By Alison Morse
When I was a baby, peering through the plastic mesh of my playpen, I wanted to be daring, to race around the world as fast as Mighty Mouse. But walking was too scary. That split second when neither foot completely met the ground was too much for me to bear.
Then I turned three and finally learned to waddle around my neighborhood in Queens, New York. But in reoccurring dreams, I flew over the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, and solved murder mysteries involving the Flintstones and bloody zombies.
One afternoon in first grade, soft-as-a-toy-bear Miss O’Hara stood in front of our classroom and mutated into a growling grizzly. “I will not have you doodling and fidgeting in class, talking out of turn, or going to the bathroom in your pants,” she shouted. Then she pointed to the corner by the blackboard. “Stand up there, and don’t move until I say so.”
Sweating and trembling, I walked toward the corner.
“What are you doing?” asked Henry Pita, trailing behind me.
“Alison Morse, please sit down,” ordered Miss O’Hara, her powdered face scrunched up like a dried apple. “I was talking to Henry.”
I was relieved and sorry not be the class delinquent. But I had made Miss O’Hara angry. How could I make it up to her?
On the way home from school I passed yard after tiny yard of early spring flowers. The prettiest ones, a patch of gold-as-Twinkies crocuses, belonged to neighbors I didn’t know. The next morning, I dug about a dozen out of the ground with my bare hands, bulbs and all, and brought them to Miss O’Hara. A gift.
She barely smiled. “Thank you, honey. But you really shouldn’t dig up the bulbs attached to your flowers. Now they won’t grow back.”
I had stolen and killed the neighbor’s crocuses. I was an idiot. But the hot-eared-heart-thumping-tickle-of-shame was kind of fun. I had been daring.
Over the years, I tried to improve my skills as a thief, stealing bubble gum, Snickers bars, and bags of Doritos from the local candy store. I even kept a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints instead of delivering it to a neighbor. But compared to the female Robin Hoods and super-powered goddesses that I drew all over my notebooks at school, I failed to be much of an adventurer.
My dad, a graphic designer, took me to Manhattan museums every Saturday, an event that began to make me antsy after I turned thirteen. During a Saturday visit to a Picasso show at the Museum of Modern Art, we had our usual Picasso discussion: which paintings were classically cubist; which were influenced by Matisse; and why some paintings were more “successful” than others. Afterwards, we ate our ritual sandwiches at the museum cafeteria. I wondered how to make the experience more of a surprise.
The water at our table came in a minimalist, mid-century-modern glass carafe. When my dad went to the bathroom, I poured the last of the water out of it, dried it with a napkin, and stuffed it the pocket of my down jacket. Surprise bubbled through me. I was about to get away with something big.
Inside the F train, I took out the carafe to show my dad.
“Don’t you remember?” I told him.
“It’s a little small for a carafe. Maybe we can use it for a bud vase.”
He was obviously not impressed. What would I have to do, steal Meret Oppenheim’s fur cup from the permanent collection, or take Picasso’s “Young Ladies of Avignon” off the wall? To steal a work of art, I would need much better technical skills—and a driver’s license.
While I brooded, my dad fell asleep. His snore was as loud as the subway’s rattle, as loud as his shouting voice—a voice he used during one of our first visits to the Museum of Modern Art. I was four, and fascinated by some bronze people with skinny, melting bodies, made by an artist named Giacometti. They were the Walking Dead; art zombies both bumpy and smooth when I touched their stomachs.
A loud alarm went off and two museum guards ran up to me, yelling. My father yelled at me too, almost as loudly as the alarm. The guards threw us out.
As the train chugged home to Queens, I pondered the logic behind Giacometti and the carafe. Was petty theft not as daring as touching sculpture? Did breaking rules count more when you didn’t know you were breaking them? Whatever the logic was, I was pretty sure that daring had something to do with art, and maybe theft too.
Alison Morse‘s poetry and prose have been published in Natural Bridge,Water~Stone, Rhino, Opium Magazine, The Potomac, and a bunch of other journals. She won the 2012 Tiferet Fiction Prize. For twenty years she animated everything from cigarettes and glass shards to Barbie doing aerobics on the beach in Cancun. Now she teaches and runs TalkingImageConnection, an organization that brings together writers, contemporary visual artists and new audiences.