“I am not looking. None of my concern, I have to remind myself. A nice, respectable citizen doesn’t care what two cops are doing because he’s done nothing wrong, even if the cops are in his house. Especially if the cops are in his house.”
This story appears in Blunderbuss Magazine’s forthcoming print issue.
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The cop has to know what’s under the rug. That’s why he keeps pacing over it, flicking his ashes onto it, testing the creaking floor with his heel and trying, step by step, to wear a hole in the thing. But he wants to wear me out first. He will. I know he will. He knows he will, too. It’s just a matter of time. He knows what he’s after, or at least he thinks he knows, but what he’s really after is the power of breaking me in the process. People like him need this sort of thing. They need that sense of power and control.
“Tareyton?” the cop says, pointing the pack toward me like a sword, three filters poking out surrounded by peeled-back foil and cellophane.
I shake my head.
“Might calm you down,” he says.
That’s good bait right there, he’s thinking–I say that I am calm, he asks why I’m lying, points out all the ways that I’m nervous, gets me to crack. Police want regular citizens like me to cooperate by not cooperating. It’s easier for them if we fight, if we lash out, if we do exactly the opposite of what they ask us to do. They say things like “we can do this the hard way or the easy way,” but they don’t mean easy or hard for me.
Bait on the line. Here, fishy, fishy, fishy.
The cop looks over my shoulder through the archway separating the kitchen from the living room. Behind me is another cop. He’s poking around in my refrigerator, turning the burners on the stove off and then on, opening up cabinets and leaving them open. I hear all this. I am not looking. None of my concern, I have to remind myself. A nice, respectable citizen doesn’t care what two cops are doing because he’s done nothing wrong, even if the cops are in his house. Especially if the cops are in his house.
The cop in front of me is a sergeant. I don’t know what the cop behind me is–none of my business, because citizens shouldn’t be so interested in the whos and whys and whats of police hierarchy anyway. It doesn’t pay to know so much. Like the sergeant’s badge number–I can’t see it because he has a black band over it, the black band is decorated with a gaudy silver and rhinestone cross, jagged and stylized like a tribal armband tattoo. I can’t see his nametag for the “Blue Lives Matter” ribbon covering up everything except the rank: Sgt. I almost see the rest when he puts the cigarette pack back into that breast pocket, but I catch myself.
Good citizens are not that curious about police officer’s names, or anything else.
The sergeant is tall, big, stocky–two-fifty, two-sixty at least, plus the weight of his gear: pistol, radio, pepper spray, taser, radio. He could knock me down one-handed, and if he couldn’t do it himself he has the cop in the kitchen and one more outside snooping around my yard. Other than his size, he’s not spectacular. He’s white, he has a brown doorknocker goatee, and he wears his hair in a parted undercut. His teeth are slightly yellow. His hands are calloused baseball mitts.
“And here I’ve been smoking this whole time–you don’t mind, do you?” he asks, conspicuously flicking a long grey ash onto the rug and grinding it deep into the fabric with the toe of his boot.
“Of course not,” I say.
“Of course not what?” he asks. He’s trying to trip me up, see if I really am nervous.
“I don’t mind if you smoke,” I say.
“But you don’t smoke,” he says.
“I don’t,” I say.
“See, it’s just strange that a non-smoker, like you, lets a smoker, like me, smoke in their home,” he says.
“I like my guests to be comfortable,” I say.
“But you don’t have an ash tray,” he says.
He sneers a little bit, looks through me, shakes his head like he can’t believe how stupid I am. Get a load of this asshole, not having an ashtray.
“No, most of you people don’t,” he says.
What do you mean by you people? I’m supposed to ask. Or maybe I’m supposed to jump up and offer him a coffee cup or a Pepsi can, but I don’t. I wait. I need him to feel like he is in control of this conversation, because that is what he needs. That’s what you people need, I don’t say.
“What do you do again, mister…” he looks at my last name and asks “…you Jewish?”
“No,” I say.
“No, sir, I’m not Jewish.”
He laughs, a rough little snort is what comes out, and he looks over my shoulder again and says “he called me sir – how do you like that?”
I don’t hear what the cop behind me says. I don’t turn to look.
The sergeant hacks and coughs, his face turns red. He coughs into his hand and then wipes his hand on my sofa.
“You didn’t answer my question,” he says.
I don’t know what question. I’ve lost track. I’m on my back foot and about to squirm.
“I’m sorry–could you repeat the question?”
