No longer suburban, Bruce Bentzman offers the latest piece in his new series:

From the Night Factory

28. A Burglary at Harper’s Crossing

We have had an infestation of fruit flies, these annoying little specks with bright orange eyes. It was because Ms Keogh, my more significant other, did not like discarding organic kitchen waste in the trash. She regarded it deplorable to not recycle. She wanted it returned to nature. To achieve this, she was storing it in a bucket under the sink. Every once in a while, when the bucket became filled or the smell unbearable, she would walk it over to the edge of the development, where the lawn ends and the woods begins, and there toss it into the trees.
This summer, because of the fruit flies, I asked her to stop collecting organic waste in the bucket. She didn’t. We made traps for the fruit flies, with mixed results. At last she agreed to keep the organic waste in the refrigerator until she was ready to discard it, but the last bucketful of rotting vegetable matter remained under the sink. As she was going out the door to do some errands, I asked her to take the bucket and dump the contents. But she had appointments to keep and said, “Are you paralyzed? If it bothers you that much, you dump it.” That was on the 19th August, 2:40pm, she rushed from the apartment to pick up our youngest grandson from daycare.

I was in a huff, having had the task left to me. Slipping on loafers, not bothering with socks, I first went to the mailbox, not ten feet from the door, to fetch that day’s mail. I separated the junk from the bills and from the personal letters. The junk mail I tossed, the bills went on the mandarin desk in the bedroom, and the letters for me went onto the desk in my study. There were two letters, and a thick package which I guessed (correctly) to be a travelling journal that has for several years been voyaging back and forth between a half dozen friends. We each wrote contributions each time it passed through our hands. I didn’t open my personal mail, deciding it would be a treat when I had returned from emptying the bucket.

I grabbed the bucket from under the sink, launching a cloud of fruit flies. A seemingly equal number stayed in the bucket deciding to go for the ride. Still in a huff, I rushed out the door not locking it. I am one of those compulsive people who have reinforced habits that are difficult to abandon and one of them is locking the door behind me. It is automatic. Even when I step out for a short time, such as the time it takes to retrieve something from the car. Still, it was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday with neighbors about, I did not expect to be gone five minutes, and, as I said, I was in a huff. I left the apartment, door unlocked, sometime after 2:45.

I rushed around the side of the building, across the parking lot and lawn, to where the property dropped precipitously into the woods. How long does it take to cover 175 feet? I tossed the contents of the bucket into the trees.

The bucket still bore debris and a smell. I turned and crossed the parking lot to a small area that had been set aside for residents to wash their cars, 185 feet. I could see my apartment from this location. The hose did not work for me. It was probably about this time that the burglar or burglars entered my apartment.

I headed back to my apartment, a beautiful day of blue skies and a few delicate clouds. It was just a straight line, 180 feet, back to my apartment. Had I returned, I probably would have caught the burglar or burglars in the act, but I stood in front of my building considering going to the other hose. That is when I heard the sounds of passion, of a woman reaching climax, coming from one of the other apartments in my building – afternoon delight! I laughed, happy for her, but also embarrassed for her that she didn’t think to close her windows and turn on the air conditioner. However, it put me in a good mood. I was no longer in a huff. Instead of returning to my apartment, I made my way up the hill – well, a slight incline - to the other hose, 535 feet away.

At the other hose, I thoroughly washed the bucket and soaked my pants at the same time. When finished, I turned to face my apartment at the bottom of the inclined parking lot and made my way back. By this time the burglar or burglars decided they had had enough. As I made my way back, I noted the car going the other direction, the same model Ms Keogh drives, but this one had an empty license bracket on the front bumper. In Pennsylvania, there is no license plate on the front of cars, only the back. I was back in my apartment by 3:00.

There was strangeness. The letters on my desk in the study were missing. The drawers in my desk had been improperly closed. I could tell because, as I said, I am compulsive. I close drawers flush. I know when Ms Keogh goes through my things and what she has taken and returned to the wrong place, or merely the wrong orientation. Still, I did not suspect anything as extreme as theft; rather, I succumbed to disbelief. It was not until I reached the bedroom and noticed that our laptop was missing, a bright blue Sony VAIO (model VPCEB3BFX) with 15.5” LED backlit display and Blu-ray player. I searched all the other places in the apartment it might have been and, when I couldn’t find it, I called Ms Keogh.

She did not have it, yet she refused to believe it was stolen, merely that it was misplaced. She, too, was succumbing to disbelief. She didn’t want me calling the police and wasting their time just because I couldn’t find it. But I had also noticed the pillow on the living room settee had been pulled forward in my absence. Someone had looked behind it for – what? Back in my study, I noticed the other drawers in a small side table had not been closed all the way and a box on the floor of my calling cards had the lid part way off. I called the police. It was about 3:10, at which time the burglar or burglars had reached the nearest CVS pharmacy and were using Ms Keogh’s credit card. Ms Keogh had left her card on the mandarin desk. The thief began purchasing gift cards.

