Honor the Ghost

“Snap it up or I’m going to hit the road, Jack. This ain’t school. Let’s get in.”

Chet let out a breath. Ace always demanded, and yet was never satisfied. “I’m looking. Somebody must have moved it. You think I want to be seen here? If somebody walks out of my house, they’ll want to know what I’m doing on Widow Halsey’s porch.”

Lifting the smallest flowerpot near the side door, he saw it wasn’t there. It wasn’t under the pot of mums either, but then, under the ivy leaves pot, he found the spare key. “Hello, what have we here?”

“For God’s sake, stop talking like my granny’s favorite detective. The door. Quick. Unlock it.”

Inside, everything was neat. A couple of boxes filled with knickknacks. By the stairs leaned a stack of cardboard forms. Ace grabbed a medium one and folded a box two-foot on a side. “Don’t just stand there. Make a box,” he said, “and check upstairs. Everything valuable in the box. I’ll divide it back at the corner.”

He wanted to gain respect by telling the corner crew he knew how to get into the house. But afterwards, Ace pulled him aside. He wanted to see what the battle axe had in her house.

Now it had changed to stealing, and he’d made it possible. “I don’t know…”

Ace socked Chet hard on the arm. “Don’t give me any shit. You whine about no spending money. Here’s your chance. Get up there.”

At the top of the stairs, Chet turned into her bedroom. At her sitting table, a “Saturday Evening Post” lay open, as if she had been reading it just a moment ago. In the top drawer, he found a checkbook, balance $38.75. He tossed it into the box. Rifling through the drawers, he ignored the store bills, advertising circulars, photos of jewels and fancy glassware ripped from magazines, and strangely, a US Mint bill for a 1960 proof set. On her dresser, there were a zillion perfume bottles, tubes of face gunk, a hand mirror, and a prescription vial. The sleeping pills were keepers. The dresser drawers were stuffed with clothes. Nothing Ace would want.

Her closet was packed with doughty clothes. Behind sweaters on the shelf sat a polished wooden box. Personal letters, a prayer missal, and sweet-smelling cachets. He shoved the box back in its place and went out into the hall.

The next bedroom was orderly, and frozen years ago. Hanging on the wall, a wedding picture of her and her nervous husband, Chet vaguely remembered.

The right top drawer was heavy with coins. Proof sets, filled collector binders, and rolled coins. He dropped them into the box. The left was lighter, plastic sheets with folded currency from many countries around the world. Into the box.

Back in the hallway, the linen closet held nothing of interest. The bathroom with the claw-foot tub had a medicine cabinet which contributed muscle relaxers to his cache.

The guest bedroom had nothing personal in it, just stacks of glamour and flashy magazines.

Downstairs, Ace shouted something unintelligible. The crash of falling furniture with glass shattering followed.

Chet sped down the steps. “What happened?”

“Nah, nothing important.” Ace chugged from a decanter with a golden liquid. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he tilted it towards Chet. “Interested in a drink?”

The whiskey smell repulsed Chet. Reminded him of nasty scenes. Drunken fathers, crying mothers, and shaking children. “No, I pass.”

“Suit yourself,” Ace said. He drank again, then threw the decanter against the wall. “Find anything worthwhile upstairs?”

Chet set the box down. “A few things. Checkbook, coin collections, and two bottles of pills.”

“No ready cash. Damn. Get another carton. Check out the basement.”

“Quite a mess you’re making.” Chet stepped over the debris on the floor.

“Don’t give me any shit. It’s the fastest way to find things. I bet old witch Halsey in hell don’t give a damn.” Ace gestured with his head. “Get going.”

Chet flicked on the basement light. Wooden steps, original with the house, creaked under his feet. At the bottom, the basement’s low rafters forced him to crouch.

Midway through pushing photo albums around on storage shelves, a sound above caught his attention.

It was quick footfalls ran across the floorboards towards the back of the house.

The front porch door opened and slammed against the wall. “Police. Stop what you’re doing.”

Chet heard a quick squeak at the back door, followed by the back fence rattling.

Heavy footsteps strode across the main floor, following the same path as Ace’s quick moves, into the kitchen. A booming voice commanded, “Stop. You, by the fence, stop.”

Ace didn’t come back.

The heavy footsteps returned to the dining room and paused at the cellar door. The overhead light switched off, then on. “I bet you’re down there,” the cop shouted. “Your buddy thief left you. Don’t make me come down and get you. ‘Cus, then I’ll be pissed and you don’t want that.”

The basement had no outside door and tiny window wells. There was nowhere to hide.

~ ~ ~

At the station house, the cop picked up a blank arrest report from the desk sergeant. The cop pointed him to the long bench. “Sit there, Chet Almon, until I’m ready.”

Chet peeked at the sergeant, who paid him no mind. Taking a desk behind the receiving counter, the cop filled in the arrest report from his incident pad and used the phone.

