Judson Bottom

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It Comes Unbidden

Her name is called. Smiling, she takes a fortifying sip from her cocktail. Pink lipstick smudges the rim. She proceeds to the front of the room. Strangers and acquaintances alike stoke her confidence with cries of support.

The man at the folding card table hands her a microphone. It’s a ceremonious transaction, like Arthur being bestowed Excalibur. The degree of responsibility is not lost on her. Her chest dips and rises in slow, deep breaths, but she never loses that smile. Devout showmanship. Never let your nerves show if you can help it, although maybe just a little. It can endear you to an audience. She wears her hair in pigtails, this woman. Her figure can be described as stocky.

The man at the table clicks once on his laptop. Through dual JBL speakers, the opening strains to Nancy Sinatra’s “Summer Wine” blossom. The karaoke man himself, a fellow with the name Chuck embroidered on his double-breasted white cowboy shirt, rises and takes the stage beside her, singing the part of Lee Hazlewood.

All around me, most of the Brown Buoy patrons are enraptured. The song seems to be taking them somewhere, somewhere I don’t have a ticket to follow. I can only be a voyeur to their journey. As for Wojcik, he is three or four brandies in, nodding his head, tapping his foot on the brass railing that runs around all four sides of the bar. Periodically, he’ll catch himself whistling off-key. He leans in and notes, “Me and Jo used to do a killer version of this.” What’s most sad is that he can’t even get all the way through the lie without hating himself. He blinks a few times, clears his throat, slams another brandy.

I tell him yeah, I think I remember that.

Mel the bartender comes by and swipes two baskets away from us, empty except for sheets of greasy wax paper. I ate my burger and fries voraciously, made an unapologetic pig of myself. It was the first I’d eaten all day.

Mel has help tonight, an extra bartender. For a Monday this place is buzzing. Karaoke diehards. Kindred dreamers who have shown nothing but support for each other this whole night. I don’t spot a single face who seems to have wandered in on a whim like Wojcik and me, but we are regular enough not to upset the equilibrium of the place. This is the Monday lineup. This is their impetus to begin the work week afresh, something to subdue the proverbial Monday blues. I think if an outsider were to try and impregnate this scene tonight, they might get mangled, especially if it was perceived that they were in any way denigrating one of the performers.

The extra bartender is an oafish white-haired man with triple chins, triple everything. Sweat darkens the pits of his red T-shirt to the color of Bordeaux. His jeans are sagging. He has no ass but his crack is a mile long, and it’s on regular display throughout the night. I was relieved when it was Mel who served us our food.

Nancy and Lee go on interminably, bobbing and smiling at each other in those awkward instrumental interludes, of which there seem to be no shortage. As far as I can tell they almost never make use of the teleprompter.

The door opens and a rush of swampy, cigarette-laced air eddies in, cool in comparison to the bar’s close-packed body heat. I swallow what’s left in my pint and leave to take a piss. Wojcik sits there alone, ass sagging off the stool, whistling. How I wish he would quit. You know how some people whistle when they’ve got nothing to say? The Chief whistles when he’s got too much on his mind. He becomes a tea kettle blowing off steam.

Beyond dealing with an unprecedented crisis, this afternoon he went personally to the Trossen residence and broke the news to Sara. Out of respect, I’ll start referring to her by her real name. He stayed with her for over half an hour. When he came back, his shirtfront was smeared with mascara.

Flipse is expected to pull through, albeit not without permanent scarring and disfigurement. I haven’t been to the hospital. I’m not sure I’ll go tomorrow either. Overall, I’m told two sheriffs were killed—Pakimsy and Fabian were their names—and another is in trauma with critical wounds. Thirteen Riotville “extremists” were taken into custody, nine of them wounded, and they sustained a body count of seven. That’s including Crazy Annie. Regional media is already describing “the harrowing showdown at an Adell scrapyard” as a bloodbath, and for once they aren’t exaggerating.

