THE BIG SHOOTOUT – part 3 (adagio)

Chapter 10.

The next batch of cops blew in like a thunderstorm.  One car after another came skidding down the driveway until the whole yard in front of the big ramshackle farmhouse was choked with them. 

The pig farm was secured in a matter of minutes.  Three ambulances showed up.  One of them took the wounded police officer to Parkview Hospital in Grantville. Another one took my friend’s body to the same place, to have him declared dead.  The third meat wagon stayed put.  The cops didn’t see any need to pack away the bodies of Ned Ishmael and Dean Jenkins right away:  they’d keep. And there might be more people needing medical attention.

The fresh police spread out over the farm and collected Willie, Shiner, No Neck, and Roach.  Due to the various intoxicants these four had imbibed, the questioning was time-consuming and inconsequential.

 Gene had slipped off the grounds withMoondog and, long before the second wave of police had arrived on the scene, he had the dog at his home, half a mile up the road.   Moondog was blissfully drinking water out of a half-gallon dish while the sirens shrieked past.

Danny was found hiding behind a sofa in the living room.  He was read his rights and interrogated.  Happily for Danny, he’d only been smoking hash and eating amphetamines all day.  He was lucid enough to answer all of their questions with, “Get my attorney”.  Of course, when Detective Loeb finally gave up and agreed, Danny couldn’t remember his lawyer’s name.  He’d only hired him once, six years earlier, to help him beat a battery rap.  Danny asked for a telephone book.

Relieved of his medical duties, DeputyLawrence walked into the bedroom Mary Lou and Ned had shared.  Daisy and Flo were hiding there in a closet.  George Lawrence held his pistol out in front of him.  He heard some clothes hangers rattle.

“Come out,” the policeman ordered.

Heads down, without a sound, they obeyed.

He looked at their uncomprehending,drunken expressions and said, “You stupid whores.  Face the wall.  Put your hands up.  Spread your legs.”  After they did this, he kicked Daisy’s left ankle in an attempt to spread her feet farther apart, and she fell on the floor.  He patted Flo down and then he told her she could drop her arms.

“Stand up,” he told Daisy.  She did and he ran his paws over her.  “Both of you stay right here.  Don’t move or I’ll shoot you,” he said, and he left the room.  Other officers were clearing the rest of the upstairs rooms. Deputy Lawrence headed downstairs to the kitchen.

Outside the main house, police officers buzzed around like a swarm of heavily armed bees.  George Lawrence found a bottle of soda in the refrigerator, wiped off the top, popped it open, leaned against a wall, and began to take long swallows of the sugary water.

Upstairs, in the same room where Joe and Rita were hiding, a pair of policemen found Tina’s baby, pissy andscreaming, in an open dresser drawer, wrapped loosely in dirty blankets.  One of the cops picked up the odorous bundle in his big, outstretched arms, being careful not to pull it close to his crisp, clean uniform.  His partner kicked in a closet door and found Joe and Rita huddled on the floor.  He ordered the two to stand up and then patted them down.  The other cop handed the baby to Rita and asked, “Are you the mother?”

Rita said, “No.”

The policeman handed the child to her and said “Do what you can with this thing, willya?”

 She took the baby into the upstairsbathroom to clean it up.

Slow-Joe was marched downstairs at gunpoint.  When he was halfway down the steps, George Lawrence threw his half-empty bottle into the kitchen sink.  It exploded with a crash.  Its contents erupted, splattering the backsplash, the window above the sink and the floor in front of the sink.  The young policeman following Joe down the steps jumped at the noise and accidentally fired his pistol.

The bullet whistled past Joe’s right ear and he dove over the last six steps and hit the dusty floor.  He covered his head with his arms and began crying.  Deputy Lawrence busted out laughing. 

“Careful with that gun, sonny,” heyelled to the officer who’d been escorting Joe downstairs.  “Gimme that punk,” he said, pulling Joe up bythe back of his t-shirt.  He shook the boy like a rat and walked him out of the kitchen through the back door.

At just about that time, Dylan Jones’ girlfriend, Shayna Chapman showed up. She was a pretty little child with big blue eyes and short peroxided blond hair.   She hadn’t heard about Dylan’s problems with the law.  There was an outstanding arrest warrant for her driver, a seventeen-year-old named Susie Blanchard.  Susie had the steering wheel cranked and was about to speed away when Shayna yelled, “Stop.  I’m getting out”

Shayna sprinted down the driveway.  A tunnel of dust enveloped Susie’s dad’s car as she high-tailed it away.

Shayna had never seen so many police officers in one place.  They were running that crime scene cop-tape all over the place and they all looked angry.  It never occurred to her that one of their own had been killed, here.

She was wringing her hands and asking questions and getting in the way and pissing off all the cops.  Finally, a detective got her name, her mother’s address, and phone number, determined that she had just arrived, and told her to beat it.  He told her that someone would be in touch with her and went on with his business.  She wandered down to the creek.

She followed a deer path through knee-high grass, down a shallow grade, to the spot where she usually met Dylan to get high and to make love in the shade of an old swamp maple.  She hoped she’d find him there.  She reached the spot where the grass was flattened down and dying and she just stood there.

After a few seconds, she walked over to a big pine tree with a folding chair leaned up against it.  She opened the chair up and she sat down on it to think things over. She was right at the river’s edge.  It was a pretty spot, just like a postcard.   The river curved around that tree and there was a sand trap straight out in front of her.

You could catch trout while you sat right in that chair.  She had done it, herself.  You could eat them, too, because it was upstream from the pig farm. 

She had a cell phone with her, of course.  She tried calling Dylan, but got no answer.  She tried calling Dylan’s mom.  A policeman answered it.  She hung up immediately and put the phone back in the pouch attached to her belt.

She had no idea what she was supposed to do.  After a few minutes, she followed the river down to a bridge, climbed up the abutment, and began walking.  She needed to collect her thoughts.

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THE BIG SHOOTOUT – Scherzo

Chapter 9.

George Lawrence cracked Little Red up across the jaw with his forearm and she hit the floor like a sack of potatoes. 

Over all her racket, the cops heard the unmistakable sound of a shell being jacked into a shotgun.  All hell broke loose when Dean pulled the trigger of the twelve-gauge. My pal Horace just got blown to bits.   That’s the only way to describe what happened to him.  O’Conner pulled the kitchen table down on its side and slammed his back up against it. He landed on some of Ned and slipped in it.  “Officer down,” he hollered into his radio.  Dean ducked out of the doorway and reloaded. 

Harvey was awake, now, but he pretended to be invisible, flat-out, face down on the kitchen floor.  Little Red blasted past him like a burned cat. She slammed the master bedroom door behind her, desperate to escape.

The cops fired madly out of the kitchen, hoping a stray bullet would find Dean.  No luck with that, though. He came rolling across the doorway blasting.  He’d been a paratrooper in Afghanistan and he was an absolute wild man.   The kitchen table exploded and the State cop O’Conner took a few pellets in the shoulder and in his back.  He let out a yell, spun around and struggled to his knees, his pistol held by both his shaking hands.  But Dean was out of sight again.  O’Conner slid back onto his stomach, the shredded table offering no protection.  He closed his eyes against the pain and lay unprotected, praying he wouldn’t be shot any more.

The cops proceeded to pulverize the wall next to the doorway with bullets  Detective Loeb sprinted out the back door and ran around to the front of the house.  He found a brick in the lawn and tossed it through the picture window into the living room.  That knocked down a blanket that was hanging over the window in lieu of draperies, and Loeb got a good look at Dean’s shoulder-blades. 

“Drop that gun,” he yelled.

Dean spun, gun at his shoulder, until he was squinting down the long barrel at the detective.  A second later, his dead eyes were staring at the ceiling and blood was pumping out from his forehead onto the floor.

Elsewhere inside the house, the living cops, including O’Conner, who was struggling to stay awake, all had their weapons out and they were looking for targets.   Mary Lou Turnage snatched her wallet out of her purse and then ran and locked herself into the bathroom.

She went to work trying to unlock and open a window that had been accidentally painted shut sometime in the past few decades.  After digging through some dry paint with a screwdriver that was fortuitously dropped on the floor sometime ago, she jerked the window open with a bang, stood on the toilet seat and launched herself through the screen and out into the mud out back.  She hit the ground running, scooping up her skirt in her hand, and she scrambled into the woods.

