The Arc of Repentance
The Death of the Book
Line of Duty By Albert Haley
Friday Night in Kizmack By Carrie Sherman
On Another Road: Pilgrimage to Fátima
The Woodlands Have a Rank and Moldy Smell
LINE OF DUTY
By Albert Haley
Officer Henning was one of those big men. He was not a jiggling embarrassment when he started out on the force, but came to them as a broad-shouldered athletic type who checked in at a solid six-foot-five and a preferred weight of two twenty-five. With a body like that, Henning dominated the precinct's beach volleyball team. Whenever the rubbery globe came spinning over the net, he rose into the air and his nylon shorts flapped and his fists pounded like coordinated jackhammers. He was the main point driver for the cops against weekend teams of blue shirts, firemen, and EMT personnel. Through it all, including a dismal 6-14 season, Henning remained heroic and a happy buyer of postgame beer. He had embedded in him the personality of an easygoing rock until the heart flutter anomaly began. The problem cropped up about the time Henning was going through his divorce.
The cardiologist placed the stress test results under the young officer's nose. He told Henning he'd best avoid sand and sweat gatherings for the remainder of the year. This left Henning with just the regular forms of non-exercise: sitting squishily on his butt during long patrol rides, jaw muscle movements when he yacked over the radio, quick strides up and down concrete driveways. Unfortunately, his appetite didn't keep tabs on this sudden reduction in activity.
Every morning they stopped off at Sweet Heaven! on Ocean Boulevard. Henning ducked from the cruiser to run inside and pick up a half-dozen bear claws. Then lunchtime would roll around and he'd be with the rest of the bunch at Benito's Drive-Thru, helping himself to trio of chimichangas drenched in green hot goo. By the time Roberta Raye Jones came on board as Henning's new partner, he had packed on thirty pounds as easily as a man slipping his arms through an overcoat.
"It's not how much you eat, it's what you eat." This was Roberta Raye setting the rehabilitative tone from Day One. She was a lively acting, Watts-bom Af-Am who always got into the car with a flourish. On her lap she set up clean baggies, individually filled with celery, carrot sticks, bright radish slices. Roberta Raye fished in and out of the bags as they drove the freeway. "You've got to put good stuff in you to get good stuff out."
"Are you kidding? Rabbit food?" Henning had taken the off-ramp and they were easing through barrio country with its strange haciendas-on-wheels. Chrome bumpers divided the sun. Across the street, man-sized graffiti roared and burned on concrete walls.
"Yes, Max, this is rabbit food. But don't get ideas. I'm sure not a bunny." It was weird she'd said that, Henning thought. Roberta Raye really did have a bod--steely, aerobicized, and capped off with a deeply cleaved bust. But her face. It was a departure from the old centerfold ideal guys like Henning had grown up with. Roberta Raye's eyes were set wide apart and her forehead was kinda high. Then there was her nose, which had been broken when she was young and not living under circumstances where anyone felt like getting it repaired. The nose had grown nearly flat on one side, resulting in partial nasal blockage. That was why Roberta Raye sounded breathless whenever she talked.
Of course, the other white boys kidded Henning fiercely about having a funny looking, double-minority partner, a seaweed smacker on top of all that, and they'd heard that she mumbled prayers before she ate at Benito's so she was either a Holy Roller or scared to death of bean burritos, but Henning came back sharply at them. He declared that Roberta Raye was the perfect ride. She was reliable, always smelled good, and because of the racial thing (according to his own conservative lights) he didn't have to worry about falling into the trap of dating her. Add to the final mix Roberta Raye's pleasant chatter and her calm under pressure, and if you were going to have a female in the car, Roberta Raye was the way tops.
