Chapter One: The Warmth Trapped
I knew three police officers by name. Arvin, Dave, and Mark. All of them were shaped the same, legs stuffed into their slacks like sausages, always making sure their steps covered more ground than the average citizen, faces misshapen from years of yelling and frowning, arms beefed up but sagging like a balloon that’s lost a little bit of air.
Sure, I was scared of them. I had reasons to be. They knew where I lived. They knew my family. And worst of all, they knew my name, first, middle, and last. But they preferred to call me “son” or “boy” or “kid” to establish some kind of power dynamic.
One time Dave caught me on the sidewalk alone. It was October, and all the boys downtown were getting pissed off and ready for Devil’s Night.
All the kids took this time of year as an opportunity to commit their most inoffensive crimes: TP’ing, forking, ding-dong ditching, flaming bags of shit left on doorsteps.
You know the cops take some kinda sick joy in knowing that they’re gonna capture a ton of scrawny middle schoolers for egging the science teacher’s house or some other random prank. Devil’s Night was a field day. They turn on their sirens and watch the kids scatter, tiny and insignificant as ants.
I guess it gives them some kind of pleasure, or it’s entertaining.
Everyone’s gotta get their kicks somehow, but I prefer drugs or maybe a good sunset.
I knew a kid once, Derek, whose mom was dating a cop. She had him pull a fake arrest. I guess she wanted to scare Derek straight, but it worked a little too well. He was high when he got scooped up, and apparently, he pissed himself in the cruiser.
The cop was so mad. Derek told us that his mom never saw the dude again. I think the cop should have been able to deal with a little piss stain. Just part of the job, in my opinion. I bet people puke in cop cars all the time.
Puke is worse than piss, in my opinion.
Derek told me that story once and I never forgot about it. He said that the cop tried to get his mom make him clean the stain, but she wasn’t having it. She screamed and told him that dating him was the biggest mistake she ever made in her stupid fucking life.
When the cops have nothing important to do, they turn into sorta… murderous haunted house decorations, instilling fear and wreaking havoc with their guns and fake smiles.
Any kid out on the street past eleven was fair game.
In a small rural town like Wimperston, the cops didn’t have many racial minorities to hassle, nor did they have access to the type of drug user cops typically like to beat on, you know, homeless guys or the junkies who live in small houses with tons of other junkies.
We in Wimperston mostly just had tired, belligerent drunks and trailer park domestic beatdowns and, of course, the Teenager, who could be punished for anything, from skateboarding to smoking to walking to talking back.
Sometimes the fellas got to cover up a murder or dine with local government officials, maybe snort some evidence room cocaine. That was about as exciting as it ever got for them. Rest of the time, they just wandered around poking hornets’ nests hoping for some action.
“Hey, kid!” Dave called out through the passenger window. He had to yell to make himself heard. I hated that cop yell. They always sound so agitated, like they gotta take an emergency shit and the bathroom door is locked.
I knew Dave from back in fourth grade, when he gave my dad a black eye, seventh grade, when my dad pissed on his front porch, and tenth grade, when the two drove away together, out West towards the jail on the edge of town, sun setting in front of them as they sailed down the driveway, lawman and outlaw, the entirety of my fucking universe locked in a rolling cage.
I remember I flipped off the car as it drove away, not really knowing which passenger was supposed to receive my anger or if, like, they were supposed to split my middle finger in half & eat it like a candy bar, with blood on their teeth, savoring it, passing it back and forth, dad to Dave, through the bars that separated them. This is our collective history.
“Sup,” I said. I liked to keep things simple in order to prevent myself from saying anything incriminating. I’ve seen the TV shows. No smart, informed individual has ever decided to talk to the cops.
I often imagined myself in a stark interrogation room, very stereotypical, with some hothead detective screaming me down, asking me where I hid the goddamn, motherfucking body, slamming his hands on the folding table, and in my fantasy I’m responding to every question with, “Sup.”
It seemed like a good strategy. I only learned later on that one lonely, naive syllable could have the power to determine my fate.
“It’s past curfew, ain’t it?” he said. His cruiser was rolling along slow as I was. I decelerated even more to make it extra difficult for him. No other cars were rolling by, so it must’ve been pretty late. Past eleven for sure. It was just Dave and I, locked in battle. I tried to seem confident, paused to read a street sign, taking my sweet time. He slowed down to maybe three m.p.h. “Not supposed to be out right now… It’s dangerous.”