Back in the kitchen, Sergeant O’Conner tried to push himself up to a kneeling position, but he couldn’t.  He lay facedown on the bloody floor.  Wilber Scott asked him if he was okay.

“No.  I’m not okay,” spat out the Statey.  “I been shot. Jeezus.”  He squeezed his eyes shut again and shuddered against the pain.

Scott ripped open what was left of O’Conner’s shirt and was hit with a wave of nausea as he checked out the holes in his fellow officer.  Dallas Perkins was rifling through some kitchen drawers, looking for aclean towel.  He finally did locate one.  He ran some cold water on it from the sink, squeezed it out, and pressed it down against O’Conner’s back. 

 “You’ll be okay,” Scott said, as he watched the white towel turn dark red. 

“Just lay still.  Medics are coming.”  He applied pressure with the palms of his hands to the hot blood pouring out of his comrade.  O’Conner didn’t complain.  He’d gone into shock.   The room stank heavy from the blood.  Standing behind Perkins, Wilber Scott was using his radio, calling again for an ambulance and for more police.

“I’m going outside to check on Loeb,” Scott said. He held his pistol, barrel upwards, tight against his chest.  He looked to George Lawrence and said, “Take over in here,” and then he was out the back door.

He joined the lieutenant and the two of them circled  the house in opposite directions, looking for other shooters.

Young Dallas Preston was getting nauseous. 

His hands were sticky and hot from O’Conner’s gurgling blood.   Within five feet of him, lay the remains of his friend Horace McCarthy and the dead black man. 

George Lawrencesaw how pale Dallas was getting and wondered if the younger man might vomit.  He hurried to the bedroom where Mary Lou’s purse was turned upside down on top of a queen-sized bed.  He pulled a blanket off that bed, sending thepurse and its discarded contents flying through the air. The purse landed in a corner of the room, pushing gobs of dust ahead of it. 

Lawrence then returned to the kitchen and placed the blanket carefully over the remains of patrolman McCarthy. He jerked open a door under the kitchen counter, found a dry towel and took Perkins’ spot, trying to stop the bleeding from O’Conner’s back.  He told Dallas Perkins to go outside and get some fresh air.

 The young manwandered out of the kitchen, walked around the house and into the front yard.  He watched Deputy Scott and Lieutenant Loeb as they circled the building on either side of him.  Dallas Perkins stood perfectly still with his handgun pointing to the ground.

Deputy Lawrence heard a baby yowling somewhere. He figured it wasn’t a threat to him and he ignored it.

Somewhere in the distance, sirens were screaming. 

They were getting closer.

THE BIG SHOOTOUT – Part 1

Chapter 8

“What the fuck,” said Joe, jumping off Rita and springing to the front window.  He banged his head on the lintel and was rubbing his bruised noggin as he ran back towards the hallway-door without even pulling his pants on.

“Hey!  Hey! Listen!  The cops here,” he shouted.

“What?” Gene hollered from downstairs.

Joe pressed down against the railing at the top of the stairway.  “The cops are here,” he yelled.  “The fuckin’ cops!  Cops!”

Outside the house, Rhino had just straddled his 1989 Electra Glide.  Smitty and Big Red were arranging their duffels in the trunk of Smitty’s 1957 Chevy coupe.  Those cops were still working their way down that long driveway, stepping around the deep, water-filled potholes and looking around warily when Rhino kicked the Harley into life.  He waved at the house, revved the engine up a couple times and hammered the big bike into first gear.  He waited for his partners to get into the Chevy, nodded towards the cops and then he cranked the accelerator.   He let it rev down and then led the old Chevy up the muddy driveway.

Seeing the shadowy forms of all the policemen up ahead, neither Smitty nor Red were inclined to let their vehicles do much more than idle, as they splashed their way towards the cops. Those unexpected sloshing sounds from the puddles set up an interesting contrast to the  steady grumble from the big 8-cylinder engine and the rap rap rap pounding of theHarley’s engine.

O’Conner, Scott, and Perkins had their pistols in their hands.  The three older law enforcement officers just exchanged thoughtful looks.  Five feet off the drive, balanced on a strip of clay that passed for a shoulder, the motorcycle rumbled past them at about four miles per hour.  Rhino nodded to the police and offered a half-smile, a sideways smile, as his bike rumbled past them

Up near the road, Rhino pressed down on the brake and stopped next to the dilapidated fence.  He jerked the bike upon its center stand and climbed off. Next, he unlatched the gate and pulled it open.  He took one long, last look at the farmhouseand the platoon of law enforcement officers about to assault it, shook his head, spit on the ground, and returned to his motorcycle.  It was still running, grumbling and complaining in that unique way that only a Harley Davidson can.  He swung his right leg over the seat, balanced himself, and pushed forward, releasing the stand.  Then he was gone.  

Every cop I’ve ever met appreciates powerful old cars.  The ones here at the pig farm were drooling over the classic turquoise Bel Air with the white roof that Smitty was steering down the drive.

 Sitting behind its oversized steering wheel, Smitty gave the car’s horn a couple long blasts and Big Red waved his hand towards their friends inside the house.  The car rolled haltingly past the police.  Smitty and Big Red were nervous as a pair of dogs in a thunderstorm. They were both pretty loaded and the trunk was, too, with a few pounds of dope, a suitcase full of money, a semi-automatic Winchester and a Colt Python.  Big Red, in the passenger seat, took his sunglasses off the dashboard and slid them down over his face. 

Sergeant O’Conner had put his pistol back in its holster and his hands rested on his wide hips.  He had a 1955 Chevy at home and would have liked to swap stories with the two men before they drove away.  He wondered if it had a 409 in it.  It sure sounded like it did.  He wished he could think of a reason to ask them to open up the hood.  His partner,on the other hand, was in a mood to hassle these two characters.

 “Hold it right there,” yelled Detective Loeb, holding his hand up,

Big Red put on a concerned look and asked, “Something wrong, officer?”

“Yeah,” the cop answered.  We’re looking for Mary Lou Turnage.  She here?”

“Yeah, she’s up at the house,” Big Red replied.  “Look, we’re running a little late, officer.” 

 Loeb could think of no reason to prevent them from leaving, so he dropped his arm,backed off to the side of the drive, and waved the two men past. The cops stepped aside, three on either side of the car, and the old Chevy rumbled past them.  Every one of those cops raised upon his toes, hoping to see something illegal inside the car.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” said Big Red as they turned onto Chalmers Pike.  “I’m glad them fuckers didn’t get here ten minutes ago.  Let’s roll.” 

 The two men held their breath as their car twisted delicately around the three cop cars at the gate. Then, like a fish shaking off a hook, the classic Chevy shot down the dirt road. 

  Inside the house, Gene was spraying air freshener all over the joint.  Teddy and Freddy had their arms filled with illegal drugs and paraphernalia.  They scrambled out the back door, looking left and right for the law.  If the house was searched, there wasn’t asafe place to hide the stuff.  They were heading down to the creek.  Dean and Daisy and Flo were pretty wasted.  They’d polished off a quart of Jack Daniels and they just sat at the kitchen table, dumfounded.  Little Red tossed the box of beer cans down beside the stove in the kitchen, jumped over Harvey, and ducked into the bathroom to check herself out in the mirror.  Her eyes were like black holes in space.  She ran into the bedroom and dug her sunglasses out of her purse.  The cops were knocking at the front door of the house. She fumbled with her shades, dropping them twice on the bed before pushing them over her crazy eyes.

 “Hey baby,” Ned called out.  She turned around and he tossed the water pipe at her.  Shesnatched it out of the air and ran with it back to the bathroom.  Her hands shook like a tree in a blizzard as she dumped the skunk-smelling water down the toilet.  That made the whole bathroom reek. Her hands shook as she laid the pipe down in the back of the vanity.  She piled some shampoo bottles and some toilet paper rolls in front of it.

 “Mrs. Turnage.”  It was a nice-sounding voice, very resonant.  That was Horace McCarthy calling out to her.

 She gargled with some mouthwash, and ran a brush through her hair before she yelled back, “I’m in the bathroom.” 

 She looked in the mirror and saw a junkie.   