"And stop making fun of what she eats," Henning finished up. "She's right, the way you guys chow down will kill you." Of course, it wasn't exactly true that Roberta Raye had converted Henning to the kingdom of whole food. It was more that she had exerted a moderate influence. She was urging him to take into account his poor, neglected heart. His heart really had become a bad thing, and often these days he felt it trying to speak to him. During those night episodes the sweat broke out across Henning's forehead as he lay on his back staring at dark texture swipes on the ceiling. Flutter, flutter went the strange bird. Henning did not return to the doc or tell anyone. It was frightening, embarrassing, too. After twenty-eight years in Henning's big body, his heart had a single-minded demand. It wanted out. What could he do? He tensed. He gripped both sides of the pillow. The guys noted he looked fatigued. One of the sergeants said something about taking a few days off, adding words about Tamara and having time to recoup. Henning laughed out loud. Who did they think he was? If a big man knew anything, it was how to keep on keeping on.
Fact was he had discharged the weapon in the line of duty before. A single shot fired into the air outside a North Hollywood convenience store in '97. The following year there had been three frantic rounds squeezed off from the sidewalk at a fleeing suspect's tires, as large and dizzying and unreal as a target at a carnival booth. Most recently the weapon had come into play during a major shootout on Christmas Day in front of a bungalow where they were crouching behind vehicles and firing steadily, pumping lead for half an hour past bougainvillea and beyond shattered window panes, chopping up an artificial Christmas tree among other things. Then S.W.A.T. had broken in and found the place empty, spider webs, the whole bit.
This time was different.
Roberta Raye was driving and she picked up the guy on the spur road. It was just before midnight and there was lots of hot tire potential, but as soon as they switched on the red and whites it became clear there would be no chase. In less than a quarter mile, Roberta Raye had the violator pulled down. From the shotgun seat Henning could see the man sitting calmly behind the wheel. "I'll take him," he said. He flipped the veggie bag over to Roberta. "Save some for me."
Except for their headlights and the flashing, silent blare of the roof rack, the road and nearby vacant lots were an unlit pit of blackness. It was out close to the oil patch, an area officially called Holister Hills but known to all as Holiness Hills because that was maybe easier to say and the ugly array of leaning telephone poles and brutal wires suggested an industrial version of Golgotha. Good-for-nothing place, known only to contractors and dealers trading bundles and briefcases, Henning thought. The air smelled of ocean and petro, that ol' Long Beach fragrance. He advanced until he was three feet from the car, murking just aft of the driver's window. Behind him Roberta Raye was bent over in the front seat, punching buttons, running the computer check. In the spillover of official light, the violator (male, Caucasian) looked like a mild sort, a bank teller or an accountant. He wore glasses and probably would smell like discount store aftershave. The car was likewise mundane, a dimly kept K-car with an empty child seat in back. This was the kind of guy with whom it was easy to break ice: "License and insurance, sir," and "Have any idea how fast you were traveling?"
Henning had to rap his knuckles loudly against the glass.
The man buzzed down all four windows, an odd or nervous thing to do. Henning ignored it and took the plastic card. He scoped his flashlight over the laminate. He began the rhetorical spiel. The man nodded like the concept of being pulled over for speed drift wasn't new to him. Then he pressed a finger to his nose, as if preventing a sneeze, but within a second he had reached across the dark passenger seat that was as vacant as moonscape.
He popped up with something. It was black and not a tissue or handkerchief. Smoothly the man dipped a shoulder so he could fire out the window (or so Henning's reflexes assumed). Henning went for his belt. This had been practiced. Many times. Roll, turn, make yourself gum-wrapper thin. Fast now. Exploit the angle advantage.
There didn't seem to be a noise. Just the man pitching suddenly forward over the wheel. Blood foamed at his mouth. Spasms shook the upper body. The bullet had punched cleanly through the neck and trachea. The episode took about fifteen seconds, which to Henning seemed longer. The man's wind sucked and wheezed significantly, much louder than he'd ever heard Roberta Raye breathing through her maimed nostril. When the noises stopped, Henning palmed the fender and hopped to the other side. He placed his warm weapon on the hood and played the flashlight on the pavement. In the flash of muzzle fire he'd seen something go flying. Reaching down he retrieved the man's glasses which somehow (action, reaction?) had gone straight out the open passenger window. When he picked them up, he made sure he didn't let his eyes go back to the interior of the car.
Roberta Raye banged out of the patrol car. She hovered by the Chrysler's side, opened the door, jumped back as something poured toward her feet. She came around to Henning. "Are you all right? What--?"
