Last Ten



T H E  C O P

Paul looked at his scars. He saw them as tokens, small things tossed out to appease. Slashed hands from shrapnel. A glistening pock, path of a bullet. He didn’t like inventories. He looked only at those he could see.
    His mornings were simple, built only to maintain him: three hardboiled eggs, a military shower, and a cup of coffee. He’d been told before, by a woman hungover from the night before, that his routine was like a newly sober alcoholic’s. He hadn’t told her then that up until recently, he’d been drunk on adrenaline and imperatives to not die. He’d been so because civilians were long fucked on oil. He didn’t say much to her that morning, not beyond thanking her for her time. He’d been back three days.
    Paul chewed his eggs in the dull gray box of his mornings. Predawn haze baited punishment from the sun; Paul stared at the skin on the back of his hands, paranoid it was growing lighter. He was surrounded, nearly always, by white people. He knew they saw him as a nice anomaly——this one black cop——because they’d told him so. He kept getting raises and kept questioning his logic. Paul didn’t want to be paid back because he’d already died.
    Paul thought of sand, and then of screens. He blinked the infrared bloom out of his eyes, or maybe just the last seconds of cold water.
    Paul held his thumb over the lip of the mug and let it fatten with steam. He had a job. A mother. A pulse. Paul drank coffee and thought himself to meet only the requirements of being an American.
    Before locking his front door, Paul felt a perfectly general desire to kill.

The car in which he spent most of his days was new because the police department had more money than they knew what to do with. Other cops talked about the gift from the foundation like a lucky Powerball ticket——Paul didn’t understand why the dead rich white man didn’t put his name on a building. Old money had come through for old money, for the already protected white. Paul tried not to think about the strata of his job, or why it could even be considered political; his childhood and his service had retired him from the grave and complex. He liked the demands of the cop routine, liked the gun, felt fed by the possibility of needing to die on duty. Not that he wanted to die——no, but that he had died already, and already once over. Once on a sidewalk in Philly, and once in an empty room on another planet. He believed not a lick of the toughguy shit, that post-mortem shellshocked samurai line, but instead simply and precisely believed in undeserved, uncaring time. He felt this belief most acutely when he warmed his fingers in front of the cruiser’s vents in winter, for some reason.
    Though this was summer——or spring, Paul bad with borders and holidays——and hot and damp enough to make all the force creep their cars in their t-shirts, when they could sneak it. Paul wiped at his forehead and cranked the AC. No one there to play at being harder than the weather.
    Paul got a call. Parsed easily: a woman, old, lost, in an intersection.
    He hit the lights but not the siren.

She was outside of town a bit, less than two miles from an old folks’ home, which Paul called. She was standing in a gown, her gray hair lit by patient headlights. No one honked among the four; as Paul pulled up, two drivers slowly backed up and turned around. The sun had set, yet Paul saw the hand-knit daisies on the face of her gown, and its ragged bottom edge, a few strings hanging down to her sneakers. No socks, black with orthopedic soles. They looked too big for her.
    Paul quietly shut his door and silenced his radio. She was shuffling her feet in a small arc, her arms out either for balance or some communion. Paul watched her lips sporadically pull back and eyes squeeze shut; he guessed pain.
    Ma’am, Paul said. She continued to gradually turn away from him, shoulder blades steep ridges in the gown. Paul spoke up: Ma’am. She stopped shuffling but kept her arms out. She was speaking——her tone clear, her voice broken——but Paul couldn’t make it out. He reached out with his left hand and said, Hello, ma’am. I’m here to help.
    Okay, she said.
    May I put my hand on your shoulder, ma’am?
    Sounds fine to me, she said. As if that would never be a problem.
    Paul did so, feeling her slight shiver as he came to face her. By now the intersection was free of cars; the sun had set and the remaining light was ashen. Paul looked at her, her eyes down and out toward some unknowable distance, lips chapped and still jumping into quick sneers. She was spotted with age, white skin veiny and mottled, spotted with brown. Paul remembered plenty of lost old women, homes blown out or threaded with gunfire. He swore then that they all had a smell: he was never able to describe it in analogies or even as some combination of other scents, strange foods or whatever. He never got it right in words, so only referred to it as The Smell, which stuck among the others. So did his new nick, drooled out every time: The Poet. He hated the name because he’d never read that shit, even as a kid. Teenaged years mostly bulging sweaters and knuckles, and taking care of mom. Paul opened to his old nick——The Poet——as he realized that this woman smelled clean.
    The woman smiled wide, the smile overriding her decaying mouth. It’s kind of over your head, isn’t it? She looked at Paul.
    He made himself take a second before responding. Yeah, that’s right. He smiled back, took her right arm. Bone as thin as the handle of a plunger.
    The woman looked away, back out. She moved her left hand, tracing a hazy shape with her long fingers. It’s stone still, she said. It doesn’t go anywhere.
    Paul noticed the curiosity in her voice, and so the lack of fear, anger. Yes ma’am. That sounds right to me. Paul heard the last clip of the ambulance behind him, probably half a mile out. It was darker now, but he glanced over his shoulder anyway.
    Paul felt it: the woman had found his right hand with her left and was softly squeezing it. Paul felt its warmth, and its strength. The stranger impeccable smoothness of it, everywhere but the fingertips. Paul kept his left hand on her shoulder. He snorted a gnat away from his face.
    The landscape doesn’t move, she said. It makes you move.
    Paul looked at her as the swinging red and blue of the ambulance lit them. New shadows on her face, but she didn’t mind. Paul knew she’d be safe, if not also tended to. He checked: ambulance alone with its openings and paramedics, the intersection otherwise empty.
    She was rubbing Paul’s hand with a circling thumb, beginning to dig.
    You could kind of lift yourself out from this place.
    Without waiting, Paul had nodded and said yes as the two silhouettes approached her.

