Walking home from the bar, two things invariably cross my mind: stars and sidewalks. One of things I was looking forward to when Maude and I moved to “the country” was being able to look up at the night sky and see stars for the first time in nearly a decade. We’d both grown up in the country – different parts of the country from northwest Illinois, the place we now referred to as home – and we had both missed it. Or maybe it was the idea of it. Clean air, small townie people, simple lives. It had been more than ten years for me. A decade plus of neon lights. Neon lights that wiped out the stars, cement that erased the landscape. Real cities, too; not those half-assed Midwestern city stand-ins where the streets mysteriously roll up after dark and there’s nothing to see or be afraid of in the shadows left by the illumination of street lights. Real cities – where the only interesting people are the ones who crawl out after the sun goes down, where the dirt and the grime and the stench are hiding some deep dark secret that’s worth knowing if you take risk. Real cities where you can sleep all day or not at all … though to sleep at all is to miss something. Something important. Sleep is for the lazy, the disinterested. Sleep is wasted time. Sleep means you’re not earning money to pay taxes and buy shit you don’t need; sleep means you’re not hanging out in bars or in clubs trying to obliterate those parts of the day – the majority of the day – that’s tedious and dull and insulting and debilitating; sleep means you’re not drinking or smoking or fucking. And to help us a long in our quest to work our ways into forgetfulness and a stress free retirement, cities provide neon lights. Neon lights that blot out the stars and allow us to lie to our bodies when they tell our brains we need sleep. Neon lights that allow us to believe that time is expansive and stretched out in front of our feet like a giant plush carpet, ready to get trampled, that allow us to convince ourselves that there are more secrets to be discovered, more money to earn, more movies to watch, more food to eat, more shoes to buy, more people to fuck.
But in the country, there are no neon lights. Even the street lamps are a little dimmer. I don’t know why. I don’t know if they buy cheaper bulbs or if the fixtures are just older and close to wearing out. I wonder sometimes if the people who manufacture bulbs for street lights make them in two kinds: city and small town. Which would end up costing more? Logically, city bulbs would cost more; better illumination, bigger budgets. But that’s not how economics works. The price index is determined not by who can afford things, but by who can’t. Those with the inability to pay are charged more for an inferior product that always has a FOR SALE sticker on it. And since small towns have smaller budgets and shrinking tax bases, I’d put my money on small town street light bulbs having the bigger price tag.
But fewer, less illuminating street lamps mean that the stars have one less layer of static to push through in order to be noticed. There’s still pollution, of course. All human life breeds pollution faster than it breeds more people. But there’s not as much mucky muck for the fading star to filter through.
When I was a kid, I used to know some of the constellations by sight and by season. I don’t know why I knew those things or what exactly made me decide to acquire that knowledge. I remember being told in Mrs. Ramey’s 5th grade Science class that the stars we see aren’t really stars, just the residue of light traveling through the universe. By the time the light reaches earth, the star is long dead. Burned out. Gone, but still beautiful.
The problem with being drunk and walking home and thinking about the stars is that while I’m looking up at the sky, I’m not really watching what my feet are doing. I have untrustworthy feet. Sometimes they take me places I never intended to go; many times they simply trip me up. Over the years, I’ve learned how to fall so that the impact doesn’t hurt as much; not as much, but it still hurts. Parking lots, crosswalks at busy intersections, well-manicured parks, mole hole besieged back yards, and uneven sidewalks – I’ve fallen on them all. I’ve fallen up and down flights of stairs. The trick is to go limp before and protect your head and face as much as possible. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
“So… where are WE heading tonight?”
My focus between the early spring stars above and the crumbling, piss poor sidewalks under my feet was interrupted by what had become a familiar voice. “Hello, Erle.”
“That’s deputy to you.”
There are generally two kinds of cops. There are cops who end up going to law school and cops who become cops in order to continue a lifelong pattern of abuse, bullying and intimidation. The first kind don’t stay in law enforcement for any longer than it takes them to get through night school. They get out of law enforcement for any number of reasons, none of which really matter. Sometimes they want to make more money and there just aren’t the opportunities to be a crooked cop like there used to be. Sometimes they’re worried about getting shot. Occasionally, they see the flaws in the system and are still optimistic enough to believe they can change it while charging $200 + an hour. This first type makes up a small number of the whole total, however.
