The Thieves
Levi Asher

In an insane world, what's impossible may be the only answer that makes sense.

When I was 25 years old I worked as a minimum-wage data-entry clerk for an information-services firm in a small Connecticut town. There were ten of us there, and our place of work was a converted warehouse in a decrepit industrial park near the shore of the Long Island Sound.

We sat at white formica benches and typed into huge greenish bubble-shaped terminals that looked like futuristic TV sets from the '40s. It was depressing and pointless work. Our terminals were covered with a strange algae-like grime that we only discovered after Judy spilled coffee all over hers, exposing a pea-soup colored streak of plastic underneath. We weren't even sure if we were allowed to clean our terminals, and we never did; our collective sense of self was so low that we thought ourselves less important than the grime.

To work there, you had to have been a failure at something else. I had been trained as a cellist since early childhood and graduated from a top conservatory in New England, but then I went through a strange period that ended with my sudden and inexplicable decision to enter law school.

I suppose I was trying to affirm my complete freedom in the universe. In retrospect this was the stupidest thing I'd ever done, although the move did successfully confuse my friends and family.

But there was one problem, one thing I forgot to consider: law school was hard. I'd had no idea. I guess I thought my professors would allow me to pass through their classes just on the basis of my profound sense of irony. They would see that I was really a musician, that I posed no risk of ever taking work away from real lawyers. My professors didn't see it that way. For a while they found me useful as somebody they could count on not to know an answer in class, but they soon stopped even asking me questions. Picking on me was so easy it made them look bad.

I dropped out after two semesters, and one of my professors told me that he was hiring data-entry clerks for a small side venture he was involved in. He had apparently admired the deft typing I'd displayed in my term papers, although he'd given me a D in his class. I was flattered that he considered me employable, although I grew less flattered as I gradually discovered that his small side venture was making him a fortune. He'd drive up to the warehouse in a Jaguar to check on us occasionally, and the employees who'd been there a while called him all kinds of names behind his back.

My coworkers were around my age, but we didn't form close friendships. Being there was kind of like sitting in a waiting room at a psychiatrist's office: you're embarrassed to be seen there yourself and don't exactly feel like getting to know anybody else either. But we needed to break the monotony, so we would drive into town together for pizza sometimes, or gather around the coffee maker or the candy machine and talk about anything we could think of. Roger, Susan, and I would spend ten minutes discussing health insurance, a subject none of us were especially interested in or knowledgable about, and then Roger would go to the men's room and Michael would wander by and the three of us would talk about football or the ozone layer or the shape of Coca-Cola bottles, and then I'd leave Michael and Susan to continue the conversation without me, and two hours later I'd get into a rubber-band fight with Michael and Judy and Sean. But there were no real relationships. The associations we formed were like fractals: they grew according to random rules, they were of random size, and they lasted for a random period of time. And, ultimately, they meant nothing.

I was in a coffee-break conversation fractal with Harold and Rachel and Sean one morning, and Harold was saying that he'd been shopping for a new home computer. It struck me at the time that I would very much dislike having a computer at home when I spent all day on one at work. The fact that Harold wanted to buy a computer was a new addition to the list of things I disliked about him. The first thing was that he, alone of the ten of us who worked there, did not seem to realize this was a horrible job. The second was that he assumed that everybody watched the same TV shows he watched and would come in to work trying to discuss last night's Charles In Charge as if no American would do anything but watch Charles In Charge on a Wednesday night. Finally, he chewed loudly when he ate, and he'd stuff greasy tuna sandwiches into his mouth and lick his fingers with sickening aplomb. It was only because of the rules of fractal formation that I was drinking coffee with him now.

Several days after Harold bought his computer, he started worrying about his check. He'd put a certified check for $2,700 plus tax in the mail to Computers Unlimited in New Jersey. He'd called them every afternoon since then and they hadn't recieved it. We started hearing about this every time we were in a fractal with Harold, and in fact some of us started avoiding being in a fractal with Harold because we were sick of hearing about his lost check. Still, Harold kept reciting his saga, and it began to seep into our brains. Driving to work one morning, I suddenly realized that I'd been sitting there thinking about Harold's check, wondering what news of the lost piece of mail this day would bring.

