Johnny America




We were parked be­hind an aban­doned church that al­lowed us to watch the
carousel of late morn­ing drunks roam­ing the side­walk on the west side of the
Ju­niper Gar­dens hous­ing project — five long flat blocks of fea­ture­less cubicles
built in the 1960’s that were home to the poor, lazy or un­sta­ble. Most of the
peo­ple seemed to ex­ist in bub­bles that did not ex­tend be­yond the next beer,
crap game or shel­ter of the tint­ed Plex­i­glas walls and warped bus stop benches
along 3rd St.

It was dif­fi­cult get­ting com­fort­able. Not on­ly was I scared and felt like I
had no idea what I was do­ing, the way the equip­ment was staged in the car
al­lowed very lit­tle move­ment. The met­al cage was bolt­ed to the rear floorboard,
hold­ing the seats at a 90-de­gree an­gle. The bot­tom half was a sol­id sheet
coat­ed with dents, shal­low pits and a hasti­ly sten­ciled ‘Cops Suck’ in the
mid­dle of it. The up­per half was thin strips of met­al that formed diamond
shaped holes stop­ping just be­low the roof. The edges of the met­al box housing
the ra­dio, two cup hold­ers and a fussy P.A. sys­tem scraped my el­bow so many
times I lost count. The vi­sor, just above my fore­head, stored my clip­board that
bulged with pick up or­ders; black and white mug shots of peo­ple with the same
lost look on their faces, and a street guide. My night­stick was wedged under
the head­rest of my seat.

I sat think­ing that, from be­hind the wind­shield of a po­lice car, things move
at dif­fer­ent speeds of fast. De­pend­ing on how Steve As­ton (my train­ing officer)
drove, cars could be shad­ed blurs if he want­ed to get cof­fee or nearly
in­vis­i­ble if there was a chance he could see a dead body. If he re­al­ly wanted
to know what was go­ing on in a par­tic­u­lar neigh­bor­hood — fish­ing he called it –
he would bring the car to a glide. But noth­ing slowed down for me.

Pep­pered in the twen­ty-block dis­trict we worked were four oth­er housing
projects, five liquor stores and one gro­cery store. Some streets were flanked
by va­cant lots. Some were filled with spines of crum­bling ce­ment stairs
ex­tend­ing to­wards patch­es of woods where hous­es once stood. Oth­ers had just
enough hous­es on the block to call it a neighborhood.

The calls came through a dent­ed, chipped speak­er. Thick dust formed between
the plas­tic mesh ridges of its cov­er. I would oc­ca­sion­al­ly tilt my head and
watch the ra­dio while lis­ten­ing, ex­pect­ing to see cap­tions that would help me
un­der­stand what the dis­patch­ers were say­ing. The on­ly thing I saw be­neath the
scratched face of the pan­el were green dig­i­tal num­bers and let­ters that
re­vealed the fre­quen­cy the ra­dio was on. I was re­lieved we weren’t be­ing sent
any­where. Of­fi­cer As­ton nev­er looked at the ra­dio. It was a Braille sys­tem only
he seemed to know.

“How do you do that?” I spoke more to his hands than to him.

“Do what?” he replied, ad­just­ing the vol­ume while watch­ing a car slow­ly pass
a young black woman walk­ing with her head down.

“Any time you need to switch chan­nels or some­thing you nev­er look. You reach
down and know where to go.”

“I’ve had the same god damn ra­dio for five years. One day I will shoot this
piece of shit.”

Be­ing around him for the last cou­ple weeks and talk­ing over pitch­ers of beer
af­ter work, I knew he was not joking.

I could tell Of­fi­cer As­ton was tired of watch­ing peo­ple shuf­fle and linger
on the slab of the nar­row side­walk. He tapped his left hand against the top of
the dash­board as he let out a half sigh.

“Every­day, the same sad moth­er­fuck­ers.” He sound­ed more ir­ri­tat­ed than

He put the car in dri­ve and nosed the black hood be­yond a line of tress
cov­er­ing most of the park­ing lot. Be­fore dri­ving in­to a short al­ley leading
away from 3rd St., Of­fi­cer As­ton stopped and watched a car pass.

