The baby squirrel was damaged in some way and it’s gait charmingly lopsided. Bandit regarded his prey from two related, but differing, perspectives. Through his amber lens, the baby squirrel was a mouth-watering treat, a delectable morsel whose squirming between tooth and tongue would fill his jaws with delight. But, of course, that pleasure would be fleeting, as is always the case, and considered from his blue point of view, the pink, ill-formed and fetal creature could afford him with several minutes, if not an hour, of entertainment there on the plush grass in the shade of the old oak tree. From her vantage atop a utility pole, the mother squirrel scolded Bandit in a high-pitched chattering voice to which the infant appended a whistling, peeping cry, but the tom-cat was rather deaf and these sounds reached him only remotely and, therefore, did not add to his delectation.
To sate his hunger pangs, Bandit bit off one of the baby squirrel’s feet. The little flipper-like limb crunched between his teeth and there was a brief, satisfying squirt of blood, something that reminded Bandit of a nice mug of beer that he had once drained in a single heroic guzzle. He swallowed the squirrel’s foot and, then, released the embryo from his clutches. The baby squirrel scuttled away for an instant before Bandit cupped the little pink tube of flesh under his paw. He sniffed curiously at the baby squirrel and, then, lifted his paw so that the squirrel could continue its hopeless flight. After the squirrel had limped to the limit of Bandit’s grasp, and, even, beyond, he pounced, caressed the squirrel with his teeth and, then, spit the infant out on the lawn so that he could continue his play. The squirrel was blind and hairless and decided to roll over on its side and play dead. But Bandit saw the sides of the baby animal twitching and so he gouged at the squirrel with a claw, splitting the creature’s belly. The wound was serious but not mortal and, viewed through his blue eye, Bandit decided that the fun could continue for, at least, another three or four-hundred heart beats. But, at that moment, a bigger brute intervened, something with coarse, wiry fur and equipped with a muzzle like a sledge-hammer filled with inch-long yellow teeth. Bandit reared, and the fur stood on his back inflating him like balloon, and, spitting, he darted away from the German Shepherd, sprinting close to the ground toward a tight squeeze under a fence through which he had chased a small rabbit only a few hours earlier. It was no problem for Bandit to outrun the dog, at least across a short distance, but the tom cat was well aware that canines had stamina and that they could be alarmingly single-minded, if clumsy, in their pursuit and so he was appalled to find that someone had patched the hole in the fence with a wooden board. The tight squeeze was no longer available as an avenue of flight and so Bandit reversed his direction, darting between the legs of the pursuing hound and scrambling through some shrubbery to emerge near another fence that seemed long and impermeable. The dog was caught in the shrubs, blundering through the undergrowth, and Bandit turned the corner of the fence-line, found an alleyway and another tight squeeze under a pile of wood into a nest where a rat had lived the preceding summer. The rat had gnawed a passage into an adjacent shed and so Bandit wiggled through the opening and found himself in a dim chamber festooned with spider webs ornamented by mummified flies and beetles. In the chase, Bandit had forgotten about the baby squirrel. But an old crow had observed Bandit’s torture of his prey from his perch on a winter-killed bough in a nearby evergreen tree. As soon as the tom cat fled, the old crow flapped his wings and landed next to the wriggling baby squirrel. With a few deft jabs of his beak, the crow eviscerated the squirrel and returned to his branch to swallow the baby animal’s innards.
All of this occurred on a day in early August on the 1300 block of 8th Avenue Southeast.
Squeaky’s best friend was Dolan. They had been drinking buddies for twenty years when Dolan died. Dolan’s death saddened Squeaky to the point that he felt that his heart was broken: he was short of breath when he thought of his old buddy and felt stabbing pains in his chest that caused his ears to ring and made the fingers on both of his hands tingle.
Dolan was a big man whose left eye had gone missing in some remote brawl or combat zone. Alcohol had polished him the way that an agate is polished in a tumbling machine: the booze had smoothed away all of his hard edges and sharp lines so that he was a round, pinkish sphere without neck, waistline, and with his legs seemingly fused together at his upper thighs. It seemed improbable that he could walk, but he could move, sometimes with surprising swiftness in pursuit of his next drink. Like Squeaky, Dolan had refined his digestive system so that it functioned best on beer supplemented sometimes with peanuts or a slab of microwaved Tombstone pizza or a bit of beef jerky.
Dolan lived above the Hiawatha Bar, a tavern by the railroad yards that had once been a Fraternal Lodge, a meeting place for the Improved Red Men of America. Old age had decimated the tribe and, ultimately, the Red Men sold the bar. The new owner preserved some of the more noteworthy decorations in the lodge, including a mural showing Indians shooting arrows at a disgruntled moose and a bas relief calumet displayed on the wall next to the toilet. Since the Red Men was a fraternal organization, the tavern was originally equipped with a men’s room only. However, law required the bar-owner to install a ladies’ room. This renovation was duly accomplished but the plumbing was configured in such a way that the tap for hand-washing was a basin outside of the small closet-like toilet, a white porcelain sink installed next to the rest-room door. As it happened, the deficiencies in the sanitary accommodations were moot anyway because women rarely entered the bar and, when they did, stayed only so long as they didn’t require the facilities – when a lady had to use the rest-room, she invariably left the tavern, crossed the street to the bar on the opposite corner and didn’t return. So the Hiawatha was a male enclave, a place where serious drinkers assembled in the morning and didn’t depart until late at night, and, as far as Dolan and Squeaky were concerned, this was fine with them – women were excitable and made complicated demands and both of them were dedicated to serenity, that is, accepting the things that they could not change, principally the fact that both of them were drunks.
A few years before Dolan died, Squeaky had some heart trouble. He collapsed while chipping ice from the stoop of his tiny house. In the hospital, Squeaky did well for the first twenty-four hours, rallying and showing the nurses’ elaborate, and charming, courtesy. But, then, withdrawal symptoms afflicted him and he suffered from seizures and clawed the IV tubes from his bruised forearms and tried to flee the hospital. Dolan came to see him and pleaded with the doctors’ to let his friend have a simple glass of beer but this was forbidden and Squeaky ended-up unresponsive in a medically induced coma. The booze and starvation had withered Squeaky so that he was tiny, brownish thing, a wrinkled baboon or chimpanzee, motionless in the intensive care unit, screened from the world by a tangle of cords and tubes and monitor leads. Squeaky emerged from his coma, weak and baffled. But he saw Dolan at his bedside and smelled the strong drink congealing on his breath and looked into his friend’s one surviving eye, chalky blue as the water melted from a glacier, and said: "Get me out of here!"
A day or so later, Squeaky was released from the ICU and, after the weekend, Dolan took him to his home. Since neither of them had a driver’s license, and since Dolan did errands by bicycle, a cab had to be called to take the two men to Squeaky’s house. Dolan stayed with him for another two or three weeks, nursing Squeaky back to health and, as soon as he was able to reliably walk, they went to the Hiawatha Bar, took up their accustomed places in the tavern, and returned to their habitual lives. Squeaky put his arm around Dolan and said that he had saved his life and Dolan’s blue eye became moist with tears and the bartender said that for the next ten minutes all drinks were ‘on the house’ in honor of Squeaky’s return to the land of the living.
A few years passed. Dolan developed diabetes and his toes became gangrenous. Squeaky had to care for Dolan after the amputations. Of course, both of them knew that it was necessary to avoid any extended hospitalizations that might result in a booze ban enforced by censorious and humorless doctors. One night, Dolan remained in the bar after Squeaky had gone home to his tiny cottage. Dolan swept out the bar and cleaned the toilet, work that he did for the tavern-owner in exchange for his rent. Smoking was forbidden in the bar – the laws had changed – and so Dolan, who sometimes smoked Swisher sweet cigarillos went outside to light up. Either he slipped on the ice or was knocked down by a passing car. In any event, Dolan fell onto the cold pavement and couldn’t get up and, then, at least, two or, possibly, three vehicles drove over him. Blood and fluids were squeezed out of Dolan’s body by the tires of the vehicles and he was found the next morning frozen fast to the cement, still alive but unconscious – he was dead before noon.
Squeaky sat in the afternoon sun on the block of poured concrete that was his backstep. His tiny cottage was too warm to be comfortable. In a cooler at his ankle, he had a liter bottle of Diet Seven-Up and a bottle of vodka bedded on ice. Dolan used to sit next to him on the backstep perched on a white plastic chair that sometimes edged dangerous close to the side of the poured concrete steps, but Dolan was dead now and Squeaky was alone. Although once there had been a railing enclosing the steps, the metal balustrade had been set uncertainly in the concrete and eroded by rust, until it’s supports had fractured and fallen down among the feral shrubs and, sunflowers growing along the backside of the house. Dolan’s plastic chair, unused for half a year, had also fallen into the shrubbery and a big brown garden spider had spun a web between its forlorn plastic legs.
