Retirement isn’t for sissies. I got tired of my supposedly good life after three weeks, depressed after two months, angry and fatter by six months, and disgusted and perpetually ornery by my one-year anniversary. (Yes, I said ornery, not horny. That’s a different story.)
After breakfast I’d start looking out the window for the mailman; he comes around three in the afternoon. Who gets any real mail these days anyway?
Don’t get me started on daytime TV. Friends don’t let friends watch daytime TV. It’s assisted suicide with a remote. Fox News hosts display the intelligence of confused chimpanzees. (That may be unfair; I like chimps). Cheating doctors on Days of Our Lives sneak off with bazoomba-chested nurses to some love nest although—surprise, surprise—they eventually get found out. ESPN highlights basketball games played before LeBron James was born. When I found myself arguing, out loud, with Curt Gowdy—who’s been dead a decade—about the best NBA players of the ’90s, I knew I had a problem.
I needed a hobby. Something that would get me out of bed in the morning and keep me awake through the afternoon snoozefest. Something that would get the old noggin revved in some gear other than reverse. Something to get me outside, enjoying fresh air and lubricating joints that sound like a bowl of Rice Krispies when I get up. Something none of the geezers who scoot around in little carts to smack a dimpled white ball would even consider.
I decided to steal packages. From porches. Maybe yours.
Stealing packages isn’t for sissies either. To do it right—and I did—it takes cunning and planning and courage. A generous dash of foolishness helps too.
I eventually got it down to a science. For starters, I never stole from my close neighbors. They’re friends. They’re folks who’ll lend you their lawn mower if yours is kaput. They’re neighbors who asked me and my wife, Dolly, back when she was alive, to babysit their rugrats when they were jonesing for a night out (or for a night in, if you get my drift). Stealing from them would be terrible, I figured, plus I’d more likely get caught. Instead, I hit neighborhoods a short drive away.
I didn’t use my regular truck. I bought a dinged-up white van that’s about as cool looking as an old man’s underwear. Scored it for a thousand bucks off a failed house painter. (He drank, tended to paint outside the lines.) I paid cash for one of those magnetic signs you can just stick on the side of your vehicle. My first one read WH Plumbers. (I told the sign guy WH were my initials, but really WH stands for White House as in White House Plumbers, the name Tricky Dick Nixon’s special break-in unit gave themselves.)
I stayed busy. After only four weeks, I’d scored my fortieth package! Number forty came from a neighborhood where I’d grabbed a dozen or so packages a few weeks earlier, then eased off, let it, you know, cool off. I figured people would lower their guards again (they did), and I snatched number forty, an Amazon package, one afternoon before school let out. That’s often a good time.
It paid to case an area first. Most of the homes in the choicest neighborhoods suffer from that modern curse—the two-earner household—and it didn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out which ones those were. If I saw a package on the porch at ten in the morning and it was still there when I looped back around in the afternoon, I was pretty damn certain nobody was home. Those made my hit list. I noted the addresses and took pictures. Back home I zoomed in to spot the ones with whizbang doorbells that take videos of visitors. I scratched those off my list.
Fortunately, with my gray hair and skin the color of Ivory soap, I didn’t look “scary” when I cruised a neighborhood on a snatch day. If I spotted a package at a house on my safe list, I pulled up in front, left the engine idling, walked over briskly, grabbed the package, walked back to the van as smooth as good bourbon, and just drove away.
One more thing. At the last moment before I exited the van, I pulled on a mask. Sometimes I’d wear a hoodie and a surgical mask, but I own a bunch of other masks too. Donald Trump. The Joker. Yoda. Gandalf. Even a vintage Hilary Clinton. Others too.
About half the time, I added a limp, like I had some old war wound, in case I got recorded on some video. Back in my early twenties, I took a break from college after a DUI and headed to Los Angeles, planning to follow in John Wayne’s footsteps and star in westerns, or at the least land some gig on a TV show. My biggest role was as an extra getting shot in the leg in an episode of Police Squad. That’s where I perfected my limp.
