A Criminal's Christmas
By Sherwood Anderson
©1992 Sherwood Anderson Literary Trust
Every man’s hand against me. There I was in the darkness of the empty house. It was cold outside and snow was falling. I crept to a window and raising a curtain peered out. A man walked in the street. Now he had stopped at a corner and was looking about. He was looking toward the house I was in. I drew back into the darkness.
Two o’clock. Four o’clock. The night before Christmas.
Yesterday I had walked freely in the streets. Then temptation came. I committed a crime. The manhunt was on.
Always men creeping in darkness in cities, in towns, in alleyways in cities, on dark country roads.
Man wanted. The manhunt. Who was my friend? Who could I trust? Where should I go?
It was my own fault. I had brought it on myself. We were hard up that year and I had got a job at Willmott’s grocery and general store. I was 12 years old and was to have 50 cents a day.
During the afternoon of the day before Christmas there was a runaway on Main Street. Everyone rushed out. I was tying a package and there – right at my hand – was an open cash drawer.
I did not think. I grabbed. There was so much silver. Would anyone know? Afterward I found I got six dollars, all in quarters, nickels and dimes. It made a handful. How heavy it felt. When I put it in my pocket what a noise it made.
No one knew. Yes they did. Now wait. Don’t be nervous.
You know what such a boy – 12 years of age – would tell himself. I wanted presents for the other kids of our family – wanted something for Mother. Mother had been ill. She was just able to sit up.
When I got out of the store that evening it was for a time all right. I spent $1.75 Fifty cents of it was for Mother – a lacy-looking kind of thing to put around her neck. There were five other children. I spent a quarter on each.
Then I spent a quarter on myself. That left $4. I bought a kite. That was silly. You don’t fly kites in winter. When I got home and before I went into the house I hid it in a shed. There were some old boxes in the corner. I put it in behind the boxes.
It was grand going in with presents in my arms. Toys, candy, the lace for Mother.
Mother never said a word. She never asked me where I got the money to buy so many things.
I got away as soon as I could. There was a boy named Bob Mann giving a party and I went to it.
I had come too early. I looked through a window and saw I had come long before the party was to start so I went for a walk.
It had begun to snow. I had told Mother I might stay at Bob Mann’s all night.
That was what raised the devil – just walking about. When I had grabbed the money out of the cash drawer I did not think there was a soul in the store. There wasn’t. But just as I was slipping it into my pocket a man came in.
The man was a stranger. What a noise the silver made. Even when I was walking in the street that night, thinking about the man, it made a noise. Every step I took it jingled in my pockets.
A fine thing to go to a party making a noise like that. Suppose they played some game. In lots of games you chase each other.
I was frightened now. I might have thrown the money away, buried it in the snow, but I thought…
I was full of remorse. If they did not find me out I could go back to the store and slip the $4 back into the drawer.
They won’t send me to jail for two dollars,” I thought, but there was that man.
I mean the one who came into the store just when I had got the money all safe and was putting it into my pocket.
He was such a strange-acting man. He just came into the store and then went right out. I was confused of course. I must have acted rather strangely. No doubt I looked scared.
He may have been just a man who had got into a wrong place. Perhaps he was looking for his wife.
When he had gone all the others came back. There had been a rush before the runaway happened and there was a rush again. No one paid any attention to me. I never even asked whose horse ran away.
The man might, however, been a detective. That thought did not come until I went to Bob Mann’s party and got there too early. It came when I was walking in the street waiting for the party to begin.
I never did go to the party. Like any other boy I had read a lot of dime novels. There was a boy in our town named Roxie Williams who had been in reform school. What I did not know about crime and detectives he had told me.
I was walking in the street thinking of that man who came into the store just as I stole the money and then, when I began to think of detectives, I began to be afraid of every man I met.
In a snow like that, in a small town where there aren’t many lights, you can’t tell who anyone is.