An air conditioner plugged a window on the side of Squeaky’s house, defeating any cross-ventilation through the structure. In order to cool the little shack, Squeaky had to run the air-conditioner since the window admitted no breeze, but this was expensive and not particularly efficient. The air conditioner was old and it made a throbbing noise when it operated, sometimes achieving a resonant frequency that vibrated in the studs and lathe walls of the house frightening the centipedes so that they fled their nests in the insulation and, emerging onto the faded wallpaper or bathroom tiles, skittering across wall and ceiling with shocking speed and impunity. The breeze that the air conditioner pumped into the house had the stink of a swamp, a malarial dense odor of rotting vegetation and methane bubbling out of mud and stagnant water and didn’t cool the house so much as it made the rooms humid and only slightly warmer than the back stoop where it was shady, after all, and the shadow sometimes probed by a breeze and cooled, at least to knee height, by the ice packed around the vodka and soda pop. Sometimes, Squeaky thought it would be best to just knock the air conditioner out of the window and restore the flow of air into the house, but the metal box of the machine was unwieldy and heavy and he had hoisted it into place only with the help of his friend, and drinking buddy, Dolan and now Dolan was not around to assist him in removing that appliance.
Squeaky was contemplating the weather, and worrying about the warmth that increased every day as the sun lingered longer and longer on the horizon, and he was wondering if he should buy some fans to push the hot air from place to place in his house, calculating the cost of fans as compared to his next social security check and alcohol budget, and he wished that Dolan could come from his grave and sit next to him on the back steps so that they could debate the pros and cons of removing the air conditioner and substituting fans in its stead, a plan that Dolan would probably have vetoed in favor of simply spending more time in the nicely refrigerated Hiawatha Bar, arriving earlier in the morning before the days’ heat became excessive and staying as long past closing as the bartender would allow, remaining in the air-conditioned bar as Dolan swept the floor and cleaned the toilets and, maybe, even sleeping on the tables until dawn came and it was cool enough to go outside in the freshening air and, maybe, stroll a block or two — that would probably be Dolan’s contribution to the argument and, then, they would either agree or agree to disagree and pour more drinks from the vodka and the liter of Diet Seven-Up, watching the traffic passing on the street and the little girls playing hopscotch on ladders chalked on the sidewalk and waving in a friendly manner to people from the neighborhood walking their dogs, Squeaky watched the shadows of the leafy branches decorating the pavement as the day turned blue and became evening and, occupied by his thoughts of this kind, and remembering his dear friend and drinking buddy, Dolan, Squeaky did not notice the large tom-cat that emerged from nowhere in particular and moving, step by step, with a pompous rectitude, strutted across the backyard and, then, climbed the poured concrete steps to sit as still and regal as the statue of a pharaoh at Squeaky’s feet. Squeaky was worrying about his air conditioner and wondering whether he could persuade the social worker who paid him a weekly visit, a so-called "wellness check," to assist him in moving the bulky air conditioner, removing it from the window that it blocked, when he felt eyes upon him, had the sense that he was being closely observed and, then, looked down to see a large tom-cat at his feet, gazing up at him. The cat, welcoming his look, purred contentedly and, then, rubbed himself against Squeaky’s trouser leg. Squeaky put his hand down to touch the animal’s velvety skull and the cat suddenly jumped upward to sit on his lap. Squeaky was surprised at the cat’s friendliness. Normally, he thought of cats as remote and indifferent but this animal was very gentle and it peered up at Squeaky’s face with unabashed love and, even, admiration. The cat patted at Squeaky’s chest with little tapping motions of its paws as if it were trying to heal his wounded heart.
"Who are you?" Squeaky asked the cat. It meowed in response to his question. "I wonder what’s your name," Squeaky said to the cat.
The cat was odd-eyed. It’s left iris was a warm rich honey-color, an amber eye next to a blue one that was cold and chalky the water melted from a glacier in the high mountains.
The cat sat with Squeaky until it was dark outside and the mosquitos were biting so that he decided to go into his house. He gently set the cat down on the ground at the foot of the steps and said: "Shoo! Now, you go home." The cat looked up at him quizzically. Squeaky turned and walked up the steps and, when he opened his back door, he felt a sudden, graceful caress against his calf and, then, he was indoors and the cat was with him not prowling so much as strutting happily a few steps ahead of him. "I guess you’re here for the night," Squeaky said. He opened a can of tuna and fed the cat and it, then, curled up at the foot of his bed, humming a little in its throat.
The cat was clean and affectionate. It did its business outside and followed Squeaky around as he went from place to place in his house or yard. Squeaky named the cat "Bandit" and bought the animal a collar. He fed the tom-cat milk and canned tuna. Bandit spent half of his time outside, hunting or patrolling the shrubbery and the flower gardens adjacent to the alley way. But each night, the cat came to the door and tapped gently, not insistently but with a kind of grave courtesy, and so Squeaky let Bandit into his house where he slept curled-up at the foot of the bed.
Squeaky had a sister who lived in Iowa. Every two or three months, she stopped at his house to deliver him some groceries and, even, brownies that she had baked or caramel fudge. Squeaky’s sister was suspicious of cats and didn’t trust Bandit at first, but, after a half hour or so, she warmed to the animal and, even, stroked his shoulder, the cat arching his back toward her hand. "Where did you get him?" she asked. "He’s just a stray," Squeaky said. "It’s a very nice cat," Squeaky’s sister said, "and someone must be missing him." "I don’t know," Squeaky said. Squeaky’s sister took a couple of pictures of the cat with her cell-phone. "Maybe you should post one of these pictures," she said, "in case the owner is looking for him." "I’m the owner now," Squeaky said. She shrugged and said that she would email the picture’s to Squeaky’s computer but he told her that it had become infected with a virus and didn’t work any longer.
One day, Squeaky rode his bicycle to the Hiawatha Bar. He had not been there since Dolan’s death. A few old men greeted him when he came through the door and they bought him drinks and reminisced about Dolan. It wasn’t as painful as Squeaky had expected and so he stayed longer than was prudent and, later, found that he couldn’t ride his bicycle – as soon as he mounted the bike, it wobbled out of control and several times he fell, scraping his elbow and knees. It was an endless summer afternoon that became an endless bright evening, the sun pasted in the sky and not dropping below the horizon but merely becoming a different color, the orb changing its hue from blindingly bright white to amber and, then, to a glacial blue, all the while, the shadows lengthening but the cool darkness frustratingly remote. Squeaky had been away from his shack for many hours and he couldn’t quite remember where he had last seen Bandit. He poured some milk into a saucer and opened a can of tuna that he placed on his back step and, then, went to bed, wearily conscious that the cat was not curled up at his feet.
The next morning, the milk and tuna fish were still on the back step. Flies were swarming the tuna in its can and drowning in the milk. Squeaky dumped the spoiled milk in the bushes, disturbing the big garden spider who scrambled into hiding, and he replaced the tuna with a new can, waiting for Bandit to return. But Bandit didn’t come home. Squeaky decided to walk around the neighborhood to see if anyone had seen his cat. At first, he tried to ride his bicycle but the frame was bent and he couldn’t get the wheels to turn without making an irritating grinding sound and so he went on foot.
A couple blocks from his house, he saw an old lady spraying her garden hose at her sidewalk. Squeaky asked the old woman if she had seen Bandit. She set the hose aside to flood a flower bed next to her house. "I seen a nice big tom-cat a couple days ago," she said. "The cat had a little animal friend, something like a baby rabbit, and he was playing with his friend."
"Where was this?" Squeaky said.
The old woman pointed to a lawn across the street.
"A dog chased the cat," the old lady said, "and I saw him run between the houses by the fence and, then, up the alleyway."
Squeaky thanked her and crossed the street to lawn where his cat had been playing with the baby animal. An old crow sitting in a green cloud of leaves made a derisive sound.
Squeaky walked up and down the alleyway behind the houses. The heat had fermented the garbage in the bins along the alley and the stink made Squeaky feel dizzy. He called Bandit’s name and, once, thought that the cat was padding along a couple feet behind him, but when he turned, he saw only the utility poles and the little garages and the wrecked motorcycles and abandoned cars and boats disabled atop concrete blocks, wood piles rotting against old fences that were themselves collapsing, discarded odds and ends defended by dogs that rushed out from hiding places to bark at him.
The next day, the social worker made her "wellness check." Squeaky said that his heart was hurting him and that he had felt very sharp, stabbing pains in his chest when he was walking in the alleyway looking for his lost cat. The social worker asked about his cat. Squeaky described the animal. The woman brightened as he spoke – this was a problem that possibly could be solved.
"Have you seen him?" he asked.
"No," she said. "But we could make a poster, even offer a reward for his return."
"That’s a good idea," Squeaky said.
The social worker asked Squeaky if he had a picture of the cat and he answered quickly: "No, no, do I look like I have a camera?" But, then, he recalled that his sister had taken the cat’s portrait with her cell-phone. "There is a picture," he said.
He called his sister and told her that he needed her to email the picture of Bandit saved on her phone to the social worker’s computer. Squeaky’s sister did as she was told and the social worker said that she would print the picture, duplicate it in color even so that Squeaky could post signs offering a reward for the missing cat. The social worker was young and optimistic and had only been on the job a half-year and she still believed that what was lost might be found and that, at least some problems had solutions and that the solutions were within reach.
The next day, Squeaky took a dozen posters around the neighborhood. The posters were neatly printed and said that the cat "answers to the name ‘Bandit’." "REWARD for Bandit’s return!" the poster told readers, advising that the cat was last seen "on the 1300 block of 8th Avenue SE" – that is, the place where the old lady had watched the tom-cat playing with the baby animal. Squeaky had an old claw-hammer and some small tack-like nails and he held the poster at eye-level against the splintery tar-coated wood of the telephone poles, pounding the nails through the card-stock on which the poster was printed. Hammering the nails into the utility poles was more strenuous than he expected and, when Squeaky was done with the task, his heart was pounding and clammy sweat beaded his forehead.
