew jewelry and he knew the pearls were old, also not
very valuable, but also not identifiable if he removed the clasp.
The turquoise and gold clasp was gaudy, but at least the special
clasp was a sign of a jeweler’s hand in the stringing of the
pearls—a good sign, a nice offering. The pearls would be his first
gift. Would she take them?
She said he didn’t exist. That she’d made him up.
He liked her for this ruse, this game. And he wondered if he
did exist. He lived a double life: the law and its violation. “Who
am I?” he’d sometimes ask himself when he moved from one life
to the other, and then he’d laugh, for that question struck him as
a joke. A question people who took themselves too seriously
asked. “As if there were an answer,” he’d say. He didn’t need the
answer to that question. He needed to exist.
Stealing affirmed his presence. The woman whose jewelry
box he’d opened knew he existed. Of that he was sure.
The next night when Ruth got home from work, when she
yelled, “Is anyone here?” Ben was in the kitchen sorting through
“I am,” he said. “I’m here.”
Ruth said, “‘Here I am,’ said Adonai.”
“You’re making fun of me,” said Ben.
“No,” Ruth said, “I’m afraid.”
“Of the burglar?”
“What else?” But she wasn’t afraid of the burglar. This she
knew now, after she’d stood last night in front of the mirror looking
at her breasts.
“We’ll get a burglar alarm,” said Ben.
And Ruth said, “Yes, an alarm.”
And then to herself, this: What would the burglar advise?
The burglar was interested in stealing and ethics. Although he
did not believe in giving to the poor, he did believe in stealing
from the rich. And he wondered if he should ever give back anything
he’d stolen. Become Robin Hood, revised. The burglar
thought the Robin Hood of the old tale was a hypocrite. Giving
to the poor—as if he were a god, as if he could right a wrong,
decide what was just or unjust. The arrogance of it appalled him.
He mailed to all his friends on the Internet what he called “a
personality test” about Robin Hood, Marion, Little John, and the
Sheriff. He called it that because these days, everyone loved
these kinds of tests that defined what they foolishly thought
made them unique. He made up his test, his retelling of the story,
to reveal their ethics—the story beneath their choices. What he
learned made him feel he had an edge, and that edge of knowing
made him feel he existed.
His message said: “Take this test. Do not cheat by looking at
the answers. (He wondered how many did cheat; his guess was,
not many.) Just write the four names down on a piece of paper
and let’s compare. Here’s the test and, remember, this is a different
sort of story from the old story you know.
“‘The Sheriff of Nottingham captured Little John and Robin
Hood and imprisoned them in his maximum-security dungeon.
Maid Marion begged the Sheriff for their release, pleading her
love for Robin. The Sheriff agreed to release them only if Maid
Marion spent the night with him. To this she agreed. The next
morning the Sheriff released his prisoners. Robin at once
demanded that Marion tell him how she persuaded the Sheriff to
let them go free. Marion confessed the truth, and was bewildered
when Robin called her a slut, and said he never wanted to see her
again. At this Little John defended her, inviting her to leave
Sherwood with him and promising lifelong devotion. She
accepted and they rode away together.’
“Now in terms of realistic everyday standards of behavior, put
Robin, Marion, Little John, and the Sheriff in the order in which
you consider they showed the most morality and honesty (from
‘most’ to ‘least’). There is no ‘right’ answer.’”
The burglar believed this story revealed Robin Hood for
what he was—a foolish, self-important moralist. That was all he
needed to know. He hadn’t bothered to score the test.
The married woman he loved scored the test this way: the
Sheriff, Little John, Marion, and Robin.
When Ben asked Ruth to meet him at Pesce for dinner, she said,
“Shouldn’t we stay home?”
“Why should we stay home?” he asked her over the phone
from his office to hers.
“You know why.”
“Because you’re afraid we’ll be robbed?”
“Yes,” she lied. She wanted to stay home because she thought
the burglar would come again. She wanted to be there when he came.
“Let me take you out to dinner. If you get there before me,
order a bottle of the French white Burgundy we like. Trust me.
No one will break in tonight.”
But if he’d come once, why wouldn’t he come again? Because
he’d gotten what he wanted, of course. This was the sensible way
to think about it. And the security system was to be installed next
week. Once that happened, she knew he wouldn’t come again. It
would be foolish, and he was a professional. She wondered if he
was white or black. Tall or short. She knew he was slim: burglars
must be fit to do such work, to be efficient, practical, and quick.
