June 1973, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
As a fit twenty-two-year-old, carrying her groceries up three flights of stairs to her apartment posed no problem. As a shoplifter, making it home undetected was the challenge.
Today, standing at the grocery cheese bin, a wedge of imported French grappe cheese, a favorite quarry, screamed, “Steal me.” So Gilly Smith did.
The Grappe, cured in the remains of winemaking, wore a pebbly coat of black grape seeds. Gilly loved the fruity echo of the cheese’s soft white interior. Though one of the most expensive cheeses sold in Montreal, Gilly didn’t steal it out of poverty. No, Gilly, had money. Money was not the issue. She’d been a thief as far back as…well, at least as far back as the time…
June 1957, Ste. Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec
Gilly knelt in prayer, bare knees on the store’s black and white checkerboard floor, her eyes squeezed shut. From the candy shop’s back room, Madame Delaurier kept an eye on her as she, Madame, muttered in French and dialed the black rotary phone. Gilly took a squinty-eyed peek as a scrabbling commotion began at the store’s front door. Her sister’s and brother’s faces pressed against the screen, like hams in netting, their mouths in astonished “O’s.” Martha looked like the angel topper from their Christmas tree, with big turquoise eyes and a wispy corona of blond curls. Stuart just looked like the dirty little three-year-old he was. Squirrel-like, the two scampered off and abandoned Gilly to her fate and God.
Back then, St. Anne-de-Bellevue was an even smaller Quebec village than now. Perched on the pointy western tip of the island holding Montreal, the town seemed ready at any minute to tumble into the massive St. Lawrence River. The Smiths often drove the few miles to St. Ann-de-B from their English Canadian enclave of Pointe Claire. They came to visit Aunt Fiona and to shop. At the Trois Freres Bakery, the three children giggled whenever their Mum asked for a loaf of pain fesse. Pain fesse translated to “buttocks bread” in English. Indeed, the regional white bread, composed of two swirling rounds of dough placed cheek by jowl, looked exactly like a beige naked bottom. Delaurier Confiserie, the village’s candy shop, chock full of colors and textures, reigned as the highlight of any visit to St. Anne-de-B. The very air in the store carried whiffs of sugar so powerful the children could almost taste it.
While their Mum sipped tea and gossiped with Aunt Fiona, the children kicked around the village with their father. That particular Saturday, the three older children flew solo for the first time as Dad wanted to fix Aunt Fiona’s door. Martha, at nine, ramrodded the crew of three and failed miserably. Stuart wet his pants less than a block from Fiona’s cottage.
Gilly quickly raced off ahead and just as quickly spent the bribe her father had given her. Her quarter long gone, the candy store beckoned insistently an hour later. Madame Delaurier’s quick brown eyes caught her as she clumsily attempted to slip a maple sugar leaf into her shorts’ pocket. Her face damp with the day’s heat, Madame grabbed Gilly’s hand and retrieved the candy.
“Stay right where you are, Mam’selle! I’m letting your parents know what mischief you’ve been up to!”
Gilly’s prayers to the Baby Jesus were intense. She promised to always be good if only He would save her. This was the first time she had called on Jesus during the day and it worked. Hearing Madame Delaurier’s old lady shoes approaching, she dared another peek. Madame was smiling!
“Go on home now, Gilly. I didn’t call your parents. Just make sure you never steal again.”
“Oh, no, I won’t. I promise,” the little thief babbled, scurrying out the door.
She didn’t keep her word. From time to time over the years she found stealing irresistible, not often and never anything too pricey. Her girlfriends called her “Klepto” when beyond the earshot of adults. Her parents called Gilly “the easy one” and appeared to have no idea of her thievish tendencies. However, their blissful ignorance was threatened when Gilly turned thirteen.
1964, Pointe Claire, Quebec
Christmas and New Year’s Eve were very quiet that year. Mum managed to bake the butter tarts and Dad poured the eggnog like other years, but even Stuart picked up on the tension.
