Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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Despite his priors, Danny Collins still hadn’t learned his California criminal law. Danny was a delivery driver I used to ride with before I got promoted to Customer Support Associate, and on this night we were driving around Lafayette — a leafy suburb between Oakland and Mount Diablo — in his crusty old Civic, talking about the types of larceny.
“Petty larceny is a misdemeanor,” I said, eyeing the porches we passed. “Six months max, if you even do time. But grand larceny could be a felony.”
“Tell me this,” Danny said. “How do they decide whether it’s petty or grand?”
He turned his head toward me without taking his eyes off the narrow residential road. It was midnight, and there weren’t enough streetlights.
“It depends on the value of the loot,” I said, holding our first package of the night on my lap. “Like these headphones. Probably worth two or three hundred dollars. But if we had opened the package and found a $950 laptop, it would be a felony.”
Danny whistled like he was impressed. I didn’t mention that I had just googled “How much do you have to steal to get a felony?” while waiting for him to pick me up an hour earlier. I barely remembered my two semesters of law school, not that the debt collectors ever let me forget.
Danny listened to too much gospel radio for my taste, but he had good ideas — his best being to check the porch of every late local delivery.
Danny pulled over at the next address on the list. I was about to jump out when he dropped his hand — a worker’s stiff, sclerotic hand — on my shoulder. “Not yet,” he said.
“Do we really have to do this?”
“Dear Lord,” he said, closing his eyes, “please keep us safe, forgive us our sins, and let not the value of this next package exceed $950.”
“Amen,” I said. Danny was born-again and prone to sudden, seemingly sincere prayer.
I hiked up the long driveway, past an American flag. The porch, floored with redwood, was large enough for someone to live on, certainly larger than the cell Danny had occupied at San Sebastian State Prison. The driver who’d delivered the package, bless his soul, had hidden the box behind a houseplant. A miniature sign in the potting soil read, THANK YOU FRONT-LINE WORKERS. Eighteen months into the pandemic, it already felt like a relic.
Most packages get delivered by late afternoon, but a small percentage, handled by tired, toilet-deprived drivers, don’t arrive until 9 or even 10 PM. By then it’s too late to knock or ring, so the driver leaves the package quietly on the porch, where it often camps till morning like an orphan infant in need of a new home. And I’m happy to give it one.
My mother didn’t raise a thief, but by the time you round forty, you’re pretty much raising yourself. I scooped the package from its hiding place, then waved my free hand at the doorbell camera. In the morning the homeowners would see me covered head to toe in black on their Safe Domain security feed ($189.99 on our website). They might spit out the Guatemalan dark roast or imported loose-leaf oolong they were sipping from artisan mugs shipped from a city-block-sized distribution center. They would see me waving and wonder if I was taunting them or apologizing.
I wondered as well.
Back in the Civic, Danny rapped his knuckles on the roof and said, “Thank you, Lord, for Dawson’s safe return.” He looked at the box with a hint of guilt. “And please keep them happy and healthy, whoever they are.” For a moment I thought he was assuming gerbils or pet turtles might be in the box, but then I realized who he meant.
I worked delivery for eight years and eleven months and had the herniated disks and cynicism to show for it. Now I worked from home, if you could call a one-bedroom with no parking, black mold, and an occasionally working stove a home. Customer-service work demanded less of my body, yet somehow I made more money — and that doesn’t even include the cash I got selling the stolen loot on eBay. You’d think I would feel guilty to have it so easy. Maybe I would have, if not for the complaint calls.
We called them “member contacts.”
“Yes,” my first call of the day began, “my delivery was supposed to arrive between nine and eleven, and I’m still sitting here with my thumb up my ass.”
I looked at the clock: 11:15 AM. “I’m so sorry for the inconvenience,” I said, too tired to sound sincere. Only four hours had passed since Danny had delivered me home. “If you still haven’t received your package by tomorrow morning, please let us know.”
“But what can you do now?”
I was sitting on the toilet. It beat pissing in cups on deliveries. “Nothing yet,” I said. “Your delivery driver is probably running late. If not, we will of course resend your item or refund your money in full.”
“Oh, please. My delivery driver’s probably getting high under a bridge.”
“Maybe,” I let slip, seeing a call coming in from my mother on my personal cell. I punted her over to voice mail. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“You’ve done nothing for me.”
“I’m sorry you’re unhappy—”
“I’m perfectly happy, but I’m also an attorney, and I can ruin your day with a couple of phone calls if this isn’t taken care of right away.”
