The Thief and the Baby by Townsend Walker

People sometimes talk about the peacefulness of fog. A morning wrap that calms. Obliterates time. Forgives.

Gino woke up late that morning. He’d had trouble sleeping. The robbery hadn’t gone smoothly. There’ d been someone in the apartment and he’d been forced to deal with her. He shook off the memory, jumped into his blue coveralls and went into the kitchen. He ate the bread and cherry j am his wife left out for him, then grabbed his carpenter’s toolbox, and headed out for coffee. He was an hour later than usual, but
thought Claudio and Silvio might still be at Crippa’s café. On the way he passed a news kiosk and saw the headline in La Repubblica.

Newborn Drowned in Basin

Robbery. Apartment. Bile rose in his throat, bringing up the sharp, bitter taste of cherries. He dug into his pocket for ninety centisimi to buy the paper. Coins spilled over the sidewalk, between the cobblestones, into the street. He scuttled on his hands and knees to retrieve them. Reaching under a parked car, he scraped the top of his hand.

Merda. Finally, paper in hand, he hurried to another café, one where he wasn’t known.

It was a narrow room with bits of paper and butts littering the floor. Cigarette smoke and the smell of stale beer hung in the air; a place that survived on a small band of pensioners. He ordered a cappuccino and sat staring at the paper, willing himself to

23 Casatenovo (Lecco) 8 May.

This morning Mirko is dead, drowned. According to his mother, Maria Patrizio Magni, 29, a thief came into the apartment on Via della Misericordia yesterday morning while she was bathing her son.

“I was hit on the head, dragged into the kitchen, pulled away from my baby, and tied up," she said.

The first to discover the tragedy was the baby’s grandfather. In the bathroom he foundthebaby lifeless in the sink. Maria Patrizio was gagged and lying on the kitchen floor, her arms and legs bound to a chair.

The family had been preparing for Mirko’s baptism. He was going to receive the first sacrament next Sunday. The Church of San Carlo and the restaurant for the party had
been reserved. His white baptismal gown was laid out.

In addition to the tragic death, five hundred euros the family had saved for the
baptism celebration were missing.

In a statement last evening, Il colonnello Luciano Garofano vowed, “The carabinieri will hunt down the heartless thief who tied up a woman while her innocent baby drown, a vile act, worse than murder. The killer will be found."

Killer! Gino’s skin felt hot; tiny prickling fires broke out on his face and neck, down to his stomach; sweat chilled his back.

His hand jerked, hitting his cup, spilling it. Half the coffee ran off the table onto his pants. I didn’t kill anyone; I only took some money. Porca miseria! The barista cameover to see if she could help. Gino mumbled something, got up, knocked over a chair, and left. He found himself in a small piazza surrounded by flaking yellow and brown buildings with sagging shutters and broken tile roofs. Lines of wet laundry and hanging pots of geraniums competed for sunlight. He lost his footing, caught himself, stumbled, finally slumping against the base of a small graffitied fountain. Mothers, toddlers in tow, veered away in disgust at the bum with a stained pant leg.

What if the police find me? What would happen to my boys? Those women, the way they looked at me. Finally, Gino smelled the dog piss he was lying in, and got up.

He forced himself to walk normally to his van, a few blocks away, but floodedthe engine twice before got it started. Driving was a nightmare. The street signs made no sense; twice he made a wrong turn. Killer! Outside town he drove south on SP 51, stopped on the shoulder of the road near a wooded area. He walked into the woods. He had often gone to the forest that bordered his step-father’s farm. It had been the place where he could get away from his quarreling family. The scent of resin and the quiet of the pine needle floor calmed him and allowed him to think clearly.

Yesterday, Gino had spent 50 euros from his robbery on roses for his wife and treats for his two boys, Alessandro and Matteo. He loved being able to bring his family surprises; it made him feel he was taking care of them. When he returned home, claiming the building contractor had finally paid up; Giulia had led him into the bedroom and given him a particularly warm welcome.

