“The Sex Puzzle” By Kevin Freeman

“Do it!” whispered Jon.

I glanced up the aisle, shelves filled with trinkets and toys. The local stationary store resembled a carnival midway, with colorful concessions as far as the eye could see. For months we had shoplifted here; small tokens of bravery from Matchbox cars to key chains. None had any real value to pubescent boys, other than to prove inclusion in the fellowship of theft. A quick tuck under the shirt, down the pants, into a sock or sleeve, the nervous shamble to freedom and rendezvous in the parking lot to define the take. The goods. The merchandise.

I gave another quick look.

“I don’t think I can. Maybe tomorrow.” I croaked, my mouth dry.

“But it’s your turn and tomorrow I have Hebrew lessons,” Jon pleaded. “C’mon.”

“Where’s Tommy?”

“He’s outside already. He paid for gum and left.”

“Some distraction,” I grumbled.

Tommy was a Goody Two-shoes, always on the outside of any challenge. Jon was a bona fide partner in crime, but this job was just too big.

We were casing the joint last week as usual, in search of some object appealing to our avarice. Disappointingly, the store dealt in nothing more dangerous than X-ACTO knives and the lighters were all behind the elevated counter with the cigarettes.

Nonchalantly sauntering past the greeting cards, we saw it on a lower shelf; it was bright as the sun and featured a woman’s smiling face. She was smiling and, even better, she was naked. She wasn’t naked on the package, but our fevered imagination knew what the rabbit logo implied.

I went to this store in the middle of every month by myself for my own personal heist. Buying a single newspaper, I would return to the front of the shop where the publications were displayed. Playboys were on the floor, in a tall stack of lascivious temptation. Feigning interest in another magazine, I would casually drop my Daily News on the pile. The paper was for my father who was wheelchair bound from injuries at the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge. He wasn’t really a veteran, but I always liked a good backstory.

Up until that moment, when I would fortuitously pick up the top issue with the paper, I was just another kid running errands for his dad, the Korean War hero.

The second I gripped my prize and made a deft turn to the exit was delicious torture. I didn’t know exactly what was in my possession, but it promised nudity and a window into the unfathomable world of adult heterosexuality. Thus did my undeveloped psyche equate the excitement of sex with larceny.

My friends, made aware of my prowess with the opposite sex in centerfold format, encouraged my crime spree. My Playmate harem quickly replaced our shared interests in comics and war games and each new issue brought a bounty of titillation.

This new object was not a magazine. This was a jigsaw puzzle and the container was a cylinder, the size of a small coffee can, and the largest item attempted. Ever.

“Get Tommy. I can’t do this by myself.”

I was stalling.

Jon went outside to bring our reluctant accomplice back into a more conspiratorial role while I moved over to inspect the plastic models and stare at my shoes.

The bell over the door signaled the entrance of my team, their tasks well defined and rehearsed: Tommy would man the front door, an eye out for any authorities. Mr. Stein had run this shop since dinosaurs roamed the earth and was well known in the neighborhood. The thoughts of being detained, of police, and of the dreaded “Juvenile Delinquent” label were the stuff of nightmares.

Multiple kids in the store put Stein on alert and Jon knew how to use this to our advantage. While I stood motionless, practicing invisibility, he would dart about like a gazelle evading a lion. Stein would track every movement from behind bifocals. Fortuitously, a customer approached the front counter and Jon took ready position with hands in pocket, gently rocking on his heels in nervous expectation, the only witness to my crime.

I made eye contact with Jon, quickly scanned the proprietor and grabbed the canister. It was light, made of cardboard, with only the top and bottom metal. The contents shifted inside, sounding to me like a pallet of bricks falling down an elevator shaft. I froze, but Mr. Stein was still engaged in commerce.

I turned the picture to confirm the subject—Carol O’Neal, July 1972. Her pose in the gatefold featured a discarded bikini and striking tan lines. The incongruity of the shower background, perfect hair, and dry headband was lost in fascination with the perfect droplets of water on her brown skin. The publication’s reluctance to display pubic hair had her in an awkward pose, with an arm extended to conceal the blurry missing piece.

I quickly concealed Carol under my right arm and rearranged my shirt and coat with my left. I held my breath and turned toward the exit, heartbeat roaring in my ears. My leaden feet felt impossibly heavy as I made my way past the register.

“Anything I can do for you, son?”

Stein was talking to someone.

Was it me?

I turned.

I heard the tinkle of the door and knew Tommy made his getaway.

“Uh, no. Not today, thanks.”

I lifted my hand in an involuntary wave of nonchalance when I felt the can slip.

“You have something there?” Bifocals squinted. “Open your coat!”

In panic, I felt an icy rivulet of sweat race from armpit to waist.

“Ok,” I squeaked, feeling like a ventriloquist; my voice coming from somewhere behind the postcard rack.

I reached in slow motion from my left to pull open the coat, offering a glimpse of my right arm hanging away from my body as if I were in traction. Thankfully the Carol prize was under my shirt, not just the jacket. I swallowed hard without looking at Stein, knowing that I might lose all composure under close scrutiny.

“Alright then,” Stein said with resignation.

Euphoric, I shuffled toward the exit, every muscle on the verge of cramp. Jon held the door for me, and we disappeared past the bakery, the dry cleaners, and supermarket to fumble with the sultry puzzle of life.

Kevin lives in Saugerties, NY with an assortment of family and animals. Encouraged by a local writing group, he attempts to document his life roughly one thousand words at a time. This is going to take a while.

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