What better way to celebrate my birthday then by posting a new story…sort of. The following is kind of an introduction to an introduction. I have been working a book for awhile and am trying to edit a beginning. This is my first attempt at that. For those readers easily offended by foul language, be advised, due to the graphic nature of law enforcement, people curse. They curse me, the situation, and each other. You get the point. To edit that language out would make the work sound less than…well, it sounded fake, forced, and plenty of other F-words. Just keep that in mind when you are reading. At any rate, enjoy.
The first time we worked together on an off-duty job, Healy called me a tourist. We were five hours into an eight hour shift, locked in the Convention Center guarding sports memorabilia, and he said it as a matter of fact. As is the case with most guard duty details, all of the magazines had been read, and the DVDs watched. Once we got passed which super hero would win in a fight, someone always asked the bigger questions, chief among them, what made you start doing this?
Healy pulled at the top of his bullet proof vest, adjusted his shoulders, and blew at the heat of Kevlar against his skin. “I’m not like you,” he said. “I’m a cop, because I am a cop. Chasing bad guys, finding drugs, all that shit. I live for it. But you’re not like that.”
I wanted to object. I found parts of it fun. Talking to people. Hearing their stories. Trying to fix things for them. But I knew he was right. Traffic stops, burglary reports, and humping calls for service; it just wasn’t a calling for me. It was a job.
“You know what your problem is?” Healy said as he reached into his bag and pulled out a cold Big Mac. “You’re too smart for this job.”
“Hold on,” I said. “You’re no-” But he cut me off with a wave.
“Give a monkey a gun,” he paused and dusted sesame seeds off his shirt. “And I’m talking one of those monkeys from NASA who understands sign language and shit and you’ve got yourself a cop.” Healy smiled, wiped the beads of sweat from his head and tugged again at the Kevlar vest. “Or maybe a gorilla. That’s me. Deputy Coco.”
I shook my head at him and laughed.
“You know I’m right too,” he said with a mouth full of food. “You’re just sightseeing until something better comes along. I’ve seen your reports. I write the facts. You tell stories. You won’t retire from this. Take it from Deputy Coco. He knows a thing or two about a thing or two.”
What Deputy Coco didn’t know was the backstory that got me here. Three years prior, I graduated college with a Creative Writing Degree with every intention of writing a book and teaching for the rest of my life. But somewhere between stepping off the stage with my diploma and going to my service industry job that night, I got lost. Suddenly, I found myself in bars after waiting tables in downtown Orlando. Talking to women who weren’t my wife. Spending time with people who were not my daughter. Drinking all sense of reason away. I was becoming someone I didn’t recognize. Even one of my friend’s had made the comment to me, “Somewhere in the timeline of your life, you’ve been fired for sleeping with a student.” But I ignored his warning. I refused to see that the pedestal I had carefully built for myself was crumbling. Until the inevitable happened. One semester after starting a new phase in my life, I went home to the wrong house.
A year later, I was divorced, only seeing my daughter every other weekend. I was a part time dad. Something I would never have imagined for myself. I needed to start bringing home a real paycheck, and not one dripping with maybes that you get waiting tables. I needed to pay my child support. I needed to make things right. I wanted to write, but I wanted my daughter more. I needed to get back to the man I was when I was in the military; honorable. So it was that I checked into law enforcement, to do something good while looking for a story to write.
I realized in talking to Healy, that I needed to find something I could dedicate myself to, some sort of crime fighting I could get behind. Stopping guys on the street looking for drug paraphernalia wasn’t cutting it. So I started watching the call screen looking for something major. That’s when I started asking for the sex cases.
I spent the better part of a year going from call to call, looking for something to prosecute, and following detectives to the Sexual Assault Treatment Center to see how they did it. All the while, taking diligent notes, writing quotes, and documenting everything I could use later for a possible story, poem, or script. Each call had a life of its own. Every detail was significant and loaded with nuance; two parties, two stories, but only one truth. It was like reading a script or going to the movies.
INT. KITCHEN – DAY
Modestly decorated home. A strip of wallpaper with farmyard animals, vegetables, and fruit accent DIY sponge paint on the walls. MOTHER, 28, slightly plump, but fighting it, sits at the kitchen table with a newborn baby quietly taking a bottle.
DEPUTY, early 30’s, fit but balding, sits across from her, diligently taking notes in a small, pocket-sized, pad of paper.
