Issue 135 |
Spring 2018

How to Become a Monster

In Trinidad, the police have so much power, and they are so young.

How to Wear the Uniform

The police uniform is a cruel piece of work, the sleeved gray shirt a punishment of thick, rough wool and polyester in the Caribbean heat. Starched to the pliancy of grade-two cardboard, it invites an itchy ring of irritated skin where the high collar meets the neck. The belt is one and a half inches wide. Its leather edge on a smaller man, when weighed down by gun, holster, pen, notepad, wallet, and badge, sits heavy and cutting on the hip bones. Over time, or exacerbated by periods of extended running, it leaves two semicircular bruises on either side of the hip.

The station houses, neglected relics of colonial days, are only partially air-conditioned—a small mercy if you consider the smell. The jail cells, unaltered since the bygone days when they were still called dungeons, rarely have indoor plumbing. Suspects do their business in a bucket. On hot crowded nights, men sleep face to back, straight as boards on the floor. On these occasions, knocking over the bucket is an offense worthy of a savage beating from cellmates. But even on no-spill days, the filthy rooms choke the station air with the stench of and longing for death.

“Knock over that bucket again and I will beat you myself!” an officer had said to a freshly bruised and initiated suspect. Dillon had laughed as he told me this. “I can’t really blame the man, sometimes you feel like you goin’ mad inside there.” Dillon was a rookie, the newly named Constable Williams when we first met. He was twenty-one and six feet tall with a body drawn like a long black line, sinewy and lean. His impish laugh would hiccup out, “Heh! Heh! Heh!” like a cartoon. He was a big lovable kid, the kind who pulled your hair, but would beat up anyone else who tried to do the same.

We were all just kids then, buffered from life’s edges by the indifference of youth—Dillon perhaps most of all, unabashed and willing to play the fool. He’d dance with a jester’s abandon in the middle of a rapt audience. He’d embarrass college kids with his knowledge of Feynman and Shakespeare. We’d play hooky and go to the beach, sometimes alone, other times with friends, to a house my family owned. He’d drag the bed outside under the keep of stars and we’d talk endlessly about the future. “I not going ’an be police forever,” he’d say, “I’m not going ’an be one of them Lifers.” We had that in common then, ticking days spent waiting for a better idea, a better plan. Though my dreams always seemed closer than his, it was no matter. It was the season for optimism and we were ripe with it. He’d sneak his shorts off in the ocean and take off running, mooning all of our friends, laughing, and throwing middle fingers to the wind.

“There’s more to me than you think, you know,” he’d said when we met, knowing instinctively that girls like me didn’t date boys like him. My family was well off. I was fresh from New York, Che’s Motorcycle Diaries and a liberal arts degree in hand. He had never left the island. He lived with his family on a government settlement, rows of houses built in anticipation of a middle class that would never materialize. And like so many, he’d joined the police force for want of a better option.

Even back then to become an officer was like joining the army during wartime. Crime was rife in the areas he policed. Calls for justice went unanswered in one house or another on every block. The murderers we knew by name ambled leisurely in the daylight, while witnesses slept silently in graves. Corruption was a stain you felt would never come out; a wound in the heart of the law that folks said would one day kill us all.

But there was also the beach, and better days, and good folks living in ways that felt like home. And there was Dillon and I. We were happy.

How to Break Your Toe

“Those fuckers, they transferring me. I going Arima,” he’d said when he’d come home. We’d been together six months now and he practically lived in my apartment.

Arima was terrible news, the worst of the worst. As only a rookie would, he’d disagreed casually with the wrong man. “You too smart for your own good,” his sergeant had said, “Fall in line,” and then he unleashed a torment that would teach Dillon his place. One shift turned into two, sometimes three in a row—twenty-four-, sometimes thirty-six-hour shifts. Pay slips were mysteriously lost and he went weeks at a time without income. On his day off he would pick up gypsy fares in his private car to stay afloat. I often loaned him money to buy lunch and gas. He’d sleep like a brick for twelve hours and then explode awake, eyes bloodshot—the beginnings of jaundice, common in old policemen after years of insufficient sleep. He lost weight then. He developed fungal infections on his fingers and nails from the filth. And then came the transfer, and everything got worse.

On the night he came home limping, I waited up for him. I’d heard it in his voice on the phone, something wrong.

“Leave it off,” he’d said when I tried to turn on the light; he was sitting on the far end of the bed, his face inert like a man on pause.

“They kept coming into the station, the women. I’d take the reports.” Three women over the course of a couple weeks: a young student, a mother of two, and “a woman who could’ve been my mother,” he said. All raped in the screamless night in their bedrooms. They’d all described the same man, of that he was sure. In Trinidad, rapes are rarely prosecuted successfully. The victims don’t often outlast the odious process, and those that do are regularly threatened to recant. If there were three women willing to come forward, there were certainly more who’d stayed silent. Of that he was sure.

“It was a routine traffic incident, the man crashed right in front of us, right into a wall. He was drunk, delirious. I knew right away it was him. I kept seeing him, man, on top of them women, breath smellin’ nasty. Nasty. He was smellin’ stink. I didn’t even want to touch him. We brought him into the station for the traffic violation, we couldn’t hold him for the rape.”

There hadn’t been a discussion. His senior officer had said, “You sure?” and he’d nodded his head. His senior had said, “OK.”

“We beat him. Five of us. They held him down. In the cell.”

