By Stephen Tobolowsky
I have always enjoyed routine. Even when I was too young to know what a routine was. The line between routine and ritual is very fine. Some would say the difference is that a ritual is a routine with a spiritual component. I disagree. Routine is spiritual as well. It is rooted in the belief system that human will can affect time, that habit can protect you from the unpredictable. This falls into the great vault of false beliefs along with carrying a rabbit’s foot for luck. No one is protected from the unpredictable.
When I was seven, my routine was to walk to school, perform the requirements of a second grader, and then, walk home, alone. The world was different then, or maybe just parents were. My mother had no problem in letting me walk the half a mile to and from school. I got the feeling she even welcomed the extra time it gave her to do other chores like cook dinner and clean the house. She also didn’t mind my stopping along the way to read comic books at Dougherty’s Drug Store. Superman and a candy bar were the best parts of my post-school routine.
One afternoon I was eating a Milky Way and pondering why Batman was considered a detective and Superman wasn’t when I got a strange notion. I thought, “What would happen if I stole something?” I have no idea where I got the impulse. Criminals were not glorified in comic books. They always went to jail. I knew stealing was wrong. I knew it was one of the Ten Commandments. When Rabbi Klein taught us at Sunday school, he even laughed and shook his head, “At least I don’t have to explain this one.”
That didn’t matter. My curiosity turned into a desire. My hand started to burn to take something. But what? There was nothing I wanted. Odd. The desire to steal was not connected to need. I looked over the objects on the shelves: hair spray, aspirin, undershirts. Nothing captured my interest. My mind became fixated on finding something to take. The idea of right and wrong didn’t even figure into the picture at this point. I was going to take something. I just had to find a suitable victim.
And there it was. On the shelf next to the candy bars. It was even partially shielded from the old woman who worked the cash register. Life Savers.They even came in a variety of flavors.
I wandered over to the comic book stand. I put my Superman back. I wasn’t finished reading it. I was just using the trip to case the joint. I walked past the Life Savers and lingered. What to take? The Rainbow Assortment was my favorite. It was hard to beat sweetness plus surprise. You never knew what you were going to get next. I reconsidered. Maybe I should use this theft as an opportunity to branch out. Try something new. Next to the Wild Cherry was something called Wint-O-Green. I never heard of Wint-O-Green. It sounded exotic. I couldn’t even image what they tasted like.
My internal alarm went off. I was standing by the Life Savers too long. It could raise suspicions. I returned to my seat at the back of the drug store. I sat down. Mistake. I didn’t have a comic book anymore. Why was I sitting down in the “browsing area” with nothing to browse? The old woman at the register looked back at me. My brain started to sweat. I got up. I found it very difficult to think and walk at the same time. “Get another comic book,” I told myself.
I got to the rack and I reached for a Batman. Then I got practical. Why get another comic book when I didn’t finish the first one? I picked up my Superman again and headed to the back of the store. Another mistake! What was I thinking? I just put this comic book back a minute ago. Very suspicious. I felt the eyes of the old woman at the register. I stopped and walked back to the rack. I swapped out comic books once more. No one ever said a life a crime was easy.
By this time my brain was shredded with adrenaline. I couldn’t even see the pictures on the page. My head was too crowded with visions of me in prison dragging a ball and chain. I had to get out of there. I had to go home.
But first, I had to steal the Life Savers.
I walked with purpose and carefully replaced Batman in the comic’s rack. I passed the shelf with the Life Savers. I glanced at the old woman behind the register. She was reading a magazine. I bent down quickly and pretended to tie my shoe. I reached up and grabbed a roll of Wint-O-Green and jammed it into my pocket.
I was surprised by a revelation: I was already guilty. I never thought of that. I always thought that I wasn’t really a thief until I left the store. Not true. I was a thief now. I became one as soon as I demonstrated my intention to steal by putting the candy in my pocket.
I walked out of the store. The old woman behind the counter watched me leave. I smiled at her on my way out, a deceit greater than stolen candy. I began the half-mile walk home.
I was conscious of each footstep I took through the parking lot. I was afraid at any moment the old woman would come running out of the store and ask me to empty my pockets. Then, I was afraid the police would be waiting for me – not when I got home, but the next time I walked into the drug store. The old woman would point me out and say, “There he is officer. He’s the one that stole the Wint-O-Green.”
By the time I started down Kiest Boulevard, I was visited by a new dread. This thought was more disturbing than anything I had experienced thus far: What if I got away with it?
The roll of Wint-O-Green started to burn in my pocket. I knew I couldn’t eat one. Maybe the best thing to do would be to throw them into the creek and be done with it. That seemed like such a waste. Maybe I would feel differently after my heart stopped racing.
