You Can’t Just Take Things That Don’t Belong To You

"Absences" by Mary Jones, recommended by Electric Literature


There is a terrifying moment in Mary Jones’s “Absences,” but it comes upon you so swiftly and yet so inevitably as to feel like a slow-motion fall. I did not see it coming until it was too late to guard myself against it. This seems to me one of the great and exciting things about a good story.

“Absences” is the story of a young girl who has moved to her mother’s hometown after her father has bailed on the family. Jones, in just a few sentences, paints the mood of the family and that summer: “This was classic Days of Our Lives; Days of Our Lives that had never been better. It was the summer Hope almost married Larry Welch, when Bo, wearing a black leather vest, drove in on his motorcycle to Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need a Hero” and rescued her from the wedding. We all stood and cheered and hugged as Bo drove Hope away on the back of his motorcycle in her giant white wedding gown. There was no one in the world we loved more than Bo.” To me, it’s the set of lines that provide a secret key to unlock the whole story.

The unnamed narrator of “Absences” is lonely, her life suddenly changed out from under her. When school starts, she meets her “best and only friend” named Jessica, a girl that the other kids in school malign because of a medical condition. Jessica has seizures, which she calls “absences.” The narrator admires Jessica’s confidence, her Marlboro Reds, her boyfriend with a car. And then the stealing starts.

In some ways, it’s a familiar story. Aimless young girl attaches to an older, faster girl who teaches her wily things about how to move through the world. But then the story takes a startling turn, and the stakes become deadly. I won’t give it away. But I will say that when it happens, the entire story changes, deepens, saturates. We come to view that opening beat of Days of Our Lives differently by the end of the story. It becomes something like a warning, an omen.

Mary Jones is a gifted writer of subtle suspense. Her attention to the accumulation of detail and the peculiar loneliness of feeling abandoned and alone in your early adolescence is striking. “Absences” is a brief story, but it’s still ringing in my ears. My blood is cold. Look for the moment. You will know it when it comes.

Brandon Taylor
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading 

You Can’t Just Take Things That Don’t Belong To You

by Mary Jones

The summer my father left my mother and moved to California to find himself, my mother rented an apartment in a small Upstate New York town called Rome, where she was born, and where her sister and her mother still lived. She wanted us to be closer to people who could help with us as she got back on her feet. She took a job as a waitress at an Italian restaurant on Dominick Street and worked very long and very late shifts. After work she’d come home and soak in a steaming hot bath then go into her room and lock the door and cry until the grey hours of morning. We’d sleep late, often until one o’clock in the afternoon, right around the time when Days of Our Lives would start, then we’d sit around the kitchen table and stare at the little black and white TV on the counter while we ate Captain Crunch, and my mother smoked her cigarettes, and drank her black coffee. This was classic Days of Our Lives; Days of Our Lives that had never been better. It was the summer Hope almost married Larry Welch, when Bo, wearing a black leather vest, drove in on his motorcycle to Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need a Hero” and rescued her from the wedding. We all stood and cheered and hugged as Bo drove Hope away on the back of his motorcycle in her giant white wedding gown. There was no one in the world we loved more than Bo. 

I didn’t understand what it meant that my father had to find himself. To me he seemed to be right there. I didn’t know why he left us. My sister and I were good kids and we got along with each other. We spent our days that summer lying in the sun in the back yard, or talking to our old friends on the phone. Sometimes we walked to our grandmother’s house, or rode our bikes to see our aunt. We didn’t hear from my father at all during this time, except for a single picture he sent of himself on a beach in California. In the picture the sky was pink and the low clouds in the distance looked like ghost ships. My father’s blond hair was reddish in the setting sun. He was wearing a white t-shirt, faded jeans, sneakers, and sunglasses. My father was a tall, good-looking man—I understood from a young age that he was the kind of man who was hard to hold down: women wanted him, they went after him, and they didn’t care about my mother, or about us—and here in this picture, he could have been a movie star. On the back he wrote the words, just, “wish you were here.” My sister and I were baffled by this sentiment and it took on an enduring importance in our young hearts. Did he mean he wished we, my sister and I, were there, or did he mean my mother? And if he did mean my mother, did that mean he still loved her, that one day he might come back for her and take us all away from this dreary town to a life that was warm and bright.

