I log. That’s what you do. I do it as well as anybody, take the call—sure, that’s the easy part: “Okay, ma’am. I understand. We’re sending a unit.” And instruct the unit to kill the lights and siren, ‘cause this one’s some old lady thinks a stubbed toe’s a stroke. And always, always log it to make it real. Hey, we responded. Cops, EMTs. The whole cavalry for a bruised pinky toe. I wanted to write it up that way, back then: We bothered. Used to laugh about it over beers at The Park, laugh about those lonely old ladies who called for company.
The Dispatchers Crew and the Real Dealers, we were. The Real Dealers were testosterone with mustaches, cops, half of them juiced out of their gourds and paranoid, waiting for the shitty day, which always eventually comes, and over and over for some, whom we called The Cursed. There’s this one cop, my buddy Paul, has The Curse worst I’ve ever known. Probably gets two times the violent calls as everyone else. I don’t know how he deals. Because it’s been getting to me, suddenly, after seven years. Bad nights. I need someone? Love or something? I’m twenty-eight. People think that’s young as hell. But do the math:
16 calls per day X 250 workdays = 3,750 calls per year X 7 years = 26,250 calls. Those aren’t normal years.
So that night, at The Park, first we were talking about Phil McKenzie, nearly twenty years in, so he has retirement coming. He blew up at the all-staff and ended up being censured and got stuck in mandatory counseling—first they penalize, then they lobotomize, as the Real Dealers say. Except it all had to do with his ex loving some twenty-year-old a la Demi Moore. We had a nice laugh over it, red-faced Phil, thirty-eight going on fifty, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Fuck this shit!” A second time: “Fuck this fuckin’ shit!” Slamming his fist on the table and storming out.
I kept saying, as we told the story, “He’s losing it! The guy is just plain losing it!” And we laughed so hard we were crying.
The Park is a bar downtown amid sabal palms and banyans, and it was happy hour, a Friday, when most of us have the day off if we’re on weekends, so we had a nice little rowdy table: Holly, another dispatcher, the kind of overweight thirty-something whose appetites capture your imagination; Paul Ambrio, my friend, another guy from up north like me, who came down to Florida with his parents and never went back to the snow and muck; and his partner Mike Kilgore, old Florida white, loves gossip but makes a poor audience because his face is downtrodden.
Cops tell stories the worst, too.
Dispatchers always tell things best because we talk and cops don’t talk enough—and we hear from the nuts first and have to imagine what they look like or what’s going on, which is always more fun than the truth.
But Real Dealers carry plots like guns.
That night, my buddy Paul Ambrio said to me, “Frank, you got the best job. City benefits and a warm seat. No getting shot at. ‘Go here, go there.’” Paul. That buddy of mine. A genuine, first-team Real-Dealer! “Guys, do I have a story. This is a couple years ago, now. I never told it to anyone but Mike.”
“Then tell it already,” I said. “I can’t handle your threats!” Man, we laughed some more.
Paul said, “Okay, tough guy. You asked for it. So I go out this one morning when shithead over here (Mike Kilgore) is on nights, and I didn’t want to call backup if it wasn’t him coming, middle of the day like it was, so I’m figuring, no biggie—I go out to this call. Mike, you know the story, but you guys, I don’t know. All of us know it, but maybe not dispatch. And anyway, horse’s mouth, right?”
“Sure is,” Holly cracked.
That broke the table up a good, long time.
“Anyway, I go out. I’m at this house out west here, pretty Delray. Two years ago. Guy’d made a call that his kid had a bad cut—or that’s all you assholes told me. I’m sitting in the car, waiting for the EMT’s, and I look up to see a boy’s face in the front window of this house.
“All of a sudden, a hand comes over the boy’s mouth and yanks him back from the window, and about two lightning flashes later, the front door swings open, and this man carries the boy outside. A good six feet tall, a big guy. The man’s in his underwear, bleeding from the thigh, and so is the boy, and you can tell he sliced them both—kid was maybe four, crying like crazy, in his underwear—and the man’s holding the boy up like a shield, and suddenly, right in front of me—of course, I’m stepping out of the car by now, not prepped for this shit given dispatch—the man fuckin’ slams the boy, just body-slams him down to the ground, hard.
“I’m moving now. The man kicks him. I mean, rears back and kicks him hard as he can. In the face. You can hear it. Crack. Just, crack. Then I have my gun drawn, and I go, ‘I’ll shoot! Down on your knees!’
