By Joel Fishbane
Why would anyone steal a cow-creamer? This is only one of the many things my parents have reported stolen during their fifteen years running their bed and breakfast at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Other things on the list include cutlery, books, board games, a magnetic paper clip dispenser, the remote control for the television, and a model boat. One couple, says Dad, made the bed before they left. When my mother pulled back the comforter to change the sheets, she found the job would be ten seconds shorter: the mattress was bare. Dad has insurance, of course, and he keeps a running tab on everything that’s taken. It’s often not worth the effort of filing a claim. “That’s what’s so maddening,” he says. “If they stole expensive things, I’d understand. But it’s always just stuff.”
Dad, who is in his sixties, opened the bed and breakfast after being downsized so many times he had “made it into an art.” He’s six-two with a portly frame and wears thick glasses with oversized, tortoise-shell frames. My parents used to live in Toronto, but the city, says Dad, is no place to retire. After my brother, David, and I moved out, they sold the house of our childhood. (During the open house, several things went missing. Every time my parents open their doors, something always gets lost.)
Niagara-on-the-Lake is home to the Shaw Festival, one of the Southern Ontario’s two premiere theater festivals. Last summer, 250,000 people attended the festival; out of that crowd, 0.001% stayed at my parents’ B&B. Mom and Dad have three rooms that they rent out. The house had been previously owned by a lawyer with four daughters who had given each of the girls their own bathroom. With those in place, the changes my parents made were largely cosmetic. David and I spent a week helping them wallpaper, retile, and paint.
Dad worked in security, which only adds insult to injury when he discovers people have walked away with his stuff. Mom brushes the thefts aside—to her, it’s the cost of doing business—but Dad obsesses over every last item. Cutlery, he says, is understandable. Like pens and socks, cutlery was invented to be lost. One can also forgive the missing books. Cutlery is made to be lost, but books are expected to migrate. They’re forever traded, stolen, lost, and, at last, granted a home in foreign lands. Who can blame the thieving bibliophile? People rarely stay at the B&B for more than one or two nights, which is hardly enough time to finish The World According to Garp (which, incidentally, was stolen in 2012).
The board games are part of a small, communal den available to the guests. Some of them used to belong to me and David. When the B&B first opened, Dad found Monopoly was the game most often stolen; these days, it’s Cards Against Humanity. Pieces go missing all the time. Monopoly’s wheelbarrow vanished five years ago; the Scrabble set has long been missing one of its twelve Es. “To the best of my knowledge, no one’s noticed,” said Dad. He added, with a characteristic twinkle in his bright blue eyes, that for seven years, no one who’s used the cards has been playing with a full deck.
The model boat is hard to forgive. Twenty years ago, Dad and David spent a week putting it together. Until then, David had failed at everything, and Dad had bought the model ship, hoping it might spark his interest. It worked too well. David became obsessed with boats and later joined the Navy; he died in an accident in 2015. There’s a picture of David on the wall in an expensive, cherrywood frame. In it, David is twenty-nine and nearly as tall as our father. Mom, who is five-two, looks like a dwarf. I exist only as a fingertip; I was the photographer, and my finger crept into view.
Growing up, we used to get robbed all the time. David went to Greece on holiday and was mugged; in high school, my locker was broken into twice. My parents once had a cleaning lady who left the back door unlocked and told her partners, a gang of thieves, where the valuables were kept. They took my mother’s jewelry, but what galled my father was that they raided the fridge; they had felt so relaxed about the break-in that they had eaten the sandwich he’d been saving for lunch. Just another case of people walking away with his stuff.
One weekend, I ask Dad if he can predict which guests are most likely to be thieves. I’ve brought my fiancée and her parents for the weekend, and I’m scared he’ll be watching my future in-laws with a steely gaze. But I don’t have to worry. “It’s the middle class you need to worry about,” says Dad. This puts the in-laws in the clear; Rebecca comes from a family of artists; they’ve lived on the poverty line for years.
“What’s wrong with the middle class?” I ask.
Dad tells me his theory. The wealthy, who travel often, have been dealing with hotels and inns all their lives. They’ve been raised with an ethos of respect. The poor, meanwhile, are so relieved not to be at home that they’re extra careful, out of fear they’ll be kicked out. Rebecca can attest to this. Her family often leaves hotel rooms exactly as they’ve been found; they don’t even walk away with the dust on their shoes.
“But the middle class,” sighs Dad, “are the ones who take just enough vacations to feel entitled. They leave the rooms a mess—and they’re not above taking a few extra souvenirs.”
But everyone has a horror story, and Dad swears he knows a man who, after the checkout, discovered his goldfish had been smuggled away.
Whenever something goes missing, Dad updates a database he created, which is available to be accessed by the hoteliers of the region. There are 178 hotels and 153 B&Bs in the Niagara region, and they all have similar stories regarding the thievery of tourists. When I speak to some of them, they tell me they expect certain things to be taken, such as the complimentary soap or hand creams left in the bathroom. But everyone has a horror story, and Dad swears he knows a man who, after the checkout, discovered his goldfish had been smuggled away.
Dad’s database isn’t public, but it’s something people can refer to during that liminal period before a reservation is confirmed. Still, no one I speak to will go on record as stating whether they have ever turned someone down because of the blacklist. Competition is fierce among the hoteliers, and losing your television’s remote control is a small price to pay instead of letting someone go to a competitor. “We get lots of repeat business,” says Mom. “There was a young married couple who came during their first year together; last year, they stayed here with their kids.”
