Baited

From her living room window, Jill had a perfect view of the guy who was stealing the radio from her car. He didn’t seem hurried at all. Just a regular guy: average height, average build, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, brown hair. He was sitting in her passenger seat, fiddling with something on the dashboard. Jill wanted to yell at him: “Hey! What are you doing? Don’t be a jerk! How am I supposed to listen to NPR without that?” But she realized that she was a single woman, alone in her apartment, and shouting at a thief was probably not the smartest thing she could do. Better that he was intent only on her car stereo.

She could see him rummaging through her things, twisting around in the seat to look for anything good, bent over to search the floor. “There’s nothing in there,” she wanted to call out to him. “Maybe a dollar in change, that’s all. And that radio you’ve spent ten minutes prying out is a piece of junk too - doesn’t pick up anything on AM.” But she didn’t. She watched him lift the floor mats, like she might have hidden a spare key, or gold dust, under them. Overseeing his pathetic search, she momentarily felt sorry that her car had so little to offer. She wondered why he was so desperate as to steal a lousy radio in broad daylight.

The phone rang and Jill, reluctantly, moved away from the window to pick it up, then stretched the tangled cord back to her viewing spot. She knew before she picked it up that it would be either her mother or Ann; no one else ever called.

“Hey Jill, what are you up to?” It was Ann, her best friend and fellow graduate student.

The man in her car seemed to be searching her glove box. Don’t take the New Hampshire map, Jill thought, I really like that one. To the phone she said, “Oh nothing. Watching a guy steal the radio from my car.”

“What? Seriously?”

“Yeah. He’s on the street right below my apartment. Been at it for about ten minutes. He’s got the radio out but now he’s just looking around.”

“Have you called the cops?”

“No. I think he’s going to leave soon.”

“Jill. He’s stealing your stuff.” Ann spoke with the patient tone you use for children, dogs, the mentally ill.

“It’s a piece of junk. I think insurance will pay for the window. He broke one to get in.”

“You’re crazy. Anyway, I called to see if you want to do dinner tonight, take a break from the work. Seven okay?”

“Sounds good,” Jill said.

She hung up the phone, returned it to the book-filled table on the far side of the room. When she came back to the window, her car was empty, the passenger-side door ajar. She could see the interior light was on. “Jesus. Now the battery will die,” she said to herself. But she didn’t want to go downstairs. Who knew, maybe the guy was waiting around, pissed off that he got such a crappy haul from her car. “The last thing I need is an encounter with a disgruntled thief,” Jill murmured as she looked up and down the length of the street. She was disappointed she hadn’t seen the thief leave. Did he run away or casually walk off? Or maybe he drove. She wondered whether his car was nicer than hers.

Everything out the window looked sad, forlorn. The McDonald’s wrapper blowing down the middle of the street, the empty windows in the other apartments, the spray of broken glass on the sidewalk. No sun peeked through the clouds to make the shards glint and glimmer like diamonds. They were just as gray as the sky above.

Maybe the thief was on another block; maybe he was already in another car, Jill thought. By day’s end he might have a bag full of dislocated radios, wires hanging in useless disarray. Her car looked so lonely, its door open, the inside light shining feebly, like a mother waiting up past her bedtime for a teenage son to come home.

Jill took a dust broom and a cardboard box, went downstairs to the street. Even though it was cloudy, the air was warm, damp. Up close, she was curious to see that the glass was just innocuous little cubes, not the spiky shards you see in horror movies. She knocked the remaining pieces out of the window frame, surprised by her satisfaction as the glass splintered and fell. Then she swept the sidewalk, the seat, the floor. The car did not smell like him. He had only taken the radio, the spare change in the ashtray; he had not left anything behind, no clues that would tell her who he was. The glove box sagged open like the jaw of a heavy sleeper, and Jill gently pushed it shut. She looked at the black hole in the middle of the dashboard, tentatively stuck her fingers in it. He had been so neat: no wires hung out, no scrape marks. A surgical removal. She probed the depths of the hole, her fingers like a child’s tongue feeling where a tooth has just fallen out. The metallic taste of blood, the unexpected but satisfying gap. There was nothing remarkable about it, but Jill couldn’t keep her hand away. She felt into the corners of the hole, finding nothing. Then Jill looked around the car; all the glass was gone so she stood up, shut the door behind her.