“And he kind of looks at the kid, looks at me, his lips start to tremble, he starts to cry, and peacefully, like it’s nothing, he gets down on his knees. The kid’s jaw was shattered. I mean, that kick, I swear I thought it snapped the little boy’s neck, that crack was so loud. And the kid was just lying there, in shock. I don’t know.”
Then someone always says—it was Kilgore this time—“Things happen.” Or some variation.
We kept drinking, but it got to me. “What happened to the kid?” I asked, some beers later.
“The one in the story, Paul.”
“Oh, fuck, it’s been a couple years. I haven’t heard a peep out of that house since. The father’s still in prison, I think.”
But not so, I found out later. I went and looked up the man’s address with parole. Turned out to be the same as Paul went to that day. Checked on the kid, next. Called a contact at the elementary school. “What address is —- listed under?” Same.
It got to me very badly. At night, trying to sleep, I saw the kid getting body slammed—his little body snapping. Saw him getting kicked. Saw other things, too. Bad deeds I’d done, some of which I will never tell anyone, even if I fall in love again. I swear. I won’t.
So I started driving by the house. Strange thing. I expected the weirdest sort of scene. A Confederate flag. Or some anti-war bumper sticker on his hippie Volkswagen. Or some overproduced icon of an obscure Christian religious ceremony watching from the porch. Something like that.
No. It was a big front yard, with a few trees here and there, one I think an avocado, with landscaping stones like jagged teeth around each tree and new red mulch in each bed, and when I went by the first time, there were little holes dug in the mulch around the trees, and the next day, they’d planted these annuals, with red, white, and blue. It was a pretty little ranch house, couldn’t have been more than two bedrooms, but with a chimney, like they used to build them, out in the unincorporated area of Delray, way out west on Four-Forty-One, which’ll take you all the way into the heart of Miami down south of here. But up where we are, it gets sparse and quiet in that area.
A birdfeeder in a tree, a lush lawn—the soil is always better out west—cut nicely, with lawnmower-patterned circles around the trees. You believe that? And two cars in the driveway, nice cars, too, a Dodge Charger with a license plate border of pink metal—hers—and a Kia Sorrento, parked further from the door—his.
I mean, the guy drove a Kia!
And then, one night, maybe a week into doing this, I stopped my car down the road and took a walk back over, staying in the dark on the grass—it was all his property, right up to a canal that I pretended I was fishing, resting a pole on the railing and standing a bucket beside, and everything right there on the little two-ton bridge, so that if he saw me, I could say, “I just wanted to know if I could use your bathroom, man.” Wouldn’t tell him I was with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. Figured he’d shoot me.
So I went walking over.
I did so because in all my life, I’d never met a single person we’d dispatched. None that I knew of, at least.
A light was on in the kitchen window, on the side of the house. I stood far back in the shadows, and the yard opened around me. There were some other houses far off, and then a big development of new cookie-cutters snug against Four-Forty-One. I could hear a construction crew and see burning lights like alligator eyes where they were building a hospital on the other side of the highway. Things were changing.
I’d looked up the property on the county appraiser’s website. It hadn’t been sold in forty years. Must have been something he inherited, I figured. Of course, I hadn’t thought he was married. So maybe his wife inherited it. Because it felt to me like the strangest con ever. Here was this man. He wasn’t in his work clothes, but he was clean shaven, tall, in good shape, not handsome but fit and well groomed, with a shaved head. And he was standing in profile in his sweats and a sleeveless like he’d come from the gym, there at the kitchen sink, a nice kitchen, small and country-ish, well lit, lots of wood stained to golden brown. He was washing dishes and talking. And laughing!
When I moved over so that I could see the rest of the kitchen, his wife, pretty and slim, sat at the table with a cup of coffee and a container of creamer in front of her, and their son sat beside her, his school books piled up—looked like his homework was done. And then, get this: the guy takes the coffee pot, walks over, and tops off his wife’s cup, pours a little creamer in for her, and stirs it with a spoon.
It was him. I knew it was him. Was just as Paul Ambrio described him, but not, too.
No, no, no, I told myself. But even as I told it to myself, I was walking toward the door. You had to. Like when you cheat on someone who loved you very much, really and truthfully more than anyone ever had before.
