Always the Obvious Places
Emmett went out the trailer’s back window. All we saw were his grasshopper legs in Wranglers, bending in and around the window frame, kicking to generate the momentum necessary to dislodge his ass from a ledge no wider than the flat side of a ruler. He hung in place just long enough for us to admire the never-before-worn condition of his jeans before he dropped out of sight.
He left, not surprisingly, without shoes or shirt. Shirtless was Emmett’s natural state. In two years the only shirt I had ever seen on him was a long sleeved T-shirt minus the sleeves, which he had amputated using his teeth to anchor the tear. Across the front of the shirt in big red letters was Marlboro Country. He had won it at a bar, where he had traded his half-smoked Camels for two fresh packs of Reds, swearing to the promo girl, before several witnesses at the Saddlesore Bar & Grill, that he would switch brands, a switch that never happened. After leaving the bar, he sold those Reds at a quarter a piece until he had enough money for a fresh pack of Camels plus a sixer of Bud Ice. Emmett told that story every time he reported to my office, proof that big company jerk-offs like Marlboro were clueless when it came to marketing.
Outside, Emmett was up and away in a zigzagging gallop, his torso as scorched red as the backside of a spanked child. One of counselors in cognitive therapy once asked me if I knew why he refused to wear sunscreen, and I told him what Emmett had told me: “He doesn’t believe in cancer.”
Sergeant Falco and I watched him scramble through the park, the flag of his greasy brown hair snapping behind him.
“Sorry, Officer Jay!” he yelled back.
“Did he just apologize to you?” Falco asked, brow furrowed like he was trying to get the punch line. I was Emmett’s probation officer, and my arrival plus a few cops for a routine house search had sent Emmett absconding and, apparently, feeling guilty for it.
“He thinks we’re friends,” I said, which may have been a lie. Emmett and I were on friendly terms when he decided so, but he had also called me names reserved solely for sworn enemies.
Falco said, “Well, that’s misplaced courtesy.”
I had not met Sergeant Falco before, but he was the first cop I’d ever met who didn’t give pursuit when the opportunity presented itself, which made me think he was used to finding justice in ways other than chasing after it.
Falco leaned into his neck and thumbed a button on his walkie. “He’s coming to you, Wanda.”
Three other cops were out there with Emmett, creating a perimeter, closing the space between him and wherever he was trying to get to.
At our window, Falco and I watched as Emmett decided the cactus garden on his left was a better option than the cop to his right. Some impressive footwork kept his feet from the first rows of barrel cacti, but set his torso into a sway that flailing arms couldn’t right, and momentum guided the pale red plank of his ribs against a Saguaro cactus.
“He doesn’t even see,” Falco said, “that turning himself in would benefit him in the long run.”
“I’m not sure he’s thought about it like that.”
Emmett stood upright in the heat and twisted to inspect the damage done to his rib cage, running a hand over top the needles as though testing their sharpness. The cop lowered her taser, said, “Jesus,” and asked Emmett if he was okay.
“That,” I told Falco, “is misplaced courtesy.”
Emmett bent at the waist and uprooted with bare hands a cactus the shape of a basketball. He looked briefly surprised by the pain of doing such a thing.
“Don’t throw that cactus,” I yelled, though we both knew the advice of a court-ordered conscience wouldn’t have much clout, especially when your hands had already suffered the consequence of your intentions.
Then, with a grunt he turned into Fucknose, Emmett aimed the cactus at the female cop and lobbed away.
A thrown cactus wobbles. It has no aerodynamic qualities. Everything in its design resists being airborne. However, Emmett put enough into the heave that the cactus may have hit its mark had the cop not dodged it with a single sidestep. The cactus thudded to the ground and took two rolls before coming to rest. I felt sorry for Emmett then, half-naked but for creaseless jeans and gloves of gleaming needles. In all the time I had supervised Emmett, he had shown me only two faces: him thinking he was getting away with something, and him getting caught. Even from across the park I could see that the bottom lip had gone slack, as though the power to keep it shut had been spent. The look of defeat. And in that moment, Emmett’s desire to escape out measured my desire to capture. If not for the cops, the temptation to let Emmett go might have gotten the better of me.