“Ain’t it dangerous to be driving like you are? Looking at me instead of keeping an eye on the road?” I said. I mumbled most of it.
When I get nervous, I don’t wanna hear myself at all, so I tend to turn my voice down until it’s barely audible.
I can’t control it, even when I’m trying my hardest to seem like a cool, disaffected youth. I’m sure Dave saw through my cocky facade, but I kept it up anyway. “It’s distracted driving. They just passed a law about that,” I warned him.
Nothing scared me too much back then. I like to think that I grew resilient after years of dealing with assholes.
Cops just have a way of making every little fuckup into an emergency. I didn’t want to get locked up for taking a midnight stroll. That would have been ridiculous.
And I was trying my best to not even consider the other possibility: he could take me home and snitch on me, tell my dad, or tell my dad’s girlfriend, drive away, go back to work, get a snack, forget everything. I was powerless. I couldn’t stop him.
“Why don’t you get in the car, so I don’t have to turn my head and yell out the window?” said Dave. A red light had brought him to a stop.
We were right in the middle of town, gas station glowing in front of me, a string of brick antique shops, barbershops, florists, and ice cream parlors to my right. We didn’t have a city hall or anything, but behind me, the library was standing tall.
At three stories, it was the biggest building in town. It’s a protected historical landmark, and as such, a kid can get arrested for skateboarding in the parking lot.
“I’m just headed home, Dave,” I said. I turned to face his cruiser as the signal across the street counted me down from twenty. I had less than sixteen seconds of his time before the light would turn green. If I didn’t shake off Dave by the time it reached zero, I suspected something awful would happen.
“Home? Where is that?”
Now he was being coy. He had my address memorized.
“About two blocks down the street, officer,” I said. The timer showed twelve seconds now. Dave was smiling. He had something in mind, but I couldn’t read him. The curve of his teeth was inscrutable. These microscopic shifts in his jaw muscles, the slight movement of his chapped lips, sent out warnings and played tricks on my mind.
Even though I got to look down at him, me standing on the sidewalk and him glued to the driver’s seat, I felt surrounded, like he could teleport behind me at any moment and inflict some strange fatal blow that would end my life in an instant.
I could see him thinking. I waited.
“Well,” he said. He paused. “I know your dad won’t be happy that you’re out this late.” He raised his eyebrows. Rows of wrinkles danced across his forehead.
I wanted to reach my arm across the street and smooth them out. Don’t scrutinize me.
“Yeah,” I said. You fucking bastard. The signal counted down from four to three.
“You’re still a kid even if you drop outta school, you know. Gotta abi-i-i-de by the curfew.”
“Yeah,” I said. My only plan was to shut up and let him talk. Single, lonely syllables.
“You better hurry back home!” said Dave. He started rolling up the window, laughing. I won’t ever forget his face in that moment.
Like many aging bald men, Dave decided to keep the stringy, paltry hairs that drooped down the sides of his head intact, even as the hair on top of his skull withered and fell. His wife worked at the barbershop, but that fucker still never got his hair fixed up. And his long neck dripped like a turkey’s into the starched collar of his perfect policeman buttonup. His teeth were strong and yellow.
I resented the quickness of his movements and the way he spoke, all so stupidly confident, like he earned something. I wondered what elementary school teacher, pastor, or parent gave this kid the balls to grow up to be Dave. I could tell that he was the type of guy who says that he loves his kids but still screams his head off at them, too. Because everything, to men like Dave, should be taken in stride. To him, all love, all confidence, all pain, all rage, is well-deserved. It flows in and out of the body freely. It doesn’t matter. He could drive away from anything unscathed.
I counted to ten watching his cruiser disappear, then broke open. No one heard me, but I screamed.
I sat on the sidewalk. “Fuck…”
Words don’t come easy to me in times of distress. Dave’s car was speeding away, but he remained lodged inside my skull. I could see him at the police station, telling Arvin and Mark who he saw walking down the street last night. They would say, “No way!” and ask him for details, and Dave would probably tell them that I looked like I was on drugs, and they would say, “No way!” again, even though that was the exact response they were looking and hoping for.
