Dona Oliveira pulled out her husband’s favorite calabash gourd, the one that had never touched honey or sugar, and stuffed it with the dry leaves of the erva-maté. Her husband liked to think of himself as a Gaucho, a South American cowboy of the Pampas but he was just an old thief from Rio Grande do Sul who drank his tea in the tradition of southern Brazilians–bitter.
The late morning sun peeked through the Araucaria tree to their bedroom where her husband lay on his back wondering how much he could get for a ceiling fan if it wasn’t brand new, just a few years old he would say, and estimated how fast it would take to dismantle and drag out a window. He could practice on theirs when she was visiting friends but he wouldn’t know how to put the thing back together again.
The thermos gave a hiss and spit from the kitchen. Tea, today. A sign she wanted to talk. He shaved before showering, made the bed before getting dressed, and shined his shoes before going to the kitchen, all to test how persistent she would be about talking. She was still there; must be important.
After a good morning chirp, she filled the gourd with heated water. Never boiling. That would ruin the complexity of the flavors. She regulated her anger the same way–hot but never scalding. Other wives put the fear of God into their husbands when they wanted them to repent. She lectured him with the melodious voice of a bicudo bird.
She placed her hand over the cup and gave it a firm shake, one lighter shake, and two shakes side to side. He taught her how to make maté on their honeymoon. Since the gourd had curves like a woman he demonstrated with her body, lifting up her lithe frame, letting her drop but catching her at the last second, lifting again and lowering her slowly. They danced side to side by the hips and then he took a long, slow kiss.
He inherited three straws for drinking maté. All were durable and had a round flat end with holes to filter the leaves. He sold the silver one that his grandfather had given him to help buy their first house. His vô had never been sentimental and would have been angry if he kept it. A house is more practical than a silver straw. He lost the silver-plated one when he threw it across the room at a feral monkey that lived in the forest park across the street. The furry devils never slept, begging for bananas from tourists during the day and stealing food from homes with open windows at night.
When the leaves had turned to mash, she tilted the gourd to one side, put her thumb over the stainless-steel straw and carefully slid it to the bottom so as not to disturb the floating particles. She handed him the gourd.
“You think me the fool?” Tradition stated that the one who prepares the maté takes the first, bland sip. The fool’s sip.
“I prefer it with honey. And yes, you are a fool.”
“What have I done now?” He plopped himself in his chair, grabbed the tea, and endured the thin taste.
“Spit it out if you want. I have something better to spit out–a story. I will entertain you while you drink.”
He pulled the loaf of bread to him and ate. When she filled more water in the gourd, the tea tasted as it should. The flavors of the highlands, the grass and trees, of youthful summers and barefoot walks on dirt paths to go fishing with nothing but a stick and cornmeal mashed onto a string.
She dragged a chair next to him. “My good friend had a fight with her husband yesterday. Over a missing piece of jewelry.” She raised an eyebrow. “She thinks her husband sold it to pay off a debt at a bar.” She was careful not to say what the item was to see if he would slip and mention it.
“If she thinks her husband stole it than what is it to me?”
“Because I know who stole it.” She pointed a finger at him. “We had an agreement. You don’t visit houses of people we know.”
“I don’t know them. And when do you wander over to the Ipiranga neighborhood? That’s by the cemetery, isn’t it? Bad luck to live there you said.”
“I can visit.”
“You need to slow down. You know too many people.”
When he was a young thief, he let opportunity be his guide and stole with energy and audacity. Once, he stole a 19-inch TV from a bar while some futebol fans were watching the semi-finals. That turned him into a legend among his colleagues. Most things he couldn’t sell yet he stole them anyway. She calmed him down. Made him see the value of things. When they got married, he thought they could be partners. She could use her social skills to visit a house and tell him what was inside. She was smarter than that.
“Imagine a new neighbor invites themselves into your home and the next week you’ve been robbed. What moron wouldn’t suspect.”