Henning dangled the bifocal glasses in his hands where Roberta Raye could see them.
"Not a scratch on these. Don't you think that's amazing? How's forensics going to explain it?"
Roberta Raye stared at him, ignoring the prescription glasses. "I only heard one shot. He didn't get off a round or anything?" And now she seemed to move like one in a panic as she abruptly unbuttoned Henning's tunic and patted his undershirt. He thought he did feel cold, as if something was gone out of him, but the glasses in his hands made a sort of touchstone. As long as he held onto them he felt steady on his feet. He almost wanted to put them on because things had become blurry. He heard crickets, the most staccato crickets he'd heard in his life, but it couldn't be; this was the Holiness Hills and too close to the ocean for those little stiff-legged creatures. Then he became aware of another sound. Not his heart, which was as steady as a rock chunking down a slope. This sound was something else--wheels whirring, engines thundering, the hum that concrete takes on when weight is flung against it. It was the freeway, a full five miles distant.
"Wow. Listen to that." He'd never had his reflexes reach such a peak. Maybe it was worth sharing. At least with a guy's partner?
"You're pale. I think you need to go over there." Roberta Raye flicked her flashlight toward the weedy shoulder.
At first he didn't understand. He was thinking she meant for him to take a leak. Then it clicked. She thought he might want to be sick.
"Nah," Henning said. For a moment he felt shame. He was so alive. No flutters, nothing. What he'd done or not done didn't affect him at all. Sick? He actually was hungry. As he folded up the pair of glasses and stuck them in his shirt pocket he was thinking basically one thing: "Bear claw."
A year earlier there had been a seminar in a downtown hotel, topic: "Use of Deadly Force." A little man with wingtips and a button-down stage presence had hissed into a microphone and peppered the officers with technical talk. What it translated into was, "Don't wax someone unless you or your buddy's life is on the line. Even then be ready for nasty consequences. Internal Affairs, lawyers, civil rights advocates, the press."
With Maxwell Henning it was different. The D.A. sent the file over and it was revealed that Mr. K-car had indeed been a banker, a mid-level, consumer loan officer. There had been an embezzlement going on at the branch for at least eight months and the guy was about to be snagged by the Feds. Better yet, the night of the event the man had left a note behind then headed out to the oceanside to finish the affair. By chance Henning and Roberta Raye had caught him in the midst of his suicide run. So, in a way, Henning hadn't done a thing to alter history. By reaching for the .38 on the seat beside him, the man had hastened the process and spared himself the ammo.
With this information the board recognized the shooting as justifiable and cleared Henning. As an afterthought, the department provided him a psychologist to talk to one day a week, even though Henning swore he didn't need couch-deluxe treatment. The twig-like woman with a painted turtle shell on her desk was willing to let him digress, talk about tales of Tamara, so that was fine. This Dr. Berkowitz was adept at exercising the "Big C" (compassion) and she pointed out that Henning's unresolved issues had conflated with the shooting. She said that taking the life of the man was like adding another brick to the destroyed pile of Henning's marriage. "Yes," Henning finally admitted, "I've been a little down lately."
He was lying. It was worse. He couldn't get a handle on what was coming over him. What he was starting to feel was so dark that glancing over at Roberta Raye during a long ride failed to offer the normal degree of comfort. He'd look at her and think "Tamara," like he used to, and instead of being a tiny bit warm and tingly, he'd hear a gun going off. He knew he ought to take the killing gracefully, as a sure sign that he was a lucky s.o.b., the guy assigned to the best partner in the world. Roberta Raye had actually sent him flowers. Who else would recognize without a pause that he needed cheering? She was a great one, Roberta Raye was, but unfortunately the daisies and carnations pushed Henning the wrong way. He put the vase on the vanity in the bathroom, close to the porcelain tub. There the flowers sorta blended in with the wrinkled shower curtain. It was cheerful to have that kind of floral life in his nearly barren house, even tucked away in the can, but his mind these days was bent toward the perverse. The pink and white petals allowed him to think the same things over and over. It kept coming back to him: funerals, blossoming wounds, Tamara breaking free of his embrace to announce, "You're nothing like what I thought you were. So much Mr. Wonderful on the outside. Give a gal roses and a box of candy for every occasion. Thanksgiving even. Roses? Jesus, that's just it, Henning. You're so automatic. It's click, click, click. Got it done. You shine me up. Strap me on. That's right. I help you get a job done. You're not really there for me. You can't even begin to imagine what I feel."