In the fermented odors of the Brown Buoy restroom, I make room for a great deal more Spotted Cow. I don’t presume anyone is in the stall, because the door is left wide open, but I’m corrected by the sound of a man groaning. It’s not your typical straining bathroom groan, but something more existential, something that in a weird way seems to resonate with me. I zip my fly, flush the urinal, and risk popping my head inside the stall. “Can I help you, faggot?” the man slurs with unsteady eyes, winding a mile of toilet paper around his hand before tearing it off. He sways a little. His head smacks against the wall and his eyes close.

With pants around his ankles, shit caked to his taint, and a wad of toilet paper binding his right hand like boxing tape, he begins to snore there. Tell you the truth, it sounds peaceful, if a bit apneatic. I wash my hands. I leave him for someone else to find.

Wojcik has vacated his stool and left our drinks unattended, not that we’re a couple of sorority girls who need to worry about that sort of thing. I’m about to go check for him on the deck overlooking the pier, the one where he sat reading Ismael’s letter by moonlight just nine days ago. That’s when I hear Chuck the karaoke man, having finally resigned his role as Lee Hazlewood, announce, “Let’s put our hands together for Spencer, folks!” I don’t think I quite believe it, not until the very moment he opens his mouth and channels an adequate Sinatra impression.

My senses are lying to me, I think. Maybe I didn’t actually encounter that asshole passed out on the john either. I slump down on my stool, accepting a reality where everything I’ve seen today can exist, be it a young father shot dead, or the very Chief of Police I’ve known for twelve years relaying jauntily to his audience: I did it my way.

People have different ways of coping, I guess.

When I find Rousseau, she is standing over a Riotville goon, one foot planted on his sacrum to pin him down while she lashes a pair of plastic handcuffs around his wrists. Her normally pristine suit is in need of a dry cleaning. The captured men lie face down in a lineup, shoulder to shoulder, hands restrained. Some of them cry out for medical treatment, either for themselves or for their buddies. In the meantime they wear makeshift blood-soaked bandages rent from scraps of cloth, and they’ll continue doing so until the scrapyard is deemed secure enough for EMS to enter. I add Gian to the lineup, shoving him down unceremoniously. I look around for the bald, simian figure of Herschel Gimbe. He is not among them.

The outbuilding is a concrete structure the size of a two-car garage. It has large wooden track doors that roll apart, like on a barn. I approach the commotion going on inside. An image of Trossen skewers my mind and leaves my footing to chance in the wet, craggy earth. For all I know I am drifting, drifting in and out of a lurid dream state, vacillating between two worlds that are so superficially similar I can’t always know which is which. I take it as reality when I edge through the gap in the doors, entering a dark clammy space where at least the rainfall is restricted.

My eyes adjust to the windowless gray. A utility lamp swings by an orange cord from a low rafter. Its bulb has been shot out during crossfire. I can make out a shadow mass of people huddled around one stationary individual. Beyond them, an American flag comes into focus and is suddenly ripped from the wall. It is draped over the shoulders of the naked Khadija, recognizable by her shaved head. She is unable or unwilling to walk, or perhaps they just want to keep her out of sight until her captors are carted away.

I try and take stock of whatever I’m feeling. She stands there in the flesh, the same sullen teenager I ate dinner with not a week ago, but now she is cast in this new light. A modern-day Raphael. A martyr’s aura. En route to finding her, I’ve crossed into that hallowed camp of Men Who’ve Killed. I take it as a good sign that, in hindsight, the kill feels very textbook, very by-the-numbers given the surrounding context. (“Stands up to Graham,” as Flipse would say.) Khadija is that entire context. The little girl with bubblegum in her hair, right up to the abstraction she has become: symbol and thesis and public domain.

I retreat back into open air, uneasy with the cruel, stale oxygen oppressing the outbuilding. A helicopter laps overhead, its rotors chopping at the slate sky. Press, no doubt. A bird’s eye view for the evening news, breathing first life into the abstraction. With no immediate plan or destination, I find myself wandering off alone, amid the wreckage and debris of Annie’s Scrapyard.