Like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. A handsome cat burglar who
would reform, return her jewels. Become her lover? She walked
from the subway at Dupont Circle to Pesce on P Street and met
Ruth was eating lobster, he grouper, when he said, “Why didn’t
we make love this weekend?”
She didn’t know. Was it because, as she thought, that he didn’t
really want her? Had he really tried to make love? She didn’t
think so. She said, “I didn’t want to push it,” meaning that she
hadn’t initiated anything. Had he? Did he think he had? Had she
missed it? And why was he asking now?
He said, “I wanted to.”
They had had this conversation many times in the last year.
But not this way. Always before, she had been the one to ask.
At Pesce, at a different table, on a different night after work,
eating clams with linguine, she’d said, “So how many men do you
think got an offer like that this morning?”
He’d sat for a while and then said, “In the world or the U.S.?”
She had not answered. She was still angry from the morning
rebuff even though she’d believed she’d deserved it.
He’d continued, “In the U.S., there are about 250 million
people. Half are male—that’s 125 million. Half of those are children
or geezers—that leaves 62 million. Suppose one percent
got the same offer this morning—that’s 620,000 guys. Most of
them are married and turned it down.”
She’d laughed, her childish anger dissipated by his self-deprecation.
Childish anger for just punishment. Do we ever outgrow
If only she’d been able to explain why, after her mother died,
she’d wanted to make love all the time. Every day. She’d been
ashamed that mourning increased her passion. And his rebuffs?
Deserved. Deserved. She said this to herself after each rebuff,
and there were many. Deserved.
Would the burglar have turned her down? This was what she
thought while Ben poured more white wine into her glass. The
wine had a light greenish tint like her mother’s hazel eyes, in her
mother’s kitchen, when the light from the window made a kaleidoscope,
the colors of grass and sun, in her eyes. She couldn’t see
her mother’s face clearly. She dipped her finger into the wine and
then into her mouth to see if she could taste the color. She said,
“My mother could stretch a piece of dough across a table. Make
it so thin I could see through it. Still it was strong. An impossible
thing, don’t you think?”
“A non sequitur,” Ben said, “don’t you think?”
And Ruth laughed. This way Ben had of making her laugh
always surprised her, made her want him. She said, “I was watching
that PBS cooking show Great Chefs, something like that. Do
you know the show?”
He said, “Ah, the digression continues.”
“I don’t think it’s a digression.” She was mystified that he
couldn’t follow her because she often spoke this way with him,
letting her thoughts fall out like dreams in the safety of sleep.
“Then probably it’s not,” he said. He winked at her and then
said, “I saw that.”
And again she laughed. She knew he’d seen her left eyebrow
respond—in a brief arc—as it always did to whatever he subtly
did to seduce her: a brief touch on the inside of her wrist or
across her little finger, or just the words, “your hands,” as if there
were no words to tell her what he saw. In response to that quirky
eyebrow, he’d often say, “Can you do that at will?” Of course, she
couldn’t. And then, with that brief exchange and their laughter,
she and he both knew they’d make love. Would they make love
tonight? “Anyway,” she said, “the chef stretched a piece of dough
across a table, across a thin wide cloth. Strudel dough.”
“Like your mother’s strudel? Is that how she made it?”
“You see, it’s not a digression. You follow.”
He had eaten this pastry in her mother’s kitchen. “No, I don’t
follow, but I did love her strudel.”
When Ruth was a child she’d watched her mother lay down
sliced apples and raisins, sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon, and
roll the dough with an old frayed linen cloth that had been her
mother’s. And then the magic trick, when the cloth dropped
away and one long delicate tube of dough appeared, the width of
the table, and Ruth’s mother cut through the layers of dough and
fruit and sugar, placed the pieces on the long blackened cookie
sheet that had also been her mother’s. Ruth had not seen anyone
do this except her mother and hadn’t seen it since she was a
“I don’t think this is a non sequitur,” Ruth repeated because
she was trying to explain. Oh, what was it? That whenever she
thought of the burglar, her mother appeared? He’d taken her
mother’s jewels, hadn’t he? Because she couldn’t explain, and
because she didn’t think they’d make love, even though she knew
he wanted to, even though she wanted to, she gave up. “The burglar,”
she heard herself say. And wanted to say, as if it would
explain something: An alarm, yes, an alarm.