“Why’s Mum so grumpy?” he asked Gilly. Two days later their father moved out to live in an elderly widow’s spare bedroom in Lachine. Mum and the three kids stayed in the brick bungalow, only now it felt empty and sad. Money was tight and, for the extras Gilly craved, non-existent. Jealous when the other girls at school compared their clothes, jewelry, and shoes and missing her father, she felt unmoored and lonely.
Her shoplifting escalated. And then, one Saturday afternoon, in downtown Montreal, the undercover security man at Beeson’s caught her. The minute she scooped the aurora borealis crystal earrings into the maw of her open purse, he was on her.
“I’ve got you, girl. Now, come right along with me, Miss.”
A big beefy fellow, he hurried her to the backrooms of the department store and plopped her down in the hall on a folding chair just outside his office. Safety posters covered dull pea-green walls. A scuffed metal first aid box hung above a narrow shelf.
“You know, I am required to report any and all attempted thefts to the police,” he said after introducing himself as “Mr. Gautier.” Gilly’s heart flopped behind her trainer bra. Her parents would be furious. Mr. Gautier looked wet and shimmery through her unshed tears. He dialed, mumbled at length into the phone with two or three pointed glances cast her way. After several back and forths of conversation, he slowly hung up the phone and sat back in his chair with a sigh. Gilly squirmed, waiting for her punishment. With a raised meaty hand and a crooked finger, Gautier beckoned her deeper into his dim windowless room. Gilly crept closer, terrified. Her beating heart roared in her ears. Ba boomp, ba boomp, ba boomp, boomp, boomp.
“Young lady, I’m going to give you a break. You seem like a decent girl and I don’t want one mistake ruining your life. So, I’m holding off on reporting this to the police. Just make sure I never catch you stealing again!”
“Oh, I won’t, sir. I’ll never be a problem again. Thank you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Gilly snorted and snuffled. And with that, she sped way, nearly running by the time she reached the department store’s front doors. He had seemed to look at her a little longer than she was used to. That was Gilly’s first hint that growing up to be a pretty girl might have some extra benefits that no one ever talked about. Only later did she realize he had never phoned the police or anyone else.
Unable to honor her promise, Gilly extracted five finger discounts straight through high school. Her repertoire expanded. Stealing no longer stopped at inanimate objects. She lusted after males who were already taken. She had her own boyfriends, young men who liked her and she liked them. Deep in her heart, though, she questioned the worthiness of any guy who chose her. She didn’t believe she was special. There was an extra thrill in the air about men with girlfriends, men with another woman’s stamp of approval. Other girls’ boyfriends glittered with challenge and appeal. She’d make a pitch and, more often than not, they’d go along with it. Few resisted the flattery of attention. Although this behavior cost her girlfriends, she didn’t really mind — until one day Gilly went too far.
October 1973, Montreal
Martha matured into a lovely woman in spirit and looks. While Gilly was sardonic, her sister was sweet. Martha fussed over company, plied them with tea and cheese sandwiches on wheat bread, nurtured them. In a counterpoint to Gilly, Martha’s appeal rested in a smooth oval face surrounded by foaming blonde, nearly white, curls. Brunette and grey-eyed Gilly’s beauty, like her prickly personality, was more angular and carried an edge.
Martha lived down near the St. Lawrence River with her boyfriend Sam. One overcast bitter afternoon Gilly found herself on foot in Old Montreal after a visit to the dentist. The hygienist aimed for perfection when it came to cleaning teeth and Gilly’s gums ached. She figured she’d stop by Martha’s nearby loft to borrow a couple aspirin tablets. She made her way down the narrow street, past the market building, to Martha’s building. Although Gilly didn’t mind the cold, it still felt good to open the first set of heavy wooden doors and bet in the foyer and it felt even better to go through the second set and finally reach the warm interior. Rumbling up to the third floor in the freight elevator, she considered asking Martha to join her for a bowl of Vietnamese pho soup at a nearby restaurant. Pho was a favorite antidote to bad weather.
She knocked and Sam opened the door. Martha was at a jazz ballet class. By the time Martha popped open the loft door an hour later, Sam and Gilly were canoodling on the couch. Sweet Martha burst into tears and fled.