The subsequent raid on Herschel Gimbe’s place proves far less eventful. He answers the door wearing his medical collar, silk boxers, and a rumpled shirt which reads “No Hablo Stupido,” having been stirred from the hungover throes of a restive sleep. Agent Pedroza informs him that he is wanted for questioning in relation to his association with a criminal element known as Riotville. In his face I read the exhalation of a man’s buried suspicions being confirmed. He is allowed to dress under supervision, then comes without a fight.

I wish I could say the police department takes a temporary staff cut and that everyone conscripted in the raid gets to go home and recuperate, everyone who made it out alive. But the fact of the matter is a disaster like this only increases the workload of those involved, and increases it tenfold. I have a long, arduous afternoon of debriefing and deposition-giving, reliving every detail ad nauseum, no matter how humdrum or traumatic. Crazy Annie’s barricade, Flipse writhing on the floor, D’Amato’s surrender, and the obvious matter of Trossen’s death, it all needs to be formatted to fit inside a filing cabinet somewhere, reduced from calamity to liability, tribulation to itemization. Within the headache of it all, there are times when I’m grateful for the buttoned-down, wooden process. A report is a far more wieldy thing than a memory, and can be sorted away at my own discretion.

Around four o’clock, as I’m returning to my cubicle with a fresh-brewed cup of Torké, a call comes in on my extension. I pick up, vainly expecting, for whatever reason, Nadeem and Javaria, as if they don’t have other priorities at this time. Instead I find that I’ve entered into a conversation with my brother.

For a moment I think he is caught in a windstorm, then I realize he is just exhaling violently into the phone. “Christ, Mickey. You had me worried sick. We saw on the news what happened, and when it said a Judson officer had been killed . . . They didn’t release the name. Then I couldn’t get through to you on your phone.”

I tell him my phone is out of commission, omitting that it was obliterated by buckshot. I assure him of my health, that somehow I walked out of there without a scratch on me. “Thank God.” I swear I can almost hear his heart beating. Once he gets a handle on himself, he says, “Valerie’s on the line too. She was just as worried as I was.” But I’ve already gathered that much. I can hear her lovely face turned away from the receiver, weeping.

Judson Bottom is a town of roughly thirty-thousand, located an hour’s drive northwest of Milwaukee. The Bottom itself is nowhere to send a postcard from (though visitors still have the option). It is an industrial town, strafed and scarred with railroad tracks, service roads, broken-paned warehouses, and the ubiquitous mustardy smog of the power plant. Rent is cheap. The past two decades have seen an immigration of hapless laborers ejected by the dog-eat-dog competition of Milwaukee. Yes, The Bottom is expanding. Condos are being built. Culture is being introduced into the storefronts. An entrepreneurial fervor is taking hold of the town. True, many fail, as evidenced by regular vacancies and foreclosures, but others persist and stay afloat and eventually thrive.

That’s the thing about daylight, it comes unbidden.

You can choose not to set an alarm, you can bury your face under the pillow in obstinance, you can wedge foam plugs into your ears, and it finds you all the same, seeping in through cracks you didn’t know existed, warming the solar panels of your mind and rebooting you against your will, when you would just as soon stay dormant a little while longer. Or maybe a lot while longer.

I throw back the sheets, lying there in the indentation of my curled, fetal body. I have always slept that way, knees close to my chest. Rhonda would make fun of me and say all I was missing was a thumb in my mouth. I stretch out my limbs, I unfold, listening to my joints pop and complain exponentially louder with each passing year. I rise up, do my stretches, sometimes a set of pushups if I’m feeling ambitious and not too hungover (today they are out of the question), then stumble into the kitchen to brave the daylight. The autocratic, unbidden daylight.

Coffee is preset the night before. My paper is waiting somewhere in the front yard. There was a time when the regimen would have been broken up by conversation, or by a child hopping into my lap, who like some golden retriever remained blissfully unaware of his own size. Now if I want background noise I resort to the TV or radio. On summer mornings, when the windows are open, I enjoy hearing the neighborhood energize around me, the communal slog into activity.

