Other People’s Clothes

by Ron Singer

No doubt about it, they were his. If it had been just one garment –say, the long-sleeved collarless light blue shirt– it might have been coincidence. But the white duck pants with the frayed cuffs and the big spot from the dropped raspberry on the left knee? The ancient, torn, khaki baseball cap with the black brim skewed to the left? No, they were Dave’s clothes, his stolen clothes.

Not that they looked bad on the thief. She was a slender young blonde, about five-nine, the same height as he was. When she stretched her arms toward the beautiful blue sky … well, let’s just say, if Dave had done that, he didn’t think many heads would have turned. Ditto for the removal of her (his) clothes and the slathering of her body with oil, in preparation for a bout of sunbathing.

“Thief?” Dave would certainly never call anyone that without cause, not even if the person-in-question had been another balding sixty-something. But the reason he thought “thief” was that, the day before, his clothes had disappeared from an unlocked locker at the Health Club.

* * *

When he had finished his workout –half an hour on the stationary bike, then fifty “crunches” (twitches, really)– and returned to the locker room to shower, the clothes were gone, all of them. Luckily, he always kept his wallet and keys with him during the workout, so he hadn’t lost those. The showering materials –shampoo, soap, sandals and towel– were also right where he had left them, on the shelf above the now denuded clothes hooks. And the thief had spared his shoes, which sat side by side beneath the hooks.

Luckily, too, it was a warm afternoon. So he wrapped the soap, shoes and shampoo in the unused towel, and still wearing his sweaty gym clothes, scurried home to his apartment two blocks away. There, he showered, donned substitute attire, and called the Club to report the theft.

The young man who picked up was very polite, tolerating without interruption the caller’s weak threats and his diatribe about the treacherous times in which they lived. When Dave had spent himself, the clerk promised to call back as soon as he could “solve the problem.”

“Yeah, right!” Dave thought. He remembered a now-deceased lawyer friend having mentioned that those “Not Responsible for…” signs, one of which was prominently displayed at the entrance to the locker room, did not actually shield institutions from liability. Their purpose, the friend explained, was to make people more cautious and, if push came to shove, to discourage law suits.

* * *

It was a bright, hot Sunday afternoon in mid-August. An hour ago, when Dave arrived at the beach, the only parking spot he was able to find in the huge lot was in the second row from the back. After threading his way past hundreds of cars, he trudged across the sand, which was a mine field of elaborate picnics, multiple kamikaze sporting events, and competing boom boxes that made the place sound like an open-air electronics store. Halfway to the water, he finally found a space, which turned out to be twenty yards from the young woman. From the vantage point of his small mesh-and-aluminum folding chair, experiencing the shock of recognition, he saw the stolen garments.

“Stolen?” What other explanation could there be? “Sorry, my boyfriend happened to be wearing the same clothes as you, and he must have left his in the locker right next to yours. Did you look?”

“Piss on my head,” Dave could have riposted, “but don’t tell me it’s raining.” He had heard that one about four decades before, during Basic Training at Fort Bragg, N.C. Luckily, the Viet Nam war had ended before he could be deployed.

The question was how the young woman had gotten hold of his clothes. Since there was no way she could have stolen them from the Men’s locker room at the Club, maybe it was the boyfriend, and he had loaned her the purloined garments as a beach [sic] cover up.

After ten minutes of uncertainty, Dave decided to accost her. She now lay face down on a blanket, propped on her elbows reading a magazine. Gathering his things, he inched forward, pretending to be looking for a new spot, and thinking that the throng provided good cover. Halfway to the young woman, he stopped, and a football whizzed past his ear, presumably because the “QB” had anticipated that he would keep moving.

“Sorry,” he heard, from a tall, hefty boy who was working on a Major League sunburn.

“No problem,” he replied. (Isn’t that what people said nowadays?)

But he realized that he did, in fact, have a problem, which was the reason he had stopped: how should he approach the young woman?

“Oh, hello. Aren’t those my clothes on your blanket?”

Likely reply #1: “Give me a break, Gramps, you some kind of fetishist?”

Likely reply #2: “Huh? I mean, guys are always trying to get into my pants, but I never heard that one before!”

A different approach: “Excuse me, Miss –Ms.—do you mind if I ask you where you bought those clothes?”

Likely reply: “Why? You want to go shopping in the same store? Get lost, fool!”

It dawned on him that this was a situation where there was no right thing to say.

Common Sense: “Just forget about it, Dave. No point having a coronary over some worn-out old rags.”

Reply: “Excuse me? Those aren’t ‘some worn-out old rags.’ They are my favorite, most comfortable, everyday warm-weather clothes.”

C.S.: “Boo hoo! Then think of a smart way to get them back.”

Reply: “Hmm.”

When in doubt, go slow. Inching forward again, he spotted a space not more than twenty feet from the lovely thief. Why, you ask, was this space available? Because of its proximity to a garbage basket that had been tipped over. Skirting the reeking mess, he carefully set up his chair and waited. For what, he did not know. Afraid he might lose her, he did not even venture into the surf.