The second type – which make up the majority – were those guys in school who punched you to see if you’d cry and if you DID cry, they’d punch you even harder. They were the guys who saw dodge ball as an excuse to bean you in the head and who always managed to turn a seemingly benign game of soccer into Extreme Dodge Ball because the cross hatch design on a soccer ball made for a more interesting welt. They were the jerks that always took out the prettiest girls – because the girls had learned at an early age to fall for bullies and jerks out of some misdirected belief that love will change them. Sometimes these guys went into the military. Sometimes they went to college. But they always end up being cops because they lacked the natural skill to be professional athletes and the basic IQ to do anything else.
Erle Scrogins was neither of those. He was one of the rare third kind. Erle became a cop because he suffered mercilessly at the hands of bullies his entire childhood. He lack the athletic prowess or street sense to defend himself. He wasn’t smart enough to be brainy. He saw that the bullies got all the respect and all the pretty girls, and he wanted them too. So he started copying the behavior in an attempt to win the favors of the real bullies as well as the girls. But that never really worked, either, and when he saw that people tend to respect the badge regardless of who wears it, he decided to put one on.
I’d only known one other cop that fit into this category. My ex-wife’s fourth husband. He was an Army MP, and a Class-A pig fucker. He was also as tall as a slightly abnormal leprechaun. Erle was on the short side, too. Guys like Erle usually end up being prison guards or mall security. But for Erle, there was no mall and the prison had closed more than ten years ago. Being a small town deputy was the only way, short of moving. And Erle would probably never move because all the people he wanted to impress still lived in the town he had grown up in. Besides, he was too scared of all the things he didn’t know to ever move more than two streets away from his parents’ house.
“Just on my way home,” I answered.
“Where you comin’ from?”
Are you serious? “You know where I came from. You were sitting across the street when I came out.” I nodded behind me to the Moose Head , one of the only two bars in town, and the one I tended to patronize the most. It was almost always deserted that time of night, which made it easier to drink in peace and get out of the house at the same time. Most everyone in town was an early to bed early to rise type. They were farmers, crew workers. Salt of the Earth types. Self-styled. Nearly all of them were older than me or Maude. Most were more than twice my age. Except for a few. Like Erle.
“Where's your car?”
“You know I don't drive home from the bar.” He couldn't even go with a new tact. Erle knew I didn't drive because he harassed me at least once a week... usually the day the paper came out. He didn't have any other reason to lean on me; but he had made a point of inconveniencing me as much as possible ever since I wrote an article about how the Mount Arliss Police Department was so poor they couldn't afford bullets. According to several people, including Erle, the mayor, the Chief of Police, one baptist minster and other concerned citizens, all of whom had declined to be quoted – except Erle – my article made the police department look “like a bunch of ineffective Barney Fifes.” That particular quote came from one of the several letters my editor Sam received in response. I know there were several letters because Same showed me each and everyone of them. Only one of them made an Don Knotts reference; but they all had one thing in common. Each letter began with the sentence “I do not authorize you to publish my letter in your publication.” Cowards, all of them. Sam showed me the letters as a way to encourage me, I think. He and I both tend to take the position that you're not fixing anything unless you're pissing people off and causing trouble. A few of the letters could have been construed as threats. But I wasn't all that concerned.
Erle never forgave me for the article or for quoting him for saying that he'd be in “real trouble” if he ever had to actually pull his side arm on more than one suspect because he only had one bullet. Part of the reason he never forgave me was that the quote got him in trouble – which was why he was pulling night shift in a town that usually rolls up Main Street at 6pm. The other reason he was pissed off at me was that he knew that while he was harassing me, Police Chief Dolarhyde was at that very moment at Erle's house in bed with Erle's wife, Eileen.
“That don't mean you're not drunk.”
