I Believe in Isaac


Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on September 18, 2009

Once a crook, always a crook.

That was something his mother had always told him, which was peculiar, for as far as he could tell he had never once shown any signs of being a crook.  He could remember being just four years old, as his mother walked him down the sidewalk past a local toy shop; he would be gazing longingly through the window at all the wonderful inventions inside when his mother would stop him and look into his eyes.  “Remember William,” for his name was William, “once a crook, always a crook.”

They would be walking past a fruit stand.  “Remember William,” for his name had not changed since the first example, “once a crook, always a crook.”  He did like fruit, but not once had he considered taking any.

Or perhaps most vexing of all:  They would be walking past a barber shop.  He would be looking the other direction, naturally (for he possessed a healthy fear of barbers), when his mother would stoop down low (she was an unreasonably tall woman) and whisper harshly in his ear.  “Don’t you ever forget it, William.  Once a crook, always a crook.”

He was never quite sure what one might want to steal from a barber shop.  An especially nice pair of scissors might fetch a schilling or two in the back alleys, but there was not much of a market for hair cutting utensils these days.  He knew these sorts of things now.  After all, he had become a crook.

It seemed a most natural course for him to take.  After years of his mother’s endless prodding, he had finally taken her threat seriously.  Only to him it had never been a threat.  To him it had been something more of a guarantee.  Once a crook always a crook.  After a childhood of mindless odd jobs for the neighbors; of hocking papers on the street corner, carrying the groceries of widows or doing whatever he could find which might garner a penny or two, the idea of becoming a crook had become highly appealing.  After all, his mother did promise him that such a life decision would lead to nothing less than a life of consistency and, if he took the logical leap, happiness.  If a crook remained a crook forever, there must be something to it, otherwise they would want to quit; only if there was true happiness in the job would those who embark upon such a path feel so little desire to leave it.  So he became a crook and, thus, would always be one.   And he was happy.

William Priest (his last name was Priest; passed down from a long line of Priests – his father, grand-father, great-grandfather, and so forth.  Being, however, that a person’s surname was often intimately tied to the profession of one of their ancestors, one has to wonder what a Priest was doing having children in the first place.  He was a child of infidelity, to be sure, though the sin had surely been watered down in the ensuing generations, so he didn’t lose much sleep over the fact), was eighteen when he stole his first pocketwatch.  It was gold in color, though upon closer examination it wasn’t very remarkable (or valuable) at all.  Fortunately he wasn’t intending to hock this watch.  This was his first real attempt at crooking.  It was his first grab, and it was a source of pride.

Oh, to be certain in his heart he knew what his mother had meant when she had warned him about becoming a crook.  He was not so dull as to misread her meaning; but he was clever enough to yet convince himself that she, God rest her (which is what one says to signify that a person has died, which is what Mrs. Priest had done when her son was only fifteen, leaving him orphaned, though in the care of kind and not altogether impoverished relatives), might actually be proud of what he had made of his life in the decades since; especially since now he could buy some decent flowers to put on her grave.

The pocketwatch was only the beginning.

It was a noble, if somewhat undersized start to his career, and he promised himself that he would never stoop to such petty crookery again.  If he was going to devote the remainder of his life to crookdom, he would have to move swiftly along to greater prey.

So the crooking of William Priest began in earnest.  He was nineteen years old when he stole his first grand piano.  Twenty three when a prized walrus suddenly went missing from the zoo, only to be found three weeks later on the estate of a rare animal collector in Australia (where decent walri are most certainly at a premium).  He was forty years old when one of Hartfordshire’s most famous pubs disappeared entirely over the course of a single short evening, foundation and all, leaving nothing but a crater into which several people fell while on their way to get a beer.

All of this is to say that by the time he was fifty, William Priest had been a crook for some three decades and had amassed a not altogether inconsiderable amount of wealth.  He could very easily have retired at the age of forty, but his mother’s words proved true enough indeed.

Once a crook, always a crook.

That’s not to say that the entirety of his life was about taking things.  It was neither an obsession nor an addiction.  It was simply something which he found to be a reasonable diversion from the oddities of life, and a great way to pass the time while keeping his mind sharp.

And while William Priest was most certainly a crook, it is not his crookery which he considered to be the most significant aspect of his life.  He had a great many other hobbies and interests; he was never short on friends (for he himself was about as likeable as they come – when he said “Hello, how are you?” there was no question at all that he meant it), and since his marriage at the age of only twenty-four to one of the most lovely girls in the village, his family had been growing by leaps and bounds.  Four children and two dogs later, his house was filled with the roar of laughter.

So all was very nice; but that is not particularly the point of this particular account.

The point of this account is a particular conversation.  All that preceded was included for no other reason than to provide suitable context for that which is to follow, which is something of a dialogue.  It took place at a particular gentleman’s home, precisely in the midst of some thievery.  William Priest was taking for himself the chimney from this man’s house, which was a rather remarkably difficult feat and while I haven’t got nearly the time to fully elucidate how such a thing might have been possible, suffice it to say that William had been forced to learn a thing or two about reverse masonry, which is not at all simple.  His reason for doing this, however, was relatively simple, and must be added, for the reader must surely be curious as to why one would bother to steal a chimney.  He was stealing this particular chimney because it was a chimney of particular worth.  It was attached to a wood-burning fireplace which was not altogether absent from the history books.  It was the very same chimney upon which Lord Cromwell had once hung up a pair of boots to dry after a particularly bloody battle against the King’s forces.  While this may seem to rather lack the sort of importance which would make one take notice, to certain wealthy collectors of all things relating to the Lord Protector, the chimney was something of a find.  Added to this was the blessed difficulty of extracting the object in the first place – something which added value to any task.  It should not be difficult at all, in fact, to recognize the intrinsic value William Priest saw in the challenge.