If the cops looked into her eyes, they would know she was high.  She kept the shades on. Next, she spritzedsome perfume on her neck and around the bathroom and figured it was showtime.  She left the bathroom and passed through the master bedroom.  Nedhad pasted his back to one of the bedroom walls and he squeezed himself besidethe door that opened into the kitchen. He shushed her silently and pulled his index finger across histhroat.  His eyes were bugged out and he was mouthing, “No.  No.  No.” There was a warrant out for him. He didn’t want any part of talking to those cops.  She rolled her eyes, and made a face at him as she stormed past him.  Men.  Not worth a goddamn thing, she thought.

 The cops were in the living room, their prying eyes digging into everything.  Their nostrils were wide like dogs on ascent.  They asked about Little Red and Gene told them she was inside and that they could come in.  Moondog lumbered off the kitchen table and hecame growling into the living room with his hackles up.  Gene deftly grabbed him by the collar andforced him up against a wall. 

 “You want some coffee?” Gene asked the police officers.  A couple of them paid attention to him and shook their heads as he wrestled the dog past them and out the front door.  “I gotta put this dog on his chain,” he toldthem.  I’ll be back in a minute.” 

Then he was gone.

The policemen stood around, confident there was some illegal activity going on and they were itching to see or smell some evidence that would allow them to tearthe place apart.  The cloying perfume ofthe spray air-freshener told them they had just missed something.  They exchanged questioning looks.  The State Boys were wondering if they had reasonable grounds to start shaking people down.  The sheriff’s crew had never been out to the pig farm before. 

 They were sort of overwhelmed.  

 Little Red was the center of attention when she strutted into the living room.  She had a look about her like a Gypsy.  It was a contrived look, but it worked.  It always worked for her.  It started with her flirty eyes; but their wildness was hidden by a pair of sunglasses. Her hair was a wave. She had on a low-cut white blouse with no sleeves and her pleated skirtwas purple with yellow smiling moons on it and it swirled across the floor as she glided in to challenge the cops.

“What is it?” she asked, crossing her arms.

 “Mrs. Turnage?” asked Detective Loeb.

 She nodded and gave him a black look.

“Mrs. Turnage.  Is your son here?”

That took her aback.  She hadn’t expected theywere here to hassle her about her kid.

 “No,” she said coldly, glancing at her wristwatch, “He’s over to some friend’s house

 “And what friend would that be, Mrs. Turnage?” asked the detective.

  “Probably Tammy Horton, that’s his girlfriend.  He might be at Bobby Fremont’s place.  Why do you want to know?”

 “He got caught selling dope at school and then he beat up the principal.”

 Without a moment’s delay, she snapped back, “That’s impossible.  He doesn’t use drugs. You’ve got him mixed up with someone else. He never gets in trouble.”  

 The detective stared at her like she was a roach. “I repeat:  he was caught selling narcotics at school, earlier today.  Then he assaulted the principal, put him in the hospital.  We need to speak with him.”

 She turned white.  She didn’t know what to say or what to do.   What she did was she lit a cigarette.  She flipped the wooden match into an ashtray, swallowed a bunch of smoke and then tilted her head backand spit a plume of haze up at the ceiling. She still couldn’t figure out the best way to respond to the policeman’srevelations about her son.  So she got mad.  That usually worked for her.  But it didn’t work on these cops.  Not at all.

 “You’re fucking lying,” she said.  “Get the hell out of here.”

 The cops all looked back and forth at one another, grinning.  That made her even angrier. 

 “Don’t you laugh at me, you fuckers,” she snapped. She turned her back on them and marched into the kitchen.  All six policemen were right on her tail.  She looked sprawled out in various stages ofintoxication.  She took another hit on the cigarette and smashed it out on the kitchen table.  She was looking up at the ceiling, hyperventilating.

“Miss Turnage.  Do you know where the boy is?”

 “No.  I mean, yes. He’s not here.  He’s at one of his friend’s homes. You’re the cops.  Youfind him.”

 “You’re not being very co-operative, Mrs. Turnage. How about giving us the phone numbers of the kids he might be with.”

 “I don’t know their phone numbers.  I don’t even know if they all have phones.”

“You don’t keep very close tabs on him, do you?” Sergeant O’Conner offered.

 Shejust stood there, steaming.

 Deputy Lawrence was staring off into the bedroom where Ned was hiding.  He was amazed and disgusted by the curtain of thick black cobwebs clinging to the bedroom door.  Without looking at Little Red, he said,“Don’t seem like you’re much of a parent.”

 She slapped him.  It was just a reflex action.

TROUBLE AT THE FARM

Chapter 7

Meanwhile, things were falling apart at the pig farm. 

 

While you might logically conclude that township policeman Tony Jenkins would have gone directly out to Dylan Jones’residence after finding the boy gone from school, you would be wrong. 

First of all, Jenkins was something of anovice in the law enforcement game, and when he phoned in his report to police chief Frederick Burns, the chief figured Jenkins didn’t have the right temperament for the home contact.  Thissituation demanded the township’s First Team, two officers who had been out to the pig farm recently on a burglary investigation.  With any luck, these cops, under the pretense of arresting a teenaged criminal, might spot some of the stolen goods. 

 Always to be considered was the ever-present dream of dropping in on a drug party.  That’s why the chief decided to wait until evening to raid the place.  A strong police presence would be needed and he made the requisite phone calls to mobilize a task force.  While this would effectively demote his own officers to subordinates, he found that strategy appealing.  It was so “big city.”  His counterparts at the county level and at the state level were happy to join in the action.  They waited until eight o-clock in the evening to go interview Dylan Jones.

That turned out to be a big mistake.

 Stan Whittaker,the owner of the farm, was in Detroit for the day.  Serving as host to the many visitors at thefarm was his best friend, Gene Peters, a long-time associate who lived just down the road. It had been a busy day, with dealers coming and going since noon.  Now, with the sun dropping in the western sky, sending long shadows through the pines, a chill was in the air, and the mood was that of a happy summer’s end. 

 Rhino, Smitty,and Big Red (from Chicago) were getting ready to leave.  They dealt primarily in heroin and neverliked to hang around for the post-business parties.   

             This is what everybody else was up to:  NegroNed was doing one-arm pushups and taking a bong-hit.  Skinny Teddy and Tattoo Freddy were cheering him on.  Dylan’s mom (everybody called her Little Red) was picking up cans and putting them into a cardboard box while smoking a cig.  Willie and Shiner were shooting up out back.  Harvey Handjob was passed out on the floor of the kitchen. Man Mountain Dean had placed his chair carefully over the top of Harvey’s head and he was playing quarter-bounce with Daisy and Flo.

 No-neck and Roach were tripping.  Danny was in the living room looking for a DVD.  He was ransacking the place.  Tina’s baby was crying.  Tina, Stan’s cousin, had been living with a new boyfriend down in Flint for two weeks.  She’d left her three-month-old in Stan’s care.  Stan quickly delegated this task to Little Red and then down to sixteen-year-old Rita from Detroit.  Rita was busy upstairs with Stan’s son Slow-Joe.  They were in the Master Bedroom, making out.

 Just before heading upstairs, Joe and Rita had smoked a joint down in the moldy basement of that ramshackle farmhouse.  Rita was scared she was pregnant:  she couldn’t keep her mind focused.  Joe could tell something was wrong with her, but he figured it was her problem.  Moondog, a handsome Belgian Shepherd, was upon the kitchen table, polishing off some pancakes and sausage links.  He was wagging his heavy tail right in Daisy’s face.  She couldn’t get him to stop. 

 The cat wasyowling and the water pump was grinding away because the toilet-flap wouldn’t seat right and nobody had the inclination to fix it.  It was simpler to turn up the stereo and that’s just what Gene Peters did.  There was so much going on that nobody saw the cop cars slow down and stop out in front of the house. 

 There was a locked wooden gate at the endof the drive and the driveway was eighty yards long yards long.  It took the police about two minutes to exit their cars, to re-establish the chain of command, and to confirm each one’s responsibilities.  They squeezed throughthe busted-down part of the fence and came right in.  That’s the way they always did it. 

  There were two State cops, a sergeant named Billy O’Conner whose wife had just left him, and a detective named Leon Loeb who was a really tough guy, and smart, too. The Sheriff’s team included a raw rookie named Wilber Scott who still had acne and a big fat deputy named George Lawrence, who was as mean as a Brahma Bull with a spur in his eye. 

