Judson isn’t always where I called home. Sometimes I forget that. It’s easy to view Milwaukee—where I grew up, met my wife, first became a cop—as a sort of parallel universe. Judson Bottom has that effect on everyone who moves here, the sensation that you’ve hit a reset button and the slate is blank, blanker than you ever knew it could be.
My first beat was a real wringer on the south side, the kind they put rookies through to try and sweat out the idealists. I’ll tell you what, it almost worked. In my first week I saw more dead bodies than your average mailman sees in his entire life, and it’s not like I was a fucking homicide detective or anything. That was just on patrol. Half of them were overdoses. Beauford was the name of the heel training me on the street. I swear to this day he must have requested that his unit be sent to every non-responsive loser strewn across the bed or crumpled on the floor.
Dead people are all limbs. The rest of them seems to implode. The torso shrinks into itself like a daddy long legs, while the limbs, all rubbery and bloodless, scramble for something to latch onto, something to drag along into the unknown. Dead bodies also radiate a certain coldness, but within that there is a vestige of heat. It’s like a dish left out on the stove after the burner has been extinguished. None of us in a million years picture ourselves turning up like that, despite our better logic.
What struck me about Beauford was his unyielding cynicism, his callousness. In time, I would learn this as a staple trait among cops and paramedics to protect their psyches, but at the time it really jolted me. He was unmarried and had no kids. His whole existence was police work and an annual vacation he’d take to Phoenix every winter to visit his sister. One time we left a house with the stench of burnt pizza trapped in our nostrils. A guy had shot up with something in the oven. A neighbor complaining about the smell was what prompted our response. Seated in the cruiser, Beauford wouldn’t look me straight in the eye. He pretended to be adjusting his mirrors while he sermonized:
“I remember being you, Fontanel. I remember how it is, thinking you’re going to clean up the town, fight crime, get your ass wiped by the Mayor with triple-ply and all that. Then the first motherfucker points a gun at you, or calls you a pig, and you realize we’re lower than garbage men out here.” We sat watching EMTs load a covered stretcher into the ambulance. I was trapped.
“Look at all them people going by,” he pointed. “Some of them would kill you in a minute if they knew they could get away with it. They don’t even have to know you, because they already got it fixed in their heads what you stand for. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but there’s a growing hostility toward police in this country, and it’s all completely justified. Men are flawed protectors of other men. Think of it like somebody getting a rottweiler to protect their pit bull. The pit bull’s going to resent that shit. The pit bull’s going to say: who do you think you are? And the rottweiler’s going to say: nigga, I’ll show you who the fuck I am. And inevitably you’re going to have tension. No, unless you tug on that leash in time, what you end up with is a bloody fucking mess. You understand me, Mickey?”
Grave mockery played on his whittled face. Around us were the payday lenders, the hock shops, enough liquor marts to sustain the Russian officer class for millennia, all of them with cold black bars or metal grates in the windows.
“Except remember,” he added, reveling in the hopelessness as he saw it. “We out here without leashes.”
Rockets’ red glare detonate the sky. Wojcik’s place is across the street from Judson High’s football field. He can watch the Juggernauts games from his window, though he sometimes gripes about the intensity of the stadium lights. Around the field winds a polyurethane track spaced into lanes by white stripes. Neither Bruno nor Ismael were much for organized sport, but one thing about the latter was that he could run. That boy could run so fast it’s easy for me to imagine that he simply lost track of where his feet were taking him. Or maybe the wind—which oftentimes seemed to cradle his lean, featherweight body and place it down somewhere victorious—had this time dropped him in the eye of the world’s storm.
I put the kickstand down on my Harley, the ghost of a low-torque rumble still swimming in my crotch. I am quite a ways down from the house. The curb is jam-packed. Someone on the block must be hosting a party or a cookout. When I see that the Wojciks’ driveway is full, I figure it’s about to get awkward, that the Chief neglected to invite me for whatever reason. Not that I care or can blame him in the slightest. There is a certain disrepute that goes along with being my friend, especially in Joanne’s social circle. To them I am the town sleaze. The worst thing you can do, short of beating your wife, is cheat on her, especially if no one in their clique is the other woman.