It was directly in the progress of this remarkable task that William Priest was confronted with some suddenness by a certain senior citizen who had, up until and including this particular moment, owned the building to which the chimney belonged and, consequently, the chimney itself (although at this point, the chimney was just about half stolen, so it could be said that he only owned half of the chimney).

“I don’t suppose you’ll stop?”  It was a statement spoken as a question, and it caused William Priest to stop what he was doing quite suddenly and turn around to find the dark silhouette of a rather frail old man looking on at him from the doorway leading into the kitchen, clearly somewhat taken aback that he seemed to have lost half of his chimney over the course of just a few hours.  In his hand he held a candle which only partially lit his wrinkled face in an orange glow and carelessly dripped wax across the wooden floors.

The remaining portions of the conversation went as follows:

William:  Ceasing my activity does not seem particularly likely, kind sir, but only because I’ve come so far already, and I’d certainly hate to provide anyone with the opportunity to accuse me of failing to follow through with something I have so thoroughly decided to do.  While not a virtue, certainly, there is an inescapable matter of pride to attend to which ensures that I will continue with that which I have begun.

Milton Bullfinch (which is the name of the old man):  I can’t say I particularly care much about your image or the protection of it, but my chimney is another story.  That I do care something about.  I suppose you already know of its history.

William:  I certainly wouldn’t be here if I did not.

Milton:  No, of course you wouldn’t.  But there’s surely something that even you do not realize.  You, a man of what I’m sure are not inconsiderable talents and what must be a very quick mind – for what I see you doing here… it really is something quite a bit more remarkable than I have seen in all my years, though I suppose I might have forgotten a few remarkable things as the years have passed.  No, it really does surpass all, and I praise you for your ingenuity.  And yet, you will forgive me for pointing out the obvious facts:  While a remarkable thief, you are not all knowing.  Nor are you all seeing.  You understand only what you have been told – that this is a chimney of supreme monetary value, and indeed it is.  Why, I’ve been told that there is not another chimney of such worth this side of Greenwich Mean Time.  That’s never meant much to me, of course.  I’ve got plenty of money (though I won’t bother explaining just how I came into my fortune, for that is a story that is far too long and uninteresting to be recounted here), and I never once cared about owning anything of particular monetary value.  What I do care about, however, is that it was in front of that very fireplace that I proposed to my wife, God rest her.  It was on that mantle that we hung the stockings of our children every year until they went out on their own and began their own families.  It was in that fireplace that I burned the first draft of my very first short story upon deciding that I could never be a successful writer.  You see, it is not in the form of money that I see value in this particular possession, but in memories, which are more valuable than any hearth.  So while I can see your reasoning for so taking it from me, I do hope that you’ll also see my reasoning in trying to dissuade you.

William:  Oh, please don’t get me wrong, sir.  I do understand the whole of what you’ve said, and it certainly moves me greatly.  I daresay that memories are some of the most important things that one can have in life.  I, too, am certainly in a place where I have no want for material goods, and yet I would give up all if it meant holding onto my most cherished memories.

Milton:  Oh good!  I was so hoping that you would see things from my perspective.  You seemed from the first like such a reasonable gentleman.

William:  Indeed I am, my good sir.  Reasonable and, I assure you, filled with a certain particular form of kindness.   And while I recognize that because of my career choice there is a certain irony to be found in my personality traits, I have learned to look past life’s little inconsistencies.  In fact, in my great kindness I will give you a grand gift; a gift that may very well affect the rest of your life and teach you lessons which will prove invaluable for you as you continue on in this world.  I give you the gift of taking your chimney.  Yes!  I will take your chimney, and you will no longer be in possession of it.  Now, Mr. Milton, please don’t give me that look!  Such a look makes my heart feel heavy, and I do not care for that feeling.  Please hear me out!  I will take your chimney, as you can see I continue to do, and you will heretofore be without it.  I will sell it for a substantial amount of money, which I will keep for myself (a fair price for such a difficult task as this, I should think) and spend as I see fit.  While at this moment it may seem to you as if this fact will result in the loss of your memories, it will, in fact, do precisely the opposite.  It will teach you a valuable lesson, which is just this:  Memories do not lie within things; they lie within each of us.  This chimney is just an object, and because it is an object, it is foolish (I don’t mean to call you a fool, but it is a wise lesson you must learn) to associate one’s memories so directly with it.  Tomorrow, you will awake to find little but a hole in your wall where once was brick and mortar, and I guarantee that you will find that you still remember your wife.  You still remember the Christmases spent with your children.  You still remember your failed literary endeavors…  And I will have considerably more money.  There will be benefit to all.

“I would certainly be willing to leave your chimney in place,” William finished as he turned to go back to his work, “but I am a crook.  And as my mother once said: Once a crook, always a crook.”


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