Our car has been broken into three or four times over a few months, and I’ve noticed a pattern. It appears to be the same person each time. No windows are broken, no damage done, the gas gage is unchanged, but whoever it is leaves the same mess—the glove compartment splayed open with its contents spilled over the passenger seat and floor. And because we never leave anything valuable in the car, nothing is stolen, except for one thing. A pack of gum is missing from the door pocket.
My question of how he (or she) gets in the car is overshadowed by my curiosity. Why continue going through the risk of getting caught just for a pack of gum?
The first time one of these break-ins happened I was miffed, feeling a bit violated, but thankful we hadn’t lost anything. When it happened again—again the glove compartment spewing its contents, gum gone—I noticed a tire pressure gauge, not ours, left on the seat.
My curiosity gave way to my imagination. Being a writer, and having occasionally imagined myself to be a forensic investigator, I began creating a profile of this mystery thief. I presumed it was a guy rather than a girl, just a hunch. Probably a biker by the tire gauge he left, young, nightcrawler type, risk-taker, marginalized, unemployed, homeless, few social connections. A down and out teen?
After the tire gauge, other items started appearing. One time I found a hand cleanser, which made me think he was being covid safe, but it didn’t look used. Next a pair of cheap sunglasses were left on the dash. Another time the tire gauge was gone but returned several months later.
Most surprising of all, I started to feel a curious empathy for this kid. I thought, Yeah, this could have easily been me at his age if circumstances in my life had gone a different way. I shared my thoughts with Diane, but she thought I was being too sentimental about it, and the image of “the kind thief” I’d conjured, she thought, was going a bit too far. Maybe she was right, and I was developing a sort of “car-thief Stockholm syndrome.”
But I still thought about him and wondered. Why did he leave the items in the car? Was he just forgetful? Mentally ill? Was it a way of saying, “Forgive me but I can’t help myself”? Were these things a kind of payment to placate us, or simply a way of saying “thank you for your trouble.”
Months went by without another visit, and I thought maybe he’d grown up, changed, or moved, and we wouldn’t "see him" anymore. I was surprised by a sense of loss I felt.
But this Christmas he came back again. This time, after ransacking the glove compartment and finding nothing of value again, he left a CD without a label.
I pop it into the car’s CD player, expecting a clue of some kind, a message perhaps, to give us some insight to who he really was and why he kept coming back. The CD is a compilation of Christmas carols. They’re mostly secular oldies, sentimental renditions of “White Christmas,” “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and so on, cajoling us to be happy without saying why we should be, other than because Santa Clause is coming and because our soggy “weather is so delightful.” Then, near the end of the CD I notice one of my favorites, a real Christmas carol—“Oh, Holy Night.”
The carol talks about a hurting world below a starry night sky of promise, a world long in travail and waiting for Jesus’ birth. One line jumps out—“A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!” and it hits me beneath my ribcage. I can’t help muttering “thank you,” and I send up a prayer for the break-in kid, whom I’ve never met but feel like I know. I pray when his long night is over, he’ll see a glorious morn and he’ll have found the promised Christmas he’s been looking for.