 The township boys were quiet and polite.  Those two were Dallas Perkins and Horace McCarthy.  Horace was just two weeks shy of retirement and a pretty good friend of mine.  Dallas was a steady hand who had been on the force for a little over one year.  They were the ones who were working on that burglary.  Last week, when the two of them were out asking questions, nobody on the farm had been co-operative.  The investigation was still nowhere; but thepolicemen were anxious to eyeball the place again and see if any of the stolen goods were in sight.  If there were any new characters in residence, they planned to question those new suspects about that robbery. Neither Horace nor Dallas figured they’d have much to do regarding the assault at the school.  The County and State cops would be carrying the ball.  They were just along to provide additional backup in case there was trouble.

 They spread out in two rows, three columns, State, County, Township, shuffling their way down an overgrown two-track that passed for a driveway, heading towards the nasty old farm house.             

              Rita saw them first.  She was laying on her back, looking out the second-story window.

 “Oh, my god, Slow-Joe!  The law’s here,” she said.

SMALL TALK

Chapter 6.

“I didn’t come here to be cross-examined,” I told her.

She rose to her feet and pushed gently downwards on my shoulders.  “Don’t get mad.  Don’t go.  Please.”

This evening promised nothing.  I looked in her eyes.  Then, I looked at the beer.  The beer won.  I lifted her hands off me, bent down for the beer and took a long swallow.

“You see what happens?” I asked her.  “You’ve got to stop this bullshit or I’m leaving.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “Just stay.”

I sat and scowled.  I took another drink.  It was cold, nearly frozen, just the way I like it.

She was sitting across from me, now, leaning towards me.  Her hands were back on her knees.

She broke the silence by saying, “I couldn’t figure out why you left so suddenly.  You didn’t even say goodbye.”

The beer was dark and heavy.  I took a couple hits of it and tried to think of something to say.

She said to me, “You told me you loved me.  I, I don’t know what went wrong.  Can’t you tell me?  Now?”

I put my drink down, rose from the sofa, and reached across the coffee table.  It was an awkward pose, half crouching, unbalanced.  I was bent at the waist, at that toppling point with my knees almost on the table.  I touched her left hand with my right.  “You don’t know what I went through.  The questioning, the accusations, the threats.  They beat me down.  I was exhausted.”

She waited for me to open up some more.  I babbled on a bit more for her.  I know she didn’t believe me.  Why should she?  I wasn’t telling her the truth.

She went to the kitchen and in a few seconds returned with a glass of ice water.  She sat it on a coaster next to my beer.

The next thing I knew, she was sitting next to me.  I leaned back against the cushion and studied her.  She met my stare for a moment and then looked away.  She picked up her water and took a drink.  I could hear the ice cubes tap against her teeth and I could hear her swallow.  She leaned forward and put the glass back down and then she looked back over her shoulder at me.

“I’m sorry.  You don’t own me anything.” she said.   “It’s just.  My life.  Us.  You and me.  Everything changed.  Everything went wrong.”

“No,” I replied.  “Everything did not go wrong.  Two things went right.  Brad Nicolette is dead and out of your life and you didn’t have to run away and hide.”

“No.  I didn’t,” she said.  “But you did.”

I’m no different than any other guy.  I don’t enjoy hearing the truth about myself.  I wished I hadn’t come.  I looked at my hands.  They were as empty as my brain at that moment.  That seemed wrong.  I picked up the beer and took a large swallow of the now-tasteless liquid.  That didn’t seem to help, so I took another.

I leaned forward, and placed the beer back on the plastic disk.   I turned the coaster slowly with the fingers of my left hand until the label on the bottle faced me.  It was my turn to talk and, finally, the words came.

“Yes.  Yes I did,” I said.  I searched her eyes as I continued.  “I had to leave.  Something inside me died.  I felt so helpless, knowing that you were going to leave with that woman’s underground group, to get away from Brad.  I knew it was the only thing for you to do and I don’t blame you.  All I could think of was that I’d never see you again and that, wherever you landed   you’d be a fugitive, that you wouldn’t have a home and the girls wouldn’t have a normal life.  And that I’d failed you.”

She put her hand on my knee.  She put her face close to mine.

“You didn’t fail me.  You did all that you could.  I know you did.  It’s just.  The system.  The system failed us, both of us.  The system didn’t work to protect the girls.

“Thanks for saying that, sweetie; but it was my job to protect them.  I let them down.  I let you down.”  I stared up at the ceiling while I emptied the bottle.

She went and brought me another.  She sat down by my side.  She looked at me.  I stared at a spot in the air three feet in front of us.

Somewhere in the house, I heard a clock ticking.  Then I heard birds singing outside and I heard wind in the trees.  I felt like I was going to start sweating or cursing and I felt like walking out.  Then I twisted around, put my hands on the sides of her face, bent and kissed her hard on the lips.  She returned the kiss for a couple seconds, but then pushed me away.

“Nick.  It’s been so long.  Let’s talk.”

“Let’s talk”:  Do women learn that in Girl School?  It’s not as bad as “We need to talk,” but it is definitely in the ball park.  I have a Pavlovian reflex when I hear any variation on those words.  They make me want to run.  I sat back andcounted my breaths until I got control again.

So we talked.

We talked about my job and we talked about her life.  We talked about her daughters and the changes they had gone through since I’d last seen them.  I drank that second beer and she dragged out a couple photo albums.  She had pictures of the two of us together, pictures of me with the girls, one with all four of us, and lots of photos of her daughters taken since I had left the picture.   The girls were pretty, like their mother.

Then we had dinner, hot roast beef sandwiches with real mashed potatoes and peas on the side.  We had vanilla ice cream on top of a couple pieces of homemade cherry pie.  I helped her clean up the kitchen.  She took care of the garbage and leftovers.  I washed the dishes.  She dried them and put them away.

“Let’s go out on the deck, shall we?” she asked.

It was a pleasant evening and there were no mosquitoes or flies out there.

“You look good,” she said.

“You look great,” I said.

We were quiet for a long time after that.

 

 

DID I DO IT?

 Chapter 5.

 Okay.  I got that out of the way.  Now, we can proceed with the story.  My workday is finished and I’m ruminating about going to see Sara again.  I walk out to the nearly empty parking lot.  Most of my fellow civil servants have already fled.  I drive home in my five-year-old Jeep Cherokee to my quiet little home in the country.  My dog Lillian, an eleven-year-old Australian Shepherd, is in the yard, wagging her entire body at the thrill of my arrival.  She’s a great dog.  I can trust her to stay home and be waiting for me after an eight-hour day at the office.  For that fact alone, she’s infinitely better than my ex-wife ever was. 

 I got the dog right after the divorce was complete:  best trade I ever made.   It troubles me to think that she’s getting old and lame and that she won’t be with me forever.  I tousle the back of her neck, above her dog collar and she sits proudly, satisfied that I recognize her skill in protecting my home. 

 I unlock the door and go inside.  The dog stays outside, sniffing around the car.  I turn the stereo on to the jazz station, snatch a beer from the refrigerator, and slam it down.  Lillian is scratching hysterically on the back door, now.  I open it.  She bounds past me and hops up on her favorite chair.  I pat her on the top of her head and she flips over on her back.  Her front paws flail wildly and her tongue lolls out of the side of her mouth.  She has one thing in common with my ex-wife.  Rickie liked having her tummy rubbed, too.  Unlike my ex, Lillian makes me believe I do it better than anyone else.  And she doesn’t go running to the neighbor’s house to make sure.

  I try not to dwell on the past.  Sometimes thoughts just run away with themselves.

  I shake my head to clear it, wrestle briefly with the dog, and head to the bathroom.

 A date:  I’m going on a date.  It’s my first one this year.  I don’t recall going out last year.  I’m pretty sure I had a date the year before that one, though.  It might have been two years.  Before that, there was the biker babe.  A great-looking girl with a giant idiot son whose father was a dealer.  Before that, there were two or three uncomfortable efforts to make contact with the opposite sex.  I think I have bad luck with relationships.

 Now I’m brushing my hair and looking at my watch.  It’s time. 

 I decide the dog will be okay outside while I’m gone.  I have the good fortune to live adjacent to a State Forest.  There are no neighbors and Lillian is always near the house when I return from short trips.  She can get in to the garage if she needs to and she’s got a doghouse, too.  I grab my keys and lock the back door of the house. 

