Hi all-- This is something different for us, I know. But I was very impressed with this story. It's by writer L.G. Vernon
. She has a book out, too, The Wilderness Road, which I haven't read yet, but would like to. I understand it's out of print. The story is posted with the permission of the author.
Copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved
I see them.
The dead come—came—with the territory, and have never left. They don’t tell you about that at the academy. Oh, they tell you about death, all right. They just don’t tell you about the dead. And even during the darkest, most drunken moments of those off-duty, late-night choir practices, no one ever says, “Hey guys, I see the dead. Do you see the dead?”
But we all see them.
I haven’t worn a Sam Browne in years. Probably couldn’t buckle on the one that hangs in the back of my closet if I wanted to. It’s dusty with age, like me, and the leather’s dry-rotted. I used to keep it spit-shined—back when I wore it. I used wadding polish on the brass of the keepers, and on my badge and on my nameplate. Now the kids I see in uniform—all of them look about nine to me—use Velcro keepers to hold their gear in place, and most times it’s not even leather; it’s that nylon stuff that’s become so popular.
They don’t wear real badges anymore, either. They’re sewn on. Embroidered. Seems kind of candy-assed to me. It’s hard to read them, sometimes, when I get close enough to a cop to look. But when I scan past the newfangled uniforms, the shorts, the bicycles, the fancy equipment, the sewn-on badge, and the tiny, tapered, politically correct baton, and look into their eyes—really look—I know they see them, too.
Resignation, not fear, is what stares back at me.
Once in a while I talk to a cop. He or she’ll size me up at first. Oh, I know what they’re thinking. Old, shriveled. Couldn’t know a thing about what I do. But then we mesh. We know the same neighborhoods, know that kick of adrenalin at the sound of a siren, speak the same lingo; we’ve both felt the tingling intuition that tells us the nice mama with the two kids we just talked to would kill us if she could. Putting on the suit changed us both forever. We walk into a room the same way—looking at hands, waistbands, ankles, faces, and exits. We size people up, skeptical of every story, every excuse, every bulge, every twitch.
We laugh and joke, like cops often do. Then, soberly, we shake hands and we know. We’re often closer than kin as we exhale regret.
The dead are always with us. Even when we’re wrinkly-assed and gray, and not cops anymore.
First in line—my line, anyway—are two ladies. Blue-hairs we called them, then. You know what I mean: Sixty-five, carefully curled hair, bulletproof stretch pants and striped tank tops. They were walking with their husbands who, after forty-five years on the job, had retired the previous week from the same factory. The two couples had been friends for life. It was just past dusk and they’d been down the highway to a coffee shop for dinner. The four of them were strolling back to the RV park and the brand-new, identical, motor homes they’d just bought, when a couple of big Dobermans lunged at the junkyard fence they were passing. The ladies jumped away—into the street and into the path of a Camaro—and were killed instantly.
I was twenty-one, and probably looked about nine to the husbands, if they even noticed. What got me most were the shoes. Both women had been knocked right out of their canvas low-cuts. Impotently, I picked up the pink sneakers and handed them to one of the husbands. He stood there, clutching them, then silently gave one pair to his buddy. At that moment, I felt about nine. What do you say? How do you make it all go away?
Those old ladies—probably younger in death than I am now—smile at me. It’s all right, officer. It wasn’t your fault.
Next is the young Northsider. They call them gang-bangers, now. He was sprawled on the floor of his apartment, leaning against the wall next to the sofa. He’d been stabbed twice in the chest. Tiny holes. Not a drop of blood. An ice pick lay on the threadbare carpet. I knelt next to him. He was breathing, talking, alert. I called for an ambulance and started taking notes.
“Who did this?”
“Fuckin’ Eastsiders, man, who else?”
“Did you know them?”
“How many of them were there?”
“Two of them. I’ll kill those pinche’—”
“—Who stabbed you?”
“Ramon . . . Ramon Cisneros.”
“From over on Third—that Ramon Cisneros?”
I scribbled, then talked on my radio, telling dispatch to put out the APB. “Was he in that old brown Pinto he drives?”
“I don’ know, man. I was here, asleep. I wa . . .”
And, just like that, he was gone. The ambulance arrived right about then, and they started CPR on him, but there was no bringing him back. Later, at the post, I learned that the ice pick had torn the bottom of his heart, his aorta, actually—just a tiny tear, but big enough for him to die while I was getting what I needed to put his killer away for a very long time. Not that it did him any good. He ambles along in his gray corduroy pants and his wife-beater, right behind the ladies. He smiles at me, too. There’s a tattoo on his left chest—a bleeding heart, with the name Amelia underneath. Pretty ironic, if you ask me.
