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There's no excuse, of course. I shouldn't have stolen anything. Ever. But I did steal. I stole paperclips. Everyday, nearly. One or two paperclips. I don't think I ever took a handful. But the only reason I didn't was because I couldn't think of what to do with a whole handful of paperclips. One or two, I could understand. I'd hold something together with them. But a whole handful?

I did this at the end of a day of subbing, especially at Warren Consolidated, a school district north of Detroit. I lived in Detroit with Glen, who was five and just starting school a school rather far from our house. She walked alone, and she tended to get lost. When she got lost, she'd go up to somebody's door and sort of tap, and if the person inside heard her-if it were a woman-maybe, she'd give her a cookie and call the phone number Glen had pinned to her dress. If it were a man, maybe he'd eat her. Hard to tell. Not likely, but

Paper Clips
Paper Clips

But if it was a woman, particularly a woman wearing an apron with flour dust down the front, standing in the doorway, beaming, a hot apple pie in her hands, then that woman would call the number pinned to Glen's dress, and Miss Moffett would answer the phone, and say, "Yeah? Is that so? Well, I'll come get her then. I'm at -------. What's the easiest way to get to where you are?" Then Miss Moffett would dress Jennie, my second daughter, in something suitable, and the little roly-poly chocolate brown woman toting the stout little pink girl would make the trek to the apple pie woman's house to collect Glen, who had to be terrified but maybe, with any luck, was drinking milk and eating apple pie.

I just didn't know.

It wasn't Miss Moffett's job to trek out to collect a lost child. It was my job. Well, I had hired Miss Moffett to take care of Glen and Jenny, so I guess the statement's not true-the part about the man taking Glen into his house and eating her and burying the bones in the basement. He'd need a jack hammer. There wasn't much to Glen, and she'd be terrified.

If it weren't for Miss Moffett coming along, we'd be lost. I didn't care how much money she cost. The money wasn't important, so long as they weren't terrified. But they were terrified. How could they help being terrified?

George had left once he was through law school and had passed the Bar. He just left.

Well, that statement's not quite true either because it sounds as if he just said, "Well, I'm through school now, and we can stop starving." No, starving is an exaggeration. We always had peanut butter. And honey. And bread. And milk. And oatmeal. Lots of oatmeal. We weren't starving. We weren't eating exactly, but we weren't exactly starving either. Actually, Glen and Jenny probably weren't hurting at all, because Jenny thought with her stomach and the surface of her skin, and Glen was accepting. That's the best word for it. Daddy wasn't "there" because Daddy was at school. Daddy was learning to be a "peefessor." Finally he did get to be a "peefessor," and he wore the hat. And then we all went out to dinner-this is the way Glen would have seen it-and Mother cried and couldn't stop crying-just cried and cried, and nobody could stop her. But then we were with Aunt Marjorie and Uncle Elmore, in their big car like a boat, and we went up in an elevator swoosh, and there was a restaurant up there, and then Mother and Daddy laughed, and everything was warm. Daddy was there, and he wore his "peefessor" hat.

That's probably how she saw it. That's probably all she saw.

No, Daddy didn't leave all at once. He left in pieces. He'd be home, then he wouldn't be home. The closer he got to graduation, the more he wouldn't be at home. He said he was in Chicago. He had musician friends in Chicago.

I never asked him what he did there. I was relieved that he was holding together. He looked okay. He was better when he came back from "Chicago" than he looked before he went. So okay. Life went on. Maybe we'd hold it in one piece.

But no. First Glen had to have an operation, and there wasn't any money for this because George had let the insurance lapse because, frankly, he was drinking the money. No, I think, at that time, there wasn't any money anymore because he had quit work-he was going to be a lawyer. So he rented an office in the legal district, and he would go there and sit, waiting for the phone to ring. It didn't.

He drank. There was nothing else he could think to do. When he had taken the money down to zero, and then below zero, he couldn't face coming home anymore, so he didn't. That's when my aunt sent the milk man around. We ate. She paid the bill. And then, our friends started leaving groceries for us in the milk box.

I got the car from George because his friend, Larry, told him he had to give it to me-a beat-up VW. I subbed. I couldn't do more than sub because my college had gone on hold so that George could go to law school, but every day, I subbed.

Once we got Miss Moffett, we were going to be okay. I could breathe. She'd come in the morning, and I'd get in the car and back out of the long driveway. Once Glen ran, crying down the driveway, her arms flailing, and I had to keep backing out, getting to the street, turning away. Leaving her.

And then she started school, but she got lost because it was such a long walk, and this was Detroit, and God knows what could happen.

Miss Moffett was there, and each day of subbing was another day of taking care of other people's children, when I should have been taking care of my own, but if I did that-if I stayed at home-how would we get money? And then the end of another day of subbing, and the kids all gone, no one around, time to go home to what home was left, to what home I had to hold together. And before I'd stand, before I'd close the desk drawer, I would see those paperclips in the neat smooth metal compartment of the regular teacher's desk, and I'd put my hand into the compartment, and underneath the smooth cool paper clips shiny paper clips meant to create order out of chaos, meant to hold things together, meant to collect pieces that had been blown asunder, meant to hold the blown pieces firm together.

And I took two or three paperclips and hid them in my pocket.

Every day, they called me to work,

Every day, I called them to call me to work,

Every day I taught,

I stole paperclips.

Darby Mitchell is a writer and teacher in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. You can reach her at, or visit her website at

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