In no time, my car is growling to a halt in front of Sara’s place. It appears to be a factory-built home.  Not bad.  There is a little landscaping, some evergreens and a rose bush that’s grown shaggy next to the steps leading up to the front door:  Bad feng shui.  My first thought is to cut and run. 

 Nevertheless, I get out of my car, lock it, and I look up and down the empty street.   It doesn’t appear to be as nasty as a trailer park.  The lots are bigger and there are trees between the homes that give privacy and absorb noise.  There are half a dozen

entwined roads in the development that twist pleasantly through a hardwood forest.  Each home is parked on at least a half-acre of land.  Several of the residents have bought adjacent lots, so they have even more room. There are no noticeable trash piles and no cars up on blocks.  If you had no knowledge of the people living here you might think it was a nice community. 

 I take a deep breath, and then I’m climbing onto the deck at the front door.  I can’t see her inside, but I know she’s expecting me.  I rap sharply on the doorframe.

 Silence. 

 I knock again, and tilt my head to the door, listening.  I hear a door close and then there are footsteps approaching.  She pulls the door open and she looks up into my eyes.  She still has the finest, softest-looking skin I’ve ever seen.  Her eyes are still wide and clear.  I knew she’d still look good.  It would take a car wreck to spoil those features.  She still has a heart-shaped face, big, pouty lips, and a smile that breaks my heart.  She still wears her hair long and it spills down over her right eye.  She shoves it back and pulls me by both hands into the house.  She’s wearing a loose-fitting, pale yellow sweatshirt and soft-looking jeans.

  “It’s been a long time,” she says.  “How you been?”

  “Can’t complain,” I said. 

 We exchanged some more empty words.  Within two minutes I was sitting in a comfortable cloth-covered sofa with a bottle of beer resting on a plastic coaster in front of me on top of an otherwise bare coffee table.  She sits across from me with her hands on her knees.

  “I’ve missed you,” she said.

  “Likewise,” I replied.

 “Why did you leave?” she asked.

  “Lots of reasons.  It’s complicated,” 

  “Did you kill Brad?” she asked me.

TITS

Chapter 4.

 

As I sat, listening to Detective Hein’s telephone ring, memories assaulted me like a kaleidoscopic merry-go-round in a Hitchcock movie.  I realized I had let my meditation practice slip as these manic images swirled through my brain.  Shunryu Suzuki refers to “monkey mind”.  With me it’s more like jitterbugging church mice dancing on an electric keyboard.  I took a few deep breaths to slow it all down and the images slowly faded.

There was a click, and my call was forwarded to Central Dispatch.  I was informed that Detective Hein was in a meeting, but that he would return my call as soon as he could.  I thanked the girl.

I got myself another cup of coffee and returned to my job.

In Osceola County, my current residence and place of employment, there is a notorious spot that we simply call the pig farm.  Before I finally escaped from Children’s Services, I’d been out there half a dozen times conducting investigations.  It’s on a dirt road called Chalmers Pike, near the northern county line.  I guess you could call it a commune.  People move in and out of there like it’s a hotel.  There is one main house, a big farmhouse that had started its life as a cabin forty years ago.  Several additions have been made to it, seemingly at random.

The roof of this monstrosity takes off at peculiar angles and three of its outer walls are protected with an eye-catching variety of faded gold cedar shakes, plain white aluminum siding, and with dark red bricks.  The back of the house is just made of cinder blocks, mostly covered with tarpaper.  Cedar shakes cover one wall of the kitchen.  That wall had a spigot fixed to it about a foot off the floor.  It had once been an outer wall.

There is a smaller house that must have been conceived of as a guesthouse at one time.  It’s nothing more than a shed, now.  Some of the windows are boarded up.  The last time I was out there, about a year ago, a family was living in that shack.  The toilet didn’t work.  It probably still doesn’t.  There are two port-a-potties permanently on-site.

There is an ancient Airstream Trailer out behind both those structures.  I’ve never been inside of that.  Out front, by the road, a small mobile home rests, supported by jacks.  To my knowledge, it has never been occupied.  The entire compound takes up thirty acres and it’s surrounded by barbed wire fence.  At one time the entire fence was electrified.  These days, only the pigs’ pen is charged up.

The owner of the farm is a thirty-something character named Stan Whittaker.  He inherited the place from his parents.  People say they were nice and actually successful farmers.  They died in a car wreck twenty years ago and Stan inherited the place.  He was an only child.   Stan was never much of a farmer.  The cops and the crew at the welfare office joke that he continues the hog business to cover the stink of his houseguests.  There is an ever-changing crew of junkies that live out there.  It’s always under surveillance by the police.

If you’ve never been to a pig farm or if you’ve never driven past one, you don’t know anything about them.  The Whittaker farm is only about three miles from where I live.  When the wind is going in the wrong direction, sometimes I get a whiff.  Maybe it’s my imagination.  Maybe not.

Some of the pig farm visitors have children with them. Occasionally, they actually send those kids to our public schools on their way through.  Just about every one of them has ended up being investigated by CPS.  The kids’ behavior, their hygiene, their attendance, or their criminal acts, often invite a phone call to my office from the school.

Not this time, though.  This time, only the police got involved.

Here’s what happened:

 One of the guests at the farm, a cute little redhead named Mary Lou Turnage, had dragged her teenaged son Dylan along with her on her endless journey to nowhere.  She had been on the road for eighteen years.  The boy was part of her baggage.  He had never spent a full school year in one town.  He was sixteen years old and had fought his way into a dozen different schools.  He wasn’t smart, but he was a tough kid.

Born Dylan Xaviar Jones, with a pair of street people providing his defective genes, the only stability the boy had ever known came courtesy of the State and some foster homes.

Both his parents had extensive rap sheets.  After his father was busted as a chronic-offender and sent away to Marquette, Mary Lou ran off with a guy named Eugene Stanislov.  They had no use for a little boy; so they left him sleeping one morning on a sofa when they skipped town.  Dylan was four years old, then, and he was found by a homeless man who scavenged the house when he noticed the car was gone.  After a couple weeks he was traded for a half gallon of vodka. His next owner got bored

with him and dropped him off in front of a church.  Two months later, after his mom found Jesus in a county lock-up, she begged the court to give him back.  A young judge believed she’d changed, and she got him back.

Following that episode, the two of them had traveled extensively throughout the continental USA, primarily living in either Kentucky or Michigan.  In the twelve years since Mary Lou had abandoned him, he had been placed in foster care two more times.  Compassionate judges, time after time, and in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, decided not to terminate her parental rights.

Today’s events occurred at Larchmont High School in Littleton Township.  It happened to be the third-year anniversary of his most recent reunification with his mother.

Larchmont is a tiny hamlet just five miles south of where I live.  Between classes, Dylan was observed by a classmate as he was selling some amphetamines to a little blonde girl named Loretta Smoot.  The boy that turned Dylan in said he didn’t recognize the girl who was purchasing the drugs.  So, she didn’t get in any trouble.  Dylan sure did.  He was brought to the attention of the principal, who called the cops.  Larchmont doesn’t have its own police department, so the principal called the township police.

This kid was about to enter a world of hurt.  If Dylan had been connected in some way, related to some community leader, or lived in a well-t0-do, stable neighborhood, the principal might not have even called the cops.  If such an association existed, or if the boy had been on one of the school’s athletic teams, the cops would have handled him with kid gloves.  But with Dylan here, we’re talking about a child of a transient dope fiend with no tie-in with the local respected community.

When the school principal marched in to Dylan’s classroom, whispered to the teacher, and when the teacher pointed at Dylan, the boy knew his day had gone sour.

And so it had.

Thirty minutes after the boy’s transgression, Principal Harlan Fosgrove hoisted young Mr. Jones by the collar of his shirt, from his seat in the back of Civics Class.

After throwing an elbow in the direction of the principal, the boy allowed himself to be pushed from the classroom, down the hall, around a corner, and in to the Principal’sOffice.  Fosgrove breathlessly ordered his secretary, “Miss Clameth, hold all my calls,” as he and his young prisoner smashed their way past her desk.

Caught up in the moment, he intended to interrogate the young miscreant behind closed doors.  That wasn’t a good idea.  For one thing, he risked screwing up a police investigation.  For another thing, he ended up getting socked in the nose by Dylan Jones.  Then, the boy overturned some furniture, pulled Fosgrove across the room by the lapel of his jacket, and slammed him into a steel-reinforced window, ripping down a venetian blind in the process.

