04 Off the Shelf
(By Patti Smith)
When I was ten years old, I lived with my family in a small ranch house in rural South Jersey. I often accompanied my mother to the A&P to buy groceries. We did not have a car, so we walked, and I would help her carry the bags.
My mother had to shop very carefully, as my father was on strike. She was a waitress, and her salary and tips barely sustained us. One day, while she was weighing prices, a promotional display for the World Book Encyclopedia caught my eye. The volumes were cream-colored, with forest-green spines stamped in gold. Volume I was ninety-nine cents with a ten- dollar purchase.
All I could think of, as we combed the aisles for creamed corn, dry milk, cans of Spam, and shredded wheat, was the book, which I longed for with all my being. I stood at the register with my mother, holding my breath as the cashier rang up the items. It came to over eleven dollars. My mother produced a five, some singles , and a handful of change. As she was counting out the money, I somehow found the courage to ask for the encyclopedia. "Could we get one?" I said, showing her the display. "It's only ninety-nine cents."
I did not understand my mother's increasing anxiety; she did not have enough change and had to sacrifice a large can of peas to pay the amount."Not now, Patricia, she said sternly. "Today is not a good day." I packed the groceries and followed her home, crestfallen .
The next Saturday, my mother gave me a dollar and sent me to the A&P alone. Two quarts of milk and a loaf of bread—that's what a dollar bought in 1957. I went straight to the World Book display. There was only one first volume left, which I placed in my cart. I didn't need a cart, but took one so I could read as I went up and down the aisles. A lot of time went by, but I had little concept of time, a fact that often got me in trouble. I knew I had to leave, but I couldn't bear to part with the book. Impulsively I put it inside my shirt and zipped up my plaid windbreaker . I was a tall, skinny kid, and I'm certain the shape of the book was obvious.
I strolled the aisles for several more minutes, then went through the checkout, paid my dollar, swiftly bagged the three items, and headed home with my heart pounding.
Suddenly I felt a heavy tap on my shoulder and turned to find the biggest man I had ever seen. He was the store detective, and he asked me to hand it over. I just stood in silence. "We know you stole something—you will have to be searched." Horrified, I slid the heavy book out from the bottom of my shirt.
He looked at it quizzically . "This is what you stole, an encyclopedia?"
"Yes," I whispered, trembling.
"Why didn't you ask your parents?"
"I did," I said, "but they didn't have the money."
"Do you know it's wrong?"
"Do you go to church? "
"Yes, twice a week."
"Well, you're going to have to tell your parents what you did. "
"Then I will do it. What's the address? "I was silent.
"Well, I'll have to walk you home."
"No, please, I will tell them."
"Do you swear?"
"Yes, yes, sir."
My mother was worried when I arrived home. "Where were you? I needed the bread for your father's sandwiches. I told you to come right home."
And suddenly everything went green, like right before a tornado. My ears were ringing, I felt dizzy, and I threw up .
My mother tended to me immediately, as she always did. She had me lie on the couch and got a cold towel for my head and sat by me with her anxious expression.
What is it, Patricia? she asked. "Did something bad happen?"
Yes, I whispered. "I stole something." I told her about my lust for the book, my wrongdoing, and the big detective. My mother was a good mother, but she could be explosive , and I tensed, waiting for the barrage of verbal punishment, the sentencing that always seemed to outweigh the crime. But she said nothing. She told me that she would call the store and tell the detective I had confessed, and that I should sleep.
When I awoke, sometime later, the house was silent. My mother had taken my siblings to the field to play. I sat up and noticed a brown-paper bag with my name on it. I opened it and inside was the World Book Encyclopedia, Volume I.