He was a carpenter, but when the economy had slumped three years earlier, work disappeared. He told himself he had no choice; he’ d support his family, no matter what it took.

He sat down against a pine tree. He had planned all of his j obs very carefully: spent days watching people go in and out, and for three years his robberies had always gone smoothly. Until yesterday. Yesterday, when someone was in the apartment. And now, a dead baby.

Gino knew he hadn’ t killed the baby. I’m not a killer, he kept repeating to himself, I didn’t do it. o matter what the police say. The woman had always left early, taken the baby with her; she wasn’t supposed to be there. How could I have known the baby was in the sink? He thought the woman was washing her hands. Why was she washing a baby in a bathroom sink? Giulia had never washed their boys that way.


He had crept up behind her. Her tight pink skirt outlined bikini panties as she leaned over, and he remembered red straps showing through her lace blouse. A skinny woman that smelled like soap. When he clamped his hand and the tape over her mouth,she gagged, kept shaking her head. She was trying to tell me something. She knew what would happen. She fought back so hard he thought the neighbors would hear thecommotion. That’s
why he had gotten out so fast after he found the money.

I’m being sucked down into a hole. How does this end? What if the police findme? Who would help a baby killer? I might as well be dead.

The next morning he went to Cippa’s for coffee with Claudio and Silvio. As he was walking, it seemed like the people he passed on the sidewalk were eyeing him; they knew what he’ d done; they were pronouncing sentence with their stares. After the first block, he turned away when anyone approached. By the time he reached the café, he was wet with perspiration.

Cippa’s was chrome and glass, pastry and gelato cases in front and a gleaming red espresso maker behind the bar. The scent of freshly ground coffee so heavy he could taste it. No trouble spotting his friends sitting in the back: Claudio with heavy gold chains, shiny purple shirt, and shoulder length black hair; Silvio in his Milano AC shirt, broad black and red vertical stripes, and bulging blue eyes. They were performing their morning ritual: Silvio was shouting and waving his arms and Claudio was pretending to listen.

“Hey, Gino, where were you yesterday?" Silvio called. “You missed all the excitement."

"Yeah, imagine going to steal a couple hundred euros and ending up with a dead baby on your hands." Claudio pulled his chains up like a noose. “I bet that guy doesn’t try to pull a job again."

A wave of nausea poured over Gino.

“But did you see the picture of the mother," Silvio said. “A real babe- -pretty, brown eyes, blonde. Paper says she was a dancer on a game show; too bad they didn’tgive us a full length shot."

“Do you read the paper or just look at the pictures?" Claudio asked. “She’s in the hospital, staring at the wall, poor kid."

What can happen next? Is this never going to end?

“Gino, you’re out of it this morning. What’s your take?" Claudio asked.

Gino, who had only been half listening, said, “Yeah, you’re right. How about Leonardo last night? That header over the goalie.¿

“You are out of it," Silvio said. “We’re talking about a dead baby, not a football match, cretino."

Maybe I should have thought about the baby. When he’ d opened that apartment door there was no one in the living room, a space crammed with a faded red sofa and overstuffed green chairs. Parents’ old furniture. Hardly room to walk. He took two steps, heard water running. Off to the side of the kitchen, a woman washing her hands. He’d set his toolbox down, opened it, pulled out a roll of duck tape. He’ d crossed the living
room, slipped into the bathroom and grabbed her, covered her mouth, pulled her fighting into the kitchen. He forced her down in a chair, tied her hands, noticed her red nail polish was chipped. Then he taped her legs to the chair. The only sounds were choked
screams, the gurgle of running water, and screech of tape ripping from the roll.

Gino had searched for money in the kitchen drawers and found it under some towels. As he turned to go he’ d seen her face, contorted in the attempt to scream through the tape; cheeks, hollow and flushed; eyes, rimmed in black mascara, filled with tears, no light left in them. She kept twisting her head, trying to turn around. Now, he knew why. Her baby was slipping under the water; the baby’s eyes blinking, mouth
opening and closing, body twitching, then still.