The distant fireworks are reflected in the windshields and fiberglass bodies of mostly European cars. Joanne herself, ever the vigilant hostess, answers my knock promptly. “Why, Detective! To what on earth do we owe the pleasure?”
In a different world she could have been the next Joan Crawford. She is capable of packing a spectrum of emotions into a perfunctory glance. I’m sure it’s unconscious on her part, a symptom of her instability. Before the door is even fully open, I watch her segue from surprise verging on anger into malicious glee. If I were not so used to the dynamo that is Joanne Wojcik, it would be disquieting. I think of her more as a science experiment. Bride of Frankenstein.
“Sorry to interrupt your party. Can I borrow the Chief for a minute?”
“What makes you think he was invited?” she smirks, hand on her hip, glancing over her shoulder to see who is witnessing the shtick.
Shuffling my feet, I grin and wait for her to go on.
Then her whole mannerism changes. She becomes welcoming, even matronly, standing aside and sweeping her hand across the foyer. “Won’t you come in and have a drink? Something to eat? Lord knows there’s plenty to go around.” So I thank her and enter, wiping my shoes on the mat, exchanging terse smiles and nods with a few people in her pseudo-sorority. They keep their heads lowered like the scheming Fates, whispering into their wine glasses. As I turn and peer into the living room, I comprehend too late, just as Joanne shuts (and I swear deadbolts) the door, that it is all a trap, a set-up. I have been had and had good, and I almost want to applaud her cunning.
I feel like a dinosaur entering a paleontology convention. The heads turn. The voices decrescendo. The house is packed solely with women. Not another man in sight. This may sound like an auspicious scenario, but these are not the sort of women any man wants to be isolated with. These are high society dames, or the closest thing Judson Bottom has to offer. Some strange tropical music is waltzing out of the Bose system. The Pandora station playing on the Samsung LED is simply called “Hawaii.” Beside it stands Cindy Bishop, the wife of my divorce attorney. We lock eyes. I am about to offer up a stock greeting when I notice she is brandishing what appears to be a red, white, and blue candy-striped dildo, still in its packaging.
Joanne rests a hand on my shoulder. I jump like I’ve been stung by a hornet. “Ladies, let’s not begrudge Mickey here a plate of chicken and some sides. Men can always be counted on to clean up the leftovers.”
“Is the Chief in?” I mutter to Joanne without taking my eyes off Mrs. Bishop’s replica phallus. I don’t catch the response, if there is one. Covering the floor are open Rubbermaid totes packed with a full selection of sexual accoutrements. I take an inventory of what looks like a penis cage, then several piston-shaped vibrators, then something that curls and sparkles and appears forged out of glass. All the totes have bumper stickers slapped on the sides that read: Kinky Times, Inc.
Maggie Shapiro, the head librarian, is on the window seat inspecting an anal plug that looks like an enlarged pacifier. I suffer a flashback of those same waxy hands scanning a Clifford Saves the Day book for Bruno to check out. The plug has rivets and a knobby head like a screw. I envision her husband, the taciturn bookkeeper at Temple Zion synagogue, using a power drill to work it inside of her. Is this one of those elitist Jew sex cabals, I wonder, that alt right radio warns us about with pitched horror?
Then comes the coup de fucking gras, as it were. Who else would walk in from the dining room bearing a plate of kosher hors d’oeuvres? Her mouth opens and hangs there momentarily, as if waiting for a minnow to swim inside. “What a coincidence,” Rhonda seethes. “I can’t remember you ever dropping by to see the Chief unannounced when we were married.”
Joanne caws behind me, “I’m sure Spencer mentioned something to him. Even though I told him to keep his fat lip buttoned.”
“You just had to drop by and make sure I wasn’t having too good a time.” My ex-wife sets her plate on the coffee table so that her arms are free for crossing. “If you like I can show you my order form.”
I kick myself for not noticing her car parked out front. I kick myself for not calling ahead to check whether Wojcik was actually home. Rhonda is the only hispanic in the room, the Mexican friend who gives these women moral licensing to denigrate border hoppers. She is also the only one qualified to publicly berate me. If it were anyone else standing in my place, I could maybe find the situational comedy. She has legions of back-up. I’m in a veritable snake pit. At her command, I’m sure they would all take off their heels and start welting me over the ears.