Funny, I thought. I sort of thought that was the point. “Can't you scrape up any real criminals to bother?” I asked. “Isn't there some meth lab hidden in the middle of a corn field somewhere that you can go set fire to?” I was going to stop there, but I was doing so well. “I'd have thought there were meth dealers on every corner the way Dolarhyde describes it.” The chief of police didn't give me interviews, not since the bullet article. But he still talked to Sherri at the Mount Arliss Examiner. Of all the the papers in the area, they were Sam's biggest competition. I had applied for a job there, but Bill Watson was looking for somebody who could write and sell ads. I knew better than to think I had the temperament to sell anybody anything. Combining the writer and ad rep positions was the only way Bill could make it a full-time position; but I wasn't all that interested in being a full-time anything. Besides, selling ads is incongruous with journalism... even the small town variety. Sales is a smile and a handshake wash my back and I'll wash yours kind of gig. That's not my style. Sherri is a good at her job because she's a serviceable writer and a pleasant person, and the crusty old bastards in town have no choice but to be polite to her. She's smart because she uses their chauvinism to her advantage. Of course, she used to give me the stink eye whenever we crossed paths at meetings; I think she was under the impression that I had my sights set on her job. Eventually she must've figured out that I have no such ambitions, because we're more or less polite with one another these days.
If it wasn't the bullet article that made Dolarhyde run to Sherri and the Examiner, it was probably the fact that I would've asked him how he felt about the increase in DUI related traffic stops since he took office – especially since he was part owner of the only other bar in town, Bausenforfer's. That was where the younger set went to get drunk, fuck in the back of pick-up trucks, and play out small dramas fueled by cheap beer and schnapps. Dolarhyde sells the booze out of one hand and with the other reaps the benefits – a new squad car, for one, which was bought with proceeds from DUI fines and property seizures. Dolarhyde seemed to be good for a few things that made for a police chief – he was good at looking like he was cracking down, and good at skimming money. I had heard that he was working with the County Sheriff to shave money from prisoner commissary accounts – the money inmates have to buy bubble gum and cigarettes – to help offset the cost of their incarceration. Of course, that means he's pocketing a percentage. But I couldn't get anybody to go on record.
“OH,” Erle straightened his back and leaned in like he was ready to pounce. “You think the law's a BOTHER?”
Yes. “That's not what I said, Erle.”
That made him smile. “And just what were you saying?” He asked. “I wouldn't want to MISQUOTE you.”
Fucker. “You asked me if I was driving,” I answered, lighting a cigarette. “I'm not driving. I'm walking home. I'd RATHER be be driving, because it's too god damn cold to be walking. But I AM walking. I'm walking the way I'm always walking home from the Moose Head.” I'm walking the way I'm always walking when you stop me for no reason.
It's important to keep track of what cops say; one of the little tests they use to decide if you're drunk is to talk in circles and see if you can keep up or if you're easily confused. Beating this test is easier than beating a breathalyzer, and it's generally the first one they use to decide if they want to bother with making you blow and subjecting you to a road side sobriety test that most people can't pass sober unless their professional athletes. If you're smart and you pay attention, the talking test is the easiest thing in the world to walk away from. If you're smart. Keep in mind, this is not an objective test. It's specifically allowed as evidence in front of a judge; but it does fall under “officer's discretion” and is often written into the report as “Accused seemed disorientated and confused.” This tactic – making you sound like you have Alzheimers instead of a liver full of booze – is one of the unofficial perks of carrying a badge and a gun. Because that badge and gun aren't mere symbols of presumed authority and power. They are a license to fuck with people and get off on it.
“That's not what I said, Rafferty.” He used my name. That meant he probably thought he was close to hauling me in. I haven't yet had the privledge of seeing the inside of the Arliss County jail and I wasn't about to make that night my first. I'd sit until arraignment next Monday because we didn't have the money for Maude to come down and post bail. I has also developed the impression that Erle, Dolarhyde, and maybe even the Sheriff were just waiting to get me in there. In my few and far between interactions with Police Chief Alvin Dolarhyde, I got the impression that he was the sort of cop that kept drugs on hand to frame prisoners – the kind that would stab himself in the arm to justify a midnight escape/ self-defense shooting. Dolarhyde was a Class A Fucker; and that made him a Mount Arliss bad ass. Erle was nowhere near that; but he still tried to toss his shriveled little balls around.
