When the drunk in the overnight tank starts in with the DTs, screaming about bugs and rats, the sheriff tells me take him over to emergency at the hospital.
“Let them deal with that sorry-ass son-of-a-bitch,” says the sheriff, a tough old bird everyone calls Buster. The drunk with the DTs is a repeat occupant of the tank, a once-in-a-while farmhand named Nowak. I’m a deputy sheriff name badge says Teja.
At the emergency room, I help a doctor and nurse manhandle him so the nurse can stick him with a needle that’s like dropping a rock. He goes from wacky as a fruitcake to unconscious in about ten seconds. I unlock the cuffs and the nurse straps his wrists to the bed rails. She’s in her forties, some gray hair, no wasted motion—been there done that.
The doc has gone off and it’s just me and her in this cubicle with curtains, kind of private. I can tell she’s about to motor, so I give it a shot.
I got this buddy, I tell her—it comes rolling out of me—back from Afghanistan six months, cries a lot on the weekends. Weekdays he’s okay, but weekends he can’t stop the tears. What does she think about that?
She gives me a look, like up to now she hasn’t noticed I was there.
“Yeah,” she says, “PTSD. He should have his primary care physician refer him to a psychologist.” She brushes the curtain open and she’s gone.
Well hell, I think, that didn’t work for sour owl shit.
I took a discharge after my second tour with Operation Enduring Freedom. Back in civvies, I caught on with the sheriffs. It’s an easy transition from the military. You’ve got a uniform, you’ve got a weapon, you’ve got a chain of command and standard operating procedures. You follow orders, keep your head down, your mouth shut, do the job, and it works just fine.
Wednesday through Sunday, work days, things are good. But Mondays and Tuesdays, my days off, alone in a furnished studio, I cry. I’m okay if I need to go somewhere, pick up laundry, hit the grocery store. But when I’m alone, the tears just keep coming. I tell myself it’s the Afghan crud and it will run its course. But it doesn’t.
It’s not something I want to tell anyone about. Hell, I’m a deputy sheriff, carries a gun on his hip. If I start to let it out, I know I won’t be able to keep the tears from coming. Even the little I told the nurse at the hospital, it was all I could do to keep from bending down and laying my head on her shoulder.
I thought the job would give me what I needed. Structure and discipline, those will set me right, I said to myself, just what the sheriff has to offer.
Buster, a rawboned old coot, balding, the other side of fifty, has a saddle-leather face—rolled up tight and put away wet, as they say. When I was hired, I naturally had a lot of respect for him. The commanding officer. Over the months, though, I watched his toughness spill over into a sort of peevishness, and sometimes go too far. Like the deal with Thatcher.
Thatcher is a skinny, long-haired kid, twenty years old, tattoos up and down his arms. We book him on fourth-degree arson, which is as Mickey Mouse as it sounds. I’m in the office when they bring him in, mouthing off about his civil rights. He has a chrome safety pin in his eyebrow.
The next day when the municipal court judge turns him loose on his own recognizance, Thatcher isn’t a brash kid anymore. Head down, shoulders hunched, bruises on his arms and a bandage on his forehead—a little bloodstain where the safety pin was—he’s a dog that’s been whipped. Nobody in the office says anything. Buster is downright cheerful.
Especially on days when he feels good, Buster likes to get a few of us in his office, his boots up on his desk, directing traffic with the straw from his Doctor Pepper, and spout off.
“You know what they do in Singapore?” One of Buster’s favorites is law enforcement in Singapore. “In Singapore they cane ’em. And once they’ve been caned, you better believe it, they straighten up and fly right. You chew gum, you get caned!”
I’m the only one on the force who’s ever seen a caning. It’s in a mud-brick village a few klicks outside Mazar-i-Sharif in Balkh province. The tribal council, a dozen guys with beards and embroidered robes, sit cross-legged on rugs. In the middle of the room a boy is tied by his wrists to a post. He’s maybe ten, naked from the waist down. They caught him with stuff he pilfered from our forward observation post and invited a few of us down the hill to see justice done. I was the ranking NCO.
The mullah, sleeves pushed up, hits the kid with the stick I’d seen them use to move their cattle. It’s what our cattlemen hereabouts call a persuader, whippy, about four feet long, as big around as your thumb.
At first the kid screams. After about ten he doesn’t have any scream left in him, only jumps and whimpers with each stoke. His skin is broken, blood trickles down his legs.
After a while the mullah comes over and hands me the stick. My interpreter says I’m required to give the final blow to show that we’re satisfied.
I say no thanks. The interpreter insists—we have to keep the respect of the village. The interpreter says no holding back. The strength of my stroke has to show the strength of the soldiers manning the FOB.
That’s where my mind goes when Buster starts in about what a great law enforcement tool we’re missing out on because we don’t have caning.
A week after Thatcher is set loose, the sheriff grabs my arm and tells me to drive out to the state line and meet up with the deputy from the neighboring state who’s bringing a prisoner for transfer.
“They’ve picked up that kid Thatcher,” the sheriff says. “Go get him and bring him in.”
We transfer prisoners back and forth from time to time at a spot ninety miles out where the two-lane blacktop of our state becomes the two-lane blacktop of their state. It’s a wide spot with a little bit of turnout and two green signs with white letters, one on each side of the highway. A sign that reads Now Entering on one side of the highway for their state, and one that says Now Entering on the other side of the road for ours.