Gilly didn’t see Martha for weeks, which really hurt. Gilly felt Martha should not have been surprised about the incident, given Sam’s European background and Latin lover looks. The canoodling wasn’t Gilly’s fault.
Brother Stuart, belong long, deemed himself the “go between.” He updated Gilly over baguettes and onion soup at her favorite café. According to Stuart, Sam and Martha had patched things up. Stuart also carried a message from Mum. It seemed Miss Martha, in her anger and grief, had blabbed about Gilly’s stealing proclivities. Mum was going to pay for Gilly to have therapy. And Gilly was going to go or lose the generous allowance Mum gave her every month. In a way, Gilly felt relieved to have her mother aware of the shoplifting. She was tired of worrying about being discovered.
Three weeks after her flirtation with Sam, Gilly slogged up Sherbrooke Street, headed toward her first therapy session. A blustery wind blew. Tiny freezing spits of rain struck her cheeks as she hurried past the Ritz Carleton Hotel and skirted by tony art galleries. Spring wouldn’t come for several weeks and in truth, Montreal only had one month of real summer — July. The address for the psychologist matched a yellow office building across from the Ladies’ Branch of the Bank of Montreal.
Evil whispered in her ear. Wouldn’t it be more fun to rob the Ladies’ Branch than endure a psychologist’s ramblings. The idea of pulling one over the stuffy bank delighted Gilly until she remembered her Gram kept money in the branch. And she really wasn’t prepared for such a huge action and, since the appointment was all set up, she ducked into the yellow building, finding her way to Dr. Benoit’s office.
A tiny anteroom held two leather chairs. Inuit prints of arctic animals decorated wallpapered walls. Dr. Benoit, a petite strawberry blond with dainty gold jewelry and a soft green knit two piece, fetched Gilly. Gilly thought of her as old, though she was only forty-two. The doctor’s inner office was decorated in pastel blues and greens. On her shelves, additional Inuit art in the form of several sculptures intermingled with reference books. A bouquet of pink and yellow Dutch bulb flowers freshened her desk. Outside the window, office lights illuminated vignettes in a nearby high rise — a peek into a hair salon, a lone man toiling at his desk, a blue-uniformed custodian mopping.
That first session went well; Gilly liked the doctor right off the bat. Dr. Benoit listened carefully to everything Gilly said, looking her in the eyes, and nodding her head from time to time as if to encourage Gilly to share her thoughts. Most importantly, nothing Gilly said seemed to shock or offend the good woman. She spoke rarely but when she did, her voice was low pitched yet clear. Gilly left and the coming week looked brighter than when she entered the yellow building an hour earlier.
Gilly worked hard with Dr. Benoit and grew to look forward to her therapy sessions. Eventually, she joined a group of people around her age for guided therapy sessions. She came to know others who did harmful things they didn’t understand. She began to consider herself lucky as she learned about the troubles the others faced. She also came to realize the relatively privileged life she’d led. Occasionally after a session, a few of the group members wandered down to Crescent Street for a beer. No one could afford hard liquor.
One evening in May, five of the group walked to the Disraeli Pub. The establishment was a popular hangout for English Canadian young people, even though — or maybe because — it was strictly old-fashioned English in décor and demeanor. Many of these would-be hipsters continued to live at home with their parents long after graduating college, dedicating their earnings for winter trips to the Caribbean and trendy clothes and snappy haircuts. They needed the Pub to get time out from under the parents. Gilly had never traveled outside of Canada but she always felt transported to London at the Pub. There was no French spoken. Even the bartenders looked like they had just flown in from the UK.
Huddled over draft ales at a dark wood table, the group discussed Doctor Benoit.
“I love her!” blurted Gilly; the others agreed.
“Is she married?” asked Dick. “I can’t imagine she’s not.” The conversation then veered to other group members who weren’t there.
“I heard Simon was arrested by the Mounties last week,” shared Sheila, “that’s why he wasn’t at group tonight.”
