The Shell Game contains a carefully chosen selection of beautifully written, thought-provoking hybrid essays tackling a broad range of subjects, including the secrets of the human genome, the intractable pain of growing up black in America, and the gorgeous glow residing at the edges of the autism spectrum. Surprising, delightful, and lyric, these essays are destined to become classics of this new and increasingly popular hybrid form.
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Grand Theft Auto
Shortly after midnight Putnam neighborhood Athens, Ohio
In the silent-street hours of morning on Friday, May 8, 2009, a wanted felon named Craig M. steals a wallet from an unlocked car parked on Lorene Avenue, just a few blocks from my apartment. Lorene runs north and south, skirting the eastern edge of a stately neighborhood with flower-potted porches and brick-paved streets — streets accustomed to the clang of bicycle wheels and the chain song of dog-walkers; streets sheltered by a canopy of oaks and birches, guarded by the glow of street lamps and the promise of small-town neighborliness — streets completely unprepared for this man Craig, now skulking up the sidewalk, his head down, fingers pawing through a wallet, heart humming with the thrill of the score.
Two blocks west of Lorene, Craig makes a small purchase using a credit card from the stolen wallet. He buys doughnuts, perhaps, or maybe a cup of coffee or a pack of cigarettes. I know he was there because police tell me a security camera trained on the front entrance recorded a grainy image of Craig leaving the store on foot. That's the important detail —"on foot." I can imagine him standing there at the curb, holding a steaming cup of coffee to his lips or perhaps tapping a pack of cigarettes against his palm as he stares out into the darkness. The night is young, and Craig is feeling good, but wherever he goes next, he's going on foot. At this point, he has yet to steal my car.
12:10 a.m. Putnam Square Apartments #1203 Athens, Ohio
I turn out the light in my living room and lock the dead bolt on the front door. I look briefly out the front window at the cars in the parking lot before twisting the blinds closed and heading upstairs to bed where my wife, Melissa, lies asleep under the covers. I'm the on-site manager here, and it's my job each night to put the apartment complex to bed. I patrol the sidewalks checking for trash, burned-out lights, and at least theoretically, any suspicious activity. But I've been making rounds each night for nearly a year now, and I've never seen anything even remotely troubling. This is Athens, Ohio, a small, earnest Appalachian college town with an enthusiastic Little League, a teeming farmers' market, and a fifteen-mile bike trail dotted with joggers, dog-walkers, and the occasional recumbent bicyclist. Sure, it's a party town on the weekends, but people here leave their doors open, offer rides to strangers, and never give a second thought to long walks in the evening shade of all those oaks and birches. One hears about the occasional assault or robbery, but Athens has no real crime rate to speak of. The prison isn't much larger than the elementary school.
I climb into bed beside Melissa and pull the covers up to my chin. Our two boys sleep in the room down the hall, and outside their window, the glow of a street lamp illuminates the parking lot like a stage.
1:30 a.m. Putnam Square Apartments Athens, Ohio
Craig makes his way east from Lorene Avenue and enters the quiet parking lot of the Putnam Square complex not long after I fall asleep. He's from out of state, somewhere in Pennsylvania according to police, and perhaps he's just looking for stuff to pawn — CDs, clothing, maybe an iPod or a cell phone, a wallet if he's lucky. Then again, maybe he's looking for a quick ride home, his ticket out of town. Or maybe he's heading west, running from Philadelphia or Pittsburgh and whatever trouble he left behind — petty theft, drugs, something more sinister? A part of me wants the man who's about to steal my car to be more than a strung-out addict looking for a fix: a writer of bad checks, maybe, a passer of fake IDs, a wooer of women in every town he comes to. I want him, when he steps through the lamplight of my complex, to feel as though the world is crooked and that he is pulling a straight line through it. I hope, for his sake, that our town feels ripe for the taking and that he feels like more than a just a blip on the quiet calm of this Appalachian spring night.
At the very least, I hope he really needs a ride.
And I hope he has higher standards than to go after my car first. Certainly he tries the handle of the black Explorer parked in front of #708, the one with the wax job and chrome rims. Then the tricked-out Jetta outside #905, then maybe the blue Pathfinder in front of #1202. The Lexus in front of #1204.