And so they kept their activities separate and she had one simple rule: don’t steal from people you know. He agreed. Her friendliness helped lower suspicions. But who knew she would be so damn sociable. In less than three months she got to know everyone. It took him a year before a town became lavado–washed out–like tea that no longer provides any flavor. They jumped about to other towns but he could not work fast enough. They would have to move again, leaving so much opportunity behind.
“Why don’t you spend more time with the people you already know?” He took a long sip.
“Because, like you, I have similar problems with staying in one place too long.”
A few years ago, they found the perfect place–twin cities on opposite banks of the river. They lived on one side where she socialized and he worked the other. She promised never to cross the bridge. But soon she knew the whole town while he still had six months of work. The pressure became too much for her. Multiple invitations on the same day, sometimes eight to ten engagements in an afternoon. If she went to one and declined the others, people found out and got angry. Rescheduling was impossible since it would be weeks before she had an opening. Friends fought over her time because she was so pleasant to be with. They got upset with her and nasty to each other. She had to leave. She begged him to flee in the middle of the night so no one would follow. She promised to pace herself in the next town and spent mornings only with him: lounging in bed, eating leisurely breakfasts, tending to a garden. The balance worked and they stayed longer and got richer in both money and love.
When his breakfast was done, he emptied the gourd and left it in the sink.
“We are running out of towns. I can’t keep up with you.”
“You need to be more careful. Ask me before you go.”
“I don’t always know.”
“What about tonight?”
She listed off the family names of twenty houses on that street.
“See, you know everyone.”
“Please do me one favor.”
An old couple she knew had been traveling. They would return from the coast in a few days. She worried her husband had already visited their home this week.
“I’m not accusing you of anything. But could you return their things before they get back?”
“Are you crazy?”
“Just enter the way you came and put the items back.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“What did you take?”
“The furniture. They had nothing else of value.”
“Meu Deus.” She groaned. “They are celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary on this trip. Don’t spoil it for them when they get back.”
“What has happened to you?” He worried she had gotten soft. “You were the one who taught me how to be practical.”
“She has cancer. She hasn’t told him yet.”
A kick in the stomach would have hurt him less.
“What would you do if it was me?” she asked.
The thought of her leaving before him had crossed his mind as they got older.
“I’d ask for the sun back from the god who stole it.”
A tear in her eye pierced his heart.
“And if this god asked you to return everything you ever took?”
He mouthed some words but could not formulate a sentence.
That afternoon he thought about how he would un-steal a houseful of furniture. Breaking in was a science; not getting caught was an art. Putting it all back would require a miracle. He would not tell his partner. Impossible to explain. The money hidden under his mattress for emergencies should cover his partner’s half. He would borrow his nephew–thirteen years old but built like an ox. Tell him for one night and one night only, he could help his uncle deliver some antique furniture to a house in the middle of the night because…because it was a surprise for the wife.
“So that’s what you do for a living, uncle.” His nephew bounced alongside him. “Father never told me. He seemed ashamed. I don’t think there’s any reason to be ashamed of delivering furniture. It’s strange because he always tells me how he honors good, honest, hard work.”
Earlier in the day, the old thief had visited his brother’s house while he was at work. He offered his nephew, the son of his brother’s third wife, a special job and made the kid swear not to tell anyone what they were doing. People couldn’t keep secrets and this furniture was to be a big surprise. The kid snuck out of his bedroom window and met him on the street promptly at midnight.
“Your father thinks I should own a furniture store instead of working for one.” The old thief said. “That’s why he’s disappointed in me. I’m not living up to my potential.”
They got in the truck and drove an hour back to the town where he currently lived. The schedule was tight.
“Now remember. This is supposed to be a surprise so we must be discrete. No one can see us. Okay?”
His nephew held up his thumb.
The night was dreadfully more tense than all the other nights he had robbed a house. If someone should wake in a theft, all you had to do was flee with what you already had. Tonight, the hair on his skin stood up straight and he jolted at the smallest sound. He was not used to working without a plan. What could he do if, halfway through, someone walked in on them?