At one point, Chet squirmed. The receiving sergeant said, “Sit your ass still. Don’t move.”

The arresting cop came over. He handed the arrest report to the sergeant. “Me and the arrestee are going to have a chit chat in interrogation room one.” He swatted the back of Chet’s head. “Let’s go.”

The cop kept asking, “Who was your buddy that ran away?” Chet said little. Just that he was alone and curious about the house.

“You realize you’re guilty of breaking and entering, don’t you?”

“No,” he shook his head. “I didn’t break in. Widow Halsey showed me her outside key.”

“What about knocking her china closet over and breaking the fancy glass in it?” the big man in a blue uniform said.

The interrogation phone rang.

“Okay, sergeant. Send him back.”

“Officer, we are so disappointed in Chet,” Henry Almon said. “He’s just started high school and is having a tough time…”

The policeman held up his hand. “I’d say so, getting arrested. You only have a few minutes to talk to your son. Someone else was in the house with him, but he got away. Your son won’t name him. See if you can talk some sense into him. Be back in five.”

Mr. Almon turned to his son. “What the hell were you thinking? Who were you with? It can’t be anyone from your new high school. It must be somebody from that corner your mother says you’ve started hanging out at.” Receiving no response, his father went on, “Robbing a neighbor! Next stop will be jail, not a classroom learning science.” His father’s voice rose. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I wasn’t robbing. Just curious, wondering what the widow had.” It surprised Chet how easily the lie came out.

“Young man, you know robbing is wrong, yet here you are, arrested for breaking into a house. Can’t you follow your own conscience and, for god’s sake, tell them who was with you.”

Chet acted deaf to his father’s advice.

His father’s eyes narrowed. “You’re more naïve than I thought. Don’t you realize that could be the difference between guilty and a case suspended before sentencing?”

The cop returned. “Time’s up. You can see your son again at 8 for the morning hearing.”

His father summed up. “Son, if they find you guilty, you’ll go to jail. Don’t be a fool. Cooperate. Maybe they’ll be lenient. That’s your only chance since they caught you inside the house.

“And I’m sorry, but I can’t come back in the morning. I have to be at work at six, but your mother will be here for you.”

“You sit tight,” the cop said to Chet. “Mr. Almon, this way.” The door shut. The lock clicked.

Chet stared at the gray walls and clock. The minute hand jumped each minute like the one in his eighth grade last year at St. Jerome’s.

Ace had escaped out the back. I wish I had his luck. In fact, what was I doing there? Why did I let myself get dragged into looting her house?

The clock hands pointed to 10:30 before the interrogation door opened again.

The arresting cop came in, followed by a woman. “Let me tell you, Officer, if my family’s valuables aren’t recovered, I’ll take it to Mayor Gillespie. He’s a close friend of the family.” Chet recognized the educated voice of the widow’s daughter. She taught at his school. Thankfully, he wasn’t in her history class.

The cop pointed to Chet. “Miss Halsey, we caught this boy in the basement of your mother’s house.”

Her eyes narrowed when she saw him. “I’ve seen you. Don’t you live across the street from my mother? How could you steal from us?”

Chet shook his head. “I didn’t steal anything.” He turned to the cop. “You found nothing on me, did you?”

The cop puffed disbelief on this. “You say no one was with you, but Miss Halsey has reported missing items. You must have stolen them.”

“No,” Chet protested. “You didn’t find anything on me, because I didn’t steal anything.”

“The judge might see it differently. You took them earlier and had returned to see what else you could take.”

Widow Halsey’s daughter handed the cop a typewritten record. “The insurance coverage for the jewelry, five thousand dollars and the coin collection, three thousand.”

The cop glanced at the paper. “That makes it grand larceny. Not a weekend in the lockup or even a couple of months at JV camp, but hard time in the state pen. If you’re covering for a buddy who got the loot, you’ll be doing his time.”

Miss Halsey stared at Chet across the table. “The valuables are important, but I’ll miss the memories they provide more.”

Chet studied the wall clock.

“Let me tell you what I tell my students. History makes the present. Stealing my past robs me of my present. Do you understand that?”

Chet shrugged. “But I didn’t steal anything.”

“The cops caught you inside and the downstairs were a wreck. Things thrown everywhere. My mother’s prize glass collection overturned and broken.”

Chet turned to the cop. “Do I have to listen to this?”

The cop hoped that her words would loosen Chet’s tongue. “I’ll give you a choice. Talk with the complainant or I can take you to lockup right away.”

“I’ll listen, but I didn’t do that.”

She glanced at the cop for approval but received none. She said, “I don’t care who did what. I just want my parent’s things back.”

“Can’t help you,” Chet said.