Locked. All of them.
It must be desperation, then, that leads Craig to my maroon Ford Escort with the dented quarter panel and dangling bumper. When he lifts the handle, he not only finds the doors unlocked, but by the street lamp's glow I'm sure he notices a camping chair, a folding bike rack, and two car seats. Never mind the interior smells of rotten milk and stale Cheerios; never mind the diapers and fast-food wrappers covering the floor; never mind the cracker crumbs smashed into the upholstery. This car is open, and hey, look there, in the tray beneath the emergency brake — a set of keys.
I imagine Craig turns to the Lexus behind him, and then to the Pathfinder across the way, and then back to my beat-up old wagon, the smudged peanut- butter-and-jelly fingerprints on the back window just now coming into focus.
Does he shrug before he climbs in?
Does he adjust my seat? Put on the belt?
At that moment, asleep in our bedroom, Melissa and I do not hear Craig close our car door. We do not hear the engine start, nor do we hear the fading sound of that engine as our car turns the corner out of the complex, driven away by a determined, if slightly disappointed, car thief who must feel, on the one hand, like the luckiest man in Athens, and on the other, like the butt of some cruel joke.
7:00 a.m. Putnam Square Apartments #1203 Athens, Ohio
In the morning, before Melissa or the children are out of bed, I descend the stairs and put on my sandals to take out the trash. The dumpsters are out my front door, but when I step out onto my porch, I stop, confused by the empty space where my car should be. I look around for an explanation.
I take the garbage to the dumpster and peer down into the grassy ditch that runs along the back of the parking lot, thinking that I may have left the car in neutral, that it may have simply rolled out of sight. But there are no tire marks in the grass, no car sitting idly in a stream of ditch water. I go back inside.
Upstairs, I wake Melissa to tell her our car has been stolen, and she doesn't believe me. She gets out of bed and repeats my search. When she cannot find the car, she pauses in the living room, realization dawning over her, and then she says, "Do you think someone's playing a joke?"
Midmorning Unknown location Athens, Ohio
Where Craig takes our car first is unclear. We can extrapolate about Friday's events using clues he leaves behind in the car after it is recovered by the police:
One O'bleness Hospital discharge bag,
Here's my hypothesis: sometime Friday morning, while I'm busy on the phone with the police and my insurance company, Craig uses our car to pick up a woman named Colleen from the local hospital. She has apparently been in long enough to need a change of clothes, a hairbrush, and, as soon as she gets out, a cold beer.
9:15 a.m. Putnam Square Apartments #1203 Athens, Ohio
Standing in my living room, dialing my insurance company's phone number, I do not feel as though my single-most-valuable possession has been stolen. Nor do I recognize the irony that this beat-up Ford sits atop my "most valuable possessions" list. Frankly, I don't feel much of anything. I should be frantic. Furious. I'm a graduate student working three jobs to support my family, and some freewheeling opportunist just drove off with our only vehicle. But I don't feel any of those things. If I feel anything at all, it's a mixture of curiosity and pity.
Who would steal our car?
Our Ford has been through three engines and two major accidents. We've replaced the timing belt, the alternator, and another thousand dollars' worth of miscellaneous engine parts. We've even joked about leaving it on a street corner somewhere overnight with the keys in the ignition. Of course, we'd never really do that, but now we don't have to.
The insurance agent on the phone tells me the car will have to be gone for a month before they'll pay out on a claim. I tell her we're hopeful the car will turn up. I tell her we feel stupid for leaving the keys inside it, that it's just not like us, that we can't believe our luck. Then I hang up and explain the situation to Melissa, who is looking out the window at the empty space in front of our apartment.
"Well," she says. "I guess it's time to go car shopping."
Midday CVS Pharmacy Athens, Ohio
Craig and Colleen stop by a CVS Pharmacy sometime on Friday to fill the prescription for the Oxycodone. Then they head north on State Highway 33 toward Columbus. I am surprised at the sheer quantity of pills in the prescription when I later find them in my car. The bottle gives off a satisfying rattle when I pick it up.
