“Cover Letter”


Dear Signorina,

[. . .]

I’m in the odd position of having to keep our conversation going even though we can’t meet and we can’t talk. A conversation’s only possible between two people who know and accept one another, who have a reciprocal relationship; in our case, this reciprocity must be set aside. I assure you I’m not happy about this, and if my letter is some type of written monologue, please understand I never wanted to keep you from answering; I’m just looking out for my personal safety. From a strictly technical point of view, I also could have called; that probably wouldn’t be too risky, but a phone call wouldn’t work. As soon as I said, “I’m the one who stole your purse” (and something like that over the phone can only sound ugly), you’d have an immediate emotional reaction, and that would be the end of any normal conversation. No matter how you react to the first read, this letter will still be there, so you can read it a second time, after your head’s cleared. Besides, I think a letter is the best method for saying what needs saying, and as clearly as possible: if you can revise, you can be more precise, more honest. But maybe since speech is more spontaneous, you think it’s more honest. A lot of people do. I know plenty of businessmen who’d rather take an exhausting, expensive trip than close a deal without meeting the other party face-to-face. You’ve got to believe me—I’m being absolutely truthful here—I don’t think a person can lie in writing: you can lie out loud, and what you say won’t leave a trace; and your words can mean one thing while your tone, your expression, can mean something else. But a piece of writing can be read over, mulled over, so I really don’t think it’s possible to insert lies without leaving some trace of evidence behind. What I mean is that in a letter, even if you want to tell the truth but can’t, maybe you’re too cautious or shy, there’s an involuntary truth that seems to come out anyway that’s impossible to avoid.

So I have to confess I spent some time reading your two letters, even if they weren’t mine. I’ve never found letters in a purse before, and I had this vague notion that a letter, like someone’s medicine, might hold some crucial piece of information, some address or recommendation. I’m not used to writing letters—it feels a bit awkward. Reading this, I can see I’m drawing a strange portrait of a thief as someone not exactly “honest,” but “sensitive,” anyway. I must admit I’m not at all interested in making the consequences of my thefts out to be more serious than they really are. I’ll take responsibility for a theft, but in some ways I don’t want to be held responsible (e.g., in front of a judge) for someone else’s life. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me, and perhaps that’s making me too verbose; my apologies. I have to say that I’m not inclined to think of myself as a thief. I live this way because I want to, but if someone else chooses a different lifestyle, I don’t hold it against him. There’s plenty of wealth to go around in this world, and I don’t think you can criticize someone if he limits himself to taking only what he needs. I don’t like harming people more than I gain for myself. This is a good rule of caution—maybe it’s the first rule of caution. I’m not some addict who just goes out and steals for a fix. I want you to understand this, even if it’s also true that I consider a certain number of cigarettes a day to be something I need. Since you didn’t have cigarettes or a lighter in your purse, you must not smoke, so what I consider a “need,” you might not find all that convincing. I’ll admit: I want to make a good impression.

I do a job a week—that’s usually enough—so I can take my time. It’s a modest living. You know how much money you had in your purse, and you have to trust me when I tell you that this is plenty for one week, even with the small amount I always set aside. I know people who think they live on next to nothing and spend the same amount in just two days—and unlike me, they don’t even pay rent. I try to give money its due, and if deep down you object that I don’t earn my money, consider this: I do get it at some personal risk. I’m extremely careful, I’ve never been caught, and I know if I pay close attention, I can reduce this risk, but I can’t eliminate it entirely. I don’t want you to romanticize me as some criminal character. I’m not in any criminal circles, I don’t know any other working thieves, and most of all, I don’t hang out with fences. But don’t get the idea I look down on these people, either. I stay away to be safe. Fences and chronic thieves (people who steal because that’s the only thing they know) almost always have records, and they all have to do a little informing, just to survive. I don’t want a life that’s always on the inside, on the outside . . . so if I want to keep living the way I live now, and I do, I have to stay as far as I can from this small, side world that I really don’t know anyway, or I know it the way you know it, from what’s in the papers. But I do have to admit, when I find myself with something gold in my hand, I’m awfully tempted.

A couple of years ago, I found a pamphlet under my door, probably slipped under there by some of the parish boys, about a project for digging wells in an extremely dry part of Central Africa. The pamphlet included an address, so about once a month, when I find something valuable (usually gold lighters, but sometimes pens or earrings), that’s where I send it. Maybe this sounds ridiculous, but otherwise, I’d just toss this stuff out, which seems like a waste. 

Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure what a thief is. If I happened to meet one, I’d never think of swapping trade secrets. It’s not like we’d have some special bond just because we’re both thieves. No, if I met a thief, I’d watch my wallet.