Now that the baby was two months old, she seemed to be waking up at least twice a night. But since he was doing a four-to-midnight tour in the city today, Franklin "The Ambler" Shepard could afford to sleep in a little. He woke up around noon with a mouth full of cotton, the silky threads of a sex dream coming apart in his head and the child screaming in her crib. His wife had already gone to work, though, so there was nothing to do, except gulp down the Nutrisystems breakfast, warm up the milk Felicia had left in the refrigerator, and hope the baby would take the bottle from him this once.
It was just after three in the afternoon when the man with the dreadlocks came into the boy's bedroom. All the lights were out and the floor was strewn with model airplanes and fierce-looking toys called Gobots and Transformers. The boy, whose name was Darrell King, was lying on Ninja Turtles sheets with one arm thrown over his face.
The man with the dreadlocks knelt over him and put the Smith & Wesson right over the words "The World's Greatest Daddy" on Darrell's t-shirt.
"It's time," he said.
The Ambler liked a lot of things about driving in to work on these cold winter afternoons. The stillness of the air and the silence of the other houses as he pulled out of the driveway. The snow and the neighbors' plaster saints on the front lawns. The cars going the opposite direction on the Long Island Expressway. The Christmas decorations out-side the Manhattan stores as he drove north from the Midtown Tunnel. The Salvation Army Santa ringing a bell near the 125th Street subway entrance and the wreath over the entrance to the 25th Precinct.
It brought back an old-time feeling he still had about the neighborhood. Mom shopping for presents after the holidays at Blumstein's. Listening to the brothers up on their ladders preaching revolution in front of Mr. Micheaux's African Unity bookstore. Hearing the choir sing at the Fountain of Living Waters Ministries. Seeing Herman "Helicopter" Knowings hover above Connie Hawkins at the Rucker basketball tournament. Accompanying Dad to Roly's Barber Shop. The neighbors yelling "There's colored on tv!" from across the hall when Sammy Davis Jr. showed up on a Bob Hope Christmas Special.
He adjusted his seat belt, making room for the twelve pounds he'd strapped on in sympathy with his wife's pregnancy. His parents would've hated it that he wound up working around here again. They'd both busted their backs trying to get him through Cardinal Hayes High School and Mercy College. Once, when he was eleven, he got a five dollar tip for running across the street to buy a pack of cigarettes for one of Nicky Barnes's crew outside Wilt Chamberlain's version of Small's Paradise and his mother almost beat the black off him, like he'd been dealing smack himself. Hell no! No child of hers was getting into that mess. He was getting up and out of the city. The day they closed on the house in Roosevelt was the day she knew she could die with a satisfied mind. But when he'd been assigned back to patrol in Harlem, he didn't fight it. A part of him had never really left the neighborhood, never believed it was right to forget where he came from. In his mind's eye, he was still that little kid keeping an eye on the block.
Darrell King, the boy with the gun, didn't go straight to the job. It was too early anyway. Instead, he went downtown and found some friends at the Playland video game arcade in Times Square. A couple of them wanted to catch a sex show at one of the nearby theaters, but Darrell was too distracted thinking about what he had to do tonight. He was seventeen, with hard bony features and a high handsome forehead slowly emerging from the soft pie of a face he'd had as a child. To calm his nerves, he beamed up to see Scotty in the alley behind the arcade and when the others came out to get high with him, he lifted his coat flap and showed them what he had tucked in his belt.
"Thirty-eight-caliber revolver," said Darrell. "Just like the cops carry."
"Damn," one of the others said.
A damn shame, a wife needing an order of protection against her own husband a week before Christmas. Franklin Shepard sat in the patrol car parked outside a short brown tenement on 128th Street, missing his wife and his daughter. To need someone guarding your front door against the man you'd married. Snowflakes fell slowly, changing shades as they flitted in and out of the street light. They landed on the windshield and melted before his eyes. A family should be together for the holidays, he thought. He hoped he wouldn't be on call on Christmas Day. Though the overtime would help pay for the gold earrings he'd picked out for Felicia at Fortunoff and the real estate taxes going up five percent next year. And they'd already sunk a fortune into the baby's room. And now Felicia was starting to talk about doing the kitchen over. He was going to need that pro-motion to sergeant next year and the raise that went with it.
