Judson Bottom

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Another day at the office.

Just as the agents’ presence downstairs felt palpable, so does their non-presence. People are back to speaking in their normal registers, speculating at full volume. A card is being passed around for Flipse, and a monetary collection for Sara Trossen. After much back and forth in my head, I offer to hand-deliver the card once all the signatures are gathered. A visit can’t be put off in good taste for much longer.

I’ve heard that Flipse is in the same wing as Khadija Mubarak, just a few rooms apart. Wojcik forwarded me the nurse’s report, citing the physical tolls of her captivity: widespread bruising, hairline fractures to the left clavicle and ulna, malnutrition, dehydration, and a rape kit which came back negative. Had it been otherwise, I would’ve had to correct my leniency in not slaying D’Amato.

At noon, I march down to the garage with Flipse’s Hallmark and board my cruiser. The sound of chains rattling as the overhead door lifts echoes through the underground structure. I maneuver up the ramp, driving toward blue sky and fluffy white clouds, so at odds with yesterday.

Why do I pass by Buckley Street—is it intuition or procrastination? It entails a minor detour en route to Memorial Hospital, but I feel validated when I see press vans lining the curb once again, reporters swarming the corner. I pull over behind WTMJ out of Milwaukee. So resumes the everlasting waltz between police and media. My attempts at crowd dispersal are not met with indignation or protest like last time. Instead, they train their cameras and microphones on me. They want a statement from Judson Bottom PD. Their eyes bug for it. Their mouths never fully close, either bleating demands or hanging in fatuous anticipation. The same networks who last week wanted their macabre scoop on a homegrown terrorist will now take Khadija and make her the poster child for xenophobia. I imagine them pulling out their hair trying to unearth a picture of her in a hijab, something that will ooze castigation from front covers and promos. Editorials will abound, phoned in by nationally read columnists, collating her debasement with the debasement of progressivism, harping on and on about a requiem for some American ideal.

I tell them I’m no press secretary. If they want an official statement, they’ll have to move their dust cloud over to the police station. As expected, this does nothing to deter them, nothing to alter their frenzy. What does, however, is the recoil of a lawn mower at the top of the hill. I look over my shoulder, following their shifted lines of vision, only to see Nadeem appear around the corner of the house.

I expected him to be at the hospital. They must have finally sent him home. He pushes the mower ahead, eating a clean strip through the overgrown blades, chuting bales of green clippings off to one side. His hair is thrown into a ponytail. The front of his untucked shirt is only buttoned halfway. His jeans are clearly those reserved for housework. He wears a pair of sunglasses and keeps his head lowered. Anyone without context might think he was some strung-out rockstar. The press clamor and shout questions until they’re bloody in the throat. He remains deaf behind the soundwall of his mower, vacillating back and forth across the plateau at the top of the hill before he challenges the gradient. It will be punishing work, better suited to a younger man’s leg muscles, but anyone with half a brain can guess exhaustion is Nadeem’s main goal.

Twenty minutes in, the job is only halfway complete. The press grow disenchanted and begin trickling back to their vans. Perhaps I’m further delaying my hospital visit, but I stay, leaned against the railing at the bottom of the stairs.

I stay until the last one leaves.

“Take the room key with you, so I don’t have to get out of the tub.”

The Super 8 on Brown Deer, late at night.

Milwaukee. Her neck of the woods.

We are out of ice, ice to cradle the second bottle of Chardonnay. The bucket sat beside the tub within easy reach as the bathroom suffused with steam, cubes melting into chips, into slivers, into water. My pruney fingers, like the flesh when you pull away an old bandage, are evidence of how long we must have stewed in there, petting, purring, kissing. Now and then I unclogged the drain and simultaneously ran more scalding water. She likes it hotter than I do. I joked that she would make an invincible lobster. My skin is red all over, from my chest down to my toes.

I haven’t worked up the nerve to tell her yet. No, of course not. I keep waiting for some convenient break in all the euphoria to clear my throat and go, “Oh, before I forget.”

I stuff the room key in the hip pocket of my black uniform pants. My uniform shirt is pulled over a white tee. I saunter across the second-floor corridor, bucket in tow, wrestling with all this in my head. The sober, steamless, sanitized air of the hotel-proper brings my predicament back in focus. A partially deaf occupant has left their door ajar. A TV blares the evening news. I catch something about ISIS confirming that one of their top commanders has been killed in a strike on Mosul.

