We were parked behind an abandoned church that allowed us to watch the carousel of late morning drunks roaming the sidewalk on the west side of the Juniper Gardens housing project — five long flat blocks of featureless cubicles built in the 1960’s that were home to the poor, lazy or unstable. Most of the people seemed to exist in bubbles that did not extend beyond the next beer, crap game or shelter of the tinted Plexiglas walls and warped bus stop benches along 3rd St.
It was difficult getting comfortable. Not only was I scared and felt like I had no idea what I was doing, the way the equipment was staged in the car allowed very little movement. The metal cage was bolted to the rear floorboard, holding the seats at a 90-degree angle. The bottom half was a solid sheet coated with dents, shallow pits and a hastily stenciled ‘Cops Suck’ in the middle of it. The upper half was thin strips of metal that formed diamond shaped holes stopping just below the roof. The edges of the metal box housing the radio, two cup holders and a fussy P.A. system scraped my elbow so many times I lost count. The visor, just above my forehead, stored my clipboard that bulged with pick up orders; black and white mug shots of people with the same lost look on their faces, and a street guide. My nightstick was wedged under the headrest of my seat.
I sat thinking that, from behind the windshield of a police car, things move at different speeds of fast. Depending on how Steve Aston (my training officer) drove, cars could be shaded blurs if he wanted to get coffee or nearly invisible if there was a chance he could see a dead body. If he really wanted to know what was going on in a particular neighborhood — fishing he called it — he would bring the car to a glide. But nothing slowed down for me.
Peppered in the twenty-block district we worked were four other housing projects, five liquor stores and one grocery store. Some streets were flanked by vacant lots. Some were filled with spines of crumbling cement stairs extending towards patches of woods where houses once stood. Others had just enough houses on the block to call it a neighborhood.
The calls came through a dented, chipped speaker. Thick dust formed between the plastic mesh ridges of its cover. I would occasionally tilt my head and watch the radio while listening, expecting to see captions that would help me understand what the dispatchers were saying. The only thing I saw beneath the scratched face of the panel were green digital numbers and letters that revealed the frequency the radio was on. I was relieved we weren’t being sent anywhere. Officer Aston never looked at the radio. It was a Braille system only he seemed to know.
“How do you do that?” I spoke more to his hands than to him.
“Do what?” he replied, adjusting the volume while watching a car slowly pass a young black woman walking with her head down.
“Any time you need to switch channels or something you never look. You reach down and know where to go.”
“I’ve had the same god damn radio for five years. One day I will shoot this piece of shit.”
Being around him for the last couple weeks and talking over pitchers of beer after work, I knew he was not joking.
I could tell Officer Aston was tired of watching people shuffle and linger on the slab of the narrow sidewalk. He tapped his left hand against the top of the dashboard as he let out a half sigh.
“Everyday, the same sad motherfuckers.” He sounded more irritated than uncomfortable.
He put the car in drive and nosed the black hood beyond a line of tress covering most of the parking lot. Before driving into a short alley leading away from 3rd St., Officer Aston stopped and watched a car pass.
The radio snapped with clarity for the first time. We were dispatched to assist child welfare with a search warrant for a little girl who had been abused. I had no idea what to expect or do and fused three questions into one fastball as Officer Aston took a sharp turn to the alley.
“How many warrants have you been on? Do they happen a lot? What do you want me to do?”
The ping of gravel was fast and biting as he guided the car towards a main street. He made so many turns that, if asked, I could not have told anyone what direction we were going. Each was identical to the last. I looked around for street signs to give me an idea where I was. They were nothing more than white letters melted into green backgrounds, forming a metallic soup the faster he drove. I felt like the academy had not lasted long enough.
“Let’s get there first. See if you can find the address.” He spoke calmly while the smooth, blue steering wheel tunneled through his hands during and after each turn. I glanced at the spine of my street guide that drooped over the visor and pulled it down. The cover was a shade of yellow that looked like it had been discovered by accident. Thick black lines and circles formed the city crest — a profile of a bull whose dead eye looked away from the blurry design of city hall.
“How about a hint?” I asked very frustrated.
“District 111. Find it before we roll up.”
I fumbled with the tab marked 111, turned the blank page and was snared in a system of another maze.
“This is it,” he said in a quick whisper as he parked the car at the corner of intersecting one-way streets.
I held the door handle, letting the warmth of the plastic seep into my fingers, while taking a deep breath that had rooted in my chest on the way to the call. The handle pulled easily and snapped back in place as I got out of the car. I grabbed my nightstick and slid it into the silver ring at the back of my belt. Each grain of its hardwood emitted a light scratchy pneumatic sound before it landed against the back of my right leg.
The house was a two-story shitbox that had always been old. Its windows, like a dark set of eyes, were settled inside a skuzzy green. Two dirt spots, the size of pitching mounds, dipped slightly downhill on either side of the walkway that was nearly split down the middle, towards a warped front porch sitting above snapped lattice work.
Officer Aston was in the middle of a swirl of people and motioned me to come his way. I walked along the low curb rimming the front yard and stopped just behind his left shoulder. He was reading the warrant and ignoring the conversation among the chain of welfare workers and two other officers. The words he read aloud fully and boldly described what had been done to an eight-year-old girl.
