The Stone Thief
By Rebecca Higgins
On any other day, Alma would not have stolen a $22,000 stone. The brochure said that Yoko Ono invited visitors to interact with the exhibit, but not that it was okay to put a stone in your purse. On any other day, Alma would have done what she was supposed to. She would have held the stone in her hands, pretended to meditate, and then put it back down onto the riverbed with its friends. Alma didn’t get many invitations to interact, and she felt flattered. She picked up the stone nearest her feet. The stone itself was nothing special at first. It was smooth and solid in her hand, which was comforting, but it didn’t look all that different from stones she’d seen down near the lake, or around the rim of the garden halfway between her apartment and the mall.
She turned the stone over. And there it was, in Yoko’s handwriting: “Love Yourself.”
Alma’s eyes and palms grew wet. She felt, for once, alive instead of her usual half-dead. This message was meant for her. Alma glanced around. One of the exhibit guards was eyeballing a teenager with suspicion as he squatted by the edge of The Riverbed. The other guard, engaged in conversation with a man with a sketchbook, was too old to be giggling the way she was.
Alma did try to put it down, she told herself, then and later. But it was like Yoko’s stone was stuck to her hand. Like a dog’s snout full of porcupine quills, or how Alma felt on the first day of first grade, glued to her mother, terrified. Yoko Stono, I’ll call you, Alma said silently to the weight in her hand. And after she named her, Alma knew there was no turning back. She scanned the gallery. One guard was still watching the teenager as he moved on to another part of the exhibit, Line Piece. The other guard was looking at the sketch the man was showing her, standing closer to him than she needed to. Their heads were almost touching. Alma slipped the stone into her handbag. Shirley would get a kick out of the fact that her huge purse finally came in handy—but then Alma remembered she couldn’t tell Shirley about this. Because she was dead, and also because Shirley was too good a person for this. Alma walked out of the exhibit, out of the gallery, and down the street, Yoko Stono a comforting weight in her handbag. Nobody looked at her.
Alma walked down the street towards the park where she had once watched a Chinese couple shake the trees for gingko nuts. In March the park was mostly empty, except for a few homeless or otherwise unlucky folks sitting on a bench feeding pigeons. Alma found it interesting that it was usually homeless people who fed the pigeons when pigeons really had plenty to eat. Their generosity seemed misplaced. As Alma passed, she saw a rat creep towards the men in search of whatever the pigeons were getting. She shivered and reached into her bag to touch Yoko Stono. She glanced behind her in the direction of the gallery, but nothing was happening. No one was racing out after her calling, “Stop! Thief!” That’s because you’re not in a cartoon, Shirley would have said.
When Shirley was dying, Alma sometimes found it difficult to look at her. Her hazel eyes looked more yellow than brown, and her hair—formerly the colour of maple syrup, golden and rippled in the light—was patchy and white. She was so thin, too, and Shirley had never been thin. It was like she was finally the size she wanted to be and she couldn’t enjoy it. Alma was the size she had always been, but she knew enough not to be jealous.
Alma had been at the hospital a lot, but Shirley would have done better. If she’d been the sick one, Shirley would have moved into her room permanently. And she’d have acted like it was nothing, not even an inconvenience. Shirley had a way of showing up without telling you about it that Alma admired and resented at the same time. Shirley was the kind of person that made you feel bad about the kind of person you were. Alma was awkward and said the wrong thing most of the time, even to Shirley.
“How are things with you?” she asked on what turned out to be Shirley’s last Friday.
“Well, I’m dying. So, not the best, really.”
“Don’t you dare say at least I have my sense of humour.”
Alma shut her mouth.
They played checkers on top of the flimsy table. Alma lost on purpose. Shirley narrowed her eyes but said nothing. They collected all the red and black circles. It seemed to take forever. When Alma put the game into her purse, they could hear the pieces sliding around.
“You should have brought a Ziploc. You’re going to lose some of the pieces.”
“You’re very bossy.”
“And you’re very disorganized. How can you even find the board in that enormous bag?”
They laughed until Shirley started coughing. The next time she visited, Alma brought the pieces in a Ziploc, but Shirley was sleeping. They didn’t play checkers again.
On the other side of the park were government buildings. There were guards outside. Alma’s stomach spun. She held her bag close to her and tried to think of the most normal people she knew. How did they act? The financial adviser she saw at the bank—she seemed pretty normal. Long black hair, steady handshake, wearing bracelets that clinked as she prepared the forms for Alma to sign. Alma never wore bracelets, and her hair hadn’t been anything but grey for twenty years. The man behind the counter at the corner store where she bought eggs and chocolate. He was always looking at his phone, which seemed normal these days. But Alma’s phone, only for emergencies anyway, was somewhere in her bag, and she couldn’t draw attention to her bag by rummaging in it. She glanced at the guards. They were standing outside the main entrance, arms folded, looking into the distance. Her stomach settled.
On the subway, no one looked at her. She kept her hand in her bag, which might have been suspicious if she had been another sort of person, the sort of person who attracted attention. But Alma was not the type to attract attention. She mentioned this once in the hospital, after taking a plane back from visiting her nephew.
“I had two drinks in my bag, and they didn’t say anything.”
“Because you’re white,” Shirley said to her.
“You’re white too!” Alma sniffed.
“I know. I’m just saying—nobody suspects an old white lady.”
