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The Kayak Thief - Carol Flake Chapman

This is a story about thievery, anger, forgiveness and karma. I once thought the story had a certain ending, and now the ending has shifted. I hope you’ll help me decide which ending is the better one.


Fifteen years ago, my husband and I bought new kayaks. We were excited that our little neighborhood park on Lake Austin now had kayak racks where we could store them and haul them easily into the lake. Mine was a bright yellow inexpensive sit-on-top kayak, while Gary’s was a more expensive rapids-worthy model. We also bought bike locks, the basic kind with cables and padlocks. 


The second day after we secured our kayaks on the rack, when we came down to go for a paddle on the lake, we discovered that the cables had been cut and our kayaks were gone.


I called the police to make a report, while my husband drove to a local kayak store to put up a notice of the stolen kayaks. I then went online to craigslist, where thieves regularly sell their ill-gotten goods, and started looking for our kayaks. Within an hour, I found my kayak for sale, along with a phone number to contact. I called the number, pretending to be a buyer, and the man who answered the phone said his name was Jonathan, and that he wanted $300 for the kayak. I agreed to meet him at a rendezvous point at a parking lot not far from my neighborhood. I then called the police, who said they would be waiting at the rendezvous point when Jonathan showed up.


I did some detective work on my own and found the address tied to Jonathan’s telephone number, which was on a street near my house. I called the police again and told them where Jonathan had made the call. Meanwhile I google-mapped the address, which turned out to be in a rundown section of my neighborhood, where trailers were gradually being replaced by modest new houses. 


My neighborhood, which was once known as a haven for hippies, slackers and musicians, had been rapidly gentrifying, with a resulting split into poor, up-and-coming and prosperous enclaves. Kids from the neighborhood attend an upscale high school down the road, where the kids from the poor end of the neighborhood are sometimes referred to snottily as the Cuernavaca kids, a reference to the main street that spans the poorer to prosperous edges of the neighborhood. The crown jewel of the neighborhood is the small park that lies on Lake Austin, with a boat dock, swimming pool, clubhouse and basketball court that make it an ideal refuge for families from all parts of the neighborhood. It was from there that our kayaks were stolen.


I parked my car a couple of blocks away from the address I had found and walked my dog past the rusting mobile home from which the kayak thief had made the call. I was pretending to be out for a stroll, but I felt anything but casual. Parked in the driveway was an old black Ford Explorer with blue doors that had seen better days. But no kayaks in sight. I returned to my car and put my dog inside, then sneaked around to an abandoned house across the street from the mobile home. I was “staking it out.” 


After a few moments, a red pickup pulled up across the street from the trailer, from which a heavily tattooed young man emerged and joined the driver inside the cab of the truck. Something changed hands. That must be Jonathan, I said to myself. I went back to strolling mode and pretended to be looking for my lost dog so that I could get a better look at him.


I returned to my car and headed home, waiting for a call from the police lieutenant who was handling the case. When the time passed for the transaction to take place, the lieutenant called and said that Jonathan hadn’t showed up, that he must have sensed a trap. The police then showed up at the trailer from which the call had been made and conducted a search, but the kayaks weren’t there. So now Jonathan knew that the police were on his trail, and he and the Ford Explorer and the kayaks, wherever they had been stashed, vanished.


Meanwhile I learned from a neighbor who spends a lot of time at the lake that Jonathan, now age 24, had stolen a jet ski a few years earlier when he was still a juvenile and had spent time in detention. Ironically, his mother worked as the janitor at the clubhouse in the neighborhood park from which the kayaks had been stolen, and the trailer from which he had made the calls was her home, where he had grown up. 


“She’s going to get fired,” said the neighbor.


The police told me there was nothing else they could do, and I was furious and frustrated. Every time I drove past the street where Jonathan lived, I fumed and plotted. I put up signs around the neighborhood warning of Jonathan the kayak thief. At one point, I drove past the trailer where he had grown up and saw Jonathan’s mother standing in the yard. I got out of my vehicle and asked her where her son was. “Haven’t seen him,” she said, turning away. “He stole my kayak,” I said. She looked back and shrugged, then began to cry. I found myself hugging and comforting her. And my anger diminished for a while. Jonathan had cost her a job. And probably not the first time.


A few days later I got a call from a stranger whose voice seemed strangely hesitant. “Did you have a yellow kayak that was stolen?” he asked. I said yes and described the kayak in detail.


