by W.A. Smith
Taylor Means does not consider his own little narrative to be anything unique: he’s lived in Atlanta all his life, there’s no secret wealth in his attic, no bodies buried in his basement; he’s a quiet guy, moderate mostly ‘ doesn’t even think about cheating on his wife. He’s just a cop who gets his job done and tries not to take it home with him. He travels as light as he can. When he views himself in this way (ordinary as he is), Taylor is reminded of those absurd TV shows that will always be popular: lonely girls hanging on the cops, admiring their ruggedness, teasing their hair-triggers; evil crouched in the backseat of every dark-colored car.
On a few occasions he has accomplished his job with a little more gusto than is recommended in the department manual. Sometimes the bad guys don’t recognize all the angles, they lack enlightenment, and from time to time Taylor has obliged them. But he’s not some wild-ass leaning on everyone in sight. No side-of-the-mouth crapola. Often as not, those side-of-the-mouth guys find themselves transferred to a desk to manhandle paper and pencil, or they run for mayor. Or they get whacked when the luck runs out: last year Phil Stonetower downtown got himself into the deep end with a crew of highheads and had himself folded into the trunk of a new Mazda, still on the showroom floor. Very dignified. A real hot shot.
Taylor has been doing this for twenty-eight years now, since he was nineteen, straight out of high school except for a couple years at the Community College. For the last twenty or so he’s been undercover: all week in his weekend clothes, efficient and fearless, developing a fine little ulcer.
He was shot once, just below the elbow. The Emergency Room nurse, who had great legs and was almost as new at her job as Taylor was at his, made a point of noticing he had been shot with a Saturday Night Special on Saturday night. ‘Ironic, huh?”
“Not ironic,” he said. ‘Mucho painful.”
This was two months after he and his partner ventured forth in a patrol car for the first time. Still wet behind the ears, wearing their crisp blues, squeaking when they walked. They had chased a speeder and pulled him over, and Taylor got it as he approached the car. The headcase with the .38 figured he was being busted for the eight kilos of hash he had in his trunk. Said he would rather die than go to jail.
After plugging Mr. Paranoid in his shooting hand, Ryan allowed as how the son of a bitch almost got his wish.
On the way to the hospital Taylor said, “I’m pretty sure that’s what we call resisting arrest.”
When he told Ryan what the excellent-looking nurse had said about irony and the Saturday Night Special, Ryan put on a thoughtful expression and tinged his voice in Black: “Oh, yeah, uh-huh, iony ‘ a peace officer’s daily routine is filled to the gills with iony.’
“Just like real life,” Taylor said.
“I imagine gettin’ shot is real lifelike,” said Ryan.
Taylor married the nurse, Pauline Freeman, two years later, with Ryan Alexander beside him as best man, both of them stiff as West Pointers in their rented tuxedos. At the reception, Ryan lifted a glass of champagne in the bride and groom’s direction, grinning like a redneck in Times Square. ‘To long life and iony….”
Taylor is forty-six now. You can barely see the scar on his arm. He and Pauline have a son, Ryan Alexander Means, a senior in high school ‘ named after the first and best partner, who was killed by a fifteen-year-old private-school boy flying on Benzedrine four months before Taylor and Pauline’s son was born.
Ryan was driving home from work, listening to the Braves’ game on the radio. A black Pontiac GTO pulled up beside him at a stop light and the kid in the passenger’s seat rolled down his window, yelled something and fired three shots. One of them missed by a literal hair and buried itself in the two-story green stucco on the corner. The other two didn’t miss. A bystander three blocks away said the shots sounded to her like somebody clapping.
The people at the funeral home couldn’t reconstruct Ryan’s face and skull well enough for presentation. Taylor stood for a long time, sighting along the closed box, and before he left he knew the grain of the wood, his hand on it, the smoothness, trying to imagine what had come into Ryan’s mind when he saw the kid’s fresh face, and then the gun, and knew he was done for.
Taylor tries to be a good father. He’s a churchgoer some of the time, has things he believes in. One of them is the truth: capital T. He gets sappy and All-American when the subject comes up. The main reason is his daddy lied at every possible opportunity. Taylor Means, Sr. was a handsome man with large, powerful hands and a smile that wouldn’t quit. The bastard always smelled of pipe tobacco ‘ Cherry Blend or some similar cheap crapola. He employed mendacity the way some people use salt: everything he touched got some. If it was ninety-eight outside, he would get you to believe there was a couple feet of snow on the ground. It was second nature. Taylor imagined his father could do it in his sleep, flat on his back with his jaw slack and his arms out to the sides, taking up space, unused lies drifting out of his mouth into the dark like left-over prayers.
His father walked out one evening when Taylor was seven, and the next time the family saw him was two months later, page three of the Atlanta Constitution. No smiling this time: squinting as if the sun was bothering him, glancing down at the blurry oversized hands cuffed in front of him as if they had just-now appeared for the first time.
Taylor didn’t know his family needed the money. Didn’t know his father had a gun either.
His career path began to lay itself out in front of him the moment he discovered his mother sitting in the middle of the living room floor, tearing at her hair, crying without making a sound. The newspaper with his daddy in it lay open on her lap, the mug shot quivering as though electricity was passing through. Taylor could see her flabby legs trembling and hear the dry, broken rattle of the paper.
At first he had wanted to go to the prison to visit, but his mother told him his daddy didn’t want him there, didn’t want Taylor to see him like that ‘ down on his luck, locked up.