Paul finished his Friday shift and its paperwork then drove home trying to remember what the demented woman had said. After missing an exit——his muscle memory failing him——he realized how much this forgetting was bothering him. Paul felt anger gather in him where it normally did: his hands. He’d tried to crush the steering wheel of his beater before, but maybe not hard enough. Paul found home——a small house with many problems, a cheap rental——as he contrasted himself to his six friends who’d also made it out. All six with their tales of crippling VA waits, heaps of glowing orange bottles.
    All the names of all the edible unions which kept them sane. Or functional, like a gun.
    Paul walked into his home and swam nothing that he wanted to see.

Many leaves died and the evening winds began to drive people indoors when Paul took five days off. He had more to spare which the chief urged him to use, but Paul knew the days would come in handy when the six dropped down to five, or when his mother died. While locking up his rental for the week, Paul realized that it’s probable that millions of Americans save up in order to visit their newly dead. Paul laughed.
    With a few thousand dollars in cash and no plan, Paul drove south.

The first day, he drove as long as he could. He didn’t have a map and he kept his phone off, listening to the radio to stay awake. The first night, a few hours before dawn, he pulled off at a chain hotel, paid in cash, and set his alarm for 9am. His sleep was restless, concussive detonations somehow moving through his dreams like sparks off some welded metal. He woke, showered, hunted down some hardboiled eggs and coffee. He was refueling somewhere flat and dry by mid-afternoon. He listened to the shady roar of trucks down the highway and realized that he wanted to end up in New Orleans.
    He still refused to turn on his phone and look at a map, but suspected he’d overshot a straight line down to the city; he was too far west. So he kept driving, found Highway 53, and followed it through small towns——Magnolia, Fluker, Roseland, Hammond. He kept in his car, wanting to reach New Orleans before nightfall. His car sped south, now following water, great amounts of water tracing a permission: you may live there, but not here.
    Paul worked his way into the city by getting off the highway. He drove through neighborhoods for awhile, simply looking. Old low houses, stained. Massive trees that both hid the sky and reached down to those on the sidewalks. He noticed the asphalt, its potholes and stickiness. He drove through the poorest neighborhoods that he could find, sweating through his shirt, windows down, pistol on his lap. He saw slowly loping young men, women and girls on lawns, folks with snow cones and on ticking bikes, and then, gradually again, big houses set further back from the street and its pulsing SUVs and convertibles. He saw sandwich shops, record stores, and countless bars and clubs, most open air and sheltering at least a few. Junkies on the sidewalk and jaywalking, talking at tourists and doing little tricks: magic, jokes, simple riddles with coins and their shoes. He saw hotels spraying mist from the bottom of their outstretched balconies, and huge neon or translucent containers filled with brightly-colored liquors——bright like the parrot on a one-legged man’s shoulder as he cut through crows of ambling tourists taking photos on their phones of most things: hanging ivy, old doors, bar signs, storefronts with posters of blues and jazz musicians, sleeping drunks. He left that part of town and drove toward the stadium, ignoring the corn and fruit sellers under the high overpasses, ignoring their kids and the kids, parentless, playing soccer and football. He saw a group of middleschoolers get in a fistfight among hundreds of shaded parked cars; one of them tripped on his own feet backing up, landed on the hood of a sports car and setting off its alarm, the kids then grappling and tearing shirts and throwing a few more exhausted punches before jogging off in one group. Paul saw long stretches of road without people, and tall office buildings, already abandoned for the day. He saw open boulevards and green-painted lanes for bikes beside new modern buildings with patio restaurants; he saw people in suits and dresses drinking white wine while staring blankly at menus. The sun set as he turned around, following the bends of the snaking river back into some neighborhood, past the tourists, back into some place that he’d already seen. He found an expensive parking lot watched by one attendant and parked. He locked his gun in the glove compartment, handed the keys to the tattooed attendant, then walked. Lamps clicked on, revealing big concentric swarms of gnats. Paul swept the bugs away from his face and walked, following knots of shouts, laughter, teasing screams. He came to a bar and po’ boy place and ordered a beer and a sandwich. He watched, from his perch on an uneven stool at the counter plastered with wrappers and sticky napkins, watching the groups of friends and alert men and the two old regulars, the two nearly asleep at their tables, one reading a paper under the tinny speakers belting out some brass band. A few times, he watched men watch him, bringing his eyes back down to his beer to not start a fight. Paul had seen, in the last four hours, more black skin than he’d seen in four years in the Marines, and two years in Vermont——more skin like his than he’d seen since childhood. He was thinking about this when she walked in with a date, their distance and newness to each other palpable. Paul watched her for a few more seconds then ordered a shot and another beer. He was in the right place.

