We grew up two miles away from each other, both in small houses, not far from where the great Hindenburg circled and crashed a million years ago, Michael McMullen and me, Officer Andrea Vogel.
"I'm in deeper shit than this," Michael says, his body and head facing the dirt, hands pulled back in cuffs.
I'm not in the mood to deal with him. My husband died recently and my stamina for dealing with crap is at an all-time low. I stand straight in my gray uniform, looking down at Michael.
"This is nothing," he mutters. "I got bigger problems."
"Yeah? You think I care?" says my new partner, Jenkins. He's young, skinny, the boss's nephew, not cut out for the occupation of policeman. The kid is hotheaded and a touch twisted. He enjoys scaring senior citizens when he pulls them overyou know, I can have your license revoked. I was asked to take him under my wing.
"This ain't nothing," Michael mumbles again.
"Close your mouth," Jenkins snaps. "I'm tired of dealing with you already!" Even in the muddy glow of the overhead light from the police car, I can see the young guy redden.
"Officer," I say calmly. It's code to remind him: Do not engage.
"You've been dealing with me for all of ten fucking minutes!" Michael barks.
Jenkins is infuriated. "Didn't I tell you to be quiet? You better watch that language and show respect."
Michael lifts his head, twisting toward the twenty-four-year-old cop. "What are you? Fucking in the seventh grade and all of eighty pounds? Hell, I'll kick your ass all the way down to Atlantic City."
"Mike," I say. "Put a lid on it."
Michael doesn't. He keeps going, mumbling crap. "Damn kids. Think they're tough because they got a cop job. It's nothing but a job." He raises his head off the ground even higher, screwing his neck back until his veins protrude like miniature cables. He scowls at my red-faced skinny partner. "You hear? Ain't nothing but a goddamn job!"
Jenkins glares at me. The young cop is at a loss and piss angry about it. His hands ball up.
"Mike," I say. "Put your head down and take a breather." I direct Jenkins to go inside and get the woman of the house to make a report. She was outside earlier, screaming her head off until her best friend arrived, ushering her inside.
"Fine," the young cop grunts. "Whatever." He turns and hikes across the front yard until he reaches the concrete porch of the small, squat ranch. The door opens and he goes in.
I look around the area. The house is at a dead end, encircled by dark woods. The aroma of pine sap, sandy dirt, and brush soak the night's air. I grew up a few blocks away. "You living here, Mike?"
"Just staying for a bit." The left side of Michael's head is fully resting on the ground. He's worn himself out by yelling and now, when he speaks, it's with difficulty and into the earth. "It was Julie's mother's house. Her mom's living with her sister."
"So it's Julie's house now?"
"I guess." Michael raises his head again. "I don't ask her questions much. Turns into a long-ass story I ain't prepared to listen to."
I chuckle. The guy can still make me laugh. "Alright. I'm gonna sit you up."
I bend down and help Michael turn and sit on the cracked cement curb. His hands are still behind his back and he rubs his cheek against his shoulder to take the dirt off his face.
"I could use a smoke," Michael says when he sorts himself out.
"Can't help ya."
"I ain't asking, I'm just saying."
I watch as Michael lets out a deep breath, looks into space. The man is in sweat pants and a Mets T-shirt and white socks, his head is shaved, and a thin gold chain with a cross hangs around his neck. His chest is wide, the arms muscular, every part of him dense, like an old boxer.
"They're coming to get me tonight," Michael says, looking up at me. "So, even if it's crazy to say, I'm real glad you're here."
I want to roll my eyes. "Your gambling out of control again?"
Mike nods. "Yes ma'am, it is."
I gaze into the woods, dark swallowing up what can't be made out. "How much you in for?"
"A few grand."
"Do you have a job?"
"Who's gonna hire me?" he snaps.
His defiant tone makes me bristle, but I do not engage.
Michael is quiet for a while and then he says, "I should've gone your route. Been an officer of the law. That or a teacher."
"What kind of teacher?"
"A history teacher."
I let out a brief smile, recalling the days when we were kids and he carried around a large tattered book about World War II.
Michael says, "Remember when we'd sit around with your grandfather and he'd tell his stories of the Depression?"
My grandfather had been born in the north of England. When the old man was a boy, his mother shipped him overseas to live with relatives, which didn't work out, so he had to make his own way. The way was unscrupulous and rough, paved with stealing and years of homelessness, but he cleared a path to a small version of the American dream. He secured a wife, a house, and a lifetime job at a paint factory.
"He was a cool dude, your grandpa," Mike says.
I nod. That he was.
"Hey, I'm sorry about your man. I know Carl meant a lot to you. How long is he gone now?"
I don't want to answer because I don't want to talk about my dead husband. "Four months," I finally say.
"How long were you two married?"
I rub my left eye with my knuckle, feeling my throat tighten. "Twenty-two years."
"Whew," Michael says. "That's a long time. Jeez Louise."
Gloom moves in, circling like a hawk.
"That completely sucks," Michael goes on. "When I heard about it, I felt for you. So unfair, isn't it?"