At some point that day, Craig removes our bike rack from the back of the Escort. It is never recovered. Also unaccounted for when we retake the vehicle are the fold-up camping chair and a few dollars' worth of McDonald's gift certificates that we'd been saving in our glove box for the occasional drifter holding a sign on the highway.
I like to think that Craig and Colleen stop at the McDonald's on Highway 33 just outside Columbus and use our coupons to order double cheeseburger meals with large Cokes. I want them to ask for extra tomato and to go back for refills. I hope that Colleen doesn't, in the silence of waiting for their order, ask Craig about the car he's driving but instead tells him how glad she is to finally be out of the hospital.
They probably talk about hospital food as they eat, making jokes about green Jell-O and tapioca pudding, and Colleen laughs as she places a french fry in her mouth, savoring the salt, distracted momentarily from whatever part of her still hurts.
Perhaps Craig came to Athens to meet Colleen — an old friend from Pennsylvania? A cousin? A lover? Maybe he found out her discharge date and came to surprise her. Certainly the car had been a surprise — child seats in the back, a sippy cup rattling around the floorboards.
Maybe after lunch, Craig tells Colleen the car belongs to a friend, and maybe Colleen believes him. Or, more likely, she tries to ignore what she has already figured out: this is not some friend's car, and they're going to be in trouble. Real trouble. She wants to say something, but instead, she stands out on the curb in the McDonald's parking lot, smoking a cigarette while Craig pulls the jack from the back of the car.
4:00 p.m. Ohio University Athens, Ohio
At school, the car theft makes a great story. My students laugh for five minutes. They know what my car looks like, and they accuse me of orchestrating the whole thing. Friends pat me on the back and offer rides. Melissa sends me a text with links to minivans on eBay. We chat online about car loans and insurance payouts and resale values and down payments. I allow myself to imagine driving a new Mazda5 or a Honda Odyssey. We chat off and on for an hour about new cars, and then I remember our old one has been gone less than a full day.
"Maybe the car will turn up," I write. It seems like the right thing to say. The honest thing. But even as I type it, I don't want to believe it.
"Yeah," Melissa writes back after a long pause. And then she changes the subject.
Early evening City limits Columbus, Ohio
Sometime Friday evening, Colleen and Craig pick up a woman named Brenda, and to make room for three, Craig must do something about the car seats. I imagine that after driving all day in my car, Craig has adjusted to his unfamiliar surroundings. He's figured out the sticky brake, the unresponsive accelerator, and the buttons and knobs for the air-conditioning. He definitely changed the radio presets to all the local rock stations, and his cell phone is charging on the floor. But maybe what he can't get used to are the car seats in the rearview mirror. Sure, I can believe Craig is okay with the idea of me standing on my porch in my pajamas and scratching my head — the sucker who left his keys in his car — but I want to think it's harder to laugh off those car seats and the kids who will no longer use them.
And maybe Colleen finally speaks up. She is glad to see him, and she is glad for the ride, but frankly, she can't believe what he's done.
"What if we get pulled over," I imagine her saying, her elbow propped up on the armrest, her forehead in her palm. "You'll go to jail. We'll go to jail."
I see Craig shrinking in his seat, in my seat, feeling stupid for not thinking all this through. I can see Colleen ripping into him about rash decisions, about putting himself first, about the car seats in the back of the car. Craig hollers something about picking her up, wanting to see her, something about ditching the car as soon they can. Colleen takes off her gray sweatshirt and throws it in the back. I see her reaching around one of the car seats to her hospital bag and pulling out a large white bottle of pills. She unscrews the cap, pulls out a few tablets, and pops them in her mouth, downing them with a drag of melted ice from the bottom of her Coke cup still sitting in the holder. Colleen tosses the bottle of pills toward the back of the car and curses. She pulls a cigarette from a pack tucked in the console beneath the emergency brake and lights it. She inhales deeply, holds in the smoke, and then rolls down the window to exhale. The air around them fills with the whoosh of the open window, and then they are quiet.
Perhaps picking up Brenda creates a welcome shift in the mood inside the car. Perhaps Craig is grateful for an excuse to take one of those seats out and put it in the way back, glad to unbuckle the other one and push it over onto its side, out of sight.