Fosgrove was livid and more than a little busted up inside.  His right kidney had taken a beating when he went into that windowsill. He went after the kid with both hands, like he was going to rip the boy’s head off.  The Jones boy ducked under him, kicked the office door off its hinges, and ran like the wind right past Miss Clameth.  She was so startled, all she could do was say, “Whuff”, and he was gone.

Then things got complicated.

Joan Clameth called 911 and an ambulance was dispatched to the school.  This was done in spite of Principal Fosgrove’s spirited protestations.  He had so much adrenaline flowing that he couldn’t feel the damage done to him.  His breath was getting shorter and shorter by the second, though.  He finally had to sit right down.  It turned out that he would spend a few days in the hospital and need surgery.   At the moment, his pride hurt more than his back and his kidney.  He wished Miss Clameth hadn’t seen the boy get the best of him.  He had had the hots for his secretary since her job interview, six months earlier.  He felt foolish and emasculated.  The right side of his lower back was throbbing with pain and he discovered he couldn’t stand up when the police arrived.

The policeman dispatched to the scene was a newcomer to the force, an apple-cheeked lad who had gone to this very school when he was a teen.

Patrolman Tony Jenkins stood six-foot two-inches tall.  He weighed more than 250 pounds.  Not many years had passed since he himself had been taken by the ear to Principal Fosgrove’s office.  This had happened many times when Tony was in Junior High.  Later on, he would become a varsity wrestler and a football player, a tackle, in high school.  Sports changed his life.  It was lucky for society that he became a cop.  If he hadn’t gone that route, he most certainly would have become a violent criminal.

This same Tony Jenkins trotted into the principal’s office, expecting to be the hero in a police drama.  Instead, he found a pale, sweaty, middle-aged man sitting in an uncomfortable-looking wooden chair with a busty young woman in a low-cut pink angora sweater fluttering around him aimlessly like a bird that had accidentally gotten into the building.

The young cop was temporarily rendered senseless.  He was unprepared for the scene that met his eyes.  It excited him and made him happy to see his old principal in pain.  He was disappointed not to find a juvenile delinquent that he could intimidate and possibly assault. And then, there was Miss Clameth.  He had never seen her before.

He was nearly a foot taller than she was, and when he came close to her, he could see the tops of her firm young breasts rising like fresh-picked grapefruit on either side of a delicate gold chain necklace with a half-inch heart pendant that seemed to be coated with mother-of-pearl.  She was almost panting and her bosom rose and fell like waves on a sandy deserted beach under a full moon.

He could hear her breath coming in little puffs and he thought he could actually hear her heart beating.   It went, “Thump, Thump, Thump”, like a ruffled grouse bursting into the sky after being frightened by a dog.  Like a basketball being dribbled down a gym floor.  Like his own heartbeat pounding in his ears.

Softly and far away in the background, Miss Clameth was asking him a question.  Her mouth was moving and he could tell she was saying something to him, but he couldn’t sort it out.  Her voice was like wind in the trees.  Her hands were on her tiny hips and she waited for him to reply.  He felt sweat form at the hairline up above his Neanderthal forehead.  He wanted desperately to cup her breasts in his big rough hands.

He imagined they would feel like balloons filled with warm water or (for some reason) like bunnies.  One Easter morning, when he was a little boy, his parents had given him a bunny.  Life was so simple, then.  Simple and sweet.  It could never come back.  It would never come back.

Lost in a dream, he heard the sound of her voice and it was as if he was underwater and she was calling out to him.  Miss Clameth looked expectantly at him and Tony said the only thing he could think of.

“Tits,” he said.

While Patrolman Jenkins was honing his investigative skills, Dylan Jones was in the woods down by the train tracks, twisting up a joint and wondering what he should do.  If he went home now, his mother would realize that school wasn’t out and that he was in some kind of trouble.  Her boyfriend, a black man that didn’t care for Dylan, would probably kick his ass.  The two of them were expecting a trunk filled with crystal meth and smack from Detroit and wouldn’t want to have the police dropping by to exchange opinions regarding his behavior.  Agitated, the boy paced back and forth, kicking at litter and smoking.

He’d stolen a beer from Stan Whittaker’s house two days earlier and hid it in a hole next to a hollow tree.  He found it and twisted off the top.  The brown, bitter liquid sprayed up the front of his shirt.  He wiped his hands off on the sleeves of his denim jacket, sat down in the dust and the fragrant pine needles, and he rolled another joint.

 

A FRESH START

Chapter 3.

 

Problems never end.  They metastasize.  Eleven years ago, when we first met, Sara’s life was a mess.  It could hardly have been worse. I wondered what kind of stink-pipe she had fallen into, now.  One thing was for sure.  She had managed to find one of the worst places in the county to live.  It didn’t have that look of inner-city welfare neighborhoods.  There were more trees in the yards and less crack dealers on the corners.  But the beat-up trailers and factory-built homes were infested with burglars, child molesters, wife beaters, rapists, dope addicts, and alcoholics: Our tax dollars at work.

Oh well.  Clear the head.  Start again.  Where was I?  Oh, yeah.  Sara.  It was great

to hear her silky tenor again.  She never smoked, not even pot, and her voice was as clear and clean as it was when we met.  It was like a mountain stream splashing over smooth rocks.

I asked her if she’d reported the girl’s absence to the police.  She answered with a snort that I should know better than to ask that.  And she was in daily communication with the school.  I asked how long Shayna had been gone.  She’d been gone for a week.  I asked if they’d had a fight.  She answered that things seemed fine at home, that the girl just disappeared.

I asked her if she suspected Shayna was staying at one of the homes that she’d called me to complain about.  That caused her to pause a bit, but she didn’t think so.

I told her that, although my new job didn’t get me access to the police like my job in Petoskey had, I still knew a local detective that would talk to me off the record.  Maybe I could get a lead on her whereabouts.

I told her I’d like to see her again.  She told me to come over tonight.  I said I would.

I sat, staring down at the phone for some time after she’d hung up.

I can’t explain it.  In my mind, I was excited to hear from her again.  In my gut, I felt like I was falling down a well.  Does that strike you as contradictory?  Well, you don’t know the whole story.  You don’t know me and you don’t know her.

I’m not going to tell you everything.  It’s not important.  All that you need to know is that Sara Chapman made some mistakes.  She got pregnant when she wasn’t married.  The father of the child turned out to be a pedophile.  When she was at work, he went after her older daughter.  That girl, Rachel, told her mother.  Sara made a police report and threw the guy out.

Rachel was forced to undergo a physical exam that was inconclusive.  The perp was interviewed by the State Police and they believed his story.  Maybe he was a snitch for the police.  Who knows? At any rate, there was no criminal prosecution.

Sara tried to get Rachel help at the Woman’s Resource Center; but they were overwhelmed with referrals and put her on a waiting list.  Three months later, when a therapist was available, Sara told them that Rachel was coping with the situation and she refused to send the girl.  That’s what got me out to her home.

After about an hour, I was convinced the girl was doing fine and that Sara was right to not send her to therapy. Sara asked the girls to go outside and play.  Sara begged me to see her point of view, that it would further traumatize the girl to revisit the crime against her.  I told Sara I would explain things at the office and deny the referral. In retrospect, I was wrong.

That was the way it began.  I had already broken the cardinal rule of social work: I had become personally involved.

Weeks later, I called her and asked if I could come over and visit.  She said she’d like that.  Pretty soon, she was the center of my world.

Things were going nicely.  The girls liked me.  I paid Rachel’s fees and took her to Tai Kwon Do classes.  Shayna was an absolute living doll.  So was her mother.  I babysat the girls when Sara went to church on Wednesday nights.  Then we learned that Shayna’s father was demanding visitation rights.

I hired a lawyer.  We discovered we couldn’t prevent his having weekend custody of his daughter, even though the girl was terrified of him.  That’s when Sara told me she’d learned of a sort of “underground railroad” where women in her situation could be spirited away from a dangerous situation.  The downside was that she couldn’t let me know where she was going and I’d never see her again.

When Shayna’s father was found on the shoreline of Wilderness Park, out by Waugoshance Point, shot dead by a 125 grain, semi jacketed hollow point bullet, I was accused of his murder.  Yes, murder.  I owned a pistol that fired bullets like that.  The police got a search warrant and tore my place up looking for the gun.  It was never found.  They had my car for a week, looking for blood, I guess.  You can’t imagine what I went through.  I was cross-examined by the police on half a dozen occasions and by the internal investigation unit of the welfare department.  I nearly lost my job because of it.