“The burglar and strudel. Let me think. You want to steal a
dessert?” He had a menu in his hand now. The waiter had come
and gone, cleared the plates. “Why don’t you have the apple
“Do you think I’m losing my mind?”
“I think you miss your mother.”
The burglar put on his pinstripe suit, carried his leather briefcase
that he’d bought on a trip to Florence, and knocked on the door
of the house he’d robbed three weeks ago. It was six in the
evening, and he knew that the woman was home and the husband
was not because he had watched the house for many
months before the burglary. He knew what she looked like, her
habits, when she went to work and came home. Though he
couldn’t be sure she would be there tonight, the chances were
good. She came to the door wearing a blue faded apron over her
silk blouse and trim black skirt. He wondered why she hadn’t
changed her clothes before cooking. He told her that he was on
his way home, that he lived on Virgilia, that he’d received a misdelivered
letter. He said, “I take the bus and get off here so I
thought I’d drop it by. I would have put it in your slot but I saw
you were home.” She thanked him. He found her unusually
attractive, not beautiful, but with large open eyes, very light
brown, almost green, brown-green, dark Atlantic Ocean eyes.
He’d gone to the ocean with his parents when he was a boy, to
Atlantic City and, until he’d seen clear water in the Caribbean,
he’d thought all oceans must be brown-green, a color he loved
but that disturbed him. Her eyes were like the Atlantic. He could
not see through them, he could not tell if she knew whether he
was lying, if she believed him. He could only tell that she was listening
closely, not dismissing him, that something about him
interested her. She did not speak. She took the letter that he’d
taken from the wicker basket she left on the porch (many people
in Chevy Chase did this, feeling safe, wanting to make things
easier for the mailman because the old houses had thin brass mail
slots not suited for magazines, for junk mail). She did not look at
the letter. She held it, looked at him, waited. And so he said—a
non sequitur, “I used to go to Atlantic City when I was a boy.”
And she said, “So did I.” And then, “Why did you say that?”
“Because of your brown-green eyes.”
“Hazel,” she said. And then, as if she’d been thinking about
just this thing, the same thing that made him look at her so closely,
“I used to look into my mother’s eyes and think, ocean green.”
Ruth was drawn to the man in the pinstripe suit returning her
mail—a well-dressed boy scout. She liked the way he stood back
from the doorway, giving her space. But anyone could be danger-
ous. The burglary.
The burglar had never done this before: visited the scene of
the crime. It was a stupid thing to do, and he knew better, of
course. Why risk his sideline, his way to get inside other people’s
lives? He did not get rich on what he stole, though his income
was nicely supplemented. He got rich on knowing. He knew that
the Wilsons in Cleveland Park did not have any jewelry though
they were quite rich. He had taken nothing from their house
except the knowledge that Mr. Wilson did not buy his wife these
kinds of gifts. The paintings on the walls were originals—but the
burglar knew that paintings were hard to fence. He believed he
knew that Mr. Wilson did not love Mrs. Wilson because of the
dearth of jewelry in a very rich household.
What had interested the burglar about his take from Ruth
and her husband was that he thought he could discern the gifts
the husband had given and the gifts someone else had given, the
ones in the little white cardboard box.
But now he had to wonder—because she’d not found his non
sequitur odd, not found him odd—Could she know me? Does
she suspect? Can she know I’ve been in her bedroom, looked
through her drawers, taken things that mattered to her? He did
not think so, but the thought, the possibility, that what one
wants to hide (or maybe does not want to hide?) could be seen
by another did intrigue him. And her skin, her eyes, the openness
of her face drew him to her. And then there was the question
that mattered the most to him: did he exist? The burglar?
The child? The lover?
Ruth went to the video store and rented To Catch a Thief. She
watched Cary Grant at his hilltop home when the police came to
question him about the burglaries being committed by someone
else who was using his modus operandi (the police thought Cary
was the burglar, of course). She watched Cary Grant fall in love
with Grace Kelly, watched the fireworks out the window when
Grace, in a strapless gown and an extravagant diamond necklace,
said to Cary, “Reach out and touch them, John. You know you
want them.” The double entendre. The jewels. The breasts. And
then, the burglar.
