The Chicago Tribune's (pitifully slim and roundly disregarded) Printers Row Lit supplement ran a contest a while back, requesting Chicago stories (for CASH PRIZES!!!) - needless to say I did not win/was not selected. I reckon this was not the kind of civic boosterism they were after.
But, given the growing list of such episodes, and the city's simpleminded pledge to put more cops on the streets, it seems germane.
It was grisly out there. No question. He peered between his mungey curtains and shook his head at the slashing needles of frozen rain as they pinged off the stop sign on the corner outside and made the puddles all stippled and fidgety. He knew he’d have to go out in that, and was not thrilled. But neither did he wish to suffer the pain of a cigarette-less morning. He shuffled away from the window. Thought for a second about stabbing around in the mound of mashed butts in the wide glass ashtray on the end table, to look for a long one.
“Nah. Gross,” he explained to nobody.
He headed back to the kitchen to see how the coffee was coming. Checked in the freezer. Sometimes when he’d been drinking, he’d stash a pack of smokes in there. He rolled the frosted vodka aside, shifted the thing of frozen peas. Nothing.
The coffee maker burped and gargled, exhaling a burnt perfume. He stared into the nicked-up drain, speckled by a mealy tiara of rice from the Chinese place from like… Tuesday, maybe?
He scrutinized the coffee maker. He scolded himself again for not buying the kind where you can take the decanter thing out and pour a cup and it won’t hit you with a scalding jet of coffee. This one had been a few bucks less. At the time, in the store, that had seemed to matter. Didn’t matter now. The thing took forever. And he had to wait till it was all the way finished before he could pour some. He’d tried the thing where he’d do a quick switcheroo between the decanter thing and his mug, but it never worked. Always spilled – couldn’t get the – what the hell do you call it? Carafe. The carafe didn’t come out smoothly – had to sort of dog-leg is up off the heating element thing. Every damn time. And since the Formica of the countertop was cracked pretty bad from that one time he’d set a pot of boiled pasta water on there – from back when the kids would still come over, back when he made something like an effort – you could still make out the brown burn ring, like the kind of vague corona that made people see the face of Jesus in a water stain, or the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast. The spilled coffee would always find its way there to the crack and seep into the core of the counter. And that particleboard was already spongy and warped enough. He was pretty sure he’d never be able to sell this heap of a house anyway. Soon as some hopeful young couple, the advanced guard of the Yoga Mat People who’d been infiltrating for the past maybe seven years, got a look at this 30-year-old kitchen with its electric non-stainless stove, they’d spin on their heels and head back snickering to their realtor’s SUV. “And that WALLPAPER? Can you stand it?” That kind of thing.
He thought ruefully about how you were expected to line the nests of the richer people who came to displace you – before they’d stoop to conquer your neighborhood, you had to put in maple cabinets and subway-tile your bathrooms and all that. That’s why he’d half-resolved to die in this house – a lone dirtbag holdout who watched as garden gnomes and boat trailers got replaced on all sides by Japanese maples and shiny-coated dogs. All the stucco and siding was gone, pretty much – ripped down by the people who talked among themselves about houses in the area having good bones. Hardly anybody honked when they edged their crypt-quiet hybrids out of the alleys, which could just about kneecap you every time. He’d been driving down Lamon the other week and there was a house with a set of solar panels up top of it.
He waited, anyhow, for the machine to finish so he wouldn’t have to sop up coffee. He stared at the coffee collecting in the decanter thing for a minute, then decided he should maybe go put on a shirt. He’d gone to flab. So he kind of hated catching sight of his shirtless self reflected back at him in the window or the shower door. And in the window over the sink, standing on the beaten linoleum of the slanting kitchen floor, he could see his pointy and wall-eyed man-boobs, which sickened him some.
In the bedroom, out back, he caught a glimpse of a cardinal as it alit on the wind-silvered wood of the back fence. He pulled on his least rancid t-shirt. He bet himself he could find the spot along that fence where they had buried the turtle. This was years ago, now.
Before Ginny and the kids took off. He could remember the funeral – Emma clutching a wilted bouquet of dandelions to lay on the turtle’s coffin. Those flowers. Yellow heads dangling over the top of her fat little hand, like sunny heads lolling off slender green nooses – saddest goddamn thing he ever saw. It was like a dryer sheets box, that turtle coffin. That was one of the things he missed – the way his clothes used to smell when they came out of the dryer, all Ginny-folded and fresh. How the dryer sheets made it kind of nice to lean on his own arm and breathe in that flower smell. He bought those same kind of dryer sheets once after Ginny and the kids left. But the smell was no good, now – it was soured a little, like everything else.