I didn’t care what was in the packages. Never opened one. My goal was a hundred packages, figure out what to do with them, and then find a new hobby. But I ran smack dab into a problem.
The problem has a name. Mark. He’s twelve. He’s my grandson.
Grandpa’s cool. I wouldn’t swap Grandpa George for any other grandpa or any other George. Not George Clooney. Not George R. R. Martin. Not even George Lucas, although how cool would that be! When Mom said I needed to start staying at his house after school, I complained, but that was because I hoped to get something out of whining. Wrong.
I started riding the half mile to his house on my bike. When I suggested keeping my bike in the garage, he told me to lock my bike to the railing at the back door. Said stay out of the garage. Said it had been his private getaway for years. Which sure seemed weird because, with Grandma gone, the whole house can be whatever he wants. But he was for sure serious. He even locked the door into the garage from the kitchen with a deadbolt requiring a key.
For the first few days, Grandpa seemed seriously frustrated I was there. He kept looking at his watch like he had to be somewhere. So I asked. He said, “No, I’m retired, I don’t need to be anywhere.”
I sorta wondered if Grandpa George was having a hard time after Grandma died last year. They were close. Really liked each other. Did a lot of things together. Travel, going to baseball games, bridge partners, church socials, just everything. She was funny and smart too. Like Grandpa. They came to my soccer games and taught me how to play hearts, chess, a whole lot of stuff. They helped Mom buy a house after her divorce from my dad.
I asked Grandpa if he missed Grandma, and he gave me a look like I’d failed kindergarten or forgotten how to tie my own shoelaces.
After a few days, we settled into a routine. He said if I got half my homework done, we could watch a movie or do fun shit. He didn’t say shit; he said stuff because he never cusses, at least not in front of me. His favorites movies were old shoot-em-up westerns and, like, ancient World War Two movies. I swear he must have John Wayne’s mug tattooed on his butt. (Yuck. Now I’ve got that image stuck in my head.)
After a few weeks, we both got bored and restless. (I think it’s genetic.) He asked me if I wanted to learn to play guitar, and I was like, hell yeah, only I didn’t say hell. I didn’t even know he could play. Turns out he’s good. He said he was in a band in high school called The Misfits. Said Grandma didn’t like him playing for others, but he played for her at times. Go figure.
He bought me my own guitar, said a decent guitar is important even for a rookie. He gave me lessons, and we watched cool guitar training videos on his computer. But after a couple of weeks, he started looking at his watch like he had a date or something; he’d stop if he saw me watching. Every now and then, I’d notice him glancing over at the door into the garage.
What was in the garage needing locking? I needed to find out.
Nap time was my opportunity. Like most things in Grandpa’s life, naps weren’t scheduled events, but they happened like clockwork around four. He’d just drift off to sleep in his big old chair while we watched some movie he knew all the lines to. Naps kinda make up for pretending to sleep at night, he said. I get naps. I’d sleep through every English class if I could. Mrs. Doherty, the teacher, should audition for a part on The Walking Dead. She should’ve retired twenty years ago, back when she was only ninety-five.
Anyway, one day Grandpa fell asleep in the middle of some John Wayne movie. Red River, I think. I snuck over and opened the kitchen drawer where I knew he stashed his keys. Sure enough, a separate key ring held one labeled Schlage, the name on the lock. I tested it. It fit. Then Grandpa started to snort, and I quickly put it back. Maybe tomorrow, I thought.
OFFICER LIZ WRIGHT
At the station, we were getting a boatload of irate calls about stolen packages. But we couldn’t find a pattern. Almost every neighborhood in the zip code had been hit. We doubled our patrols. We went door-to-door asking if anyone had seen suspicious persons or vehicles. For weeks we got zip. Nada.
Our first break came when a resident’s security camera picked up someone stealing a package. The video quality was terrible, but it looked like a man with a limp carrying a toolbox. Like I said, the video sucked, but he looked a lot like George W. Bush.