The Ambler didn't notice Darrell King and his two friends coming up on the opposite side of the street. It was after eleven o'clock and below fifteen degrees. The only other people who were out now were the Dumpster Divers, the truly hardly ten-dollar-a-pop skeezers and five-dollar-a-bottle crack slingers, and they were mostly gathered around a trash can fire around the corner, trying to stay warm.
Darrell walked briskly, a couple of steps ahead of his friends. Smoke streamed out of his mouth and the gun rode high in the waistband under his coat. The police car was only half a block away now, just out of the range of the streetlight.
"You're not gonna do it," the bigger of Darrell's two friends, Bobby "House" Kirk taunted him. "You ain't got the heart."
"Watch me," Darrell King said.
The car's heater was starting to make Franklin feel nauseous and light-headed, so he turned it down a little and put his hat on. There was a light rap on the window and he looked up. A skinny young kid with a flattop hairdo and a harelip was staring at him and saying something. Franklin rolled down the window to hear him.
"Yo," the kid said.
"What's up?" Franklin gave him his hard-ass face, the one that in his mind made him look like Fred "The Hammer" Williamson in Black Caesar.
Meanwhile, Darrell and Bobby Kirk were sneaking around to the other side of the car.
Bones throbbing deep inside his skull, Darrell steadied himself against the doorframe. Then he lifted his shirt to pull the gun out of his waistband. Just as he curled his finger around the trigger, though, the cop turned and looked straight at him. And for a second, he could've sworn the brother didn't look angry or surprised, but sad.
Darrell yanked hard on the gun, but it stayed stuck in his waistband, pulling the crotch of his jeans up into the nether region between his balls and ass. Everything seemed to slow down, like a frame-by-frame video crawl. The cop fumbling for his own gun. Aaron's eyes wide-walling as he mouthed "OH SHIT!" in an underwater voice. Bobby flailing wildly at his shoulder and trying to take the gat from him, so he could do the job right.
The .38 finally jerked free and Darrell extended his arm. He saw the cop's eye focus on the hole, ready for the muzzle flash. And each time he pulled the trigger, the police car lit up like a furnace in the snow.
Later on that night, Darrell told his family what happened while they sat around chilling out on polio weed and watching the Yule log burning on TV.
"His hat flew off, like 'bing' the first time I sparked him up," Darrell said. "And I seen Aaron jump back. You know what I'm saying? I pushed that nigger's wig back. Aaron was like, 'Oh shit, man, I seen his brains. I seen that nigger's brains come flying outa his head...'"
"What you mean 'nigger'?" Darrell's older sister, Joanna, turned slowly to look at him. "You mean, like a brother?"
Darrell sat up. "Yeah, I just said, 'I pushed that nigger's wig back...'"
"But, Darrell, that cop who was ripping off our crack house was a white boy. Didn't Winston done tell you he was a blondie?"
Darrell raised his eyes to the ceiling, his mouth shrinking to a small tight circle. "Damn," he said.
Some mornings at Probation, I like to play a little game called What's My Crime? The idea is to try to guess the crime my client has committed just by looking at the Polaroid clipped to the outside of his file folder. It's one of my ways of relieving the tension and reassuring myself that I truly don't give a shit anymore.
Delilah, the heavyset secretary behind the reception desk, puts down The Watchtower, the Jehovah's Witness magazine, and holds up the first picture.
It's of a Hispanic guy in his early twenties, with a friendly smile and a dreamy warmth in his eyes. His hair is long on the sides and he keeps his chin low, like he was trying to sweet-talk a girl when the shot was taken.
"Looks like a nice guy," I say.
Delilah slips the Polaroid across the desk so I can give it a better look. "I dunno," I say finally. "Small-timer. Nickel-and-dime pot dealer, something like that?"
Delilah is already frowning at the file opened on her lap.
"This boy's a crack-smoking schizophrenic," she says. "He blew his landlord's head off with a shotgun."
"Ho shit." I push the photo back at her.
Now I have to make space in my life to see this guy. I could have him come by after Maria Sanchez on Friday. But Maria always leaves me feeling wrung out, so I figure I better put him off until Monday.
My union rep walks by. "Mr. Jack Pirone," I say.
"Mr. Steven Baum."
Big Jack. Two hundred and fifty pounds of institutional memory and petty grievance, dressed like a Havana book-maker in a black fedora and a white polo shirt. Before he was my union rep, Jack Pirone was my training instructor. His line then was "Every time you reach for a new assignment at probation, you're reaching for your passport to adventure."
I can always count on Captain Jack to watch my back when he isn't busy kicking my butt.