The ra­dio snapped with clar­i­ty for the first time. We were dis­patched to
as­sist child wel­fare with a search war­rant for a lit­tle girl who had been
abused. I had no idea what to ex­pect or do and fused three ques­tions in­to one
fast­ball as Of­fi­cer As­ton took a sharp turn to the alley.

“How many war­rants have you been on? Do they hap­pen a lot? What do you want
me to do?”

The ping of grav­el was fast and bit­ing as he guid­ed the car to­wards a main
street. He made so many turns that, if asked, I could not have told any­one what
di­rec­tion we were go­ing. Each was iden­ti­cal to the last. I looked around for
street signs to give me an idea where I was. They were noth­ing more than white
let­ters melt­ed in­to green back­grounds, form­ing a metal­lic soup the faster he
drove. I felt like the acad­e­my had not last­ed long enough.

“Let’s get there first. See if you can find the ad­dress.” He spoke calmly
while the smooth, blue steer­ing wheel tun­neled through his hands dur­ing and
af­ter each turn.

I glanced at the spine of my street guide that drooped over the vi­sor and
pulled it down. The cov­er was a shade of yel­low that looked like it had been
dis­cov­ered by ac­ci­dent. Thick black lines and cir­cles formed the city crest — a
pro­file of a bull whose dead eye looked away from the blur­ry de­sign of city

“How about a hint?” I asked very frustrated.

“Dis­trict 111. Find it be­fore we roll up.”

I fum­bled with the tab marked 111, turned the blank page and was snared in a
sys­tem of an­oth­er maze.

“This is it,” he said in a quick whis­per as he parked the car at the corner
of in­ter­sect­ing one-way streets.

I held the door han­dle, let­ting the warmth of the plas­tic seep in­to my
fin­gers, while tak­ing a deep breath that had root­ed in my chest on the way to
the call. The han­dle pulled eas­i­ly and snapped back in place as I got out of
the car. I grabbed my night­stick and slid it in­to the sil­ver ring at the back
of my belt. Each grain of its hard­wood emit­ted a light scratchy pneu­mat­ic sound
be­fore it land­ed against the back of my right leg.

The house was a two-sto­ry shit­box that had al­ways been old. Its windows,
like a dark set of eyes, were set­tled in­side a skuzzy green. Two dirt spots,
the size of pitch­ing mounds, dipped slight­ly down­hill on ei­ther side of the
walk­way that was near­ly split down the mid­dle, to­wards a warped front porch
sit­ting above snapped lat­tice work.

Of­fi­cer As­ton was in the mid­dle of a swirl of peo­ple and mo­tioned me to come
his way. I walked along the low curb rim­ming the front yard and stopped just
be­hind his left shoul­der. He was read­ing the war­rant and ig­nor­ing the
con­ver­sa­tion among the chain of wel­fare work­ers and two oth­er of­fi­cers. The
words he read aloud ful­ly and bold­ly de­scribed what had been done to an
eight-year-old girl.

“Feet shack­led to a bed for hours at a time.”

“Sex­u­al­ly abused by step fa­ther and an uncle.”


“Learn­ing disabilities.”

Of­fi­cer As­ton turned to me. His face washed with a shade of red I had seen a
few times when he was pissed off. He leaned in close to me as the group flowed

“I know this fam­i­ly. A cou­ple of years ago I caught the two broth­ers fucking
in front of their mom’s house. They both just looked at me and the one who was
catch­ing said ‘It’s OK, he is my brud­dah.’ There is no fam­i­ly tree. Just one
long fucked up branch.”

He nod­ded ca­su­al­ly and told me to watch the back door.

Walk­ing along the side of the house — win­dow­less with creased, uneven
shin­gles ¬— white-drops of sweat rolled like stones down my back. My vest felt
like it weighed a hun­dred pounds. The straps slow­ly sank in­to my shoulders,
be­com­ing an­oth­er lay­er of skin. I made a light step be­fore turn­ing the corner
and lis­tened for any­one mov­ing near where I thought a door might be. I took in
the small back­yard that lay in the late morn­ing shad­ow; a flim­sy shed leaned
above weeds that had thread­ed in a slow and silent march around the shell of a
lawn mow­er, an or­ange bi­cy­cle frame and scraps of old rust­ed gut­ter­ing. The
back door, smeared with large paw prints, was near­ly lev­el with the ground.