We beefed up patrols in that area. Then another neighborhood started to heat up, so we shifted resources to it. At one house, a couple of teens ditching school—they smelled like they had part-time jobs at a pot farm—said they saw a white van driven by Yoda. But when they started giggling, I just wrote it off.
One Sunday I really lucked out! Inside intelligence! A cop lady who goes to my church—I’ll just call her “Nancy”—told me over donuts after church that she was working on what her squad called The Porch Thief Affair. She said they were beefing up patrols the next week over at a certain neighborhood that will remain unnamed. (She’s a good person. Back when Dolly passed, she stopped by my house and dropped off a really fine cherry pie.)
Damn, I thought, I’m famous! I’ve singlehandedly launched The Porch Thief Affair. That made me smile and, I admit, sweat a bit. I wondered, is there a movie deal in this?
With Mark hanging around in the afternoons, I shifted to late mornings to make my snatches. I had already scouted a new neighborhood—virgin territory. I figured I’d hit it real hard for a day and see if I could break my one-day record. I gave myself three hours—eleven until two. It was a Tuesday, always good for porch deliveries. I switched to my newest magnetic sign—G. Liddy: Locksmith. I was on a roll with the Nixon thing.
It went well except for a new problem, although I didn’t know about it right away. Yeah, the problem had the same name. Mark.
I got out early that Tuesday. I wasn’t feeling well. Not tossing-cookies sick, but I wasn’t faking it. The school called my mom, and she told them it was okay for me to ride my bike to Grandpa’s. Only Grandpa George wasn’t there. I knew where the backdoor key was hidden and let myself in. This was my chance to use the Schlage key in the drawer, see what was so secret!
After I unlocked the door into the garage, I flipped on the lights. His Ford pickup was there, but some grease on the floor looked like another vehicle had been parked next to it. Huh? I didn’t think Grandpa had another vehicle.
Then I saw it. Or, I should say, them. Against the far wall, underneath a shelf of old paint cans, was a nice neat stack of packages. A lot of them.
At first, I thought Grandpa had, you know, lost his marbles and started ordering a bunch of shit he didn’t need and never opened the packages. For a moment, I thought, hey, maybe those are for my birthday next month. So, of course, I had to check them out.
Holy crap! All the packages were addressed to other people, like, from neighborhoods all around us. One of them from Amazon was addressed to my best bud, Trevor, and I’m like, is this the latest Call of Duty video game he said was stolen from his porch?
Over in a corner of the garage I found four signs, the kind they stick on trucks. WH Plumbing. Capitol Carpet Cleaners. Cover Up Painters. Watergate Window Washers. Weird. None of it made shit for sense.
I snooped around for maybe fifteen minutes when I realized Grandpa could return any moment, open the garage door, and I’d be standing there like a low-life criminal caught in the act. Only, who was the criminal?
I grabbed the package addressed to Trevor, figuring grandpa wouldn’t miss a small one, put it in my backpack, and left. I headed over to the park across from his house to hang out. I had some thinking to do.
Later, I went back to Grandpa’s at my regular time, around three. He was home by then and in a super good mood.
OFFICER LIZ WRIGHT
A bunch of packages were stolen from a neighborhood where we hadn’t had a problem. The captain was foaming at the mouth because a package was stolen from his daughter’s home and another from the sister of the mayor. Said the citizens thought we were doing jackshit, sitting on our butts eating donuts. Said he expected us to stop whatever gang was pulling off this shit, embarrassing us all.
We started going door-to-door again. Maybe that van was the real deal because we got multiple reports of a white van with a sign of some sort on the driver’s door. But none of the tips matched up. One person said a woman got out of the van; another claimed it was an old guy with a long beard.
Jeezus. Were we supposed to stop every white van we saw? Maybe it would come to that.
What a great haul! Eleven packages! Beat my one-day record by three. Tired me out, though. Later that evening after Mark left, when I went to add them to the stack, something looked out of place. I counted my old stash and only had thirty-nine packages. One was missing. I had no clue which one or how it disappeared.
