It was almost Christmas, and the Stanford Shopping Center was awash in all of the trappings of silicon valley-funded consumerism. It was the mid-nineties, and as usual, you had no money to speak of, but had still agreed to accompany Cate, Linda, and Tanya to the shopping center to find gifts for sundry family members. Linda had all of her family members arranged on a list with stores marked where gifts for each person were likely to be found, and she preferred to hit each store in geographical order. Cate lamented the fact that these stores were so mainstream, and she could likely find better gifts once she got back home. You weren’t sure exactly what Tanya’s plan was: it was difficult to imagine her family exchanging gifts or adhering to any kind of formal tradition. Tanya had told you that many years, her mother bought her own gifts: she would buy skin care products from La Prairie and wrap them up for herself, so that she had something to open on Christmas morning. It seemed like Tanya’s dad–whoever he was, and whatever he did–wasn’t one for ceremony or romance. But by then you knew better than to ask questions about the goings on of Tanya’s family life.
This was the same mall where you had worked for the Coach Store, back before they went LA and started producing products that blurred the line between funky and trashy. Back then, most people on the West Coast really didn’t even know what Coach was, but they had a cult following among some of the East Coast transplants and, of course, The Gays. More interestingly, the Coach Store had been the site of a heist during your tenure, and though you had nothing to do with it, it seemed prophetic of your career in useless crime, now that you thought about it. The crack security team behind The Coach Store, Stanford Shopping Center, had determined that certain items of the small leather goods case had been pilfered by an elderly couple who liked to come in just before closing on weeknights. The pair had attempted to return several leather accessories on different occasions, for cash. The Coach Store security team knew that the pieces were stolen because all of the accessories still contained the business cards that were to be removed once an item was sold. This truth was purely academic, of course, because one cannot enforce an anti-shoplifting policy based on the presence or absence of a business card; however, one night when you were working and the old shoplifting duo came in, you slyly alerted your manager to the presence of yet another business card with a sigh and an overly dramatic show of removing it.
What you didn’t know then was that the pair was casing the joint for their real target. Coach introduced leather jackets to their line in early 1994, and the elderly duo was only seen one last time after the Stanford Shopping Center received its first shipment of coats. When last seen, the duo was running out the front door of the shop, carrying a few hundred pounds of leatherware between them. And it would have been a sight to see, two decrepit consumers carrying their weight in parkas each, bending under the pressure but no doubt exhilirated with the steal. Who would have thought they could pull it off? But then, why couldn’t they? What was going to stop them?
Though you weren’t working at the time of the robbery, you were fortunate enough to have the experience of talking to the shopping center’s “security” team after the Incident. You were informed that, in mall-cop speak, a “code grey” indicated shoplifting or impending shoplifting and, should you find yourself in the midst of another heist, all you needed to do was to pick up the phone and manufacture an excuse to use the word grey, e.g., he explained, “Mrs. Smith, I just wanted to let you know you that we just got that grey handbag in that you requested.” You were troubled by this assertion, and not just because Coach did not carry grey handbags, as any good shoplifting reconnaissance team would surely know, but also because you feared that such attempts at subterfuge were unlikely to fly in the heat of the moment. And besides, couldn’t you just call mall security and yell at them, “TWO ANCIENT SHOPLIFTERS ARE RUNNING OUT THE DOOR WITH ALL OF OUR LEATHER COATS” in the event of another heist? Were they gunslingers? What was this hypothetical? Would they be holding you hostage, but still allowing you use the phone to make customer sales calls, just to make sure it appeared as though everything were business as usual?
But this was months later, after you had quit, tired, ultimately, of having work get in the way of your rigorous drinking schedule. And though you knew Tanya had money–had, in fact, just cashed her student loan check the day before and bought drugs–she was apparently on a shoplifting mission of her own. She wore, as usual, her black biker jacket and jeans, and underneath was a blue t-shirt with dolphins on it. The official animal of your sorority, dolphins, but still a strange fashion choice, but you had given up by that time on understanding the fashion choices of Tanya, either she was too European in her taste for you to understand, or else just too strange, because you didn’t get it and didn’t care. So when you were in the Nature Company, and one of the employees started talking to Tanya about the dolphins on her shirt, you thought it was odd, sure. But men were always strange around Tanya. She had that kind of Angelina Jolie effect on them, and it seemed reasonable that a retail employee would use the topic of dolphins to hit on her. You had seen worse pretenses.
At length we were able to extract Tanya from the clutches of The Nature Company guy, and walked outside into that crisp late fall weather of Palo Alto, the kind of weather that makes you realize, finally, that you are in fact somewhere away from home, and not just a car ride away. Cate was walking her typical New Yorker speed walk, and we had to ask her to slow down, like always, because it was something she did without realizing at that point, though now she probably walks the leisurely gait of a Parisian enjoying an afternoon on the Champs-Elysees. Linda, always an engineer, was likely calculating the fastest way from one end of the mall to where we were parked, because it was her way, and she couldn’t stand to be efficient. She is probably doing the same kind of thing now, wherever she is, because efficiency was a virtue to Linda and could not possibly have been extracted from her character, regarldess of changes in time or circumstance. Yes, times change. And sometimes people change, too.
Tanya was out of breath, exhilerated by something or other, when she caught up with the rest of you.
“That was close,” she said, pulling something out of her jacket.
“What was close,” you said, feeling like you must have missed something. As usual.
“That guy was totally on to me, but he couldn’t do anything.”
“What do you mean ‘on to you’?” Cate asked, not understanding.
“I hid this in my coat,” Tanya said, holding up a CD of wolf sounds (?!). “He must have seen me, or thought I did it.”
“Tanya . . .” Linda said, frustrated, either by the theft or the lack of respect to the order of things, you couldn’t say.
“Why didn’t he take you back to the back room or something, keep you there?” You asked, sure that Tanya was being dramatic, and that the guy was just hitting on her, like every other guy.
“He didn’t know for sure. And they don’t have a back room.”
“Well, then how do you know he was “on” to you?” you asked, still skeptical.
“He was pointing out stuff on my shirt. He wanted it to fall out,” she explained.
“Why would you even want that?” Cate asked, cutting to the chase. It seemed like a reasonable question.
“I love wolves,” Tanya said.
She loved wolves. And with that, Cate looked at you, you looked at Linda, and Linda walked off to find her old convertible Mustang. It was just another early evening in your early twenties, and the four of you were best friends united even in the strangest of circumstances, sure that this would be the case forever, and this would just be another story you’d remind each other of one day, the time that Tanya stole a recording of wolves howling. Because she loved wolves.