Ruth took a bath, filled the tub with steaming water, and pretended
that when the burglar reached into the tub, he brushed
her nipples while he unlatched the gold chain on her neck, while
he took away her mother’s wedding band (size 6) etched with the
forget-me-nots, while he took the locket, the pearls, the cameo
Ruth used to wear on a black velvet ribbon.
Once, when Ruth was bathing her mother, after the stroke
that left her mother paralyzed on one side, her leg and arm, after
she could no longer speak, after Ruth had rubbed her mother’s
mottled back, washed her yellowed toes and placed the washcloth
in her mother’s right hand to wash between her legs,
between her breasts, Ruth had touched the locket. Her mother
dropped the washcloth, covered Ruth’s hand with hers, wrapped
Ruth’s fingers round the locket. Then she placed Ruth’s hand on
the catch at the back of the gold chain, and Ruth understood that
she wanted it removed. Ruth undid the catch and held the locket
in her open palm—a strand of Ruth’s grandmother’s hair lay
inside the locket, placed there with the help of a jeweler, after
Ruth’s mother had taken the scissors from the drawer, after she
had closed her mother’s eyes, before she’d wrapped her in the
shroud. In a silent giving over, Ruth’s mother closed Ruth’s fingers.
And Ruth laid her head on her mother’s wet breasts—her
mother who when naked did what needed doing.
Now Ruth lay in her own bath and called out to her husband,
“Ben, come bathe with me.” When he opened the door, she said,
“You know you want them,” and placed her hands beneath her
breasts. He sat on the edge of the tub and placed his hands
around her head.
“Kiss me, please?” she said.
And when he opened his mouth to hers, when he took her
bottom lip lightly between his teeth, she cried.
“Tell me,” he said.
“The mourner’s locket, the locket.”
He took off his clothes and slid into the tub, wrapped his
body round her, pressed his head into the back of her neck,
cupped her breasts in his hands and said, “Yes, I want them.”
The burglar communicated with his girlfriend—the other married
woman, as he thought of her now—by e-mail. After his visit to
Ruth’s house, after the exchange of the letter, after he’d lied and
become connected to this woman with her wide-open face, he
wanted more than ever to believe that he existed. But his was a
false life. How could he reach this woman whose jewelry he held
in his hands? The jewelry he hadn’t fenced yet, the jewelry he
couldn’t return, the pieces in the little white cardboard box that
somehow he now knew must have belonged to Ruth’s mother?
He knew, when she’d said, “I used to look into my mother’s eyes,”
that her mother must be dead, that he’d taken something that
hurt her more than the loss of valuables. Seeing the woman he’d
stolen from made him unreal—he couldn’t tell her who he was.
Could his girlfriend, who told him all the time he didn’t exist,
help? Could giving her the pearls help? For the first time in many
years, he wanted to sleep with another woman, with the woman
in the silk blouse, black skirt, faded apron, the woman who gently
accepted his non sequitur about his trips to Atlantic City, the
woman who made him remember when he was a child, the
ingenuous, open-faced woman—this woman, whom he wanted
to affirm him. And she had, hadn’t she? She had affirmed him
with those words about her mother’s eyes. In his head he heard
“ocean-green,” and sent this e-mail to his girlfriend: “I have a gift
from the ocean for you. This gift will make you believe I exist.
See me today at lunch. Meet me at the Washington Hotel, on
Fifteenth Street, in the lobby.”
She wrote back: “How can I take a gift from you? How would
I explain it? I’ll meet you at noon. But remember that you don’t
exist. And because you don’t exist, you can give me nothing to
hold in my hand, to take home. Now tell me: how did you score
Why should he score the test? He’d made it up. That’s what
he told his friends who’d asked. It was harder to refuse his girlfriend—
he needed her. So he considered Marion—or was it the
woman whose jewelry he’d stolen? She was first on his list. Robin
Hood last. He didn’t much care about Little John and the Sheriff,
thought them interchangeable, but saw no need to tell his girlfriend
that. He wrote back: “Marion, Little John, the Sheriff,
Robin. See you at noon.” Then he called the hotel and booked a
When his girlfriend was standing in her pink silk camisole,
while she was unzipping her skirt, he placed Ruth’s pearls around
her neck. His girlfriend took off all her clothes, made love to him
wearing the pearls, and then gave the pearls back to him. She
said, “If I take them, how would I explain them to my husband?”
“Say you bought them in an antique jewelry store.”
