I slipped the black Levi’s up my white rail thin legs, pulled on a voluminous black rayon shirt, cape-like in its largess. I clicked open the mirrored medicine cabinet door found the stub of a waxy eye-liner pencil, whittled to near oblivion. I delicately painted the lips of my eyes black. Anything to make me look more pallid than I was. Pallid as a corpse. It was 1980 and me and my gang were the proto-goths. The 70s were over and so was tanning.
I wanted to look like a 60s cat burglar, a heroin addict, an Edward Gorey cartoon. Any-thing other than what I was. An unemployed failing college student, from a blue collar neighborhood.
No one was in the apartment but me. My activities were totally secret. I wetted a towel, wrapped a paring knife in it, and wrapped it all with a black garbage bag. Tucked it under my arm and headed out as the sky’s blue began to turn green with night’s approach.
I walked nearly 6 miles, most of it along railroad tracks through the rusty industrial belly of the city. I was merely another shadow among the many. Quiet and oily.
I had let unemployment sneak up on me, nab me that summer. I was liberated and penny-less. Plenty of time to wander, imagine. Even imagine a crime. Then perpetrate it.
I reached the back of Holy Cross cemetery, long after night had fallen. It was darker than I imagined it would be. Nearly impairing my task. I squeezed through a break in the cast iron fence, spiked by Victorians 100 years earlier, to keep gravediggers out. I had noticed this break in the fence a week before, when I walked this same route to my parents house in daylight. I stood among the oldest headstones in the cemetery which were lost in the darkness and knee deep grass. I groped at shadows,a shadow myself until I contacted them.
Hundreds and hundreds of day lilies, naturalized into this neglected corner of the cemetery. I set the plastic bag, removed the wet towel, unrolled it, search for the knife with my hands, my eyes being nearly useless. I fell forward in my grasping for the solid stems of the day lilies and began to cut, and cut and cut. With quick just strokes I search through the blue black night toward the muffled orange of the flowers. And I cut, and cut and cut.
Suddenly spooked by my own weird behavior, I stopped. I gather the 100 stems I cut wrapped them in the wet towel with the knife, and wrapped it all in the plastic bag. I slipped back out of the break in the fence, exhaling a huge breath as if I had just come up for air. This was no doubt a silly crime. Maybe no criminal act at all, though I im-agined myself a thief somehow, even if all I was was stealing were flowers planted years ago on graves that were no longer visited.
I followed an abandoned street car track to where I could catch a bus home. The over-growth on both sides of the track made a dark tunnel in an already dark night. I sped up, nearly galloping to escape the crime scene. My weighty booty, 100 day lilies slung over my shoulder. I understood why criminals ran.
Suddenly my shadow flashed before me, as if a spotlight was blasting me from behind. I turned and saw indeed it was a spot light from the small overpass that workers had taken to the factories in the valley below. Though this light blinded me I could still see someone, a shadow someone not unlike me resting on the railing with a gun pointing toward me.
I know, I know, never turn your back on a gunman.
Yet I turned to find another spotlight coming from the road ahead. I wanted it to feel like a crime, my little flower thievery. I wanted to make a few bucks selling them the next day on a posh city street lined with cafes. I dressed like a cat burglar, in a sort of old time movie way. But I never imagined cops. Guns pointing at me from 2 directions. Mil-waukee cops not known for withholding fire.
“ Drop it.”
I did. The bundle of plastic wrapped day lilies hit the ground with a corpse like thud, re-sounded in an atmosphere from which I could not draw a breath.
“Hands on your head. Walk slowly to the road.”
I did. Wondering why I hadn’t shit my pants. But even more why snitching a few posies from a dilapidated cemetery warranted such a reception.
As I move forward another gun ready cop passed me to check out what I had dropped.
When I reached the road I was pushed up against the squad car.
“Spread your legs.”
One cop held a gun on me while another frisked me. I’d like to remember it as teasingly erotic, but at the time every pore of my body gaped for breath, every cell of my brain questioned. Why all this? Over a few dozen flowers?
“What were you doing back there?” Though the cops were so close I could smell them, their commands and questions remained as disembodied as when they first broke the silence of the bright white light, burning a hole in the darkness. My secret.
I spoke. Did my voice tremble? Were my words rattled with saliva? Did they quaver be-fore a dam of frightful tears?
I lied. Actually, I did not lie. I had no skill at lying. Someone lied for me. Someone inside me who I did not know. “I was cutting flowers for my girlfriend. We had a fight because I’m unemployed. I wanted to make her happy.”
Just then the other cop came back to the car tossed the paring knife, he carried in a gloved hand, on the hood of the car.
“What is it?”
“ Flowers,” he said not without some disappointment.
They took my address. I gave them my parents’ who I knew would be out of town for another 2 weeks. I gave them a girlfriend’s name from high school. Yet I gave then my real name.
And then as if my dopey innocence had drawn on their confidence one of the cops told me, “A guy all dressed in black, just shot a cop a few blocks from here. Less than a hour ago. You nearly got yourself killed.”
“Go get your flowers.” They were still barking orders, as they crawled back into their cars, disappointed.
Before they drove off one of them wished me good luck out the window, as they sped off flashing.I sold the flowers the next day. And read the papers which I rarely did.A cop was shot, not dead but critically. And they never caught the assassin.
And I was never convicted of aiding and abetting. Though my little crime let him get away.