“Well, obviously, for some drug thing, else why would it be the RCMP and not the police?”
“He always gives me the creeps,” added Georgina.
Gilly didn’t say anything, thinking to herself that she found the tall pony-tailed man intriguing and, well, handsome in a Gypsy rover kind of way. Dave spoke up.
“I’ll wait to hear what Simon says. Maybe the RCMP needed to talk to him about something else. Maybe they’re investigating a neighbor or something or maybe he was a witness to a crime. Who knows? We’ve played racket ball and he’s just fine I think.”
Sheila gave an exasperated sigh and looked down at her drink. Gilly remained silent. She and Dave had gone out on a few dates, but Gilly found him a bland vanilla. Nice looking enough, although safe and unromantic. Dave thought an afternoon playing backgammon was fun, for pity’s sake. Dave still called her but she had been putting him off and was contemplating transferring his affections to her neighbor Anna. Maybe Sheila would work out better. After one drink, the group disbanded and each headed off alone to their flats or their bedrooms at their parents’ homes.
Gilly patched things up with Martha soon after. She worked out an approach, with Dr. Benoit’s help, to get things back on an even keel with her sister. This plan involved a heart-felt apology as well as a careful listening to Martha express her feelings. Tears had flowed, tears of relief. To celebrate, the two met a few days later down in Old Montreal. They first spent an hour in the flea market. In a historic departure from her past, Gilly abstained from shoplifting though many shiny trinkets called out to her. Instead, she actually paid for her treasures — a length of embroidered silk robe trim from China and a small holy water bottle with an ornate silver cap. She felt immense pride for this personal achievement. The sisters checked out the Laura Ashley shop, then headed over to the Lord Nelson Hotel for lunch.
Beautiful warm weather allowed them to sit at the hotel’s outdoor terrace, one of Montreal’s best people-watching perches. Tourists, buskers, jugglers, and locals mingled up and down Place Jacques Cartier. Over croque madame sandwiches and coffee, the sisters caught up with each other. Sam had thrilled Martha with a proposal. However, their mother — ever the downer –pulled Martha up short, warning her not to be led astray by sexual attraction and to really think things over. She didn’t know what to do. She thought she had thought things over enough. Gilly thought it best to mimic Dr. Benoit with nods and murmured encouragement.
Looking up as the waiter presented their check, Gilly saw Simon. He strolled nonchalantly down the sidewalk in front of the hotel. He wore a French sailor’s striped top, bell bottoms, and white espadrilles. With his black curly pony tail, he reminded her of a pirate. Gilly’s favorite romance novels involved pirates in ways that made her cheeks warm just thinking about them. Simon looked up, then joined the girls. He carefully placed his canvas rucksack on the ground, turned a chair backwards and plopped down beside Gilly. She noticed a twisted silver chain encircled Simon’s neck and thought the small bulge at his upper chest might be from a crucifix attached to the chain.
“Halloo, Gilly! Who’s your pretty friend?”
“My sister, Simon — I’d like you to meet Martha. Gilly could not resist adding, “She’s engaged.”
Simon sat down and ordered a Molson. After a few minutes of chitchat, Gillian left to get ready for her shift at work. Simon edged closer to Gilly.
“You know, I’ve been impressed with you in group, Gilly. You say some really smart things. You make me think. I thought you had a great idea the last time in group when we were trying to help Sheila.” The two chatted amiably over the next hour, then took a walk to Bon Secours Church.
Though born and raised in Quebec, this landmark had evaded Gilly’s attention. Once inside with Simon, she found the sailors’ church quiet, dark and cool. A painting of a graceful Madonna adorned the wall behind the alter. Colored stones wove an intricate pattern on the floor. Gilly felt envious of Catholics; the church she had grown up in was so plain in comparison. In a low, respectful voice, Simon shared Bon Secour’s history.
Gilly asked, “So, how do you know so much about the church, Simon? Are you Catholic? I see you seem to have a crucifix.”
