SWORN SECRETS

It's something we don't talk about. One of those subjects everyone wants to know about, but few people can understand. Because unless you've been there and done it, who can really comprehend what a cop's life is like? There's plenty of people who swear they know the real story, starting with an officer's family and ranging all the way to Hollywood, where a host of producers and writers churn out yet another 'true-life' cop show. But no one can ever really know, not unless you've been sworn in as an officer of the law, worn the badge and walked the walk.

As cops, we experience first hand what the rest of the world can only imagine. The strange, the poignant and the ludicrous mixed with a sizable portion of violence and danger are standard fare during any given watch. When we don our uniforms, we become the enemy, the savior, the protector, and the answer person. We're expected to protect the citizens, solve problems, keep the streets safe and believe the lies we're told on a daily basis by people who look at us with equal parts of fear and resentment.

("Honest, Officer! That light was still green when I went through it! And I have no idea how that bag of marijuana ended up in my sock. Maybe my clothes got switched at the laundromat!")

For those of us who are sworn officers, we know that our job is an adventure, a blessing and a curse. Dealing with people at their worst, witnessing the sometimes unspeakable acts they're capable of takes it's toll. It can be emotionally draining and mentally exhausting. Every cop who's every worked a beat experiences things that affect and change us in ways that Average Joe Citizen would never comprehend, not unless he's been there. Sometimes an eight-hour shift feels like a century, a labyrinth of living nightmares from which there is no exit, no reprieve. It's that good vs. evil battle, and most times, it's not clear who's winning. The only thing certain is that it keeps coming, - the crime, the danger, and the pain. Your heart breaks, your stomach turns, and you wonder if anything that you - or anybody - does, will actually make a difference. But the only thing to do is hang in there, because that's what cops do.. These are the sworn secrets that only a cop understands. Like the secrets from one particular midnight watch during January, for example.

It starts in the usual way, as you lurch awake to a shrilling alarm after too few hours of sleep. It's always like that on midnights, but worse on court days. On this particular day, you sat in Gun Court 'til mid-afternoon, leaden with fatigue, then drove home to an annoyed spouse and a whiney daughter. The wife is huffy that you won't be attending Parent-Teacher conferences this evening. It would be nice, you're told frostily, if just once both parents could attend. Your daughter reminds you that her Science project is due in three days and you promised to help. After all, what does an eight year old know about building the solar system? You gulp down your dinner with an eye on the clock - if you take a nap immediately after dinner, you just might squeeze in a couple hours before work. But it takes at least another hour for your significant other to crank out the latest complaints, and thirty minutes more before you relax enough to fall asleep.

Now, as your squad car rolls out of the station lot, you wonder how you'll make it through the night. The weather is brutally cold, with a vicious wind that savages the frozen landscape. Your partner is driving tonight, and he heads for the closest convenience store to get your first caffeine fix of the night - the first of many black coffees. Then he pops a cassette tape into his portable radio - musical counterpoint for the crackling police radio. "B.B. King," he informs you. "Nothing like some mellow blues to clear your head."

While the music throbs like a heartbeat, and B.B. croons about paying the cost to be the boss, Dispatch gives you your first assignment: Disturbance with the woman on the porch. By the time you arrive at the location- a modest brick bungalow, you can see that she's no longer on the porch. Instead, she's taken it to the streets, all three hundred-odd pounds of her, stark naked and wobbling like pale jelly in the moonlight. Oblivious to the cold, she's dancing in a drunken circle, belting out 'Delta Dawn' at ear-splitting decibels. And responds to your suggestion to cover up and go home by planting a sloppy, hundred-proof kiss on your partner’s cheek. Since aim is a tricky thing under the influence, the kiss lands in the vicinity of his shirt collar, which leaves a smear of lipstick he'll have a hell of a time explaining when he gets home. By the time the dancing queen is back in her house, and you're back in your vehicle, B.B. is warbling about big-legged women.

The next job is less amusing. It's a late-model Toyota, pleated like an accordian by the truck it crashed into before careening through a hardware store window. The car is crushed so efficiently that only the blood seeping through its doors tells you the occupants are still inside. It's going to take the Fire Department Emergency Team, and almost an hour of blow-torching, to extricate the passengers. None of these three teens will make it to their seventeenth birthday. The residue found in the car tells the story - a paper bag and a rag soaked in Trauline, a liquid engine cleaner known for producing a zombie-like high while literally eating away the brain cells. It becomes your job to tell the parents why their Jimmy, and Diane and Eddie won't be coming home tonight - won't be coming home ever. While your heart is breaking over their tragedy, you think of your own kids, including your sulking mini-scientist. Somehow, your quick silent prayer for their safety doesn't seem like enough.

