September 03, 2011

The Literature Corner: I Used To Be A Marine

“Car 3, two-two,” the dispatcher--radio call sign “two-two”--droned.

Without conscious thought, I lifted the microphone to my lips. “Car 3,” I replied.

“Stockman’s Bar; Omaha and Maple. Henry Running Elk needs to go to Detox.”

“Enroute,” I replied, almost simultaneously replacing the mic in its holder and turning the corner to reverse my track. All of the patrons of the Stockman’s were always incredibly drunk. Whew. If the Stockman’s wants Henry to go to Detox, he must be unbelievably blitzed. It wasn’t exactly a Parisian sidewalk cafe frequented by the wealthy and avant-garde. Its patrons were Bohemian in shabby dress and poverty only.

It was only 2230 on Sunday night. I hadn’t been on the street ten minutes and the cycle was already starting. My mini-Blazer didn’t smell good. Another semi-wild black haired regular on the way to Detox on the previous shift was gracious enough to empty the contents of his shriveled stomach in the back seat, and even though the officer/recipient of that little present did her best to clean it up, the odor--as always--lingered. Hmmm. Ripple Blanc, late June I should think. An amusing and delicate bouquet, yet not too pretentious. That’s what you get when you buy your wine in a gallon jug.

As I slid out of my car, I reached for my hat but decided to leave it. The Chief is a hat fanatic. The preservation of life itself pales in comparison to the wearing of hats. My wife thinks my hat makes me look like the Nazis in Casa Blanca. Besides, every time I have to run, or struggle with someone, the damned thing falls off and gets stomped into road kill.

I push the door open, and just like in a movie western, heads swivel and all eyes lock on me. My eyes adjust to the dim, smoky atmosphere. The bartender nods and points to the stool at the end of the bar. It’s a ritual we’ve performed hundreds of times. Henry has degenerated to the point that it’s hard to tell where he ends and the stool begins.

Henry’s pals, well on the way to oblivion, nod and smile. They’re all my regular customers. They know that I’ll be back for some of them later, and if not tonight, soon. We all know the drill, and mostly, they play by the rules with a sense of amiable detachment. They know I’m not there for them. They’re content.

They’re the staggering wounded. Tripped up by life, they’re just too pickled to die, at least not right away. Their average, everyday B.A.C must hover around 0.30--three times the legal limit for DUI. At that level they’re all numb smiles, but to the casual observer, normal, perhaps even sober.

“Henry,” I say softly, gently shaking him. No response. “Henry. C’mon Henry, we’re going to take a ride.” Nothing. He’s face down in a pool of his own saliva.

Geez, but he’s awfully still. He couldn’t be. . .? I check his carotid pulse. . .nah. Not dead, but he’s probably a 0.42. After awhile, most cops can judge B.A.C (Blood Alcohol Content) levels with a good degree of accuracy. For some reason, I’m very accurate--I win nearly all the hospital emergency room betting pools.

I try a pressure point at the jaw line under his right ear. For virtually anyone, it’s incredibly painful and compels them to move immediately. Henry doesn’t even flinch. I try my favorite wrist lock. Designed to make anyone pop to their tip toes and beg to do as you ask, it only provokes a mild, annoyed grunt. Henry raises his head just long enough to snort and rocket an asteroid-sized booger into the pool of saliva on the bar.

He’s another dragger. Most cops aren’t injured in shootouts or fights. They suffer back injuries hauling the Henrys of the world. I call for backup and when he arrives, all I have to do is nod toward Henry and he knows.

Henry was a big, strong guy once upon a time. A Marine. He always tells you that, and he was too. A few years back, one of the guys checked it out. He did three tours in Vietnam; got loads of decorations. He was a real high-speed, low-drag kind of guy. But that was then and this is now. Years of an all-alcohol diet have withered his body, maybe his soul.

Henry’s a particularly ripe dishrag as we slither him off the stool and carry/drag him out of the bar to the boozy cheers and applause of the onlookers. I smile, nod to acknowledge their appreciation of my work, and bid them adieu. It never hurts to build a little good will with your regulars.

Fresh air feels and smells good. We pour Henry into the back seat of my once-pristine Blazer and chat for a few minutes about how much Henry has deteriorated since we saw him last. Last week wasn’t it? I suggest that he’ll probably not survive to see next summer. My partner nods his agreement. We’ll meet at Detox. Henry will doubtless be limp as a dishrag there too.

I’m almost at Detox when the moist, warm stench of kidney- filtered cheap wine fills the truck. Thanks a bunch Henry. I’ll never get the smell out. I wonder if Henry will notice he wet himself when he wakes up, or is that--like being constantly drunk--just part of his everyday cycle of life?

We ease Henry onto the bench and call for the staff. While we’re waiting, Henry snorts and hacks to semi-consciousness and rises ponderously to his feet. Only one eye is even partially open, veins blazing fire engine red. Snot runs freely into his scraggly mustache, and drool hangs like a dirty icicle from his rubbery, numb lower lip.

Even before he moves, something in Henry’s posture tells me it’s coming, so I only have to shift my weight slightly to the side. He’s still pretty fast. I have the choice of dodging or catching, not both. Henry’s right hand, only partially a fist, wobbles past my head with all the intensity and grace of a Gooney bird on landing approach.

As momentum carries him past me and he falls, in the curiously disjointed slow motion of the lifelong alcoholic, toward the tile floor, Henry mumbles sadly. Unintelligible to anyone who hasn’t spent years hearing his language--the language of brains irretrievably damaged by booze--I get it. He hits face first, makes a wet, sloppy splat, and is down and out for the count.

“I know Henry,” I say softly, “You used to be a Marine.”

Posted by MikeM at September 3, 2011 03:44 AM

I used to use pure bleach to clean out the back seats. The last several years I worked, they put plascit seat in the crown vics. But bum pee,puke, vomit and poo poo smell never really goes away..

Took a lot of "Henry's" to the drunk tank...many of them are gone now.

Posted by: Danny at September 3, 2011 10:47 AM

Cool short story, once a marine always a marine! :)

Posted by: Jan @ Free Books at September 3, 2011 10:07 PM

"Their average, everyday B.A.C must hover around ***.030***--three times the legal limit for DUI."

Huh? Are you sure about that? Or does a decimal need to be moved?

Posted by: ed at September 3, 2011 11:16 PM

Dear Ed:

Ooops! Typo. I've updated. Thanks for the catch.

Posted by: Mike Mc at September 4, 2011 01:31 PM