“Thieving Magpie”

Her ex-husband was stealing from her.

She had followed him from Italy to America, raised his three children, cleaned his house, ironed his shirts, cooked his meals, and then, after nearly fifty years, one night he sat with her at the kitchen table while they were watching the telegiornale, and confessed.

“I can’t take this anymore, all your fighting, all your complaints.”  He waved his hand in the air as if that is all she was to him, a pesky fly whose buzzing kept him awake at night.

She fought a vicious legal battle to obtain the condo in Florida and for a fair amount of alimony to see her through her golden age, but finally they came to an agreement. He moved out.  Then, things began to disappear.

First, the car keys from the bowl near the door went missing; then her second pair of reading glasses.  Even the wedding ring, which she took off one evening, and carefully placed in the ashtray on her nightstand, vanished by the time she returned from washing her face in the bathroom.

By this time, her ex had already returned his set of keys.

“He must have a spare set,” she complained on the phone to her youngest, her daughter.  “You know how he is, with his fingers in everything.  He probably tipped the doorman to sneak inside.”

“You would have noticed if someone had broken in,” reasoned her daughter, “even with the faucet running.”

“So what are you saying? That your mother is losing her mind?”  Her voice went up a pitch, and she held the receiver close to her mouth in her fisted hand, as if she would as soon use that receiver to smash something as she would to talk to her daughter on the phone.

Even so, she and the ex met every so often, when neither of them could bear to be alone while the rest of the world had someone with whom to share a meal or an afternoon.  They met at their favorite chain restaurants, and asked for separate tabs, mostly on Sundays and holidays, mostly to break the monotony.  All the same, at every meal, she could not help but remind her ex-husband whose fault it was that they divorced.

“You left me alone for all of nine months.  You went to Europe to have a grand time.”

But, he said, it was because of his job, his last chance to earn real money before he got too old.

“Then you took up with that whore, that girlfriend of yours from way back.”

This, he denied.

“The wedding ring is proof.”

Her heart still stung thinking of that wedding band stuck in a fissure on the bottom shelf of a bookcase in her ex-husband’s studio.  The inner band of the ring was engraved with a date that didn’t match their anniversary.  He claimed the ring was his father’s, but, she said, those were not the dates of her in-laws’ wedding, and she found a letter, besides, from an old girlfriend of his, one he had dated when he was still a University student.  In the letter, this woman, now married, now with children of her own, called her ex-husband caro mio, and ciccio.

By this point in their predictable and repeating argument, the ex husband signaled the waiter and after paying his half of the bill, he walked out of the restaurant with a quick, impatient stride, while still she shouted her complaints at his back.

“Fifty years,” she waved her fist at him.  “Fifty years and three kids.”

At home, she would look through her purse and find that her eyeglass case was missing, or her stylus pen, or her pocket mirror.  Every Sunday, something else left her life never to come back.  Still, every Sunday, when the ex husband called after Mass, she agreed to meet him at their favorite chain restaurant.

“Better than being alone,” she explained to her oldest son on the phone.  To her daughter, the youngest, she said, “Better to have someone to hate than to have no one at all.”

It was during dinner, on Christmas Eve, her two sons and daughter visiting, spouses and children in tow, that the doorman called from the lobby.  He found her checkbook on the ramp leading to the condo’s garage.  She padded down to the lobby in her felt Christmas slippers and offered the doorman a twenty-dollar tip from the pocket of her night robe.

The checkbook was twisted and torn, as if someone tried to rip it apart before throwing it from the balcony of her 13th floor apartment.

“It could have been a car tire,” her oldest son reasoned.

“It would have tire marks on it,” she argued.  “And how do you explain that the checkbook went out the window? You don’t think I threw it myself, do you?”

Thus, Christmas Eve ended with shouts, the children wanting to know why Grandma looked so upset. Why was Grandpa leaving so early, when baby Jesus hadn’t brought the gifts yet?

She replaced all the locks of the condo.  She banned the ex husband from the building, threatening a restraining order.  Their children learned to coordinate lunches and dinners from one parent’s house to the other.

The daughter and younger son avoided talking about her missing things, at least to her face.  Once, while she was washing dishes, she overheard her daughter confess to her brother:  “You remember how she was when we brought our friends over? If a bath towel went missing, it was my friend or your girlfriend who stole it.  What would my friend do with a bath towel, I asked. And Mom said, She’s saving for a dowry.  A dowry! That’s her mind. Medieval.”

But the oldest son seemed perplexed, only occasionally offering alternative theories to explain the missing objects.

Once, on their way back from a Sunday brunch her oldest son’s wife caught her reading glasses just as they were about to drop from her purse onto the sidewalk.

“Careful,” the son’s wife said, returning the glasses.   The son looked away.  The ex husband held the son back by the elbow and whispered, too loudly, “She would have blamed me if you hadn’t all seen it.”

She swung around, shouting: “You know very well what you do.  Don’t pretend.  This time it was an accident.  But all the other times, I know it was you.”

The next morning, she found the front tire of her car flat.  Later, the mechanic pulled a long, rusty nail from between the grooves.

“It’s your father,” she said to the daughter on the phone.  “He’s so vindictive.”

Her daughter’s responses were symphonies of sighs.  Even on a long distance phone call she could sense her daughter’s eyes rolling.

In this way, years passed, and things went missing: a GPS device, a cassette tape on which she’d recorded a lesson from a University lecture, a deck of playing cards, an important letter from her lawyer, her second set of house keys, two pairs of glasses, a bathing cap, a set of ear plugs, and a new screwdriver. Objects kept leaving her house, week after week, never to return.  Sensing her sons and daughter’s skepticism, and fearing their gentle pleas for her to get on medications, she no longer complained, except to the oldest son, who listened without judgment.

Twelve years later, the ex-husband died.  When they entered his apartment, the daughter opened a drawer in his nightstand, and saw it brimming with old photographs and objects from her own home: a set of earrings, the key to an old locker, a moonstone pendant she had received for her first communion, a baby shoe from her firstborn, and a silver spoon from his baptism she was certain had been lost forever.

“I can’t believe Mom,” the daughter complained to her older brother.  “To steal all those things and hide them in Dad’s apartment, to make us believe her crazy story.”