That fall I was starting the sixth grade. I hated my new school and all the dumb, dirty-haired kids who went there. My best and only friend was Jessica, a chubby girl who had frizzy red hair, squinty green eyes, and freckles. Physically, we were opposites; I was tall and thin with dark hair and dark eyes. She had some kind of seizure disorder, a condition I’d never seen before or since, and sometimes, right when you were in the middle of talking to her, she’d slip into one of her spells. Her eyes would roll into the back of her head and the muscles in her face would freeze and twitch, then, seconds later, just like that, she’d pick up with whatever she was saying like nothing had happened. Sometimes this would happen over and over while you spoke with her. She said the little seizures were called “absences.” She had no memory of them, and while she wasn’t exactly sure what triggered them, she assured us that it was absolutely no big deal at all and that we should just ignore it when it happened. 

The other kids at school seemed to like me well enough, but this was not the case for Jessica. They were not exactly nice to her to her face, but behind her back they were downright vicious: they called her Beef Jerky and did hideous impressions of her as she passed them in the hallways. If she knew about this, she never said anything about it, and she didn’t seem to really care. She had been held back in second grade and she’d started school a year late so she was older than everybody else by a mile. She’d already turned thirteen. She already had her period and had boobs and wore a bra. She’d already been as far as third base with her boyfriend, Tom, who was sixteen, and who owned his own car, which he picked her up in every day from school. She smoked Marlboro Reds, had tried pot, and even had her own favorite drink, Southern Comfort and lemonade, which we drank at her house some Friday nights when her mother was at work.  

On the way to school she liked to stop at Midnight Pharmacy, a small everything store, right next to our school. It was owned by a very old man named Mitch whose back was hunched at an unnatural angle. He wore a white button-up shirt, a black tie, and thick glasses. He did crossword puzzles at the cash register and never looked up unless someone stood right in front of him. Mornings, Jessica would get to the playground wild with excitement and we’d run to the school bathroom and she’d show me all the things that she stole that day, always giving me the things that I wanted most. I’d put on the black eyeliner, rub the strawberry lotion over my arms. “Come with me next time,” she’d say, laughing. “It’s so fun. You have to try it.”  

I’d been taught that it was a sin to steal, but I met her there one morning before school anyway. I was afraid we might see a teacher, or someone else from school, but we didn’t. We went into the make-up aisle and pretended to be talking about an assignment. I picked up a lipstick, examined it closely, then let it go up the sleeve of my white winter coat as I reached for another. The second one I made an elaborate show of putting back. After that, I slid a black eyeliner into my pocket. My heart pounded and blood rushed to my head. We walked out slowly, still talking about our schoolwork, then we hugged with happiness and ran all the way back to the playground. Before long, we were bringing our backpacks to Midnight Pharmacy, tossing in all the little things that we loved, mostly beauty products and candy. Then we moved on to Great American, a grocery store just down the block from the school, and to the 7-Eleven on the corner of James and Sycamore. It went on for months. I kept the stuff we took at my house—no one went into my room, or looked at my things. 

My mother still worked late nights at the restaurant but now she’d made friends with a few of the other waitresses, and after work they all went out for drinks. I was usually still awake when she got home. I’d hear her coming in, her body knocking into the table and chairs, glass bottles clanking in the refrigerator, then the click of her lighter, the smell of cigarette smoke, and she’d make her way into her room and fall onto her bed. Only an hour or so before her next shift would she rise to take her shower. I stood in the doorway of the bathroom and quietly watched as she put on her make-up. She sucked her cheeks in to get her reddish blush just right. She used a brown pencil to darken her eyebrows, then heated the tip of a black pencil with a lighter and lined the top and the bottom of her lid, turning the streak upward at the end to make her eyes look like a cat’s. She wore red lipstick, always blotting some onto a tissue which she left on the sink, and which I saw every time I used the bathroom for the rest of the day until I went to bed. 