Was it Mark?
I hardly slept that night. But I figured out what I needed to do. Return the stolen goods.
The next morning, I ditched school. I called in pretending to be my mom. (My voice was still high enough to pull it off. Sad.) I also called Grandpa and told him I wouldn’t be coming over. But I did. Sort of.
I biked over to the park and, out of sight, watched Grandpa’s house. A little after ten, the garage door opened, and a white van backed out. The sign on the side read Cover Up Painters. Grandpa was driving. That’s when I knew for sure… he was heading out to steal packages. My Grandpa George was for sure the Porch Thief!
Here’s the thing. I didn’t know how many packages I could return before he came back. I’d brought along two backpacks and my soccer bag. Maybe I could return eight or ten smaller packages on my bike if they were in the same neighborhood. Then what? Grandpa would notice. Game over.
That’s when a better idea slapped me upside the head. Use Grandpa’s pickup!
Grandpa had let me drive it around the block a few times, said he learned to drive when he was twelve, figured I should learn to, said I was tall enough. Which was sort of true.
I got lucky. He’d left his keys on the counter, probably only took the one for the van. I raced to load all the packages in the pickup bed, put a bag of fertilizer under my butt so I could see over the dash, and headed out.
I figured since I was delivering packages, not stealing them, no one would be suspicious. I guess I didn’t consider a twelve-year-old delivery guy might draw attention.
OFFICER LIZ WRIGHT
I was off duty but decided to cruise a few neighborhoods in my own car. I was on the lookout for a white van, not a blue F150 pickup being driven real slow and swerving more than normal. I followed it, figured I’d call for backup if needed.
The pickup pulled up to a house. A kid jumped out of the driver’s side, grabbed a package from the truck bed, ran to the front door, dropped off the package, and dashed back to the pickup.
I was like, what the…? Has Amazon started hiring kids for delivery drivers? Pretty sure that’s illegal.
I followed, staying way back. He must have unloaded ten packages in thirty minutes. Three were to houses where I’d interviewed the homeowners when packages had been stolen.
Could this kid be our porch thief who was now returning the stolen stuff? My curiosity was up, way up!
I followed him to two other neighborhoods. Same routine. I lost count of how many stops he made. After an hour, he was tiring, no longer running back and forth to the truck. I decided to wait and follow him back to wherever he’d come from.
When I left the house in my Cover Up Painters van around ten, I headed to a neighborhood farther away I’d never explored. My route took me past the cemetery where Dolly is buried, and I decided to visit. I stop by every now and then to put some red roses, her favorite, next to her stone. The grass and some bright yellow dandelions were growing tall around her simple headstone. She would have liked that.
I don’t believe in woo-woo crap like talking to the dead, but somehow, when I plopped my butt down on the grass next to Dolly’s grave, I got a message from her loud and clear. It went sort of like this: George, what the hell do you think you’re doing stealing packages? That’s the most lame-brained idea of yours since you collected Beanie Babies, thinking you’d make a killing reselling them. Stealing is illegal. And stupid. And just plain wrong. What kind of role model are you for Mark, whose mom trusted you’d take care of him?
Arguing back crossed my mind: The companies likely replaced whatever I stole, and I would donate all the contraband to Goodwill. But I knew Dolly. She’d say that was dumber than most of my lame excuses for stupid stuff I’d done over the years, including a lot of crap she forgave me for. Like the time I brought home a de-scented skunk from the animal shelter.
Properly scolded, I headed back home but stopped for lunch at Nellie’s Diner. The waitress kept pouring coffee, and I kept pondering my sit-chee-ay-shun. Two trips to empty my bladder later, a lightbulb flickered in my head—it can be dark in there sometimes—and I came up with a new idea for how to spend my hours. Maybe do some good too. I should’ve thought of it earlier, but you know, dense is as dense does.