Squeaky and the social worker had not decided what sort of reward Squeaky would pay if the cat were delivered into his custody. The reward would have to be valuable, something rare and fine, for the kind person who returned the odd-eyed cat to its owner.
Bandit explored the shed into which he had fled. A large, extended family of mice lived behind the walls and, sometimes, they emerged to taunt him. He stalked the mice unsuccessfully, their profusion distracting him – no sooner had he settled upon one of them as prey, then, another emerged from hiding to lure him into futile pounces and inaccurate leaps. In the course of the chase, some jars on a shelf were dislodged and they crashed to the concrete, disgorging a sticky, fragrant substance. The heavy scent, as inedible as a rose bush, filled the air and the odor made Bandit drowsy. He made a couple of desultory dives after fleeing mice and, then, pillowed his head on a pile of burlap sacks in the corner of the dim room. The world slipped away from him and he felt as if he had fallen in thick, glutinous water, sucked down through the half-light into strange, feverish dreams. Perhaps, the poisoned air would have suffocated him, but, just as he was about to surrender to the fumes pressing him down, a young mouse ran over the burlap and across his tail. This roused Bandit to the chase, ancient instincts galvanizing him so that his spine arched and his fur bristled, and he hurled himself after the mouse, firing himself like a torpedo through a squeeze in the wall that set him free, if dazed, to wander an alleyway where the air felt cool and fresh, even, though it was, in fact, humid and heavy with an approaching thunderstorm. Bandit set the prisms in his eyes to detect the polarization in the light, a means of navigating even when the sun was hidden behind clouds, and aligning the rays in a certain manner, he darted down the alley toward the place where he lived with Squeaky. He smelled the rancid tuna fish on the back stoop, the souring milk, and the greased metal scent of the garden spider, and looked up, with relief, to the back door of his house and, just at that moment, lightning snapped through the air, ionizing the oxygen in his nose, and the light came an instant later, blinding him, then, the deafening crash that rocked him on his paws and set his ears ringing. Disoriented, Bandit fled into the shelter of some nearby trees only to find that the lightning had speared them so that barbs of fire and ash were drizzling down into his fur. He fled into the alley where torrents of water and gusts of wind drove him through ruinous backyards and past toppling branches and collapsing fences into a neighborhood that was completely unknown to him, the territory of another tom-cat, threatening scents billowing around him like red flags signifying danger.
After a couple of nights sleeping rough on porches and under parked cars, Bandit followed an odor trail to the queen-cat of the territory. She was seductive and Bandit mated with her and, then, discovered that she had a brood of kittens. Good taste and decorum required that Bandit kill the kittens and so he snatched each of them, one by one from the queen cat’s nest, snapped their spines just under their skulls and flung the tiny corpses into a flower garden. The queen cat understood the imperative, but, nonetheless, tried to stab him with the daggers of her claws. Bandit knocked her aside only to confront an earlier suitor, another menacing tom-cat with a fat belly and a nose that had been split in previous combat. There was no choice but to fight and, after a long and bloody brawl, Bandit was defeated. He crept off to lick his wounds. In the battle, Bandit’s amber eye had been gouged-out, an instant of agony that seemed oddly familiar to him, and the monocular world shifted shape and was unfamiliar and, when danger loomed and he darted for a squeeze in which to hide, his surviving ice-blue eye misled him and, sometimes, he crashed against the wall or the posts of a fence. He thought it best to simply die and so he crawled under a porch and remained there for several days, lying on his side and panting mournfully, but death did not come to him, and so he emerged and limped into a backyard where there was an old woman. The old woman smelled of a hundred cats, a rank, festering odor, and she was like him: one of her eyes had been wounded and had fallen out of her head. The old woman noticed Bandit staggering across the lawn and scooped him up in her apron. She carried him into her house and set him on a table and Bandit was conscious of hundreds of eyes glaring at him, other prisoners in her house, ragged, emaciated cats too weak to even challenge one another, lying in the hot shadows of the room, their fur matted with their own feces. The old woman put some kibble on the floor and shoved Bandit off the table so that he could elbow aside a half-dozen other cats and kittens scrambling for the food. The other cats were sick, infected with salmonella and a dozen other bacterial infections, and Bandit knew that if he were trapped in the house for more than a few days he would succumb to illness as well and perish. So he found a pillow in the room where a dozen or so cats, feeble with inanition, were watching televison. The old woman had the TV tuned to Fox and she talked back to the screen and Bandit decided that he would recuperate for a couple days, watch some TV, and let his eye-socket heal before making his escape. He kept apart from the other miserable inmates, cautious about sharing even their water bowls, and he disdained the noisome, clotted litter boxes, filthy caskets in which several mummified cats lay, victims who had perished while defecating. After three or four days, cadging food from the old woman, and following her up and down the stairs and into the toilet to learn her routine, Bandit discovered that she would leave the house, always around mid-day when the sun was high overhead, stepping onto her front porch to pick up a kind of advertising flier, the Shopper. So, he clung close to her calves, rubbing his fur against her dirty jeans, and, when she opened the door, he shot through her legs, flinging himself with desperate abandon out of the house. The old woman spun to the side and fell and Bandit heard her hip snap like dry wood and, as she called out for help, the other hungry cats swarmed over her, tearing her flesh and eating it. Bandit bit off the tip of her little finger for good luck, swallowed it in a single gulp and, then, ran down the front steps, fleeing along the sidewalk toward downtown.
For a few days, Bandit wandered far and wide, a lone wayfarer on the windy paths of the earth. Once, he found himself in an alleyway smelling of beer and urine. Voices came from inside of a bar and Bandit knew that the people who were shouting and calling to one another were very drunk. The parking lot by the tavern aroused strange memories in him and he felt a gloomy kind of panic. The faces of the dead trembled before him and he could smell their different odors, the scents that had distinguished them when they were alive. His mother who had been run over by a car came to him, resurrected and trotting across the parking lot in the twilight. He moved toward where she was squatting, impenetrable as a boulder on the edge of the night, and was about to groom her with his tongue and teeth when she vanished and he was left alone in a great hollow place were moles underground made peeping sounds and shrews savagely bit through the throats of grasshoppers who screamed in frequencies unimaginably high. All of creation seemed to tremble and cry with pain and Bandit remembered his friend Squeaky and wished that he could find his way back to him.
At dawn, Bandit went to the river, cautiously climbing down a slope of fractured concrete rip-rap. Laotian and Vietnamese refugees who had come to town sometimes fished in the shallow water below the dam over which the river foamed and slid in a moving dark sheet. The fishermen cleaned their fish on the flat rocks and, sometimes, left coils of innards on the stones, enough fish-guts to make a reasonable meal. Bandit was sniffing the broken stones for his breakfast when two boys approached. He saw that they were carrying a kind of plastic pail and a wicker basket. The boys paused upstream, cast a line into the water, and, then, squatted by the edge of the river. Bandit approached cautiously, hoping for a hand-out. Then, he felt a sharp pain in his flank. One of the boys had whirled a fishing line with hook through the air and the barb was caught in his hip. The boys shouted and splashed through the shallow muddy water, dislodging frogs squirting away from them in all directions.
Squeaky was sitting on his back step, wondering how it could be so hot in late September – probably, it was climate change. The world was getting warmer and the seas were feverish and the ice-caps were melting into the hot broth – at least, that’s what Squeaky had gathered from watching TV – and so, now, he wondered if he should attempt to cool his little house by running the air conditioner even though he had almost no money and it would be another ten days before his next disability check arrived and comfort was expensive, better maybe to hike to the Hiawatha where it was cool and dark, a long walk for him in the blazing sun since his bicycle was busted. He looked at the trees and saw that the leaves on some of them had already brightened to yellow and red and, yet, the sultry heat enveloped everything and the cicadas hummed overhead in canopies of gold and brown the color of fox-fur.
And, as he was considering his poverty and the air conditioner and the distance to the bar by foot on the hot day, two kids from the neighborhood approached, toting a battered plastic bin. Squeaky recognized the two boys. For several years, he had taken bribes to buy booze for them at the liquor store ten blocks away – the transactions were structured as a bottle for each boy and one for Squeaky as well, all financed with money filched from the kids’ parents. The boys looked hot and irritable and the bin that they clutched between them seemed perpetually on the verge of falling down to the pavement, overturning and spilling its content onto the sidewalk. Jeremy, wearing a tattered black tee-shirt showing a green-faced zombie, beckoned to Squeaky. Squeaky waved back to him. The boys took that as an invitation to walk through the alleyway gate in Squeaky’s broken-down fence, dragging the bin between them as they approached the back step.
"What do you have there?" Squeaky asked.
"It’s your cat," the other boy, BJ, said.
"What’s it called? – Bandit. We caught Bandit."
"Where?" Squeaky asked.
"Skulking around my backyard," Jeremy replied.
"Well, bring him to me," Squeaky said.
"We want our reward," BJ said. They dropped the bin at the base of the concrete steps rising to where Squeaky was sitting. A faint yowl came from inside the plastic box.
Squeaky took out his wallet. He opened it and counted his money. He had seventy-two dollars.
"I’ll give you twenty bucks," Squeaky said.
"Twenty bucks?" Jeremy replied. "You gotta be kidding. You offered a reward. That’s no reward. We want a hundred bucks. A hundred bucks for sure."
"I don’t have that much money," Squeaky said.
BJ kicked the plastic bin so that it skidded forward against the concrete back steps. The cat hidden inside protested again with a feeble moan.