So Megan and I were taking a shower, and I’m asking her how her day was; did she make any new friends? Did she have any homework? Did anyone try to touch her today?
Deputy stops writing mid stroke and looks up. He pulls a tissue from a decorated rooster box on the table and hands it to mother as her eyes well up.
Has she been having a problem with that recently? Being touched, I mean.
Oh no. Never. But I make it a habit to ask.
Mother covers her newborn’s ears with a burping cloth, and leans in to Deputy.
You know how people are nowadays, right?
Of course. (Beat) Please, continue.
INT. MEGAN’S ROOM – DAY
Pink princesses adorn every corner of the lavishly decorated room. MEGAN sits quietly at the foot of the bed, listening intently to Deputy , who squats a few feet in front of her.
Do you know why I am here, Megan?
Megan nods her head solemnly.
Can you tell me a little about it?
Megan looks at the ground and squirms. Deputy struggles in the kneeling position for a moment and then takes a seat on the ground.
Do you mind if I sit, Megan? I am getting really old.
Megan laughs a little as Deputy makes himself comfortable.
You know what, Megan? I have a daughter just about your age. Seven, right?
Deputy rolls his head back in enthusiastic apology, doing his best impression of Tom Hanks in every comedy he’s ever made.
Eight?! Well! Geez! Your practically driving then, huh?
Megan gives him a look of incredulity, and a smile brightens her face. She’s warming up to him.
No. But I can ride a bike. No training wheels either.
I bet you can. Big as you are. You know what else I bet you can do?
I bet you can tell me about what happened at school today.
Megan looks back down at the ground, but then, in almost a whisper…
My mom says Coach T is bad.
She does? Why does she say that?
Because he touched me on my private.
Can you point to your private?
Megan sits still for a few seconds, but Deputy doesn’t move. Then Megan moves her hand and covers her chest.
Any place else?
Megan shakes her head from side to side.
And where were you when this happened? In his office, the classroom, or somewhere else?
Megan continues to shake her head and then crosses her legs on the bed getting comfortable.
We were in the gym.
Everyone. The whole class.
What were you doing?
We were getting ready to play dodgeball and we were lining up, and he touched me on my private.
Why do you think he did that?
I don’t know.
Did he say anything to you when he did this?
Megan nods, her eyes bright and open as she speaks.
He said, “Back up.”
Oh. So you were in line?
The front of the line.
And he wanted you to back up.
Yes. We are supposed to line up behind the line.
Deputy smiles at Megan as he gets to his feet. He picks up a stuffed bear from her bed and smoothes the fur back on its head.
How did it make you feel when he did that?
I don’t know.
Well, do you think it was a bad touch, a good touch, or something else?
I don’t know.
Did he move his hand around, keep it still, or something else?
He kept it still.
He just wanted you to move, huh?
I think so.
And did you tell your mom this? The part about the line and the dodgeball?
She didn’t ask.
She didn’t ask.
The front seat of my patrol car had become a slush pile of human tragedy. Movie quality quotes coming from the victims and witnesses as well as the truth of everyday law enforcement. I wasn’t a writer. I was a cop. And it got me thinking; was this where I was supposed to be all along?
I started writing stories while working midnights in a top secret SCIF in England in the early nineties. I did it to entertain myself and flirt with the woman I was trying to date. In between satellite realignments, I typed suspenseful noir type settings with damsels in distress and nefarious characters in dark shadows. It was easy to envision with foreign voices speaking coded transmissions in my ears.
At the end of my shift, I would return to my barracks, and watch recorded episodes of NYPD Blue that I had sent to me from friends and family in the states. I fell asleep each morning with police stories and the gravel voice of Dennis Franz in my head. Having grown up in a policeman’s house, nothing was better than being a rehabilitated Andy Sipoweitz of the 15th precinct. I didn’t want to be a detective, only write stories about them. Now, ten years later, I wasn’t watching television anymore. I was doing the job. The television of my past was now the reality of my present, and three hours of he said, she said, with paramedics to patch up the injured parties, boiled down to five lines in a report.
On December 27, 2005, at approximately 0056 hours, I responded to the listed address in reference to an alleged domestic dispute. According to witnesses, a fight broke out between non-related persons, the results of which required medical attention in the form of lacerations to the head of one of the combatants. Neither party wished to press charges and nonresidents were asked to leave the premises. It should be noted that a check of all participants in FCIC resulted in the confirmation of a DWLS Warrant for the lead combatant. He was transported to central booking without further incident.