"Yeah." My husband. His clothes are still hanging in the closet like he's going to come down from heaven and take them to the Goodwill himself because I'm not up to it.
"Tough on you, huh?" Michael says.
I give a quick nod, chase Carl out of my head, and think about my childhood and my ties to this man sitting on the curb. Michael, after his father beat him in the garage with a jagged piece of wood, lived with my family for a soccer season, when my younger brother played left wing for one of the hapless Lakehurst United teams. Michael and I were both thirteen at the time, and we both agreed soccer was a stupid sport, preferring baseball and street hockey. But we'd been forced to tag along to the games, which were played on the nearby basethe Lakehurst Naval Air Station. Back in those days, there were no soccer fields in the township.
The base was a strange place to play any sport. Located in the north end of the Pine Barrens, colossal gray hangars loomed here, there, like parked spaceships from a science fiction film. The biggest structure, Hangar One, a monstrous old beast, sat steps away from the Hindenburg crash site, or so I had assumed then, for there was no memorial marking it like there is today. As soon as my brother and his team lined up for cleat and shin guard inspection, Michael and I would take off, shouting, racing for the great gray hangar. There we'd roam the wide fields of sand and broken asphalt, searching for pieces of the Hindenburg. Sometimes we lay on the ground, staring into the sky, pretending the zeppelin was sailing through the clouds before it busted up in flames, the debris dropping straight down on us. We'd roll away from the fire bombs, jump, duck, run. Other times we'd just talk about the airship, trying to figure out what had sparked the fire. I had heard it was lightning but Michael insisted it was a bullet or two. "One of them old Pineys was out hunting for deer and looked up, saw the swastika and shouted, 'Shit! The fucking Nazis!' Took it down with their shotgun. Chick-chick, BOOM!"
That must've been in '80 or '81. Lakehurst United was long disbanded, swallowed up by another local league.
"So," Michael says, "you seeing anyone?"
Taken aback and offended, yet amused at the same time, I'm at a loss for words. "Excuse me?" I finally say.
"Well, you know," he drawls, cocking his head, shrugging.
I roll my eyes, forgetting for a moment where I am, and smile faintly. "I can't believe you just asked me that." Michael is a piece of workyou can't give the guy an inch. But it's no excuse to be disrespectful. "My husband just passed, Mike."
Michael doesn't appear to absorb what I said. He grins and goes further: "I'm sure you're sitting around your house, all alone. You must want some company." He winks.
I glare at him, my blood beginning to swirl.
Michael wets his lips.
"You should rest." I have to remain professional.
Michael laughs. "Come on, Andrea. We go way back. I know you're all bad with your uniform but I remember you in a bikini."
I focus on my breathing which has gone shallow. Yes, we have history. We were friends and sometimes more than friends. Then Carl came into the picture when I was twenty-one and that was it.
"I bet you still look fine in a bikini."
I feel my teeth grit against my tongue. "You should rest."
"Lighten up. Can't a guy give a woman a compliment?"
"I bet you'd love a warm body in your bed."
I place my hand on my holster.
"Gonna shoot me?"
Do not engage.
Michael is quiet for a minute and when he speaks again, his tone is different. It lacks swagger now. "Andrea, I need a place to stay. Please." He cranes his neck and looks ominously into the dark. "I need protection. They're after me. They're probably watching and you're my only safety. Give me a chance. I can fix things around your house, things Carl used to do."
"Don't bring Carl into this."
"I bet you got a window that isn't shutting properly or maybe your washer ain't working."
"Washer is fine."
Michael frowns. "Well at least Julie will press charges and you'll take me in. Can't get more safe than a jail cell, can ya?"
The front door to the house swings open and Jenkins emerges. He marches across the yard with a stiff gait, then halts a foot away from Michael.
Jenkins says, "Tonight's your lucky night, Mr. McMullen. The lady isn't pressing charges."
Michael's expression immediately turns sour. "What'd you mean? I was bad to her."
My partner's eyebrows squirrel up in puzzlement. "Yes, I know. And she isn't disputing that, but she's not pressing charges either. That's a good thing. For you, at least."
Michael looks at me. "Andie, you gotta help me now. Take me to your house."
Jenkins crosses his arms and grins, gazing at me. "Your house?"
I don't reply.
"Hey, whatever," Jenkins says. "None of my business."
"We used to be together," Michael clarifies.
"Classic," Jenkins says.
Keep it together, Andrea.
"Time's up," I say, yanking Michael up by the arm and taking the cuffs off.
"Andie, please honey, you gotta help me out!"
"You're free to go, Mr. McMullen."
"Just for the night," Michael pleads. "So I can sort shit out in my brain. You know, get a plan down."
I shake my head.
"But you gotta take me in. You gotta! I was bad to her!" His voice grows panicked. "And what about my disrespect to Officer Jenkins here?"
"Officer Jenkins is fine."
"But they're coming for me! They're gonna kill me. Please. Take me to jail. Anything. But don't leave me here alone with them."