9:00 p.m. Putnam Square Apartments #1203 Athens, Ohio
We're not even through our first day as victims of grand theft auto, and we've already stopped using "if" in our car-shopping discussions. The police have told us that 90 percent of stolen cars are recovered in the first seventy-two hours or they're not recovered at all. And if they do recover the vehicle, they're pretty sure they'll find it in a ditch somewhere out in the country, abandoned after some alcohol-induced joyride. Of course, someone could sell the car piece by piece, but considering its condition, my money is on the joyride theory — the car thief tearing up the highway toward some wild deep of West Virginia or disappearing down some Kentucky dirt-road hollow, leaving nothing but a trail of cigarette butts and empty beer cans behind him.
Yes. I'm sure of it. The car is gone, already buried hood-deep in some backwoods bog at the end of a long, rutted road to nowhere, and we'll never see her again.
We put the kids to bed and spend the rest of the evening looking up cars online. One particular van, a red Mazda5, has caught our attention — low miles, straight body, and clean interior. But what really gets us is the price — nearly $3,000 less than every other comparable model. Then Melissa notices why. At the bottom of the page, in small print, are the words, "Salvage title: theft recovery."
11:55 p.m. Downtown Columbus, Ohio
Just before midnight, Brenda is driving our car with Colleen in the passenger seat and Craig in the back when she makes a right turn without signaling and nearly hits a patrol car. I don't know why Craig has invited Brenda to drive — perhaps Colleen didn't want to sit by him anymore; perhaps Craig has been thinking about his fight with Colleen and about rash decisions and jail, and maybe he thinks he knows a little about the laws governing grand theft auto, and so he intentionally puts someone else in the driver's seat. Maybe he's been drinking — maybe they've all been drinking — but I imagine the moment he sees the red and blue lights reflecting off the dark interior of the car, he regrets letting Brenda get behind the wheel. Either way, during the routine traffic stop, the officers run the car's plate, discover it has been stolen, and, as they say, the game is up. For all of us.
When questioned about the car, Brenda points to Craig in the backseat and says something about the car belonging to one of his friends. Brenda is arrested for possession of a stolen vehicle. Craig is arrested for his implication in Brenda's story. Colleen is not arrested, but the car is impounded, and she has to find her own way home without the prescription drugs, hairbrush, sweatshirt, and everything else in the back of the car.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Shell Game"
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Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Foreword: Discovering the Hermit Crab Essay Brenda Miller,
Introduction: A Natural History of the North American Hermit Crab Essay Kim Adrian,
Grand Theft Auto Joey Franklin,
Ok, Cupid Sarah McColl,
Rubik's Cube, Six Twisted Paragraphs Kathryn A. Kopple,
Solving My Way to Grandma Laurie Easter,
Genome Tome Priscilla Long,
As Is Brian Oliu,
Falling in Love with a Glass House: Twenty-Four Views of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House Jennifer Metsker,
Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged Dinty W. Moore,
Snakes & Ladders Anushka Jasraj,
Math 1619 Gwendolyn Wallace,
Stagecraft Mary Peelen,
We Regret to Inform You Brenda Miller,
The Six Answers on the Back of a Trivia Card Caitlin Horrocks,
Piecing the Quilt of Valor Judith Sornberger,
Self-Portrait as a 1970s Cineplex Movie Theatre (an Abecedarian) Steve Fellner,
The Forgetting Test Lee Upton,
#miscarriage.exe Ingrid Jendrzejewski,
SECTION 404 Cheyenne Nimes,
The Body (an Excerpt) Jenny Boully,
Questionnaire for My Grandfather Kim Adrian,
The Petoskey Catechism, 1958 Elizabeth Kerlikowske,
What Signifies (Three Parables) David Shields,
The Marriage License Judy Bolton-Fasman,
The Heart as a Torn Muscle Randon Billings Noble,
The Spectrum (of Miracles and Mysteries) Steve Edwards,
"Easy as Pie," That's a Lie Amy Wallen,
Outline toward a Theory of the Mine versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline Ander Monson,
The Clockwise Detorsion of Snails: A Love Essay in Sectors Karen Hays,
Postscript: Forms on the Page Cheyenne Nimes,
Contributor's Note Michael Martone,