Half an hour later, the young woman glanced at her phone, stood up, and did the strip tease in reverse, donning the purloined garments. It was time to act –sort of. Gathering his own things, Dave followed her as unobtrusively as possible to the parking lot. When she reached the third row, suggesting an early arrival, she used a key to open her car, a middle-aged domestic banger, and put her things in the trunk.

Memorizing her plate number, he walked back to his own car (a newer, Japanese model), where he copied the number onto the back of a credit-car receipt. Putting his own things on the back seat, and resisting an impulse to try to follow the other car, he exited the lot and joined the moderate-to-heavy Sunday afternoon traffic.

***

When he got home, after some leftover rotisserie chicken, he enjoyed an old black-and-white film noir on Public TV, then fell asleep trying to forget the clothes. The next morning, he did the usual: breakfast, dishes, make the bed, fuss with his email. At this point, the phone rang. It was the clerk from the Health Club, calling, no doubt, to express his regrets. But after a few courtesies, he cut to the surprising chase:

“Good news about your clothes, Sir! I’m happy to report that we’ve located them.” (Whoa?! How…) “This is what appears to have happened. When a client leaves possessions of any kind in an unlocked locker, the attendant is instructed to remove them. We then secure the items in the Lost-and-Found closet, which is located to the rear of the locker room on the left, as you come in. We follow this procedure because, like everyone else these days [har har!], we do suffer the occasional theft.”

Although he was totally baffled, Dave said nothing. Had the young woman’s clothes really been a coincidence? Was it even possible that the raspberry stain on her pants had been something else? But he thought that mentioning the beach episode might make the young man think he was crazy.

The clerk nattered on. ”Since our attendants perform frequent sweeps of the locker room, what must have happened, sir, is that your clothes were removed for safeguarding while you were busy enjoying your workout.”

Dave finally piped up. “But shouldn’t they leave a note, or something? So people will know?”

“Excellent suggestion, sir! Next time you come in, why don’t you write that down on one of the slips we provide at the front desk, and drop it in the Suggestion Box. And, of course, you can also pick up your clothes. For security purposes, we will, however, ask that you provide a picture I.D., such as a valid driver’s license, and that you describe the lost items. I’m sure you understand the reason for these precau… Oops! Sorry! I have a call on the other line. Please hold!”

“’Bye,” Dave replied hastily. “See you later.”

“… nice day, Sir,” said the clerk, also hastily.

After lunch and a short, restless nap, still puzzled, Dave gathered his things, walked over to the Club, and hurried to the Lost-and-Found. Describing his clothes and displaying his driver’s license to the man on duty, an older African-American, he was silently handed a large, neatly folded clear plastic bag. Everything seemed there, and the garments had even been laundered –unfortunately, with perfumed detergent. When he checked more carefully, however, his pants knee no longer had the raspberry stain. Stranger and stranger…

With a shrug, he changed, then put both sets of clothes into a locker, and secured it with a lock he had brought from home. Trying hard to keep his mind free and clear, he joined the post-weekend repentance crowd in the room with the machines, where he proceeded to a particularly vigorous workout. When he returned to the locker room, his foolish fantasy that the clothes had disappeared again proved to be just that. He showered, dressed, and, carrying the plastic bag, to which he added his workout kit, left the Club, nodding to the young man at the front desk, who was absorbed in an intense phone conversation.

***

“Hey, Babe, it’s me. Has that old fart picked up his clothes yet? Everything cool?”

“No thanks to you, Ginny!” replied the clerk. “I mean, I left the message Saturday night, and it took you twenty-four hours to bring the stuff back? And the damn things reeked of suntan oil. We had to run them through the washing machine three times.”

“OMG! I already told you, George, I was out Saturday night and at the beach all day yesterday, and I forgot my phone at home. I mean, I brought the damn clothes back as soon as I got your message.”

George lowered his voice and muffled the receiver with his hand. “Give me a break, Ginny! You expect me to believe you didn’t check your messages for twenty-four hours?” He drew a ragged breath. “Okay, let’s forget that little lie. But there’s a lesson here: no more boosting from unlocked lockers. That’s it! I mean, it was nice while it lasted –the fancy watches, designer threads– but I mean, this may be a crap job, but it’s the only one I have.”

“Okay, okay, peace! I’m a reformed woman. And to celebrate, suppose I take you out for Chinese tonight. Meet me at the office at, say, seven?”

“Roger, will do, Sir –I mean, Ma‘am.”

* * *

So that was that. Dave got his favorite warm-weather clothes back, and the young woman at the beach gradually faded into a not unpleasant memory –or yet another chapter in the Annals of Bewilderment. Later, perhaps, he might even share a laugh over this puzzling episode. (But with whom?)

As for the two thieves, they presumably learned the error of their ways, and were now hastening along the road to maturity. So for the moment, at least, everyone was happy. No harm, no foul. Am I right? 

******

Ron Singer trawls the genres: poetry, fiction, satire, journalism (about Africa), and drama (including librettos for two operas, recorded and performed). His newest book, UHURU REVISITED: INTERVIEWS WITH PRO-DEMOCRACY LEADERS (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press, Feb. 1, 2015) can be found in about 100 college and public libraries. To order a copy: http://www.africaworldpressbooks.com/servlet/Detail?no=1171  And to learn more about Ron’s work: http://ronsinger.net/

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