"I want my cat back," Squeaky said.
"Well, then, pay up," BJ told him.
The two boys squinted at Squeaky and their pale, childish faces were indistinct masks of indifference, half-formed and incomplete.
"I could give you forty, but...forty, forty is all I got," Squeaky said.
"Fuck, you probably don’t even have forty," Jeremy said. "You’re just a fucking old drunk."
"You’re right," Squeaky said. "I need my money for booze. But, listen, I can give you forty."
The two boys stooped as if to pick up the bin and haul it away.
"I don’t have any more than forty right now," Squeaky pleaded.
BJ looked at Jeremy and asked: "What do you think?"
Jeremy said: "Give us the money."
Squeaky handed him two crumpled twenty dollar bills. BJ kicked the bin hard so that it toppled over so that the lid slipped aside. A ragged brownish cat that looked as if it had been singed in a fire, scrambled out of the bin and stood blinking at the sunlight. The cat’s tail had been partially burned off and the animal made a forlorn meowing sound.
"That’s not my cat," Squeaky said. "I want my money back."
"Fuck you, you’re just an old drunk," Jeremy said. The two boys grinned at him and tried to make their faces look hard and contemptuous, but instead they seemed merely mischievous, playful even, high-fiving one another and, then, backing away from Squeaky as if afraid that he would pounce on them from his height atop the back steps. Squeaky knew that without the forty dollars he would run out of money and that, unless he could cadge drinks, the level of alcohol in his blood would run dangerously low and, then, he might be visited by monsters, not hallucinations or fantasies, but real monsters, disfigured creatures that stood silently in the corners of his room and glared at him, as real and palpable as the cat licking itself at his feet, and, after the monsters, there would be delirium and, probably, seizures and, then, he would wake up in an emergency room intubated, possibly unable to breathe for himself -- it had happened before and, now, it would happen again because he was short money that he had depended upon and so Squeaky began to cry, his shoulders stiffened and tears flowed from his eyes, and his lips sputtered some curses at the departing boys. BJ and Jeremy were shaken that Squeaky was crying and, of course, they each wanted to comfort him and, even, perhaps return one of the two twenties that Jeremy clutched in his hand, but neither one was willing to show weakness to the other and so, instead, they trotted to the back gate and kicked at it, and when the back gate in the old fence, didn’t open immediately, they kicked at it again, so hard that half the fence fell down, startling them and, then, cackling. the two boys ran away down the alleyway.
Squeaky’s hands were trembling with rage and his eyes were blinded by tears. He reached down to the cat limping up the steps toward him. The cat lunged and bit him on the knuckles and, then, with a shriek like a wounded human baby, departed sideways into the shrubbery vanishing as if it were smoke blown away from a guttering fire.
A cop car pulled into the alley and spun its light for an instant, emitting a taut little howl from its siren. – This is good, Squeaky thought, the cops have come to arrest those boys, they will be detained and have to return my money. I have been defrauded. This is good.
A police woman wearing a complicated belt and a square-cut boxy uniform stepped out of the squad car. Her eyes were hidden by black sunglasses that reflected the half-collapsed fence and Squeaky’s little shack and the place where he was standing, face wet with tears, on the back stoop. The police-woman stepped over the fallen fence as if she were daintily stepping across a corpse thrown suddenly into her path. Her nose wrinkled with contempt. In her hand, she was holding one of Squeaky’s posters offering a reward for Bandit’s return.
"Sir, did you put up these posters?"
"I lost my cat," Squeaky said.
"Are you the one who put up these posters?" the officer asked again.
"I’ve been defrauded," Squeaky told her. He couldn’t stop crying and his voice vibrated with emotion.
"You didn’t answer my question," the lady cop said.
"I put up those posters ‘cause I want to get my cat back," Squeaky said.
"Well, you know that it’s a criminal offense to post placards or advertising on city utility poles, you can’t do that."
"The staples degrade the poles. Those poles are the property of the city. You can’t be using them as a bulletin board."
"I didn’t know," Squeaky said.
"I could fine you five-hundred dollars right here and now," the lady cop said.
"I don’t have no five-hundred dollars," Squeaky told her.
"I figured as much," she said, looking around at the chair fallen into the bushes, the garden spider dangling from its web, the little cooler at Squeaky’s feet containing cans of malt liquor, the air conditioner crammed into the window and blocking ventilation to the house, the broken bicycle, and the smashed fence.
"You’re gonna have to go to each utility pole and remove those posters and, also, remove any staples or nails or tacks – whatever it is that you used to affix the illegal advertising," she told him.
"I can’t do that."
"You have to do what I tell you, or I’ll give you a ticket and summons to appear in court and, then, you can pay the five-hundred dollars or sit in jail."
"I can’t sit in jail," Squeaky said.
"Then, get off your ass, and remove the posters from each and every utility pole. Listen, Squeaky, I’m trying to cut you some slack. Just do what I tell you to do."
"I’ll get my goddamned posters," Squeaky said. "I’ll get them down. But I want you to find my cat."
"I’m not animal control," the lady cop said. "You can call animal control. But I’m giving you 24 hours to get those posters down from the utility poles. Do you understand?"
"I understand," Squeaky said.
The female police officer turned and walked back to her squad car in the alley, cautiously stepping over the broken fence. She looked hot and irritated and Squeaky thought that she was probably happy to regain the air-conditioned comfort of her vehicle. There were some deep and jagged potholes in the alley and the lady cop didn’t want to drive her squad car over them and so she backed up onto the street, reversed direction, and, then, cruised away, rolling through the stop sign next to Squeaky’s house.
Squeaky felt his heart shudder in his chest. He stood up and went into his garage to look for his chainsaw. A few years before, Squeaky had made some money cutting wood and selling it for people’s fireplaces and he had an old chainsaw that he had used in that enterprise. The saw was shoved into a corner, covered with spider webs and dust, and it seemed astonishingly heavy to him – that he really once wielded such an implement for hours at a time seemed fantastic. Now, it was almost beyond his strength to clutch the thing in his fist, trembling with rage and his eyes blinded by tears. He tugged at the starter cord – two, three, four times but the machine didn’t even cough. His heart lunged and bucked in his chest again and the pain made him want to sit down but he had to start the chainsaw so that he could take down the posters attached to the poles lining the streets, telephone poles up and down the avenues, eleven poles, since the lady police officer had clawed one of his reward posters from one of those utility poles and had carried it as evidence, like a wounded bird, into his back yard to confront him with the proof of his crime. He tugged at the starter cord of the chain saw again but the machine didn’t respond – there wasn’t even a rattle or a puff of smoke from its motor.
An old axe hung on the wall. Squeaky cast the chainsaw aside, letting it drop heavily to the concrete and he saw the plastic guard over the blade break and the dust was shaken from the grip. He took down the axe and swung it experimentally, feeling its weight and heft. Then, Squeaky carried the axe to the front of his house and stood by his mailbox, clutching the tool. The sun beat down on him and the cry of cicadas reached a deafening pitch and Squeaky heard his breath coming in sobs as he strode down the sidewalk to the first telephone pole on the block, the splintery black and tarry wood still emblazoned with his poster offering a reward for the return of Bandit. He swung the axe against the pole and it kicked back hard, ripping the tool out of his grip so that the axe bounced away from him and skidded across the sidewalk.
Squeaky turned and found the axe lying a few yards away. He stooped to pick it up and, then, saw that the lady policeman was standing across the street, her revolver drawn and aimed in his direction.
"Don’t pick up that axe, Squeaky," she said.
"You told me to get my posters down and so that’s what I’m doing," Squeaky said.
He picked up the axe and walked back to the utility pole. This time, he swung the axe less ferociously and it bit into the wood a little so that chips from the pole ricocheted off his chest.
"Stop chopping that pole," the lady cop shouted. She had approached to the middle of the street and her revolver was trembling. From the corner of his eye, Squeaky saw the muzzle of the gun vibrating.
Squeaky hit the pole again, swinging less violently so as not to bruise his hands. The pole was hard as iron and the dull wedge-shaped edge of the axe bounced away from the wood. The scent of creosote filled the air.
Sirens sounded and, suddenly, there were other squad cars and the landscape flashed red with their lights as Squeaky hit the pole again. Two male cops approached Squeaky, screaming at him.
"You might as well shoot me," Squeaky said.
He turned toward them and held the axe out to the side so that its handle and blade would not interfere with the bullets that he expected them to fire into his chest and face.
"Put it down, Squeaky," one of the cops said.
Squeaky’s heart stopped and his eyes overflowed, bulging as if to pour everything in them out onto the sidewalk. He took a faltering step forward and, then, plunged toward the ground. As he was falling, one of the two male cops fired his taser, aiming at Squeaky’s genitals since electrocuting suspects in the testicles afforded the most comical results, a pleasant and amusing diversion from the tension of the stand-off. But Squeaky’s legs had crumpled under him and he dropped into path of the electrodes fired downward at his groin. The electrodes caught him in the chest and the surge of the electrical charge plugged into his failed heart and coursed through the muscle reestablishing his heart beat.
Squeaky writhed on the sidewalk next to the telephone pole, his eyes luminous with tears.
