It wasn’t a pretty sight when they cuffed my brother-in-law at the door and led him across the lawn and into the back of the police cruiser. Arnie was still in his burgundy bathrobe and flannel pajamas, his thinning black hair disheveled. My wife Liza, who’d been watering out front in a one-piece bathing suit, began thumbing the end of the hose and spraying in the direction of any neighbor who got too close. Our tween twins Justin and Julie were jumping around in self-conscious excitement, as if a camera were shooting footage and they were on reality TV.
It was embarrassing all around.
Before the arrest, Arnie lived at our home for nearly a year. He’d come to us hat in hand, newly divorced and laid off: his harpy of a wife gone back to Indiana, his job as a systems engineer outsourced to India. Arnie being no dummy and me being GM of Home Entertainment Factory, I hired him as a salesman on the floor. He did well. Among a sales force of 15 he was runner-up in HDTV commissions, third overall in high performance audio. Things were going well with one caveat: he began seeing Alexis Winterbottom, a curvy blonde with a gap-toothed smile. All the guys lusted after her.
“Oh man, she’s really something, especially in the sack,” he confided to me one day as we carpooled to work. Then he began to chuckle. “Remember yesterday when you and Ritenauer walked back into the storeroom and were talking about the Samsung shipment? Alexis was going down on me behind the speaker cabinet boxes on aisle four. You guys passed right by us and had no idea!”
Speaking of no idea, Arnie was clueless about the fling Alexis and I had going not long before he arrived. I wasn’t proud of it, but Liza and I had been experiencing a rough patch and one flirtation with Alexis led to another, and then another, and on and on until it was too late. I wasn’t concerned my brother-in-law would find out. Alexis was good like that; I trusted her. Still, it wasn’t an ideal situation. Arnie brought her by the house a few times. Once after a barbecue we hosted Liza raved about her. Not only is she attractive, she’s so much fun. Liza got her hopes up, wishing the best for her brother, but I knew it wouldn’t last. Alexis wasn’t wired for anything serious and right as Arnie even hinted at taking their affair to another level she abruptly ended it.
The poor guy sulked for weeks after that and his commissions plummeted. That was bad news for everyone. The initial novelty of having him around had worn off. Our home began to feel crowded. The toilet seat in my bathroom was left up again! Julie would complain. These aren’t my shirts, my socks, and I don’t wear boxers, Justin would say. Why are Uncle Arnie’s things in my laundry! These were small annoyances. What was more concerning was the depleting supply of bottles inside our liquor cabinet, and Arnie’s preference to spend his hours after work inebriated in our family room, watching sitcoms on the 55-inch plasma in state-of-the art surround sound. Pretty soon that’s all he did during the day at the store too. Although minus the drinking as far as I could tell.
Then one day, to the surprise of us all, he started his eBay wheelings and dealings and things seemed to pick up for him.
At least until the cops showed.
Arnie’s arrest brought instant confusion. Not just for Liza and me—who had no inkling of his little scheme—but also the kids, and everyone down at Home Entertainment Factory, and of course the neighbors on our block who’d seen the humiliating send-off. He returned for a while, free on bail, but we didn’t interrogate him on any particulars. We just tried to have a beer handy should he request it, and all in our family agreed to let Uncle Arnie be King of the Remote Control and decide what show played on our big screen. There were a lot of blind eyes and deaf ears in our household before the sentencing and the start of his 15-month stint in federal prison.
What did he do? Why did he do it? Is it true the FBI got involved? These were questions that came from every direction. To which I’d reply: It’s complicated. Why does anyone do it? Uh, um, yes.
Arnie had committed “access device fraud,” something surprisingly serious. He switched bar code labels on products in superstores, substituting those from thrifty bargains onto high-ticket items. So he was able to buy chains saws at Barbie doll prices, popular software packages for the cost of a measuring cup. Things like that.
To his credit he was clever enough to acquire products of interest to smart shoppers and collectors. On eBay he’d resell them at five to ten times the “special” price he paid. He had a good deal going. Too good, really. Arnie was such a frequent customer that the security detail of one of the superstores laid a watchful eye, and started matching store receipts with inventory and then got the big boys involved. The day they paraded Arnie out in his bathrobe he looked mortified, of course, but not especially surprised and didn’t mount any kind of protest. Perhaps there was even a sense of relief. He couldn’t have thought he’d get away with it for long.
I feel for Arnie. I liked him before he moved in with us and like him even more since. He’s a good guy who ran into some bad luck is all. While he did indeed become a thief, it was only because he was so desperate. Besides, not once did he steal from my home or company and there was ample opportunity to do so at both. I’ll be happy to provide a reference for him when he gets out.
Even now, I try to sing Arnie’s praises to the kids whenever they mention his name.
“Your uncle, he’s pretty sharp, a real entrepreneur,” I say.
“But he cheated people, and had to go to jail,” they remind me.
“That’s because there are regulations to doing business.”
“Like laws?” they say.
About the Author: Roland Goity lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he writes in the shadows of planes coming and going from SFO. Recent stories of his appear or will soon in Menacing Hedge, Penduline, Oblong, and Pithead Chapel. He edits WIPs: Works (of Fiction) in Progress.
Story Song: "Flakes" by Frank Zappa