I am standing outside the kitchen window, watching them ransack my house, and all I can think about is the shovel.
It had been left behind by the previous owners when we bought our house. For months, it was propped against the side yard fence. I could see it out the window when I was in our small home office. I could look out into blue morning half-light while I checked my email, and see the red, rusting steel of the blade, still caked with dirt. The cracked wood of the handle. Not ten feet away.
And then one Tuesday I woke up and it was gone, and I couldn’t remember if I’d seen it the morning before. Such an innocuous thing to go missing. Such a valueless machine for someone to take. But take it, they did.
I went out into the damp morning, and squatted down, looking for tracks in the yard. As though I could pull shoe prints for the police. Or discern, through the pattern of a sole, the provenance of its owner.
I remember looking over, past the trash can and recycling bin, toward the gate. I imagined someone opening the gate, stealing from me and my wife, and then just walking out. Strolling past our neighbors’ houses without a care.
It struck me then that not only had we bought our California bungalow in a bad neighborhood, but that we were exposed. In hindsight, it was the first sign of our vulnerability.
Tonight, as I watch our house being robbed, I recognize that this is the logical conclusion. #
I am hovering in the orange glow of our kitchen window, watching as three men go through our things. Two of them are small and mean-looking, with dirty jeans and old windbreakers. The third one is tall and pale. His pants are falling down, and he’s got his hood drawn up so I can’t make out his face. I can see them in the living room, pulling stereo equipment out of our entertainment center, and stacking it on the coffee table.
Usually when your house is robbed, you just find the aftermath: The place turned over; anything salable, gone. It’s uncanny to catch them in the act. I’ve managed to avoid alerting them to my presence by coming into the side yard, my hands clutching water bottles from the car for the recycling bin.
Edie and I have just returned from dinner. I had two beers and she and I talked about money the entire time. How we keep making it and it keeps disappearing and we have to keep making it again. We had to park the car up the street because the driveway is being redone tomorrow. My wife is at the curb finishing a call with her cousin, and I can hear her faintly while I watch the three men despoil our home. I think about using the iPhone in my pocket to call the police, but I don’t want to give myself away. So instead, I watch, trying to come up with a plan.
Inside, the tall one is trying to move our 50-inch Samsung OLED television, and he doesn’t disconnect the HDMI, so it yanks on him suddenly, and he drops the whole thing. I see the big, ridiculously beautiful screen pop and then go dim, and the guys inside say “daaaaamn!” and then the tall one shrugs his shoulders.
I figure it’s time to do something, so I set the bottles down and sneak out the gate.
Call. The. Police, I mouth to Edie. “There are burglars!” I whisper, pointing back the way I’d come. We’re on the garage side of the house, out of sight of any of our front windows.
“What?” she asks, a little too loudly.
“Three guys,” I say in a hushed voice, moving close to her. “Are robbing our house.”
“What!” she says again. “Oh shit. Oh shit.”
“Quiet, Edie! Hang up the phone.”
“I’ll call you back,” she says. And then, disconnecting the call, she scans the darkness of the neighborhood as though more of them are out there, waiting for us. “What do we do?”
“You gotta call the police,” I say, putting my hands on her shoulders. “And then we’ll wait from a safe distance.”
A crash sounds from inside the house, and we both turn toward the sound. “Jeff. Jeff. They’re breaking our things.”
“I know,” I say.
“Are you gonna stop them?”
“I don’t think it’d be safe.” I’m amazed that she would suggest such a thing. She’s always been so prudent.
“Go tell them the police are coming.”
“Edie, I definitely don’t think that would be safe. And anyway, it’d give them time to escape.” In this world of casual thievery and quiet pain, I want someone held accountable.
“Fuck,” she says. An audible thud comes from inside. “I’ll call. Do you want to—”
“I’ll monitor the situation,” I say, and I sneak back into the side yard.
Through the kitchen window, I can see that the pile of electronics has grown taller. The computer monitor from my office has been added to it, along with Edie’s laptop and a diffuser we bought at Bed, Bath and Beyond.
I need to locate the burglars. See what they’re up to. I creep down the side yard, to where I can peer in the blinds of the dining room. With my face close to the glass, I can make out one of the smaller guys, pulling bottles of whiskey out of our cabinet and stuffing them into his backpack. A broken bottle of vodka lays on the floor, and the guy is standing in the puddle.
He looks young and skinny. A baby-faced man with the beginnings of a mustache. He takes out the bottle of Johnny Walker Blue that my father-in-law gave me for Christmas, and all of a sudden, I can feel the heat in my face, the pressure in my temples.
I’m pretty sure I could take him.
I creep farther along, past my empty office window and the spot where the shovel once stood, to the frosted glass of the master bathroom. I stare at the shapes in the glass, and I can just make out the tall guy, standing by the medicine cabinet. I hear the rattle of pill bottles as he sweeps our medicine into a bag. In my mind, I see my migraine pills and Edie’s Lexapro. The Propecia I don’t tell anyone I’m taking.
I imagine enumerating these prescriptions for the police, and I am embarrassed at what faulty, weak, and prideful people we are. I remember to breathe, but every intake is shallow. Clipped.
The third guy is trudging down the hall. He says something to the tall guy, and then they’re both walking toward the living room. I follow that way, and I nearly collide into Edie standing outside the kitchen window.
“They’ve got my laptop,” she says, whispering.
“I know,” I say. “What about the cops?”
“Way too long,” I say, my heart hammering.
Through the window, we can see them gathering in the living room. The third guy, I can tell, is ripped. Stocky, with a small forehead and a crew cut. He’s showing them Edie’s necklaces. The ones I bought her in New York.
“That’s my jewelry,” Edie says. Her hand is a claw gripping my right arm. Like she’s trying to stop herself from running away.
“I know,” I say. Each beat of my rattling heart digs a little deeper into this wound I feel. This sense of violation. A coppery taste in the back of my throat.
I look at the guy with the crew cut and I think: That’s gonna be the hard one.
“I feel sick, Jeff. Just fucking sick.”
“If only I had the shovel.”
“The one that was out here. Leaning against the fence.”
“As a weapon? You said it wouldn’t be safe.” She takes her hand back, and now it’s her eyes digging into me. Inside our home, the men are stashing our things into a big, dirty duffel bag.
“But they’ll get away. With everything.”
I am acutely aware of my clenched teeth. Of my hands, knotted into fists. I am ready to explode. My wife stands stiffly beside me. She looks down at the ground, and then back through the kitchen window, and then again to me. “What about the tire iron?” she says.
“Yes,” I say. “In the trunk.” I start taking off my jacket. “Keep out of sight,” I tell her, and then I’m running through the gate, out to the car.
-- Tyler Womack played indie rock in Austin before moving to Brooklyn to work in advertising. He now lives in Northern California, where he writes about hipsters growing up and the tragedy of creative employment. Tyler's fiction has appeared in Across the Margin and the Corvus Review.