My mom used to say if you don’t own anything worth stealing, you never need to lock your doors. In our neighborhood, the breeze at night could travel the entire length of the street in and out through the screen doors of unlocked houses. It was that kind of place.
There were three thefts that summer before the police would even file a report. They kept saying it was probably a misunderstanding; what thief leaves cash to cover the object they stole? And if anything, the amount left was probably too much: $50 for the Zeiglers’ oinking cookie jar, $25 for the Sweeneys’ moth-eaten throw, $13 for an ashtray one of the Thompson kids stole from a diner on vacation.
But as the thefts continued into the fall, the items became more personal. Beth Smyk found an envelope with $7 in exchange for her hairbrush, still full of hair. Cal Washington got $9 for his lucky socks. Greg Tsu reported a stolen baseball cap to the police. But then a week later he found the cap in his trunk and realized his wedding album was gone.
The most distressing thefts were the unidentified ones. Some victims spent months searching their homes, and memories, for the missing item whose value matched the money in the envelope. Figures like $3, $15, and $42 took on new mysterious significance to the neighbors we watched through their windows opening cupboards, pulling out drawers, perplexed.
Even after all that my parents never locked our doors. It had only been a year since my sister succumbed to cancer, and maybe they thought this larger loss exempted them from petty theft. They didn’t seem to believe that the crimes that affected our neighbors could touch them, too.
Meanwhile, new signs were cropping up on the neighbors’ lawns, advertising their new “securely monitored” status. One day the Kimballs brought home a dog with sharp ears and a metal collar. The Johnsons sold their house to an older couple who built a wood slat fence and kept behind it. The neighborhood was becoming a different kind of place.
I never told my parents about the envelope I found in our front hallway. I still remember the feel of the morning sun on my neck as I weighed the stack of bills in my hand, both too heavy and too light. I thought about all the cheap, priceless objects that still cluttered my sister’s bedroom down the hall. Without counting it, I put the cash back in the envelope and buried it in the trash.