“Let me tell you why they mean so much to me. My parents argued all the time, except with me. Mom loved fingering her jewelry, telling me where she bought it, where she wore it, sentimental memories. And Dad gleamed when he laid out the money from foreign lands. He enjoyed waiting, like a little boy, for the mail that brought his orders.

“Then when Dad died, Mom talked about him. I wished she had when he was alive. Suddenly, no longer was he a bum with ten thumbs. She remembered. He provided well. He paid the bills for her collecting.

Ghost floating in narrow walkway

“Why couldn’t she admit that to him while he was alive? She could only honor his ghost.”

Chet recognized a slice of this in his own house. “When they argued, if she admitted any good things in him, it would weaken her position. Her wish to win the argument was greater than her need for fairness.”

She laughed, but with no humor. “True. Maybe you’re right, but this isn’t just about me and my mother or my father. It’s also about you.” She turned serious. “Don’t make a mistake like my parents did. You insist you stole nothing. That means you know it’s wrong to steal, yet you were in her house while it was being trashed and robbed. Don’t you need to honor your own morals?”

Chet did not respond.

The cop realized Chet would not give up the other thief’s name without more pressure. He opened the door. “I have to finish processing this warrant before my shift’s over. I hope you got what you wanted, Miss Halsey.”

~ ~ ~

In lockup, the thoughts in Chet’s mind floated from getting caught, to being guilty, and to why he allowed himself to get involved in breaking into the house. He hadn’t been honest with himself until then. He gave up his morals to be accepted into the crew.

His thoughts looped and looped until they brought a breakfast tray to lockup. Hard eggs and grits that assaulted his nose. Coffee so bitter, he spit it back.

At 7:45, a guard led him to the hearing room. The cop that arrested him met him there. “Last chance. Are you going to face grand larceny alone or going to tell us who the other guy was?”

Chet hated that his choice was so stark. At that moment, he understood why his father avoided risk. Gritting his teeth, upset with his weakness, he murmured, “You might shakedown the grocery store crew.”

“Ace’s gang? He’s the one?”

Chet struggled not to nod. “You might find something besides uppers-and-downers in their cache.”

~ ~ ~

The magistrate released Chet to Mrs. Natalie Almon on her assurance he’d return in two weeks for the trial. Chet’s mother told him the many ways he had disappointed her and sold himself short.

As they walked past the receiving sergeant’s desk, she continued.

A voice called out at him from the fingerprinting station. It was Ace. “You gave me up, you bastard. I knew you had no honor.”

“Not me.” Chet denied the Ace’s statement. “Never mentioned your name.” He kept walking, but his mother stopped.

“So, you’re the hoodlum who led my son astray. ”

The desk sergeant looked up at Chet’s mother, scolding Ace, enjoying it.

Mrs. Almon didn’t notice. To Ace she said, “You have no honor.”

The fingerprinting cop looked up at Ace. “You’re here for possession of illegal drugs, not just the Halsey goods.”

Ace pointed at Chet. “He was there with me in the Halsey house. Why didn’t the judge lock him up? He’s going home?”

“He’ll be back for the monthly court.” The cop said, “He didn’t have any loot on him, so… until then, it’s school day curfew and parental custody.”

“Shit! That’s nothing. The total weight’s going to fall on me.”

“Yeah.” The cop laughed.

He pushed Ace towards lockup, who yelled. “You better watch your back when you walk by Lincoln’s.”

“Let’s go, Mister Chester Charles Almon,” his mother said, leading him out of the police station. “I made a mistake letting you hang with those no-goods. I thought you needed friends, but not like him.”

They got into her little Nash Rambler. The scent of pine trees and James Darren singing “Goodbye Cruel World” on WCAO amplified his trapped feeling. He had skipped breakfast. “Can we stop and get something? I’m starving.”   

“No. This is no vacation. The kitchen’s it. And don’t think you’re forgiven, just because you’re not going to jail. The deal I made with Miss Halsey is for you to do whatever it takes to straighten out her mother’s house. She told me about the broken stuff and drawers emptied onto the floor.”

Chet wanted to tell her that was Ace, not him, but he’d squealed enough.

He had let himself be dragged along, but that was his fault, not Ace’s. At school, he was just another smart Catholic boy. Nothing special. Not like at St. Jerome’s, where everyone looked to him for answers to tough questions. He had wanted neighborhood friends. Was that so wrong?

But revealing a secret he shouldn’t lead to the disaster jackpot. Once he gave up his morals, things spiraled downhill.

Almost too late he found his conscience again. Getting caught had seemed a disaster, but he admitted his mistake and given up Ace. He’d avoided jail and would return to school, yet lost the respect of his family, the corner crew, and himself.

Learning to honor his spirit extracted a steep toll.

Image: The Apparition, Henri-Jean Guillaume Martin, 1895 / Public domain

Contemporary Patapsco Days

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