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Better thief 

My mother could have stolen my life, but she let me go

If my mother had been a better thief, I would not be here right now. Not that she wasn't skilled, mind you, she was. I'd even say she was better than Lary, who right now is the best klepto among anyone I know. But Lary relies on the obvious. For example, he will simply walk into the waiting room of an upscale plastic surgeon's office with a hand truck and take the leather couch right out from under the newly lipo-sucked asses of the patients there. "Move aside," he'd say. "Emergency couch removal." Nobody would stop him because such a blatant theft is outside their sphere of experience. In short, they'd believe him because believing him would be so much more comfortable than confronting him.

My mother, too, occasionally used that technique -- like once she stole all the patio furniture from the poolside of the condo complex where she used to reside by simply backing a borrowed truck up to the gate and loading up -- but she didn't rely on it. Her expertise was much more refined. She had great sleight of hand. She could steal from casinos, for chrissakes. I cannot overemphasize the skill factor there, the dexterity you'd need to steal stuff off the top of a casino blackjack table. With that talent, she could have performed her own show on one of Las Vegas' lesser stages, say the Hoe-Daddy room at downtown's Binion's Horseshoe, as opposed to the blow-ass, velvet-curtain faux Broadway number at the Venetian on the strip.

She took things from her office, too, and not just the industrial big blocks of Post-It Notes, but outdated classified documents detailing projects she had been working on. She gave them to me once so I could present them as my own when I applied for a job as a technical writer for a company in Zurich that made corrugated materials. I was not qualified to be a technical writer for a cardboard-box company, especially a German-speaking company, but here we were living in Switzerland because my mother had scored work designing missiles for the Swiss government, and she wasn't about to let a little thing like national security get in the way when I decided I wanted a job of my own. It wasn't America's national security, after all, just Switzerland's.

And besides, she was always talking about how none of the stuff she designed for them ever seemed to work properly. Take the time she traveled to a Sardinian testing facility to trial the missile-tracking device she helped design. The purpose of the weapon was to intercept enemy missiles and facilitate their destruction before they reached their target. It was a precursor to the Patriot missiles that are used in Iraq today, with the exception that her device didn't work.

"It just fell the hell over," she laughed afterward. "It fell right off its base and onto the goddam ground."

So she stole those documents for those weapons and tried to get me to pass them off as my own, because a place that makes cardboard boxes surely could use a technical writer astute enough to build her own bomb, right? "Hell, yes," she said, "get out there."

Because here's the thing: I was leaving and she knew it. I'd had enough of Switzerland and rich people and goddam fondue and humorlessness in general, which is how I viewed the country overall. I'd been there a year and a half, since I graduated from college, living there with my brilliant mother as she designed worthless weapons for a pussy-ass country known for its neutrality, and I was bored. I wanted my own job, I wanted to make my own damn way, and every Thursday, I'd scan the International Herald Tribune classifieds and find companies throughout Europe looking for people to fill positions I figured I could passably fake my way into pulling off.

Because, unlike my mother, I did not have a contract keeping me in Zurich, and she could see me standing there at the ready, with one foot in her world and the other poised over the goddam banana peel that would make up the rest of my life, and if she wanted to, she could have stolen that from me. She could have put her own foot down or gone ballistic or threatened all kinds of untold emotional tortures only mothers can administer when their children threaten to forge away from them, or she could have simply told me the truth about how seriously sick she really was, about how little life she herself had left, and it would have been so easy for her to steal mine from me.

But she didn't. She let me go. I left her in Zurich alone to finish her contract while I flew back to the States, where I proceeded over the next two decades to consistently fall on my ass until finally I ended up where I belong. It could have been different, believe me. Right now, I could be sitting here with a sack of broken dreams, a bitter bag of fears, wearing a badge on a lanyard around my neck, a technical writer, maybe, for a company that makes cardboard boxes. That's where I'd be if my mother had been a better thief.

Hollis Gillespie is the author of Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood (Harper Collins). She was recently named one of "Seven Breakout Authors of 2004" by Writer's Digest. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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