Samuel K Wilkes' character Johnny reaches a turning point in his low-down life.
Was it me?
Regardless, this is the voicemail I awoke to one cloudy Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. after a long night of illegal fun:
"Hey Johnny, this is Officer Reese with the (redacted) Police Department. We received your online application from the personnel department this morning and really would like to talk with you in person. If you could, give us a call back. And just to give you a heads up, I will be here tomorrow morning around 7:30 a.m. if you're available to come down to the office to interview. The best number to reach me is -"
Right, that's what I said - what the hell? Also, I haven't been called "Johnny" since I was in middle school. But more on that later. I'm simply a lanky college dropout, who smokes and drinks too much. I also take in a steady diet of weed and go off on an occasional coke binge. Just an average young Joe. So what the hell?
As soon as I chugged three Gatorades and ate a very late Sonic breakfast, I immediately called my best friend, and all around asshole, Chuck.
"Real funny, man. That seemed real. Where'd you get the old black man?" I asked.
"Dude. That's my dog! What the hell? Did you lose your eyesight after last night?"
"Your dog? Wait what?"
"You're racist, dude. Seriously, what's up?"
"No, you seriously - who did you get to call my ass this morning?"
"What call? I was talking about my new profile pic."
"I wasn't! I'm not looking at your Facebook page, Chuck. I'm asking you about the voicemail you left on my phone."
"What the hell? Not me, dude. No idea what you're talking about. I woke up about an hour ago. Showered for 30 minutes. Rubbed one out - well two - and changed my profile pic. Did you see it yet?"
I believed him because I knew him too well. Plus, he was not one to let a joke linger on for too long. He usually couldn't help himself. He would've smashed the pie in my face before hanging up. Or at least given it away with odd questions as he tried to play along. I have a lot of dumbass friends that enjoy pranks, but not like this. And Chuck was really the only one who ever pulled pranks on me. So after ruling him out, I was stumped.
When the vice grip released my head for the day, I hopped on my bike and pedaled down to the nearest bar. I ordered a Bloody Mary to steady my nerves and lit a cigarette because I am addicted. Townes Van Zandt sang "Pancho and Lefty" from a jukebox in the back corner. I paced the length of the pool table and tried to run back through the events of the evening: the warm liquor at Sammy's, the cigarette burn at Paul's, the bowl and three lines at Maggie's, the smoky sweaty punk band, the three shots, the impromptu dumpster fire, the two bumps and four more lines, the joke Paul told that seemed to last 3 hours, the jazzercise, the stars spinning, the moon laughing, the clenched jaws, the continuous stream of smoke, and the sharp sound of the first morning birds piercing the brain. Nothing.
I then called my lawyer buddy, Will.
"So tell me, Will, what's entrapment exactly?"
My next hunch or worry was that this was some form of entrapment. Or some new technique employed to lure the fleas of society into the spray, like the Lee County courthouse that sent out fake notices for free Iron Bowl tickets to a list of dead-beat dads. They showed up one by one with wide smiles, then were led into a back room where officers cuffed them on outstanding warrants for overdue child support. It was hard to watch their disappointment and yet satisfying at the same time.
Anyway, Will explained it with ease and when I ended the call I felt confident this was not entrapment. That's a good attorney. Advice when you needed it. Will and I were high school classmates. He did well for himself. I'm not jealous, really. Just proud.
After a couple of hours of cigarettes, the blurred images of the night before were gradually focusing. Maybe it was the Bloody Mary or maybe the overload of nicotine. Nonetheless, I was beginning to realize this was all intentional. Not a prank or a trap. It was no secret that I had been longing for a change. The late afternoon hangovers, the continuous fog and clogged nose, it all needed to stop. But I had yet to find a way to climb out of the entertaining cycle. I remembered near the end of the night before, some lit drunk kept calling me Robert. After correcting him ten times, we almost came to blows. He kept saying I looked like a Robert. But I only knew one Robert, and I certainly didn't measure up. This began to weigh on me. The booger sugar and the annoying drunk unleashed something bubbling within. Something deep inside, which I hadn't formalized yet, was ready whether I liked it or not, ready to initiate change, ready to breach the surface and face the light of day, forsaking everything I had come to be a part of and every illegal step across the line I had chosen to take.
My favorite relative and all around person was my Uncle Robert. He was a police officer for as long as I knew him. I distinctly remember sitting for hours and handling his surprisingly weighty badge and his interesting hat with its shiny gold crest and fanned out eagle wings. My dad, or any other dad I knew, didn't wear anything like it. I remember watching, at eye level, his holster and the black deadly steel it carried as he joined us at family gatherings. I thought he must've been the most important and most respected member of the family, a protector of the tribe, carrying his gun outside his pants for all the world to see. He was really alive, aware of his instincts, not having to question whether he would fight or fly when things went down. A real life Dark Knight, saving all the other selfish rubes from anarchy. I felt that way for a long time, before I became too cool and my life went in the complete other direction. Back when I was innocent and honest with myself. I guess I wanted to go back to that. I must have, because later that cloudy Tuesday afternoon I found the job application saved on my laptop. I had even filled it out properly, without an alias or sex jokes in the boxes. This was real.