But the calls stuck with me. The five lines, while adequate for reports at the end of my shift, the whole story lingered in my head for days afterwards. So, on my days off, I started writing again. Then I had lunch with one of my old professors who was now a close friend. She listened to a few of my stories, and by the time my lunch was over, I had promised to send in a submission to start my MFA in the new year. I even got a letter of recommendation from my supervisor who told the committee that I didn’t write reports, but narratives with style. And what better stories to write for a submission than one hidden between the five lines of one of my reports.
Sergeant Santiago stands in the living room of the double wide trailer getting one side of the fight that brought us here. I straddle the hallway in front of a bedroom with my back to the wall, keeping one eye on the door, and the other on Buddy, the other half of the disagreement. Buddy sits on the bottom bunk of his son’s bed, leaning against the stepladder with his head in his hands. His eleven-year-old son sits next to him crying for me to please help his dad. Buddy’s face is leaking. Blood clots in his nose. Just above his left eye, a gash about two inches long with semi-dried blood tracing a twisted path from the corner of his mouth to his chin.
“What happened?” I ask.
Buddy shakes his head.
I look at the kid. “Listen, bud.”
“It’s Buddy. My dad’s name is Buddy.”
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s get you out of here so I can talk to your dad. See what happened.”
Kid shakes his head. Like father like son. “Can’t you help him?”
The room smells like kid sweat. Dead socks and underwear litter the floor. Overturned toy cars wrapped up in bright, dirty blankets. Home sweet home on the brink of sour. I ask again, “What happened?”
More head shaking.
“You got to talk to me Buddy. For crying out loud. Your head’s split open in three places that I can see. Who gave you the blood wig?”
Breaking through Buddy’s silence is the dispatcher coming through the radio mic. “Units on Sunderson, unit check.”
In a move resembling throwing salt over my shoulder at dinner, I cock my head to the left and squeeze a button on my shoulder mic. “Ten four, County.” Back to Buddy. “Tell me something. Tell me you fell. Tell me the floor split your head open. C’mon Buddy, tell me that the floor also did a number on your pal in the other room. He was just breaking your fall. I’m cool with that. You don’t want me here. I don’t want to be here. Tell me that, and I’ll leave.”
Nothing. Dried blood and dirt cakes in Buddy’s fingernails. His shirt, ripped at the neck, hangs off his shoulder. I don’t get it. Why call? Why waste everyone’s time? I shake my head in unison with Buddy. Just another episode of Jerry Fricken’ Springer.
“Fine,” I say. “You know what. I’ll take the other guy’s word for it. Whatever he says, goes. The other guy with the bloody knuckles. Why should I care? You don’t. Maybe he’ll say you hit yourself. Maybe I can Baker Act you since you’re obviously a danger to yourself.” I turn around to leave the room, calling Dispatch at the same time. “County, if you have Fire Rescue staging, go ahead and send them in reference to numerous lacerations to the head.”
As I walk into the living room, Pal sits in the brown corduroy Lazy-boy facing away from the front door.
“She’s a dirty, fucking whore, and now everyone knows it,” Pal says to his sister sitting on the couch next to him in the living room. She has a baby in her arms and she continues to rock it back and forth. Her face and eyes red from crying. Pal’s jeans are covered in what appears to be a mixture of mud, charcoal, and blood. “And everybody thought she was so sweet,” he says, drawing out the O in so. “You’re nothing but a dirty whore,” he screams to the back wall of the trailer.
“So tell me. Buddy in there says he fell. That about right?”
“Yeah.” He motions to Buddy in the kid‘s room. “The father of my sister’s two-week-old baby boy. The fucking guy I told her to steer clear of and told everybody he’s no fucking good. I saw them.” He shakes his head. “I mean, I told her I loved her.” Pal clears his throat, shaking the tremble out of his voice. “At first, I couldn’t believe it. But there he was, out by the fucking fire with her and I just flipped. You’d done the same fucking thing, it’d been you.”
“Yep. Imagine I would,” Sergeant Santiago says.
“Fucking A, you would.”
“Of course, I picked a good woman.” He smiles at me when he says this.
Pal lowers his head. “Thought I did too.” He lifts his head again. “Fucking Whore!” A stream of spit flies off his lips. The word whore stretches through the living room, out the back door, and taps Pal’s girlfriend on the shoulder as she stands outside by the fire.