“Feet shackled to a bed for hours at a time.”
“Sexually abused by step father and an uncle.”
Officer Aston turned to me. His face washed with a shade of red I had seen a few times when he was pissed off. He leaned in close to me as the group flowed away.
“I know this family. A couple of years ago I caught the two brothers fucking in front of their mom’s house. They both just looked at me and the one who was catching said ‘It’s OK, he is my bruddah.’ There is no family tree. Just one long fucked up branch.”
He nodded casually and told me to watch the back door.
Walking along the side of the house — windowless with creased, uneven shingles ¬— white-drops of sweat rolled like stones down my back. My vest felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. The straps slowly sank into my shoulders, becoming another layer of skin. I made a light step before turning the corner and listened for anyone moving near where I thought a door might be. I took in the small backyard that lay in the late morning shadow; a flimsy shed leaned above weeds that had threaded in a slow and silent march around the shell of a lawn mower, an orange bicycle frame and scraps of old rusted guttering. The back door, smeared with large paw prints, was nearly level with the ground.
Before I had a chance to make sure nothing was closing in to bite my ass, I heard a howl above me that was neither human nor animal. I looked up and saw shabby blue curtains puff through an open window during a short gust of wind. Making a clumsy first step towards the back door, my heart felt crowded in my chest and rammed against my ribs in an urgent search for space. I looked at the window again, thinking I would see someone crouched between the flapping curtains with their throat cut — the sound a hoarse gurgle for help — but saw nothing. Whatever light had been in the backyard was now choked off completely. There was only a path to the door, existing in a groove of space and time like a camera trick. My boots felt water logged during the ramble to the small patch of clotted gravel bunched against the bottom of the door. I stopped for a moment and felt my leg lift up in preparation to kick open the door. I heard something jiggle then looked down to see the coarse skin of the knob, flecked with rust, turn in wobbly half circles. The door flicked open and Officer Aston filled the frame. His eyes shifted to different parts to the yard, then to me. My leg was still in mid air and my arms were, for some reason, parallel to the ground.
“The casting for Karate Kid IV is down the street.” It was almost a serious tone. “Get your ass in here.”
He opened the door further then angled himself to allow me to step inside.
“What was that sound?” The words came dry and flat from my throat.
“There were people screaming downstairs. Follow me,” he replied.
I stayed close behind as we went through a makeshift partition of plastic sheets nailed to the ceiling that were the color of yellow chalk.
“No. The scream from upstairs before…” My words were getting lost in the twist of loud voices from inside the house.
Officer Aston glanced back and told me to watch my step. We went through a web of battered appliances, guts of crinkled and jumbled electronics and motorcycle parts sheathed in lumpy oil and dust. I could see the low entryway of the kitchen just ahead.
To my left, several black iron skillets lay like junked cars atop two grease-streaked stoves that looked older than the house. Off brand canned goods and box dinners were stacked on a countertop that nearly ran the length of the wall opposite me. Bent and dirty utensils were piled in the sink along with dishes blotted with chewed food and dried chicken bones. A refrigerator hummed on a patch of dingy checkered tile in the corner. The room held dry odors — ghostly composites of meals prepared, consumed and forgotten.
Facing the hallway, just off the kitchen, hurried voices were having one-way conversations. Officer Aston was a few steps ahead, making his way towards them.
“Where is Lisa?” a couple of female voices asked.
“Where is she?” more forcefully questioned an officer.
All that gave the hallway any light were two open doors on either side of me. After a few steps I reached the door to my left, then paused under the low frame. Piles of shoes formed a mote around an unmade bed — veined with tangled sheets atop a mattress that sagged just above the floor. Taking long, slow strides over and between heaps of sour smelling clothes, I noticed a small muted television atop a dresser whose middle drawer stuck out like a wooden tongue. I caught a glimpse of someone getting a blowjob on a fuzzy VHS tape.
“Squires, where you at?”
“Right here. Making sure no one is hiding,” I answered, turning away from the closet door wedged shut by the cluttered dresser. I noticed a few firm cobwebs in both upper corners of the door — it hadn’t been opened in a long time.
I heard someone behind me and saw Officer Aston outside the door.
“Check the head when you’re done,” he said, motioning with a slight rise of his chin towards the door I’d seen across the hall. He then squeezed between two officers that were passing him and disappeared behind the wall I was facing. I slogged my way across the room again, kicking the piles of clothes to make sure no one was under them.
I pushed open the grimy door and walked into the narrow bathroom. Faded, mangy towels were clumped around the base of the toilet and sink in a swamp of piss and hair. Part of the toilet seat was missing, forming a dingy crescent moon above a pool of shit. Strips of wallpaper had peeled away to reveal specks of mildew and scum. The tub was closed off by dirty frosted sliding doors. Their dimpled pattern, back lit by a small window, made the light bitter. As I grabbed the cracked handle and slid it away from me, I expected to find someone curled tight on the floor of the tub then having to pull them out. The door clanged against its rails and showed me nothing but a surface polluted with dirt rings.
