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••• The International Writers Magazine - 25 Years on-line -
From Our Story Archives

The Thief of Bottles
Sidi Cherkawi Benzahra

Once my father owned an auto-body shop in a wooded area in the district of Agdal, Rabat, Morocco. The shop had two dusty windows and a little light, grayed by this dust and by an old building that stood right next to the windows, that always came into the shop and threw dark shadows against its walls.

The shop had this gloomy look to it, and it would get worse in winter times when the sky was gray, the leaves were brown, and there was no work to be done. I had never seen that old building behind the shop; I could only see some of its old bricks through the dusty window.

This shop was on the first floor of a mechanic shop and a gas station, which both belonged to a Frenchman named Andre. The Frenchman and my father always fought each other with words and curses. Once my father almost socked him one, but for some unknown reason he stopped. I could see him making a fist as he was yelling at him, his head shaking from anger and discontent. Sometimes I could hear them fighting and walking to the shop, their voices getting louder and louder as they were approaching. The old two shops and the gas station are still standing to this day, facing the passage of time, a main road, the old woods, and a university.

The Frenchman also owned the front part of my father’s auto body shop, leaving only a back area for my father to do his work. There was a big hole on the floor in the shop against a wall with a metal ladder that stuck out of it like a phallus. The hole could fit only one person at a time, and sometimes you could hear the workers downstairs fixing cars, balancing wheels, and testing engines. A smell of grease always came out from the hole. Sometimes my father would need a special, expensive tool to do his work and he would send me down through that hole to go get it for him. The workers there were most of the time nice to me, except for one sucker who never liked me and I had no idea why. There was also a steep slope that one had to drive up to get into my father’s shop and there were half dozen old cars parked on the front part of the shop, three on each side. The Frenchman was probably an old car collector, because I had never seen these cars running. They were too old to run, covered with a thick layer of dust, and their tires were too flat from sitting in one place for a long time. These cars were useful to my father. Whenever there was no car to paint or no dent to dress, my father would go to these cars and sleep in one of them. I would sometimes do the same thing when my father wasn’t around.

One day I was playing around these cars when I saw a wooden box full of empty bottles, sitting right between the front of the car and a dirty, white wall, next to a gray door that had never been opened. The box and the bottles were dusty, and I could obviously tell that they had been sitting there for quite sometime. I knew that the box of bottles didn’t belong to my father, because these bottles were of a somewhat expensive drink. You could tell from the look at the bottle, because who ever design it, spent much time thinking about how to make it attractive to customers. The bottle was bulgy at the bottom and has this coarse touch to it so it wouldn’t slide off your hand. Because of its bulginess at the lower end, the center of gravity of the bottle was way down close to its bottom so that nobody could tilt it by accident. My father would never buy a box of bottles like that. If he wanted to buy that drink, he would probably buy one bottle at a time. I had never seen that bottle; I only saw it once in Joe’s Market, on Como Avenue, in Minneapolis, USA. The bottle was of the drink called Orangina. When I saw that bottle behind the glass door I almost cried. The bottle took me back to my childhood. Took me back to the dark and desolate caves of my mind. It snatched me from a shiny, rich grocery story in the USA and put me right back into a dusty, dark auto body shop in my poor Morocco. I bought that drink of course and I kept the bottle and put it on my desk to look at it for a long time.

Now we need to know why this bottle is so important and why the heck I needed to write a whole story about it. I didn’t have money to buy candy when I was a child. It’s not because my parents were too poor. We were relatively okay, but money was not supposed to circulate much freely among kids. Kids back then were supposed to go out to play and come back home to eat if they got hungry. If you wanted something to keep your mouth busy, you went to the kitchen, grabbed yourself a big rock of bread, put in your pocket, and eat it as you play. If your mouth got dry, there was always some fountain nearby in some neighborhood with a squeaky coppery faucet to drink from. But finding that box of bottles hiding behind the old car was like a pirate finding an old treasure.

Now I had to fight my mind and find an excuse to steal one bottle and sell it to the nearby grocery store. I was about ten or twelve in those years. My mind was almost empty. It had no disciplines, principles, ethics, or scrupulous ideas. A small excuse would set me off to do something bad. My mother many times told me to never steal, but she once cooked a chicken I stole from a rich neighbor. She should have returned to the chicken back to its owner, but instead she said, "That man is rich. He no longer works for his money. He doesn't have any kids. All he has to feed is that dirty dog of his. Your father has to scrape cars and breathe paints to feed us. Go downstairs!"

