I've been preoccupied with working on my new novel and also getting short stories out to various zines and literary mags, so I haven't had time to devote to the blog like I'd like to. And, truthfully, the novel is a piece of survival horror/science fiction and it's not put me in a funny sort of mood. As such, I don't want to break the creative energy I'm devoting to that work. BUT - -I've also promised myself that I would try to contribute something...anything... to this blog as a means of self-discipline. That said - - I've decided to post up a piece of creative nonfiction I wrote a few years back to deal with the loss of a family friend. I pulled it out recently to submit to some literary magazines and done some brush up work on it. So, here it is...
John was my father’s best friend. My earliest memories of him are inextricably linked with that of my father. Almost like an old snapshot, my memory of them is sepia-toned and dog-eared. They were these larger than life figures in blue uniforms with black leather belts, shiny badges, and big black guns that hung high on their waists.
John was my father’s partner and they rode together for fifteen years. Eventually, my dad quit the force and accepted the idea that it was impossible to raise two children on the criminally low salary that they paid cops in the seventies and eighties. My father took a job as the Service Director in my hometown and John went on to become a sergeant with another local police department.
“Everything I know about being a good sergeant and a cop, I learned from your dad,” he told me once while we sat around a campfire at deer camp, sharing a beer and a quiet moment. The ground was covered with a crunchy, gravel-like snow and it was about twenty numbing degrees outside.
John was a short, thick-chested man. He had an intensity about him that served him well in his job. I most remember his smile. He had tiny, white teeth and a smile that was impossibly large. It could go from warm and friendly to shark-like and predatory in an instant. When he smiled at a joke, you couldn’t help smiling with him. Often his jokes would be about people he had met as a cop, and he would grin devilishly as he would relate a story about an exceptionally dumb criminal. He could be a prick to someone he busted, but fiercely loyal to those he cared about personally.
One of the first things you were struck with, when meeting him, was his right hand. His middle finger was short, amputated at the first knuckle. Weirder still, his index finger was permanently stiff at the same knuckle and slightly bent.
One night, while camping, he pulled out his service 9mm and we took turns emptying magazines at empty cans in the hills of southern Ohio. The deformity never caused him any trouble. That same night, I asked him how he hurt his hand. My father, sitting nearby, groaned as John’s face lit with his famous smile.
“Ask your dad,” he said, throwing a stone at my father across the crackling and jumping campfire.
“Why?” Dad said, “You’ll only contradict me and twist it around, you degenerate.”
John laughed and flexed his ruined hand, “We got a call late one night and responded with lights to a domestic. It was raining and had been a really slow night when the call came in. Your dad jumped on it and we tore off. Thing is, neither of us knew where the place was. So, I’m trying to get directions off the dispatcher, and your dad’s bombing through the night. I had my hand outside the window, holding the top of the door frame.”
John lifted up his hand to demonstrate - the image of someone resting their arm on the door frame and grasping the top of a car door where it met the roof. He went on, “So, we came to the street and I told him, ‘This is it, Sarge,’. Well, your dad never touched the brakes. He let off the gas and wrenched the wheel. We hydroplaned and the cruiser slid to the far side of the road, hitting a ditch at about forty-five miles per hour. The cruiser rolled three times, twice on my hand.”
John held up his hand again, “They never found the tip of my ‘Fuck you!’ finger, and I still have a steel pin in my shooting finger. All because your dad can’t drive.”
He laughed uproariously and my father gave him a murderous look.
“Isn’t that when you broke your jaw?” I asked my father. I vaguely remember my father once coming home from work in a sling and with his jaw wired shut. He had had to eat through a straw for three weeks and lost thirty-five pounds.
“Yeah,” Dad said, grabbing another beer from the cooler, “and I’m not the moron who had to ride with his hand out the window.”
Growing up, John had spent every fall and winter of his life in the woods. He and my father passed this love of the outdoors to me. He taught me how to stalk game, how to track a wounded animal, and - most importantly - how to gauge the weather and decide if the game is going to cooperate or if it’s time to call it a day and go get a beer. This was more than an uncle’s tutelage. His own son never wanted to hunt or spend time with his old man; so I became the willing and open pitcher into which John and my father poured their accumulative backwoods knowledge.
Take something so simple as shooting a rifle. I remember looking through the scope of my first .22 with John standing behind me and my father looking on. I was ten and it was a crisp, sunny autumn day.
“It’s all about the little things,” John said, “Little things like taking a deep breath when you look through the scope. You put the cross hairs where you want them, take a breath, and let it out slowly. When you have nothing left to inhale, you focus and wait. The cross hairs will stop moving and you’ll reach a point of stillness where you can almost feel your heartbeat. That’s when you slowly squeeze the trigger. Never jerk it, or pull it. It should be a slow, steady, gentle squeeze until the trigger clicks.”