“Caught you mean,” said Taylor.
After that she was as blank as a wall. She squinted all the time. She didn’t need glasses, she said. When she read something, anything ‘ a story in Readers’ Digest, a quote in U.S. News & World Report ‘ she would always ask Taylor what did it mean, exactly. She didn’t trust herself with information of any kind.
His father never came back after he got out.
From then on Taylor set his own sights on catching men like his daddy and putting them away. But when the officers at the police academy asked him why he wanted to join up, Taylor didn’t mention his heritage. He gave the Review Board a cocky smile and told them he had always wanted to be a cop. ‘I’s born to be a policeman,” he said.
As a little boy he pretended he was a doctor. His father told him he had the hands of a surgeon. But when the bastard went to jail Taylor recognized his bloodline was not strong enough to see him through medical school. Boys with crooked fathers do not rate that kind of advancement. He studied his hands and could not imagine them holding a scalpel, even a stethoscope.
The picture of his mother adrift on the living room rug is one of those images that hangs on. He’s never been able to shake it completely. Now he watches it float up again into his glazed view, hovering above the dashboard in the center of the dust-blurred windshield ‘ coming from nowhere, seems like. But one thing he knows for sure: nothing ever came from nowhere. He sits in the unmarked car dreaming up his mother, watching her shake her head and mumble over her broad lap, hunching and unhunching her shoulders the way she used to. Using one thumbnail to scratch the ancient streaks of polish off the other. She was distressed every day of her life ‘ with or without her husband, rough weather and calm, in and out of poverty. Distressed. If she had believed anything would come of it, she might have asked for help.
He waits for Jay to get back with the coffee. The radio crackles: two-eleven in progress. Marvin responds for himself and Teague, and Taylor absently considers he and Jay should provide some back-up. There’s been an armed robbery every couple of minutes for the last three weeks. This heat. And Teague still isn’t a hundred percent since his surgery ‘ loose flesh drooping over his belt, no legs to speak of, and maybe there’s still some uncertainty regarding rusty instincts. The dispatcher repeats the address. It’s six blocks away, less if they use the alley. Taylor leans on the horn to get Jay moving, then two other units respond and the dispatcher confirms it. His mother closes her eyes, disappears, and Taylor goes through a familiar game with himself: pretending confusion, double-taking the radio: maybe his deceased mama sneaked in there to dispatch the cruisers today. This is the kind of thing he does only when he’s alone.
He’d give damn near anything to believe in miracles. ‘Good Christ,” he whispers. ‘Straighten up, Means. Don’t go simple at this late date.’ He rubs his face with his hands, rests them on the steering wheel and looks at them. ‘Sure,” he says, “and Ryan’s ghost nappin’ under the seat.”
Thinking about his first partner naturally brings him around to his son. Ryan the poetic doper. Rebel with a hundred causes. Whenever Taylor reminds his son of the saint he’s named after, Ryan turns the tables on him.’ Yeah, I know all about my namesake ‘ what about yours?”
Speaking of stoned-out kids, Taylor wants to say, what the hell direction are you taking with your life?
He’s never found pot in the house, but there is no doubt Ryan smokes. Taylor has observed the signs: the drifting blood-shot eyes and the God-awful music, the trash punk friends who showed up about the same time the music did. Where in God’s name did those kids come from? Taylor didn’t feel connected with them in any way.
But he hasn’t asked Ryan about the smoking. The boy would tell the truth and Taylor doesn’t know what the hell he would do about it. He’d have to do something. The thing is, Ryan’s all right ‘ he’s got a regular-shaped head on his shoulders, a lot going for him. The kid’s smart. He’s just impressionable as all get-out, a runaway imagination. He suspects a black leather jacket is as good as a congressional medal.
Taylor lifts his eyes from the radio and shoots a bad-cop look at the faded orange coffee shop on the corner. This is the same place he and Jay have been using for the last few years. The sun’s glare off the front window is a two-ton flashbulb popping, impossible to see anything inside. He considers the horn again, but then, what the hell ‘ he gets out and heads across the street.
Remembering one of Ryan’s poems, the beginning of it ‘ he had noticed the wrinkled scrap of notebook paper on his son’s desk a few days ago when he went into his room to borrow some socks. Ryan doesn’t wear socks much ‘ they aren’t cool ‘ so Taylor always knows where to find a clean pair. He bent over the desk to read Ryan’s pencil scratches, noticing how the lines darkened as the pressure increased. He knew he probably shouldn’t be reading it because Ryan doesn’t share much of this stuff, especially if it isn’t finished. Now Taylor is gazing down at the street trying to remember the words. At the top of the paper Ryan had written Untitled. The rhyme comes back to him, something like…Father, believe me/when I say I’m afraid./Can we go on living/when the world is unmade?
As far as he can remember, Ryan has never called him father. And that was the first rhyme in a long time. When Taylor turns the knob, fresh-roasted coffee, apple pie and blue cigarette smoke find him in the doorway, he looks up, focusing. There’s an unnatural quietness in the place, the huddle of frozen faces, wild eyes ‘ the pale cashier at the open register has bills in both hands and a man with a gun pivots to fire. God, let this be a joke, as the bullet stings his abdomen. I love you, Pauli…Ryan. Then a girl’s high scream, up above somewhere, and Jay yells, over to the right, then there’s a shot from that direction, very lifelike, and another overhead as he buckles and falls.