Daisies and carnations. Blood red roses. What was the difference, he wondered. He decided to get rid of the flowers and everything else.
A minute later, his hands. In the mirror. Shaking. He put the vase down on the counter. Quietly, all of him slipped out of the picture.
Today he was sitting in the den in his bathrobe. There had been a bit of incautiousness at a crime scene when he'd walked heedlessly over the top of the lab woman's strips of gauze laid out on the sidewalk like tiny surrender flags. There had been shifts when he was ten minutes late. There had been a Wednesday, just one Wednesday out of all the Wednesdays he'd ever lived, when he'd pulled the pepper spray from his belt and handed the cylinder to a street person who was trying to stop traffic. "Want them to put on the brakes? This will make them back up all the way to Nebraska." The department had placed Henning on leave-of-absence, which was tantamount to ordering the VCR to become the most important appliance in a man's life. One filled in gaps with magnetic tape. This time he fed his eyes a tape he'd made of a mindless game show. Another winner. No, the doorbell. Roberta Raye standing on the porch. Roberta Raye out of uniform. Roberta Raye in a green dress and white hose and high heels. A different perfume. Smiling at him.
"Are you okay, Henning?"
"Sure." Hardly any words and she'd already broken down the glassy glaze he'd developed to encase himself. Her voice continued to chip away, telling him something about dressing smartly pronto-style and loading himself into the van. She had her kids with her and she wanted Henning to make the drive to the valley.
"Come on, Max. My folks have a ranch. It's fun and you don't look booked to me. We'll go to church first, then you can have lunch and baby-sit while I do some heavy-duty gabbing with my parents."
"Veggies for the soul," Roberta Raye said. It was a joke he supposed.
The drive took an hour, and for the first time he thought about Roberta Raye Jones's ethnicity. The reason it came to him now was because of the two girls and the boy. The dressed-up children were just as dark-skinned as their mother. So together they made a black family. Except for Henning, a great bleached hulk in polo shirt and slacks, the odd man out. "Hi, kids," he said once. They stared warily at him.
At church it wasn't the get-down-in-the-aisle style religion he'd imagined. The plain buff, steepled building housed something more formal. "Liturgy," Roberta Raye whispered early on in the service, and sitting next to her on the pew he felt an electric jolt. The breath from her lips had brushed his ear. He stared at her long nails, done up especially for the day. He looked down at the Order of Worship lying in his lap. His eyes couldn't get past the first title there: "We proclaim the presence of the Lord." What's that, Henning wondered. God has to be spoken into existence? Why not simply point at the thing itself? Hey, dude, over there! Why not catch him barehanded, as real as a bullet streaking toward flesh? A fully intentional God, not one hiding beneath beds or lodged inside songbooks, waiting for you to say the right words so he could come out and play.
Henning surveyed again the modern stained glass, the light woods covering the wall, the cushioned pews. By the end of the service Roberta Raye was smiling like something had passed through her. He felt nothing. As he walked out he wondered what he would remember? That it smelled nice in there. Like furniture polish? Drycleaning? Carpet shampoo? Yes, a clean place for a dirty person.
"What did you think, Max?"
"Great. Just great."
She smiled like she knew what he was trying to do. "Well, don't dwell on it. Time to switch gears."
"That's right. To the ranch!"
She didn't really need him to baby-sit. Instead, she turned the children over to her parents and rustled up a pair of overalls and leather boots for both of them. Henning and she got into an old, rusted-up pickup that had a winch in back. It looked almost like a tow truck, and Henning wondered why they'd need that on a ranch. There was also a fully stocked gun rack in the cab. "We've got to go into that field over there and get a cow for my daddy," Roberta Raye said.
