The Vidalia onions are in bloom, so you might get the odd call from Dorothy who insists that someone is stealing her vegetables again. They were there yesterday, she’ll tell you, flicking her wrist to bring you back on the one acre lot, her mobile home slanted on its rusted support beams, the smell of dirt, wet cat, and ammonia stagnant in your nose. Keep your ear on the radio and try not to get swept up in her imaginary world. She’ll point to the water basin where she grows her garden and tell you how her next-door neighbor from fifteen years ago has it out for her. She doesn’t remember he’s dead, so it’s unlikely that she’ll remember you, five days from now, when she calls back about the missing celery. Make sure your radio is turned up. Answer dispatch when she unit checks.
Dorothy might start in on the bogeyman. She may peel back the sleeveless, crusty, t-shirt she’s wearing to expose her breast, lifting the pancake of her seventy-year-old skin to show you where he was biting her while she slept. Ignore the crinkled black hair on her nipple. Just give her a card and tell her you’ll check the area. She’ll thank you and ask if you know so-and-so from back in the day. Just smile or pretend to get another call on the radio; your presence is needed somewhere else. She’ll make her way back to the grime of her life. Try not to stare at the bald spot on the top of her hairy calf muscle as she walks away. Ignore the slap-slap of galoshes on skin. Check your volume knob to make sure your radio is turned up.
Next, you might get called to the Circle K for a disorderly conduct, or a trespass after warning. If Jesse James is back out on bond, he’ll be raising hell. Of course, he’ll be gone when you get there, but his pregnant, homeless girlfriend will tell you that the store manager is a stupid fucking bitch and all they wanted was a lousy fucking beer. Let her rant awhile. You can try to explain how Jessie is trespassed from the store. How he can never come back. Realize that this might make her angry and fall into another tirade about the fucking police and how Jesse ain’t never hurt nobody. You’ll need to adjust your radio ear when she yells. You need to hear what is coming next. You need to answer dispatch when she unit checks.
Eventually, Jesse’s girl will make her way back into the woods where a faded blue, two-man tent awaits her. Try not to shake your head at the life that her unborn child has ahead of it, and don’t offer to help her find a home because her family gave up trying a long time ago. Besides, she’ll run away. It’s what she does. She’s using meth. You’ll see that. She’ll smack her lips when she speaks to you and her face will be pockmarked from the acne of Muriatic Acid and rendered red phosphorus. God helps those who help themselves. She’s putting her faith in Jesse. He’ll take care of me, she’ll say. If he’s not back in jail by the end of the week. Check out on your computer for a directed patrol of the area. Write that you’re looking for Jesse. Or go inside the Circle K and talk to the nice ladies that work there. Make yourself a barbecue sandwich and call the directed patrol out over the radio so your squad mates can hear where you are. What you’re doing. Answer dispatch when she unit checks.
On 5th Street, you have a frequent flyer. Teenage girl out of control. A runaway who cries kidnap and rape. Understand that this will happen. Listen carefully. Take statements. Believe. If policy demands it, call a detective. If he or she comes out, hand it off to them. If it’s days old, handle it yourself. If she is lying, and you will know if she is lying by the gaps in her story, how she gauges her mother’s reaction to each telling, and her clear, quick escape to victimhood after just being caught skipping school or shoplifting. With your ear to your radio, call her on the carpet. Or don’t. Write it and send it. Whatever makes you feel comfortable. Some of you have a problem talking to kids. Get over this problem. This is ninety percent of your job. Listening. Talking back. Answering dispatch when she unit checks. Understanding which situations are truly criminal and which are just people desperate for someone to take their side in an argument. Problems ten years in the making, children nurtured on neglect, Hatfields and McCoys, resentment thriving wildly out of control will not be fixed in ten minutes by you. They call for support. They call for answers. They call to talk. Listening is mandatory. Believing is optional. Your greatest tools? Common sense and a bladed stance. You have discretion. Some people lie. Some people don’t. Some people just want an ear to bend. And make sure you answer dispatch when she unit checks. Make sure you let them know where you are. That you are okay. Make sure you hear them too.
Finally, you might meet John. He’ll be calling you about the threats he’s been receiving. It will take you a couple of drive-bys to find his address since this is your first time. Call your zone partner if you get lost. The driveway is overgrown, much like the man. You’ll need to drive slow. He’ll be standing at the gate of a locked chain-link fence guarding a seemingly empty lot. But as you look closer, you’ll see the remnants of asphalt under the tangle of grass and weeds. You’ll see the remnants of a man. And that closer look will only happen after you’ve been talking to John for a while. He is the main attraction on this street. He will tell you this. Nothing is more important than his problems. Nothing, besides answering dispatch when she unit checks.
“They were screaming again this morning. Woke me up at four in the God-damn-morning screaming.”
Ask him who was screaming, but it will be hard for you to concentrate at this point. Try to ignore the loincloth towel pinned around his waist. Keep your eyes on his glare, glancing down only when the opportunity presents itself. The towel will be threadbare yet thick with dirt and almost molded to his skin.
“Those kids. Yelling Bum! Bum! Bum! How much of this do I have to take?”
Ask how old the kids are. Try to avoid staring at his receding hairline, which appears to be one large dreadlock of feces; a dirt helmet created from years of sleeping in filth. You will be amazed that the clump of hair doesn’t knock up against the back of his neck as he turns to point to the bottles thrown onto his property by these hooligan youths.
“And I know my rights. If they come on my property, I can shoot ‘em.”
It’s okay to wonder why anyone would want to live like this. Just nod your head. Agree with him. Answer dispatch when she unit checks.
“You could do that, sir. It is your right. But wouldn’t it just be easier to ignore them? Stay back in your house?” You can say these things. You can try to reason.
And as much as you might want to, don’t look for his house behind the brush of overgrown weeds and dense trees. Does it truly exist? Is there some tent back there too? How long has he lived here? Is there power running to the property? Why haven’t you met him before now? Why haven’t you heard the stories of the hermit, hunched over, bare-chested, and wearing a dirt loincloth pinned precariously at his hipbone? Some tragic Tarzan. Questions don’t help.
“I already got a card from some female deputies last week when the kids threw them bottles, but this has got to stop.”
And how long did it take his beard and mustache to grow so that the only way you know he is speaking is the sound and the slight bump of hair moving on his face?
He will ask you what you plan to do about this. He will ask you to fix this problem of his own creation. He will ask you to listen. But your skin will be itching now. Resist the urge to scratch it. Any bugs you feel are probably imaginary. You can go back to the Circle K when you are done to wash your hands. He doesn’t really want help. If he did, your skin wouldn’t be crawling. Just give him another card while you back away, tilting your head towards your radio, and answering dispatch when she unit checks.
This piece was originally published at O-Dark-Thirty back in the Summer of 2013. To read more from O-Dark-Thirty, please just click the link on the left side of the page or click here to read more from that Summer issue.