I couldn’t concentrate on anything.  I stopped calling Sara.  I stopped answering the phone and I didn’t return her calls.  It was like something had died inside of me.  I transferred out of Emmet County as soon as I could.  That’s how I ended up in this dead-end town in the middle of nowhere, doing this pointless job, looking forward to nothing more than retirement.

I put the phone back into its cradle, then I picked it up and dialed the number for the Sheriff’s Department.

SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES

Chapter 2.

 

The phone rings and I pick it up.  It’s Diane Harmson, one of the clerks.  She tells me there’s a Children’s Protective Services call coming in and nobody in Childrens’ Services is picking up.  No problem.  It happens all the time.  I ask Diane to forward the call to my desk.

It’s a breathless woman calling in to report some concerns she has about kids in her neighborhood.  She doesn’t give her name and she’s afraid that the people

she’s calling about will find out that she called.  I explain our policy of confidentiality and she sounds reassured.  I don’t tell her that the parents we investigate usually guess who the Reporting Source is.  No point in that.  So, thinking her identity will actually remain a secret, she proceeds with her story.  She seems okay and I take some notes.  Her worries are well-founded and she’s logical in her presentation.  In a perfect world, the government would help her.

I let this woman go on about unattended children and loud music, underaged drinking, drug use, fighting, and the typical accoutrements of the welfare lifestyle and

I suddenly recognize her voice.  For heaven’s sake!  I wanted to marry this woman about ten years ago.  And we were both living nearly two hundred miles north of here at that time.

Imagine!

She had first come into my world as a Protective Services client, herself.  It was reported that one of her daughters had been sexually molested and that she hadn’t gotten the child into counseling.  It was nothing out of the ordinary.  Lots of moms think they can sweep the bad stuff under the rug and forget it.  It was my job to talk her into getting that little girl into therapy.

Back to the present, now:  After she’s pretty much finished with her story, I surprise her by saying, “Sara!  Besides all that, how have you been?”

There is a pause, and then she asks, “Nick?”

“None other,” I say.

“It’s been a long time.”

“Ten years.  How long have you lived down here?”

“I moved here about three months ago.   I bought my aunt’s place on a land contract.  She’s gone into a nursing home.  I was only waitressing up in Petoskey.  I was still renting.  I figured it was a step in the right direction. But, Nick.  The reason I called:  Are you going to do anything about it?”

“I’m going to write it up and give it to the Children’s Unit Supervisor.”

“That’s it?  That’s all?”

“That’s all I can do,” I respond.

“I can’t believe this!” she said.  “You’re not going to do anything, are you?”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.  I don’t work in that Program, anymore.  I’m writing up my report.  It’s all I can do.”

“You act like it’s nothing.  There’s neglect and abuse and probably criminal sexual conduct…”

“Yeah. And don’t forget delinquency.  The problem is that everybody in both these families you’ve told me about, have things to hide.  Even the two ten-year-olds.  So, nobody is going to tell the truth about anything to any outsider.  And if somebody accidentally does tell the truth, that testimony won’t be credible.  That’s just the way it is.”

“Nothing’s going to be done, is it?”

“Probably not,” I say.  “Each time we get a call like this we write it up.  We create a paper trail.  In time, if there are enough complaints…”

“You cold-hearted prick.  You haven’t changed.”

“Feels like old times, sweetie.  It’s too bad things couldn’t have worked out.  We’re a perfect couple.”

“Don’t make me mad, Nickie.”

“Any chance you can move out of there?”

“My house?  No.  I’ve put three thousand dollars into it.  I’m broke:  I can’t go anywhere.”

“Sell it.  Get out.”  That’s what I told her.

“Are you joking?  I can’t just walk away from it.  I don’t have the money.”

“No.  I’m not joking.  You’re in a bad neighborhood. If I were you, I’d get out.  Put it up for sale right away.  That’s what I would do.”

“Nick, you’re scaring me,” she says.

“I’m sorry.  I can’t tell you more than that.”

“You’ve got to, Nick.  For God’s sake, I loved you.  You loved me.”

“Sara,” I begin, and I remember how good it sounds to say her name.  I can picture her from the first time we met.  She was living in a beat-up little trailer on the outskirts of Petoskey, on the Charlevoix side.  She lived half a mile off a road Hemingway mentioned in one of his Nick Adams stories.  I think it was TEN INDIANS.

As I walked up to her front door, I could hear laughter.  Her daughters’ laughter was like tinkling bells.  Hers was a G chord to their A.  It was like call-and-response singing.  It stopped me in my tracks.  Before I knocked on the door, I relaxed a bit.  I never knew what would happen in a home call.  Sometimes it was instant conflict.  More often, it was a cautious feeling-out of a situation, like boxers in the first round of a fight.  The sounds of happiness, so rare in my experience, threw me off balance.

After a few moments, she greeted me at the door.  Her eyes were knitted in question, but she still had a smile on her lips.  She was wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt.  She asked who I was.  I told her and I told her why I was there.

The smile shrank.  She spun around and said, “Come in.”  She slipped on an overshirt and returned to her kitchen.  She invited me to sit at the table.

The girls, aged four and ten, lay on bunkbeds in a room adjoining the kitchen.  The door was open and they both sang hello to me.

I was hypnotized by the warmth of the scene, the comfort and love that seemed to radiate through this home and this family.

Sara offered me coffee and I accepted.  By now, she had buttoned up the shirt and I was able to focus on her face and her eyes.  She had such soft skin that her face that was iridescent.   I can’t describe it in words.  She had dreamy cheekbones, blue eyes you could fall into, and just the tiniest hint of an overbite.   When she smiled, her hand would flutter up in front of her mouth.  I found that self-conscious gesture endearing.  She had a pointed little nose and somehow reminded me of a bird.  She had fine black hair that she wore down past her shoulders and her face was all angles.  It was summer, and she was tanned brown as an Indian.  She had what the old timers called an Hourglass figure.  She was all I could imagine in a woman.  What could go wrong?

I had just gotten divorced.

But, of course, there was the little fact that she had two daughters and at least one of them had been sexually abused.  And she was my client.

That was the beginning of something.

It didn’t last.

A decade later, this woman sat across from me in my office.

“Listen,” I tell her, as I look around my cubicle to see if anyone is near.  I whisper this last part:

“Between you and me, we’ve had a lot of business in your neighborhood.  The police know what’s going on. Eventually, law enforcement will take care of it.  It’s just not a good place for you and it’s not a safe place for the girls.”

She tells me this: “Rachel’s a grown woman.  She’s twenty, now.  She’s in the Army.”

“Shayna?” I ask.

“Shayna’s not home, either.  She’s run away.”

 

 

 

 

UNDERTOW

Chapter 1.

 

Things have become unraveled.

 

I sat at my Herman Miller desk, trapped inside my antiseptic cubicle, and stared at my hands.  I study the veins, the spots, and the lines.  Two knuckles on my left hand have been broken repeatedly.  They are distorted and painful.  I ask myself these questions:  What went wrong and where did my life go?

 

What is life, anyway?  Is it breathing?  Is it taking up space?  If that’s it, then I’m doing it and I’ve been doing it well for fifty years.  I press the palms of my hands hard against my eyes.

 

The unforgiving neon bath of fluorescent lights swirls endlessly here in cube-land.  It gives everything a cold deathlike pallor.  The white noise of computers and fax machines dances unheard, mingling with the ionized tang of

photocopy machines.  Telephones chirp and voices clash in a soul killing cacophony.

 

I am frozen in the moment. The hustle-and-bustle, the deadlines and worry, all fade into the background.  I am busy staying alive.  I listen to my heart beat.  I force my breath deep into my abdomen.  I hold it there momentarily

and then allow it to seep slowly out between pursed lips. Three rounds.  That’s all it takes.  Now, I am back.  Effortlessly, I punch the keys.  I prepare the report.  I

update the case-record.   I am in the new blue-collar zone. Time passes like oil through a funnel on a winter’s afternoon.  I am a gear in a machine.

 

Mr. Jackson:  Your nine o’clock appointment is here.