“I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?” the cop behind me in the kitchen says, mocking me in a high-pitched, nasally voice. He adds, “he asked what you do; do you not understand the question?”
Let it go. Sticks and stones.
“I’m unemployed,” I say.
The cop in the kitchen laughs, loudly, behind my back. The cop in front of me glances over my shoulder in mock admonishment–don’t make fun; he’s just a loser. The interrogation continues.
“What did you do?” the sergeant asks.
He, of course, knows what I used to do. He wouldn’t have come in my house if he didn’t have my file, if he hadn’t read my file.
“I was a teacher,” I say, “middle school math.”
“I bet you think you’re pretty smart, then, huh?” the cop in the kitchen asks.
There is absolutely no good answer to that question. If I say yes, then he’s going to ask if I think I’m smarter than him. If I say no, he’s going to say I was probably a lousy teacher and lay into me with such a cruel string of insults–so I say nothing.
But the silence is maddening. He’s waiting for an answer, and more to the point, the sergeant is waiting to see if I’ll answer. He’s making me out to be hostile by keeping my mouth shut.
Innocent people don’t have anything to hide. Innocent people cooperate with the police in exactly the fashion that the police want without being told what that is. To say “I’m not resisting” when you are told to stop resisting is resisting.
I hear sirens, not half a mile away, whining and whooping loudly. A helicopter flies low overhead and speeds away. The sergeant never takes his eyes off of me, but his radio squawks and crackles. He silences it, and lets the question go as he does.
“So you just sit around collecting welfare then?” he asks.
“Well, unemployment,” I say.
He cocks one eyebrow and drops his cigarette on my rug. He crushes it with his heel. I know he knows, he knows I know. Everybody here knows. Everybody is just waiting for the end of this thing.
“So welfare. What I don’t get is why you don’t just move east and get to work. You feel entitled or something? You too good to dig coal?”
“No, I just–”
“What?” the cop in the kitchen barks. They call it “cop voice.” When I was the chorus director and drama coach we called it “singing from the diaphragm.” Same action, same sound, different purpose. It isn’t exactly loud, but it rattles your bones, cuts through your skin. It can help an eighth grade alto hit the back of an auditorium with “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of my Hair” in South Pacific, or it can nearly make me forget what I was about to say, make me look defensive, confused, and suspicious.
“I’m hoping to find teaching work,” I say.
“Yeah, good luck,” the sergeant says. He lights another cigarette and points the pack at me again. I shake my head.
“How come you don’t smoke?” he asks.
“Health, mostly,” I say.
“What do you mean mostly?” he asks.
“Just health,” I say.
“You said health mostly. What besides health,” he asks.
“Well, cost I guess,” I say.
“It’s a quarter a pack, you saying you can’t afford a quarter?”
Four years ago cigarettes cost eight dollars a pack. Four years ago the coal industry was on the verge of collapse. Four years ago I was a teacher in a suburban middle school. Now, cigarettes cost twenty-five cents a pack or five for a dollar, black coal smoke chokes the skies, and I call M.A.R.V.I.N. every other week.
Behind me, behind the cop in the kitchen, the outside door opens. How is it so easy to know there’s a cop in the room? The smell of a leather belt? The subliminal hum of a police band radio? It’s a third cop, the one who was circling and poking around the yard.
“Don’t go anywhere,” the sergeant says. I’ve just been ordered to stay still in my own house. This, I think, is the least of the indignities coming my way today. The sergeant walks into the kitchen. I hear hushed voices, but I can’t quite make out what they’re saying. They only talk for a moment, and the sergeant returns.
“You been in this house long?” the sergeant asks.
“About fifteen years,” I say.
“Teaching pay for this house?”
“Yes, the mortgage. I got money from-”
The sergeant cuts me off with a wave of his hand.
“When’s this house from, fifties? Sixties?” he asks.
“Fifty-four,” I say.
“They don’t make ’em like this anymore. Solid, right?” he says.
I nod in agreement.
“You got a coal chute?” he asks.
“Gas,” I say.
“Any of that old-timey stuff? My folks’ old place–I grew up in Dearborn–my folks’ old place had a coal chute. My grandparents place had a bootscrape. You know what a bootscrape is?”
“Yes,” I say.
“A bootscrape is a piece of metal on the front stoop that you use to scrape your boots clean so you don’t track mud in the house,” he says.
“My folks’ old place had a milk door and a phone nook, a little spot to put a phone and a little shelf for a phone book,” he says. There’s something new in his voice and demeanor. Warmth, maybe? Or at least a diminishing of hostility. I don’t know what the cop from outside told the sergeant, but something has changed.