Gino drove to via Leone, a street where doctors and lawyers lived. The apartment buildings were new but designed to replicate the style of Roman villas: red masonry, black columns, and mosaics. He’ d spent a little time on this street last week selecting likely targets, but didn’ t have time for his usual planning. He had to move before money ran out. He parked opposite number 3 2 and sat there in his small gray Fiat van, the type seemingly made for Lilliputian tradesmen. Mid-afternoon, he took his toolbox from the cargo area and went inside. The large front door opened onto a tiled courtyard. Stone planters with box wood shrubs surrounded a small fountain. Some of his anxiety left
him; he began to feel he was in familiar surroundings. A carpenter and his tools were accepted sights in apartment buildings. And physically, Gino did not attract attention: 5’ 7", slight build, shaggy black hair, only a rather long nose that turned right as it left
his face. He looked at the names on the mailboxes, found a doctor, second floor on the right. He rang the bell; no one answered, and then rang again, to be sure. He walked upstairs, looked at the lock, an easy one. Back in the van, he continued watching. No
one came out of the building, but at six, people started to come home. At eight, he saw a couple carrying bundles go in; two minutes later there were lights in the doctor’s apartment. Gino thought afternoon would be the time to pull the job. Then he drove
home, fighting to keep the baby’s death from haunting the new job.

Giulia was standing in the door of their apartment, her long black hair pulled back against her head. Though 4’ 10" and petite, she had a way of boring into Gino’s eyes with a ferocity that forced him to look away. “And where have you been?"

He shrugged, “On a job, why?"

“There was no work being done there," she countered.

“The contractor had an emergency repair on the other side of town."

“And you couldn’t let me know?" she replied. “On the one day I needed your help. Matteo’s in the hospital."

“What happened?" he asked.

“The same thing that happens to all boys who jump out of trees: a concussion and a broken leg."

Behind her at the kitchen table, Gino saw his older son Alessandro had stopped eating his supper; his eyes glued on his mother scolding his father.

“When I went to find you, no one was there. No one knew where you were. Matteo kept asking for you."

She poked him in the chest. “Now go see him."

The acrid smell of disinfectant hit Gino when he walked in the hospital. There was no one at the information desk, so he wandered up and down long empty corridors until he found the ward Matteo was in. His son was groggy from the pain pills, his mud brown hair was matted across his face, and his usually wide eyes were barely slits. Only by his nose, shaped like his father’s, was Gino able to pick him out. He put his hand on
Matteo’s shoulder and whispered “I’m here now." His son didn’t move.

I’m a nothing, niente. A baby died. The police are after me. Giulia is mad. My boy is a mess. He turned and slowly walked out of the room, down the stairs to his van.

He didn’t want to go home, so stopped at a bar near the hospital. Everyone in the bar was watching TV; he sat at the far end of the counter and ordered a whiskey. It went down quickly, so he ordered another. The game show l’eredita came on, with girls dancing around the MC. The baby’s mother, Maria Patrizio, danced on a show like this.

I’ll never get away from this, never. He had two more whiskeys and shuffled out to his van.

It was after eleven when he got back to the apartment. Giulia was already asleep.

He went to bed and closed his eyes. Mirko, Matteo, Mirko, Matteo. A baby’s face fused with Matteo’s face, became Matteo, Matteo under water, Mirko in Matteo’s bed. Gino and Maria Patrizio in her kitchen. Saucer eyes and a gaping mouth filled her face. She
ran at him with a knife. He was face up under water, bloody bubbles streaming from his lips.

He woke up, couldn’t get his eyes to open and stumbled into the kitchen. Giulia was drinking her coffee, flipping through Donna Moderna.

“How was Matteo last night?"

“Out of it; he didn’ t recognize me."

