I wondered when the big boots would clomp up the steps. When the knock would resonate, firm and unamused. I imagined the clink of cuffs. The jingle of cell keys. The light buzz of an anxious taser, waiting for me to give any whiff of doing something stupid that required a quick, sharp shock to the system...
Yes, I had in my possession two stolen milk crates from local dairies. And it was only a matter of time before I'd be hauled in by the coppers for illicit Calcium-Based Beverage Conveyance Hijacking.
At least, that's what the warning on the gray plastic crates had implied:
"WARNING! Unauthorized use or possession of milk cases is against the LAW. Criminals WILL be prosecuted."
I'd unthinkingly rescued the things from my college dorm dumpster right before summer break. I had snagged them along with three only slightly bent posters, a broken VCR I was sure I could get working again, and a desk lamp that, I later learned, gave off more heat than a dwarf star and was likely the cause of the Chicago Fire.
At the time, though, I had thought it quite a haul. See, I didn't have much to my name then.
In fact, if you added to the above list a case of Spaghetti O's and a clunky 80s laptop computer suitable only for the lap of the Fat Lady from a traveling carnie show, well, you pretty much had what was to my name. Not even my full name. Just a nickname maybe. Or initials.
And the Spaghetti O's were only visiting.
So, initially, I was really excited about the milk crates. They could carry my laundry to the dorm washers. They could serve as unique storage solutions. They could transform into a creative table for fine dining on the aforementioned Spaghetti O's.
I had plans for them. Oh, how I had plans!..
Until I noticed that warning on the side. The one that let me know I was in possession of hot merchandise.
I went cold. It was a jar to my nerves. And it tainted all that was good and true about my dumpster diving.
I knew already I was not up for the criminal life. This was only my second dip into the world of theft and evil, and that first one hadn't gone so well.
In my misguided youth, I had pocketed a bunch of shiny plastic sequins and fake gems from a giant thrift store artwork in the back of a shop. I knew it was wrong-- oh, I knew-- but they were so bright, and shiny and magical, I thought I could make a crown out of them and peeled a few off.
However, the guilt, which my mother had a talent for layering thickly over life like butter to bread, began to work on me even without Mom's involvement. Yep, I had developed a good strong Guilt Autopilot. Had she known, Mom would have been delighted at her handiwork. I had crowned myself the Queen of All Cheats and Liars, and saved her the trouble.
The very thought of my bad behavior kept me awake nights, in a sweat. This was not the person I was raised to be. A jewel thief. A gem smuggler.
Eventually, I formulated a plan to make things right. To repair what I'd done with no one ever the wiser. There would be no loss of TV privileges for a month. No embarrassing admissions to the store owner. No formal letters of apology. No grounding until infinity-- or high school, whichever came first.
No, this would be subtle. This would have style. I'd gotten a glue stick and, heart pounding, I went back to the thrift store and tried putting the plastic gems back into place when no one was looking. Some stuck, but some didn't. I felt sick. I had not only stolen, but I had ruined what I determined had to have been a priceless work of art. I decided to live silently with the knowledge about my sneaky, underhanded nature. Such evil, my eight year old vocabulary was unable to put into words. But it haunted me... oh, how it haunted me... like my own personal Jacob Marley.
And that college summer, it all came rushing back to me when I saw that warning on the dairy crates. Sure, the stolen crates having falling into my possession were an accident. But would the authorities ever believe that?
And what kind of authorities were there to track down and prosecute for milk crate theft anyway? Were there Dairy Agents who follow trackers on milk crates, and show up on your doorstep wearing mirrored sunglasses and milk mustaches?
I read the names of the cities on the milk crates and had no idea where these places even were to return them, even if I'd had a car. So I spent my various moves in and out of student housing with a blanket over the hot merchandise in question, careful, eyes suspicious, looking for signs of any rogue Dairy Agent on my trail.
I realized the other day I still have these crates. Yes, after decades, the only thing that has come clean is the laundry they still carry. I no longer wait for the knock on the door, the ring of the bell. But I'm older now. Wiser. Able to look at the logic behind it all.
Anyway, nowadays I'm mostly focused on that tag I ripped off my mattress.