They started with a heavy dresser and the attached mirror. It rattled as they eased it around corners. The weight nearly gave him a heart attack. His nephew insisted on arranging the furniture in the room. “No.” The old thief explained. “That is not how someone would do it.” He tried to remember how it was. They wasted time fighting over where each item should go.
The morning sky began to appear when they brought the last chair into the dining room. At any moment, the paperboy or milkman would arrive. His nephew insisted on arranging the flowers on the table. As they turned to walk out, they heard someone sticking a key in the lock of the front door.
“Happy anniversary!” his nephew shouted. He grabbed him by the collar and dragged him out the back door. They hopped the back fence, hurried around the block, and huddled behind the driver’s side of the truck. He held his breath in the time it took get in, start it, and drive off. No one in the rear-view mirror chased after them. He breathed once and again when they reached highway. The whole way home, the kid laughed and talked about how fun that was.
Audacity had put him in jail three times. His mentor had said it was good for him to sit in a cell once in a while to reflect on the mistakes he’d made. He learned to be a quiet thief, watching how people treated their valuables. When working alone, he preferred to steal in places where items had another reason for being lost. Wallets could fall off bridges, earrings could fly out the window of a train, a loose watch could get knocked in the gutter on a busy street. One successful summer, he hung out at a pier filled with sunset tourists and casual fishermen distracted by the sea.
His brother met them on the lawn when they arrived. He had bags under his eyes and a bat in his hand. His brother remembered hearing a truck in the middle of the night and assumed correctly who his son had gone off with when he found an empty bed this morning.
“Go to your room.” He told the kid and swatted his butt with an open hand. He pointed the bat at the old thief, his brother. “Come.” He led them down the sidewalk toward the main street they had grown up on. They walked in silence out of the neighborhoods that his brother believed were the only ones that mattered.
“First. Never again.” He waved the bat in his face. “My son never sees you anymore for the rest of your decrepit life.”
The old thief lowered his head like a dog. “Understood.”
His brother, being older, had always lorded his success over him. So he took great pleasure seeing the arrogant jerk squirm the day he came home in a brand-new suit from the money he got on his first job–breaking into a warehouse with a sleepy guard.
They turned left at the next street. Toward the police station.
“I’ve heard the way you romanticize what you do, with tall tales to your friends, bragging about the misery you cause people. I have not told my son the truth of what you do. You have forced me to lie and pulled me into your shameful sin. But my son is naïve and impressionable. I will tell him you broke the child labor law letting someone so young work for you. And I will continue to let him think you work for a moving company.”
Children had never come to the old thief and his wife. He had promised her he would change professions if she ever got pregnant. She never did. Neither cared to know why. That might lead to blame. Instead, they appreciated what they had and didn’t care what other people found out about them after they left town.
“Now go and turn yourself in or you get this bat over your head.”
“You judge too quickly, brother.” The old thief stood his ground. “Use your skills as a lawyer to find out what happened last night. Then you can decide what you think of me.”
He turned his back, walked to the truck, and drove home.
The dog-tired look on his face when he came in reassured her he had done it. She wrapped herself around him like a comfortable breeze that carries the scent of flowers. After his shower, she made him tea.
“So?” she handed the second sip to him. Softened with honey.
“So I retire.”
In his youth, he reveled in the excitement of the nights, loved the comradery, wasted the money. He took the profession more seriously when he got married. Studied the value of things. Turned theft into an art. But now, who would know? And what did he have to show for his life? He never stayed anywhere long enough to have a gang of friends. They never lived long enough in any of the twenty houses they owned to have memories in those places.
“Time has always been the best thief,” he muttered into his cup, “taking what you didn’t know you had.”
She held him tight in her coffee-cream arms.
“So hold on to what you have.”
And gave him a long kiss to take away the bitterness.