He remembered Emma bringing that turtle home – back then, she was always like half a driveway ahead of Joshy, who still needed Ginny to unbuckle him from his car seat. Emma came pounding down the hall to show him this little guy, this stunned-looking turtle, in his little glass box with the fake hollow log in there, and the parti-colored pebbles. He’d been having a coffee before second shift, was reading the paper. He’d asked her – in that half-attentive way you do when you’re talking to your kids about something they’re all hopped up about – what she was going to name him. “Sanchez!” she’d shouted. “I wanna show him his new room!” And she’d tromped up the carpeted stairs. He hadn’t wanted to make a big deal. So he didn’t say anything. But what was with the beaner name? He’d made a note not to let the jags at the squad know about this, or he’d never hear the end of it. Or have Emma change the name to something white. He’d meant to talk to Ginny about it. But he didn’t know how, without it turning into a whole thing.
Whatever. Long time ago. He gazed at their back fence and mentally pinned a little flag in the spot where they’d laid Sanchez the turtle to rest.
He was still staring absently when he heard the final shuddering belches of the coffee. So he headed back in the kitchen. He snagged one of his chipped Fraternal Order mugs and poured in coffee, which he knew would be burnt-tasting again. It was. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cleaned out the decanter thing. Which had a scalded ring of coffee crust all along the inside.
He’d have to grab smokes soon, or his head would be splitting. He went back to the bedroom to pull on his maroon track pants and grab his wallet. He took a last slug of coffee. Ugh. Maybe he’d grab a coffee at the 7-11, along with smokes, since you could clean an engine block with this swill he’d just poured – swill he’d had to wait for.
He slid his keys out of the plate-bowl thing Josh has made in pottery at camp that one year. Ugly and malformed as this dish was, with its uneven coat of booger-colored glaze, he felt just about sure that if this dump burned down, it’s one of the few things he’d grab on his way out. Even though it looked like ass, the picture of those stubby little Joshy fingers molding it just for him – he couldn’t shake it. And even though it was just an everyday thing where his keys and coins and Chapsticks lived, he was pretty sure it’d mess him up inside if he didn’t have it.
He hauled his parka off the back of the kitchen chair and stepped out into the cold. Whenever he got out on the cracked concrete, he realized how bad it stunk in the house. He’d have to hire somebody to give the place a real and thorough cleaning – there was like a vinegary musk funk in there. He was trapped inside his own old man smell. Which – whatever – it’s not like anybody ever came by.
He patted himself down. Keys? Yeah, in his hand. Wallet? In his parka pocket, yes. Before he inserted his key in the lock and twisted the bolt home, he thought: “Should I take the Glock?” He always asked himself this. Force of habit. Asked it when he was still on the force. Which was like seventeen years ago, now. Asked it every time he went out. Better not, he answered. Nearly every time, now. Better not.
He crunched across the dimpled ice of the walk and slid in behind the wheel of the Durango. Used to be so proud of this thing. Used to get it washed every week. Used to glimpse it out the kitchen window in the drive, looking mean and ready in the moonlight. Now, though. It was all salt-ravaged and banged up, pocked and rust-blistered, the leather on the driver’s seat was split and cracked, foam bulging out of it. The Durango’s starter sounded like it was about to seize up for good, and overall it ran really rough. When it finally gasped its last, he figured he’d just set a couple road flares down behind it and walk away from it for good. He hoped he’d at least get to the store for smokes before it came to that, though. He absently stroked the dash before he tried the key. She started up, even if the starter made a shrieking sound like a pig being chased. He drove. This was a route he’d passed over probably ten thousand times. Out the alley, up Lavergne, west on Winnemac, right on Laramie up the store on Foster.
Returning to the scene of the crime, he nearly always thought as he crossed the parking lot and set off the electronic chime when he opened the door. Ging-gong. Sounded Korean to him, that chime. Like a Korean robot trying to sing or something. In the years since The Night In Question, he’d noticed that lots of 7-11s, the ones in the richer neighborhoods, mostly, had installed a door tone that was more… what? Understated, maybe. Like it was supposed to be the summons for a bellhop or something, instead of an anti-theft measure in a place that sold Skittles and leathery taquitos. But not this one. This one still had the same Korean robot song.