The Frenchman was also rich, but I didn’t know if he worked for his money, because I had never seen him working. So it was okay to steal from him, I said. No one was there to advise me, and I didn’t want advice—only corroboration for stealing. I said if I took one bottle, the other bottles in the box would cover up for that bottle and the box would still look full. So I took one and sold it at Baba Hamza grocery store two blocks down the main road. I bought a beautiful looking candy. I had never eaten that kind of candy before. I felt so good eating it walking back to the shop, kicking a rock on the pavement. I had the same feeling once I had had when I completed a book of chewing gum wrappers, gluing each wrapper to its box in the book, and won a box of chewing gums.

The next day, I went to the wooden box of bottles and stood there, a kid and a box, thinking what to do next. I said if I took one more bottle, the other bottles would still look many and one might not notice that two were taken. I took the second and went to Baba Hamza grocery store to sell the bottle and buy me another kind of candy. Everyday, I took a bottle using the same reasoning, but after I sold half the bottles in the box, the reasoning was no longer holding. I needed to come up with another reasoning to justify my bad behavior. I said if I leave the rest of the bottles in the box, the Frenchman would notice that the bottles were gone, but if I took all the bottles, he wouldn’t not notice the difference between empty or full, because the box would look homogenous instead of half empty or half full. The reasoning sounded good. I took the rest of the bottle from the box and hid them against a wall, behind a sheet of metal in my father’s shop. I kept on selling one bottle at a time until I finished all my loot. I left the empty box where it was, forgot about the bottles and the Frenchman, and shoved everything in the dark part of the back of my mind.

When I came to New York as a poor immigrant, I started working in an Italian Restaurant in Glen Oaks, Queens. The restaurant was located way up a hill and there was a small parking lot next to it where the sun would sometimes shine on its grass at the edge by a wall and sometimes glister on concrete instead. Since I had no experience or whatsoever in restaurant business, the owner, Mr. Attilio, spent one second or two giving me the elevator look and automatically assigned me a busboy position. I only knew that busboy was not an entry-level position after I saw a young Mexican dishwasher scrubbing pots and pans in a large sink. I was proud of this position because I didn’t know what its name meant. It has two words bus and boy. I know why the boy was there, but I had no clue what the word bus got to do with all of this. I finally realized that thinking about this stuff could turn your hair gray and I forgot about it.

The restaurant had a large, dark basement, which reminded me of my father’s auto body shop. It was always full of junk and supplies such as cases of beer, whine, soft drinks, and dry food. There was also a walk-in freezer where all the meat, fish, poultry, and vegetables were stored. Whenever some extra food was needed for cooking, the cook would send me there to bring him the supply. I was a good worker, full of dreams, and everybody liked me, I thought, but they didn’t know that I had a dark side where ugly things sometimes could germinate and grow strong and cause trouble.

One weekend night, I was working hard upstairs, moving like a lightning between tables, cleaning them and setting them for new customers, when the cook shouted at me from the swinging doors to go to the basement and get him some ridiculous food. I ran to the basement, stood there for a while to adjust my eyes in the dark, and took a deep breath and held it and let it out as a huge sigh. I was so shaken and hot from hard work stress when I looked down and saw a box, full of beer bottles. Here we go again, another box of bottles, another story to tell. The only difference this time is, these bottles are full. What can one do with a bottle of beer when he is thirsty, and need more energy for work. I took one and drank it as quickly as possible, drank it like if I was in a desert and if I didn’t drink it that fast I would die from dehydration.

The problem now was what to do with the empty bottle? I knew I couldn’t sell it. This is not Morocco where you can sell almost anything. If I leave the bottle in the basement one would see it and start to wonder who was having a party downstairs. There was a small window in that basement, so I cracked it open and threw the empty bottle. From the sound of the thud I could tell that the window was not that high. I went upstairs and started working pretending nothing had happened. But something great had happened, and in spite of its greatness, I kept on doing this, every once in a while. Not every time I went to the basement, but every other time, maybe. The mound of bottles started to grow and if I kept throwing the empties through the window, one day the pile might show up through the window to say hi. Finally one day, rumors spread that beer bottles were disappearing, and nobody knew who was making them disappear. I also heard that whoever got caught would be reprimanded and fired on the spot. I started to feel the beginning of an investigation and I knew that in a matter of one day or two I would eventually get caught. I finally quit and realized that it is the inside of a bottle that counts not the bottle itself, a lesson I should’ve learned a long time ago.

© Sidi Cherkawi Benzahra June 2007
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