Mr. Happy hung up. I looked up his home address in our database to see if he was local. After enduring a spate of criticism for sending customer service overseas, the company had begun directing incoming calls to the geographically closest associate. Sure enough, Mr. Happy’s home was nearby. No unit number.
My mother’s caretaker, Erin, met me outside the Richmond Royale nursing home, its regal name a better fit for the cost of care than for its atmosphere. Erin and I used to date, but I’d ruined it. We sat on a stone bench and watched rollerbladers skim the walkway, past the squirrels and the homeless encampments. A couple of Royale residents took halting, defiant steps in no particular direction.
The sun shined on every last one of us.
“I’m going to be making a lot more now,” I told Erin. “This new position pays an extra eight thousand a year. I’m even doing some consulting on the side.”
Erin was skeptical. “Delivery consulting?”
“Legal consulting,” I said. “Sort of.”
“But you never even—” She stopped. She knew I didn’t like to talk about dropping out. “Well, I’m sure your mother will be happy for you,” she said.
I tried to rub the sleep — or lack of it — out of my face. “And what about you?”
Rather than answer my question, Erin led me inside. We used to thrive on regular spats, but not anymore. I followed as she greeted every resident we passed in the hall. They all adored her. Erin had a slow, methodical way of pronouncing their names — first and last, sir and ma’am — and they were in no rush.
I never understood how Erin did it, how this death and decay didn’t cause her to hurry by. The hall was long and too well lit. Every liver spot and varicose vein received full attention from the fluorescents. The walls were smudged with fingerprints where people had reached out to steady themselves.
“How’s my mother?” I asked.
“She wants to know when our wedding is,” Erin said.
We shared a salty laugh over that.
“So today’s forecast is mild lucidity?”
“She’s a five out of ten,” she said.
I was supposed to chat with the staff doctor, but I shirked that responsibility by saying I had only twenty more minutes of lunch break. This was true, but it had nothing to do with ditching the appointment. Erin had warned me the doctor wanted to talk to me about upgrading my mother’s care.
In her room my mother stared at the paint-peeling walls like she expected them to fall. When she finally looked at me, there was no recognition. She looked to Erin with a helpless, distant bewilderment.
“Look who I found,” said Erin.
From her tone you’d have thought I was a piece of peppermint. It aged me to hear my mother addressed as an excitable child, the same woman who’d raised me solo while working overtime as a paralegal; the Mensa member who’d started to learn ancient Greek in her retirement. I hated to hear her spoken to that way, though I did it, too. “I brought you a gift,” I said in a stupid, cheerful tone, holding out a mini ceramic amphora — a Greek urn. (Thirty-five dollars on sale; free if you found it on someone’s porch.)
My mother smiled pleadingly, as if trying to decide whether this strangely familiar face belonged to friend or foe. “Oh, Dawson,” she said, finally placing me. “I was expecting the doctor. We had an appointment, I think. You’re looking very distinguished these days.”
“It’s the gray hairs coming in.”
“Not so hard on the eyes, huh?” she said to Erin.
Erin tried me on for size and grinned. “Not too bad,” she said.
“And the brains,” my mother said, really beginning to exaggerate now. She wanted to keep the attention off herself, because who knew where that would lead. “He’s going to make a wonderful lawyer.”
Her small frame was lost in the floral folds of her old-lady gown. It wasn’t easy to keep smiling. I was thinking of best- and worst-case scenarios: she could pass away soon, or she could live twenty years in this strangled space with her ninety-year-old Republican roommate. Sometimes I couldn’t decide which was worse.
The thought of roommates reminded me. “I was thinking we could move in together,” I said to my mother, looking out the window. The rollerbladers were long gone, but the Royale residents plodded on.
All she had to do was say yes to make my day. My mother smiled back, though I could see she was straining just as much as I was to keep it up. Her lunch tray hadn’t been touched, the green block of Jell-O and what might have been a chicken thigh attended to only by flies. Several.
I had to turn away.
“The three of us?” my mother said, and she reached for Erin’s hand to pat it. “Oh, wouldn’t that be . . . ,” and she lost whatever train of thought she’d been riding.
That night was my turn to drive. I picked Danny up at his place, a stalwart one-story he shared with three sisters. We prayed for a safe night of porch pirating. “I know we’re sinners, Lord,” said Danny, “but please keep Dawson and I safe long enough for us to make it right.” Then he side-eyed me and said, “You need to get more sleep. You look like shit.”