“Terrible aim,” Falco said. He had his Glock drawn, aiming at nothing, just hanging over the windowsill.
“Must be hard to throw a cactus.”
Emmett was on the move again, although the layout of the trailers was funneling him towards the only exit from the park, delivering him to officers who at that moment were tightening a formation they had learned at the academy.
“Claire, J.P.—get ready for company.”
The two-way radio hanging from Falco’s shoulder murmured some staticky code that had nothing to do with our situation, something happening in another part of the city.
Emmett bounded over pink rock landscaping.
Falco crooked his neck to the handheld. “You might want to have tasers ready.”
“I’m not sure he’d notice,” I said, thinking that the man who would shot put a cactus might not be impressed even by 50,000 volts.
Emmett leapt through the shimmering heat—big, clumsy steps. Bare feet slapping white concrete. The look of a man trying not to run. I should have realized sooner he was trying to keep his feet from burning. The whole lot was skillet hot.
He hopscotched into the shade of a neighbor’s awning, where he stopped and took turns rubbing his feet.
“I guess hot concrete trumps cactus needles,” Falco noted.
The cops gathered in a semicircle around Emmett, residents behind them, all of them falling into place as though following the instructions of a seating chart.
Across the park, I heard Emmett yell, “I’ve been trying to give up!” The voice of the persecuted, mixed tones of defiance, surrender, and blame. He rubbed a foot for emphasis.
“Cuff him and bring him in,” Falco said into the walkie.
“Let’s get him some clothes,” I said. “I don’t like talking to half-naked people. Especially when they’re bleeding.”
We looked around the room. Emmett had been painting. Plastic sheeting was balled in the corners. The walls were the flat white of cheap apartment complexes. Underneath, the vertical grooves of wood paneling could still be seen.
“What’s this?” Falco was standing at the bed, where he was examining a framed poster of a busty blonde straddling a Harley Davidson, wearing nothing but underwear and, for some reason, suspenders.
“A man with fine taste,” I said.
“Pathetic.” Falco held up the framed poster. I couldn’t tell if he was studying the model or the bike. “Circling the drain. Man needs our help.”
“That’s why we’re here.”
“Why?” Falco asked.
“To help him.”
“No, I mean, why are we here right now. What did he do?”
“I just came by for a random search.”
“He ran for a reason.”
“Everyone does things for a reason.”
“We’ll need something to charge him with.” Falco put the poster down, eyes still glaring at the place it used to be. “We’ll have to search the house.”
I looked at my watch. I was hoping to grab lunch after checking on Emmett. My stomach grumbled as if to argue against the search. “Maybe he’ll just confess.”
“I suppose that depends on how good he is at hiding things.”
I followed a path of used laundry across the room to the closet, picking in vain through clothes to locate a shirt for Emmett. From an extension rod hung two galaxy black curtains that covered the closet. The curtains were dotted with star clusters and flaming skull-shaped meteors with Gene Simmons’s tongue. I drew the curtains. Inside there was a woman and three kids, up to their knees in more laundry.
“Hello,” I said. “You must be Emmett’s girlfriend.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” she said.
She was wearing a neon green swimsuit airbrushed into an elaborate pattern of sparkles that created an optical illusion: the sparkles looked like they went all the way through her. Her oversized eyes were hedged with mascara thick enough to withstand the chlorinated water of the pool up by the rental office.
“What are you doing in the closet?” I said.
“Trying to not to get shot or arrested.”
She folded her arms. One of the children rustled beside her, half-sunk in dirty clothes. The smallest kid was wearing a Batman costume.
“Why is he wearing a Batman costume?” I asked.
“He hopes someone will give him candy.”
“It’s not Halloween.”
“Try telling him that.”
From across the room, Falco said, “We’re fresh out of treats.”