Back upstairs, Jill taped the box shut, placed it in the trash. That done, she was momentarily at a loss. Before she heard the car window break, before she rushed to see what the noise was from, before she had watched, transfixed, the theft occur, Jill had been working. She could see the book open on the table, a legal pad full of her notes. But now her thoughts seemed distant, unimportant. The theft had wiped the slate of her day clear.

In the Yellow Pages there were an abundance of businesses ready to do auto glass repair and Jill was flustered by the choice. She skipped over the names starting with four or five As, which seemed like cheating to her. Why should they get to go first in line for picking nonsensical names? Let them get their business from impatient people, she thought. Past these listings, she settled on Desmond’s, whose address was on a street she knew. Of course they could fix the window, bring it right in, said the man on the other end of the line. It shouldn’t have been surprising that the car started right up; Jill knew the radio was not integral to engine functioning, but she was pleased nonetheless. The broken window provided a constant breeze as she navigated the streets to Desmond’s. Though Jill never listened to music in the car, only the news, suddenly today she wanted music. It seemed, in fact, as though she could hear a beat, a bass line, and she tapped her fingers against the steering wheel, wondering if there was a term for this phenomenon: phantom radio syndrome.

At every stoplight or turn in the road, Jill found her eyes drawn to the gap in the dashboard - she couldn’t leave it alone. And every time she saw it, she thought of the thief. Is he home yet? Has he already sold her radio? It made her sad, jealous even, to think that right now he might be prying out the radio from some other car.

Jill parked in front of Desmond’s garage; it was a little concrete building, painted white. Nondescript, she had probably driven by dozens of times without noticing it. Inside the building, there was a middle-aged man at the counter - his uniform declared him to be not Desmond but Bruce. He was watching a small TV, chewing away at a piece of gum.

“You’re the lady who called about the window?”

Jill wondered whether she looked so much like her voice or if they didn’t have many calls, nodded to the man.

“Keys?” he asked.

She handed them over.

“This won’t take long,” he said and went outside.

Jill stood by the counter, heard the engine start, the whine of her car in reverse. To the left of the counter was a large plate glass window that let her look into the garage. It reminded her of the window in a maternity unit, like you see in soap operas, where the mothers and fathers press their faces to the glass to look at the infants in their cribs. Where, in the world of TV drama, the tags are inevitably switched and the child ends up in the wrong family. Jill thought for a second of watching Bruce change her car window, wanted to see how he fit the glass into metal slot of the frame, but then she realized she had had enough of watching strange men in her car for one day. Instead, she settled into a chair next to the counter, picked up a faded issue of some magazine on sports cars. She heard the noise of car doors opening and closing, but stayed glued to the uninteresting articles, not wanting Bruce to feel self-conscious or rushed. Let him take his time, do the job right.

Shortly, Bruce came back, put the keys on the counter. His eyes were fixed on the computer as he typed up the invoice.

“So, you got broken into, huh?” He made it sound as though she herself had been broken, violated, though by his tone he clearly did not mean to be rude.

“Today, this morning,” Jill replied.

“You’re lucky they didn’t break more windows, mess things up. Sometimes they do it just to be mean.”

Jill almost said something, almost explained that her thief wasn’t mean, but she realized that would sound odd. Her thief. It wasn’t like she knew him. She shook her head. “No - he just took the radio. I’ll need a new one, I guess. I don’t suppose you sell them or know someone who does?”

Bruce stopped typing, looked at her. “Lady, let me give you some advice. Don’t put a new one in. Sometimes, these guys take your old radio even when it’s a piece of junk, just hoping that you’ll go out and get a new one. Then they come and take the new one.”