“You asked me where my car was,” I answered. “You implied that I was going to drive drunk.”
“So... you ARE drunk?”
Yes. But it's fading fast. “Now I think YOU'RE the one not hearing things, Erle. You wouldn't have worried about me driving if you didn't get it into your head that you think I'm drunk.” Choose your words carefully
He sneered. “You think you're so SMART, dontcha?”
“Yes. I also know I'm able to walk home without hurting anybody.”
“I could make you blow. You'd probably fail.”
I wanted to respond with something like “Sorry, you're not my type.” But that would give Erle the extreme homophobe just the excuse he was looking for. I'd get run in, probably lose a few teeth, and end up with the only bull queer rapist in Arliss County as a cell mate.
“If you really thought I was drunk, DEPUTY” I said very carefully, smoking my cigarette and trying to remain calm, “you'd already have hauled me in.” I used to know this chick who was into tarot cards and far eastern chants who told me I needed to stay more centered. At peace. She told me I was too angry and that I drank to avoid dealing with the things that made me so angry. She was always telling me to close my eyes and focus on the quiet center of my body. She would say these things right before she went down on me. I didn't know if she was trying to help me become a better person or if she was just getting herself in the mood. I guess it worked. Not that I ever bought into that grocery store check out line brand of new age pop spirituality. But she gave phenomenal head.
“I could just haul you in on suspicion,” he spat.
I was winning. “Of what?”
“Maybe you look like you're buying dope. Maybe you look like you're going to steal a car. And there's always PDI.”
“PDI?” I didn't bother to answer the other things. “Public Intoxication? That's the best you can come up with?”
I couldn't tell if he noticed the sarcasm or not. That's one of the things that tends to get lost in translation around here. Sarcasm. I don't know if they don't recognize it or they simply don't know how to respond to it. Maybe it's a matter of appreciation, like art. I hadn't meant for it to slip out; but it had … like art. I waited and locked eyes with him. It was down to the struggle of wills, now. Tug of war. If I slipped even a little, he'd click the cuffs on my and shove me into the back of his worn out cruiser. All I really wanted to do was go home and slip into bed next to Maude. I suppose I could placate what was left of his ego and get away with a hollow warning for whatever it was that he wanted to pin on me. I could call him sir or something. I mean, it wasn't like I didn't like him. I did, sort of. I just didn't have any respect for him. And it had nothing to do with him being a cop, or with (apparently) being okay about his boss boning his high school sweetheart. There was something else about him. Something not right. Not dangerous, exactly. Not a victim of circumstance. A victim of himself.
I could hear Maude's voice in my head. It was telling me to placate the bastard so I could go home. Her voice is telling me that I'm being to damn stubborn for my own good. She tells me that a lot. She's not wrong.
After a few stretched out seconds of staring at one another he points at my cigarette. “What's that you're smoking, Rafferty?”
“It's a cigarette.”
“It don't look like a cigarette.”
The hell it doesn't. I roll my own because I want to actually taste the tobacco I smoke. I use pipe shag instead of the usual Bugler or loose leaf tobacco. Erle knows this. He's about to give up, but he wants to see if he can scare me just a little before he lets me go.
“You know I roll my own,” I said. And even if he didn't know, I know how to roll them. It doesn't look like a joint. Even when I smoked weed I never rolled it to look like a joint. A badly rolled joint … or a badly rolled cigarette … looks like a long bird turd. Who wants to smoke that?
“Fine.” He sighed and broke the staring contest. “Go home. But you better...”
“... be careful.” I finished the sentence. The bitter look on Erle's face told me I should've maybe not done that. I waited for him to grab me. He didn't. He turned, walked back around to the driver side of his cruiser, got in, and squealed away.
The son of a bitch didn't haul me in. But he did steal my buzz.