The woman sucked in her cheeks.
“You going to arrest us too?”
Falco holstered his sidearm. “Not until I can figure out what law you’re breaking.”
I glanced outside. Emmett’s hands were folded behind his head, complying with the cop who was pointing and instructing him through the process of surrender.
“What’s your name?” I asked the woman in the closet.
“How long have you been with Emmett?”
“Three of the best fucking months of my life.”
A disapproving click sounded from inside Falco’s mouth. “In front of your children? Are those your children?”
The tallest was a girl who looked maybe twelve, but then she adjusted her stance and one leg sunk into a soft spot, and she suddenly seemed much younger. Two of the kids were in their swimming suits, looking like the promise of a pool was still in their future in spite of recent events, the expiring patience of their faces suggesting the interruption had made the need for getting under cool water all the more necessary.
Aileen said, “We were going to the pool.”
One of the kids started to go, but she held him in place.
I wanted to find a shirt for Emmett to wear, but the last thing I wanted was to rummage through a heap while they were still standing in it.
On the other side of the bed, the cop held up a pair of glossy high heels. “Think we should bring him some shoes too?”
“Why’d he run?” I asked Aileen. She was still holding the one boy in place with a pincher-like grip in the hollow space above the collarbone.
“You think,” she said, the many angles of her voice all pointed at me, “I’m going to tell you why he deserves arresting? Do your own job.”
I looked elsewhere for clothes. There was one nail left in the wall, and it supported the only nice clothes in sight: a pair of khakis, a still-knotted tie, and a powder blue button-up shirt to complete the set. Outside, Emmett had sprung a hundred tiny leaks, and I wondered if delivering a man to jail decently attired was worth ruining what must have been his only interviewing outfit.
Emmett had burned through a series of jobs lately, almost all of them in the fast food industry, mostly because they let him eat on the job. Jack in the Box, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Boston Market. Most recently, he had manned the game room counter at Chuck E. Cheese, exchanging cheap plastic toys for handfuls of skee ball tickets. He couldn’t make it work. Allegedly, Emmett was skimming tickets off the kids and saving up for one of the better prizes. When the boss caught him, Emmett had close to forty thousand tickets stashed in a cabinet under the counter.
“I also think he took the head off our mechanical Chuck E. Cheese,” his boss told me.
“What makes you think that?”
“The head is missing.”
“Do you want to press charges?”
“No. I’ve wanted to do the same thing for twelve years.”
I left the shirt on the nail. Aileen ushered the kids out of the closet, determining their order, righting Batman when he lost his footing. We followed them single file into the kitchen, where the cops were bringing Emmett in.
“Was it worth it?” Aileen asked Emmett, who was sweaty and punctured in several places. Lines of blood made complicated routes down his ribs, doing Plinko turns around the embedded needles.
“Put him on the couch,” Aileen said. “So he doesn’t bleed everywhere.”
They sat him on the couch, which was covered in clear plastic, softly squeaking as he settled into place.
“You were right,” he said to Aileen. “I should have put on my shoes.”
“And a shirt, too. You might have gotten away if you didn’t dress like Tarzan every damn day.”
Emmett began the process of picking the needles out of his hands. He dropped each one in an ashtray.
“These your kids?” I asked him.
“The good ones,” he said, which made all but the Batman smile.
“We’re going swimming,” Aileen said.
“I wanted to go, too,” Emmett said, something in his voice suggesting they should still wait for him.
“Well, maybe we’ll still be there when you get out of jail.”
“All right,” he said, irritated. “Go on. Have fun.”
“We absolutely will.” Aileen opened the door, filling the room with light.
“By the way,” she said, “they don’t have nothing on you, so you might not want to confess to nothing they don’t already know.” She glared at me, as though to counter some betrayal I might be feeling. “He pays the rent,” she informed me. “What do you do?”
Emmett said, “Well, honey, he’s just trying to preserve civilization by incarcerating those who fail to abide by its rules.”
He grinned at me, his compadre, his pal.