Be­fore I had a chance to make sure noth­ing was clos­ing in to bite my ass, I
heard a howl above me that was nei­ther hu­man nor an­i­mal. I looked up and saw
shab­by blue cur­tains puff through an open win­dow dur­ing a short gust of wind.
Mak­ing a clum­sy first step to­wards the back door, my heart felt crowd­ed in my
chest and rammed against my ribs in an ur­gent search for space. I looked at the
win­dow again, think­ing I would see some­one crouched be­tween the flapping
cur­tains with their throat cut — the sound a hoarse gur­gle for help — but saw
noth­ing. What­ev­er light had been in the back­yard was now choked off completely.
There was on­ly a path to the door, ex­ist­ing in a groove of space and time like
a cam­era trick. My boots felt wa­ter logged dur­ing the ram­ble to the small patch
of clot­ted grav­el bunched against the bot­tom of the door. I stopped for a
mo­ment and felt my leg lift up in prepa­ra­tion to kick open the door. I heard
some­thing jig­gle then looked down to see the coarse skin of the knob, flecked
with rust, turn in wob­bly half cir­cles. The door flicked open and Of­fi­cer Aston
filled the frame. His eyes shift­ed to dif­fer­ent parts to the yard, then to me.
My leg was still in mid air and my arms were, for some rea­son, par­al­lel to the

“The cast­ing for Karate Kid IV is down the street.” It was al­most a serious
tone. “Get your ass in here.”

He opened the door fur­ther then an­gled him­self to al­low me to step inside.

“What was that sound?” The words came dry and flat from my throat.

“There were peo­ple scream­ing down­stairs. Fol­low me,” he replied.

I stayed close be­hind as we went through a makeshift par­ti­tion of plastic
sheets nailed to the ceil­ing that were the col­or of yel­low chalk.

“No. The scream from up­stairs be­fore…” My words were get­ting lost in the
twist of loud voic­es from in­side the house.

Of­fi­cer As­ton glanced back and told me to watch my step. We went through a
web of bat­tered ap­pli­ances, guts of crin­kled and jum­bled elec­tron­ics and
mo­tor­cy­cle parts sheathed in lumpy oil and dust. I could see the low entryway
of the kitchen just ahead.

To my left, sev­er­al black iron skil­lets lay like junked cars atop two
grease-streaked stoves that looked old­er than the house. Off brand canned goods
and box din­ners were stacked on a coun­ter­top that near­ly ran the length of the
wall op­po­site me. Bent and dirty uten­sils were piled in the sink along with
dish­es blot­ted with chewed food and dried chick­en bones. A re­frig­er­a­tor hummed
on a patch of dingy check­ered tile in the cor­ner. The room held dry odors — ghostly
com­pos­ites of meals pre­pared, con­sumed and forgotten.

Fac­ing the hall­way, just off the kitchen, hur­ried voic­es were hav­ing one-way
con­ver­sa­tions. Of­fi­cer As­ton was a few steps ahead, mak­ing his way towards

“Where is Lisa?” a cou­ple of fe­male voic­es asked.

No an­swer.

“Where is she?” more force­ful­ly ques­tioned an officer.

No an­swer.

All that gave the hall­way any light were two open doors on ei­ther side of
me. Af­ter a few steps I reached the door to my left, then paused un­der the low
frame. Piles of shoes formed a mote around an un­made bed — veined with tangled
sheets atop a mat­tress that sagged just above the floor. Tak­ing long, slow
strides over and be­tween heaps of sour smelling clothes, I no­ticed a small
mut­ed tele­vi­sion atop a dress­er whose mid­dle draw­er stuck out like a wooden
tongue. I caught a glimpse of some­one get­ting a blowjob on a fuzzy VHS tape.

“Squires, where you at?”