“With cash, with a check, with a credit card? He keeps all the
bills. He would wonder how I did this without spending any
money. I would have to pay you for the pearls.”
“Would I exist then? If you paid me for them?”
“Yes. You would be Robin Hood.”
“But that explains nothing,” he said, because he was thinking
of the Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“It means you would exist,” she said, “but you would be at the
bottom of my list.” She folded his fingers around the pearls in his
open palm. “And yours.”
What was this game she was playing? The burglar tried to discern
his girlfriend’s logic—and his own, for he had not allowed
her to pay him for the pearls. He decided that his girlfriend was
telling him that his existence came at a cost. He’d have to pay for
He deduced this through a syllogism: a man tries to prove
that he exists by stealing pearls from one married woman and
giving them to another married woman. The second married
woman, who is his lover, insists on paying for them. If he accepts
the money, she is able to deceive her husband. Therefore, the
man would pay for his existence with deception.
The burglar had no problem with the equation: deception
equals existence. It suited him, his choices, the stealing. Why
then had he not taken the money? The other married woman was
the reason, of course. She was the missing link in his syllogism.
Did he exist with her? He had deceived her. He would have to
see her again.
Ben made love to Ruth after their bath, but she, for the first time
in the last year, felt no desire for him. She could think only of the
burglar, her mother—her mother, the burglar. She could not
relax, she could not concentrate, she could not reach climax. She
believed she’d failed Ben because she wanted the burglar. When
they were done, she slept and dreamed.
She is in a house with a woman with a beautiful baby. The
woman with the baby is ill, lying in a bed. Ruth takes the baby
in her arms, bares her breasts as if she might feed the baby, but
she is not with milk, so she uses her small breasts to comfort the
baby. The burglar enters. He is the man Ruth wants. He
approaches her. She does not cover her breasts, but speaks to
him as if they are covered. She watches his eyes at the sight of
her breasts and the baby. She asks him naively—for she knows
the answer—“Have we ever kissed?” “No,” he says before he
slowly leans towards her, his hands open in that unknowing,
awkward way a man opens his hands to touch a woman’s breasts
because the touch, the thought of it, arouses him. Ingenuous.
Without intent. Ruth wants him to touch her breasts. But instead
he kisses her, cradles her head with his hands and the softness of
the kiss, the restraint he exercises in not touching her bare and
vulnerable breasts, increases her desire for him.
At breakfast Ruth said to Ben, “It’s the burglar’s fault.”
“I can’t lie about it anymore. It’s the burglar.”
He took both her hands in his across the table, held them for
a moment, and then placed each of her hands—so gently he did
this—first one hand on the side of his head, then the other, so
that they were both leaning on the table and she was cradling his
With his gesture, so tender, so concerned, she became
alarmed. All she could think was: What have I done?
“Ruth, talk to me, please.”
His face was so close to hers she could breathe him in, and
with each breath of him, she felt safer, but still she couldn’t
explain. “He’s on my mind.” That was all she could think to say.
“Okay, he’s on your mind. What’s his fault?” And still, his face
close to hers, his hands over hers, his hands pressing on hers. Did
he think if he held her close enough to him he could make her
“My failure.” No, she wasn’t going to cry. Not over this, not
over making love, or not making love. Certainly not over her
failure to reach climax. She pulled back from Ben.
He kept one of his hands on top of hers on the table. “And
when did you fail?”
Had she? Her dream came to mind. Maybe she hadn’t failed
by not reaching climax. Maybe Ben had failed by not touching
her as the burglar touched, or rather did not touch, her in her
dream. But now, the way, when she was awake, the burglar and
her mother came to mind together, she recalled the mother and
the baby in the dream. She recalled the last time she’d laid her
head on her mother’s naked breast, when she was a grown
woman, and that her mother died soon after. She said, not really
understanding the dream, but knowing now something more
about it, “I dreamed about my mother last night—and the burglar.”
Could she tell Ben about her desire for the burglar? Which
made no sense at all, but if she didn’t ever talk about it, how
would she figure it out? So she said, “I thought about him when
we were making love.”
“And were you afraid?” Ben asked.
“Afraid of what?” What could she possibly be afraid of? Ben’s
question made no sense to her. She was confessing, and he was
asking her if she was afraid.
“Afraid that we’d be robbed?”
“We have been robbed.”
Ben laughed. Why was he laughing?
“This is not a laughing matter.” But she began to laugh too
without knowing why.