“Besides,” he added, “I didn’t do anything anyway.”
“You telling them or me?” Aileen asked, herding the little ones out the door and closing it behind them.
That left Emmett with me, Falco, and the three cops who had gathered shoulder-to-shoulder in the undersized living room.
“Did you find anything on him?” I asked the cops.
“Just these.” She put on the coffee table a pack of Camels and a mouth guard.
“What’s the mouth guard for?” I asked Emmett.
“You fight so much you carry around a mouth guard?”
“Most people don’t want to fight a guy who carries around a mouth guard.”
“Why did you run?”
Emmett thought about this. “I thought you were somebody else.”
“Who did you think we were?”
He shrugged. “I run from a lot of people.”
Falco said, “What are we going to find here?”
“That laundry day is overdue.” Emmett plucked another white needle and dropped it in the ashtray. The cigarette butts looked to be growing fur.
“We’ve already got you on assaulting an officer.”
“He didn’t hit me,” clarified the officer who dodged the cactus earlier. “I ducked.”
“I’m sure the officer is aware,” I said, “that when it comes to peace officers, the court makes no distinction between assault and attempted assault.”
“I know,” she said. “But it hurt him a lot more than it hurt me.”
“You might as well just tell us if you’ve got something illegal in here,” I said. My stomach reiterated its emptiness; my breakfast of Raisin Bran was long gone. “You’ve got nothing left to lose.”
“I have a job.”
“Not anymore. Your supervisor at Long John Silver’s didn’t know you were on probation.”
“She was very surprised. And do you know what she told me next?”
Emmett didn’t look like he was willing to guess.
“That you were working the register. That’s a violation of your terms.”
“What’s he on for?” Falco said.
“He was arrested for shoplifting jumbo shrimp from the Wal-Mart. They found him with four pounds stuffed into his pants.”
Falco was visibly disgusted. “And you work at a seafood restaurant?”
“Not anymore,” Emmett said. “I liked that job, too.”
“I bet you did. So you might as well tell us what we’ll find today.”
Emmett removed another needle, then flexed his hand. A dozen points of blood rose to the surface, like freckles.
Falco slid a Maglite from his belt. “We’re going to have to search. Not a problem. They hide their shit in the same spots. Always the obvious places.” He tested the light, then turned it off. “No creativity. No abstract reasoning skills.”
I opened a cupboard, started moving around a collection of Big Gulp cups to see what was behind them.
“Don’t waste your time,” Falco told me. “Check the oven.”
The only thing in the oven was a cookie sheet and the remains of a frozen pizza. A moldy stench gasped out, and I quickly shut the door.
Falco searched the freezer, then the fridge. I watched over his shoulder. I somehow had the feeling that Falco knew right where to go, and that he would instantly find what we were looking for.
The fridge had no food except for an oversized squeeze bottle of Heinz and some yellow mustard that was half capped against a collar of brown crust. The only other item, besides soda, was a foil paint pan on the top shelf, loosely covered with plastic wrap. A roller was partially submerged in gelatinous white paint, which was the same flat white of cheap apartments, and looked to be in the final stages of turning solid. The rest of the fridge was filled with soda. Lining the door shelf were half-gallons of Safeway Select orange soda and root beer. The inner shelves were packed with cans, a stockpile of every variety could be seen as the cop slid them around. The cans shifted in assembly-line fashion against his swiping arm, obediently rumbling left and right, pivoting smoothly to the hollow spots among the other cans, their smooth aluminum skins without friction.
Falco leaned further into the fridge.
“Here we go,” he said.
He came up with two cans of Safeway Select cola and handed one to me. The can felt cool to the touch, but the first sip revealed that the cola was at room temperature.
“The vents,” Falco said, tapping the top of his unopened can. “Always check the vents. The poor man’s wall safe.”
I looked up at the vents, wondering what we might find.
“You know where else?” he said.
“Under the bed. One time I found thirty pounds of weed under a bed. This other time, half a surfboard.”