“I think I have your kayak,” he said. He had bought a kayak off craigslist, he said, that fit the description. He had met the seller at a parking lot in San Marcos and paid him $300. He described the old Ford Explorer, with the same license plate I had seen in Jonathan’s driveway, and he then described the seller as a burly young man with a lot of tattoos. The next day he had gone to buy a new paddle, and he had seen the notice of the stolen kayak in the boat store where my husband had posted it. He brooded about it, and his Vietnamese girlfriend had told him that the kayak had bad feng shui, bad vibes, and he should give it back. And so that was why he was calling.


The kayak buyer, as it turned out, worked as a lineman for AT&T, and he was an Irag war veteran. We talked for a while and he confessed that buying the kayak had been a way for him to try to get out in nature and deal with the stresses that were still plaguing him from the war.


“I want you to keep the kayak,” I said. “My husband is a veteran as well, and I think you need the kayak more than I do.” I refused his offer of repaying the $300. And so my anger diminished again for a while. At least I knew where the kayak was, and it had found a good home. 


A month later, as I was driving past Jonathan’s street, I had an impulse to drive by the old trailer, something like an early warning signal. And sure enough, there was Jonathan, standing out in the yard, his old Ford Explorer in the driveway. The anger boiled up again, and I didn’t hesitate. Foolhardy, as I friend later described it. I got out of the car and stood at the edge of the yard. 


“What do you want?” asked Jonathan warily.


“You stole my kayak,” I said. “I know who you sold it to and where you sold it.”


“Get outta here,” he said. “You got no proof.” 


I proceeded to describe the sales transaction. “He even got a picture of your license plate,” I said.


At this point, Jonathan decided to resort to class consciousness. “You yuppies,” he said. “You think you have it all,” he sneered.


“You don’t know sh-t,” he said. “All the guys in school were scared of me,” he said. “And all the guys in the neighborhood.”


For some reason, Jonathan wasn’t scaring me. I saw him strutting down the hallways of Westlake High, the Cuernavaca kid from the rusty trailer home. A bully maybe, but more probably a joke. 


“Jonathan, I know you stole my kayak,” I said. “I’m not going to do anything else about it. I just want you to admit you did it. And that will that.”


For the first time, he looked at me directly. He nodded. “Yeah,” he said.


“Okay then,” I said. “I want you to know that I forgive you.”


His glance wavered, and something in his face changed. He shrugged again. “I can get you a new kayak, really cheap,” he said.


“No thanks,” I said. I walked back to my car and drove away, my anger gone for good. I wondered how often Jonathan had admitted a wrong and how often he had been forgiven for it.


I don’t know where my forgiveness came from. The words just came out, unbidden, and I meant them. On some level, I knew forgiveness was the only way to get this episode out of my psyche. And I didn’t give Jonathan another thought for five years. No more fussing and fuming as I drove past his street. Peace at last. 


And then five years later, I was sitting at my special meditation spot at the lake when a friend interrupted my morning reverie. I had discovered the spot, actually a bench on a fishing pier, where I watch the light and water put on a quietly spectacular show at sunrise, a few months earlier. I’m not sure why, but I feel an inner peace at that particular spot that I don’t experience anywhere else. The spot, as it happens, is about a hundred yards from where my kayak was stolen.


“Did you hear the news about your old friend Jonathan?” the friend asked. “He got arrested for stealing bicycles. And they’ve got him on federal charges. Racketeering.”


I walked back to my house and immediately googled Jonathan’s name. Sure enough, he had been arrested for stealing more than $75,000 worth of top-end bicycles from different places around the state. There was his picture, along with three other alleged perpetrators. They looked scary. 


Then, thanks to a tip from another friend, I found Jonathan’s Facebook page, where he had posted—and boasted—about all the new toys he had acquired. There were pictures of new motorcycles, new trucks, a new dog, a new girlfriend. Posts about his new life at an apartment next to a marina on Lake Travis. And then a post about being sick and alone. And then no more posts.


Obviously, my forgiveness had not stopped Jonathan from stealing. He had clearly not changed his ways and had even escalated his scale of operations. But there had been a gap between the kayak theft and this alleged spree of thievery. Had he stopped for a while? I don’t know. But I do know that I’ve been able to find peace of mind in a place that had once brought me great anger. I still walk to the lake many mornings to sit at what I still think of as my meditation spot, where the light on the water is always different. The slow-moving current is where I sent my husband’s ashes fourteen years ago, and with it so many memories, some bittersweet. Someday I hope to forgive myself for my own shortcomings and let them go into that current where my husband and I once paddled together. That’s something no thief could take away.


A former journalist, Carol Flake Chapman returned to poetry and creative nonfiction following the sudden death of her husband on a wild river in Guatemala. She was seeking literary form that would not only be healing but which would offer a response to a world gone haywire. Nonfiction .

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