“What? This? No…” said Simon as he tugged at the chain around his neck. “I was raised Anglican…” A miniature silver spoon popped out at the end of his chain. Gilly was well aware of how such spoons were used. She was disappointed and a little scared at the idea that maybe Simon was using cocaine. She remembered the rumors about the Mounties. Hurriedly, Gilly explained that she needed to get home and, refusing Simon’s offer to walk her to the Metro station, she quickly left.
Gilly didn’t see Simon again until the next group session. He had been on her mind in a bit of an annoying way. She had to confess she found him attractive, but the coke spoon was off-putting. A girlfriend encouraged her to just ask Simon what the deal was. So she did. After session, she pulled him aside.
“I’m all yours, Gilly — want to go for a coffee?” It seemed so innocent, she readily agreed. Strengthened by the encouragement to emotional honesty that Dr. Benoit gave her, Gilly plunged right in.
“Simon, I just have to ask as it’s been bothering me. What’s that silver spoon all about?”
“Oh, this? I just found it in a pawn shop in Quebec City and fancied it. I just liked it. I think of it as a reminder of the silver spoons so many of us English-speaking Canadians have in our mouths at birth.” Gilly looked relieved.
“Oh, I just was afraid you might be into coke.”
“Not me, Gilly — I’m no user!”
Her worries assuaged, Gilly entered into a lively discussion of the current state of affairs in Montreal. Each knew several friends who were contemplating moves west to Toronto or Vancouver in the face of French Separatist actions in the province. Much of the turmoil swirled around language. Gilly studied French in high school, but since she was taught Parisian — not Quebecois — French, she had trouble communicating. Simon, however, was fluent in Quebecois.
“How do you live, Simon?”
“Well, I do a little of this and a little of that and it all works out.” Gilly didn’t press him.
Simon and Gilly met once or twice a week over the next few months. A lively companion, Simon showed Gilly his side of Quebec. He shared his home neighborhood with her. St. Laurent Boulevard and the streets spreading from it at the east base of Mount Royal were awash with a polyglot group of immigrants. Women walked by bearing their laundry in baskets on their heads. Live animals crowded a market, ready to be chosen for slaughter.
Simon’s father was Basque; his mother, Portuguese. Simon spoke Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English. He took Gilly to coffee shops where American draft dodgers sang folk songs. One night they went to a comedy club; Gilly laughed till she got the hiccoughs. The young man knew ethnic restaurants which served dishes Gilly had never even heard of. Despite its no frills, rundown décor and mimeographed menus covered with heavy plastic, the Warsaw became a favorites. Pierogis, beet soup, and other tasty dishes intrigued her. The scuttlebutt was “Everyone, at one time or another, goes to the Warsaw.” Low prices attracted students from nearby McGill. Authentic Polish recipes attracted every Pole within fifty miles. Simon claimed that Polish sailors in port used the restaurant to sell smuggled Polish vodka to the locals.
Although Simon had yet to make a romantic overture, Gilly hoped he would. She still saw Dave from time to time. He’d even taken her to meet his parents over a chicken dinner. Faithful, methodical, trustworthy — Dave was very predictable. Not as exciting and sophisticated as Simon.
November 1974, Montreal
One day, while strolling atop Mount Royal, Gilly and Simon stopped to look over the city and, beyond, the St. Lawrence River.
“Hey, Gilly. What would you think of an adventure? I need a little favor and I was thinking you might be able to help me.”
“Well, sure, Simon. You know I’ll help you any way I can.”
“Not so fast, you haven’t heard the favor. It’s kind of a big one and I hate to ask, but…”
“OK, what is it, Simon?” He turned to face her.
“Remember I mentioned my uncle in New York?” Gilly nodded. “My mother has a couple old family keepsakes she wants him to have. I can’t get off work from my current job and she’s really been a pain. She wants him to have them before Christmas. She can’t afford to buy him a Christmas present, so thought she’d give him these things instead. It’s just a wooden chest and a few framed photographs.”
“You need someone to take them to New York? Where in New York?”
“Oh, I can do that, Simon! Easy! I can borrow Mum’s car.”