His can of cola sounded the crack-hiss of being opened. He took a long drink. The kind of drink from someone who finishes things in quick order, in as few moves as possible. When he was done, Falco said to Emmett, “Jesus Christ, you don’t even know how to keep your drinks cold.”
“There’s some ice in the freezer,” Emmett offered.
“You know,” Falco said. “We could fix your life in thirty minutes if you’d help us.”
“Okay,” Emmett said.
“How about I tell you if you’re getting close to finding something.”
“I only trust a man once,” Falco said. “This is your shot.”
Falco crossed from the linoleum floor of the kitchen to the stained brown carpet of the living room.
“Cool,” Emmett said. “Cold.”
Falco turned around and took three slow steps.
“Colder. Ice cold.”
Falco stopped, puzzled, then moved down the hallway.
“Sub-zero. Arctic blast.”
“How the hell is it possible,” Falco said, “that every direction I go is further away?”
“Because you can’t get closer to something that’s not there,” Emmett explained. He winked at me.
“You just blew your chance.” Falco looked for a place to deposit his empty can. “Do you recycle?”
“I’ll go check under the bed,” I said.
In the back room, I crouched down to check under the bed, half expecting to find the other half of Falco’s surfboard. Instead, only more dirty clothes. I pulled them out, a fistful at a time: T-shirts, jeans, shorts, bathing suits, underwear, from him, her, and the kids. Stained. Unwashed. Unidentifiable until shaken out of their balled-up forms, which I felt obligated to do in case anything might be hidden inside. Rank. Moist. The textures ranging from silky to brittle.
I stood up, trying to get some air. The smell seemed to follow me, my own clothes now infected. I stared at his interviewing outfit, hung above the rest, untouched, ready to help land him his next fast food job. Behind it, the painted walls. Was he painting them for a reason? Was there something he was covering behind the faux wood paneling?
Falco came down the hallway. “Anything?”
“What about the walls?”
“The walls?” Falco looked at them. “Are you crazy?”
“Just a thought.”
“You forget the golden rule about hiding something. It’s got to be easy to retrieve. People are inherently lazy. Most would rather have their secrets discovered if hiding them is too much work. Do you know how hard it would be to get stuff out of the walls once you got it in?”
“Maybe he’s got a secret panel,” I suggested. “Maybe that’s why he’s painting. To cover it up.”
“There’s nothing in those walls.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“I’ll bet you five hundred bucks right now there’s nothing in those walls.”
“I’m not betting you.”
With a flick of the wrist, Falco snapped his baton to full extension, then punched a few holes into a section of the faux wood paneling.
“What are you doing back there?” Emmett yelled.
“Looking in your walls,” Falco yelled back.
“But there’s nothing in there.”
“That’s what I told him,” Falco said.
“I’m painting in there.”
Falco peeled a few chunks away until there was enough room for him to insert his Maglite and look inside.
“See?” he said. “Nothing.”
He held the Maglite up for me to look. Sure enough, there was nothing inside but the wood beams attaching the walls to the exterior of the trailer.
“You were right,” I admitted.
“Not yet, I’m not.”
Falco made six more holes down the length of two walls. He opened the wall between every support beam, then peered inside. When he was satisfied that the walls held no contraband, he turned to me and said, “You owe me five hundred bucks.”
“How about I search the rest of this room instead.”
Falco compressed his baton and returned it to a compartment on his belt. As he went down the hallway, he said to Emmett, “We were right. The walls were clean.”
I went to the closet, to the final and biggest mound of clothes, feeling as though I had walked into some involved laundry experiment. As I stripped the layers away, I wondered if they had any intention of ever wearing these clothes again. And if they were discarded, why hadn’t they been thrown away? As I got further down, I felt something underneath, something firm, with form. I picked away a yellow pair of panties that looked like a spent banana peel, and there, below, was an eye looking back at me. Blank, massive, a cheerful glint tattooed above the iris. I excavated some tube tops and a few dozen tube socks until I uncovered the head of Chuck E. Cheese. The gray mouse, buck-toothed, held the half-lidded, stupefied grin of someone who has lost any ability to find joy in life. I pulled the head toward me. It was heavy. The animatronic eyelids attempted an incomplete blink before rolling back into a brief expression of horror. From its neck dangled a few wires and the pole that had once secured body to head. What Chuck E. Cheese had endured during his captivity here was a mystery, though his fake fur was mottled now, sticky and shedding in places, and several unidentifiable stains decorated the globe of its head.