But what about the cow creamer? Made in France, this was a small, porcelain cow frozen in a merry stride. The cream was held in the belly and was poured out through the tip of her mouth. Mom and Dad bought it on their honeymoon, and it had delighted us when we were young. David treated it like a pet—I think he even had a name for it, though he never told me what it was. The creamer used to adorn the table when the guests came to claim the second B in their B&B experience. (Dad makes fresh muffins daily, and Mom will fix you waffles, pancakes, or crepes; she also makes eggs any style, except for poached. They had the same rules when we were growing up. At my parents’ B&B, you eat as David and I did until we left home.) On the morning the cow creamer vanished, the house had been rented to three different couples. The first was a retired doctor and a writer from Toronto; the second was two government workers from France, and the third was twenty-year-old actors from New York. Their friend was in the ensemble for Cabaret.
“The creamer was there when they sat down,” Dad assures me. He remembers the theft like it was yesterday. The French wanted crepes, while the New Yorkers drank café au lait. After breakfast, the retirees and the French checked out, while the actors went to a matinee. Mom and Dad generally don’t clean up breakfast until the middle of the morning, by which point they noticed the cow had pranced away. Dad made a point of casually asking the New Yorkers if they had seen it; one of them, clearly fancying himself a wit, suggested it might have jumped over the moon.
Dad didn’t necessarily trust their replies—they were actors, after all. But was suspicion enough to put them on his list?
I tell him he should have searched their bags. Dad admits he thought of it but decided against it. It would be daring to steal something and then stick around another day. His money was on the other two couples, but he had no evidence. Both of their rooms had been un-pillaged; even the hand cream had been left behind.
Dad isn’t above playing detective. It was Dad who deduced that the cleaning lady was responsible, and this is what helped the cops capture the thieves (by then, the jewelry had all been sold; the sandwich, presumably, was gone too). But this success did not lead Dad to contact the other couples about the missing cow. As my Mom says, they depend on repeat business, and Dad is worried about how it might sound.
At breakfast, I have the waffles, just as I had as a boy, and I notice the cream is served in a dull, old, boxy creamer. It saddens me to see it. The house I grew up in is gone. David is gone and so is his model ship. I miss the little cow creamer, which David and I had played with, giving it all sorts of adventures. I try to imagine the adventures have continued. Wherever the cow is, perhaps he has become a globe-trotter, stolen by one person after another, and in this way, seeing the world. The fantasy gives me comfort; my family is always dealing with the stolen and lost, but the cow is out there having a charmed life.
I ask Dad if he would mind if I tried to figure out where the cow had gone. I could write to the other guests—I’m a journalist, after all, and this gives me a certain cachet. Dad tells me to write up the letter. He doesn’t feel comfortable giving me the emails of strangers, but if I send it to him, he promises to send it along. That night, while my in-laws take in a production of Brigadoon, I write the greatest letter of my life. It’s all a question of tone. The important thing is not to accuse anyone. I write as if I’m Dad and try to be charming and self-effacing. This is going to sound ridiculous. . . . I know it’s been many months . . . it’s only my wife won’t stop bothering me until I write.
Dad approves of the style and sends the email; there are no replies when we leave the next day.
Back at home, I settle back into my routine, and I’m deep in wedding plans when Dad reports he has finally heard from the couple from France. They expressed douleur over the cow’s disappearance—they loved the little guy and recalled posting pictures of him online. But the retired doctor and her writer husband have not replied. Dad tells me he’s decided they’re the culprits. He puts them on his list.
It strikes me that the evidence is flimsy and hardly worth a conviction. I decide I will track down them down and either exonerate them or recover the lost cow. Finding them isn’t as easy as it seems, because their names are common, but I remember Mom saying that the writer had written a biography of Jack London. As there are only so many Jack London scholars married to retired doctors, I’m soon able to figure it all out. I can play detective too. But my sleuthing turns up a tragedy. The couple died in a car accident on the 401; the dates reveal it happened only a few days after they left Niagara-on-the-Lake.
I report all this to Dad, and he, out of principle, removes them from his database. It’s never good to speak ill of the dead. We can only assume that if the cow was with the couple, then it either perished in the crash or became something the couple’s children had to deal with as they sorted through their parents’ things. Their parents’ stuff. One day, I know, I’ll have to do the same. Assuming, of course, any of my parents’ things are left. Knowing their luck, the coroner or paramedics might secretly carry everything away.
The mystery ends. Dad and I know all about how important stuff becomes after someone dies, and we’re not going to bother the children over a theft that might not have occurred. I still think about that globe-trotting cow, especially on long, quiet nights. I like to think he’s still out there, skipping from one breakfast table to the next, delighting people with his merry trot. I speak to Dad a lot, and he says he misses the cow too. I still think he should have searched the New Yorkers’ bags; Dad’s money, of course, is on the middle class.
Joel Fishbane is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and man about town. His novel The Thunder of Giants is available from St. Martin’s Press. His numerous works of short fiction and nonfiction are available in such publications as The Writer, The Saturday Evening Post, Witness, and The Massachusetts Review. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. www.joelfishbane.net