One morning in January, Jessica and I were at Great American before school filling our pockets with tiny bottles of shampoo and mouthwash from the sample aisle. I saw a man coming toward us from the front of the store. He walked slowly up our aisle looking carefully at all the items on the shelves. He was a skinny man with thick blond hair, dressed neatly in a tan jacket, jeans, and sneakers. When he came along to where we were standing, he looked quickly at us. He seemed to be somewhat young. He turned the corner and was out of sight, but a moment later he was back again. 

This time he stopped in front of us, “Girls,” he said, “do you want to come with me?”

I lost my breath. “For what,” I said. 

“For all the stuff you’ve been putting in your pockets,” he said plainly. He looked around. No one else was in the aisle. Aside from a few cashiers, the store was mostly empty in the early morning.

Jessica took a few steps back and glanced over her shoulder, and for a second I wondered if she might try to make a run for it, but then her skin reddened and she started to cry. I tried to inhale but barely got anything in. I thought of my mother’s face, the shame she’d feel when she found out what we’d been doing. She didn’t need this, not now, and I felt sure it would be the thing that killed her. “Here,” I said, handing the man a crinkled ten dollar bill from my pocket. My aunt had given it to me for Christmas. I carried it with me in case we ever got caught. I knew it would not be enough to cover even half of what I’d taken that day alone, but it was all I had. “We were going to pay for it,” I said. When he looked at me doubtfully I added, “I swear. We were.” Then, “Please,” I said.

The man shook his head. He took a few steps away from us. For a moment I thought that everything would be okay. But then he turned and said, “Come on now, girls. Put the stuff back, and follow me.” He walked a few feet ahead of us. We looked at each other, emptied our pockets, then followed him down the aisle, and past the row of cashiers at the front of the store. There was a swirling feeling in my head and I thought that I might pass out. When he walked through the automatic doors and out of the store, Jessica and I both froze. “I’ll just have to take you to the station for a bit to fill out some paperwork,” he said. His face was expressionless. In the store, a young woman in the checkout line played peek-a-boo with a baby who was fussing in the front seat of her cart. “My car is right here,” he said, walking toward an old maroon sedan. He unlocked it. When we didn’t move, his tone deepened. “Come on now, girls,” he said. “You don’t want to make a scene for all your little friends to see.” Jessica’s face was wet with tears now. When we started moving toward the car, the man said very softly, “Good girls. That’s good girls. Good girls.”

I got in behind the driver’s seat, and Jessica got in behind the passenger seat. I knew she must have been thinking of her mother, a woman who was prone to fits of rage. She’d scream at the top of her lungs sometimes, the slightest things setting her off. I saw her punch through a wall once. Another time, when Jessica forgot to empty the dishwasher, she whipped a glass across the room. It hit the wall just behind where Jessica was standing, and shattered. Jessica had to clean it up. 

The car smelled of vanilla air-freshener and cigarettes. A crystal prism hanging from the rearview mirror shot tiny rainbows everywhere; they flickered and shimmered on the wood paneling of the dashboard. The leather seats were torn in places, the crusted foam leaking through. The engine was loud when he turned the key. Ice cold air blasted from the heater. The man lit up a cigarette, and unrolled the window a crack before pulling away. The sharp air from outside sent chills through my spine as his smoke blew into my face. “I saw what you girls were doing,” the man said after a few moments. “Not just today,” he said. “I’ve been watching you for a while.” 