I address everyone in the room except Rhonda, unable to stand her murderous gaze much longer. “I came here on legitimate police business to talk with Chief Wojcik. It’s a very serious matter.”
“Joanne, I have to insist that you throw him out of here immediately,” Rhonda protests. “If he’s staying, then I’m leaving. I hate to make demands in your home, but that’s the way things stand.” A murmur of solidarity circulates among the women like so many flavored condoms. The expressions grow fiercer and more repugnant, as though I’ve been caught ushering a teenage girl into Planned Parenthood.
“I suspect you’ll find Spencer at the Brown Buoy.” Joanne steps in front of me, shielding Rhonda from the trauma of my presence, choosing to pretend that I broke in through a window rather than having been invited inside. Her lips are pursed, painted a shade darker than that Lucille Ball perm of hers, her smoky eyes narrowed into something reptilian.
All I can think to do is nod generally on my way out. “—Ladies.”
The Brown Buoy is a country bar erected right on the beach of Mishicot Lake. It’s nothing fancy, a log cabin with a corrugated zinc roof, but it has picture windows on three sides so you can drink and admire the scenery in the heart of the Kettle Moraine. The bar owners also run a campground. Very few campers come and stay for more than one drink. The regulars here can be a territorial lot, wary of their backyards and sporting grounds becoming an exploited cash cow à la Wisconsin Dells.
Glancing around, I note a few familiar faces. None of them are Spencer’s. His Chevy is out front though, so I figure he must be on the deck, watching the night fishermen with their headlamps angle for brook trout and bluegill. I order a Spotted Cow from an androgynous bartender named Mel, then go and join him.
It’s a beautiful hot night with only the mosquitoes to bitch about. The whitewashed deck is tethered to a pier below by a long wooden ramp fretted with 2x4s which serve as grips. At the mouth of the ramp sits Wojcik, occupying one half of a picnic table, contemplating his brandy old-fashioned. Off in the darkness hides a marshland, shoulder-high cattails, carbon-black mud, and the croak of frogs.
“I suppose you want to be light years from anything work-related right now.”
He turns his head and grins. “I’ll be damned. Small world.”
“Too damn small.” I pull up a plastic chair, rather than sit across from him and miss out on the view. Light traces his bear-like shoulders from the picture window. The silhouettes of the men and their boats bob on the lake like inert Nessies. No artificial light is needed. The moon’s reflection on the water is sufficient. “Actually I tried your place first,” I confess.
“Oh.” His voice turns troubled, either because he knows what I must have encountered, or because the implication is that I have something urgent to discuss.
“You’re going to hate me,” I say over the chittering cicadas, already unfolding Ismael’s letter from my pocket. When I was in high-school, our lit teacher, Mrs. Duvenek, arranged a field trip to a small arthouse production of Medea. The only aspect of it that really sticks with me to this day is the concept of the Greek chorus. They were minimalist black-robed specters with white-painted faces, expressionless, all-seeing and all-knowing. For some reason, the din of the cicadas brings them to mind, the way they brought demigod clarity to scenes ruled by passion and chaos, clarity which fell necessarily on deaf ears.
Wojcik studies the paper, studies my face. He says, “Don’t we see enough of each other?”
“More than enough. Nadeem Mubarak came by my place.”
“His son never turned up?” he asks in genuine surprise, snapping his fingers impatiently. “Gosh, what’s his name?”
“That’s right, like Moby Dick.”
“Sure, Chief, like Moby Dick. Or the Old Testament. You know, whatever sticks.”
Wojcik is a Polish Jew on his mother’s side, largely non-practicing, which explains why he was at work today on Shabbat. Joanne converted when they married, or as he likes to put it, “she renounced Jesus for me.” We have never discussed what the catalysts were that made it so easy for her to ditch Christianity. We’re not close in that sort of way. But he has alluded to the notion that his semi-celebrity status as the first Jewish police chief not just of Judson Bottom but the entire Sheboygan County could have seemed glamorous to someone like her.
He snatches the letter, exaggerating a let’s-get-it-over-with sigh. “Didn’t that kid graduate with Bruno last month? He should be able to go wherever he damn well pleases. Your boy is across the country right now, isn’t he? Having a blast.”