Danny had served time for breaking and entering in his twenties, but he didn’t look like a hardened ex-con, what with his Budweiser gut and clean-shaven baby face. That said, I’d seen him handle a pair of rottweilers during a delivery like they were toy Chihuahuas.
We followed the speed limit into the night, past potholes and police cruisers creeping with their lights ready to spin at the slightest provocation. Such was how I saw the city: one big dragnet to catch criminals. The actual danger of being caught was low, but anticipating disaster gave me the spike of adrenaline I needed. I hadn’t felt this spent since my freshman year at Loyola, when my only worries were universal justice and which flavor of ramen to have for dinner.
Back then, when it was time to sleep, I slept. Now? I’d lie in bed and calculate how long my mother’s savings would last, how long it would take me to save up a down payment on a place for the two of us. Soon, I assumed, I’d figure it all out. I’d solve the great equation. Then I’d sleep.
I peeled my chin off my chest in time to see the STOP sign. I was suddenly way too awake.
“We’re done,” said Danny. “You can’t even keep your eyes open. Turn around.”
I was glad he’d said this. At the trial he would be able to say honestly that he’d tried to call it off. A mitigating factor in his sentencing, maybe. Meanwhile I insisted we go on.
“We can take the rest of the week off,” I said, “but I’ve got a good feeling about tonight’s list.” I dangled said list under his eyes. “One of these packages could just be a resized engagement ring.”
“There’s our felony,” Danny said.
“Or our down payments,” I corrected him.
We’d be neighbors. Saturday mornings I’d sip tea on my balcony and see Danny and his nieces and nephews throwing a frisbee in his front yard.
His front yard. My balcony.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“A platinum ring,” I said. “Inlaid with diamonds.” In my head Erin was there on the balcony, too, listening to my mother read Demosthenes in Greek.
“Fine,” said Danny. “But tell me this: Why the hell did you drop out of law school?”
I laughed, but by his look I guessed he wanted an actual answer. “I just realized there were no good jobs waiting. And it’s hard to combine constitutional-law classes with caring for an old lady.”
“ ‘No good jobs,’ ” Danny said to himself as we passed a two-story Tudor with a SOLD sign staked in its lawn. “I know a dude in legal,” he said. “I don’t even want to tell you what he makes. But I can tell you this: dude could afford that house we just passed in the blink of an eye.” Danny dropped his voice. “He could pay in cash.”
I understood his point and thought it would be self-righteous to say that bolstering the legal defense of a tech company with a market capitalization of $1.64 trillion wasn’t my idea of a good job. Though who really knew how to define good?
Danny ordered me to stop.
“We’re nowhere near the first house,” I said, slowing.
He was rolling down his window. I saw an Accord from the last century double-parked beside a Prius propped on a car jack with a pair of legs sticking out from under it like the Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz. The getaway driver’s eyes caught mine and conveyed the message Move the fuck along.
Danny opened his door and swung one foot onto the pavement. “Go on, get out of here!” he called, raising his voice.
“This isn’t our business,” I said to him.
The driver kept his eyes on mine but otherwise didn’t budge. Another young man appeared from between the two parked cars holding a power saw.
Danny looked from the driver to the saw. “This is someone’s car,” he said, almost yelling. “They need it to get to work. They need it to take their kids to the doctor.”
Neither of the thieves said a word. They couldn’t have been much older than twenty, and I had the distinct feeling that they hadn’t eaten that day. Unless they were armed, Danny Collins could have really hurt them. He started to exit the car. None of us wanted that, but it was too late for me to drive away. The guy with the saw got back in the Accord, and before Danny could get his hands on the door handle, the driver peeled into the street and took a right onto San Pablo.
Danny peeked under the Prius. “Well, it’s still there,” he said. Meaning the catalytic converter. They saw them off. For the precious metals.
I waited until Danny had buckled himself back in before asking, “Who are we to intervene?”
This question somehow startled Danny. He looked back to the Prius that had come this close to castration, then at me. “They were about to ruin someone’s week.”
My morning started with another call from the Bay Area’s happiest customer: “My thumb is now so far up my ass I can feel it tickling the back of my teeth.”
I hadn’t had time for breakfast, seeing as Danny and I hadn’t finished until sunrise.
“Good morning, sir,” I said.
“One of you told me yesterday that my package was still on the way, but here I am today with no package. Which means you have a problem.”
I made a few dramatic clicks on the trackpad — loud enough for him to hear — though only one was necessary. “I just resent your package with free same-day delivery. It should arrive this afternoon.”
“Can I get that in writing?”