The hospital was cool and people spoke in soft voices. Everything was very clean and white. Under sedation, Squeaky slept peacefully and without dreaming. When he woke, the IV in his forearm felt inflamed and he had a headache. He could see over a low dustless ledge to a window and, outside, it was still hot – people coming and going in the parking lot wore shorts and sleeveless blouses although the trees in the distance blazed with Fall colors. After his midday meal, a couple of silent figures entered his room and stood at each side of his bed. The figures were grey with protruding pinkish ears and exorbitant whiskers like black spikes drilled through their cheeks. Squeaky asked the two intruders what they wanted from him but they were silent, glaring at him with tiny black eyes. When the nurse came to take away his dinner tray, Squeaky asked her to expel the two intruders standing as sentinel by his bed. She made some kind of an excuse that led him to understand that the two men were guards that had been sent by the police because he was in custody and awaiting arraignment for posting bills on the utility poles. Squeaky was given some more sedative so that he could sleep but he felt very feverish and the IV site on his arm irritated him and, when he closed his eyes to rest them for a few minutes, two more sentinels had been posted, sullen-looking disfigured men in grey uniforms with protuberant pink ears and whiskers, one guard at each corner of his bed. Squeaky said to them: "How do you expect me to sleep with you standing at each corner of my bed?" He called for the nurse and, again, pleaded with her to make the sentinels go away.
Squeaky closed his eyes again and, when he awoke, he couldn’t speak. Something was choking him. Each breath that he took encountered some kind of resistance and seemed to tremble on the edge of a deep and black abyss – his breaths were physical things, rectangular in shape and shoved out of his throat and mouth, teetering on the brink of suffocation. He gagged on a tube pushed through his nose and throat and felt a kind of pumping that threatened to inflate his sinuses and skull to the bursting point. The sentinels now numbered many dozens and they crowded tightly around his bed.
Later, Squeaky saw Dolan. It was if he were looking through a blue lens. The atmosphere over his bed was like the inside of a gemstone. Dolan shredded the sentinels with his teeth and they vanished like vapor. Squeaky’s breathing was coordinated with the pump automatically inflating and deflating his chest. The edges of his body were filled with light and tingled.
When Squeaky next looked out the window, the sky was dark with heavy, rumpled-looking clouds and the people in the parking lot were hustling to escape the cold, wearing heavy coats and walking bent forward as if against an icy wind.
One of the boys stroked Bandit’s fur while the other removed the barbed hook from his side. "The poor cat is missing an eye," the boy said. "He got hurt somehow," the other boy replied. When they returned to the place where they were fishing, the cat followed them, rubbing against their bare legs. "He is very tame," one of the boys said to the other.
After they had finished fishing, they climbed up from the river, scaling the bank that was cluttered with fallen trees, red sumac growing from collapsed walls, and thorns flying tattered pennants of plastic shopping bags. The cat followed them home. Someone mentioned that the animal looked vaguely like a fat, well-fed cat shown in flyers tacked to telephone poles in a neighborhood a few blocks away. "There’s a reward for the return of the cat," one of the boys said. "But does it say that he’s got only one eye," the other boy asked. "I don’t think so," his friend replied.
They fed the cat and it stayed on their porch overnight. The next day, autumn finally arrived. It was like turning off a switch that controlled the hot, sultry weather. The day was grey and overcast and cold rain fell through trees that suddenly looked grim and metallic. The boys hiked the neighborhood where the flyers had been posted but found that someone had peeled them off the utility poles. Just as they were about to abandon their search, they saw a pole tucked away in an alleyway still bearing the poster. The wind had tattered the poster and it was bleached by the sun and, now, wet and half illegible with the icy rain spilling down from above. But they could read the address where the cat’s owner lived and the name of the pet. "Are you Bandit?" one of the boys asked Bandit. He cocked his head and showed, for an instant, the little flame of his pink tongue.
The boys led the cat to the address where Squeaky lived. But no one was home. A housewife came from across the street and said: "You don’t want to be associating with this man. He’s insane, crazy, dangerous." The boys nodded their heads. When they looked around, the cat had vanished.
When the weather turned cold, families of mice fled their nests in the grass and hidden in the shrubbery to invade Squeaky’s little house. The back door had been left open when the police used the tazer to knock Squeaky to the ground and no one had come to shut it. An opossum and a musk rat also temporarily took up habitation in the house, but they were den animals and the rooms were too big for them, open space that made them uncomfortable, and so, after rummaging around the rooms for a couple days, the bigger mammals abandoned the home, leaving it to the invasion of mice.
When Bandit entered the house, he found that it was full of mice. Bandit stealthily slunk through the open door and, then, turned and, with his paws, patted the door shut. This would prevent his prey from escaping from him. Then, for the next couple days, he mercilessly hunted the mice. When he was done, he had shredded with his teeth and claws 108 mice in total.
A few days later, Squeaky returned from the hospital. He was very happy to see Bandit, one-eyed now, but otherwise none the worse for wear sitting in his chair by the TV. The cat greeted with him a silky purr and came to be petted. Then, they sat down together to watch television.
Monday, February 16, 2015
"If you are going to kill a police officer," Thompson said, "it must be done in cold blood. People who shoot cops are always in a panic or about to be arrested or acting out of mental illness or revenge. So, of course, they always get caught. Killing someone, particularly a cop is as easy as pie if you plan carefully and act on the basis of theory."
"Theory?" Oracio asked.
"Ideology, on the basis of a calm commitment to first principles," Thompson replied.
The small space heater emitted an orange glow insufficient to warm the guard-shack. In the parking lot, a couple of stragglers for second shift scuttled over the ice. Although it was twilight, the lights standing above the cars and parked pickup trucks were not yet illumined.
"But you used to be cop yourself," Oracio said.
Thompson collected his lunch pail and thermos. He had not removed the jacket that he had worn to work under his heavy brown coat. He shrugged himself into the big coat. The late-comers, looking fixedly at the pavement ahead of them, entered the annex to the guard-shack and, then, used their fob-keys to pass through the turnstile.
"Someone should note those guys down," Thompson said. "They’re always late."
"I’m sure the foreman knows," Oracio said.
"No, no ‘supervisor’," Thompson told him. "We have to be politically correct, gender neutral. The word is ‘supervisor’."
The factory rose in tiers behind them, eyeless walls of fluted concrete and steel that sometimes clanked and rattled as if enormous chains were being hauled across cold and unforgiving cement. Evil-smelling vapors rose into the frigid air and formed white, greasy-looking tumors over the plant.
"Well, I got to be going," Thompson said.
Oracio poured some coffee from his thermos into a dirty mug. He scanned the duty-roster on the clipboard at the desk and, then, ran his finger down the list of contractors and other persons scheduled as visitors to the second shift.
"You gotta be joking about this cop-killing stuff," Oracio said.
"Sure," Thompson replied. "It’s just a thought-experiment. And if I was really plotting murder, do you think I would tell you? That’s the problem with even those who have a meticulous inclination – they tend to boast, take trophies, tell the wrong people the wrong stuff. All the planning in the world doesn’t get you anywhere unless you can keep your big mouth shut."
"So why are you talking to me?"
"Didn’t you say you were going to be deployed again, next month?"
"Back to Helmund Province," Oracio said, grinning uncertainly.
"Yeah, it’s great," Oracio said.
"You gotta be meticulous," Thompson said. "You have to be well-funded. You can’t do this kind of thing on the cheap. And there can’t be any kind of personal motivation. It has to be disinterested."
"So why would you do this?"
"To even out the score. The cops are always killing mentally ill guys and Black kids, Mexicans too, my friend. Someone just needs to even out the score."
"That’s cold," Oracio said. "That’s cold as ice."
"It’s a hobby," Thompson replied. "Like any other. Some people go on cruises or collect classic automobiles or piss away thousands of dollars of their retirement money at the casino or playing golf. The cost of killing one cop is about the price of a trip to Cancun and a week at an all-inclusive. And it’s a helluva lot more thrilling."
"But no one gets away with it," Oracio said.
A jet of steam speared the cold blue air above the plant. Beyond the fence and parking lot gate, city lights twinkled in the frost.
"You go to a peaceful suburb. You target your man. You figure out his routine and catch him on a lonely strip of road away from his prowl. After you kill him, you put some incriminating evidence on him so that the investigators figure that he was a criminal himself. You stroll away and that’s that. The frame is the icing on the cake. You haven’t just offed the dude but you’ve poisoned his reputation. You’ve made him blameworthy. I tell you it takes the edge off the investigation in the dead cop is somehow to blame for what happened."
Oracio said: "You are so full of shit."
"Of course," Thompson said. "I’m just teasing you."
"I’m on the waiting list for a law enforcement job out west," Oracio said. "When I get back from this next deployment, I’ll use my veteran’s preference and get a police job. I’ve already taken my civil service exam."
"Well, I was a cop for 25 years," Thompson said. "You get a great state pension."
"I gotta get through this next deployment," Oracio said, "and, then, I’m home free."
"There’s nothing like police work," Thompson told him. He scooped up his lunch box and thermos and cell-phone, nodded to Oracio, and, then, stepped out of the guard shack onto the rutted ice in the aisles between the parked cars. A threshold of darkness had been passed and, suddenly, the overhead lights flickered, splashing the vehicles with a color, a feeble radiance against the encroaching gloom.
