Returning stolen talismans and shifting the blame

Oh, hell, I guess I have to return the Tiki glasses I stole from Trader Vic's two years ago now that I hear the damn things are cursed. The glasses are not even the nice kind, either, like the ceramic totem poles they have there or the coconut-carved monkey heads. They are just regular tumblers with a Polynesian pattern and I did not even mean to hardly steal them in the first place. I was just acting as a mule for another person whose purse wasn't big enough. But I guess we forgot about them by the time we got to our cars and now here they are in my cupboard, cursing me.

"That's right," says Craig. "It's like that 'Brady Bunch' episode," he adds, referring to the one when they all went to Hawaii and Bobby found that little Tiki god and then later got attacked by a tarantula. "My friend took a glass from Trader Vic's and her life has been hell ever since," Craig nods at me, his eyebrows raised in subtle warning. "I'm not saying, but I'm just saying."

Craig is a scientist, and you can find him hanging out at the Local almost every night. When he isn't assessing the sweat pattern on the front of the bartender's T-shirt ("Tonight, you'll notice, is the moose-head variation") he likes to strike panic into the hearts of hapless kleptos everywhere, evidently, with all this talk about curses. I could not even get him to be specific about what happened to his friend, which is even more maddening because, of course, I'm imagining her all covered in boils right now.

And I don't even believe in the power of curses, I just believe in the power of belief, and a curse does not even have to be real for your belief to make it so. Take the Petrified Forest in Arizona, which I visited as a child. It's really hard not to notice the curse, which supposedly afflicts anyone who swipes a piece of the wood, because the park museum has a huge glass-encased display of letters from people, testimonials about how their lives took a total toilet spin since they stole the pieces. One lady even sent hers back after having them carved into ornamental book ends, another man had swiped his in 1924 and blamed the wood for the long waiting list at his retirement home. Then there are the really awful letters: dead husbands, sons diagnosed with leukemia, limbs lost and love, too. A lot of love was lost.

I was 14-years-old and I wore a pair of cutoff denim shorts that were so threadbare, the entire ass end was held together with a montage of fabric patches and embroidery thread. The shorts were so short that the tips of the front pocket pouches hung lower than the frayed hem of the legs, especially considering they were weighted down with all those pieces of petrified wood because, yes, up until then, I'd been shoving the stuff into my pockets like a hobo at a wedding buffet.

The scientific part of me, which I liked to think was big because my mother was a missile scientist, dismissed it as the paranoid blatherings of a bunch of guilt-ridden bovines. Then there was the other part of me that doesn't believe in curses but believes in belief, and I could see how I could curse myself. I really could.

Take the time when I was 7 and my parents came home from the Thin Lizzy tavern all full of plans to take us camping. They woke me up alone to tell me the exciting secret they had planned for the whole family, even though none of us had ever been camping before, not actual camping with a tent and everything. The closest we ever got was a motel room with a hot plate plugged into the bathroom wall socket. That was when we'd moved from Pacific Grove to Costa Mesa, and we'd been living in Costa Mesa now for longer then we'd ever lived anywhere, and here my parents were making plans to go camping with other parents like we were normal.

I swore I wouldn't tell my sisters because it was a big surprise, but it took me about two seconds to shake them awake after my parents had passed out to tell them the news, and we lived like that for goddam ever, all excited about our upcoming camping trip on a day that just never seemed to goddam get here.

Instead, the day came when we moved again, all the way to Florida, and I always blamed myself for the failed camping trip because I'd broken my oath not to tell. I'd cursed myself and everyone around me by crossing some kind of cosmic line, I guess. That's all curses are, really, a way we can blame ourselves for awful crap we can't help.

I knew this back when I had my pockets full of petrified wood, but still I put it all back. I know that now with those Tiki glasses in my cupboard mocking me like evil talismans, but I will take them back, too. I'm just tired, is all, of blaming myself for awful crap I can't help. It's time to lift the curse.

Hollis Gillespie is the author of Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood (Harper Collins). Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered." To hear the latest, go to Moodswing at


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