That was on a Thursday morning, and the check didn't arrive that day or the next. The next day, Saturday, I was in a drugstore on Main Street buying some allergy medicine. I was opening the heavy glass door to leave the shop when the door was almost pushed closed on me by a small group of young men. They seemed like the kind a newspaper might refer to as `a gang of young toughs,' and they looked almost too much the part to be real. The tallest one, who seemed to be leading the pack, was wearing a long-sleeved striped shirt and tattered pants. A slingshot stuck out of his back pocket. They all had shaggy, uncombed hair and nasty smirks, and before they shoved their way into the drugstore they'd been running down the street kicking lampposts and scaring dogs and yelling to each other. The strange thing was, I was sure that at the moment they pushed the drugstore door back at me I heard one of them say "Harold's check." I didn't entertain the thought that this guy could have actually said it, of course, but I found it strange that I should have so distinctly imagined I'd heard it. I stood on the sidewalk after I left the drugstore and watched as they clamored out of the store and ran into the distance, and I was surprised to hear it again, this time in another one's voice: "Yeah! Harold's check! All right!"

Harold lived in Old Fairfield, another small town about 20 minutes away. There would have been no reason for the letter to come anywhere near the town where I lived.

But only a day after that, while I was driving home from work along Main Street, I spotted the guys again, and they were coming out of an appliance store carrying a cardboard box containing a brand-new color TV. Shocked, I steered my car into a parking space to watch them. There were four of them, the same ones I'd seen over the weekend, and they were carrying the box carefully and slowly, with one person at each corner, as if it now belonged to them all together. It was a 25-inch set, according to the box. I expected to see them put it into a car, but they continued to carry it down the sidewalk, and since Main was a one-way street I could not turn my car around to follow them.

Where were they taking the box? And who were they? They seemed to be in their late teens, so if there was a college nearby I might have guessed that they were students. But there was no college within miles. They could have been sharing an apartment in the area anyway--although they could not have been around long, because I was sure I would have noticed them before. They really were an unusual-looking bunch. They seemed born for delinquency. They looked uncontrollable, as if their hair could never have been combed, as if no mother could have ever held them.

And yet at the same time they seemed somehow benevolent, although I could not figure out why. Perhaps it was because they seemed to belong to a different era. Their striped shirts, crown-shaped caps and brown leather shoes with sagging argyle socks made them look like a cartoonist's drawing of a gang of street toughs. Outdated as they seemed though, they were as integrated (one of the four was black, and one Chinese) as a birthday party on The Brady Bunch. I tried to memorize as much as I could about them as they walked down the street. Before long they'd walked so far down Main Street I could not see them.

A week later--and during this week Harold's check still did not arrive--I was driving in a different part of town on an empty strip of highway, when I was suddenly cut off by a screeching, speeding car that careened in front of me with no warning at all from a parking lot on the street. It was the four guys again, now driving in one of the worst cars I'd ever seen. The jalopy was huge and noisy and must have been 30 years old at least. They hadn't had a car last week, so I was surprised to see them in one now. I could see them clearly, because the convertible top seemed to be stuck half open. They could have just bought it, I realized, although I could not imagine anyone either selling or buying a car like this one.

The four of them were speeding recklessly down the street, ignoring the lanes, yelling and whooping and standing in their seats calling out nasty remarks to ladies on the sidewalk. I followed closely behind them, and when they swerved dangerously into a 7-11 parking lot I followed them, parked, and waited. Two of them ran in holding a fistful of rolled bills and came running out with two six-packs of root beer. They jumped into the car and tore out of the parking lot, screeching their tires, yelling and waving their bottles of root beer happily.

Their car was as weak as it was noisy, though, and I didn't have much trouble staying with them. They seemed to be going nowhere, just driving all over town--speeding up between traffic lights, braking hard to make their tires screech at each stop, and then revving their puttering engine to sound menacing while they waited for the light to turn green. At one red light I pulled up right next to them. At that moment the one in the front passenger's seat reached forward and took an opened envelope out of the car's glove compartment. He removed from the envelope what seemed to be some kind of bank slip, such as a reciept for a cashed check. As I watched, stunned, this scruffy young man gazed at the slip and suddenly kissed it, and then waved it in the air and yelled something as the light turned green and the driver stepped on the gas.

The next day at work I asked Harold what he'd heard recently about the check. Not wanting to seem completely insane, I had no intention of trying to explain to him what I'd seen, but I asked him, "How do you know somebody didn't steal your check? What else could have happened to it, anyway?"

"It wasn't stolen," he said. "I stuck it in a post office mailbox. You can't steal a letter from a post office mailbox. It's just lost. And anyway, even if somebody did steal it, they wouldn't be able to do anything with the check. It's made out to the computer store."

"They could forge a signature or something."

"Forge what signature? A guy's gonna walk into a bank and say, `Yeah, uh, I'm from the computer store, can you put this money into my personal account?' You think they'd believe him? You don't just need a signature with a certified check. You need identification, and a rubber stamp, and a company number, and even then all you're allowed to do is deposit the money into the company account. If you tried to cash it they'd get suspicious."

"Still, you don't know for sure," I said. "You should stop the check."