“Will you pick him up from the hospital at noon?" she asked.

Giulia was quiet for a moment; then looked up at him. He knew she could smell his metallic fear. Her eyes were unblinking, her lips a pencil line. No softness in her face.

“Why did you lie to me yesterday?"

“I got it all mixed up- - the address, the job, everything. I was working with Claudio."

“Funny, I saw Claudio’s wife yesterday morning. She said they were leaving for her mother’s on the noon train."

“I don’t know what to say."

“How about the truth? Where were you? What were you doing? What are you hiding?" Her questions were bullets speeding at his head. It was how he imagined the police would be when they picked him up.

Seeing his shattered eyes, her face softened. “I’m worried; I think there’s something you’re not telling me. You’ve been acting strangely the last couple days," she said. “We'll talk tonight. Now I ve got to get Alessandro off to school and get to the shop."

Despite the pretty nurses hovering over him, his son was still feeling bruised when Gino picked him up. So was he, after paying the 200 euro bill. Gino was determined to make it up to Matteo for not being there after he fell, so on the ride home did his imitations
of Pinocchio, Il Duce, Il Papa, then Pulchinella. The character’s high-pitched peep, like a frightened chick, put Matteo into a spasm of giggles.
Gino carried him up to their apartment, put him in Giulia’s arms, and left.

He drove over to via Leone and sat outside at a café. It was in the middle of small shops: bakery, dress store, pharmacy, and hair salon. Gino liked to sit and watch, gauge the rhythm of the traffic around his targets. Still, he was anxious, nearly nauseous
because he’ d had so little time casing the doctor’s apartment; that, and the owner of the café kept looking at him. The owner came out on the sidewalk three or four times, casually looked around at the other patrons, but when his eyes shifted to Gino, they
narrowed and lingered. Was he making notes? Had that woman, Maria Patrizio, woken up and described him? I’ ve got to get out of here. Gino left before he was ready, but he knew if he didn’t do it now, he’ never pull another job.

He paid his tab, got his tools from the van, and hurried down to number 32. The front door of the building was open. He rang the bell of the doctor’s apartment. No one answered. He went up two flights of stairs, tried the door; it was locked. He took a ring
of master keys from his pocket; the second one worked. In the salon he stopped. The room was richly furnished: wood paneling, tapestries, oriental carpets, silver bowls and candlesticks. He listened--only the slow ticking of a grandfather clock. This was not
going to be like the last job. This one was going smoothly; he’d have time to look round, find the best stuff. He knew where he could get a good price for silver, and he was sure he’d find money in a drawer, every Italian’s second bank.

A woman’s voice from the inside of the apartment called, “Angelo, is that you?"

Gino turned quickly, caught his heel on the rug, missed the first step out the door, recovered his balance, then slipped on the top stair. He dropped his toolbox and its latch popped open. As he tumbled down the stairs, hammer, screw driver, and saw rained down on top of him. He lay crumbled up at the bottom of the stairs just long enough to feel every sprain and bruise. Quickly, he wrenched himself up, gathered his tools,
stumbled out of the building, and crumpled in his van. Only then did he notice his head and hands were bleeding. Dio mio, what else can go wrong? He bowed his head and prayed. To Mirko. Babies have a special place in heaven. Mirko, baby Mirko, you understand, I need to feed my boys.
He cleaned himself up and drove home. He mumbled to Giulia something about falling down. She washed his head, put iodine and bandages on his cuts, and put him to bed with a tisane. He fell into a deep sleep. When he tried to get out of bed the next
morning, he couldn’t.

He fell back asleep. Running water, hammers and saws floating through the air, limp bodies, taped ankles, babies frantically splashing in the sea. He dove into the water.

He would save them. He swam and swam, got no closer, continued to swim, couldn’t turn back, had to keep on. Slowly he sank into darkness, no longer breathing. He screamed himself awake.

