f is grief, but a dog is not a father.
Everyone applauded. Shirley kissed him smack on the mouth, and the kid blushed all the way down to his collar. Huddie Royer, who was off-duty that day and just hanging around, stewing about some case in which he had to testify, went out and came back with a bag of L'il Debbie cakes. Arky used his key to open the soda machine, and we had a party. Half an hour or so, no more, but it was good while it lasted. Everyone shook Ned's hand, the acceptance letter from Pitt made its way around the room (twice, I think), and a couple of cops who'd been at home dropped by just to talk to him and pass along their congrats.
Then, of course, the real world got back into the act. It's quiet over here in western Pennsylvania, but not dead. There was a farmhouse fire in Pogus City (which is a city about as much as I'm the Archduke Ferdinand), and an overturned Amish buggy on Highway 20. The Amish keep to themselves, but they'll gladly take a little outside help in a case like that. The horse was okay, which was the big thing. The worst buggy fuckups happen on Friday and Saturday nights, when the younger bucks in black have a tendency to get drunk out behind the barn. Sometimes they get a "worldly person" to buy them a bottle or a case of Iron City beer, and sometimes they drink their own stuff, a really murderous corn shine you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. It's just part of the scene; it's our world, and mostly we like it, including the Amish with their big neat farms and the orange triangles on the back of their small neat buggies.
And there's always paperwork, the usual stacks of duplicate and triplicate in my office. It gets worse every year. Why I ever wanted to be the guy in charge is beyond me now. I took the test that qualified me for Sergeant Commanding when Tony Schoondist suggested it, so I must have had a reason back then, but these days it seems to elude me.
Around six o'clock I went out back to have a smoke. We have a bench there facing the parking lot. Beyond it is a very pretty western view. Ned Wilcox was sitting on the bench with his acceptance letter from Pitt in one hand and tears rolling down his face. He glanced at me, then looked away, scrubbing his eyes with the palm of his hand.
I sat down beside him, thought about putting my arm around his shoulder, didn't do it. If you have to think about a thing like that, doing it usually feels phony. I have never married, and what I know about fathering you could write on the head of a pin with room left over for the Lord's Prayer. I lit a cigarette and smoked it awhile. "It's all right, Ned," I said eventually. It was the only thing I could think of, and I had no idea what it meant.
"I know," he replied at once in a muffled, trying-not-to-cry voice, and then, almost as if it was part of the same sentence, a continuation of the same thought: "No it ain't."
Hearing him use that word, that ain't, made me realize how bad he was hurt. Something had gored him in the stomach. It was the sort of word he would have trained himself out of long ago, just so he wouldn't be lumped with the rest of the Statler County hicks, the pickup-truck-n-snowmobile gomers from towns like Patchin and Pogus City. Even his sisters, eight years younger than he was, had probably given up ain't by then, and for much the same reasons. Don't say ain't or your mother will faint and your father will fall in a bucket of paint. Yeah, what father?
I smoked and said nothing. On the far side of the parking lot by one of the county roadsalt piles was a cluster of wooden buildings that needed either sprucing up or tearing down. They were the old Motor Pool buildings. Statler County had moved its plows, graders, "dozers, and asphalt rollers a mile or so down the road ten years before, into a new brick facility that looked like a prison lockdown unit. All that remained here was the one big pile of salt (which we were using ourselves, little by little--once upon a time, that pile had been a mountain) and a few ramshackle wooden buildings. One of them was Shed B. The black paint letters over the door--one of those wide garage doors that run up on rails--were faded but still legible. Was I thinking about the Buick Roadmaster inside as I sat there next to the crying boy, wanting to put my arm around him and not knowing how? I don't know. I guess I might have been, but I don't think we know all the things we're thinking. Freud might have been full of shit about a lot of things, but not that one. I don't know about a subconscious, but there's a pulse in our heads, all right, same as there's one in our chests, and it carries unformed, no-language thoughts that most times we can't even read, and they are usually the important ones.
