“Jon? It’s mom. Great news! I’ll be in your neighborhood this weekend for a conference, so I thought I’d spend Saturday night at your place. Won’t that be fun? And I can’t wait to see all of that art that you’ve been collecting. I’ll call you when I get in town. Love you!”
I played the message four times, barely able to comprehend the words. Mom never visited me, and all of a sudden she was making a surprise trip to Richmond? That was worrying. More worrying still was her desire to see my collected artwork. It turns out, you see, that lying to one’s family tends to come back and bite one in the behind. I’ve never been good enough for my mother – my grades in school were too low, my girlfriends too low class, and my income “near the poverty level” no matter how many raises I got. I’ve never been poor, but I may have misrepresented my level of success just a bit. It’d be hard enough to explain my small apartment, but I didn’t have a clue how to deal with my bare walls. It was already Thursday, but it was also eleven pm, so I decided to sleep on it.
The next morning on the way to work, I had an idea. Mary, my boss, was an art collector. Maybe I could borrow a few pieces for the weekend. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make the request, but I’d come up with something. I walked to my cubicle in a good mood and fired up my computer. Then Sarah, who sat next to me, leaned over and whispered, “Hey, Jon, watch out for Mary this morning – she’s on the warpath!” Sarah ducked back to her keyboard just before Mary stormed up to me.
“Three minutes late, Jon. Don’t let it happen again. And I want that report on my desk by 1:00 or you can forget about a raise this year.” Damn, there was no way I could ask Mary for even small favors today. I had no time to think about it, though; I had reports to write.
By the time 5:00 dragged around, I was almost ready to quit my job. Mary had been a complete bitch the entire day, calling to mind all of the times that she had gotten on my nerves, not least at the office Christmas party during which she had led us all around her house and lectured about every painting she owned and told us how much she’d paid for every piece. She didn’t even serve alcohol! The more I considered this on the drive home, the angrier I got. Finally, I made a decision – I would break into that fancy house and take those damn paintings. I’d do it that very night.
Mary and her husband lived on the South Side in Salisbury. It was on the McMansion side of the neighborhood – huge houses that were lovely on the inside, but so close together that you could almost jump from roof to roof. Such ridiculous excess, such a waste of resources. Why couldn’t I live in a place like that? I parked a few streets away from Mary’s house and started walking. I’d worn all black and blended well into the two am darkness. Fortunately, the moon was only a small sliver in the sky, and the residents of Salisbury for some reason eschewed street lights.
Mary’s home was pitch black; she and her husband lived alone and had no pets to get in my way. It was a pretty good house to rob, I thought, and although I didn’t know a lot about burglary, I’d seen plenty of movies and read all of the stories about Raffles, the gentleman thief, by E. W. Hornung. I was as prepared as a first-timer could be. The operation should be a snap.
I slipped around to the back of the house and approached the basement window. It was smaller than I remembered (she gave us the complete tour). I looked uncertainly at my waistline, which had definitely expanded over the holidays. That New Year’s Resolution to hit the gym hadn’t kicked in yet, even though it was already May. Still, this was the best way in, so I pried open the window and slid in feet first. I actually made it through pretty easily, although I had to take off my belt, regretting for the first time the big buckle I’d bought at that Texas rodeo. I dropped to the floor and put the belt back on. I had begun to move toward the stairs when I heard a beeping sound. Crap, the security system! I hurried upstairs as quietly as I could and found the keypad. I remembered Mary talking about how she had browbeaten her husband into buying it for her, so I supposed that the code would be her birthday. I punched it in and the beeping stopped. Whew. I turned into the house, but the beeping started again! At least I had another try. Quickly, I punched in their anniversary (it’s so sad that I know their anniversary). The beeping stopped again and this time it stayed quiet. By then my pulse was racing, but I soldiered on, heading for the living room where Mary kept the bulk of her collection. Now, I don’t know a whole lot about art, but, as the saying goes, I know what I like. I selected four of the smaller paintings and lugged them out the front door, pausing to reset the alarm. I must have looked pretty suspicious walking down the road wearing all black and carrying several flat, rectangular objects, but this was a nice neighborhood where people went to bed at a decent hour, so no one tried to stop me.
When I got home, I was too exhausted to do more than drop the paintings in a closet and fall into bed. The next morning, Saturday, I rose early to put up my treasures. I wished that I had time to look the paintings up; I’d skipped art appreciation in college and had no idea what I’d taken. The painting with the swirly stars was pretty cool, so I hung it over the sofa in my living room. The woman with the umbrella thingy was hot, so she went in the bedroom. The other two paintings were modern looking – one with a woman’s face all distorted and the other with these weird melting clocks. In the light of the morning, those were kinda creepy, and I stuck them in the guest room where mom would be staying. Let that be payback for springing this visit on me and making me go through all that trouble.
When mom showed up, I had just finished cleaning up the place. She bustled in and immediately began looking around. “Well,” she sniffed, “I thought your apartment would be a bit less … snug. Hm. Where are these paintings of yours?” I showed her around the apartment and she inspected each painting as closely as an IRS auditor in Enron. When she’d seen all four, she asked, “Is that it? I thought you had some originals.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, flabbergasted. Had I just stolen fakes? Risked my job and my freedom for an armful of phonies?
“Oh yes,” mom said, “I’d know a fake Van Gogh anywhere. I majored in art, remember? But they’ll fool most people, I suppose. So, where are we going for dinner?”
Apart from my initial embarrassment and my mother’s talent for dropping seemingly innocent insults, the weekend was pretty fun. She never did tell me what sparked the pop-in and I suppose I’ll never know. I was nervous about Monday, though; did Mary know her paintings were fake? Would the police be waiting for me? I drove into work, gripping the steering wheel so hard that my fingers cramped. I considered turning around and calling in sick, but that would look suspicious. When I got in, Mary ran up to me before I had a chance to hide at my desk. “Jon, you will not believe what happened to me this weekend,” she gasped. “I was robbed! Someone broke into my house and stole four of my paintings.”
“Oh no,” I managed, “Have the police caught the person who did it?”
“No, and I don’t think they will. It was clearly a professional job. It’s ok, though, I had them insured for ten thousand each. And that thief is going to get a nasty surprise.” Mary lowered her voice to a whisper. “Those paintings weren’t even real.”