There was a man started to go into a house. He went right up to the front door and seemed about to knock and then he didn’t. He stood by the front door a minute and then started away.
It was the Musgraves’ house. I could see Lucy Musgrave inside through the window. She was putting coal in a stove. All the houses I saw that evening, while I was walking around, getting more and more afraid all the time, seemed the most cheerful and comfortable places.
There was Lucy Musgrave inside the house and that man outside by the front door, only a few feet away and she never knowing it. It might have been a detective and he might have thought the Musgrave house was our house.
After that thought came I did not dare go home and did not know where I could go. Fortunately the man at the Musgraves’ front door hadn’t seen me. I had crouched behind a fence. When he went away along the street I started to run but had to stop.
The loose silver in my pocket made too much racket. I did not dare go and hide it anywhere because I thought, “If they find and arrest me and I have four dollars to give back maybe they’ll let me go.”
Then I thought of the house where a boy named Jim Moore lived. It was right near Buckeye Street -- a good place. Mrs. Moore was a widow and only had Jim and one daughter and they had gone away for Christmas.
I made it there all right, creeping along the streets. I knew the Moores hid their key in a woodshed, under a brick near the door. I had seen Jim Moore get it dozens of times.
It was there all right and I got in. Such at night! I got some clothes out of a closet to put on and keep me warm. They belonged to Mrs. Moore and her grown-up daughter. Afterward they found them all scattered around the house and it was a town wonder. I would get a coat and skirt and wrap them around me. Then I put them down somewhere and as I did not dare light a match would half to get some more. I took some spreads off beds.
It was like being crazy or dead or something. Whenever anyone went along the street outside I was so scared I trembled all over. Pretty soon I had got the notion the whole town was on the hunt.
Then I began thinking of mother. Perhaps by this time they had been to our house. I could not make up my mind what to do.
Sometimes I thought – well, in stories I was always at that time reading – boys about my own age were always beginning life as bootblacks and rising to affluence and power. I thought I would slide out of town before daylight and get me up bootblack’s outfit somehow. Then I’d be all right.
I remember that I thought I’d start my career at a place called Cairo, Illinois. Why Cairo I do not know. I thought that all out, crouching by a window in the Moore’s house that Christmas eve, and then, when no one came along the street for a half hour and I began to be brave again, I thought that if I had a pistol I would let myself out of the house and go boldly home. If, as I supposed, detectives were hid in front of the house, I’d shoot my way through.
I would get desperately wounded of course. I was pretty sure I would get a mortal wound but before I died I would stagger in at the door in fall at mother’s feet.
There I would lie dying, covered with blood. I made up some dandy speeches. “I stole the money, mother, to bring a moment of happiness into your life. It was because it was Christmas eve.” I remember that was one of the speeches. When I thought of it – of my getting it off and then dying – I cried.
Well, I was cold and frightened enough to cry anyway.
What really happened was that I stayed in the Moore’s house until daylight came. After midnight it got so quiet in the street outside that I risked a fire in the kitchen stove but I went to sleep for a moment in a chair beside the stove and falling forward made a terrible burned place on my forehead.
The Mark of Cain. I am only telling the story to show that I know just how a criminal feels.
I got out of the Moore house at daylight and went home and got into our house without anyone knowing. I had to crawl into bed with a brother but he was asleep. Next morning, in the excitement of getting all the presents they did not expect, no one asked me where I had been. When mother asked me where I had got the burn I said, “At the party,” and she put some soda on it and did not say anything more.
And on the day after Christmas I went back to the store and sure enough got the four dollars back into the drawer. Mr. Wilmott gave me a dollar. He said I had hurried away so fast on Christmas eve that he hadn’t got a chance to give me a present.
They did not need me anymore after that weekend I was all right and knew the man that came in such an odd way into the store wasn’t a detective at all.
As for the kite – in the spring I traded it off. I got me a pup but the pup got distemper and died.