He’d been back by the coolers when he shot that kid. On The Night In Question.
It wasn’t slow motion, like the movies. It all went crazy fast. The kid had Ging-gonged in with a couple of his buddies. Buying condoms, the kid was. Making a big deal for his friends about the action he’d be seeing later.
He’d been staring into the cooler, on The Night In Question, deliberating between the usual Old Style tall boys, or whether he should splurge on a six of Löwenbräu, which was on sale. He knew it was dumb, and he knew it wasn’t really German, but the little dots over the “O” and the “A” made it seem like a bigger deal, somehow. Umlauts, his grandma had told him they were called, those dots. The umlauts and the slender-necked green glass bottles made the Löwenbräu seem like a bigger deal, he now remembered went the line of his half-drunk thinking, as the kid and his crew Ging-gonged into the store.
Maybe. If he hadn’t been such a loudmouth, he’d be alive today, that kid. But he’s bouncing off the walls and hollering – not matching his energy to the hum of fluorescents and the low volume of the canned music drizzling from the speakers in the ceiling – an instrumental cover of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” – he knew this because he hated that song.
But no. Didn’t matter that the kid was yelling, just about. It was his fault. He was to blame. He was just another trigger-happy racist cop. Who’d driven drunk to this convenience store. To shoot a kid while he was off duty.
But the kid had been like roaring, almost. In what sounded like a menacing way. And pointing something at the cashier. Gun, he thought. Turns out it was a cigar. But the kid was all “mother-effer” this and “n-word” that. At the top of his lungs. Showing off for his friends. Who could’ve known the kid was quoting some movie?
Later, when the security footage leaked. He could plainly see it was a bad kill. But then. On that night – The Night In Question. He’d been sure he’d yelled “Freeze!” and that the kid had wheeled around. And then he’d yelled “Drop your weapon!” And then he’d fired. Four times. Hit the kid in the chest.
But the video showed him yelling and firing all at once. The freeze frames on the news showed a veined and enraged-looking guy with a buzz cut, red-rimmed eyes and glistening lips blazing away at a teenage boy.
When he met with the lawyer the union hired him, the guy froze a frame from security footage and listed the ways he was screwed – off duty, out of uniform, failed to identify himself and a police officer, blew a 0.7 on the Breathalyzer – not full-on drunk, maybe, but impaired for sure.
Still, though. Pretty tight grouping, those shots.
But his main offense? Being white. Being a white cop. White cop shoots a black kid. That had been a year where that same story played out over and over in every big city in the country. And people were sick of it. But worse, for him: the Mayor was sick of it. There had been something like sixteen police-involved shootings that were sketchy that year. They had to make a show of retaliation, so the Mayor picked him to twist in the wind as penance for the sins of the department.
In that conference room, under quivery, buzzing fluorescent tubes, the lawyer had somebody bring in two easels with blowups of his own face and the kid’s face. The lawyer asked him which seemed more sympathetic. He gazed at his own face – thick-necked, star-shaped scar high on his forehead, Nazi-blue eyes sunk far back under the ledge of his brow. Even in repose, un-agitated, he had to concede he looked like a goddamn leg breaker – and in this photo, it was worse, even: a white man full of bile, blunt-headed and screaming through chisel teeth. The kid had long lashes around eyes like liquid chocolate, still had a touch of little kid pudge to his cheeks. Lawyer told him he’d be crucified if he tried to fight this. He believed the lawyer – the lawyer knew his stuff. The kid was the sleepy-eyed picture of innocence – and no amount of his telling how gangsta the kid had been the night of the shooting would do a thing. He was a goddamn cherub, this kid, a poster child for slain innocence.
Lawyer tells him if he quits – right now, tonight, like early-retire right then in the conference room, like before midnight, lawyer says – he’ll get two thirds of his pension. If he fights this, lawyer says, the Mayor’ll see to it he gets nothing. Except maybe a whole bunch of prison.
So. That’s how he had become a forty-two-year-old retiree. They made him clear out his locker down at the station right then, that night. No send off. No nothing. Just “Mayor can’t afford this. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.”
There’d been a grand jury and all that. But nothing came of it.