“Then why are you laughing?” he asked.
“You first,” she said.
“Because you’re funny,” he said and put his face, his mouth,
and his nose inside her palm as if he could breathe her in. And
maybe he could, she thought. “Because you’re you,” he continued.
“Because you speak in non sequiturs. Because sometimes I
can even follow them. Because I love you. Your turn.”
She kissed the inside of his palm and told, “Well, what if I
don’t deserve a climax? What if I can never have one again? What
if I never want to make love to you again?” And of course she didn’t
deserve to climax—all those months after her mother had
died when she had wanted sex. What had been wrong with her?
“And why would any of these things ever be true?”
“The burglar.” She knew it was his fault. But what did he have
to do with any of this? With what she deserved?
He looked at her as if he had the answer. “I think I’m going
to have to get this guy. It’s the only solution. Get out of Dodge,
cowboy. Ben is here. I am.”
And now Ruth laughed again and said, “‘Here I am,’ said
“You know,” said Ben, “that’s not funny.”
“Of course not. I’m sorry. It’s just that you keep saying that.
‘Here I am.’” She went to him, sat on his lap. “Okay, get the burglar
for me. Get him.”
The burglar removed the turquoise and gold catch from the
string of pearls. He was going to fence them along with the
cameo, the gold ring with the forget-me-nots, and all the husband’s
gifts—the earrings and bracelets that had been in the
woman’s jewelry box. But what to do with the locket that lay
alone now in the rubbed cotton in the little white cardboard box?
He put the locket in the pocket of his pinstripe suit, threw away
the cardboard box.
What do I need this for? he asked himself. Is it some sort of
memento? As if I’d ever give anything back.
He put the rest of the jewelry into his briefcase and went to
see his fence. While he haggled, while he exchanged the jewelry
for a mere $250, he fingered the locket in his pocket.
He took the subway to Bethesda and walked the mile and a
half to Chevy Chase, to Ruth’s house, to figure out what she had
to do with him, with his equation: deception equals existence.
What did she have to do with his need to prove that he existed?
Maybe he would have an affair with her‚ the ultimate deception?
To steal and then to possess? This was the way to affirm his existence.
He was not thinking about the time, about when the husband
would arrive. He was thinking about the woman. He was
careless in his desire to see her again, the missing link in his syllogism.
She came to the door in black leggings and a sweat shirt. No
apron. She’d changed her clothes. He looked at his watch. The
husband will be coming soon. He knew this because she’d taken
the time to change her clothes, because he knew their schedule.
But all the better. I’ll seduce her before he gets here. He liked
working on a deadline. He liked stealing.
Ruth wondered why the well-dressed boy scout had
returned. “More misdelivered mail?” she asked.
“No.” He stepped back to look at her, at her ocean-green
eyes. He knew he needed to speak, allay fear, do something
deceptive. Instead he said, “I’m worried.” Because he was, though
he wasn’t sure why or why this woman caused him to speak his
Ruth said, “Are you all right?” She was standing with the door
partially open. She could close it at any time. She did think about
closing it, but the man looked distressed, as if he had something
to tell her, as if something were wrong. He did not look dangerous.
But she thought, Anyone could be. The burglary. I should
close the door.
He said, “I know you don’t know me. I know this is odd. But
remember when you talked about your mother? About Atlantic
City? Or maybe that’s what I talked about.”
She simply couldn’t close the door. The mention of her
mother. “My mother died almost a year ago. I think about her all
the time. I talk about her to strangers. I probably said something
about her to you. I’ve been doing and saying odd things ever
since she died. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve always said and done
odd things.” And now she spoke her mind, “I should be afraid of
you, I think. I should shut the door, shouldn’t I?” Her mother, the
burglar. What should she do? Certainly not shut the door on this
sad, bemused man who’d returned her mail.
“Yes, you should. Why don’t you? I’ll go away. I should go
away.” This gentle, sad woman. How could he ever know her?
What did she have to do with him? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
And then he heard himself say this out loud. “Nothing. Nothing.”
She must think he was mad. “I’m so sorry to have bothered you.”
“Why are you worried?” Ruth asked.
The burglar heard Ben’s car pull into the driveway. He knew
he’d timed this all wrong. He must go now. But he stood transfixed
by her, by her question. He couldn’t possibly tell her about
his syllogism, about the pearls. He said, “Would you tell me
something about your mother?”