Giulia looked in on him when she got back. “What’s wrong? Your face. You look like you’ ve seen a ghost. You need a doctor. ¿
When she walked out of the room, he felt iron bands being pulled across his chest. They became tighter and tighter; he took a breath, couldn’ t exhale, couldn’t swallow, couldn’t breathe, opened his eyes; the room was black and swimming in front of him. He shook himself, bolted upright, and shrieked. Giulia ran in, saw his convulsed face, and called 1 1 8. The medics arrived fifteen minutes later.

The large room was bare and white. One chair and a large crucifix, black wood and a twisted black figure. Gino heard murmurs and saw Giulia and a tall gangly man in a long white coat huddled in the corner. The man was hunched over Giulia like a stork.
He overheard bits of their conversation, “Brain scans . . . no physical damage . . . emotional trauma . . . a death? . . . his mother? . . . a baby?"

When the doctor left the room, Giulia pulled the chair up to her husband’s bed.

Her eyes were wide and had sunken back into her head. She wrapped her arms tightly around her. Gino had never seen her so frightened.

“Baby, baby," he said.

“Baby?" she asked.

He reached out from under the covers, took her wrist, and pulled her closer so he could whisper. “Drowned baby."

She leaned down to hear him. “What are you talking about?"

“I was the thief," he said.

“Thief? You?"

“For three years. There was no other way to get money." he said.

“Three years! You’ve been lying to me for three years? Why? Why didn’t you say something? Did you think of the boys, of me? What this would do to us. Santa Maria, aiuta me."

She turned away and bent down in the chair, face on her knees. He heard her gasping for air; she was shaking. Then a hush, as her body gathered itself.

“I didn’t know what else to do; no work anywhere," he said. “I did it for you, you and the boys."

She swung around, brought his face to hers, and hissed, “Listen, you stupid bastard, don’t say a word to anyone. Tomorrow we’ll figure out what to do. Not a word."

At the door she turned and hissed, “Cretino."

It was a week before Giulia was able to bring Gino home. He was accompanied by a small satchel of pills designed to keep him calm. They went into the bedroom while he unpacked his clothes. When he finished, they stood awkwardly on opposite sides of
the bed.

“Sit down," she said. “Listen: find a job, a real job, and find it now. You will spend every waking moment looking until you get one, capice. ¿
That evening Giulia and the boys tried to make supper a special event for his first night home. Alessandro showed him how he kicked the winning goal at the last game and Matteo did his imitation of Pulchinella, but nothing seemed to get through Gino’s haze. The boys went off to play video games. He sat, eyes down, feeling Giulia’s fear and anger.

Every day he bought the paper to look at the help wanted ads. iente. He drove to every building site in Casatenovo and the surrounding area. iente. And every time he got in and out of his van, his body reminded him of his fall. And for a month every evening
after supper he had to tell Giulia, iente.

I can’t take care of my family. What will the boys think of their father?

One evening at dinner he announced, “I’ve got a lead. A new factory is going up south of town, and they’re looking for people to do the framing."

While Giulia was putting the boys to bed, he started looking through drawers in the living room. He found the one where they kept their legal documents: birth certificates, marriage license. She came in and asked him what he was doing. While reading the life insurance policy, he told her he was looking for his carpenter’s certificate.

“They’ ll want that for the j ob tomorrow."

Gino got up early and put on his overalls. He kissed Giulia on the cheek. He will remember her faint smile. He went into the other bedroom with its warm slumber smell of boys entangled in their covers. He walked out of the apartment and down the steps
to his van. He drove south on SP 51 . Outside of town, he stopped on the shoulder of the road by the woods. He’ d had trouble with his fan belt. In the early morning the quiet of the pine trees calmed him. He lifted the hood and snapped the belt. He attached a
white cloth to his antenna.

He stood by the van drinking in the wet morning fog. In a clearing, boys were playing soccer. He felt the breeze of cars whizzing by. Then he heard the wail of an approaching truck. Then, nothing.


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