Ned rattled the letter. "He's the one I really want to show this to. He's the one who wanted to go to Pitt when he was a kid but couldn't afford it. He's the reason I applied, for God's sake." A pause; then, almost too low to hear: "This is fucked up, Sandy."
"What did your mother say when you showed her?"
That got a laugh, watery but genuine. "She didn't say. She screamed like a lady who just won a trip to Bermuda on a gameshow. Then she cried." Ned turned to me. His own tears had stopped, but his eyes were red and swollen. He looked a hell of a lot younger than eighteen just then. The sweet smile resurfaced for a moment. "Basically, she was great about it. Even the Little J's were great about it. Like you guys. Shirley kissing me . . . man, I got goosebumps."
I laughed, thinking that Shirley might have raised a few goosebumps of her own. She liked him, he was a handsome kid, arid the idea of playing Mrs. Robinson might have crossed her mind. Probably not, but it wasn't impossible. Her husband had been out of the picture almost five years by then.
Ned's smile faded. He rattled the acceptance letter again. "I knew this was yes as soon as I took it out of the mailbox. I could just tell, somehow. And I started missing him all over again. I mean fierce."
"I know," I said, but of course I didn't. My own father was still alive, a hale and genially profane man of seventy-four. At seventy, my mother was all that and a bag of chips.
Ned sighed, looking off at the hills. "How he went out is just so dumb," he said. "I can't even tell my kids, if I ever have any, that Grampy went down in a hail of bullets while foiling the bank robbers or the militia guys who were trying to put a bomb in the county courthouse. Nothing like that."
"No," I agreed, "nothing like that."
"I can't even say it was because he was careless. He was just . . . a drunk just came along and just . . ."
He bent over, wheezing like an old man with a cramp in his belly, and this time I at least put my hand on his back. He was trying so hard not to cry, that's what got to me. Trying so hard to be a man, whatever that means to an eighteen-year-old boy.
"Ned. It's all right."
He shook his head violently. "If there was a God, there'd be a reason," he said. He was looking down at the ground. My hand was still on his back, and I could feel it heaving up and down, like he'd just run a race. "If there was a God, there'd be some kind of thread running through it. But there isn't. Not that I can see."
"If you have kids, Ned, tell them their grandfather died in the line of duty. Then take them here and show them his name on the plaque, with all the others."
He didn't seem to hear me. "I have this dream. It's a bad one." He paused, thinking how to say it, then just plunged ahead. "I dream it was all a dream. Do you know what I'm saying?"
"I wake up crying, and I look around my room, and it's sunny. Birds are singing. It's morning. I can smell coffee downstairs and I think, "He's okay. Jesus and thank you God, the old man's okay." I don't hear him talking or anything, but I just know. And I think what a stupid idea it was, that he could be walking up the side of some guy's rig to give him a warning about a flapper and just get creamed by a drunk, the sort of idea you could only have in a stupid dream where everything seems so real . . . and I start to swing my legs out of bed . . . sometimes I see my ankles go into a patch of sun . . . it even feels warm . . . and then I wake up for real, and it's dark, and I've got the blankets pulled up around me but I'm still cold, shivering and cold, and I know that the dream was a dream."
"That's awful," I said, remembering that as a boy I'd had my own version of the same dream. It was about my dog. I thought to tell him that, then didn't. Grie
"It wouldn't be so bad if I had it every night. Then I think I'd know, even while I was asleep, that there's no smell of coffee, that it's not even morning. But it doesn't come . . . doesn't come . . . and then when it finally does, I get fooled again. I'm so happy and relieved, I even think of something nice I'll do for him, like buy him that five-iron he wanted for his birthday . . . and then I wake up. I get fooled all over again." Maybe it was the thought of his father's birthday, not celebrated this year and never to be celebrated again, that started fresh tears running down his cheeks. "I just hate getting fooled. It's like when Mr. Jones came down and got me out of World History class to tell me, but even worse. Because I'm alone when I wake up in the dark. Mr. Grenville--he's the guidance counselor at school--says time heals all wounds, but it's been almost a year and I'm still having that dream."