Thompson came from a family of cops. An uncle had been killed in the line of duty and other shirt-tail cousins were on disability and workers compensation because of back injuries arising from tussles with people that they had arrested. In High School, Thompson was a good athlete and earned a baseball scholarship to a State University. But he didn’t like college and dropped-out to attend the police academy. He started his career as a beat cop patrolling the streets of a small midwestern city in the State of M-----, working his way up to become a lieutenant and shift supervisor and, finally, detective. When he retired from the force, Thompson wore a business suit to work and spent most of his time at a desk reading reports and confidential informant memoranda and coaching younger officers as to their courtroom demeanor and testimony. Before becoming a manager, Thompson was both grievance steward and a negotiator for his bargaining unit. Although a few dangerous situations required Thompson to draw his service revolver, he had never discharged the weapon in the line of duty. But he was a good shot and,when required to demonstrate proficiency with his weapon at the range for his annual recertification, earned commendations for his marksmanship.
The year before he retired, Thompson attended a party hosted by several of younger police men on the force. His divorce was in its final stages, and so, he came to the gathering by himself. The day was warm and the people at the party were drinking beer and standing around the grill where meat was cooking. Wives and girlfriends sat on the porch under a plastic salmon-colored awning watching small children who were splashing in a plastic wading pool shaped like a turquoise shell. Several dogs trotted in circles around the swimming pool, yapping at the children. Sometimes one of the cops would pick up the garden hose coiled in the grass by the pool, depress the trigger on the nozzle, and shoot a stream of water at the children giggling in the shallow water or the men brooding over the grill or the younger women sitting at the edge of the redwood deck under the awning. A lady cop, who was something of a show-off, had been dowsed with water to the extent that she had removed her blouse to reveal the top of a bikini swimming suit. The woman had a nice figure and the young men cast dejected, sidelong looks in her direction envying her boyfriend whowas an ex-Marine and banker in the town and not worthy of her charms.
When it was time to eat, a couple of the off-duty cops carried trays of bratwurst, hamburgers, and burnt, blistered wieners to a folding table set against the back wall of the house. Some salads and bowls of chips with dip had already been placed on the table. Two of the larger dogs approached the folding table and sat on their haunches a half-dozen feet away staring greedily at the food. Thompson was on the porch with the women. He was an old man as far as the other guests were concerned, a white-collar worker who spent his days sending emails and reading reports on the screen of his computer, and so it seemed natural that he should be with the young mothers and the older wives and the men with grizzled beards and beer bellies who had served in Vietnam.
A child screamed and one of the dogs crept away with tail between legs and ears flattened against the fur on his skull. The little girl’s mother scooped the child up in her arms. The other dogs, innocent but fearing retribution, scattered. The men at the grill turned and glared at the women and the children, upset, it seemed, that their joviality had been so rudely interrupted, but disinclined to do much of anything. Other women encircled the mother and the crying child. The dog had snatched a hot dog from the little girl’s mouth and, in the course of that theft, bit the child’s upper lip. The puncture wound was deep and bled profusely and the child howled so that the dogs were afraid and some of them barked, while the malefactor, a German-shepherd and Labrador mix, nervously paced the perimeter of the lawn.
The men debated the situation. Someone said that the child should be taken to the emergency room so that the wound could be cleansed. But, of course, if that were done, a report would have to be made about the incident and the dog might be condemned as dangerous and everyone had been drinking, more or less heavily since it was fine day with congenial company, and this raised the question about who would drive the little girl to the hospital with the child’s mother, who was herself more than a little tipsy, to answer the inevitable tedious questions. No one was afraid of being stopped or arrested in light of the professional courtesy owed by one cop to another, but, nonetheless, the whole situation could become problematic, particularly if the dog had bit before, something that was rumored and, also, the subject of debate.
One of the men had served in Iraq as a medic and had some civilian EMT training as well and so he looked at the wound and, after some more conversation, pronounced it minor, disinfectant with gauze and a bandaid would suffice as care – "it’s too small to suture anyway," the former medic said, "might as well avoid the ER room bill." After her initial fright, the child’s mother had become apologetic – "we don’t want anything to happen to the dog," she said. The lady officer had put her blouse back over her bikini top, preparing, perhaps, for the party to come to an end, but she relaxed and, then, one of the men took the garden hose and sprayed all the dogs indiscriminately, driving them into a corner where they huddled disconsolate and dripping with water, a miserable disheveled pack shivering in the corner of the backyard.
Thompson said that he didn’t agree with how the incident had been handled. He told the wife of one of the patrol officers that someone should make a report. "You know," he said, "if this had been civilians, one of the cops would probably have shot the dog." "People get trigger-happy," the woman said. "Particularly the young bucks," Thompson replied. The hostess brought the wounded child an ice-cream cone and the little girl smeared the chocolate all over her face and, before long, the incident was forgotten and the lady cop had removed her blouse again and, when she went into the house and emerged with a big pitcher of slush-ice margaritas, the party began again in earnest.
After the weekend, Thompson filed a report about the dog bite and there were some quarrels in the locker-room and exercise facility at the Law Enforcement Center. One of the other officers said that it was fortunate that Thompson was working a desk because the other cops probably would think twice about coming to his aid if he needed help. Thompson filed a report on that remark as well and a couple of union grievances ensued and, after a half dozen months, he decided that it would simplify his life if he simply retired – he had put in his time and earned his pension and there were other things that he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
Every cop has a doctor for a friend, someone with whom he plays cards and protects against drunk driving offenses and whose children come under police patronage and, therefore, are exempt from minor drug offenses. In return for these services, the doctor is expected to issue notes to the policeman excusing him from work on medical grounds or confirming disability claims for the purposes of workman’s compensation as well as providing certifications necessary for FMLA leave. Thompson’s physician friend dictated a one page letter qualifying the former policeman for medical leave from his work as a security guard. The doctor was accommodating because Thompson had done several favors for him and so he wrote the letter without wasting time on a physical examination – some years earlier, Thompson had hurt his back when scuffling with a thug in an icy alley and so he had sciatica, subject to periodic exacerbation, that could be used to justify either intermittent FMLA leave or a continuous absence from work.
A week after Oracio deployed to Afghanistan, Thompson submitted forms qualifying him for four weeks FMLA. In the ten days before he took leave, he was careful to hobble around the shack where the security guards were stationed, unsteady on his feet because of his low back, displaying an admirable stoicism about the crippling pain, but, nonetheless, grimacing and swallowing large quantities of what appeared to be Vicodan.
Thompson sent a text-message to his daughter, a single-mother living in another state and said that he planned to drive down for a visit. Thompson’s relationship with his daughter, at least, after his divorce from her mother, was based on the fact that, sometimes, she asked him for money and, sometimes, he gave it to her. "I would like to get to know my granddaughter better," Thompson said. His daughter sent him a text-message saying that she had a new boyfriend and that the man was staying with her so that there would be no place for Thompson to bunk in her small home. Thompson wrote back to her with the message that he had not intended upon imposing upon her hospitality and that he had booked a motel room for the visit.
Thompson went to the Men’s Warehouse and bought a dark blue suit with pinstripes, something appropriate, he thought, for a funeral. He hung the suitbag from a hook in his backseat. In his duffle bag, Thompson packed underwear, toiletries, black dress shoes with a tie neatly rolled up in both the right and left toes, sweat pants, jeans, a few shirts, and a Smith & Wesson K-38 Masterpiece with four-inch barrel together with a box of S&W 38 Special cartridges. Like most police officers, present and former, Thompson owned many firearms, including a half-dozen that he had acquired through irregular channels and, therefore, could use without concern that the weapon would be traced to him. The K-38 had been languishing in an evidence locker, an artifact from some long-forgotten narcotics bust, and Thompson had taken the weapon from a barrel of contraband firearms scheduled to be melted down to slag with miscellaneous knives, saps and shanks intermingled with baggies of marijuana, cocaine, and oxycontin.
A few years earlier, one of Thompson’s buddies had died from cancer. The man’s radiation and chemotherapy had resulted in terrible nausea that the dying man treated with brownies fibrous with marijuana. Thompson had a contact at a medical facility in the next county who provided the weed for the dying man, an orderly and ambulance driver who periodically traveled to Colorado to bring back packages of medical-quality marijuana. Patients scheduled for chemotherapy were told to talk to the orderly, whispered conversations that, although not formally charted, had an aura of medical respectability – nurses as well several of the doctors had recommended transactions with the man and he was known to have good quality dope that was off-limits to law enforcement. Thompson left a message on the orderly’s cell-phone that he needed to talk to him and they met a Burger King just off the freeway on the edge of town.
"I hope it’s not for you," the orderly said. He was a heavy-set man with military haircut and a tattoo of the Virgin of Guadulupe under his chin, on the right side of his throat. "No, not me," Thompson said. "It’s a cop buddy who’s too ashamed to do a deal with you." "What’s to be ashamed of?" the orderly said. "Sooner or later we all get sick." The ambulance driver was on-call and he set his pager on the table between them. After eating, they went into the parking lot and Thompson paid him $500 in one-hundred dollar bills for a package of OG Kush weed. "Don’t let him operate a vehicle on this stuff," the orderly said. "It’s a total couch-lock." Thompson bought a dozen hydrooxycodone tablets as well. They shook hands. "You tell your buddy that my prayers are with him," the orderly said. "I know," Thompson said. "I know."
When Thompson reached his motel, he opened his laptop and accessed the place’s WIFI. He had spent $750 at the Burger King as well another $13.50 for his lunch and the burger with fries the ambulance driver had eaten. Round-trip tickets to Cancun were priced at $1175. With a mechanical pencil that he carried in his breast pocket, Thompson entered the price comparison in his moleskin notebook.