Anyway, those were my first three. Then comes the drunk who hanged himself when he arrived home and found his wife had had enough and split. His fourteen year-old son found him. The kid had come by after school to tell his dad that he wanted to stay with him, not his mother.
There are probably a dozen or more heroin addicts who tripped south from LA to get some 'good' stuff in our border community and died in their cars, in restaurants, one in a phone booth, and often, very often, in bathrooms—because the smack was just too good. It hadn’t been cut with baby powder or corn starch or any of a thousand other products it gets stepped on with as it makes its poisonous way to the City of Angels.
And so they died, with belts around their upper arms and syringes still stuck in their flesh, gasping their last in the tiny spaces of gas station bathrooms—writhing in the urine and the toilet paper incumbent with such pristine surroundings.
There are children, wives, husbands, and parents—killed by the ones they loved. There are accident victims and croakers—elderly who died of natural causes in their homes, the police who found them their only mourners. There are drunk drivers and their passengers along with the others they took with them all in the name of a good time.
There are six teenagers, still in their tuxedos and poufy formals. They’d left the prom for some late night kanoodling and were speeding down a dirt road in a station wagon when the driver lost control and the car ended up on its top in an irrigation canal. Their parents reported them missing in the middle of the night but it was daylight before we spotted the car, its wheels sticking partially out of the water. The kids tried to get out. They really tried to get out. But the car was wedged, side-to-side. They couldn’t open the doors.
You don’t want to know the rest.
There’s a beautiful baby girl, two months-old, who has a place in line. It was an early Christmas morning when I got that call—a frantic mother couldn’t awaken her only child. The door to the apartment was ajar, but there was no crowd. No one. Just a young Mexican woman standing quietly in her nightgown in the middle of her low-income living room, waiting for someone to come. A secondhand crib dominated the space. “Ayudame’, por favor,” she whispered. Help me, please. She gestured toward the crib.
I was across the room in two steps, and knew immediately I was hours too late. The infant drowsed in death, a tiny knitted cap on her glossy black hair, her fat little fist still against her mouth, her eyes half open. But first rigor had already set in. There was nothing I, nothing anyone could do. I think telling that poor woman—whose husband was far away in the Central Valley working in the fields—that her first child was dead, was the hardest thing I ever did. She had no one. No one. And was too devastated to do more than stroke that baby's hair. No tears. No wailing. Just the subtle movement of her fingers. I called the Salvation Army, but there was no answer. It was Christmas Day. Babies weren’t supposed to die on Christmas; babies weren’t supposed to die, ever. I finally got hold of Father Curzon over at St. Mary’s. He came and I left, but the baby, a SIDS baby—well—I see her every day.
There were countless others over the years: A young father of two little girls, gunned down by his wife and her lover for the insurance; a gay man, shotgunned at point-blank range for making advances to the wrong hitchhiker; a wife bludgeoned to death by her eighty year-old husband because, as he put it, “I got tired of her mouth.”
And there are other cops. Friends. Guys who had my back more than once when the stuff got deep. I wonder sometimes how the fates picked them and not me. But they smile, and shake their heads, their badges glinting. Shit happens, they say. You know that.
I’m old now and I really thought all this would have left me over time. That the anger, that the impotence, that the sense of loss would have dissipated. That I would have been allowed to forget the dead. That, after years of service—after years of seeing them, day after day—I’d be granted a reprieve. But no. They’re all still here, walking somnolently through these rooms of mine. And along with this daily communion comes the knowledge that soon I’ll be in someone else’s head, myself—standing on someone else’s line. A specter, a memory, one of a million horrors about which no cop speaks.
So now I wait, here in my house with the big trees out front. Just me and the dead. My dead. I mow my lawn, barbecue on the weekends, watch football with other retired cops—and I wonder whose line I’ll be in when it’s over. Will it be the officer I talked to down at the Stop and Rob on the corner who finds me dead in my bed? Or will I croak over in the yard and some poor rookie’ll get the call and have to help the ambulance guys drag my fat ass onto a gurney? Am I going to topple over in my dining room and lie there for a couple of weeks with the sun streaming in the south windows like it does, until the only things alive here, besides the cop who gets the call, will be the maggots doing the conga in and out of my eyes?
Who will I haunt?
Whoever it is, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.