“I’d never even thought of that,” said Jill, “thanks.” She took her keys from the counter and left the shop.

Inside her car, she was surprised by how far back the seat was from the steering wheel. She scooted the seat forward, realizing how tall Bruce must be. The passenger side window looked the same as before, looked like something you see through, something whose existence you are not supposed to notice. Nothing more.

Driving home on the familiar streets, Jill thought of her next-door neighbor from the home where she grew up in rural New Hampshire. He was a retired firefighter, burly but kind. A man who loved to hunt. All through the summer he would buy day-old donuts, discounted, too stale to sell, and leave them out in his backyard. He always offered one to Jill, and she often ate it, especially if he had any chocolate frosted, her favorite. Every day, a black bear would lumber out from the woods to eat the donuts, the glaze getting stuck in its fur, shiny and matted. Eventually, summer would turn to autumn and on the first day of hunting season he would sit on his deck and shoot the bear.

Jill looked at the gaping hole in the dashboard, heard the silence of her car as she drove home, remembered the bear, fat on donuts, and thought it was probably best if she didn’t buy a new radio.

She turned onto the street in front of her apartment, scarcely conscious of how she had arrived there. The trip was lost, submerged in memories of autumn and bears, the sticky mess of donuts. She carefully parked her car in the same spot she had pulled out of just an hour or so ago. Turning the engine off, Jill stared up at her apartment windows, curtainless, nondescript. Jill tried to remember what the thief looked like, found that her image of him was blurred already. If he’d just looked up he would have seen her watching him. What kind of thief doesn’t look up? Or maybe he had. Maybe he’d known he was being watched, could feel her eyes upon him. Did that make it thrilling? Did he like the attention? She should have yelled, cupped her hands around her mouth and leaned into the screen, “I can see you.” Just that. To let him know.

The blank windows of her apartment looked as hollow as the hole in her dashboard. Jill got out of the car, looked up and down the block. Maybe she’d take a short walk before she went back upstairs. It was mid-June and she could hear the whirring of the window unit air conditioners, the occasional fat slap when a drop of condensation hit the sidewalk. She knew she should be working on her conference paper, but she didn’t want to go inside. There was something she needed to see, though she wasn’t sure what she was looking for. Her neighborhood was mostly graduate students like her, a few young families. The cars were all small, well-used. Why had the thief picked hers? Looking at the row of sedans and hatchbacks neatly lining the curb, she couldn’t see what made hers the obvious choice. As Jill walked along the sidewalk, turning the corner to the next street, she tried to peer into the vehicles as she passed. That one had an ashtray full of change; this one had cds spread over the passenger seat. He could have made a better haul from someone else. The sun shot out from behind a cloud and Jill shielded her eyes with her hand as the light set the rearview mirrors glaring.

It was funny what you could learn from a car, Jill thought. Car seats in back - easy, a family. The rear plastered with bumper stickers marked a deadhead or an ecology nut. But many were nondescript, tidy enough, empty. She couldn’t tell a thing about their owners. Man? Woman? Behind the glass, they all looked the same to her. What had the thief learned from her car? Did he notice the well-worn New Hampshire maps? The cds of the Indigo Girls crammed under the seat? Had he observed the three umbrellas and known from them how much she hated to be wet, how she never wanted to be caught unprepared in the rain?

The row of cars sat, neat and trim, sparkling in the sunshine. Walking along them, back towards the corner of her own street, Jill saw no broken windows, no gaping holes in the dashboards. Maybe, she thought, she would drive with a portable radio, listen with headphones. She would leave that empty space where her stereo had been, or fill it with pens, tissues, lip balm, all the things she wanted at her fingertips when she stopped at a red light. Who needed a stereo anyway?

She was back at her own street now, the sidewalks still and deserted. The sunlight bounced off the window of her car, blinding, brief, before a cloud slid across the sky, turning the glass flat and gray.

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