, November 2023

In the toy aisle of the Genovese drug store, Carl removed the unopened Return of the Jedi “Emperor’s Royal Guard” action figure manufactured by the Kenner toy company from the hook and held it closer, inspecting the red-frocked figure’s very cool helmet with black visor and force pike accessory. He wasn’t that into Star Wars, but even he’d seen the latest installment in the theater three times over the summer, and these guys, and also Boba Fett, were the coolest.

“Hey, New Kid,” said a voice behind him.

Carl turned and saw Zack, a.k.a. “Zaxxon”, the scary kid from his fifth-grade class at his new school, wearing an Ozzy Osbourne Diary of a Madman t-shirt with the sleeves torn off.

“Hey, Zaxxon,” Carl said.

“Still playing with toys?”

“Uh, no. My little brother is into this stuff.”

“Yeah, right. Hey, why don’t you steal it for him? Oh, yeah, you don’t have the balls. See ya, New Kid.”

He turned and left before Carl could come up with a response that didn’t sound wuss-like. Alone in the aisle, he imagined how impressed Zaxxon would be if he saw the red figure standing on his desk the next day, and how it might earn him enough respect to be left alone. He didn’t have any money on him, and though he had some at home, that was a mile-and-a-half away, which, even though he was a fast bike rider, wouldn’t give him enough time to get home and back and home again before dinner. If he asked his mother to drive him, she would likely tell him to wait until the weekend when she wouldn’t have to load all three kids into the car when it was time to start preparing dinner.

He turned the package over and pretended to be looking at the images of other Return of the Jedi action figures available from Kenner, while, on the other side, he began peeling the plastic shell from the cardboard backing, just enough to remove figure and force pike, which he then slipped down his shorts inside his tightie-whities.

The plastic shell was still attached to the cardboard. He removed the remaining three Emperor’s Royal Guard packages from the hook and put the empty one back, then put the others in front of it. Satisfied it would be days or weeks before anyone noticed, he headed towards the front of the store.

The cashiers paid him no mind as he glided through one of the closed lanes. This seemed too easy.

Then, in the glass-enclosed vestibule where the gumball machines were, a slick, darkhaired man with hockey stick sideburns hurrying out of the store through the “IN” door nearly knocked over an elderly woman, to whom he hastily apologized and kept going. Carl noticed the rude man, but, in his reverie of red figure and force pike on his desk the next day for Zaxxon to see, he didn’t pay him much mind and continued floating towards the golden afternoon sunlight, which seemed a little brighter than it had since his family moved to this place.

The noisy automatic door opened slowly before him. Just as he stepped over the threshold onto the sidewalk, his progress was halted by a strong hand clamping his upper arm.

“You’re coming with me, thief,” said the man who’d nearly knocked over the elderly woman.

“Help!” Carl called out as the man pulled him towards the “IN” door.

“That ain’t gonna work, chico,” he said, shoving him into the vestibule while the automatic door was still opening.

The man, styled in button-down shirt with wide lapels, brown bellbottom slacks, brown leather boots, and ankle holster with loaded Glock, was strong and pulled Carl towards the back of the store, to a door with an “EMPLOYEES ONLY” sign on it. The man used one of the keys from the janitor’s keyring on his belt loop to open the door, then shoved Carl into a short corridor leading to a small, wood-paneled room that smelled of cigarette smoke.

There were two desks, behind one of which sat a younger man dressed in similar fashion as Carl’s captor and a nameplate on his desk with the Genovese logo and “DEPUTY SECURITY GUARD”. The vacant desk had the same nameplate except it said “CHIEF SECURITY GUARD”. On the wall behind the Chief’s desk were numerous framed photographs of the cast of the recently cancelled ABC sitcom Barney Miller.

“Lean forward, palms on the desk,” the Chief ordered Carl.

“Well, what do we have here?” asked the Deputy, chewing on a toothpick, as the Chief began patting Carl down.

“Another dumb, stupid thief coming into my store thinking he can just steal my merchandise. The stupidity! What is this world coming to? Yesterday we caught an eighty-year-old lady trying to steal a hundred dollars’ worth of sunglasses. And, today, who else but our old friend Zaxxon himself walks into my store—”

“You know Zaxxon?” Carl asked, starting to feel confident that the Royal Guard in his briefs would not be found.

“Of course,” the Chief answered. “Every security guard in Massapequa knows Zaxxon. Now, reach down your pants and pull out that toy so that I won’t have to.”

Carl slowly reached into his shorts and pulled out the Royal Guard, then handed it to the Chief.

“Ah, look at this,” the Chief said, inspecting the figure, moving its arm. “Cool pike, man. Is this guy from a superhero TV show or something?”

Return of the Jedi,” Carl explained.

Return of the Jedi? Is that a Saturday morning cartoon?”

“You never heard of Star Wars?”

Star Wars? Is that the show where famous Hollywood actors climb walls and play tug-of-war?”

