The Bible Thief

I’m not a religious man. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason.

When I first met Maggie the sky was that November mud color, and she wore purple gloves that reached her elbows. It happened in a bookstore on the corner of 8th and 6th; I accidentally bumped into her as I straightened from the crouching position that gave me the best view of the fictive “Ws”.

A Bible, emerging from its hiding place somewhere inside the folds of her voluminous coat, thudded to the floor.

Our eyes met.

“I don’t know how that got there,” she said defiantly.

I said nothing. She left the store with her head held high.

There’s something about bookstores. The odds of running into someone you’ve bumped into once downtown again are I’m sure 1 in something something thousand. (I was never very good at math.) But if it’s going to happen, it might be at another bookstore. And when another, smaller, Bible slips from a sleeve, you just might invite someone to a diner for a cup of coffee.

Not because this is your destiny, just because you are intrigued.

I was surprised Maggie said yes, actually. Her eyes narrowed and she accepted with the air of someone taking a dare. Maybe she thought I was an undercover security guard or something, I’m not sure.

She looked at me expectantly when we had settled ourselves into a booth.

“I was born in a McDonald’s,” I said solemnly.

She burst out laughing.

“I,” she said, “am Maggie.”

*

The McDonald’s thing is true; I was. But that’s a long and mostly pointless story, and I want to talk about Maggie.

I discovered that day in the diner that Maggie liked pancakes, and that she was a Presbyterian.

“I also enjoy watching seagulls swoop down and eat people’s ice cream cones,” she added as an afterthought, coffee spoon in mouth.

I chose not to ask about the shoplifting, feeling it would, at this point, be rude. Instead I talked about my various stints as a trampoline safety inspector, tie model, and spellchecker for a publisher that produced atlases. Maggie listened with the polite attentiveness of a really, really good flight attendant. It was one of the things I liked about her.

Although I was well aware that clumsy shoplifters with long red hair and elbow-length gloves tend to be a spontaneous bunch, I did tentatively inquire into her bookstore frequenting schedule. She vaguely suggested that I might be likely to bump into her on a Tuesday at St. Allen’s. Then I watched her pour some sugar from a packet into her empty coffee cup and hide the scrambled egg she had ordered but didn’t eat under what was left of her pancakes. We split the check.

*

Now it is time for a brief interlude.

Do you know what the most stolen book in America is?

It’s not On the Road or Steal This Book.

It’s the Bible.

(Which makes sense. How would you know the Bible commands you not to steal it unless you have already read the Bible? By the time you’ve stolen it and taken it home, it’s too late. The guilt must be crushing.)

*

We became friends, Maggie and I, the kind of bookstore chums who chomp pancakes and unfold little pieces of their lives to each other like a bad origami metaphor:

“I like monkeys, Muppet movies, and long walks in the rain.”

“I like Dorothy Sayers, the way Advil tastes, and long walks on the beach.”

One soggy day, Maggie told me the story of her father, the travelling salesman.

“There’s not much to tell,” she shrugged. “He was kind of bald. When I was little, I’d go on his trips with him in the summer.”

And thus began her personal contribution to keeping the Bible at its prestigious spot atop the most stolen list.

“Really, it could be a New Testament, if that’s all they had. But I prefer the whole thing.”

Hotel rooms, rectories with open windows, libraries—you name it.

“I have bookcases full,” she confessed shyly but proudly, stirring her coffee with a French fry.

(“I like it when it’s a little salty,” she would say to you, defensively, if she caught you looking at this action askance.)

*

One Wednesday afternoon as Maggie reached inconspicuously for a Bible in the Union Square Barnes & Noble I noticed a spot of blood on the palm of her white cotton glove. As I pointed it out, it spread.

“Oh damn,” she sighed.

She slipped a very small prayer book in her pocket instead and headed for the escalator.

“Are you okay?” I asked. A foolish question, perhaps, but the first that came to mind.

She looked at me searchingly but stayed silent until we’d reached the street.

“Let’s sit on a bench,” she said.

I complied with her suggestion, and she took off her glove. I suddenly remembered a “scary story” my mother used to tell on camping trips or at Halloween, about a woman who politely warns her husband not to ask too many questions about the ribbon that constantly encircles her neck. Driven mad by what always seemed to my prim childhood self to be unseemly curiosity, he one day decides he can take it no more and removes the aforementioned ribbon from his sleeping bride, thus promptly causing her head to fall off.

The moral of that story seems to be “I told you so.” There is no such moral here; Maggie merely revealed a gaping and bloody hole in the direct center of her palm.

“Stigmata,” she said matter-of-factly.

“But you’re a Protestant,” I blurted out.

Her eyes narrowed and she smiled tightly.

“You think only Catholics get the stigmata?” she asked, challenging my obvious narrow-mindedness by thrusting forward her chin in a vaguely menacing way.

“I don’t know why I said that,” I muttered.

It’s embarrassing when your Irish Catholic grandmother briefly possesses you.

“It’s just such a misconception. Oh look; it’s stopped.”

She pulled a fresh pair of gloves from her giant handbag and slid them on.

“Coffee?” I asked. “My treat.”

I hoped to make up for my earlier faux pas.

“Okay,” she said stonily.

We walked to a diner in silence.

“It started shortly after I stole my first Bible,” she relented as we slid into a booth.

She still wasn’t sure, she said, if it was a punishment or a reward.

“Maybe it’s neither,” I suggested hesitantly, sensing I was treading on delicate ground.

“If I didn’t believe in a higher power,” she retorted, “I wouldn’t shoplift. Plus, if this doesn’t come from God, that means I’d have to be doing this to myself. Subconsciously. Which is just weird.”

Her logic was always impeccable. I let it drop gracefully, instead switching to the more practical question of preferred bandage brands, at which she relaxed.

“You,” I said, “are a pretty intriguing person.”

“So are you,” she responded, “I really love the way you eat home fries one by one.”

*

Spring came early that year. We developed a shared interest in stained glass, and discovered a mutual affinity for banana splits.

Her hands continued to be bandaged and bloody sometimes, and sometimes she’d suddenly run into a religious supply store, a used book shop, or even the public library, and come out with a St. James version of the Good News. Occasionally, she set off an alarm and had to dash down the street. Watching her long hair streaming behind her as she fled was simply magical.

That September an illegibly scrawled postcard arrived from Iowa, where Maggie was born. Her brother (of whom she’d seldom spoken) had been unfortunately mangled in a tractor accident.

“I’m sorry you have to leave,” I said, imagining simultaneously both the gaping hole that would replace her in my life and the suspicious double-takes of TSA agents confronted with X-ray images of suitcase upon Bible-stacked suitcase.

Also, Iowa, which I envisioned as row after row of corn fields. Wouldn’t people get lost?

“I’m not afraid of Iowa,” she reassured me, touching my cheek for the first (and last) time.

“I’ll look you up next time I’m back in town,” she said.

*

I have not seen Maggie since. I get the sense that, for her, people drift in and out of one’s life like snowflakes or little pieces of plastic torn from the wrapper of a fresh new Bible.

I think of her though, when the sky is that November mud color, and she flashes through my mind whenever I get a paper cut or see a shoplifter.

And I smile.

Tara Roeder is an Associate Professor of Writing Studies in New York City. Her work has appeared or will appear in multiple venues including The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Monkeybicycle, Thrush Poetry Journal, Bombay Gin, and Cheap Pop. Her chapbook is forthcoming from dancing girl press.

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One Response to The Bible Thief

  1. One of the best stories I have read, lately. Wonderful narration, natural dialogue and interesting plot. Very authentic. 🙂

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