I nodded. I was remembering Ten-Pound, shot by a hunter one November, growing stiff in his own blood under a white sky when I found him. A white sky promising a winter's worth of snow. In my dream it was always another dog when I got close enough to see, not Ten-Pound at all, and I felt that same relief. Until I woke up, at least. And thinking of Ten-Pound made me think, for a moment, of our barracks mascot back in the old days. Mister Dillon, his name had been, after the TV sheriff played by James Arness. A good dog.
"I know that feeling, Ned."
"Do you?" He looked at me hopefully.
"Yes. And it gets better. Believe me, it does. But he was your dad, not a schoolmate or a neighbor from down the road. You may still be having that dream next year at this time. You may even be having it ten years on, every once in awhile."
"No," I said. "That's memory."
"If there was a reason." He was looking at me earnestly. "A damn reason. Do you get that?"
"Of course I do."
"Is there one, do you think?"
I thought of telling him I didn't know about reasons, only about chains--how they form themselves, link by link, out of nothing; how they knit themselves into the world. Sometimes you can grab a chain and use it to pull yourself out of a dark place. Mostly, though, I think you get wrapped up in them. Just caught, if you're lucky. Fucking strangled, if you're not.
I found myself gazing across the parking lot at Shed B again. Looking at it, I thought that if I could get used to what was stored in its dark interior, Ned Wilcox could get used to living a fatherless life. People can get used to just about anything. That's the best of our lives, I guess. Of course, it's the horror of them, too.
"Sandy? Is there one? What do you think?"
"I think that you're asking the wrong guy. I know about work, and hope, and putting a nut away for the GDR."
He grinned. In Troop D, everyone talked very seriously about the GDR, as though it was some complicated subdivision of law enforcement. It actually stood for "golden days of retirement". I think it might have been Huddie Royer who first started talking about the GDR.
"I also know about preserving the chain of evidence so no smart defense attorney can kick your legs out from under you in court and make you look like a fool. Beyond that, I'm just another confused American male."
"At least you're honest," he said.
But was I? Or was I begging the goddam question? I didn't feel particularly honest right then; I felt like a man who can't swim looking at a boy who is floundering in deep water. And once again Shed B caught my eye. Is it cold in here? this boy's father had asked, back in the once-upon-a-time, back in the day. Is it cold in here, or is it just me?
No, it hadn't been just him.
"What are you thinking about, Sandy?"
"Nothing worth repeating," I said. "What are you doing this summer?"
"What are you doing this summer?" It wouldn't be golfing in Maine or boating on Lake Tahoe, that was for sure; scholarship or no scholarship, Ned was going to need all of the old folding green he could get.
"County Parks and Rec again, I suppose," he said with a marked lack of enthusiasm. "I worked there last summer until . . . you know."
Until his dad. I nodded.
"I got a letter from Tom McClannahan last week, saying he was holding a place open for me. He mentioned coaching Little League, but that's just the carrot on the end of the stick. Mostly it'll be swinging a spade and setting out sprinklers, just like last year. I can swing a spade, and I'm not afraid of getting my hands dirty. But Tom . . ." He shrugged instead of finishing.
I knew what Ned was too discreet to say. There are two kinds of work-functional alcoholics, those who are just too fucking mean to fall down and those so sweet that other people go on covering for them way past the point of insanity. Tom was one of the mean ones, the last sprig on a family tree full of plump county hacks going back to the nineteenth century. The McClannahans had fielded a Senator, two members of the House of Representatives, half a dozen Pennsylvania Representatives, and Statler County trough-hogs beyond counting. Tom was, by all accounts, a mean boss with no ambition to climb the political totem pole. What he liked was telling kids like Ned, the ones who had been raised to be quiet and respectful, where to squat and push. And of course for Tom, they never squatted deep enough or pushed hard enough.
"Don't answer that letter yet," I said. "I want to make a call before you do."