He maybe didn’t take it so great. He could admit that. Ginny was sweet enough at first. Then she started riding him about why wouldn’t he get a job. Or at least look. Or go out. See people. Do something.
What could he do, though? Fishing was stupid. Nobody bowled anymore. He hated the gym, libraries were full of homeless weirdos. That left movies and booze. To get Ginny off his ass, he’d buy a half pint of something and go to a matinee. He’d get one of those giant cups and fill it like halfway with Sprite, then top it off with gin. He’d duck into a stall in the john, and fill his cup with smuggled hooch. Then he’d sit through the movie, getting blankly buzzed, blinking up at the flickering story he only half followed. He’d sit through just about anything. He liked action stuff mostly, but if he’d seen all the explosion-and-gunplay movies, he’d stare at one that was supposed to be a comedy, or even a few times the chick flicks. Where he’d elicit lots of sidelong looks from the handful of shawl-wrapped pudge-piles who went to those things. He got a little charge out of that – being the only man in among the dateless fatties with their faces like rice pudding who came to watch British guys with their so-called charm profess love at fawn-eyed American girls on a weekday afternoon.
Or when he wasn’t getting buzzed at the movies, he’d just drive around. That’s how the Durango got to be so high-mileage. Those months and months of driving around. All over the North side. All hours of the day and night. Soon enough, he stopped going to movies. And just drove.
A couple=few years on, Ginny lost patience. Moved back to Rockford with the kids. Kept books for her dad’s lumber yard. At first, he drove out there every couple weeks and took the kids for pancakes or to a petting zoo, or whatever. But then Ginny called to tell him she could smell the booze on him whenever he picked up the kids, and to stop coming. So he had. She filed the papers and he signed off. Of course he did. And he sent the alimony and child support, mostly. Almost always.
So then, with a divorce finalized, completely alone, there nothing stopping him from driving around and around the city. Stewing himself with travel mug gin. Windows down. Even when it was sub-zero, he liked the ragged chomp of the February air as it raked his face and pulled his exhaled smoke into a long tail behind the Durango. He never blacked out, or anything. Never once got pulled over, even. A time or two, he took the mirrors off parked cars. But that was about it.
He never got drunk-drunk. Just kept it to a slow burn.
He did that for the better part of the next couple years. Hired a hooker a couple times. Went to the riverboats and lost a few hundred bucks now and then. But aside from that, he didn’t talk to another soul, except to say “Pall Mall blues, box,” or “Handle of Seagram’s.” He brushed his teeth some days.
His mom stopped calling, even.
He pulled it together a little bit to take a job as a security guard at a furniture warehouse. It was high-end stuff, but there were still rats scuttling along the baseboards of the place. But since all the job required of him was to walk the floor wielding a flashlight, and swipe a key card in a sequence of checkpoints, soon enough he was hitting the gin on the job, too.
And that’s how the last decade and a half drained away. Working and driving. Driving and working. Prowling. Vexed and hypertensive. Glazed and boozy. Shuddering over potholes. Static-y talk radio kazoo-ing faintly out of blown factory speakers. Gazing past the striped arches dragged by the wipers through the filth of his windshield – mosquito guts and dust in the summer, salt and soot in winter.
He came across stories. Constantly. Stories of hope. They set his teeth on edge these stories. Redemption. Restoration. Transformation. On those lady talk shows that cooed at him while he stepped into his uniform pants for work. In the magazines at the Jewel checkout. On the radio, down at the bottom of the dial where the Christian stations were. Seemed like there were no end of these stories – the crackhead with a masters, the foster kid who tutors at the homeless shelter, Shakespeare in prison.
But here he remained. Unsaved. Unmended. Entirely unchanged. Scalded and pitiless. He’d stare at the TV while that Ellen laid her hand on some weepy mom’s leg, or he’d listen to some churchy idiot on the radio tearfully recount how they’d been saved and greet it with a twist of the dial to land on a Seger tune or some Stevie Ray. He didn’t believe stories like this. He shook his head the way you would at some rube plunking down another twenty to lose at Three-Card Monte. Bemused pity. With contempt.
He couldn’t believe in these sorts of stories. He was all used up. He caromed along the outskirts of his own life, dumb and dogged as a housefly bouncing off the window of a house, trying over and over again to get out. Failing to escape. Failing to adapt. Lunging at the glass, planting its brute face with a soft gonging tone.