When I stood up, I could see the pool out the window, just as Aileen launched into a cannonball that made the kids shriek with delight. The splash sent the surface of the pool into convulsions, the children rising and falling in the choppy waves. Batman was nowhere in sight, perhaps taking shelter in the shade by the front office.
As I returned from the back room, carrying the enormous mouse head, I heard Falco complain that he couldn’t find anything. “I’m about ready to tear the place to its foundations.”
The floor was filled with vent covers. Standing in the middle of them was Falco. When he noticed what I was carrying, he said. “Is that a giant mouse head?”
“It’s Chuck E. Cheese,” Emmett said.
“Tell me about this mouse head.” Falco took it from me. “Is this some kind of a joke? Explain it to me.”
Emmett asked me, “Where’d you find that?”
“Is this what you’ve been hiding?”
“Why would I hide that? I earned it.”
“How do you figure?” I asked.
“That bastard boss stole my tickets.”
“You mean he took back the tickets you stole from the company.”
“I won some myself. I played skee ball on my breaks. They took those tickets, too.”
“Is this what we’re going to arrest him for?” Falco said. He seemed to feel cheated.
“We could,” I told him. “But the manager doesn’t care about pressing charges.”
“He told me heads are cheap to replace.”
Falco put the head down on the coffee table, then sat down next to it, across from Emmett. “Answer me something. Be honest. Do you want to go to jail?”
“Not particularly,” Emmett said.
“Jail’s not so bad. It could be good for you. Good for your family. They offer several opportunities for self-advancement. You could take classes.”
“What kind of classes?” Emmett asked.
“Do you have your GED?”
“Well, if you didn’t, you could earn your GED in jail.”
The front door opened and Aileen led the kids, Batman included, back into the trailer. Her black hair was twisted into a single clump that lay plastered across one bony shoulder. The water seemed to have fortified her mascara, shaping her eyelashes into spiky rows. They stood on the kitchen linoleum, wrapped in towels, dripping. Only the Batman was without a towel, though sweating in such a costume had made him almost as wet as the others.
“You taking Emmett or not?” She was rubbing a towel around the girl’s head, drying her hair using the technique of grab and release. “I need to know how many dogs I need to make tonight.”
Falco pulled me aside. “You know,” he said. “By process of elimination, he must be telling the truth.”
“That’s the worst reasoning I’ve ever heard.”
Falco hooked his fingers into his belt. “What’s your version?”
“When I find it, I’ll let you know.” I turned to the trio of cops. “Uncuff him.”
One of the cops leaned over with a tiny key that sprung the handcuffs from Emmett’s wrists.
“Well, I thank you for dropping by.” Emmett grinned at us with his getting-away-with-something expression. “I’ll wear some shoes next time you come by.”
“We’re returning the head.” The head looked in even worse condition in this light. I picked it up and handed it to Falco. A large chuck of gray fur fell to the floor.
“Thank Christ,” Aileen said.
The youngest child, the one in the Batman gear, sat on the couch next to Emmett and unwrapped a bright green sucker.
“Where’d you get that?” I asked him, genuinely curious as to where he had found someone to supply him with candy. My stomach growled loud enough to be heard.
The boy took the sucker out of his mouth; it gleamed like a polished medallion. He studied it somberly for a moment, then put it back into his mouth.
“The landlord keeps a bowl of candy at the front office,” Aileen said, answering for the boy.
Emmett gave the kid a pat on the head, right between the two pointed ears. “Nice work, detective.”