"How you doing this morning, Mr. Baum?"
"Laughing on the outside, crying on the inside."
"Try the other way around," he says, slapping me on the shoulder and ambling on down the hail. "You'll live longer."
The clock on the wall has thin steel bars crisscrossing it, as if they expected somebody to try stealing the hands. Almost nine o'clock. Behind me I hear the waiting room full of pro-bation clients grumbling at each other. I take a quick look over my shoulder and see a bunch of them sprawled out on the wooden benches, like a wayward congregation spilling out of the church pews. The air conditioner is broken, so there's no relief from the June heat. The air is dank and it smells of stale smoke. The walls are painted a deep, intense orange. You'd think they would've chosen something a little more calming, like pale blue or ocean green. Instead, this orange is disturbing, maybe even inciting. It's like a "GO" sign for the mentally ill.
One woman is standing up and throwing pieces of a Sty-rofoam coffee cup around the room. She's probably getting in the mood to see her probation officer. I hope she's not one of mine.
Delilah hands me the last file. "This one don't have a photo," she says.
Instead, it has a sticky yellow note from my supervisor, Emma Lang, on the front. "Special!" it says. "Attention must be paid." The new client is named Darrell King.
I check the sign-in sheet to make sure he isn't here yet, and then look once more across the smoky civil service purgatory where people are waiting. That woman has finally stopped throwing Styrofoam around. The bleary fluorescent light gives everyone a slightly greenish tint, and there are piles of cigarette butts and suspicious-looking puddles on the linoleum floor. Half the clients look dead this morning, with their eyes closed, and their legs in stone-washed jeans extended stiffly over the sides of the benches. And with my hangover I'm not feeling so hot myself.
The one thing that picks me up is the hairstyles on the younger guys here. It's been an excellent summer for hair so far. I see one guy has his shaped like an upside-down bottle -capkind of a hip-hop Bart Simpson thing going ona new one on me. I know all about the Fade: that's the flattop with lightly shaved sides. Then there's the Wave, a lopsided ski jump of hair sloping up on one side. And of course, my favorite is the Cameo, a high ebony tower of hair that looks like an Egyptian headdress. I wonder if the bottle cap has a name yet. The Black Bart maybe. The one thing that's certain is that in a year or less white kids will be wearing it, and picturing that I smile to myself.
Six expressionless eyes turn to stare at me. They belong to three teenage boys with big white sneakers and eerily dulled-out eyes. The term Jack would use is "lacking in af-fect."
Not that they'd be real intimidated anyway. They look at me and see a tall skinny Jew with curly hair in his late twenties. The free weights are starting to give me broader shoulders and my hands are big, but you wouldn't automatically give up your seat for me on the subway or anything. Far as they're concerned, I'm just another clueless white guy about to tell them what to do with their lives.
Just then, somebody catches my eye over near reception. An emaciated black teenage girl, with a purple scarf and a gold front tooth. She's squinting at Ronnie Reagan on the guard's tiny black-and-white TV. I can't quite tell if she's one of mine. I've got 250 people on my caseload, and I know about half of them by sight. Two small boys are next to her on the bench. One is about five. The other is about a year old. The older one wears thick brown glasses and has big gaps between his teeth. When he thinks no one is looking, he pulls his little brother close and kisses him on the forehead.
I reach into the pockets of my windbreaker to see if I have a piece of candy to give him. Usually I carry my whole life around in those pocketskeys, change, pens, scraps of paper, Peppermint Patties and Reese's PiecesI can't deal with those fanny packs. Today I've got no candy, though, so I just give him a little wink.
The two boys look remarkably similar, except for some ugly scabs and bruises on the older one's face. He clings to his baby brother like he's trying to protect a smaller, unspoiled version of himself. Their teenaged mother suddenly- turns and sees the older boy with his arm around the sleeping baby. She slaps him hard with an open hand across his cheek.
"Travis, don't you touch him," she barks.
Travis looks scared and takes his hand off his little brother. The baby wakes up and starts crying.
"You know, he wasn't doing anything," I tell her.
She ignores me and picks at her thumbnail.
"You shouldn't hit him like that," I say.
"Mind your own fucking business," she tells me.
She goes back to watching the television. The baby keeps crying. Travis, the five year old, tightens his body and stares down at his folded hands in his lap. Thanks a lot, lady. I'll probably have your son as a client in ten years.
© Peter Blauner