“Sounds like it,” I say. Though in fact I’ve heard very little from him.
“There you go. That’s what I’m saying,” he asserts, rapping the page with his knuckles. “These kids can’t be expected to merge from high-school right into college without going out and exploring the world for a change. Exploring themselves. When I graduated, me and some buddies got hold of a ’67 Dodge A100 and took it clear to—”
“This is nothing like that, Chief, sorry to say.”
“Alright, alright.” He holds the letter in such a way that the light from the window illuminates the text. I listen to his breathing. It grows more labored the farther along he reads, as if doing so is akin to climbing a jagged peak. I swallow down most of my beer, nervous for him to finish, nervous about what the diagnosis will be. This is beyond both our pay scales. It belongs in the sphere of the Pentagon’s priorities, not two small-town cops with bad marriages and alcohol dependencies.
One of the fishermen calls it quits. An outboard gutters to life, dispensing the balmy silence in a visceral way, like a chainsaw chewing at a stump of wood.
A tremor passes through Wojcik’s body as he sets the letter in his lap. “God almighty.”
“Yeah.” “We better hope this is one sick joke, or else Judson Bottom is going to be swarmed by media. Swarmed, you hear me?”
“More media means more tourists,” I shrug. The only nugget of optimism I can mine.
The Chief grumbles, “Fucking tourists,” and throws back a swig of brandy. I sense that tourists is a stand-in word for something else, something larger. Maybe several things. Hell, maybe everything.
For awhile in their junkyard days, Bruno and Ismael had themselves a pet. They speculated it had wriggled through the same gap in the fence which they used to enter, then got trapped like a bee inside a bottle. It was a young deer, a fawn that wandered the junkyard, getting slimmer and eating trash, bleating for its mother at first, who must have paced along the fenceline for several hapless hours. Bruno said they had tried enlarging the hole but were not strong enough.
One day they came back and the fawn was gone. It had escaped miraculously. The boys searched the whole perimeter but didn’t find another breach besides the main entrance. Either it had snuck out during the day when the gate was open or been coaxed to freedom by a sanitation worker. The boys carried on play-acting. Men In Black was a couple years old then. I, being the fun dad, rented it for them one night against Rhonda’s wishes. She turned out to be right. Bruno didn’t sleep for the next three nights, eyeing the blackness beyond his window, waiting for a giant cockroach to slip through and juice his innards into something potable. By day he professed it to be his favorite movie. He and Ismael (who may or may not have been having the same nocturnal dilemma) would pretend to be agents. They went to Dupree’s gas station and bought $5 sunglasses, a meaningful investment at that age. Once Bruno even asked to wear one of my ties to school. They ran around the Martian terrain of the junkyard, wielding stick guns or soda bottle guns, ducking and diving amid heaps of trash, each outdoing the other’s imagination in conceiving the most hideous foe.
Ismael was the first to stumble upon the carcass.
It had tried burrowing itself face-first into a pile of garbage, perhaps during a storm, and then died there, legs splayed, ribs poking through matted flesh. Kids, particularly boys, have a special way of bouncing back from the grotesque, or even conforming the grotesque to their tolerability level. The fawn only really became their pet postmortem. Bruno says they visited it regularly. They would record the daily decaying changes to its body. Its flesh grew thinner. Flies ate out its eyes and laid maggots, until the sockets were squirming white pools of mush. The skin around its teeth deteriorated, so it was always smiling like some obtuse death mask. Its bones started to show through, chalk-pallored, with tendons still dangling. Consequently, Bruno and Ismael observed their own bony arms with new awe, realizing how akin to the deer they were after hair and skin were removed, after nature’s embellishments were stripped away and only the scaffolding stood.
A short time later, the boys returned to find clumps of gray fur ensnarled on the jagged fence hole. They proceeded to the fawn, found that it had been disturbed, violated, scattered in the night, its bones cast every which way, the last of its rancid flesh gnawed by some sufficiently desperate coyote. I’m told they then gathered the bones, as many as they could find, and had a proper burial for the fawn—there in that miraculous junkyard, which had the faculty to become anywhere, even an uncharted planet, even the afterlife.