The city was surrounded by desert and dry hills. The hills were on the horizon many miles away and the basin was flat without rivers or creek beds or any topography to speak of. A monotonous grid of avenues and streets, absolutely regular and, therefore, predictable spread across the flat land shimmering in the heat. Where freeways intersected, malls rose above hot terraces of parking ramps. The surface boulevards were four lanes wide in both directions and studded with traffic lights placed so that a motorist could see to the next stop-and-go semaphore and the traffic queued there.
Thompson checked into a Knight’s Inn fifteen minutes away from the suburb where his daughter lived in a small house. The area around the Knight’s Inn was zoned light-industrial, vast warehouses and strips of identical, low-slung offices that were so new that most of the tenants announced their presence with hand-lettered cardboard signs. Fast food places glistened at the intersections. Trucks were always coming and going in this sector. Semi-tractors hauling big trailers turned wide at the intersections and Thompson learned to stop some distance away from the crossroads so that he would not have to back up to allow the trucks to pass. The Knight’s Inn was made of concrete blocks and the walls were cold and damp, but, also, soundproof.
Every other day, Thompson drove to his daughter’s house to see his grandchild. Sometimes, he took the little girl to lunch at a local pizza place or walked with her in a drab and cheerless playground with hot gravel between the swings and the slides. As he expected, his daughter was always short of cash and she hinted that Thompson should pay her something for the privilege of visiting his grandchild. So he gave her a couple hundred dollars, bought a tank of gas for her old and unreliable car, and, one night, took the family –his daughter, her boyfriend whom she called her fiancee, and the baby – out to eat at an Olive Garden restaurant. The boyfriend did not allow the little girl to order from the children’s menu but instead asked for another entree with breadsticks, food that the little girl could not eat and that was taken home instead in a styrofoam tray to be eaten as lunch the next day.
In the evening, Thompson drove for a half-hour to another suburb across town. It was a nice place with an village center constructed to resemble a series of Spanish missions aligned around fountains with terra cotta figures of angels and dolpins. Two large golf courses, green and glistening with water irrigating them, occupied opposing corners of the town. The golf courses were lined with big houses sparkling with many windows and boasting three and four car garages. One of the golf courses was entirely surrounded by residences; the other club was built along a drainage ditch, a concrete channel with a spine of sandy silt at its dry center, and an interminable commercial avenue that ran parallel to the desolate canal as frontage to car dealerships, drive-through banks, fast-food places, and bunker-like office buildings. At one end of the avenue there was an airport and planes swooped low over the landscape dragging their huge boomerang-shaped shadows across the spongy-looking golf course and the canal and the businesses lining the roadway. Traffic coursed along the avenue at all hours because the airport was big with planes coming and going all the time and it was anonymous: rental cars, lost tourists, janitors and counter-workers going to work at the terminals on the edge of the desert.
The law enforcement center, together with a municipal courthouse shaped vaguely like the Alamo, was in the part of the town with Spanish-style architecture. At shift change in the late afternoon, lone officers in patrol cars cruised territory assigned to them, following routes that were well-defined and predictable. After a couple nights surveillance, Thompson began to follow a young cop, an aggressive driver who accelerated too fast from stops only to brake impetuously at intersections so that his squad car almost skidded. Sometimes, the patrol officer rolled through red lights if there was no traffic in the vicinity and he had a habit of rousting Mexicans, often people coming from work at the airport, subjecting them to long and intrusive stops along the side of the boulevard that passed the golf course. Perhaps, the cop thought that he was doing some kind of drug interdiction work but it didn’t seem like he found much of anything in the vehicles that he pulled over and, then, probed with the white beam from his big, bludgeon-shaped flashlight.
The young cop worked twelve-hour shifts, six to six, on a schedule staggered three days on-duty, alternating with weeks requiring four days patrol – it was a regime pretty typical for suburban police with which Thompson was familiar. At about 1:30 in the morning, the cop went to a taco truck operating outside a place called the Rodeo Bar. He bought food from the counter-window at the truck, carried it to his car, and, then, drove a quarter-mile to the parking lot between an insurance agency and an orthodontist’s office. Thompson observed this routine for several nights and, even, stood in line behind the policeman as he waited to order his food, a plate of tacos pastor with tortillas wrapped in tin foil and served in a plastic tray next to smear of refried beans. The cop was youthful and an amateur barber, probably his mother or girlfriend, had cut his hair in a way that made his protuberant, pink ears look particularly ungainly. His uniform had been freshly laundered and, despite the odor of cooking meat and cumin, Thompson could smell the cleanness of his clothing, a faint scent of starch and bleach and deodorant.
The next night, Thompson parked his car at the Rodeo Bar and stood among people who had come outside onto the tavern’s patio to smoke. At 1:30, he saw the squad car signal a turn from the boulevard and pull up beside an aluminum picnic table sitting next to the taco truck. As the young cop emerged from his patrol vehicle, Thompson walked along an alleyway toward the orthodontist’s office and the insurance agency. A cyclone fence lined the alley that had been gouged by flash floods and, beyond the wire mesh, there was trailer court, the mobile homes turned with their backs to the commercial avenue and its businesses. A coyote trotted ahead of him and dogs chained to the trailer houses howled mournfully. Thompson reached the orthodontist’s office and saw that it’s side facing the insurance agency was complex with a long zigzagged wheelchair ramp made of new lumber aromatic with creosote. He walked up the ramp to the first switchback and squatted, peering through the palisade of wood enclosing the landing. After a couple of minutes, the squad car appeared, turned into the parking area and, then, spun around in a tight circle so that the vehicle was facing back to scrutinize the divided road that led to the airport. The policeman shut off the motor of his car and unrolled his window and, then, Thompson could see a faint phosphorescence illumining the young man’s jaw and cheeks – he was reading text messages on his phone. The cop ate his tacos, took a couple swigs from an energy drink that he removed from a backpack sitting on the seat next to him, and, then, got out of the car to drop the plastic tray and the wad of aluminum foil in a rubberized garbage bin next to the orthodontist’s office. As he pitched the trash in the bin, Thompson could smell him again, the crisp freshly laundered scent of his uniform. Thompson felt a sudden, awful disappointment, a terrible dismay at how easy it would be to kill the young man.
Thompson predicted that his target would be off-work for a couple days. Although Thompson patrolled the avenue leading to the airport and paced off the distance between the Rodeo Bar parking lot and the orthodontist’s office, he did not expect the young man to be on-duty. He explored the shadows around the insurance agency and discovered that the offices were located in a building that had once held a muffler business. Red transmission fluid stained the concrete pads outside the building. Thompson crossed the boulevard, waiting for red lights in both directions to halt the spurts of traffic on the busy road and explored the drainage ditch. Airplanes with their landing lights blinking descended over the long, pale sluice of concrete channel and on the golf course beyond the ditch big fistfuls of water were flung across the dark fairways by night-sprinklers that made a chugging sound. The canal was a peaceful place and Thompson could lie on his back on the warm sloping panel of concrete and look at the stars and the big planes that moved among them.
He expected the cop to be back on the job after a couple of days and, at midnight, drove back to the airport boulevard where columns of street lamps lit the road bright as day. He drove as far as the airport where the road entered a compound of rental car lots and parking ramps. The boulevard narrowed to a two-lane country road and ran among eroded badlands for a few miles before turning to pass between orchards of pistachio trees. At 1:30 am, Thompson was waiting for his target at the Rodeo Bar, but the patrol car did not appear. At two in the morning, Thompson drove back to the Knight’s Inn. He decided that he would kill the cop the next morning and that, if by some chance, the young man did not appear at the taco truck, he would select another target and initiate different preparations for the murder.
Thompson visited his granddaughter during the day and took her to the zoo. It was very warm and the animals rested in their cages on their bellies panting in the heat. The polar bear and seals hid under the water with only their black noses piercing the shimmering icy-blue flood. In the evening, Thompson took a nap and, then, watched TV listlessly until midnight. He thought about pouring himself some drinks from a bottle of whisky that he had purchased the day before but he wanted to avoid a hangover in the morning and thought sadly that he had reached that age where intoxication is not worth its after-effects. He took a warm shower and dressed carefully in his blue suit, selecting his pale grey silk tie to knot under his chin. He made sure that his underwear was clean. If he were shot, he didn’t want to be hauled to the hospital in dirty underpants.
The taco truck was at its appointed place, overlooking the aluminum picnic table. The smokers stood on the patio in a haze of grey smoke. Four or five people, some of them obviously drunk, were lined-up to buy food from the truck. One of the men, staggering a little, called the truck a "roach coach" – he looked like he was Hispanic himself. Thompson felt a sickness in the pit of his stomach when he saw the squad car rolling down the boulevard and signaling its turn into the The Rodeo Bar’s parking lot.
Thompson walked swiftly from where his car was parked to the trenched alley and followed the cracked and pitted asphalt to the orthodontist’s office. The coyote was nowhere to be seen but some of the dogs tethered behind the cyclone fence caught his scent and barked at him. Thompson went up the wheelchair ramp to the first landing, knelt there and, using his cell-phone for light, checked his revolver to make sure that it was properly loaded. After verifying the condition of the gun, he eased off the safety and set the weapon on the wood planks next to him.
