December 23: “The Burglar” by Mary L. Tabor

Merry Christmas Eve EveStory366! Today is the last day to get ready before the last day to get ready, and considering how I’m Polish and all and traditionally, Polish folk celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve more than on Christmas, I should be more ready than I am. I have to run out to one more store tonight for one more gift—kill me—but for the most part, the next step is just making the joint respectable so we can destroy it with cooking and wrapping paper carnage. That’s really not usually so bad, only there’s a stew of Legos, Lincoln Logs, Duplos, Waffle Blocks, Tinker Toys, Cars cars, kids meal toys, art supplies, and miscellaneous all over every room of our house. My instincts as a holiday/anytime cleaner is to not only get all that together and move it all out of the way, but to sort it all out, put it into their proper containers/piles/spots, and admire the heck out of my accomplishment before the kids just play 52-pickup with it when they wake up the next day. That kind of task—along with dedusting, deketcuping, and derootbeering it all, makes me want to go shopping and maybe just stay there. Ho ho ho!

In any case, as Best Buy calls, I’ll get right into today’s post—only nine left for the year! I read from Mary L. Tabor‘s collection The Woman Who Never Cooked, out from Mid-List Press, one of their First Series: Short Fiction winners. I’ve been aware of Mary’s work for some time, as I published one of the pieces, “To Swim?” in Mid-American Review as a winner of their Sherwood Anderson contest before the book came out. Of course, I was thrilled to see Mary win this book prize, for this collection to come out, and she signed my copy at AWP right after it did. Good to see good things happen to good people.

I read a few stories today and the piece that has stuck with me the most is “The Burglar.” “The Burglar”‘s not the title story, which I usually pick, but hey, why be predictable?

Side bar: Typing the word “burglar” makes me think I’m spelling it incorrectly, that there’s a vowel syllable somewhere in the middle, maybe “burgalar” or “burgelar” or even “burgulühr.” But no, there’s not.

“The Burglar” is about Ruth, a woman whose house is burgled one day while her and her husband, Ben, are out. The job seems to be professionally done, as the perps didn’t wreck the house and only the true valuables are missing—the burglar even knew which pieces of Ruth’s jewelry to take and which to leave, trinkets either too hard to fence of with distinguishable marks, making them traceable. The police give this upper middle-class couple very little consolation, as they don’t predict they’ll ever catch this person, nor will they recover Ruth’s stolen jewelry (which includes one heirloom piece from her mother). Ben mentions something about getting a security system installed, but never follows up on it, the professional thief already taking everything of value.

Ruth, though, is deeply affected by the incident. At first, she has a normal reaction, feeling unsafe when she comes home, calling out as she walks in the door to check if anyone’s there. Soon, though, the burglar invades Ruth’s every thought as she can’t get him out of her head. She thinks about him when she’s alone, when she’s working, even when she’s having sex with Ben, unable to climax for the first time in ages because she can’t concentrate—she imagines the burglar to be with her, not Ben. Things only get worse when Ruth starts to develop a profile for this burglar, turning him into a character from some kind of a heist novel. Ruth’s burglar wears expensive pinstriped suits, is a lawyer by trade, and only steals from the wealthy to give to the poor (like Robin Hood, which incites an old ethics quandary that Tabor touches on throughout the story). He is handsome, suave, and would never hurt her, sort of like Cary Grant (To Catch a Thief is also referenced throughout) or David Niven.

This still probably isn’t so bad—I mean, Cary Grant is better than some creepy scumbag, right?—not until Ruth starts to imagine this guy as more than a healthy personification of a scary memory. Eventually, this handsome burglar starts to physically visit Ruth—she’s concocted a scenario for that, too—and converse with her; yes, Ruth then begins to answer. So, to say that this incident has gotten into Ruth’s head is an understatement: It’s caused a full-blown mental crisis, which is the real conflict of the story (not what happened to that gold chain or string of pearls).

“The Burglar” is a complex story, one that introduces a lot of elements on top of the Robin Hood ethics puzzle and Hitchcock references. There’s more to Ruth’s sexual identity, more to how this incident has affected her than picturing Ben as the pinstriped burglar. There’s also an obsession with her mother, more pointedly, her mother’s breasts, which were large and motherly, a contrast to Ruth’s own bosom. Beneath the surface of this story also lies the psychology of Ruth, what makes a woman react this way to a simple, violentless break-in. Does a healthy, happy woman become as haunted as Ruth? She and Ben seem normal, seem happy, but this crime really violates Ruth to her core, in a few different ways. Tabor has created a multi-dimensional, memorable character in Ruth, the main reason I enjoyed “The Burglar,” chose to write about it today.

Other stories in The Woman Who Never Cooked sport similar themes and characters to “The Burglar,” including that title story, about an older woman who has suddenly stopped cooking, despite owning over three hundred cookbooks. I know that one of Mary L. Tabor’s other books is the memoir (Re)MAKING LOVE: a sex after sixty story, which makes me think of the characters in this book, suspect that memoir’s subject in what I read today (in short, I think the woman who stops cooking in the title story is really talking about how she’s stopped having sex). That’s probably unfair, as not every story can be about that. Whatever the theme, though, Tabor is a gifted storyteller who has a fantastic collection of stories here. Glad I came across this book again and sat down with it for a while.

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