I waited for the police, trying not to touch anything further. The burglar or burglars, meanwhile, drove to the Giant Supermarket in Morrisville and bought more gift cards at 3:33, the Rite Aid Pharmacy in Yardley at 3:46, another Giant Supermarket in Yardley at 4:06, and yet another Giant Supermarket in Newtown at 4:32, until finally, having made a great circle, the burglar was trying to buy gas with the card at an Exxon in Langhorne. By this time the bank’s algorithms kicked in and the card was flagged, then declined. PNC Bank, bless them, had stopped the card after the burglar or burglars spent $900, for which PNC assured us we would not be held responsible.

PNC provided us with all the times and places, which we forwarded to the detective investigating our case. I also decided to follow in the track of the burglar or burglars, checking the trash receptacles at every location they visited for my precious letters and, more importantly, the journal. Why did they steal my mail? The burglar or burglars must have thought it was my birthday, that I had been receiving gifts and checks. Surely, after they opened the envelopes and realized they were of no value to thieves, they would have discarded them.

And here I must include a tangential story. In the trash at the Rite Aid in Yardley, I found three envelopes that were not mine. It appeared that someone had paid bills and thinking they were mailing them, inadvertently tossed them into the blue recycle bin mistaking it for the blue mailbox that was only a few feet further. I picked them out, noted the return address, mailed them correctly, and called Mr N of Yardley to reveal the error. Mr N, who sounded like a dear man, 92-years-old, was thoroughly astonished and grateful. So was I. I felt I had been afforded the chance to restore some goodness into the world, countering the damage caused by the shithead burglar or burglars, but I never found my mail.

It is nice to think that Ms Keogh and I can afford a “luxury” apartment after spoiling thirty years of my life at an unsatisfying career with AT&T. It is a luxury to have my own room to serve as a study in which to write and not disturb Ms Keogh with my late hours. It is also a luxury to have two separate bathrooms, one next to the study for when we have guests and the other attached to the master bedroom. There is the additional luxury of having in the apartment our own washer and dryer. The truth is, we can barely afford to live here, are managing it by the skin of our teeth and at times an uncomfortable amount of frugality. The burglar or burglars who took my laptop do not know or care that we cannot afford to replace it. We cannot even afford to claim it on our insurance, because we keep a steep deductible and don’t want our rates to climb. How much more pain and damage the burglar or burglars might have accomplished had there been more time or they had more help? The rich steal from the poor and the poor steal from the poor. Why? Because the poor are such easy targets. I should be grateful we’re not very poor.

The theft had poisoned me. Without sufficient justification, it made me suspicious of neighbors. In my account, I included the loud woman finding pleasure – was it a signal to her accomplice that I was returning to my apartment? – and the passing car – was it the thief departing? - as if they were somehow woven into my burglary. They were not. The parasites, whoever they really are, had made me paranoid. I obsessed about which of my neighbors could be the undetected burglar or burglars. It was terrible of me to think ill of so many good and innocent people. I gave an account of the burglary to some of my neighbors and it was spreading that poison, contaminating the community with more distrust. They told me how comfortable they had felt previous to my tale, not worried to step out briefly without locking their doors, yet my story changed their minds. The contamination rippled out reducing the quality of life in our community.

I had other thoughts. When I enter someone’s home for the first time, I notice the art on the walls. I evaluate their tastes and use that information to compare to my own, seeking common ground. I scan the books that fill their shelves to appreciate their interests and feel awkward in a home without books. What did the burglar or burglars make of us? They saw the things a guest would see of our lives. What opinion did they form viewing the artwork on the walls and the books on the shelves? Of course, the burglar or burglars had no time to study their victims’ lives and thoughts. They must have focused on evaluating what could be easily and quickly converted to money, and certainly giving no thought to the consequences of making our lives harder and sadder. The contemptible burglar or burglars must have been disappointed discovering our lack of valuables, or would they have considered the laptop and credit card a good haul?

There have been three burglaries in about a month’s time here at Harper’s Crossing. Ours was the second. Do we assume they were all perpetrated by the same burglar or burglars? I doubt I will ever get back my laptop. Anyway, its restitution is less important to me than seeing the burglar or burglars stopped, so I and my neighbors can have peace of mind. That actually seems a likelihood. The detective sent us photographs of the blonde who used Ms Keogh’s card.

the perp

She was photographed everywhere she used it. In some places, even her car was photographed. The great relief is seeing she was not one of our neighbors, did not live in our development. And one reason I can be grateful for the burglary is for it giving me something to write about. Had it not happened, you, poor reader, would have been reading about my root canal.

Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you. 

Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.