Under common law, larceny is the caption and asportation of another’s personal property with the intent to deprive him or her of its possession permanently.
When I was seven, we lived near the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, deep in the woods, a place called Hicksville, a place called Leave Me Alone. And once, before I was old enough to think, Pall Mall smoking strangers had broken in and stolen my dad’s shotgun from the closet, left boot prints and a crumpled cigarette package on the bed by the window. They never got caught. The gray house had been my home since birth, had unyawned me, and one curly-headed day I’d looked around and realized that this was a life. It hadn’t used to be, but I was now here, legs formed from fallen tree branches, head from a stone. Hailed from the ether. The drive was twenty minutes to the nearest grocery store, which is where I would steal the Bubble Yum.
We are not talking about the explanation under a lurid tabloid photo, an act recorded and condemned in hot pages by the Altoids rack. When considering theft, one must understand the distinction between custody and possession. Mere custody is examining the goods of a merchant, fingering the rectangle of purple flavor-burst. No one saw me take it. Mean men might have glanced past a child gawking at new objects, shiny packages, promises of unwrapping and belonging, and discounted him. Mother, above, slid coupons from her purse and the bored teenage check-out boy watched the automatic opening and closing of the exit. At that time, my parents’ marriage was being stolen from them. I might have sensed the dissolution, wondered where my clothes would cubby, where I would set up my Star Wars men for battle.
To prosecute, the slightest movement, a hair’s breadth, is sufficient. However, the entirety of the object must be moved. A rotated pie on a window ledge remains still at its center, while a donut’s gaping middle condemns the mover. My mother and I left the store with no alarms and entered the family station wagon to head back to the dirt road, the hairpin turns, the gray house that matched the bark of the trees from which I had been carved. My mom had decided above me to move us into town, to leave my father, so I too had been taking things. Imitating her, perhaps, not knowing what I was doing, what she wanted. Whatever I could get my hands on, I took: the Flash Gordon figure, the lonely dump truck resting at the edge of our neighbor’s long driveway, a card showing an illusory clown depending upon which way you held it, and finally the Bubble Yum, that taking of control, the slipping of it into the secret zipper pocket of my coat sleeve.
Thirty years later, long after these stealing days were officially over, my first wife would take whatever she could fit in her Toyota Scion, a small, gray car, and drive away across the bumpy land of the High Plains. I’d taken her trust, her faith, the pearlescent entrails of our too-quick, too-uncertain marriage, and run them through a shredder till it jammed. No one would arrest me.
Because love or affection does not count. A sense of security, a belonging to a landscape—these are indefensible. From its creation the subject matter of larceny has been tangible personal property, with a physical existence: items that can be seen, held, and felt. At home in the woods at seven, wild and wily, I spent my mornings and afternoons straddling creeks, my Velcro shoes gripping rocks. My hands darted into the icy water to capture crawdaddies, salamanders, frogs. No one knew the woods as I did, the faces in the tree bark, the dips and rises and carpet of crumbling leaves. One summer afternoon, my friend and I became disoriented, wandered from the house shielded by the trees, moved away and higher and found the traction road that led us toward nothing but the heart of the forest, and my mother, whose child had been taken, if only for an afternoon, decided that day against the woods.
Fifteen years later I would be drunk and wanting more, wanting connection, out of college barely and barely planning any sensible constellation of coordinates as if again I had looked around one cotton-mouthed morning and said, “Wait up. I exist, and I exist, and it keeps going, and there was never any prologue.” And my ex-girlfriend two past would be drunk too and, too, wanting connection, and we would duck into her roommate’s closet and liberate a bottle of wine Julia knew to be kept there, which we would drink and spill most of while we drifted off toward each other in a bunk. Later she wrote me that her roommate had been saving it for an anniversary. What’s that? we had wondered.
My lost friend and I were found, soil-shoed and groggy, seven hours after we disappeared in a groomed yard at the edge of the woods. My dad arrived all of a sudden with one of our German shorthaired pointers in the passenger seat of a fire truck, zooming to my rescue. It was my introduction to the surreal, the reality of adults and the lives they live just above the clouds. A newscaster interviewed me for the 6:00 at the bottom of our driveway. “What did you see out there?” by which she meant the woods, where I was from, and by which she also meant away from home. “A rabbit,” I said, and the adults laughed. And the adults laughed. And the adults laughed. But my best friend Wayne told me later he saw my mom being driven to the county pool earlier in the day, when I was still gone. She’d been hardly strong enough to concentrate and fix upon the bobbing heads in the water, none of them mine. What I had almost robbed her of.
To be guilty, you must take and leave. There must be something missing. Ten years later I would read and re-read Katherine Anne Porter’s short story “Theft,” the shrill ending of loss, the coal-faced janitress who stole an empty purse from the society lady who’d already lost everything anyhow. All her sad men, their hats in the rain. I was right, the lady thought in the last line, not to be afraid of any thief but myself, who will end by leaving me nothing. I read the awkward thought as if eager to retain its essence.
As the station wagon approached the land we would leave, blacktop to gravel, grocery bags shifting in the back seat, my mom thinking above and ahead to the house, thoughts of domestic law and order, I must have doubted the justice of my action. “Permanently” means with no plan to return the property to the rightful owner. It is possible I’d grown accustomed to believing the world was mine, all objects in common and provided for comfort, pleasure, a sense of having. And maybe the shift from pavement to dirt brought home to me the knowledge we would be leaving and that not everything was mine any longer. When we left the city blacktop and hit the dirt road, the rumble and the song my mom sang—“Bumpy road, bumpy road!”—exuberantly to the tune of “Taps,” I asked her to feel the sleeve of my jacket where I had concealed the gum. It wiggled under the nylon in her fingers like a broken bone. She slammed on the brakes. “What have you done? What happened?” And it was that moment before I unzipped the truth, told myself the true reasons for my theft, before I was driven back to apologize to my first extra-parental authority figure, a manager in a stained tie, it was that moment when my mom asked me if it hurt, before she knew I stole too, it was then I must have realized we are bound by loss, a gaping at our centers, and are always to blame.
In addition to quoting from Katherine Anne Porter’s short story“Theft,” the italicized text in this essay is taken from the Wikipedia entry “Larceny,” which in turn borrowed information from Joshua Dressler’s Understanding Criminal Law & Wayne LeFave’s Criminal Law.