I knocked. I figured they would startle. A dog yelped from the backyard, but it was an old, tired dog they must have had a while. I deduced that much and was proud of myself. I thought, A man like him should have an old dog. But it was a sweet little howl, more like the dog wanted inside if something bad was going to happen, so that it could cower with them. And I’m thinking this while the door swings open. Same door as Paul’s story, I deduced. And the man was standing there.
In this very clean voice—no accent, and with a refinement and quietude that was… educated, he asked, “Yes? May I help you?” May I. Not, Can I.
So I just kind of looked at him, blinking, and said, “I’m fishing over at the canal, and I could really use a bathroom.” And laughed.
“Number one or number two?”
“One. I work at the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office. Just a dispatcher. You can trust me, I’m saying.”
He stepped aside. “Second door down that hall. P.B.S.O., huh?”
He glanced over at his wife, who was standing at the front of the kitchen. And the boy looked scared behind her. He was a little dirty-blonde boy, with pink skin and a scar down his jaw.
I went down the hall. It was just a hall. In the bathroom, there was a Dixie cup with flowers on it for rinsing your mouth. It stood on the pedestal sink. I quietly opened the medicine cabinet. Toothpaste. Some contact lens solution. An old prescription bottle of antibiotic. And a special little configuration, several prescription bottles in a locked plastic holder, one you needed a key to open. I didn’t have to go to the bathroom, but I knew he was listening, so I used the cup to pour water into the toilet like pee. I thought it was the kind of thing a detective would do.
I did something odd. I scratched my initial on the bottom of the cup, like I used to at birthday parties when I was little.
When I came out, he was standing in the hall. A big man. Had his arms crossed at his chest. “A dispatcher?” he said, frankly.
I couldn’t really move. I was boxed in outside the bathroom. And I was aware I knew his name and shouldn’t have, so I was careful not to say it.
“Off tonight, obviously,” he said.
“I usually work the early shift. It’s a quiet shift. I have seniority.”
“Right,” the man said.
He had a sharp, angular face and strong eyes—not defiant, just cemented, certain, like they planted his feet on the ground. A quiet, cool brown. He hadn’t moved quickly. Nothing seemed very sudden. I didn’t feel he would hurt me, despite those big arms flexed in that sleeveless. I just felt he had the upper hand.
“But thank you for letting me use your bathroom.”
“Yes, of course.”
He stepped aside, and the tension eased.
But then he said, “Can I see your credentials?”
I dug out my wallet and showed my I.D.
“Okay,” he said, nodding. “It’s not that I mind. This is my family.” He gestured toward the kitchen. The wife was smiling. Very pretty. And when the boy waved from his chair, that scar deepened in the light as his head moved.
Something about how the man said family…
“My name is Frank.” I shook the man’s hand. He looked me right in the eye, warmly, had a firm, businessman’s grip.
I waved to the wife and child, struck again by how pretty she was. Very nearly beautiful. With dark hair and tan skin—she seemed to have been a mystical teen, one a boy like me would have obsessed over, both her beauty and her love for someone else. She would never, ever have loved me.
I went back to the canal. There I stood next to my fishing pole and bucket. I’d only been fishing a handful of times, so if you came out and saw me and knew a thing or two, you’d know I couldn’t even tie a lure. I was faking.
It was beautiful out by the canal, far off and near, with those lights way out where they were building. Much darker in close. There could have been a gator or two, muddy in the water. For a sec, I pretended one pair of lights wasn’t lights at all, but alligator eyes, blinking at me like an icon.
It was something about those shadows. I whispered her name. Not the wife’s from a few minutes ago. Someone else. See, I remembered her parents’ kitchen, or the smell of the backyard grill fired up, Sunday afternoons. Football with her dad. Talking shop.
The bucket was up to my knee, about as tall as a boy. I had taken the pole in my hands without even realizing it. I felt so scared I was sick. To get my bearings, I pretended I was teaching our son to fish, who could barely see over the concrete half-wall, out beyond the canal, where everything was changing, and the lights burned like the warm kitchens of homes where, long ago, in a better life, I had been a guest.
Nick LaRocca is an Associate Professor of English at Palm Beach State College. He lives in Delray Beach, Florida with his wonderful wife and two dogs. He has published short stories and essays most recently in Rush Hour and Mason’s Road, and he is the recipient of the Robert Wright Prize for Writing Excellence.