In "All the Years of Her Life," protagonist Alfred—a gangly teenage (or not much older) pharmacy clerk—is caught shoplifting women’s cosmetics at work. Just as he is leaving at the end of a workday, his boss, Sam Carr, uncharacteristically asks to speak with Alfred. Immediately, the young man grows very anxious:
His heart began to beat so loud it was hard for him to get his breath.
Right away, Alfred’s nervous reaction seems extreme; it suggests to the reader that he must have something to hide. Otherwise, why does his blood pressure increase and his breathing become strained? He seems to have experienced this automatic visceral reaction before.
After Sam Carr names items that Alfred is trying to pilfer, the young man briefly considers reacting with mock indignation, as if he were innocent. When he realizes that he has been caught and will not be able to save himself, however, he grows “very frightened” and speechless.
During his six months working at the pharmacy, Alfred has never been confronted. Sam Carr give Alfred a chance to explain his “petty thieving.”
“And maybe you’d be good enough to tell me how long this has been going on.”
“This is the first time I ever took anything.”
“So now you think you’ll tell me a lie, eh? What kind of a sap do I look like, huh? I don’t know what goes on in my own store, eh? I tell you you’ve been doing this pretty steady,” Sam Carr said.
Despite getting away with stealing for months at his current job, Alfred has been caught in the past.
Ever since Alfred had left school he had been getting into trouble wherever he worked…it would have been all right for his parents now if Alfred had only been able to keep a job.
So evidently, Alfred has lost previous employment due to “getting in trouble”—probably petty or misdemeanor theft. He is even accustomed to being caught and facing consequences:
Alfred began to feel that familiar terror growing in him that had been in him every time he had got into such trouble.
His dread of his mother’s reaction confirms that this incident is not the first time he has been apprehended by an employer. When Sam Carr calls Alfred’s mother, the young man
knew how his mother would come rushing in; she would rush in with her eyes blazing, or maybe she would be crying, and she would push him away when he tried to talk to her, and make him feel her dreadful contempt
He anticipates his mother’s anger, tears, and scorn. Much to his surprise, however, this time she remains calm and patient while mollifying the victim and escorting Alfred away. Nonetheless, she reveals her true feelings after they leave the drug store and Alfred thanks her, swearing that he will not get in trouble again:
“Be quiet. Don’t speak to me. You’ve disgraced me again and again,” she said bitterly.
After they arrive home, she admonishes him,
You’re a bad lot. God forgive you. It’s one thing after another and always has been.
Obviously this is neither the first time nor the last time that Alfred has committed or will commit a crime.