“Right here. Mak­ing sure no one is hid­ing,” I an­swered, turn­ing away from
the clos­et door wedged shut by the clut­tered dress­er. I no­ticed a few firm
cob­webs in both up­per cor­ners of the door — it hadn’t been opened in a long

I heard some­one be­hind me and saw Of­fi­cer As­ton out­side the door.

“Check the head when you’re done,” he said, mo­tion­ing with a slight rise of
his chin to­wards the door I’d seen across the hall. He then squeezed between
two of­fi­cers that were pass­ing him and dis­ap­peared be­hind the wall I was
fac­ing. I slogged my way across the room again, kick­ing the piles of clothes to
make sure no one was un­der them.

I pushed open the grimy door and walked in­to the nar­row bath­room. Faded,
mangy tow­els were clumped around the base of the toi­let and sink in a swamp of
piss and hair. Part of the toi­let seat was miss­ing, form­ing a dingy crescent
moon above a pool of shit. Strips of wall­pa­per had peeled away to re­veal specks
of mildew and scum. The tub was closed off by dirty frost­ed slid­ing doors.
Their dim­pled pat­tern, back lit by a small win­dow, made the light bit­ter. As I
grabbed the cracked han­dle and slid it away from me, I ex­pect­ed to find someone
curled tight on the floor of the tub then hav­ing to pull them out. The door
clanged against its rails and showed me noth­ing but a sur­face pol­lut­ed with
dirt rings.

As I came out of the bath­room, the voic­es were not as loud or as
con­fused-sound­ing as be­fore. I went right, to­wards the front of the house, and
found Of­fi­cer As­ton stand­ing by sev­er­al peo­ple who were hud­dled to­geth­er — seated,
hand­cuffed and sulk­ing atop a frayed area rug in the mid­dle of a large open
din­ing room.

“How do you like the white trash scrum we have here?” He spoke as if sharing
a se­cret with me.

A shirt­less man with thick, mat­ted gray hair was the on­ly one with his head
up. His eyes were fixed on light that fun­neled through par­tial­ly open plastic
blinds from the win­dow in front of him. His face was steady in the balm of
cig­a­rette smoke and dust cir­cling the room. Noth­ing about him seemed alive. An
of­fi­cer, tak­ing small steps through the tan­gle of silent peo­ple and scraps of
hag­gard fur­ni­ture, asked were Lisa was.

“Check up­stairs!” some­one shouted.

I spun around and faced a closed door. There was a rustling of foot­steps as
I twist­ed the knob and snapped open the door. The strik­er plate and chain guard
flew past my arm and land­ed with a flat chime on the dark, scuffed hardwood
floor. I looked at the bot­tom of a rail­less nest of stairs and slow­ly lift­ed my
head up. It was like look­ing at an es­ca­la­tor. Halt­ing at the first step,
feel­ing I was head­ed in­to the heart of what­ev­er made the sound I heard earlier
out­side, I re­al­ized my gun had been in my hand the whole time I was in­side the
house. It felt like it was go­ing to slide through my fingers.

The steps of my boots whis­pered slow and rub­bery mur­murs against the tread
of each stair. The cross­beams of the at­tic un­fold­ed in small sec­tions. My eyes
came lev­el with a murky floor and bare­ly fur­nished room. Reach­ing the last
stair, I saw a show­er of large bulging card­board box­es around a mat­tress laid
at an odd an­gle. Tak­ing the first step in­to the at­tic, a patch of lavender
glint­ed in the cor­ner of my right eye. My head, hips and gun moved in a
stag­gered swirl and met the brown eyes of lit­tle girl seat­ed on the floor. Her
shaved head was cov­ered with scabs. Above her ears, sprouts of brown hair had
grown in dif­fer­ent lengths. Her arms were small lumps shift­ing un­der what was
meant to be a dress. Ex­tend­ing from an in­vis­i­ble hem were two small bare feet
streaked with bruis­es and deep scal­lops where the shack­les had been.

For a sec­ond I for­got I was a po­lice of­fi­cer. Hol­ster­ing my gun, I realized
I had no idea what to say to her.

“Lisa?” I am not sure I said any­thing, my voice was so low.