I decided to ask if the Boys and Girls Club would like someone to teach their kids how to play guitar. I hear it’s a good organization, and maybe learning something fun will nudge the kids down better life paths. Maybe one of them would go on to become the star I never was. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the packages, but I reckoned I’d figure that out when I got home.
Well, surprise, surprise. When I opened the garage door, all the packages had disappeared. Problem solved, right? Not exactly. My Ford was gone too.
OFFICER LIZ WRIGHT
Holy crap! I couldn’t believe my eyes when the kid in the blue Ford pickup pulled into George’s driveway. George goes to my church. He’s a sweet older widower who cracks me up with stories about pranks his buddies pulled when they were growing up.
But when the kid opened the garage door, there it was. A banged up white van. I sat in my car thinking about my next move.
When I opened the garage, I wasn’t surprised to see the van. I’d been returning stolen packages for, like, over two hours. I was beat. My legs were like butter, and blisters made me limp. I was lucky no cop had stopped me. The whole time I’d figured I was gonna end up in juvie before the day was over.
Next up, confronting Grandpa. It sure wasn’t going to be fun, but then, I wasn’t the one who’d stolen the packages. He had some explaining to do… to me. I parked the pickup in the garage and went over to the door into the kitchen. My hand shook when I tested it. It wasn’t locked. I stepped inside.
Grandpa was standing there. We sort of looked at each other for a few seconds short of eternity. Then he did something I wasn’t expecting. He smiled. Said thank you. Gave me a huge hug.
I hugged him back. And when I looked at him again, tears were streaming down his cheek. I smiled then. Said thanks for the driving lessons. He just laughed.
Well, damn! I had so much to tell Mark. And apologize to him. And apologize some more. But he hadn’t been there more than two minutes before the doorbell rang. We ignored it, but it rang again. Who the hell had their panties in knots and wouldn’t go away? I had to deal with it.
You can imagine my surprise when my friend from church, officer “Nancy,” stood there. She looked a tad out of sorts, but she was smiling. She asked me if we’d had any problems with porch thieves recently, and I said no. (That was an easy one.) She said reports had come in all afternoon that stolen packages had been returned, and she figured that meant The Porch Thief Affair would be ending.
I nodded in agreement, said I was pretty sure she was right. We shook hands. But right before she turned to leave, she said something that made my jaw drop.
OFFICER LIZ WRIGHT
When I was about to leave George’s house, I told him I knew a truck dealership that was a good place to sell a used white van. Wish I’d had a camera to capture the look on his face!
Sometimes crime isn’t black or white. Sometimes the bad guys aren’t all that bad. Sometimes you just have to scare them a bit. Maybe someday I’ll ask George why he stole those packages. And why his grandson got the job of returning them. But I wasn’t going to send him to jail.
I bought three more guitars, a bass, and a used drum set from Amazon. (I figured I owed them some business.) The kids at the Boys and Girls Club are getting pretty good. Mark helps. We’re gonna form a band. I suggested we call the band The Porch Thieves. Mark chuckled but the others were like “huh?” We ended up calling ourselves The New Misfits. Hard to argue with that. I asked if I could be lead singer. That got a laugh.
I kept the van in case we go on tour.
Humorist, novelist, and short-story writer, Pat Partridge has a restless mind, a gift for mischief, and a fondness for all things funny. Written under the pen name Frank Benjamin, his book of political humor is now in its third edition. He is the author of the mystery Fragile Memories and the (coming-of-age-finally!) road-trip novel Fast on Fifty. Recently, his short fiction—some humorous, some the opposite—has appeared in Remington Review, The Haven, and the anthology Winter of Our Discontent. He is the winner of numerous awards from the League of Utah Writers.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Porch Thief”:
What’s not to love about this wonderful story from author Pat Partridge. This amusing and warm-hearted piece grabbed our attention with the first sentence and kept us reading, not knowing what would happen next.
Not many short stories work well when split between two viewpoints, let alone three. The author not only made that work perfectly here, but he made the three voices distinct. And he capped the piece perfectly, which made it a winner of a story for us.