When I get there I pull across the highway to the wrong side, putting my front bumper up against the other deputy’s car.
He’s a guy named Ray I’ve met a few times.
Ray opens the back door of his car and Thatcher spills out, stumbles on the shoulder, then takes off running as fast as he can out across the high desert. He’s wearing the same dirty tee shirt, shorts, and sneakers, no socks, he wore the last time I saw him. His wrists are cuffed behind him so he’s running kind of bent over.
It’s so completely surprising and stupid, the hopelessness in this particular situation, trying to make a break for it like that, Ray and I just start to laugh, watching Thatcher scramble off across the desert where there absolutely isn’t anyplace to go.
When our laughing dies out, Ray asks, “What do you think he has in mind?” and it starts us up again. There’s nothing in that direction but eighty or ninety miles of chaparral, greasewood, and manzanita.
Ray and I don’t bother moving, just watch, our butts against the fenders of our cars, as Thatcher, a few hundred yards out and walking now since nobody is coming after him, disappears into a dip in the land.
Ray kicks the heel of his boot against the front tire of his car. “Well, I guess I’ll head back.”
“You ain’t gonna help me go get him?”
“We don’t want him. We picked him up as a vagrant. He’s yours for the taking.”
“He’s wearing your cuffs.”
“They put them on at the jail. I don’t think they’ll ask for them back.”
Ray opens the door to his car, tosses me a “Que tenga buen dia,” spins a U-turn and speeds away.
I watch the spot where Thatcher disappeared. A breeze comes up. It’s a lovely day, no other word for it. A few stratocumulus puffs on their way east across a whole lot of blueness.
There were a lot of days just like this in Afghanistan, the same sunlight, a breeze, a great long reach of brown land with far-off mountains grey and flat against the sky.
A group of villagers, maybe half a dozen, came trudging up the hill to our FOB, the mullah has the boy in his arms wrapped in a blanket. Our medic, Holcomb, lifts the flap of the olive drab tent with the red cross on it. Holcomb has patched up villagers before, and their faces are hopeful as the mullah puts the boy on the table.
Holcomb folds back the blanket. He’s mottled, stiff, and cold. His eyes are closed and his face… How to say it? It’s at rest. He’s beautiful. He was a beautiful boy. Holcomb says, “I’m sorry,” and there’s no need for translation. They burst into cries and wails, the women weeping.
A place so far away, I had no idea who I was or what I was doing—a soldier who held life and death at port arms with one in the chamber, a person who could wave a hand at the radio operator and summon death from the sky.
Who was I, that I could hit a child as hard as I did? Who was I that could do such a thing?
Me and the nitwit Thatcher waiting it out on a stretch of land not that much different from where I’d been. Thatcher, that poor pathetic jerk. Too young and too dumb to understand that there were people in the world like Buster and me. Yes, me and Buster, we had a couple things in common. Maybe the only difference is I’m a crybaby about it.
I run a hand through my hair, my stomach grumbles and I look at my watch. Ten past one. There’s a diner a few miles back, but I can wait. I’m good at waiting.
It takes an hour before Thatcher comes walking back across the desert, about as bedraggled and hopeless as it’s possible to be. He’s peed himself and there are streaks down his cheeks where he’s been crying. When I take the cuffs off him, I can see where he’s scraped the skin on his wrists, probably against a rock trying to get the cuffs off. He’s got a good-sized scab on his eyebrow.
I take him to the diner for matching cheeseburgers and fries, finished off with apple pie and coffee for me, soda pop for Thatcher. I find out everything about him I need to know. He is a dumb kid, but hell, we were all dumb kids once, weren’t we?
I take him to Walmart and buy him a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and underwear. His old clothes go in a trash bin. Then I take him to the Greyhound station and buy him a ticket to Portland where his parents live. I give him two twenties and watch the bus pull out.
It was so wrong, so many moving parts, no one thing could have made it right, could have changed what happened. Was that true or just something I needed to think to help me feel better? Was it all foretold, set up to happen so it had to happen? Was it possible to stick a dumb kid on a bus and make things turn out different somewhere down the line?
I stood there and admired the exhaust from the Greyhound’s diesel, the way the blue-grey smoke hung in a shadow, drifting, taking its own sweet time about deciding where to go and what to do when it got there.
William L. Spencer has published fiction and non-fiction in the San Diego Reader and West Coast Review, Uprising Review, Furtive Dalliance Literary Review, Soft Cartel, The Magnolia Review and The Contemporary West (in process). He is a winner of First Place for Fiction (twice) and First Place for Non-Fiction from the San Diego Writers and Editors Guild, and winner of the Ursus Press Short Story Contest. He edited “Across This Silent Canvas” by Hubbard Miller. A graduate of the University of Washington, he lives in San Diego with his wife. He can be found on scribophile.com where he pretends to be Carlos Dunning.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Whence We Came, Whither We Go”:
This resonant second-chance and redemption story by author William Spencer digs deep into two troubled lives and brings up that age-old question about what effect our lives have on those that intersect with ours. It’s a powerful piece that leaves us to ponder this question.