“What do you mean,” Jessica said. “This was the first—”

The car was stopped at a red light a few blocks from where I lived. Flurries of snow sat almost motionless in the air. The man turned and looked at us. His eyes were light blue with flickers of darker blue. “Don’t lie to me,” he said. “Lie to your mommies all you want,” he said. “But please don’t lie to me.” He turned and looked out at the road. Joey Russo’s grandfather was crossing the street with his shopping cart full. When he got safely to the other side the man started driving again. He was quiet for a few minutes. Out the window kids were heading toward the school. There’d been a heavy snowfall the night before, and all morning we had the radio on praying they would announce a snow day. It was good packing snow, and some kids were having snowball fights as they made their way down James Street toward the school. In a few minutes, the bell would ring, and everyone would pour inside, change their wet boots to sneakers, go to their seats, say the pledge, and start their day. “You girls have to learn that you can’t just take things that don’t belong to you,” the man said. 

We drove along Black River Boulevard until it hit Mohawk Drive, then turned on Mohawk Drive, past the air force base and the row of abandoned factories, and a few minutes later, took the exit for Route 49. The car was big, and Jessica seemed small and far away on her side of the back seat. She rubbed her finger along the stiff edge of a rip in the leather. “Where are you taking us?” she said. I reached for her hand and squeezed hard.

The man didn’t respond. Instead he started talking about how he read that it was going to stay cold for a very long time this year. He said that one year, when he was very young, it snowed all the way through to the end of May. He went on about his childhood for a while, his life with his grandmother and his younger brother. He said there was nothing in the world he would want more than to be back there with them again.

I looked out of the window and kept silent as he talked. 

After a moment, he said, “How old are you girls, anyway?” He made eye contact with me through the rearview mirror. “Aren’t you a little young to be shoplifting?” he said.

“Twelve,” I said, though I was still eleven.

“Thirteen,” Jessica said. 

He shook his head, looking disappointed, then lowered his voice. “You’re very beautiful girls,” he said gently. He was looking at me again in the rearview mirror. I felt the skin on my face burn under his stare. I kept my head turned away. After a while he added, “I can see that you’re smart too.” He was quiet for a moment, then he said, “That’s what matters. Your beauty will fade someday when you’re older and all that will be left is what’s up here.” He tapped his head. He checked for cars before pulling away from a red light. “You girls can do great things with your life,” he said. “You can do anything you want to do.”

I felt a peace come over me. I liked him very much. I started to imagine that maybe we could keep in touch after all of this was over. Maybe he could be like a big brother, or an uncle who comes over on Sundays for dinner. I thought my mother would probably like him too. I caught his eye in the rearview mirror and smiled and he smiled back at me. 

Jessica was still crying. “It’s okay,” I said to her. “Don’t worry,” I said. 

“You’re not bad girls,” the man went on, looking out at the road. “You’ve just done a bad thing,” he said. “There’s a big difference there,” he said. “It’s a very important distinction.”

I felt a wave of shame for what Jessica and I had been doing, and I promised myself I was done with all that, that I wouldn’t take things that didn’t belong to me anymore. 

Jessica started to breathe harder. “Come on,” I said. “Calm down,” I told her. “It’s going to be okay.” The man looked pleased. I went on. “He just has to take us to the station to fill out some paperwork.” 

The busy road had given way to the country road. I looked out of the window and saw barns go by. I’d never been on this road, or anywhere near here. We were getting far from town, far from everything that was familiar. I wondered, then, why he wasn’t wearing a uniform. Why he didn’t have a police car. 

“Hey,” I said softly. “Are you really a cop?” 

“That’s a weird question,” he said, sort of smiling. His face reddened and he looked around. He lit a cigarette. His forehead twitched. “What else would I be?” he said.

His blond hair was thick and chopped looking. He had cut it himself. Staring into it, I suddenly felt very dizzy.  

“I want to get out of this car,” Jessica said, then. “Let me out of this car,” she said.

The man stayed calm. “That’s not what’s going to happen,” he said. 

It was still snowing. The snow was coming down hard now, just pouring out of the sky, being dumped out of the sky, and all along the road in front of us, in the car, everywhere, the bright whiteness was a blur. I put my head into my knees, pushed against the pulling. I felt as if I might be sucked out of the car and into the sky.