“E-mailing you the shipping confirmation now,” I said, remembering he was an attorney. A contract lawyer, if I had to guess. My mother had worked for one. She’d called him “Mr. Hemorrhoid, Esquire” behind his back and cursed the day he’d hired her.
“Got it,” he said, and then I heard him chuckle. “I have to say, I really expected better service. It’s not that complicated, is it? I want something. You have it. You shove it in a box and drive it to my front door. Any robot could do that job. I bet even a monkey could get it right half the time.”
I put my mic on mute so that I could express my true feelings.
“OK, maybe not a monkey,” he said. “A chimpanzee.”
After he hung up, I wanted to yell some things, but the walls were thin, and Mrs. Na next door wouldn’t have appreciated it. Instead I saved Mr. Happy’s home address in Google Maps.
My mother called ten times before the workday was done. She started leaving voice mails after I didn’t answer the first few. Even the Richmond Royale staff doctor put in a ring or two, though he didn’t bother leaving a message. This was not reassuring.
After 10 PM my real work began.
The first home had three packages crowded around a pot of fire-stick cactuses. The second home had six packages stacked in a pyramid against the door. Already Danny and I had exceeded our haul from the night before. I could see I wouldn’t be sleeping.
The trunk was getting full, so I suggested we skip the last mark on our list and take a detour. I didn’t mention my animosity for the man who lived at this unplanned address.
“We should stick to the plan,” Danny said.
“This one’s for me,” I said.
Yes, I stole out of need, but that night I felt pushed or pulled by something it was better not to acknowledge. We arrived at a freshly painted Victorian, wisteria blooming over the portico. I got out and slipped up the drive. The porch, of course, was empty. I looked up and saw no security camera to perform for. I lowered my mask and smelled fresh paint. Except for the muffled panting of Danny’s Civic, the street was completely silent: no sirens, no shopping carts squeaking down the sidewalk. I could almost hear the homeowners sleeping upstairs.
I noticed the garage door was half open. The temptation was too much. I ducked inside, a new kind of criminal.
I don’t know what I expected to find. There was a Tesla with shining rims, a wall-to-wall workbench, and dozens of moving boxes. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say this garage was the size of my apartment. I looked around for something to take, but nothing Mr. Happy owned could easily be carried away.
It occurred to me that the door leading into his home might be unlocked.
But, like a guardian angel, Danny Collins was there to stop me.
“Hey,” he hissed. “The fuck do you think you’re doing?”
“Just a second,” I said.
The porch light burst on. I fell back, as if pushed, though nothing had touched me. Danny broke into a sprint away from the house. I heard his feet slapping concrete, followed by shouting. I hid behind the moving boxes. The shouting shrank into the distance, leaving only the sound of my own hyperventilation, and then nothing.
I lay on the garage floor so long I almost fell asleep. Then I crawled out underneath the half-open door.
Some guys call out for their mothers when they feel disaster crashing down on them. I’d never understood why until that moment. Once my hands would hold still long enough to work my phone, I opened the voice mail and pressed my mother’s voice into my ear:
“Hello, um, Dawson, this is your mother. I’m calling from . . . from home, and I wanted to know if you remember where your father parked the car. And where he put the spare key. Anyway, this is your mother calling. I think these clouds will clear any minute now.”
Six hours later I was still waiting for Danny to call and tell me he’d gotten away.
As a result I was twenty minutes late to start my shift. My supervisor told me he’d cut me some slack since it was my first month. “Remember,” he said, “you’re still in your probationary period.”
I took my first call a few minutes later.
“I have now waited an extra forty-eight hours for my package, a package I was supposed to receive in two days and which I now no longer need.”
We were almost on a first-name basis at this point.
“Once again, I’m so sorry for inconveniencing you,” I said. “I can process your refund within one business day, unless you’d prefer I ship your product again.”
“I don’t need the ‘product’ anymore. I needed it yesterday.”
“We will process your refund immediately, and we can offer free one-day shipping on your next order.” I was sitting on the couch, my eyes focused on my personal cell, which should have been buzzing with Danny’s call that very minute.
“You’re not hearing me, are you? I don’t need it anymore. I needed it a day ago. Thanks to you, I had to have my son’s birthday party without balloons.”
“That must have been very hard for you.” I pulled a blanket around my shoulders and pictured Danny pacing a jail cell.
“I said, ‘How does it feel to disappoint your son?’ You promised him balloons, yet when your package didn’t arrive, you didn’t even bother to drive your Tesla down to the store to buy them. So he had to sit there without a single decoration.”