 

The intercom jerks me back to my life-sentence as a state employee.   It’s time to conduct an interview; another exercise in nodding the head and clucking the tongue. Another opportunity to absorb the pain of some poor miserable wretch.  It’s all the same.  It’s always the same.

 

I kick my chair away from my desk.  I stand and march down the carpeted hallway towards the lobby.  I push open the door and call out my client’s name.  The stink of cigarettes, urine, wood smoke and body-odor assaults me.  Beggar-children fight cruelly over broken, donated toys.  Angry eyes stare warily at me over the tops of out-dated magazines.

 

“Mr. Hardwick,” I call out again, a little louder this time.  I look out over the ragged crew, trying to remember what he looks like.

 

There’s a movement off to my left, close to the bulletproof window that protects the clerical staff.   A tattooed forearm slaps a withered shoulder and I hear, “Hey pop!  You’re up.”  An old man crumples his newspaper and tosses it at a table.  It falls to the floor and the withered wreck struggles to his feet.  He clutches his oxygen tank to his chest and shuffles towards me.  His son whispers something to the woman sitting next to him before he swaggers across the room, catching his father before he has time to reach me.  My client has a three-day beard and exhales whiskey. The young one sports an earring and stinks of marijuana.

 

I direct the pair into a small interview-booth and they both collapse into a couple cracked and dirty vinyl-covered chairs.  I squeeze behind a shabby desk and sit down in a threadbare swivel chair.  I pull an ink pen out of my pocket, and I ask them how things are going.

 

This leads to a litany of complaints, a catalog of problems muttered midst coughs and groans by Ben Hardwick.  When he runs out of steam, his son starts up with an animated report of his father’s physical and mental decline.   Today’s excursion into fantasy revolves around degenerating discs in the old man’s lumbar vertebrae.  This is not a new complaint.  I have heard it and have addressed it on half a dozen occasions.  I learned years ago that, in my job, the presenting problem usually is only a lead-in for a larger dilemma.  The resolution of that problem, in the minds of those on the receiving end of a bankrupt government’s largess, is incontestably simple:  give more money to the younger welfare recipient for pretending to take care of the older one.  I daydream as James Hardwick states his case.

 

There was a time when families had feelings of responsibility for one another.  Now, early in the twenty-first century, the welfare system had conspired with its wards to dismantle families and to destroy whatever sense of responsibility and self-respect these people might have been born with.  Those in need that have tried to make intelligent decisions are shown the door.  The stupid and depraved are rewarded liberally for their incompetence.  In this brave new world, needy family members become employers (on paper) and their relatives are transformed into their employees.  Of course, taxpayers pay the wages.  The welfare department decides how much is fair and appropriate.  The families (called “customers” by the politically-correct crowd) typically want more, and they often win the hearings when there is a dispute regarding these entitlements.

 

In short, it’s all fucked up.

 

Jim Hardwick snaps me out of my reverie with, “Don’t you understand, Mr. Jackson?”

 

I respond with, “Of course I do, Mr. Hardwick.   You’re telling me that your father needs help with his bath and with grooming.  The Agency is already paying you to provide those services.”

 

“But we need more time, now.”

 

“We’re paying you for thirty minutes of help with bathing every day, right now.  We’re paying you for fifteen minutes of grooming.  That’s far more than what’s needed.  There’s no way I can authorize more time for that.”

 

“Get off the dime, dude.  Things have changed.  Dad needs more help.”

 

“The State doesn’t pay you for every breath you take.  Don’t you feel any obligation to your father?”

 

“Don’t you insult me!  I had to quit a good job downstate to come up here and take care of him.  I gave up a lot.  I gotta stay with him 24/7.”

 

“We don’t pay for companions.  We’ve discussed this already.”

 

“It would cost the state a lot more if I just dumped him in a nursing home.”

“Money’s not the issue.  We can only pay for certain authorized tasks.  And we can pay a limited amount for each one.  We’re ‘maxxed out’ in this case.”  Turning to the father, I said, “You understand this, don’t you?”

 

Hardwick the elder decided it was time to pass some gas.  I thought I’d gag.  His hand shook as he pointed a finger at me and said, “Jimmy needs more money.  He can’t live on what you pay him.”

 

Here we go, again.  I explained to both of them that the Home Help program is not a subsidy to families.   We are paying the son to help his father with certain specified Activities of Daily Living.  Yes, there is a danger that the old man might fall or stroke out or something; but we don’t pay the son to be present in that eventuality.  This provokes another response.  That generates another explanation.  That leads to another complaint.  And on it goes.  They insist on speaking with my supervisor.  I terminate the interview and ask the receptionist to locate my boss.

 

Steven J. Markman is my boss.  He’s a lying weasel with a limited vocabulary and a nice wardrobe.  His primary management skill is that he is very tall.  I have to admit it, though:  he knows how to handle clients. It’s all about intimidation and faked compassion.  Forget anything you ever learned in school.  It’s not about salesmanship.  It’s not exactly psychology.  When you’re dealing with cons, you simply have to pretend you’re tougher than they are.  Height is truly an advantage.  He’s got that going for him.  In fact, it is the only reason he made it into management.  That, and the fact that he seems to enjoy talking about hunting and golfing with the country director.

 

I’ve seen him in situations like this, before.  First, he’ll make them cool their heels in the lobby for at least twenty minutes.  If they wait that long, he’ll put on his patented dog and pony show.  Always, always before the confrontation, he’ll straighten his tie and take a deep breath.  He reminds me of Rodney Dangerfield when he does this.  It’s my favorite part of the act. Then, he’ll stride to the lobby wearing a stern expression.  He’ll wave them in, maybe offer them coffee, herd them in to his office, and close the door.

 

At first, he’ll pretend to be their compassionate savior. Then, he’ll apologize for my rudeness, and before they leave, he’ll tell them there’s absolutely nothing that can be done for them and he’ll walk them back to the lobby. That’s when the height advantage really comes in to play.  He used to play some baseball when he was a kid, I understand.  He looks like he stays in shape.  He’s still a prick.

 

Well, I was free of them for awhile, anyway.  Already I was studying another case.  Twenty-eight years on the job have made me realize I am nothing but an assembly line worker.  When I file my taxes, I claim to be a social worker.  In the real world, I don’t do social work: none of us here do that.  We process cases.  We push paper.  We pay our clients to keep them tame enough to stay out of jail.  When we are unsuccessful,, the police take over.

In my job, I determine the level of welfare recipients’ disability and the computer tells me how many hours I can pay for their care.  There’s an endless parade of takers who have smoked and drank themselves into disability and they all want me to provide servants for them.  Some of them are healthier and in better shape than I am.  They just bitch and moan to their doctors about their problems until the doctors wear down and approve in-home help.   Welfare recipients have twenty-four hours a day to work on their stories.  Medicaid pays for their doctor-visits.  You wouldn’t believe the crap that goes on.  Ultimately, you pay for all of it.

 

At ten o’clock, I shuffle off to the break room.  I sit alone with my elbows on top of a table and blow the steam off my coffee until it’s cool enough to drink.  I swallow the watery crap, and speak to no one.  After fifteen minutes, I return to my cubicle.

 

I sit down at my desk and I notice that a light on my telephone is flashing.  It does that to remind me that phone messages have been recorded for me.  It’s like having another wife.  I run through the procedure to retrieve the messages.  The flashing light is unnecessary:  I know there are always phone messages.

 

The light is flashing every morning when I come in.  The light is flashing when I come back to the office from making home calls.  The light is flashing when I return from my coffee breaks and when I return from lunch.

 

These days, I am pretty much a mindless drone.  To the best of my knowledge, nobody has threatened to kill me in five years.  As far as I know, nobody has even threatened to beat my ass in nearly six months.  The job is tolerable.  I can take two more years of it. It’s just been such a long ride.

 

It’s like, you’re nineteen and you’re full of life and energy.  You run just to feel your feet hitting the ground.  It feels so good.  Life is one big rush.  Then, one day you wake up and you realize that you’re fifty years old and nothing is the way you planned it.

 

Sometimes I don’t have any idea who I am, anymore.  All I know for certain is that trout fishing season opens next weekend.  That’s all I look forward to anymore.  Even that is a challenge, with my back the way it is.  My doctor

won’t let me ski anymore.  He says if I fall one more time, I could end up in a wheelchair.

 

I’ll retire in just a couple years.  That will be nice.  I hope so, anyway.