With my coffee mug in hand, I unlock the door and walk onto the screen porch, having deigned to throw on a T-shirt and a pair of basketball shorts. I’m moderately startled by the sight of a black Escalade parked outside my house. Rousseau, dressed in a fresh pleated suit, is coming up the walk.

“Morning,” I say, my voice betraying to us both that I’m in fact pleased to see her.

“Morning. Sorry to drop in on you so early like this.” She stands at the bottom step. I open the screen door as a signal for her to come in. “My team’s shoving out today,” she says.

“No reason to stick around, I guess. You got time for a cup of coffee?” She accepts, selecting the same wicker chair where Nadeem sat when he brought me Ismael’s letter. “How do you take it?”

“Black is fine.”

When I’ve returned and we are both seated, she compliments my home, or what little she’s seen of it. I ask when she gets to return to her own life. “I’m sure you’re about ready to set fire to that motel by now.”

“You’re not far off,” she smiles. “I’ll be able to pop home tonight and make sure Gil hasn’t got himself in any trouble.”

“Must be hard for him,” I say. “For both of you.”

“We’re used to it by now. Not having kids makes it easier. I don’t know how some of these agents do it, the ones with big sprawling families. We agreed early on it wouldn’t be responsible of us to have kids, given how little time we actually spend at home.”

A breeze wafts in, a few helicopter seed pods attach to the screen, defying gravity. I ask about Gil’s job. Turns out he is a business lawyer, representing a diverse array of clients all across the Midwest. “A lawyer and an FBI agent. I’d hate to be the kid who TPs your house.”

“At home we try and leave all that behind us. That’s one nice thing about never seeing each other. When we do, we don’t waste a damn minute.” To my surprise, she reaches into her pocket and is now stripping the laminate off a fresh pack of cigarettes. I’ve spent the better part of a day with this woman, and never did I peg her as a smoker. “Do you mind?”

I answer not at all, and she offers me one from the pack.

“I don’t smoke,” I say, even as I slide one out between two fingers.

“Yeah, me neither. Only with coffee.”

We watch my neighbor, a master plumber named Terry Berger, drop his keys while crossing the lawn to where his Kia is parked in the driveway. The grass cushions the sound of the fall. He stands in confusion at the door of his car, giving himself a thorough stop-and-frisk, pivoting on his heels in an aggravated series of 360s.

“I came by to say it’s been good working with you, Mickey.” Rousseau draws my groggy attention away from the neighbor. “Judson Bottom is lucky to have you.”

“Well, we were luckier to have you folks come along.” I toast her with my mug. “Any chance you’ll be back when this whole thing goes to trial?”

“It’s possible,” she says. “If that day comes, I’ll owe you a stronger drink.”

Rousseau and I are on the same wavelength in a lot of ways. I’d bet any money she is thinking that she doesn’t know me well enough to flat-out ask how I’m coping with what went down yesterday. I have other people for that, she assumes, more appropriate sounding boards to whom I can vent my misgivings over nearly being processed into beef tips, or having to take a life. I presume there are a few mandatory counselling sessions in my future, but I’m not entirely sure. Either the union will let me know or they won’t.

My first drag plummets me back in time, back to the last cigarette I ever had. I’d been clean for roughly two months and took as many drags before flicking it down in disgust—not disgust with the act itself, disgust for how it made me feel: as sated as coming into a woman. They say a man can never recreate his first orgasm. I suspect he could if he abstained for seven-plus years. The same theory applies to cigarettes. I wade into a numb, easy pool equivalent to dragging from a joint.

I glance over at Rousseau, enjoying hers like any other, completely ignorant of the transformation levitating inside me, unaware that she’s aided and abetted in undoing years of progress. But what is progress anyway? This particular failure is trifling compared to the others on my rap sheet. This failure won’t harm anyone but myself, and honestly, who’s around to lament that?

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