I thought he'd be curious, but he only nodded his head. I looked at him sitting there, holding the letter on his lap, and thought that he looked like a boy who has been denied a place in the college of his choice instead of being offered a fat scholarship incentive to go there.
Then I thought again. Not just denied a place in college, maybe, but in life itself. That wasn't true--the letter he'd gotten from Pitt was only one of the things that proved it--but I've no doubt he felt that way just then. I don't know why success often leaves us feeling lower-spirited than failure, but I know it's true. And remember that he was just eighteen, a Hamlet age if there ever was one.
I looked across the parking lot again at Shed B, thinking about what was inside. Not that any of us really knew.
My call the following morning was to Colonel Teague in Butler, which is our regional headquarters. I explained the situation, and waited while he made a call, presumably to Scranton, where the big boys hang their hats. It didn't take long for Teague to get back to me, and the news was good. I then spoke to Shirley, although that was little more than a formality; she had liked the father well enough, but outright doted on the son.
When Ned came in that afternoon after school, I asked him if he'd like to spend the summer learning dispatch--and getting paid for it--instead of listening to Tom McClannahan bitch and moan down at Parks and Rec. For a moment he looked stunned . . . hammered, almost. Then he broke out in an enormous delighted grin. I thought he was going to hug me. If I'd actually put my arm around him the previous evening instead of just thinking about it, he probably would've. As it was, he settled for clenching his hands into fists, raising them to the sides of his face, and hissing "Yesssss!"
"Shirley's agreed to take you on as "prentice, and you've got the official okay from Butler. It ain't swinging a shovel for McClannahan, of course, but--"
This time he did hug me, laughing as he did it, and I liked it just fine. I could get used to something like that.
When he turned around, Shirley was standing there with two Troopers flanking her: Huddie Royer and George Stankowski. All of them looking as serious as a heart attack in their gray uniforms. Huddie and George were wearing their lids, making them look approximately nine feet tall.
"You don't mind?" Ned asked Shirley. "Really?"
"I'll teach you everything I know," Shirley said.
"Yeah?" Huddie asked. "What's he going to do after the first week?"
Shirley threw him an elbow; it went in just above the butt of his Beretta and landed on target. Huddie gave an exaggerated oof! sound and staggered.
"Got something for you, kid," George said. He spoke qui
etly and gave Ned his best you-were-doing-sixty-in-a-hospital-zone stare. One hand was behind his back.
"What?" Ned asked, sounding a little nervous in spite of his obvious happiness. Behind George, Shirley, and Huddie, a bunch of other Troop D's had gathered.
"Don't you ever lose it," Huddie said. Also quietly and seriously.
"What, you guys, what?" More uneasy than ever.
From behind his back, George produced a small white box. He gave it to the boy. Ned looked at it, looked at the Troopers gathered around him, then opened the box. Inside was a big plastic star with the words deputy dawg printed on it.
"Welcome to Troop D, Ned," George said. He tried to hold on to his solemn face and couldn't. He started to guffaw, and pretty soon they were all laughing and crowding around to shake Ned's hand.
"Pretty funny, you guys," he said, "a real belly-buster." He was smiling, but I thought he was on the verge of tears again. It was nothing you could see, but it was there. I think Shirley Pasternak sensed it, too. And when the kid excused himself to go to the head, I guessed he was going there to regain his composure, or to assure himself he wasn't dreaming again, or both. Sometimes when things go wrong, we get more help than we ever expected. And sometimes it's still not enough.
It was great having Ned around that summer. Everyone liked him, and he liked being there. He particularly liked the hours he spent in dispatch with Shirley. Some of it was going over codes, but mostly it was learning the right responses and how to juggle multiple calls. He got good at it fast, shooting back requested information to the road units, playing the computer keys like it was a barrelhouse piano, liaising with other Troops when it was necessary, as it was after a series of violent thunderstorms whipped through western PA one evening toward the end of June. There were no tornadoes, thank God, but there were high winds, hail, and lightning.