Just like at the Osthoff, there is a central area where the corridor becomes a balcony and I can overlook the lobby, the receptionist at her desk, the one with the peacock-feather earrings who was so forthcoming with Valerie’s room number. Even though it occurred a mere two hours ago, I can’t help feeling a kind of wistful nostalgia. Something tells me we won’t be playing these childish games anymore. We won’t have the need. Valerie will come live with me, I suppose. I’m not naïve. Chicago-bred and Oberlin-educated, she won’t last five minutes in conservative little Judson Bottom. And I’m one hundred percent open to saying sayonara to that town anyway. What I’m less open to is being a city cop again. I’ve lost my edge, my unflinching instinct. Even if I wanted to return, it’s out of the question. I don’t have the lean assuredness, the steely nerve it takes to stay alive in the ghetto. I’m sane enough to own up to these truths. Maybe I could get it all back, sure, but how long would it take? How many fuck-ups would it cost? We’ll have to strike a compromise, Valerie and I. One of the white-flight suburbs encircling Chicago. She has money. We can tap into that secret savings account daddy set up for her. Fred the baritone.

The loud, chugging machine dumps ice into my bucket, but not at the rate I would prefer. For every five seconds of deafening thunder, a handful of cubes shudder out. I jam my thumb into the black button over and over. In between these stingy evacuations, I can’t help but eavesdrop on a commanding voice floating up from the hotel lobby. An all-too familiar voice. It’s a voice I realize I have been half-expecting to hear since I first pulled into the Super 8. Even as Valerie and I were shut safely in our room, bending the mattress, jarring the headboard, gasping into each other’s throats, there was always a subverted part of me that remained tense, twinging and alive like a bug’s antenna, prepared to react when those sharp knocks sounded at the door.

Forgetting the ice bucket, I hazard a few steps closer to the balcony, just until the crown of Gavin’s head becomes visible. Then the entire head. Then his shoulders. He, too, is in full uniform, and apparently baffled by the receptionist’s claim that another cop came by two hours ago asking about the same woman. “I never saw them leave,” she says, “but they may have used one of the side exits to draw less attention.”

“A room number,” Gavin says. “Give me a room number.”

In that demand is couched more than banal rage. I alone, his brother, can hear the rupture of heartbreak. Hovering above his head, I can intune that cold point of steel entering his back not once but twice, burrowing up to the hilt. How often have I kept myself awake at night, imagining this moment? Me, standing between him and Valerie, the composed, collected, and somehow noble one. Her, weeping like a damsel behind me. Him, sputtering, red in the face, boiling over with homicidal compulsion. How many scripts have I drafted in my mind, always polishing and refining, as if in some way I can turn his mind around and make him see my side of things?

“You’re right, it was a mistake, me marrying Valerie. I should have recognized that you two were better for each other. I should have seen that if you hadn’t been tied down by a wife and child you would’ve wound up together. Maybe on some level I did know those things. Maybe I was rubbing it in your face: I have what you want and what we both know you can never have. That was spiteful of me, Mickey. That was sadistic and cruel and I’m sorry.”

Apology accepted.

His footsteps come pounding up the stairwell. I can hear them echoing through the door on my right, the door which he will appear through at any moment. With the same unflinching reaction time I just derided myself for not possessing, I grab the room key from my pocket and slide it through a lock behind me which happens to access a laundry room.

The door contains a narrow rectangular window. I crouch beneath it with the lights turned off. Every appliance is still and empty. I am doused in a cold manic sweat, listening to Gavin erupt into the corridor. The breath has left my lungs on the same slipstream as my courage. My throat feels hoarse and constricted. I wonder if he takes any notice of the abandoned ice bucket still perched beneath the dispenser. As I hear him go pounding toward Valerie’s room, I swoon in astonishment at myself.

What I’ve done is undoable. There is no other reason I can invent for emerging from a darkened laundry room without any laundry to speak of, no other reason than the truth. I’m hiding. Can I bear to see Gavin’s face when he realizes this? Can I bear to see Valerie’s? Already he is rapping on the door. Not pounding, he is smarter than that.

I wait. She will be hoisting herself out of the tub, toweling off, a little annoyed but more amused: “I told you to take your room key along. That stuff makes you so forgetful.” Ah yes, I chuckle to myself. The bag of weed sitting openly on the nightstand. We may as well be selling it to children, he can’t conceivably think any less of us.

Valerie’s scream alerts me when the door is opened. I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t a scream, so I suspect he must have attacked her, pushed his way in at the first turn of the knob, thrown her vulnerable, towel-wrapped body on the floor. “Where is he? Where is he? Where is he?”