I got home. Mom was in the kitchen working on dinner. She was cheerful. She asked how school was. She asked if I read any good comic books at Dougherty’s. Even the routine conversation with my mother was poisoned. How could I tell her about how well I did in Language Arts class and skip over the Life Savers? It would always stand between us. Not just one lie, but new lie. Everyday. Maybe every hour. Every minute.
I walked up to my mother and pulled out the candy. “I stole this, Mom. I stole this from Dougherty’s.”
My mother stopped washing at the sink and turned to me. She looked in my hand with concern. “You took those without paying for them?”
My mother knelt down and looked at the roll of Life Savers. “You know that’s wrong, don’t you?”
Mom looked into my eyes. “You know what you have to do? You have to go to Dougherty’s and give them back.Tell them you’re sorry.”
I was relieved to find that there was such a simple prescription. I felt something close to joy that I could be forgiven. I began my journey back to the drug store.
But as I walked, my sense of well-being began to dissipate. It was replaced with embarrassment over my crime. The walk got longer and longer. I stopped at the creek one more time. Once more I thought about throwing the Wint-O-Green into the green, foul water. But I knew would be stuck lying to my mother again when I returned home and she would ask, “What did they say at Dougherty’s?”
The closer I got to the store, I become less aware of the cost of candy and more aware of the cost of consequences. When I arrived, I went up to the old woman behind the counter. She was surprised to see me back. I pulled out the roll of Wint-O-Green and put it in front of her. “I took these from the store. I didn’t pay for them. I’m sorry.”
The woman took the candy. She studied my face for a moment and then said, “Stay here.” She replaced the candy on the shelf and returned and said, “I never want to see you in this store again.”
I felt a rush of hot tears. I tried not to cry. I expected she would thank me for being honest, for taking the trouble to return the item in question. No. There was no room in her world for me. The contrition of a seven-year old could not be counted on.
My punishment went far beyond the scope of anything I could have imagined. When friends walked home from school with me and wanted to stop off at Dougherty’s, I had to come up with an excuse as to why I couldn’t join them. More lies. More shame. I missed my candy bar. I missed the next installments of Superman. But what I missed the most were the idle moments I was able to spend on my own. When I could pretend I was a grown-up, sitting with my comic book, with nothing but a gentle, endless sea of time stretching in front of me.
As sudden and severe as my banishment was, it ended almost as unexpectedly. A few weeks later, I was walking home with some friends. They wanted to stop by Dougherty’s. I took a chance and I walked in with them. The old woman was not behind the counter. The old druggist was. I guessed he wasn’t aware of my crime or my punishment. He said nothing.
We grabbed comic books off of the rack and sat down in the browsing area. We were in the middle of a discussion about the differences between a Snickers, a Milky Way, and a Three Musketeers, when I noticed the old druggist walking towards us. My heart began to race.
“Afternoon, boys,” he said. We responded politely. He continued, “We no longer allow you kids to come in here and read the comic books. You have to buy them first. Then, you’re welcome to sit and read as long as you want. We had some stealing in here. We thought the best way to keep those kinds of kids out of the store was to end the browsing. I’m sorry.”
We put back our comic books and walked home in silence. The era of reading at Dougherty’s Drug Store was over. I never knew if I was “the kid” or one of “the kids” that brought our tradition to an end. All I was certain of was that I could no longer be sure of myself. I could never trust routine again. Time was no longer my friend. In a strange way, it became my partner.
Before I stole the Life Savers, time only moved in one direction. Forward. I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. Once I was banished from the drug store, I was marked by a new experience. Regret. From that point on, time began moving backwards and forwards. Unpredictably. I kept re-examining what happened that afternoon. Why did my hand burn to steal the candy? But then why did the candy burn in my pocket afterwards? Why did the fear of lying to my mother keep me from throwing the Wint-O-Green in the creek, and yet, I could easily smile at the old woman at the register when I left the store?
I wasn’t sure if my reliving the events of that day were my attempts to erase them, like the back end of a spiritual #2 lead pencil. Or if it was a rehearsal. Hoping to get it right the next time around. Decades have past and I still retrace my steps that afternoon in the drug store. I’m not sure why. Perhaps, it is a simple matter of narrative. The only story more compelling than the hero’s journey is the fallen hero’s journey.
Stephen Tobolowsky has appeared in over 200 movies and television shows: including Groundhog Day, Memento, Californication, Silicon Valley and the newly released Welcome to the Men’s Group. He wrote and performed Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, which premiered at the HBO Comedy Festival in Aspen.
His new storytelling concert film The Primary Instinct is available on Amazon, iTunes, and several VOD outlets. He wrote and recorded his true stories on “The Tobolowsky Files.” They can be heard at Slashfilm.com, iTunes, and on national radio. His first book of short stories, The Dangerous Animals Club, was published by Simon and Schuster in 2012. His second book of stories, My Adventures with God, will be released in the spring of 2017.
Photo: Getty Images