It would seem that Pal never met a cuss word he didn’t like. In his agitated state relaying the evening’s events to us, each sentence is punctuated by a four-letter word. In the first few seconds inside the house, I noticed at least five children under the age of eight running around. And that’s not including Buddy’s son, who still sits in the other room waiting for paramedics to arrive and bandage his dad’s broken face, and then there is the two-week-old baby on the couch.
“Hey, Pal. You mind if we take this outside and talk about it? Or maybe get the kids out of here so they don’t have to hear all the sordid details? If you know what I mean?”
“Ain’t nothing they haven’t heard before.”
Clearly. That’s the problem. I look at my watch. Well after one a.m. and kids are still up running around with all the adults half drunk or passed out. Rerun of Law and Order muted on the big screen TV near the front door to the mobile home. No one in the room senses the irony. “Just the same,” I say, “They don’t need to hear more, do they?”
“Fine. Fine. After all, the children are our fucking future, right?” Pal says.
More like job security, I think, saying nothing. Instead, I put on my best poker face and wait for Pal to fold.
Pal sits back in his recliner. “What the fuck ever, man.” He motions to his sister sitting on a dirty, brown couch against the wall. “Hey, why don’t you take the kids out to the truck. Let them play with the satellite radio or something.” Then he looks at me. “I don’t want them to see me get arrested for Christ’s sake. After all, that is what’s gonna fuckin’ happen, right, boss?”
“I’m not saying that,” I say. “I just need to find out what happened, so we can figure this whole mess out.”
Pal’s sister rounds up the kids, five on the floor and one in her arms and takes them outside. Pal watches her leave with the kids and then turns his attention back to me. “She ain’t got a brain in her head staying with that fucking guy. They begged me to forgive him for Christmas. And I’m an idiot because I did. It’s why I’m here tonight. And I should’ve never done it. Only reason you’re here, cause of that son of a bitch. Oh yeah, and that whore out back by the fire.” He screams to the back yard again. “Jump in it, whore!”
While I wrestle the rest of the story out of Pal, Fire Rescue paramedics pour into the mobile home to work on Buddy’s face. He refuses treatment. Big surprise. His son pleads with him to no avail. Then his girlfriend comes in carrying his newborn son. She wears a white spaghetti-strapped blouse, dirty lace at the bust line, stretched tight against her postpartum belly. Her hair is a dusty blonde stain, streaked with brown lowlights. She is the picture of soil, smiling uneasily as she bends over his head. Then she whispers in his ear, kisses his blood-dried forehead, and leaves the room. Buddy says his first words of the night. “Okay. Go ahead with it.”
Firefighter #3 taps me on the back and tells me to come back into the room with Buddy and the paramedics.
“You ready to tell me what happened?”
A paramedic holds Buddy’s hand still and slowly wraps it with a sterile gauze bandage. Buddy tilts his head towards the living room. “What did he say?”
I run my hands over my shaved head. “Well, basically, he said you all had been drinking, he and his sister passed out in the living room, and when he got up to pee, he went outside and saw you kneeling out by the campfire with your face buried in his girlfriend’s lap, her pants around her ankles. He flipped, and beat you bloody. End of story. That about right?”
Buddy looks at the floor. “You believe him?”
“We got the same story from the girl, too.” I say, looking at Buddy’s kid sitting on the floor next to him. “What I don’t get is why he went outside to take a leak. Don’t you guys have toilets in here?”
Buddy looks up from his seated position, his expression turns from guilt to injured pride. “You gonna judge me now, too? How the fuck should I know why? You think I planned this? Look at my face. You think I fucking wanted this?”
I look around the room searching for an answer. Crayon markings on the wall. An empty, half-crushed soda can lodged between the twin mattress and the wooden headboard. “No. I can’t say as you did. You want to press charges?”
“What do you think? He’s my baby’s uncle.”
“Well, that didn’t stop you from—” But I stop myself mid sentence. What is the point? He doesn’t want to hear it. Why aggravate the situation? “You know what? Never mind. Doesn’t matter. He’s got a warrant out for driving on a suspended license. He’s coming with us either way.”