He looked me in the eyes and spoke as confidently and as calmly as a man who had studied Zen, “It’ll be like a tube of glass breaking and, if you’ve done it right, you’ll hear the firing pin hit before the explosive roar of the gun barks out. That’s the key to never, ever missing. It’s all in that split second when you hear the click of the firing pin.”
John had a bad marriage. His wife was a petty, manipulative, controlling woman who John, unfortunately, loved too much. I didn’t realize this until I was older.
She hated hunting. Perhaps because it was something he loved so much, or something in which he could find joy independent from her. Inevitably, the day came when she gave out an ultimatum; it was her, or hunting. For her sake, and for the sake of his marriage, he gave in to her demands. The same sense of right and wrong that made him a good cop dictated his sense of ‘doing right’ by his marriage, so he relinquished time spent with his friends and his brothers.
As the seasons changed, and the air grew crisper and colder, John’s presence at the annual deer trip was sorely missed.
“Do you think John’ll divorce her, Dad?” I asked.
“I don’t know, son. He should have, years ago. But, love makes you do stupid things.”
I received the call the day after Memorial Day. I was at work and my mother called, saying my father was too upset to call himself.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, alarmed. Never in my life had I ever seen or heard my Dad cry.
“It’s John,” Mom said, too grieved to soften the blow, “He ate his gun. The funeral’s this week.”
I couldn’t have been more shocked if my mother had told me my own father had killed himself.
It is very hard to observe a cop’s funeral. At all times there is a police officer, his badge covered with black tape, standing guard at the edge of the coffin. The fallen officer’s brethren will take turns throughout the night, standing watch in this fashion. Later, at the church, the eerie silence as the coffin passed the hundreds of assembled police officers was absolute. My father was a pallbearer, the only one not in a uniform but accepted by all of the other cops there as John’s ex-partner.
Oddly, the weather was beautiful when they buried John. In the movies, it always seems that these sort of affairs are portrayed as taking place under dark, raining skies. The dreary weather serves as a meteorological metaphor; the weeping skies symbolizing the accumulative sorrow of the assembled mourners. It seems an incongruity to be in a cemetery, on a warm, beautiful, and sunny spring day.
This contradiction went on. A bagpipe played Amazing Grace as swans and geese floated lazily on a nearby pond. In another part of the cemetery, a groundskeeper was cutting the lawn and I remember the fresh cut grass irritating my allergies above and beyond the itchy, snuffling result of my own tears. Then there was the vision of policemen - men I’d grown up around and always admired for their strength and self-assuredness - inconsolable in their very public grief. Cops, as a culture, are supposed to be stoic and always strong. Not so at a funeral for one of their own.
Beyond my own grief, there is one moment that stands out above everything else. Before they lowered John into the ground, his widow wailed in grief and kissed the top of the casket.
I’ve never hated someone so much in my life.
We’ll never really know what transpired in that last day of John’s life. We do know that he and his wife had spent Memorial Day Weekend arguing. His new partner, closer to the situation than my father or I, speculated that John had reached the breaking point because she had told him she had been seeing someone else, that she wanted a divorce. That was too much for John. He had gone back to their bedroom, gotten his service pistol, walked back out, and put it into his mouth. He pulled the trigger without another word.
Like my father said, love makes you do strange things.
A few days after the funeral, my father and I went back to the cemetery. We stood over John’s grave and split half a bottle of whiskey, pouring the other half on John’s grave. I’d like to say that I’ve come to some understanding of what happened or that maybe I’d found some sort of closure. But, I’d be lying. To this day, I don’t know why he did it. It was such a stupid, tragic, and selfish thing to do. I do know that it must take big balls to put the black, cold barrel of a Beretta 9mm into your mouth and pull the trigger. Bigger balls than I have, certainly. It’s not something I could do.
But, in terms of selfishness, I guess I’m just as guilty. When I received that call from my Mom, my first thought was for my newborn son, whom John had never met. He would grow up, never having the opportunity to hunt with John, like I did. Or love the man as an uncle. Or get drunk on whiskey and laugh around a campfire. The only way he would ever know John would be in what I had learned from John and will pass on to him. That was the most tragic part of the sorry mess.
Of course my second thought upon learning of John’s death was much more morbid. I still have nightmares about it and I’m certain I will spend the rest of my life wondering. I wonder about that final instant, in that pregnant moment of absolute stillness when he looked at his wife and made his choice. In that millisecond before the explosion - did he hear the click of the firing pin?