I have just walked in and set my keys on the table when the phone rings. It is my brother, Gavin, calling me for the second time in the space of a month, which is probably a new record. The first time was in light of the Orlando massacre. The time before that had to be seven months earlier, when fourteen people were slaughtered by two Islamic radicals in a San Bernardino office shooting. In light of this trend, my first words when I answer are, “No bad news, Woody. My head can’t take it tonight.” Woody is a nickname I saddled him with ages ago, after pointing out that his clipped laugh resembled Woody the Woodpecker’s. He has since outgrown the laugh but not the nickname.
“Okay, how does good news sound for a change?”
“Far more tolerable.” I walk over to a paint-chipped hutch, grab a bottle of Tullamore Dew, and pour two fingers in a glass.
“You’re talking to the new Head Sergeant of Milwaukee’s Gang Violence Unit.”
“Fuckin’ A.” I pause for a moment with the bottle at half tilt. “You got the promotion.”
“Don’t sound so surprised.” He laughs his vigorous new grown-up laugh, a disarming laugh that makes people jump and join in, even if they haven’t been paying attention.
“Congratulations,” I say, carrying my drink to the sofa. “You’ve got the cojones for it. I know you’ll do the gig justice. Me, I’ve already gotten too complacent here in my little hole in the wall. Those gang bangers would smell cow shit on me a block away.”
“Well, if you ever change your mind, I could use a good man like you,” he says in an ironic voice.
“Technically, I’m still operating under Captain Dreiser.”
“He’s just there to shake the Mayor’s hand when you do your job well.” I conjure up a portrait of the Captain, a true chameleon of a man, which made him suspect to his peers. But then he was never trying to impress his peers. As much as people like to think policing is a team sport, most of the time you’re lucky if one able comrade has your back. The rest is ego driving you along. The will to live, compounded, in Dreiser’s case, by the will to dictate. “So when are we getting tore up on North Ave. to celebrate?” I ask.
“Some of the boys are taking me out for steaks at The Shamrock on Friday. Drinks to follow. Let me put it this way, either you’re there or I sic the Spanish Cobras on you.”
“You had me at steaks. Text me the details so I won’t forget them.”
“Roger that.” I can hear him talking around a toothpick, that’s how well I know him. He probably just enjoyed a gourmet spread that evening prepared by his doting wife. I can picture him reclined in his La-Z-Boy, belt unbuckled, in his refurbished Victorian down in the Bayview district. “So what’s new with you?” he asks. “I literally have no clue. I can’t even stalk you on Facebook because you refuse to embrace the 21st century. I know more about distant cousins than I do you. For example, Monica had a baby. Did you know that?”
“Monica Monica?” I say incredulously, after racking my brain for a moment. “Garrett’s little ape? Isn’t she like twelve years old?”
“She was ten years ago,” he says.
“Jesus, I am out of touch.”
“You act like Judson Bottom is light years away. You’ve made the trip in forty minutes on that piglet of yours.”
I want to tell him. I can feel the pressure welling up in my lungs, an unquenchable breath. But Wojcik and I agreed not thirty minutes ago that we wouldn’t say a word to anyone, not even other officers, out of respect for the family. Secrets are notoriously short-lived in Judson Bottom. Tonight, probably at this moment, the Chief will be getting in touch with the FBI. The whole town is about to be turned on its head.
I say, “What’s new? Oh, not a hell of a lot. Most violent crimes here are committed against cattle.”
We laugh over that. He asks about Bruno. Then the conversation turns to sports. Who do you like in the draft pick? A predictable route. Suddenly feeling restless, I get off the couch and pace around the room, drink in hand. In the background of the call I can hear television, a car alarm going off in the street, a street which bears no resemblance to mine. The kids have burnt the last of their sparklers and the fireworks display is over. Outside my window stands a solitary lamp post vomiting a cone of light.
I roll the Irish whiskey over my tongue and close my eyes, relegating Gavin’s voice to the back burner, picturing stone castles, emerald isles, breakers crashing against rough plummeting cliffs. This is only an ideal painted in my head by calendar snapshots and travel shows. I’ve never been to Ireland, never even been to Europe, something I’d be more reticent to admit in Milwaukee, whereas here I can wear it as a badge of provincial fidelity. I suppose I’d be sorely disillusioned to get off the plane and find the same stench of dung had followed me on saltier winds.