A year into my MFA, I transferred to Sex Crimes. Up to this point, I was writing fictional stories based loosely on my calls for service, but with this new world, came a more in-depth, demanding style of writing that was surprising. I went from writing five line reports to five pages, then fifteen, then thirty. Everything up to that point had just been the initial investigation. Now I was interviewing everyone involved, getting the stories straight, and then turning those stories into sworn affidavits of tragedy and shame. I was writing people into jail. Everything I wrote was true–things I had seen, heard, and been told my all parties involved–but crafted to convince the jury of guilt or innocence. The pen was finally mightier.
In my personal writings, I still hadn’t been published. Of course, I wasn’t very proactive about it either. I was too busy with real life. I was making a decent wage, not to mention all the overtime I was working. But as for actual writing for pleasure, that wasn’t happening. I told myself that I was gathering information; writing in my head, something I would get to in the future. I even slowed the pace of classes I was taking because I was so busy. I had become a detective. The writer in me would have to wait.
Then I went to a reading at the college and got cornered by the nonfiction chair of the department. She wanted to know how things were going. Had I picked a genre yet? She reminded me that if I missed a semester, I would lose what I had put into the program thus far. She got me back on track. She also got me thinking about nonfiction.
It came back to the job with me. The stories I began to tell left the pages and started coming out in my interviews with suspects and victims alike. I workshopped their lives. Edited their confessions. Tore them down bit by bit. Told them what wasn’t working and why. Taking both the fiction and non-fiction of their tales and putting together a separate truth of the situation. I had been questioning the idea of fiction and nonfiction in my workshops and here I had a real representation of it. People told me their stories every day and swore they were telling the truth, but the reality was that people lied. Victims said one thing, the witnesses another, and when it came to the suspects, I got them to tell me the easiest truth to make them confess. That was when it hit me. I wasn’t a fiction writer anymore. My whole life revolved around getting people to tell me the truth, and that realization stopped me sixty pages into the young adult fiction I was concentrating on in my schoolwork. This was what I had been looking for all along. This is what I wanted to write. The truth. In whatever form it took.
heavy questions loom.
from the other room.
The boy was purple
titanium leather band.
A fragrant fellow.
Did things get out of hand?
Drinks were steady.
This lovely, lovely boy.
You let him in.
You silly girl.
Your sisters call you ho.
They never ask.
They just accuse.
Did you tell him no?
is softly speaking.
Do not veer off course.
Just another one
All they know
After was the first thing I ever got published. A poem. Of all things. Rattle Magazine put a call for submissions out for a tribute to law enforcement and one of my friends from class sent me a note on Facebook about it. I had yet to start submitting anything to anyone at the time. But this was for cops, right? So, I sat down and looked through some of the things I had been tinkering with and found a piece of flash nonfiction, and played with it for about a week. I finally worked it into what I thought a poem was supposed to look like, along with a few older poems I wrote in a poetry class, and then forgot about. I felt good about putting something out there. Even if I only got a rejection letter in return. I was a writer wasn’t I? At least that is what I told myself. Nothing lights a fire like acceptance and a few hard copies.
In the months after I got that first letter of acceptance, I got a few more. I keep writing and sending things out. I also keep working at the other jobs, talking to bad guys, putting people in jail. I once sat in a courtroom answering questions about a case, something I do fairly regularly as you would imagine. I’m a regular episode of Law & Order sometimes. On this particular occasion though, the defense attorney was going on about how I had depicted the defendant in my report. He wanted to know about the language I used.
“So tell me Detective,” he said, standing confident at his lectern. “You attended the police academy, did you not?” This kind of questioning is routine. Make the cop look dumb on the stand. After all, aren’t most cops just trained gorillas?
“And how long is the report writing section in the academy?”
“Forty hours, if I remember correctly,” I said.
“Forty hours,” he repeated to the jury. “So that is where you learned to write like that. They train you to use a specific kind of language to put people in jail. Don’t they? In that forty hours?”
“No sir,” I answered.
“They have other classes then?” he asked, incredulously.
“No, the report writing class is forty hours alright, but that’s not why I write like that.”
“Well then, what other training do you have? An advance report writing class? A forty hour refresher?”
“No. I never took that,” I said, watching the smile broaden on his face. “But I also have a Master’s Degree in English, with a concentration in Nonfiction Writing. So, I only write the truth. As for the words I use; that’s just the way I talk.”
That’s when his smile disappeared. He stared at me then, not saying anything. I guess I’m not the gorilla he was expecting.