She looked at me un­fazed as I knelt down and stretched my arms to pick her
up. Glanc­ing at my hands, her body re­ced­ed in­to her shoul­der blades. I touched
one of her hands that had found its way from un­der the mound of cloth drapeing
her thin body.

“Lisa, we need to go down­stairs. Is that OK?” I tried to smile as I spoke,
but nev­er felt my face move be­yond a look of disbelief.

I scooped her up with one arm-re­leas­ing a film of body odor in­to the stale
at­tic air. She put her right arm around my shoul­der and looked at me without
fear or sur­prise. I turned and saw two of­fi­cers search­ing the room. I had no
idea they were be­hind me.

As I walked down­stairs her body curved and a patch of dan­gling cloth, damp
with urine, stuck to my arm. At the door­way I saw the faces of some the case
work­ers and Of­fi­cer As­ton. A pair of hands drew Lisa from my arm, shak­ing loose
a scab that flaked on­to my shirt from her marred head.

I went in­to the liv­ing room and stopped be­hind an of­fi­cer talk­ing to a woman
who on­ly nod­ded when asked if she was Lisa’s moth­er. She was seat­ed leaning
for­ward on a so­fa, caus­ing her slip­pery hair to drape past her fore­head. Her
sobs rup­tured any sen­tence she tried to form. Look­ing up at the of­fi­cer, I saw
the cor­ners of her eyes. They were jum­bled with crud and beams of eye­lin­er. Her
lips were coat­ed with glossy, white foam that branched to the edges of her
mouth. When she tried to speak they stretched like gooey rub­ber bands. Her
teeth were tiny crooked shards of gray propped up by dark red gums.

I could feel some­one stand­ing be­hind me. Turn­ing my head I saw Officer
As­ton. He just stared as the woman tried to speak again.

“What is wrong with her mouth?” I asked as she raised a shoul­der and wiped
away a thin strand of snot.

“Meth mouth. Too much glass dick.” His voice was ca­su­al as if he was
re­ply­ing to a ques­tion about the weather.

He con­tin­ued, but his voice flared to a rougher tone.

“This bitch has balls to cry, know­ing what was be­ing done to her daughter.
Fuck her.”

Of­fi­cer As­ton walked away and I fol­lowed him out­side. As he walked off the
porch I asked if he saw who had Lisa, but he didn’t know. I watched the
case­work­ers speck­ling the front yard and pac­ing be­tween cars parked along the
street hop­ing to spot her. I over­heard some­one on a phone say that she was on
the way to the hos­pi­tal. I nev­er saw her again.

Walk­ing back to our cruis­er I felt my­self fad­ing like the tail of a comet.
The thick books I stud­ied seemed use­less. Train­ing videos were no more than
sta­t­ic sce­nar­ios with shit­ty ac­tors and lec­tures were hol­low words from people
who liked to hear them­selves talk. The walls of the acad­e­my had disintegrated.
Noth­ing was centered.

Near­ly a year lat­er I was sit­ting with the at­tor­ney pros­e­cut­ing the case.
She hand­ed me a slim stack of col­or pho­tographs de­tail­ing the dam­age done to
the body of an eight-year-old girl. I had to be told which body part I was
look­ing at. She said Lisa was in fos­ter care and would nev­er be able to
func­tion on her own. Be­fore the tri­al be­gan, two men and Lisa’s moth­er plead
guilty to de­stroy­ing the al­ready tough life of a de­fense­less hu­man being.

Over the years, I’ve dreamed I’m stand­ing in front of a hos­pi­tal towering
above a beach. The on­ly sound is burst­ing waves I can­not see. The build­ing has
off­set tiers and looks like some­thing Frank Lloyd Wright came up with in his
spare time. I go in­side, pass­ing calm, pur­pose­ful nurs­es who pay no attention
to me. I find the sec­tion hous­ing new­born ba­bies and search for Lisa. I weave
be­tween beds look­ing at nametags slow­ly twist­ing from the ends of wire above
rows of beds. The names are blur­ry. I nev­er find her.

Filed under Fiction on November 29th, 2013

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