"It was a certified check," Harold said. "It's the biggest pain in the world stopping a certified check. I already called the bank, and they said if I want to stop it I have to go down to the main office and fill out a bunch of forms, and then I have to get a voucher from the computer store signed by a notary public. Look, I know the letter's gonna turn up. It'll get there next week."

Everything he said made sense, but I still wasn't sure. I realized, though, that if what I'd seen meant that his check had been stolen and cashed, then stopping it would do no good anyway. Also, as we were having this conversation a couple of other people wandered into the hallway and joined the fractal and the next thing I knew I had five people all yelling at me that there was no way anybody could have obtained cash from that check. I hate it when an entire fractal agrees on something that I don't agree with and everybody starts yelling at me all at the same time. I didn't know anything about how banks worked and I didn't understand the subtle differences among bank checks and certified checks and cashier's checks, and I didn't know why everybody at work was suddenly so intensely caught up with the subject, and I didn't particularly care either. I got out of the fractal and drank my coffee alone at my desk that day.

That weekend I went for a walk in Burnside Park near my apartment. Burnside Park was on an inlet that flowed out to the sound, and it had a free ramp that people could use to get their boats into the water. It was a nice day and there were a few boaters lined up waiting to use the ramp. As I walked past I heard some familiar voices yelling, and I was surprised to see the same four guys again, this time in bathing trunks. They were at the front of the line pushing a small powerboat off a trailer onto the ramp. I looked at them and they looked at me and the boat made a loud splash as it slid off the trailer and hit the water. It was a new boat, not large or fancy but nice enough, and the four guys were misbehaving as usual. One was spitting on the ramp and shouting obscenities at the other boaters waiting in line; another was standing in the boat and almost tipping it over; and yet another chomped on a candy and tossed the wrapper into the water. As the two who were pushing the boat jumped in and started the motor, I was stunned to see that the name of the boat, freshly painted in large black capital letters, was HAROLD.

By the end of the following week, Harold had begun the procedures necessary to stop his certified check. He had the post office put a tracer on the lost piece of mail, which apparently required several hours' worth of filling out and delivering forms. Now his bank was sending him a form for a voucher to stop the check, and he was going to have to mail the form to the computer store in New Jersey, have the store mail it back, go to a notary public, have the notary public verify his signature, and mail the form back to the bank. Only then would the bank allow Harold to begin the proceedings for acquiring a new check. So Harold was pretty grouchy about the whole thing by this time.

But one morning, a week or so later, he walked in to work with a sunny expression. The post office had located the piece of mail, he said, and was now sending it along to the computer store. We all wanted an explanation of how it could have been lost for so many weeks, but Harold said he'd been unable to get one. The check had definitely been located, though he'd notified the computer store and the bank and the post office--I wondered why he'd neglected the local newspapers--and now everything was back on track.

The way I saw it, now he was really in trouble. Somehow the post office had mistaken some other piece of mail for this piece of mail, and now Harold had thrown away his voucher and cancelled his appointment with the notary public, and soon he was going to realize that the check was still lost after all. The next afternoon at work, though, he hung up his phone and said proudly, "Well, they got it. They're delivering the computer tonight."

Everybody congratulated him. As for me, I was somewhat surprised. But I knew for sure that something was not what it seemed to be. Maybe the post office had been lying and now the computer store was lying. Or maybe Harold was lying. I said to him, "So, you think now maybe the delivery guys will lose it and it'll be another month?"

Harold wasn't amused. "I seriously doubt it," he said.

I was so sure that no computer would arrive at Harold's home that I felt perversely excited in anticipation of the story Harold would tell in the morning, after the computer failed to show up. But that night as I sat in my apartment, I suddenly had the crushing feeling that the computer really was going to be delivered. This would make no sense at all--who had those guys been, and where had they gotten all their money, and where had Harold's check been all this time? Why had the boat been called Harold? And I hadn't seen the four guys around town in the past few days. Suddenly the fact that Harold's computer would be delivered that night seemed certain. It couldn't be--and yet, the moment it occurred to me that it might be, it suddenly seemed obvious that it would be.

And it happened just that way. Not only did the computer arrive, but Harold was blasé about it in the morning and too busy with his work to talk. All I felt was a terrible disappointment. Now things were back to their normal state: Nothing made sense. There was no secret pattern in anything, and I felt as if something brilliant and beautiful had been snatched from my hands.

Levi Asher ( Lives with his wife and children in New York City, where he works for a large publishing company. He is the creator of Literary Kicks, a World Wide Web site devoted to the Beat Generation, and the co-editor of Coffeehouse: Writings from the Web, an anthology of Web fiction which includes stories from InterText. (You can visit the Coffeehouse Website at

InterText stories written by Levi Asher: "Jeannie Might Know" (v4n2), "The Thieves" (v4n5).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Levi Asher.