"How blue can you get?" sings B.B. as you head back into the night. The music and the assignments continue as the night wears on. Your next job brings you to an alley behind an auto body shop. The relentless wind has knocked down a power line which dangles, still sparking, on the ground. Beside it lies a man who smells like roasted meat. His face is frozen in an obscene death mask with bulging eyes and teeth bared in a futile snarl.

Witnesses tell you the man, a regular at the corner tavern, was seen wandering down the alley where he stopped to relieve himself. And apparently decided to play 'fire extinguisher' with the fallen power line. It was an awesome thing to see, the witnesses report. Like a one-man fireworks show. You decide to wait in the warmth of your vehicle until the squadrol arrives to remove the body. "I pity the fool," B.B. is singing, and this time, you agree completely.

You decide it's time for a much-needed coffee break and head for the Steak 'n Egger. The place is empty except for a truck driver hunched over a plate of pancakes, gearing up for his morning run. The waitress, Mimi, brings your coffee - hot, black, and strong enough to strip the rust off a tramp steamer, but tonight it tastes like ambrosia. You sip it slowly to savor the heat and dilute your fatigue, and smile when Mimi leans a well-padded hip against the counter and asks how your night is going. And slides a couple of fresh cruller in front of you as she listens intently. She's heard it all, a thousand times from a thousand cops who sit on these stools and brace themselves before going back into the fray. Stories she can gasp at and exclaim over, but nothing she can feel, not like you do, when your heart is clawed out by the broken bodies and lost souls. But Mimi offers a sympathetic ear and a warm smile that flashes a gold tooth. For the umpteenth time, you reflect that this grease-filmed little diner is your sanctuary, and Mimi with her flourescent red hair and tired eyes is the brief respite you seek from the long night. So you trade wisecracks, tell a few corny jokes, and drain your coffee before heading back out. And somehow it's enough to get you through whatever comes next.

B.B. King is singing, "We're gonna make it," and with only three hours left to go, you think that maybe you will. The police radio is quieter now, the jobs less frequent. You write a few parking tickets and prepare to coast through until the end of the shift. The music is pulsing and funky, oozing around you as the assignments are doled out. You take a missing-person report, knowing even as you fill out the paperwork that it's futile. The 'missing' girl is eighteen, a known gang-member and drug addict, and a frequent arrestee. A girl more likely to be passed out over a crack pipe somewhere than missing. But her mother is distraught, gripping her rosary beads with one trembling hand as she swipes at tears with the other. It's her daughter, her only child. A good girl, she insists, and begs you in a sobbing mixture of English and Spanish to find her.

Another car accident is next, this time with damages minor enough to be directed into the station. With less than two hours left of your shift, you're sent to a domestic disturbance on the ninth floor of the housing projects where a disgruntled wife has come up with a novel way to keep her cheating husband at home. After his usual evening out with the girlfriend du jour, the man in question staggered home drunk and exhausted from hot women and cold beer. As he stumbled into his darkened apartment, his waiting wife gave him a shove into the open trunk positioned just inside the door.

It was easy, she tells you, to fold his legs inside and slam the lid down, even easier to snap the padlock closed. She's a woman with a plan, the plan being to ship his drunk ass back home to Greenville, Mississippi. Maybe back in the country, he won't have such a wandering eye. Only problem is that the trunk won't fit in the building elevator, so she needs the police to carry it down nine flights. And cops a major attitude when you inform her that your duties don't extend that far.

"You're the police," she snarls. "Ain't you supposed to protect and serve?"

"Gonna move to the outskirts of town," B.B. is singing as you drive away. Just one more hour to go now, and now the frigid sky is softening in bands of pale dawn. One more hour until you can head home, slip into a hot shower, and then, finally, the luxury of your own bed. But today is Thursday - your turn to drive the kids to school. So you tack on another twenty minutes to these last sixty. It doesn't matter when the pay-off - a long stretch of much-needed sleep - is the same. And that's when the call comes.

"Nineteen-twelve, you've got 'Information for the Police,' - 32XX North Campbell. Citizen's name is Drexel, says she'll be waiting for you in the vestibule."

'Information for the Police' - that famous catch-all description that covers everything from the woman who's receiving signals from Venus through her toaster oven to the concerned citizen who's certain the corner ice-cream shop is a front for South American terrorists. It might be an observant party who's noticed that his mailman looks suspiciously like Jeffrey Dahmer - never mind that Dahmer's been dead for years now - who knows for sure? There's even some people out there who actually believe Elvis is dead!