They bounced over ruts and stopped in front of some Herefords. The cattle looked dumb and suspicious, but didn't do anything as Roberta Raye stepped out with the rifle. To Henning it felt like hottest day of the summer; he couldn't be sure, having spent the last week indoors, entirely under air conditioning. Sweat oozed down Roberta Raye's cheeks. "Here," she said and handed him the rifle. He heard the whistling noise coming from her nostril as she spoke faster than normal. "Daddy said to take that one right there." Roberta Raye wiped her face and pointed. "The one with the funny patch on her leg."
The rifle was a small bore job. She advised him to nail the cow between the eyes so it would go down with one pop. Then she stationed herself behind him.
Henning stumbled upon a hole in the ground and frightened the nearest animals. They stuttered a few yards away. Black Patch stayed where she was, her head up, chewing, looking at him. Between the eyes.
"You can do it, Max," Roberta Raye said from the rear. "Taking life is part of preserving life. Kill a beautiful animal and eat it beautifully. That's all it is. We're feeding my kids. You pull the trigger and you guarantee a good life for someone else. You don't have to be the judge. The judge has already put you in the situation. All he is asking you to do is to respond. You hear me, Henning? Snap out of it! You're not the damn judge! Squeeze!"
A minute later they backed up the truck to the cow. After they'd run the hook through the hocks they turned on the winch. As the cow dangled and spun at the end of the chain Roberta Raye used a regular kitchen chef's knife to cut its throat. "There. Let it drain, then we'll drive it back to the house. Daddy will take care of the rest."
This was what she'd brought him here for, an event more important than church or coaxing him into pulling the trigger. She wanted him to face the blood. It came fast from the body, starting out like a faucet's gush then steadily graduating until, minutes later, it fell in coin-sized drips. A wide red puddle formed on top of the hardened field. Drought conditions. It would be a while before it soaked in. Flies appeared, flirting with the sticky surface. Mostly, Henning was impressed by the odor. The cow's blood smelled hot and dark and even slightly metallic, like a pocketful of change or damp copper pipes in the basement. For a second he thought Roberta Raye might be on the right track, that these qualities could explain everything. Blood inside the animal was what kept it alive. By taking the blood out and putting it into the ground, they weren't so much killing the animal as moving its essence to a new realm. All the pulsing blood effort was going to be transferred into another kind of production. Right here on this spot plants would spring up.
He looked at the head-down cow, the carcass that ended in thick, rubbery open lips. He tried to see it as an evacuated bag, a container whose containing job was finished. Yes, he almost had it.
"It's bled enough," Roberta Raye said.
As he followed her to the truck, she put an arm around him. He hardly felt it. He was thinking about the banker's wife. He'd visited her a few weeks ago. It had been a desperate act. He'd been looking for some kind of story that might suit him. Instead, she gained the wrong impression, that he had come by the house to claim some kind of carnal victory. She caught him curbside as he reached for his car door, trying to get away. "You were looking down at my toenails in there," she accused. "You want to, don't you?" He said nothing, but they were present just as she asserted: ten fields of ruby red. "See," she said, wiggling each one, "You come back inside, officer, and I'll paint them any color you like. You can help."
Any color. He didn't know what. He started to tell Roberta Raye about it. He knew he might start to blubber. He didn't speak. There was no way to make it appropriate. They got in the truck. They carried the beef home to her family. Steaks, roasts, ribs, hamburger. He and Roberta Raye Jones had it all and everyone at the house was gratified that their mission was accomplished so quickly. She took him back to the city and her last words were, "You're going to be okay tonight, huh? I gotta drop the kids off and go on shift."
"No rest for the wicked," he said. He meant nothing by the phrase at the time. He was only acting lighthearted, giving her what he thought she wanted which was to see him smile so she might think him cured or at least better behaved for the time being. He yawned as he waved goodbye. "Going to sleep well tonight." He thought he sounded convincing. He really hoped he was.