“Are you fucking high or something?”
I was pacing now, three strides from wall to wall of the living room. “He relied on you, and you failed him. What’s his life going to be like now? He will never forget this. He will forget almost everything else, but not this.”
I hung up right as Mr. Happy started yelling.
I tried calling Danny about a hundred times. After doing some research, I knew which jail they would hold him in, unless he made bail, which I doubted, because Danny Collins had nothing except his belief that God would go easy on him. Obviously I could not call to see if he was there.
Right in the middle of this, Erin called. “You haven’t been answering your phone,” she said. “The doctor wanted to tell you this in person. He asked me to tell you he tried.”
Her defeated tone told me everything. “So she hasn’t had a miraculous recovery,” I said.
“No,” said Erin.
We can deliver a package anywhere in the continental United States within twenty-four hours. My company’s CEO has been to space. Yet we can’t fix a rotting memory.
My mother had stopped eating, Erin said. The doctor had decided it was time to upgrade her care. Erin explained in a clinical tone what would happen now. She didn’t sugarcoat it or offer me a shoulder to cry on, not that she owed me anything.
The Royale was no longer the right home for my mother, if it ever had been. The doctor recommended a higher level of care at a facility in Berkeley. I looked it up online. The third floor had a view of the Golden Gate, and the courtyard blazed with poppies in the spring.
“Is it more expensive?” I asked. For some reason I felt like being ridiculous.
“I can lend you some money if you need it,” she said. “For your mother. I’ve been saving.”
“Would you move back in with me?”
“No,” she said. “I won’t do that.”
I woke up a little after midnight with a pain in my neck that reached down to my back, or a pain in my back that flared up to my neck. My inbox had an e-mail from my supervisor. I didn’t open it. I knew what it said.
It seemed unlikely I’d ever be able to sleep again, so I went for a drive. I didn’t bring a list with me, but I scanned every porch I drove by.
If Danny had been arrested, he must have made bail by now. How could he have gotten the money? A bondsman? His sisters? Not me. That’s all I knew. He hadn’t even asked.
The first package I found was in El Cerrito. Ripping the box open, I chucked the Blu-ray into the backseat without bothering to read the title, then discarded the cardboard out the window. The next package was a wool blanket depicting various scenes from Texas history. So the night went: a designer handbag, the label stitched in gold; a stack of children’s books in Spanish; a box bursting with fresh carrots, kale, and something that might have been a turnip. I chucked it all in the backseat. I worked until I started to doze again. Then I pulled over and dreamed. In the dream I saw my mother at home, not the home, but a home.
I woke up to a knock and a bright light.
“Roll down the window,” said a voice.
For half a second I thought it was God. I cracked the window, fumbled for my wallet.
“Slow down there, buddy,” the cop said. He shined the light on my backseat, then shined it on me. Would I share a cell with Danny? At least I wouldn’t have to pay rent. And I’d have three square meals a day. Maybe Erin would send care packages.
“Follow me,” the cop finally said.
“OK.” If I had tried to say more, I would have vomited.
The cop got back in his cruiser, made an L of his arm out the window, and motioned for me to follow. We turned left at the next corner. Another left onto San Pablo. I didn’t even consider trying to escape. We got on the freeway, exited a few miles later.
He pulled up to a three-story building, white and belted with red and blue stripes. It didn’t look like a prison or a police station. The cop walked back to my car and again shined his flashlight in my eyes. I couldn’t see his face behind the blinding illumination.
“I know times are tough,” he said, his voice suddenly soft. “But you can’t camp on a residential street.”
He thought all the stuff in the back was mine. That it was everything I owned. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t make words. “I’m not—”
“This is the Richmond Rescue Mission,” he said. “They can take care of you. If I see you back on the street, I’m going to have to write you up.”
I nodded, but he seemed to want a word. “Yes” was all I said.
As I was driving away, it started to rain. A few wet blocks over I parked and forced my lungs to take in air. When I looked up, I saw a FOR SALE sign. There was a beautiful realtor’s face and a phone number. In bold navy-blue letters it said, WHERE GREAT MEMORIES ARE MADE.
I suddenly wanted to hear a certain voice again. Here, in full, was the most recent voice mail:
“Hi, Dawson. It’s your mom. I’m not sure where I’m calling from. Erin’s sitting here with me. She says — what was it? — she says we’re going to be moving soon, and we’re finally going to have that view of the bridge we always talked about. I wanted to tell you that . . . that I’m so proud of you — of you both — and I just can’t wait to meet my grandchildren.”