“You’re thinking of Battle of the Network Stars,” the Deputy explained. “I think he’s referring to a Bruce Lee movie.”

“No,” Carl said, “it’s a movie that takes place in outer space, in a galaxy far, far away. The guy who plays Indiana Jones is in it.”

“Who the hell is Indiana Jones?” the Chief asked.

“You never heard of Raiders of the Lost Ark?”

“Alright, enough of this, chico, until we figure out what to do about this situation. Do you have any idea what the Genovese family used to do to thieves who stole from them?”

Carl shook his head.

“They would cut off a guy’s finger for each time he stole, and then they would make him watch when the dog came in and ate it. I don’t even want to mention what they would cut off next after they ran out of fingers.”

“Should I call his parents?” the Deputy asked.

“Yeah, sure, why not. I’m sure they will love to hear that their son is a thief. What is your phone number, chico?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know? Even the dumbest kindergartner knows his own phone number! Do you think I’m a fucking moron or something? If you are going to play games with me, chico, I will simply call the police instead, and you will be their problem.”

“We just moved here and I don’t have it memorized yet. It’s 541 something something. Call the operator, we just had the phone hooked up under my stepfather’s name.”

The Deputy got the number from the operator, then made the call. His mother answered and Carl heard her exclamation after the Deputy explained that he’d been caught shoplifting and that her son was a thief.

After the call, the Chief lined him up against the mugshot wall and took a photo with a Polaroid instant camera.

“This photo,” he said as Carl’s image began to appear, “will be sent to corporate headquarters and added to the mug book that gets sent to all 77 of the other Genovese drug stores in the Tri-State Area. Every security officer in every store will know your face, so don’t even think about going into any one of them or else you will be taken into custody and arrested for criminal trespassing, and your parents will have to hire a lawyer, and lawyers are very expensive.”

His mother was there six minutes later, leaving her two youngest children locked in the Buick with the windows rolled up, the cabin fogged with cigarette smoke.

“Your son will be banned from this and every other Genovese drug store for the rest of his natural life,” the Chief explained to her.

“The rest of his life?” she asked, trying to light a cigarette, until the Chief coolly produced a Zippo lighter and lit it for her.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Your son is a thief, and the Genovese family doesn’t like thieves.”

“Well, what if I have to run in for something quick like Tylenol or cigarettes? Can he come in if he’s with me?”

“No, ma’am. If he comes into the store, he will be trespassing and we will call the police. You are still welcome to come here, but we’ll be watching you closely also because your son is a thief.”

She had to sign some papers acknowledging his banishment from all Genovese drug stores, and then they finally released him.

“Bye, bye, thief,” the Chief said behind them, “and don’t come back.”

Facing the punishment of his life, Carl followed his mother out of the store and across the parking lot to the car. His brother and sister said nothing as he climbed in, both looking frightened at seeing their big brother, the criminal.

Carl was expecting an eruption from his mother, but instead she spoke in a low, deep tone he’d never heard.

“I’m glad your grandfather isn’t around to see this,” she said, referring to her own father, a decorated Nassau County cop who’d passed away two years earlier. “His own grandson… my own son… a thief!”

She burst into tears as she started the car. Her brother and sister started crying too.

His punishment was no TV and no Atari for a month.

The next day at school, Zaxxon was absent, which wasn’t unusual. He was absent for the next two days and didn’t return until the following week, having by then forgotten their brief encounter at Genovese and distracted with his harassment of another classmate, so Carl, not wanting to attract any further unnecessary attention from the scary kid, never said anything.

At some point Zaxxon stopped showing up for school entirely and was never seen again. Nobody knew what happened to him, the most common rumor being that he went crazy and broke all the windows in his house, prompting his parents to send him somewhere far, far away.

Six years later, now a junior in high school, Carl returned to the scene of the crime. He went straight to the toy aisle and pretended to be looking at the crappy merchandise, ready, waiting for anyone to dare lay a hand on him. Who the fuck did that security guard think he was? Zaxxon was a faded memory, but the itch to get back at the Chief and his Deputy for the way they treated him had never gone away, and he was big and strong now and had become a decent fighter over the years.

Trying to look conspicuous, he waited ten minutes, but nobody came. He picked up one of the Star Wars action figures, Boba Fett, and looked towards the big mirrors at the back of the store that the security guards used to watch the floor, then slid his fingers beneath the plastic shell, allowing toy and weapon accessory to drop to the mess of fallen toys below, which was the case in many of the aisles, the store in a state of rack and ruin compared to the gleaming fluorescence and neatly stocked shelves he remembered. He dropped the empty package on the floor and, facing the mirrors, stuffed his fist into his front jeans pocket as if the toy were still in hand, then turned and headed towards the front of the store, heart racing, fists clenched, alert for the slightest sign of unusual movement, past the old lady at the cash register who smiled at him as he went by, and into the vestibule, but the man with the hockey stick sideburns did not appear and no one else tried to stop him. ▪