When you arrive, the complainant is huddled near the door, shivering in her leopard-print caftan. She waves you over with a pudgy hand tipped in acrylic rhinestoned talons that twinkle in the early light.
"There's something funny going on," she tells you, patting her pink sponge-rollered hair importantly. "First, I ain't heard the baby cry in two days. In fact, I ain't even seen it in no telling how long. Then the mama come over to my house, asking me can she borrow my blender. Like why she need a blender in the middle of the night? I tell you, Officer, somethin' just ain't right up in that place!"
She precedes you up the grimy stairs, oblivious to the skittering roaches and urine stench, and pauses ominously before a peeling door.

"This where she live," the woman whispers. "Her and the baby. And sometime he stay here too."

"Who's he?"

"Dope dealer, most like. And her pimp. I see her all the time on the corner, be looking for tricks. But the baby.....she 'bout thirteen, fourteen months, just as cute as she can be. And I ain't seen her, ain't heard her cryin', even when her mama be arguing and carrying on. And you know that ain't right." She nods sagely and flattens herself against the wall, watching as you knock on the door.

The woman who opens the door is slack-jawed, shriveled in a filthy T-shirt. Her eyes are glazed, the track marks on her arm as thick and twisted as sin. She barely nods as you walk past her into the apartment.

What you find there will haunt you for years to come. The lady of the house is a junkie, and that man passed out on the mattress in the corner is a businessman, his business being drugs and women. He supplies her with drugs as long as she comes up with the cash. Which used to be no problem - just turn a few tricks and she'd be ready for the next hit. Except that now it's a little harder to get customers, especially with those oozing lesions right there in plain view. But she still hits the streets, trying to hustle up some money, while her man babysits her daughter. Only problem is, his memory's not the greatest, not after years of alcohol and drug abuse, so he never could remember that babies need to be fed and changed. So when the baby started to wail, he'd do the simple thing, which was to whack her until she shut up. This time, though, after a few drinks and some lines of coke, it seemed easier to throw her at the wall. After that, he never had to worry about her crying again.

When the mother came home, her only concern was how to dispose of her daughter. Dead bodies smell, she said. Sooner or later somebody was bound to notice. Too bad they didn't have a dog to eat it. Which was all her man needed to come up with a solution.
There were plenty of stray dogs hanging around the dumpster outside, he said. Why not slice up the baby, feed it to the dogs like steak? That way there'd be no evidence. The mother was dubious. It sounded like a good idea, but what if the dogs didn't eat it all? What if the neighbors found it?

Simple, the man told her. Just coat the pieces in cornmeal batter, fry it up like chicken. Everybody knows how a dog loves chicken. Fueled by more drugs, they carried out their plan, or most of it. The baby's head presented a problem. Too big to batter and fry, too obvious to throw out. What about tossing it in a blender to grind it up? They didn't have a blender, but the neighbors did. Why not run over and borrow it? Nothing suspicious about a drugged-out junkie dripping with her daughter's blood coming to borrow a small appliance in the middle of the night.

There's nothing in your training, not from the Police Academy or your years on the street that can prepare you for this. The horror, the abomination of not just the act, but the utter detachment of the mother deliver a one-two K.O. punch that leaves you reeling. You want to scream, to retch, to rip out the hearts of these monsters. But you're the police, an officer sworn to your professional duties. So you swallow your horror and do what you have to. It's only after the crime lab has arrived, and the handcuffed prisoners are led away that you notice the slogan emblazoned on the mother's T-shirt. Streaked with filth and nearly obscured by her daughter's blood are words in curving gold script that proclaim, "World's Best Mom."

By the time you make it back to your squad car, you're already in your second hour of overtime, which means you've missed driving your kids to school, which means guaranteed attitude from your spouse later today. It doesn't matter. Your family is loved, and safe - for now - and you'll do anything to keep them that way. And protect them from the kind of evil that preys on the weak and helpless.

You shut your eyes as your partner starts the car, trying to forget what you've just seen, wondering how you'll do this again tomorrow. And knowing, somehow, that you will. But you can't quite stop the parade of baby images that taunt you. Music fills the car as the cassette clicks on, and a single tear falls as you listen to B.B.'s last song of the night:

"Nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin' too."

Copyright 2002 by Gina Gallo

 

 

"SWORN SECRETS"

"HELP IS JUST A CAPE AWAY"

"THE BAR CODE"

"LIVE FROM
DEAD-END STREET

"ANGEL IN THE SNOW"

"INSANE FISH"

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