A young nurse came into the room. Her skin was brown.
“Sshh,” Alma said.
“What?” said Shirley. “Shafaa knows what colour I am! And she knows better than we do how this works.”
Shafaa grinned and squeezed Shirley’s arm.
“The world’s awful,” Shirley said, looking away from the needle sliding into her arm.
Shirley was so good with people, so natural and warm. Alma always felt like she was talking to people through a veil, one of those grief veils old Italian women wore when their husbands died, other people’s eyes filling up with pity or discomfort.
Alma could feel her hand getting sweaty, and she snuck a look in her handbag to make sure her sweat wasn’t washing away Yoko’s inscription. But it was still there, looking up at her: “Love Yourself.” Of course Yoko wouldn’t have used a washable marker. She probably commissioned Sharpie to make her a special pen just for the occasion.
Alma couldn’t just keep Yoko Stono out on a shelf somewhere. Somebody might see her, or more likely, she would get dusty. Alma felt a responsibility to keep her clean. Protected. She decided to go to the mall to see what she could find.
In the middle of a weekday, the mall wasn’t crowded. Three women around Alma’s age walked past her, wearing the same velour pants in three different shades and pumping their arms smugly. The woman in the middle had a fanny pack so puny it wouldn’t even hold the smallest of the Riverbed rocks. Alma squeezed her handbag to her side.
In Walmart, a blue-vested person, who must have been a decade older than Alma, beelined for a young mother trying to manoeuvre a stroller through the silver poles at the entrance. Alma slid past ungreeted. She wandered into the kitchen section but nothing seemed right. Not one of the bowls was the right fit. Tupperware was an abomination, and Alma was unimpressed with the glass storage options and their unsightly blue plastic lids. Yoko Stono deserved to be seen from all angles.
She stopped in a luggage store to look at handbags, but that was not the way to go for Yoko either. The handbag Alma had would do fine for when they were travelling together, but home was where you needed to feel comfortable.
Alma was not insane. She realized that she was acting more like a kidnapper than a thief. And on crime shows, kidnappers got longer sentences, and they almost always got caught. She was better off staying a thief. But it didn’t feel like that with Alma and Yoko. It wasn’t even a kidnapping, really: it was more of a rescue. Like that movie she’d seen once on the hospital TV with Shirley. It was a Lifetime movie, the kind of thing Shirley hated. It had that actress in it from that show they used to like. She played a woman who brought her grandson back to his father’s house after a sleepover. Grandma knocked hard but nobody came. She pushed in: the door was open, and the father was passed out on the floor of the hallway. A length of rubber tubing was tied to his arm, and a puddle of sick splotched the carpet near his head. The camera panned behind him to the coffee table, leading the viewers to the needle and bent spoon on a stained magazine. The grandmother scooped up the boy, pulled the door shut behind her, and left town.
Occasionally during the movie Shirley would snort awake and say, “Is this shit still on?” or “Can we watch the History Channel?” Alma flipped around trying to find the History Channel, which seemed like it would be even more likely to knock Shirley out, but when Alma looked over to tell her so, Shirley was asleep again, sitting against her chair pillow like a convalescing queen. A nurse came in and fiddled with the bag of liquid emptying itself into Shirley’s arm. After that, Shirley didn’t wake up again so she missed the ending, with the grandmother and the little boy having a picnic at sunset on the beach. As the camera pulled away, there were sirens, but Alma wasn’t sure whether they were from the TV or the ambulance bay outside, so the ending was ambiguous, and there was nobody awake to explain to Alma whether the grandmother was a hero or a criminal.
Things Remembered was the perfect store to find a place for Yoko. Or it would have been, if Alma could find it. At first, she thought she’d forgotten where it was. She smiled to herself and knew Yoko would appreciate the joke if she could see out of the bag and also if she were not a stone. Alma stopped in front of the electronic map and stared at the list, but Things Remembered was nowhere. Alma sank onto an empty bench. She’d been coming to this mall for at least thirty-five years, and she’d never needed to go into Things Remembered, and now that she needed it, it was gone. Alma clenched her jaw, and her eyes felt like they were liquefying. She reached into her bag, and after a while, Yoko helped soften the tightness and suck the tears back up. They left the mall and went home.
That night, Alma turned on the news and saw herself.
They’d used a still from a security camera, and it wasn’t flattering, but it was definitely Alma: her big bag, white hair, and beige coat were right there, grainy proof of her crime.
Alma felt like she’d swallowed stones, and they were filling up her chest and her stomach.
The anchor said, “This woman is wanted for questioning related to the theft of part of the Yoko Ono art exhibit.”
She could feel her armpits dampening, her feet heating up, her face getting prickly and hot.
“The estimated value of the stolen piece is $22,000.”
She reached beside her to touch Yoko Stono, who was sitting on the couch too, watching herself on the news.
“Did you know you were worth that much?” Alma asked her, not expecting an answer.
Alma’s hands were sweating, but she knew Yoko Stono could take it, could absorb the wet and stay steady and comforting, not shrink or die, just stay the same: unchangeable.
Rebecca Higgins’s debut collection of short stories, The Colours of Birds, was published by
Tightrope Books in 2018. The title story in the collection first appeared in The Antigonish
Review (2008), and “The White Stain” won second place in the Toronto Star Short Story Contest
in 2013. Find her at www.rebeccahiggins.org.