“I remember those,” I say, encouraging him to continue.
“And in the basement we had this giant refrigerator, the kind with the big heavy latch, the kind they tell you not to let kids play in, you know?”
“I do,” I say.
“And we had this laundry sink, this thing–impossible! Weighed a ton, you know? Big huge thing next to the washer and dryer, down in the basement,” he says.
Then he says “one year, the basement flooded–nasty flood, all kinds of mud and crud. Ruined everything. House was in the fifty-year floodplain, and you’re really taking a gamble there, you know? Yeah, some good heavy rain and it just ruined the whole basement. My dad had a little rec room down there, just old carpet and furniture from the eighties, a big old TV and a record player. They had everything down there from when I was a kid, and when I moved out they didn’t change anything. I never went down there until it was time to drag all that shit out of there. The carpet was all moldy, the couch was rotten, everything just all coated in crud.”
He says “back in the good old days, you know? Got laid for the first time in that basement, on the couch. Leslie Gottlieb. It was after Dearborn Homecoming. She stole a bottle of vodka from her parent’s liquor cabinet, came back to my place, we watched Friends and then I had my hand up her skirt.”
I see where he’s going, plain as day. I know I’m done. But I am going to play this out all the way. I am going to make him do the work. My taxes pay his salary, don’t they? He can show me some value.
“What floodplain are we in here?” the sergeant asks.
“Twenty-five year,” I say.
The sergeant lets out a low whistle and says “that’s some wet ground huh?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Basement flood a lot?” he asks, and he gives this knowing look to the two cops in the kitchen, who step forward. They’re going to make sure I don’t run.
“There’s no basement–crawl space,” I say.
“That a fact?” the sergeant asks.
“Not a lot of room down there,” he says.
“No, not much,” I say.
“Pretty stuffy. Hard to breathe,” he says.
Weeks of work. Cutting away the floor with a hand saw for fear of the noise. Disposing of the refuse two or three boards at a time with the weekly trash. Building a mock floor out of plywood and two-by-fours slowly, carefully muffling the sound of hammers and nails with sponges and squares of old carpet, skillfully made by Joanna Gaines.
The two cops from the kitchen grab my arms. I don’t resist. They yell “stop resisting! Stop resisting!” but I don’t resist. I don’t say I’m not resisting, but I really understand why people do. People who say “I’m not resisting” think they have a chance, think the truth will set them free. I know better. They handcuff my wrists behind my back and throw me into a chair. My wrist bends too far. I hear a snap and feel a hot slash of pain. I can feel my pulse in my fingers, and then my hand goes numb. I remain silent.
The sergeant stands aside and the two cops from the kitchen roll up the rug, exposing the plywood sheet. I hear the shuffling underneath, a muffled gasp, an admonition. The cops from the kitchen pry the sheet up off the ground, exposing the hole. They toss the sheet to the side, smashing out the front of my China hutch. I hear screaming and panicked pleading from down in the hole, then a hissing sound as the cops from the kitchen hose my neighbors down with pepper spray. I hear coughing and gagging.
The sergeant says “get up here–get up here now!” and when they don’t immediately scramble to their feet after being crouched down nearly in the fetal position for hours and hours, he grabs a handful of hair and hijab and starts pulling. One by one they extract my neighbors and corral them outside. I want to apologize. I’ve screwed this up. I don’t know how I betrayed them, but I have. I bought too much food. I used too much electricity. I smiled at the wrong person at the wrong time.
Maybe the garbage man noticed that my trash can was a little bit heavier and fuller every week. Maybe another neighbor heard voices, or smelled food cooking in the kitchen when nobody should have been home. Maybe I left a light on, or turned one off.
Or maybe I didn’t do anything at all.
My neighbors are escorted out, blinded by pepper spray, and I’m glad that they cannot see my failure to make eye contact. I stare at my own shoes. My hand is no longer numb, and is throbbing in pain, but it hardly matters now. It’s just me and the sergeant inside the living room.
“This is the greatest country in the world,” he says, “someday, you people are going to get it.”
He lights another cigarette.
“You sure you don’t want one?”
“I think I will have one,” I say. Why not? These things kill, but what’s the difference anymore? He puts a lit cigarette in my mouth. I puff. I cough. Maybe it’s the pepper spray, or maybe it’s the smoke that’s stinging my eyes.
Photo by Roland Tanglao