Dave might retell the story about the black eye for the hundredth time. I was embarrassed about how much he knew.
Everyone in town knew. They knew everything.
I used to wonder why there was a section in the newspaper that just tells you what the police have been up to, which houses have been robbed, who’s been murdered, that kind of stuff. I used to wonder why it was even news. But now I know, in a town like mine, people just read that shit for fun. It’s on TV, too. I could look out the window to watch a cop beat someone up, I could flip open the paper and read about it, I could turn on some procedural or reality show and see it from my couch.
My dad still reads his detective books, even after doing time. I don’t get it.
What you never hear about people like Dave is that they’re total assholes. There’s no show on primetime called, I don’t know, Dumb Cops, with endless videos of cops falling down, getting hurt, or making fools of themselves and a host going, “Uh-oh!” and the audience laughing along.
A purified, distilled version of America’s Funniest Home Videos, emphasis on America.
It seems like you only ever hear about the criminals being idiots, and I think that’s unfair.
I was just glad to know that the idiot bothering me was now on the other side of town, off to look for teenagers fucking in the park or scare a small-time drug dealer into flushing his whole stash.
I took out my phone and dialed.
“Yeah, Sylvia? I’m stranded. My dumb ass thought I could wear a hoodie past sunset and not get stopped, and I’m cold as shit out here. Can you pick me up?”
It felt selfish, but part of me understood that, even though she was probably tired, as my friend, she was obligated to save my ass if the situation called for it. We took care of each other.
I’ll admit that I was the one who usually got stranded, or needed a ride, or needed money, or needed help. Usually suffering.
And Sylvia did most of the helping. Right away, she asked me where I was. No bullshit, no unnecessary prodding.
I couldn’t tell if I woke her up or if she was high, but her voice had some static to it like an old record, and a laziness, like a slow dance tune played by a drunken band at closing time.
“I’m right in the middle of town. I’ll wait in the gas station parking lot… And like, I know I’m close to home, but I-don’t-really-wanna be there right now.”
I knew that I sounded a little pathetic. It’s hard not to, when you really don’t want to go home. I couldn’t imagine going back there that late. I was seventeen. Life was, for the most part, out of my control. All I knew was that I couldn’t wake anyone up. I couldn’t open the front door. I couldn’t walk up those stairs.
My only foolproof option was to beg Sylvia for shelter.
She didn’t make me feel bad about it or give me any shit. She just said, “Okay, see you soon. Stay warm. I’ll bring you a jacket…”
I loved her.
I sprinted across the street to the gas station. The warm glow of its neon and fluorescent lights hit my skin, and I felt, in those few seconds, like I was walking straight from night into day.
“Thank you. I’ll be here.”
I hung up and concealed myself in between the freezer and the dumpster. The cashier couldn’t see me. No one else was around.
Tucked against the brick wall, a sense of total freedom washed over me, even though I must have looked trapped as a corpse sardine in its tin can. I drew my shoulders inwards.
Usually, I don’t like to be surrounded. But the company of a dumpster, a freezer, and a brick wall seemed right to me then. Because I was safe. I was alive. I was the warmth trapped between the cold and the trash.
No one could see me.
I felt so marvelously present and alive that I stomped my left foot on the pockmarked concrete three times. I punched the dumpster and punched my thigh. Headbutted the freezer.
The pain rushed in, and just like that, I felt done, as though I had silently said everything that I needed to say.
All I had to do was wait for Sylvia to take me away from there, and I would promptly forget everything that’s ever happened.
We believed we could achieve salvation through Sylvia’s car. Our belief in its power held us both aloft. It always carried on despite its obvious flaws and deficiencies. We believed in it the way that some people believe in God, the stock market, astrology, cognitive behavioral therapy, longtime news anchors.
It had supernatural qualities that made Sylvia and I curious. How come we never got pulled over even though the left tail light was burnt out? How come she never had to change the oil? How’d it never spin out, even in our shit Midwestern winters? All the other kids we knew complained about their junkers, how the cops always bothered them, how they always broke down, how they always had to spend their grocery store paychecks at the mechanic.
Sylvia never had to worry, and so, neither did I.