As I came out of the bathroom, the voices were not as loud or as confused-sounding as before. I went right, towards the front of the house, and found Officer Aston standing by several people who were huddled together — seated, handcuffed and sulking atop a frayed area rug in the middle of a large open dining room.
“How do you like the white trash scrum we have here?” He spoke as if sharing a secret with me.
A shirtless man with thick, matted gray hair was the only one with his head up. His eyes were fixed on light that funneled through partially open plastic blinds from the window in front of him. His face was steady in the balm of cigarette smoke and dust circling the room. Nothing about him seemed alive. An officer, taking small steps through the tangle of silent people and scraps of haggard furniture, asked were Lisa was.
“Check upstairs!” someone shouted.
I spun around and faced a closed door. There was a rustling of footsteps as I twisted the knob and snapped open the door. The striker plate and chain guard flew past my arm and landed with a flat chime on the dark, scuffed hardwood floor. I looked at the bottom of a railless nest of stairs and slowly lifted my head up. It was like looking at an escalator. Halting at the first step, feeling I was headed into the heart of whatever made the sound I heard earlier outside, I realized my gun had been in my hand the whole time I was inside the house. It felt like it was going to slide through my fingers.
The steps of my boots whispered slow and rubbery murmurs against the tread of each stair. The crossbeams of the attic unfolded in small sections. My eyes came level with a murky floor and barely furnished room. Reaching the last stair, I saw a shower of large bulging cardboard boxes around a mattress laid at an odd angle. Taking the first step into the attic, a patch of lavender glinted in the corner of my right eye. My head, hips and gun moved in a staggered swirl and met the brown eyes of little girl seated on the floor. Her shaved head was covered with scabs. Above her ears, sprouts of brown hair had grown in different lengths. Her arms were small lumps shifting under what was meant to be a dress. Extending from an invisible hem were two small bare feet streaked with bruises and deep scallops where the shackles had been.
For a second I forgot I was a police officer. Holstering my gun, I realized I had no idea what to say to her.
“Lisa?” I am not sure I said anything, my voice was so low.
She looked at me unfazed as I knelt down and stretched my arms to pick her up. Glancing at my hands, her body receded into her shoulder blades. I touched one of her hands that had found its way from under the mound of cloth drapeing her thin body.
“Lisa, we need to go downstairs. Is that OK?” I tried to smile as I spoke, but never felt my face move beyond a look of disbelief.
I scooped her up with one arm-releasing a film of body odor into the stale attic air. She put her right arm around my shoulder and looked at me without fear or surprise. I turned and saw two officers searching the room. I had no idea they were behind me.
As I walked downstairs her body curved and a patch of dangling cloth, damp with urine, stuck to my arm. At the doorway I saw the faces of some the case workers and Officer Aston. A pair of hands drew Lisa from my arm, shaking loose a scab that flaked onto my shirt from her marred head.
I went into the living room and stopped behind an officer talking to a woman who only nodded when asked if she was Lisa’s mother. She was seated leaning forward on a sofa, causing her slippery hair to drape past her forehead. Her sobs ruptured any sentence she tried to form. Looking up at the officer, I saw the corners of her eyes. They were jumbled with crud and beams of eyeliner. Her lips were coated with glossy, white foam that branched to the edges of her mouth. When she tried to speak they stretched like gooey rubber bands. Her teeth were tiny crooked shards of gray propped up by dark red gums.
I could feel someone standing behind me. Turning my head I saw Officer Aston. He just stared as the woman tried to speak again.
“What is wrong with her mouth?” I asked as she raised a shoulder and wiped away a thin strand of snot.
“Meth mouth. Too much glass dick.” His voice was casual as if he was replying to a question about the weather.
He continued, but his voice flared to a rougher tone.
“This bitch has balls to cry, knowing what was being done to her daughter. Fuck her.”
Officer Aston walked away and I followed him outside. As he walked off the porch I asked if he saw who had Lisa, but he didn’t know. I watched the caseworkers speckling the front yard and pacing between cars parked along the street hoping to spot her. I overheard someone on a phone say that she was on the way to the hospital. I never saw her again.
Walking back to our cruiser I felt myself fading like the tail of a comet. The thick books I studied seemed useless. Training videos were no more than static scenarios with shitty actors and lectures were hollow words from people who liked to hear themselves talk. The walls of the academy had disintegrated. Nothing was centered.
Nearly a year later I was sitting with the attorney prosecuting the case. She handed me a slim stack of color photographs detailing the damage done to the body of an eight-year-old girl. I had to be told which body part I was looking at. She said Lisa was in foster care and would never be able to function on her own. Before the trial began, two men and Lisa’s mother plead guilty to destroying the already tough life of a defenseless human being.
Over the years, I’ve dreamed I’m standing in front of a hospital towering above a beach. The only sound is bursting waves I cannot see. The building has offset tiers and looks like something Frank Lloyd Wright came up with in his spare time. I go inside, passing calm, purposeful nurses who pay no attention to me. I find the section housing newborn babies and search for Lisa. I weave between beds looking at nametags slowly twisting from the ends of wire above rows of beds. The names are blurry. I never find her.
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