Michael's voice should tug at my heart. That pleading, I'm-gonna-die-if-you-don't-help-me-now voice. He had a shitty childhood. "Count your lucky stars you and your brother ain't been born in his situation," my grandfather said more than once.
Still, the tug isn't as hard as it had once been. That's the icy, mean truth. Maybe it's because I lost Carl, or I'm dealing with the depression that comes with grief, or the simple fact that Michael hit on me, forgetting his respect. Whatever it is, Michael's problems are the same as they were years ago: Help me write this report or I'm gonna fail out of school; let me borrow money or my dad is gonna kick my ass for taking his cash; save me, rescue me, lend me. Frankly, I just don't care anymore. I don't. I just don't.
"Come on, Andie." Michael rocks back and forth, shaking, eyes darting. He points to the house. "What if I beat Julie up? What if I knock her around? Will you arrest me then?"
"Why don't you just leave town?" I suggest.
"I got no car and hers is broken down."
"Walk," I bark.
"But you gotta help me! I'm your friend. We go way back. And they're here, circling."
"Circling?" I can't help myselfI start laughing.
"Yeah, they are. It's not funny. They're around the corner, behind the trees, going round and round. I don't fucking know. But I know they're here. Take me home with you. Or just take me in. Put me in lockup. Give me some time to figure shit out."
Jenkins finally seems to catch on. "So this guy's in trouble?"
I don't answer. I walk to the driver's side of the patrol car. Jenkins follows to the passenger side.
"Andrea! Don't leave me! Take me to your house. Just for the night! We're old friends."
I ignore him.
Michael begins to bargain: "Listen. I'm gonna go punch Julie right now. Then you gotta take me in."
"Is this asshole serious?" Jenkins asks.
"Get in the car," I order.
"Get in the vehicle!"
Michael cries out again. "We're old friends! Hell, we had a relationship! Don't you remember? We had a thing!"
I taste blood on my tongue. I shut the door but I can still hear Michael's desperate shouts: "Yo! Come on! Don't leave me!"
Then, "I'm gonna go hit her now!"
Through the windows of the patrol car, I watch as Michael twirls around in a circle, then races across the front yard.
But Michael doesn't go inside. When he reaches the front porch, he snatches up a small flower pot, darts back across the yard and hurls it at my police vehicle. It smashes against the front, pieces of dirt and terracotta skidding across the hood.
"What the hell!" Jenkins roars. "I'm going after him!"
"No!" I shout.
I put the patrol car in forward gear and touch the gas. As I drive away, I catch a glimpse of Michael in the rearview window. The man's hands are up in the air and his face is distorted into a desperate, silent cry, the dark woods behind him. The scene reminds me of the ending of Platoon, when they leave the wounded Elias to be killed in the jungle. My husband loved that movie.
"I can't believe you left that joker!" Jenkins cries out. "You shoulda let me at him."
My heart races wildly, my blood flaming, and my hands grip the wheel so tightly, I can feel pain. It is true, I left Michael, and it is something that can come back to bite me. There is no doubt my partner will spill the storyMichael McMullen threw a flower pot at the cruiser and still, Officer Andrea Vogel took off. But getting in trouble isn't what is bothering me. It's the possible outcome: what if one of Michael's phantoms do pop out of the trees and beat him to death? In '99, when Michael had neglected to pay a debt, he got his ass kicked so badly, they had to helicopter his ass up to Jersey Shore Medical Center.
I'm swamped with guilt. Visions of my youth race before my eyes: Michael, nine, knocking on my door to play; Michael, eleven, punching Scott Kaplowitz for calling me a slut; Michael, thirteen, gingerly lifting up his T-shirt, his back covered in horrid bruises and stripes of dried blood.
I swing the car around and head back to the house. Jenkins has questions but I order him to close his mouth, that I'm simply having second thoughts about the flower pot.
"Whatever," Jenkins says.
Later, Michael sits solemnly in the car, his hands behind his back, staring ahead, looking relieved.
"Thanks, Andrea," Michael says when we pull into the station.
"No problem," I reply dryly.
Jenkins eyes me suspiciously but I ignore him.
Once Michael is set for the night, safe and sound in a cell, Jenkins shakes his head in disbelief. "I can't believe you went back and got that moron, Andrea. Why'd you help that asshole out? Because you two once had a relationship?" He smirks.
The dig pisses me off. "Watch yourself, Jenkins. I don't like you very much."
He chuckles and shakes his head. "I'll never understand this friggin' place. It's just one big circle around here, isn't it?"
I try to ignore him.
But he keeps going. "Everyone is related, one way or another. By blood or history. And that, in my book, skews everything."
I sneak a glance at skinny Jenkins, secretly marveling at his brief slice of wisdom. The idiot may be right.
In the morning, as I sit at my kitchen table drinking a glass of milk, I know Carl would've gotten a kick out of this story. I can see him now, sitting with me at the table, laughing.
I close my eyes, imagining my husband saying, "Aw, Andie. Old Michael never got over you." I even see him winking at me, as Carl sometimes did. "Poor guy."
Then I open my eyes.
Copyright © 2013 by Jen Conley