I pulled my bike up to the precinct at 7:25 a.m. the next morning. I was early. I felt good, working on a full night's rest after going to bed at 10:30 p.m., drinking chamomile tea and reading Hemingway shorts until I drifted off. A first for me in a while. I tucked my collared shirt into my wrinkled khakis as a large officer was exiting the building to his patrol car.
"You Johnny?" he said without even looking in my direction.
"Sir?" I asked, taken off guard. "I mean yes."
"Well, come on, you can ride with me," he said, this time looking at me as he opened his door.
"Should I change clothes first or watch an instructional video or something - " I mumbled under my breath, hoping he didn't hear me.
And he didn't.
Apparently it's that easy to ride in a cruiser - the front seat that is. We pulled out of the lot while the sun was slowly rising just like any other day. I remember not knowing what to do with my hands. Every way I positioned them I still felt like a third grader getting to ride along with a visiting officer on Career Day. Or the time Uncle Robert let me ride with him in the Christmas parade. I compared my skinny skeleton-like fingers to the officer's bear paws. He caught me looking.
"So, how long have you wanted to join the department, son?"
"Eh, it was a fairly recent decision. But it's been a dream of mine since childhood," I said, sounding corny as hell.
"Well good," he said, before sipping from his coffee mug. "So look, my schedule got all screwed up, I thought we'd be able to chat in the office this morning and tell you about the process, but I got patrol duty, so instead of asking you to come back some other time I figured you could just ride along. You ok with that?"
"Thanks," I said awkwardly, stuffing my hands in my pockets.
Up until this point, I had never driven through the projects in the morning. Now don't get me wrong, I was poor, but not project-poor. And I had been to the projects to buy cheap drugs many times, but never at night and never in the morning. There was something pleasant about the scene. I watched an old dog sniff through an empty fast food bag. Sparrows watched from the power line above as a pair of hanging shoes swayed below their feet. I wanted to roll down the window.
"So, son, let me ask you. You ever -" Officer Reese stopped midsentence and suddenly accelerated the cruiser. "Hold up now, that Jeep just ran that light. Did you see it?"
"No, I wasn't paying -"
His call into the radio interrupted my lame response. He then pointed impatiently to some switch on the dash. I flipped it and immediately winced at the sound - that sound - that whirling obnoxious siren that I had feared and loathed for the latter part of my existence. I was now producing that sound. I was that sound.
The cruiser sped through the broken streets right up to the back bumper of the Jeep. I could see our swirling lights in the reflection of his back tinted window. The Jeep slowly pulled to the curb. My heart slowed. Appeared to be a routine stop for ol' Officer Reese. I watched as he leisurely entered the tag information into the dashboard computer.
"You never know what you're going to get with these stops, Johnny."
Every time he called me that I thought of my Uncle Robert. He was the only one who ever called me Johnny. I wished he could've seen me at this moment. Unfortunately, he passed before I entered high school. Then again, seeing me in high school or college (or the other night for that matter) would've probably killed him if the cancer didn't. Growing up I was always his little Lieutenant Johnny. And now, what a waste of space I'd become.
A reflection flashed before us as the Jeep door opened. The driver turned to us, casually hiked up his jeans, and took off into the adjacent yard.
"Ah, hell, you see that? We got us a runner," Officer Reese huffed, dropping his clipboard and throwing his door open.
"Well, son," he paused, looked me up and down, then struggled to climb out of his seat, "you coming or what?"
So that was it. I didn't question Officer Reese or my life any further. I was needed.
"It's game time, Uncle Robert," I said under my breath with an icy stare.
I kicked open my door and set my radar lock on the running perp. Years of unused adrenaline pumped throughout my body and took over the controls. I ran like an antelope through the dead grass and cleared a chain link fence without a second thought. The perp was in my sights. Officer Reese dragged far behind. I had no time to consider waiting to let him go first. The race was on and I was no longer the antelope. My body and instincts were now driving. I had become the hunter - the predator. This was not the John I knew recently. And I liked it.
After sprinting through three yards, juking out a chained up a Chow Chow, and leaping over two fences, the perp finally slowed slightly to catch his breath. His mistake. My lanky frame tackled the overweight man like a cheetah taking down a water buffalo. The contact was primal. Good old fashioned face-to-the-red-dirt-contact. This wasn't pressing a combination of buttons on a video game controller. Or a page turner under the soft glow of a book light. This was me - man - taking down man, in a fight for survival. I felt the air leave him as if I was hugging a punctured raft.
I was not really certain if he gave up or was just too confused - being that some lanky white boy in a Polo and slacks sprinted out of nowhere to form tackle him. Nonetheless, while he lay with his face to the ground, I stuck my boney knee in the center of his back. It was the first time since high school that I had hoped Uncle Robert was looking down watching me. I grabbed the perp's arms as he tried to look up.
"Who the hell are you, kid?"
Without thinking, I spat, "Name's Johnny. I'm new to this beat."