That’s how he felt. Like a bug. Brainless. Small. Persisting for no purpose.
He’d seen a nature show a long time ago where this ant was scrabbling along the desert sand, and it meandered too near the pit of a wolf spider, and began to slide down into it. But instead of tumbling down into the waiting jaws or sidestepping the trap altogether, the ant flailed in the sand, sending grain after grain of grit down into the crater. Eventually, of course, the spider devoured the ant. But for a time – what seemed as he watched a long time – the ant clambered on the edge of the pit – neither safe nor slain, just wheeling its spindly legs, desperate. He wasn’t sure if this was actual to the memory, or if it was something he added in his mind later, but whenever he thought of that nature show, he could see grains of sand pinging off the spider’s face, like the thwarted heavy in a silent film comedy. This is how he’d felt, more or less. Since The Night In Question. Like he was on the brink. Of being devoured by something unseen.
As he paid for his smokes and headed back to the beat-upon Durango, he was seized by the urge to get ahold of his kids – Joshy lived out near Santa Fe with his boyfriend, or partner, or whatever, Samuel. A good enough guy, seemed like. Emma was in Ann Arbor. Taught at Michigan. Well, when he thought to contact the kids, this thought was always followed by remembering that he couldn’t contact Emma. Like ever. She had concluded at some point in late adolescence that he had straight-up murdered that kid on The Night In Question. So she wanted nothing to do with him. He wasn’t welcome. At her various graduations. Her housewarming. None of it. She hadn’t met his gaze since she was maybe nineteen or twenty. Which is, what? Six years ago, maybe? His guts uncoiled a little whenever he thought of her.
He had days where he didn’t know if she was wrong. Most days, now, maybe.
Plus, calls to Joshy were excruciating for all sides. His own voice was croaky from disuse and his manner was rusty. And if he was going to send an email, he’d have to get home to the scuffed old piece-of-crap Dell and power it up, then hope it didn’t seize up with that clacking noise it’d been making for a while. Then he’d have to navigate the tone of such an email. Too chatty, and it felt stupid and strained and pointless. Too serious, and it sounded like a suicide note. The prospect was exhausting.
He’d text, he guessed. After he got a Pall Mall lit and coaxed the Durango to life, he pawed his phone out of his too-deep parka pocket. Pulled up “Joshy” from his meager list of contacts. Stared at the cracked and smudgy screen.
Squinted as he put in, after some beefy-fingered mis-keys:
“Thinking of you.”
“Pssh,” he muttered. “Hallmark-y.” He backspaced over it. Couldn’t think what else to say. Tossed his phone on the passenger seat, threw the Durango in reverse and pulled out of this spot. Another day. Like another hash mark scratched into a cell wall. Another day that he had failed them. As each of these new days of neglect stacked up, it made the next day tougher to do something with. Another damn day of stinging eyes and clenching guts.
“Forget it,” he told the cab of the Durango. “No point.” He threw it in reverse and bounced, creaking, out of the lot. He figured he’d swing by the house and snag his uniform. His shift wasn’t for another seven hours. So he figured he’d grab a half pint of gin, top off his travel mug, and go burn through a tank of gas. He pointed his truck toward the lake and gunned it. As he always did, he considered driving across the sand at Foster beach and into the frigid water. He pictured the spray fanning out over the hood and tendrils of fog boiling out of the shallows as the wheels got mired and locked up. When the Durango stalled out, he’d step into the churning, slush-skimmed water, his soaked pants entwining his legs, slurping at his thighs, lapping at him. He would push himself into the waves. Until the lung-squeezing cold of the water was over his head. Then he would take one final gulp of air and wait. To be claimed. And know relief.
But he never did that. Or, he hadn’t yet.
He couldn’t. Because it wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be even. It would be against the rules. The kid had not ging-gong-ed his way into that store looking to get shot. So he couldn’t walk out into the lake. No matter how bad he wanted to. He had to be ambushed by it. Like the kid had. So he kept driving around, half in the bag, till somebody ran a red and T-boned him, or he hit a patch of black ice and rolled the Durango. He thought about the sound of his own breaking neck filling his ears.
He turned left and bombed up Sheridan, and between buildings, he caught sight of mist feathering along the lake. He clamped his chisel teeth down on the filter of his cigarette and drove north. He looked at the mist scutting along the dun-colored foam with some longing. But he kept driving.