This is what I hear.

For chrissake, how did it come to this? A showdown in a hotel? I don’t have the stomach, I don’t have the fucking stomach for it. I flee the laundry room, glancing down the corridor just long enough to verify they are both inside the suite. Gavin’s pitched voice is unmistakable. I fly down the stairwell, the lapels of my open uniform flailing as I bound away, skipping two steps at a time, nearly twisting my ankle on several occasions. Wouldn’t that be some expedient karma. The two of them find me collapsed on the landing with a swollen foot. Instead, I manage to burst through the bottom door and avoid the lobby, heeding the receptionist’s unintentional advice. A side exit will draw less attention, though it’s impossible for me to comprehend that anyone but the four of us are patronizing this hotel, that other realities are playing out right now within spitting distance, sectioned off in their own homogeneous suites.

I see night beyond a glass door at the end of the hall. The EXIT sign may as well read: Coward’s Way Out. Weakling’s Escape Route. Real Men Please Leave Via Lobby. I am so far detached by adrenaline that normal feelings of disgrace usually evoked by labels such as “coward” and “weakling” are unfelt. True, I recognize that they apply to me, but emotionally I am too preoccupied to care. That will come later. Yes, that will come when there is time to reflect at some northside tavern where no one will ever come searching. I throw myself at the door and shatter into the night. Nothing at all like a Judson Bottom night. There are neons and traffic and music and voices.

My feet scuffle along the butt-strewn pavement, toward where my Sportster is parked near the porte cochere. A man leans against the hood of his Chrysler enjoying a cigarette. What wild thoughts he must be thinking about me: a disheveled, unarmed cop, looking like I’ve just survived a kidnapping attempt. And then I witness the alarm on his face, and I think, isn’t it a bit too pronounced? I take in the glasses and the mail clerk style of dress, and I come to realize I know this man, and he knows me, and everything clicks together.

Gavin was brought here—apparently while on duty. That’s his cruiser parked askew in a nearby slot. He was notified by none other than Rhonda’s private investigator. Emory whatshisfuck. Emory Detrow. Gavin wouldn’t take his word for it based on the photographs alone, inconclusive as they were. I know him. I know how much benefit of the doubt he is capable of lavishing on people, especially those whom he loves and deems faithful. He would have insisted on seeing it with his own eyes, the two of us together. Emory opens his mouth, but there is no form to it, no tautness, like someone trying to smile without lips.

Tiny little pinpricks of red light, they materialize from the darkness, the weird bottomless black veil that suddenly shrouds everything. I’m not even sure how I can be upright, I am so disoriented, unsure of my place in the world. For one hopeful, gasping moment I think maybe I’ve just been shaken out of a dream. The red lights, what do they signify? My jaw is locked tight, as though my molars are soldered together. When I’m able to articulate which way is up and which is down, I look down.

I see the ground sirloin of a man’s face averting his eyes—or maybe he’s unable to open his eyes. One arm is freed from the sleeve of his blazer. His oxford shirt is rent at the button line, exposing his belly, his chest. I have a clump of brown curly hair in my hand and my right foot is lodging itself in whatever segment of meat and bone happens to be underneath it at a given time. Frail whimpers escape his mouth. I recall that he was screaming shortly ago but has since stopped and lapsed into heavy breathing. I believe he may have sustained damage to his windpipe.

I step back, releasing the clump of wet hair, watching him slump to the asphalt in an abused pinwheel of limbs and tattered cloth. The angles of his body make no somatic sense. The only part of him that moves is his labored chest. I can hear the broken ribs rattling within. He breathes as though his Chrysler is parked on top of him. Retreating, trying to make sense of the red lights cycling around me like so many luminous gnats, I hear his glasses crunch under my heel.

A crowd of people are gathering from the adjacent street, the one that abuts the Super 8’s parking lot. A clot has formed here on the pavement, a clot of onlookers, everyday freelance journalists equipped with their smartphones. Those are the dots, I finally comprehend: the tiny red lights signaling when video is being recorded. I am cold all over, still highly decentralized. I swear from some nebulous quadrant I can hear Gavin screaming my name. Or is it Bruno? Or is it Ismael?

The horde of videographers close in. Black faces, white faces, hispanics, driving me backward. They’re saying ain’t this the way it goes, ain’t this the road we’ve taken. They’re saying God willing, ain’t this the bottom.

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