Ben drove the car into the garage, got his briefcase out of the
trunk, pulled the garage door down. The garage was not connected
to the house. So he had to walk down the driveway and
up the path to the house. All this took time, time the burglar
On seeing Ben, Ruth said, “When my husband fixed my
mother’s heating pad—it was a large heating pad because she had
a back problem before she became very ill—this was a long time
before she died. When he fixed it, she said, ‘Golden hands. He
has golden hands. Marry him.’ As if she knew. How could she
know?” Why was Ruth asking this of the man? Why was she
thinking of the burglar? There he was again—his hand brushing
her breast, removing the locket. Because she was talking about
her mother. That was it. And because all this made some sort of
quirky sense to her, she said to the man in the pinstripe suit, “We
The burglar was alarmed. Could she know? He put his hand
in his pocket and held the locket.
The man in the pinstripe suit was now staring at her oddly.
And why not? She was behaving oddly. “I’m speaking in non
sequiturs again. I’m silly. I’m sorry. Oh, my husband.” And then,
“That’s why I talk about my mother, you see.” She was trying to
explain the unexplainable.
But the burglar believed he understood. He said, “And you
lost something of your mother’s?” He believed he existed when
he said this. And to affirm his existence, and to be sure she
understood him, he added, “When you were robbed, I mean.” He
couldn’t have the woman, but he had her story now, didn’t he?
He knew the way her mother knew.
“Yes. No. I don’t know. Did I?” Ruth said. Ben was coming
That morning, he’d awakened her when he’d laid his head in
the crook of her neck, kissed her there and on her face, little kisses,
the way she’d kissed their infant daughter who was grown
now, gone away. She’d smelled baby powder in his hair, but knew
there was none. And there she was in the crook of her mother’s
arm, again. “If I could remember,” she’d said. And Ben had kissed
her on the mouth. “What?” he asked. She didn’t answer. She
remembered. The scent of skin, her mother’s, her daughter’s,
She said to the man in the pinstriped suit, “No.”
Now Ben stood between the burglar and Ruth. He looked at
Ruth wondered what he saw. Why was she talking to a
strange man about her mother? How would she explain this?
The burglar wondered what he saw. The burglar wanted
Ruth wanted her mother, Ben, and the burglar. But who was
the burglar? Who was this strange man? She didn’t know. She
wanted to lay her head on her mother’s breast. She needed to be
alone with Ben. She needed the man in the pinstripe suit to go
The burglar knew that Ben could tell that he wanted his wife.
He knew because Ben had stepped between the two of them. He
had his back to the burglar. He stood facing his wife. He showed
the burglar that he was this woman’s man. He blocked the burglar’s
sight, his eyes on hers.
When Ben moved in front of Ruth, she noticed that he was
wearing the gray solid tie with his dark blue suit. She said, “You’re
wearing the gray solid tie.” The tie, the white shirt, the way he
looked at her, the way he stood between her and the man in the
pinstripe suit made her want him. Cary Grant came to mind.
“Cary Grant always wore a solid tie, did you know that?” The
movie To Catch a Thief came to mind—the way Cary seduced
Grace. Or was it Grace who seduced Cary? She laughed. She was
feeling oddly erotic. This strange man who looked at her eyes.
Her mother. Her husband. The burglar. She said to Ben, “You
know you want them.” She did not touch her breasts, but she
laughed. And she could tell that he remembered.
Ben said to Ruth, “Here I am,” and he laughed.
Ruth laid her head on his chest. “Yes, here you are.” She
missed her mother’s breasts. Her naked mother, straightening the
linen closet, changing a light bulb, bathing her child, giving over
the locket that was now lost—that efficient, practical woman.
Death had taken her mother. And Ruth wanted to make love.
The burglar knew these two would make love.
He put his hand in his pocket, turned the locket in his palm.
He knew the locket was old, that it must have belonged to Ruth’s
mother, that it could not be replaced. He wouldn’t give it back.
He couldn’t fence it and he couldn’t give it to his girlfriend. He
would keep it. He was no Robin Hood. (Or was he? he asked
He walked to the subway. He didn’t know if he existed or
not. But the woman with the ocean-green eyes, the gentle
woman who disturbed him? He knew that she existed.
When Ruth lay down with Ben that night, her naked breasts
against his chest, she said again, “Here you are.”