The following Friday morning, Gilly drove up in her stepfather’s station wagon to the address on Nun’s Island Simon gave her. This was her first visit to Simon’s apartment and she was surprised he could afford the area. Gilly had expected a Victorian, broken up into apartments and sleeping rooms like most of her friends’ places. Instead, Simon lived in a modern apartment building with lush landscaping. Once inside, Danish modern furnishings tastefully filled the living room. A spectacular view of the St. Lawrence dominated the picture window.
While Simon carried his chest and pictures to her car, Gilly snooped with the excuse of needing the powder room. Out of character with the rest of the apartment, lurid scarlet paint colored the walls in Simon’s bedroom. The entire ceiling sported a gold-marbled mirrored surface.
Down at the car, Gilly noticed the chest hidden under a quilt behind the driver’s seat. Simon’s pictures were also out of view.
While Simon busily wrote down his uncle’s address, Gilly asked, “Why’s everything covered up, Simon?”
“Well, it’s just easier going through the border. You hate to get slowed down by those nosy Customs idiots. Don’t worry — everything’s fine. Just tell them you’re taking a day trip down to Lake Placid to meet friends.”
Maybe it wasn’t how Gilly would have done things, but in the interest of being open minded, she didn’t say anything else except, “I’ll give you a call when I get back.” She headed off.
Plattsburg lay a straight shot south of Montreal, a quick hour-and-a-half drive, excluding however long it took to get through the border. Simon had promised to call ahead to his uncle. Easy peasy, even though this was Gilly’s first venture into the United States.
Crossing the border made her nervous. She wasn’t sure what to expect. Her credentials were in her purse. She thought she should be okay. Border crossings were a big deal, thanks to American draft dodgers seeking asylum in Canada. Gilly hadn’t told her Mum or her stepfather she was taking their car across the border. Instead, she said she needed it to pick up antiques for a friend.
Thinking of antiques brought her mind to the chest — a handsome chest, very heavy looking. Metal bands surrounded it from top to bottom, like strapping. The wood was smooth and dark. She didn’t recall a lock. What was in it? More photographs? Linen? Or some other family treasure?
Gilly drove on. The land was flat as a pancake with snow dusting the edges of narrow long fields. Mountains rose in the distance. Gilly wondered how many of them were volcanic like Mount Royal. She looked for the symmetry of an old volcano but couldn’t be sure. The more she drove, the more she also wondered about the chest. And Simon. How could he afford Nun’s Island? What kind of job did he have? She could hear her mother’s voice warning Martha not to be ruled by sex. She had to admit that much, if not all, of Simon’s attractiveness was a combination of his aura of the unfamiliar and his sexiness. Kind of funny. Even though they had never so much as kissed, he took up so much room in her head. Again, her mother’s voice.
At Napierville, Gilly pulled over for a quick stop and a coffee at a kitschy cafe and gas station. Inside red checked curtains and booth seating created warmth and cheer. At the cash register, as she paid her bill, Gilly’s eye roamed over a collection of knickknacks created for the tourist trade. Not a year earlier, she would have pocketed at least one of them, but they had lost their power over her. Dr. Benoit came to mind. She remembered something the psychologist said at her first session.
“What you do in the next year or two, Gilly, will set the stage for the rest of your life. If you continue to break the rules and take risks, you must be prepared to face the consequences. It’s all up to you.”
It was only about a half hour to the border from Napierville. Gilly looked out the café window to the station wagon. A new thought came to her. Maybe she owed it to herself to know what she was carrying. Maybe that was the responsible path to take. She strode out to the car and opened the back door. Cold air rustled against her ski jacket. Removing the quilt, she uncovered the antique chest and, with a grunt, lugged it up onto the seat and swiveled it to face her. The top popped up easily. Inside, the chest was packed solid with plastic bags of white powder, all clean and neat and ready for sale.
Tears ran down Gilly’s cheeks as she closed the chest and replaced it on the car’s floor, covering it once again with the old quilt. Sliding into the driver’s seat, Gilly started the motor and turned the car north. North, back to Montreal. Gilly would do the right thing.