The date went to the bathroom and Paul walked over to their table.
    I’m not tryna muscle your man or anything——
    But maybe you are, she said. She looked up at him and held up two pinching fingers. Just a little.
    Yeah, you got me. Paul glanced at the bathroom hallway. Imma be at the counter, havin one more beer. If you feel like it, I’d love to have you. If this guy ain’t right. Paul turned and walked back to the counter.
    He seems alright, she called out.
    He sat and swiveled to face her. She had her eyebrows up, and he laughed. You ain’t wrong, he said. He sipped his beer after smiling at her, turning back to face the counter as he heard a bathroom door shut.

They clopped drunk down small crooked streets, passing in and out of bars to keep themselves laughing and moving forward. They lingered under dull streetlamps in the half-night, New Orleans’ sky a necrotic pink. They stopped to listen to sidewalk bands, both uncomplicatedly impressed by the solemn talent of the musicians, the coordination of their hands and mouths and obvious spirits. They danced a little, but stopped when they remembered where they were going. So they went, leaning over the first counter to check out a room. Paul handed her the key to watch her walk down the hallway, which she did slowly, elbow in her hip and key dangling from a curled finger, weighting each step with all of her before the next, making sure——once——that he’d seen. He had.
    They fucked once without choreography, Paul too forceful with his hands. They lay there and Paul looked at her body, laying the brown of her skin next to other shades. She was looking at the low ceiling and catching her breath. Paul knew then what he wanted, but in an image——he wanted to fuck himself into a crater of thoughtlessness, and then sit down there under no sky for as long as he could. He knew he’d need help, and so he’d need to help her, too. They could get there. So he said her name——Belle——and put her hand on the scars on his back then kissed her.

What Paul had thought while driving: bombs, strips of cartilage like calamari, tracers pinging through heads at ghostly angles at a distance, the stars and their differences, the smell of the sky in Riyadh, the smell of the dirt, the dust, their skin, A.B. and his nubby pencils, his explanation of Euclid’s first proposition, his explanation of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, A.B.’s insanity at trying to keep that shit up with a bunch of grunts who killed people and burned their own shit, A.B.’s mother when she stood too long holding onto Paul’s hand, vomiting in bathrooms and bathtubs, shitting as a kid, having his ass wiped as a kid, getting pulled up on outside of school, at a party, for fucking, for not fighting, wanting to kill, craving killing without announcement, garrote wire, barbwire fences, his uncle’s small farm, those asshole goats, sloppy barbecue, swallowing a shard of bone and feeling it cut him all the way through, water on the other planet, water in convoy covered in dust and blood, the crinkle of water bottles like a trumpet for the beggar kids, wanting to hand out guns and ammunition, exploding buildings, shattered bricks of mud, snuck fireworks, colorblindness, Raul telling about his mom, blindness, brown tap water, surprise funerals, plague, fucking amid death, fucking beside corpses, heat, diseased heat in the cock and cunt and eyes, vanishing civilization, the collapse of this one, fascism, mockery, mocking his little sister, PT, weights, trick knees, amputation, gangrene, MRSA, Chris in the VA, Chris in the ICU, gloves and suits, fogging up his mask while saying goodbye to Chris, Chris’ hope, the tight shiny craters of his abscesses, draining pus with a pen, highschool, metal detectors, the one security guard that got shot, the German Shepherds, non-existent lunches, beating Tyrell with a lunch tray, his mother’s face, his mother’s face, the dumb country, his phone, throwing his phone into an active volcano, throwing himself into an active volcano, learning to cook, Chief’s wife, fucking Chief’s wife on their dining room table, her ass grinding into some perfect salad, paying his rent, his landlord’s sad eyes, writing a final check, emptying his accounts, spending all his money then killing himself, killing some VA administrators, killing his mother in her sleep before the home, moonlight, the light from a full moon on the barrel of a shotgun, the barrel of a shotgun clacking against his teeth, knowing the click of the trigger and then, a flash surveilled from twenty-thousand feet up, then what, then what, then what.