The young policeman drove into the lot between the dark insurance agency and orthodontist’s office. It seemed to Thompson that he took a very long time to eat his tacos. Several times, Thompson saw the young man’s face glowing with the light from his phone. For the first time in all of his nights of surveillance, Thompson noticed that there were beacons and transmission towers on a low hill beyond the golf course – he saw the red lights glistening like rubies among the dull yellowish stars. The police officer finished his meal, opened his car door, and, then, walked toward the garbage bin to discard his white plastic tray and the lump of aluminum foil. Thompson stood up when the man was lifting the plastic lid of the garbage bin. He fired three shots into the cop. The flash from the muzzle reflected off the aluminum foil, a bright spasm like heat lightning. Thompson ran down the ramp, stood over the fallen man, and fired a fourth shot point blank into his face. Then, he took the baggy of marijuana and the hydrocodone vial, together with an envelope of twenty dollar bills from his pocket. He put the drugs and the envelope next to the motionless man, a couple feet from the glimmer that the dead cop’s belt buckle made in the moonlight. Then, Thompson turned and strode along the cyclone fence, walking briskly through the chorus of dogs now barking and howling at him. In a couple of minutes, he had reached the parking lot at The Rodeo.
Thompson started his car and, taking care to signal, edged into the surge of traffic coming away from the airport. The stoplights seemed timed against him and he had to wait at each intersection. It didn’t matter. Although he had rolled down his window and cocked his ear, there was no sound of sirens. At the fourth intersection, a mile or so from the place where he had killed the policeman, an oncoming car winked at Thompson’s vehicle. The car flashed its lights at him three or four times and the driver, even, tapped the horn lightly. Thompson ignored the car facing across the intersection toward him and, taking care not to speed, drove forward, accelerating quickly when the light changed to green. After another five minutes, he reached the ramp leading to the freeway, signaled his turn, and descended toward the stream of cars and trucks whistling by. Again, a car flashed its headlights at him. Thompson swore under his breath and merged with the traffic on the freeway. It was only after he had driven another two or three miles that he discovered that he had forgotten to flip on his headlights – the boulevard was bright with overhead lamps as was the busy freeway and, in the torrent of traffic, he been a black, dangerous shadow, an unlit car among the procession of headlights.
Bag pipes squealed on the dusty knoll. Waves of blue surged down the avenue, badges and clips on utility belts glittering. Some of the police squadrons marched in orderly groups, paramilitaries moving silently in lock-step toward the church. Other groups were rude, noisy, undisciplined, like a mob streaming from a football stadium after a particularly humiliating defeat. Near the church, the crowd slowed and thickened and Thompson saw the rooftops lined with cops in dress uniforms, ranks of police in dark sunglasses posed against the sky like snipers. Because he was retired, Thompson wore his business suit and a bright red tie to celebrate his triumph. On his lapel, Thompson had pinned crossed flags, an American flag and a thin blue line banner. His red silk tie was held in place by a thin blue line tie-tack.
Thompson knew that it would be suffocating in the church and so he found a bench shaded by a tree. Two other older cops, squeezed into blue uniforms a couple sizes too small for their beer guts, sat beside him on the bench. The cops were old Irishmen and they had been drinking and Thompson saw that their eyes were wet and red. "It’s a terrible thing," Thompson said to the old men sitting on the bench next to him. "A terrible thing, indeed," one of them replied.
The gangs of police moved with the peculiar swagger and authority of armed men. And, Thompson noticed that the sea of blue uniforms was almost entirely male, indeed, belligerently masculine. Only a few female officers were in evidence and they seemed to be protected by husbands or fathers, also blue-clad. Thompson thought that the columns of armed men were like an army and, in fact, an army that proclaims itself victorious and that has entered the city as a conquering force. But, then, it occurred to him that the simile was inexact because an army always knows that there is another enemy force, equally armed and powerful and poised to inflict casualties on it, whereas this great gathering of men, even in its ostensible grief, imagined itself invincible.
When the ceremony began in the church and the TV monitors like great stiff flags showed the priest and the grief-stricken widow with her pale, earnest children and the city dignitaries, the two old cops beside Thompson stood up and, indeed, climbed up to stand on the seat of the bench so that they could see better, teetering over him. "You can stand too if you like," one of the old cops said to Thompson. "Oh no," he replied, "I have a bum knee. If I get up there I will fall." "Suit yourself," the other cop said. "I can hear what’s going on from down here, just fine," Thompson said.
To Thompson’s surprise, the mayor blamed the shooting on certain newspaper articles criticizing police tactics in a recent hostage stand-off. Then, a local congressman said that the shooting was caused by an African-American radio-host, a drive-time DJ who had recently condemned the police for racism. The people in the throng agreed and when the DJ’s name was spoken, a deep, long growl emerged from the crowd. Then, the president of the police union took the podium and mentioned recent contract negotiations and said that the killing should be considered when determining whether law enforcement salaries should be adjusted upward above a simple cost-of-living increase. The cops outside the church screamed their approval of the union official’s words.
Four or five people rose to speak about the dead officer and they delivered their eulogies in a husky stammer, their speech interrupted by weeping. The young man who had died was characterized as a hero, kind and generous to all and courageous. He was said to be wholly incorruptible. Thompson felt the blood rising to his cheeks. A dull, maddening rage filled him and he thought that his heart might explode in his chest. The young cop had died only a foot from drug contraband, a flutter of twenty dollar bills falling onto the gaping wounds in his chest and head; he was crooked, a thief and an extortionist. Didn’t anyone know the truth about how the cop had died? Was there a cover-up under way? It wasn’t enough, Thompson thought, to have assassinated the young man – his memory had to be murdered as well; he had to go to his grave under the emblem of cowardly corruption. But not a word was said about the circumstances of the murder or the drugs that surely had been found by his body. The speeches continued, a low, stuttering drone against the heat of the morning, and, in the distance, squad cars brought to intersections to block them in honor of the cortege wailed mournfully. Thompson thought that he was going to faint. The two old men standing on the bench towered over him and they wept and their tears fell and spattered Thompson and it was like standing in a bath of acid.
After the funeral, Thompson made his way to a tavern frequented by local police in the shadow of the city’s football dome. Patrol cars were illegally parked all around the stadium, big fleets of them haphazardly double- and triple-parked and blocking the streets. Thompson sat at the corner of the bar, surrounded by men in blue uniforms, glumly drinking a beer. A bitter taste rose in this throat and half-choked him.
The bartender was pouring whisky and tequila shots on the house and proposing toasts to the dead cop and his wife and the man’s two little boys. "To a great hero!" the bartender said, his face greasy with the sweat and exertion of serving so many hard-drinking men.
Thompson couldn’t contain himself and he nudged the big man sitting next to him. The man had sad eyes and his face drooped and his service revolver was hung from his gut in a slovenly manner. "Do you want to know the truth?" Thompson asked. "I don’t know," the big cop said. "Well, here’s the truth," Thompson told him, "that cop who was gunned down – he was crooked; he was found with high-grade marijuana and hydrocodone, and cash, cash too."
With the word "cash," the sad-eyed cop sat up and looked interesting. "They found cash with him?" he asked. "That’s what I heard," Thompson said.
"How much?" the cop asked.
"I don’t know," Thompson said. "Not that much, maybe $200."
"He was probably funding a buy or something, you know, vice work," the sad-eyed cop said.
"From his prowl car, in full uniform?" Thompson said. "What do you think?"
"It doesn’t matter anyway," the cop said. "He was murdered because people hate cops, everyone is told to hate cops. The TV and the radio tell you to hate cops. You can’t hate minorities, you can’t hate fags or trannies, but you can hate cops."
"I guess that’s true," Thompson replied.
"So how do you know so much about this?" the fat cop asked.
"I saw the report," Thompson said.
"There isn’t any report yet. I got buddies downtown. No report’s been released yet."
"I saw a draft report," Thompson said.
"That’s bullshit," the fat, sad-eyed cop said. "You’re just making things up to be contrary."
"I am not," Thompson said. "I know for a fact that the kid that died was a bad cop. A disgrace to his uniform."
The fat cop slowly stood up from his bar stool and looked at Thompson sorrowfully. "Why do you have to say things like that?"
"It’s true," Thompson replied.
"You can’t know that," the fat cop said. "I don’t want to have to fight you. But you just can’t know the bullshit that your talking."
"He’s real know-it-all," another voice added, "he thinks he knows everything." A heavy hand thudded against Thompson’s shoulder.
Thompson turned around to see a cop from his home-town, a malcontent with whom he had clashed before leaving the force.
"What are you doing here?" Thompson asked.
"Paying my respects," the man said. "Not like you, I guess."
"I’m just surprised to see you here," Thompson said.
"This bastard hates all cops," the man from Thompson’s home-town said. He spoke the proclamation loudly. "He’s a traitor."
It was momentarily very quiet in the bar.
The fat cop added: "He claims that the kid was dealing dope or something when he was shot."
Thompson stood up and said that he understood that his presence was unwelcome and that it was time for him to leave the bar. The bartender put his hand across the bar and held Thompson by the wrist. "You’re not leaving until you pay for the two shots you just downed," the bartender said.
"That’s bullshit," Thompson said. "I thought the drinks were on the house."
"On the house for everyone who supports the police force, the thin blue line, god bless them!" the bartender said.
Thompson shrugged. As he searched his wallet for cash, someone lunged at him. He dodged the punch but walked into another blow that broke his nose. There was a brawl and people were punched accidentally who didn’t know what the fighting was about and so the riot spilled out onto the street, among the parked squad cars.
Arrests would have been made except that there was no one on-duty to make the arrests or process the paper-work.
Thompson wiped the blood off his fists and face and, then, limped several blocks to his parked car. He visited his granddaughter for a couple hours in the afternoon and, then, went to the motel, checked-out, and began the drive home.