Who would have guessed? He'd never been a boozer, not even during the years when he was deep-sixing his marriage, so how was a guy to know? That with alcohol-inspired numbness could come new friends. Energy! Inspiration! It was true. Why didn't someone put that in a manual for big men? If you hurt, boy, and don't know what to do, open a quart in the vacuum of your home. Tip the bottle and cauterize the wounds with fire. Before you know it you'll be on your feet and--
Not exactly dancing, but in the bathroom he was tossing the rotting flowers into the waste basket. He packed all his wedding photos into a large cardboard box and set the box out in the alley for the garbagemen. He broke open his revolver and emptied it of bullets. Back to the bathroom where he lifted off the lid on the back of the toilet so he could turn his hand upside down and release the ammunition. The bullets sank to the bottom of the tank. They lay fat and snub-nosed, and everything was so unbearably quiet that he could hear his heavy breaths coming. He felt his heart, too, and that required a final drink to settle down. He crashed the bottle into the tub.
With the empty pistol and a single framed photo, he got into his car. He backed out of the driveway and headed toward the beach. It was growing palpably late. The sun-sunken world that streaked past him telegraphed shadowy movements: leather armies deploying on asphalt and concrete. Prime time, crime time.
As soon as he was out of the residential area, Henning applied force to the pedal. He was going 45, 50, 60, then 90. Fast enough to make streetlights blur into candle flames. The photo beside him was a strictly composed one, circa his and Tamara's dating era. It showed them smiling at the junior prom, three years before they married, ten years before they divorced. Henning glanced over at the picture from time to time, but he couldn't see the blond, smiling girl because it was black inside the car and the revolver lay atop her. A big gun, it crushed Tamara from head to toe. He drove faster, or so he imagined, until finally, gratefully, he heard a siren and the lights appeared in the mirror, drawing closer and more dramatic, making him swim in a blaze of red and white.
What to do? Hit the brakes, but do it smoothly. Decrease speed to a slow roll, then key off the ignition. Sag backwards against the damp seat.
A minute later he heard the knuckles lightly tapping on the window. He buzzed down the glass. He didn't look at the officer's face, but he allowed a sliver of hope. It might be her. If it was, she would see him before he handed over his license. The police officer mask would come off and she would speak to him, not as a woman but as a fellow creature. When he failed to answer, Roberta Raye would become even more extreme. She'd reach through the opening and put a hand on his shoulder. "Is that really you? Henning? What are you doing out here?"
He continued to stare straight ahead. There were no words yet, just a flashlight playing over his face. His right hand rested on Tamara, on the pistol. The heart palpitations had gone berserk.
It was plain now: he could die as easily as he could live. Just like the banker, there would be one ill-advised move and then it would be finished. He found it terrifying that such magnificence should remain within his clumsy grasp. Still he waited for the voice. That was what would settle it. There was a special kind of tone he was waiting for. Some kind of forgiveness not easily obtained. To hear someone say, "Henning, you're okay. Don't do it." That would be good.
He waited a few more uneven heartbeats. As long as there was time, most any words would work. He was past being particular. The mere sound of his name might suffice: "Henning, Henning, I see you, Henning, that's you, no one else, Henning, you're alive, come on, get out of the car, Max."
It was stupid to let your life get to such a point--dependent on one person out of the whole world. To hope that this one person would care for you where you had failed yourself miserably. To ask, if it came down to it, for that person to save you by pulling you back across the line. It was unacceptable. Unfair to them. Pathetic on your part. Turning yourself into a beggar, a little man with steamy bifocals that were about to fly out the open window. But it was real. He knew now what it was like. The paralysis, the inability to unbend. Your hand touching death while your ears still sought out life. The distant freeway. Five miles away and every sound stroke of the whooshing, speeding traffic registered on his brain. He could hear them, the midnight people who didn't cut back on their speed; they just went faster, trying to find that cheap motel room or get to their six a.m. bacon and eggs on an oval plate. Their spinning wheels were as loud as if Henning was lying on his back on the centerline.
"Please," he thought, "slow down."
He turned his bulky body and stared into the officer's blinding flashlight. He smelled sweet perfume. His heart seemed to make a leap.
Albert Haley is the author of Home Ground: Stories of Two Families and the Land, and the novel Exotic. Over the years his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, Image, and other publications. He has been the writer in residence at Abilene Christian University since 1997 where he teaches fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction.