A Kind of Social Justice
They hold Dale’s retirement breakfast in the far corner of a ballroom on a Friday morning, forty-three people huddled together in a room meant for two thousand. That’s all right, he supposes, as is the gold watch and the handshakes and sentiments, but he’s happy to get out of there. When he does, he’s surprised at the lack of sentiment he has for Continental Works, his boss, coworkers, and the profession of civil engineering.
Mostly what he thinks about as he drives through this neighborhood is how closely his life has stayed on the little path he thought it would take. His retirement party after all is in the town where he went to college. On a whim, he drives up to the old neighborhood in Claremont where he rented a backhouse, he and his three roommates, one of them the only black person he knew in the entire city.
He parks in front of the place and can see into the yard. The mother-in-law house they used to rent is gone, replaced by a giant pool. Across the street there is an open house, and Dale goes in. He’s still wearing his suit and tie from the breakfast, and the woman who’s selling it gives him a quick look and smiles broadly. “Hi, you in the market for a home?”
“No,” Dale says without bothering to think about a lie. “I was in the neighborhood, and I was remembering a time when I broke into this place as a kid. I wanted to see if it had changed.”
Once it’s out of his mouth, Dale can hear how it sounds, wonders if he’s scared the poor woman, but she cocks her head, shifts her weight to her other leg, and laughs. “Well, I’ve never heard that one before. What, are you just getting out of prison today?”
“No, it wasn’t like that.” Dale smiles. “It was a dare in college. I used to live with a black guy named Stuart. I was trying to prove to him that it wasn’t any easier being white than it was being black.”
The real estate agent laughs again. She knows how to do it so it doesn’t feel fake the way he’d expect from someone trying to sell him a house. Maybe it is real, too. She leans against a doorjamb framing herself in front of a window onto the backyard. “Did you actually believe that?”
“Sure. I was young. There was a big party going on across the street, and he said he bet I could just walk on in, and no one would stop me, but they’d probably call the cops on him.”
“And they stopped him at the door.”
“And you?” She folds her arms.
Dale shrugs. “I walked right in. It was a wedding reception, and no one had any idea who I was. I just put on a tie, and no one thought to question me. When Stuart came in, they did everything but call the cops.”
“You’re like me.” She smiles at him. “You’ve had just one big indiscretion in life, right?”
“Yeah, but that’s not the end of the story. I got a drink at the open bar and a steak, and I knew that Stuart had been right. I sat there talking to the bride’s sister, who was feeling bad about her dress, and I realized that I could do pretty much anything I wanted in this house.”
“You mean to her?”
He shakes his head. “No, not like that.” He thinks a moment. “I guess maybe like that too. I mean if I wanted to. I realized that I walked around like I came from money, which I did, and that meant people looked at me differently.”
“So what did you do?”
Dale can feel himself blushing. He’s never admitted this part of the story to anyone in his life. “Well, I went into the bedroom where all the purses and jackets were, and I stole a couple hundred dollars out of a woman’s wallet.”
She covers her mouth with her hand. “Seriously?”
“I took Stuart on a road trip to Vegas and thought of it as a kind of social justice. The woman’s purse was made out of expensive leather, and it was on top of a fur coat.”
“So Stuart was right.”
“Yeah, he was. I could have made a career out of breaking into houses if I had wanted to. I was thinking that now that I’m old and look like I come from money, I could have an entire second career of crime.”
“Same holds true for me,” she says. “People trust women more than men, but the thing about crime is that you don’t make all that much money doing it.”
“Second careers aren’t about money really. They’re about new experiences.” He’s joking. Of course he is, but there’s something to what he’s saying. “So what was your one big indiscretion?”
She laughs and waves a hand at him and blushes, and he’s sure she’s not going to answer, but she says, “God, I slept with a married man.”
“I was nineteen, and he was a minister, and there was something really sexy about that.”
“Were you married?”
She shakes her head. “No. I never thought about the other woman.” She’s been smiling this whole time, but it weakens now, wavers. “Oh, God, I’ve been thinking about her lately.” She shakes her head and laughs a little to herself.
“And you’ve followed the rules ever since?”
“Sure,” she says. “I never break the rules anymore.”
“But you wish you had.”
She shrugs. “No. I wish everyone had. I wish that the world were full of rule followers, but that’s just not who we are. So I guess I might as well just break all the damn rules.”
“Do you want to get back at him a little maybe? Maybe with me?” Dale knows there must be a him, knows what this him must have done. Still, he can’t believe that he’s saying this, Dale Worth, retired civil engineer, coming up with lines like this.
She must be surprised too because she looks at him in a way that women haven’t in a long time. He must be exuding confidence. Maybe she has a bad boy thing. He hasn’t been a bad boy since the day he broke into that house, and come to think of it, he got laid in Vegas that weekend a couple of times.
Whatever the reason, when she leads Dale back to the bathroom, it doesn’t feel as if it’s about him, but what does that matter? It’s not about her either. It’s about that terrible breakfast commemorating the last forty-one years. It’s about what he might have been doing that whole time, what he’s missed out on in his windowless office.
They have sex on the edge of a bathroom counter quickly, roughly, ending before anyone else comes to the open house. When they’re done, they laugh together, not really because anything is funny. They just laugh. Her skirt is off but her blazer and blouse are still on, and that’s funny to him now that he notices it. He laughs once more.
The bathroom seems to be a world to itself where the rest of society doesn’t exist and rules don’t apply. Inside, they are friendly partners, and she keeps her palm resting on his chest. When they leave, she turns into the aloof saleswoman, which is almost certainly the mask she wears for the world.
“So,” she says, straightening her skirt, “I don’t suppose there’s any chance that you’re actually interested in buying a house in Claremont?”
“No.” He shakes his head.
“Well then. Maybe in the future.” She offers him a card that he takes and reads. Her name is Shirley.
This is the problem with crime, dangerous sex, theft, or whatever. The profits are never good unless someone really knows what he’s doing. Dale tosses the card on the front stoop as soon as he closes the door, and he thinks about Stuart. At some point thirty-five years ago or so, they lost touch. By then, Stuart was an accountant who had moved to downtown Los Angeles. He wonders what happened to him in the riots of 1992. He wonders if life has gotten any easier for him, and if he has a family, and if he is rich.
Maybe he’ll call him when he has time. Maybe he’ll look up Shirley too. Probably not. His wife is waiting for him with a little retirement party with his family. The kids. The grandkids.
For now, he has to get home.
John Brantingham is the author of seven books of poetry and fiction and is the editor of the LA Fiction Anthology. His work has appeared in publications such as The Best Small Fictions, Writer’s Almanac, and The Journal. He teaches composition and creative writing at Mt. San Antonio College and in a program that is free to the public in Sequoia and Kings Canyon.