I caught Jessica’s green eyes and held on. She was breathless now, sweating. She tried the door but it wouldn’t open. “Mom,” she started to say. “Mom,” she screamed. “Mommy.” The sound poured into me, filled the car, echoed out into the snow-covered fields all around us. 

My heart pounded. 

Jessica slipped down in her seat, then, and her body became rigid. She started to jerk and twitch. When we first became friends, her mother had warned me that she might have a seizure like this one day. She’d told me what to do to keep her from hurting herself. She said it would only last a few minutes, and that Jessica might be a little confused and weak afterwards, but she’d be okay. I pulled her head onto my lap, turned her sideways so she wouldn’t swallow her tongue.

The man kept glancing at us through the rearview mirror. “What the fuck,” he said. “What the fuck is going on,” he said. “What’s wrong with her,” he said, screeching his car to the side of the road. He turned and looked at me, his lips curled with disgust. “Is she some kind of retard,” he said. “Is she some kind of fucking freak.”

“She’s having a seizure,” I said.  

What happened next happened very fast. He got out of the car and went around to Jessica’s side. He opened the back door, yanked her out of the car and let her fall, still convulsing, into the snow bank on the side of the road. I was still. My legs were heavy. I looked up at him and for a second I thought that he would slam the door shut, and drive off with me. Instead his face scrunched with anger. “You too,” he said. “Get the fuck out,” he said through closed teeth. “Get out of my fucking car right now you freaks.” He grabbed my arm and yanked me from the back seat. I stumbled onto the ground next to Jessica. He got back in the car drove away. I pulled Jessica’s rigid body far away from the road. We had been taken. But now we were free. A man had us. But now he let us go. A surprising feeling passed over me, then, almost like sadness: he didn’t want us. It was a quick, sickening impulse, and I recognized it as strange as soon as I felt it. I turned and vomited into the cold white snow. When I was finally done, Jessica’s body had softened.  

We were far from anywhere, all around us just snowy fields. The cold air stung my face, my hands. I worried about frostbite, amputation. When Jessica got enough strength back we started walking. Just about a half hour down the road was a house. The woman inside was kind. We told her we were lost, and she let us use her phone and her bathroom.

When Tom got there a little while later, he wanted us to call the police and report the man who he was sure would have raped and killed us, but we reminded him that we’d been stealing, committing a crime, and we all agreed that the man would probably go free, if they ever found him at all, while the two of us ended up in juvy. We all promised to never tell anyone about it, and we never did, not even our mothers. I got a trash bag, a big one, a lawn bag, and filled it with every single thing we ever stole and threw it in the dumpster behind the school. Jessica and Tom broke up not long after that, and in junior high, I got in with another crowd, girls who were on the cheerleading squad, who read books for fun, and worked on the school newspaper. Before I knew it, Jessica and I had completely lost touch. When we’d see each other in the hallways we’d say hi, but that was all. You would have thought that what we’d been through together would have brought us closer, that we’d share some special and unbreakable bond, but it was the opposite: In my mind the whole thing was so intricately connected to her that even a glimpse of her green eyes in the hallway could make me get physically sick.

My father eventually found himself. He came back to New York looking tan and gorgeous just over a year after he first left. His hair had turned completely blond from the sun. He’d had a girlfriend in California, but it didn’t work out, and somehow that experience, him having and losing this other woman, made him realize that it was us he’d loved and wanted the whole time, and he didn’t want to miss out on any more of our growing up. That was all well and good, except for the fact that he was too late. My mother had a boyfriend now—they were thinking of moving in together—and whatever love she’d held in her heart for him all those nights crying in her room had hardened into something that was more like hate. I didn’t blame her: I hated him too. He’d left us for dead. Some absences you can’t make up for, and more often than not, walking away from love means walking back to hate. There’s nothing you can do about that, except to move on, and try to do better the next time. Or the time after that.  

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