Where do you kick a man hard enough to break a toe through a steel-tip boot? I didn’t ask him. He was across from me in the dark, his eyes like trembling saucers offering me something cold. “We couldn’t hold him. He woulda’ do it again.” Of that he was sure, needed me to be sure, needed to be sure of himself. He reached for my hand in the darkness and I took it, but everything in me recoiled. I felt nauseated. I was a little afraid of him for the first time. I think he knew.

Those were our early experiments with dissonance; on that quiet night when we’d sat hand in hand, trying to reconcile the brutality he was now capable of. Brutality with the best intentions. What it meant to be “good police” in a broken system seemed complicated beyond reckoning. What did it mean to be a good man? He told himself it was just. I told myself it wasn’t really him; that there was some fixed and inviolable “I” or “him” moving through the changing world; that at the core he was the same.

We were co-conspirators in forgiving what he had done.

After that things began to shift. It’s incredible how quickly things become normal. Your guts acclimate to the sensation of sick. He would come home more often now with knuckles skinned and bruised. One week the right, the next week the left while the right one healed. In the early days of that final year, he would still allow himself to cry, quietly at night when we were alone together, secrets for me to keep. But in the morning, he was his jolly self again, making us laugh, gentle and patient with my petty angst, with my little worries over my writing, or the stubborn frizz in my hair. When my friend was heartbroken, it was Dillon who would sit with her all night, letting her leave dark snot stains on his shirt.

We’d hang out more often now with his police friends—young Cassiuses with lean and hungry looks. I didn’t like them much; they made me uneasy. We’d go out to parties and they’d line the walls like unblinking salamanders with yellow eyes. Talking to each other but always looking somewhere else, scanning and scanning the room. Dillon didn’t dance in the middle of the room anymore, he was one of them, keeping his back to the wall. He took to calling me “civilian,” and even alone we’d often have to leave places abruptly, adjourning with a sudden look that said “let’s go.”

“You saw that man? The one with the gold crucifix, and the silver tooth on the left side of his mouth?”

“No,” I’d say, “Why?”

“You didn’t see him? With the 2000 Jordans on and the green Adidas shirt. You didn’t see him, by the bar?”

“No.” I’d say.

“I know that man. He’s a bad one.”

I’d never see them. He always did. “Your innocence is dangerous,” he’d say sometimes. And I’d realize that while we civilians reveled through the night, these men were locked in secret and inaudible conversation, like dogs.

How to Crash Your Car

It was the horror, the sheer horror of it that sent him hurtling down that highway and crashing into that ditch. He’d walked an hour back to my house, a path he’d never be able to retrace. He’d arrived drunk and unscathed. “Why it couldn’t kill me! Why I can’t even die!”

That day, they’d found the boy alive in the woods. He’d been buried up to his neck in the ground, just his little head left out like some nightmarish shrub. He wasn’t more than twelve or thirteen and he’d been missing for almost three weeks. Maggots had begun their nasty work on his face and ears. The soil had leeched the color from his skin. He couldn’t remember his name. He’d sat across from Dillon at the station. The horror, the sheer horror of it.

“I threw up on the floor, I felt so bad but I couldn’t stop it. The smell.”

They found the two boys who had done it. They were thirteen. He had borrowed their bike without permission.

These were the final months we would be together. His nights were riddled with nightmares then. He’d lurch awake convinced he could see insects crawling on my face. He’d spent his conscience and it still wasn’t enough; there was always another man to be beaten, another depravity to savage. The moral distance between “him” and “them” thinned to a fine line.

I have to say a word now about why I didn’t leave him. If someone you love is dangling off the edge of a cliff, and you have him only by the slip of your hand. Do you let go? You feel the danger of falling with him. Do you let go? I’d say now the answer is yes. That you can’t save someone the earth has called to descend. Play little god and Big God will laugh. I didn’t know that then. I didn’t know how to abandon my friend when he was in so much pain. I didn’t want to see what is so clear to me now—that he was only pretending to be the man I once knew; a theater we’d both needed to believe in.

How to Break

The final month was terrible. I’d walked willingly into that dark place with him and now I was deeply unhappy. He had changed. I’d catch him looking at me some days; I think he’d begun to hate me for still being young. In those moments, patience would pass out of him like a ghost, and he’d say something caustic that he’d immediately regret. Some nights, he’d never come home, and would disappear for a day, maybe two. He’d crash his car regularly now, I count three times in a matter of months. I’d hear whispers, just whispers of other women. I can’t say for certain whether I’d believed them or not. The world was spinning, spinning, and I was pinned down by the centrifuge of it all.

“Some man wouldn’t stop crying today. The boys went in the back and shut him up,” he’d say idly, applying a thin layer of cream to his infected fingers, letting the white residue wipe off on my sheets.

That final night was already a cruelty. He’d been gone for days now and I knew it was time for me to go. My friend brought me vodka, a terrible idea offered with good intentions. When he’d finally answered the phone, his voice was rough, harsh even for the man he’d become.

“What!”

“Where are you?” I’d said even though I already knew.

“I don’t have time for fucking this. You want to know where I am? Come then, come and see!” He hung up.

Your innocence is dangerous, he’d said to me once. But I don’t know if that’s why I went. Maybe I’d needed to see for myself; to meet the man in the uniform; to give myself permission to leave. Big God was laughing loudly now.

It wasn’t hard to find him in the near-empty bar. I scanned the walls and found him sitting there. Keen officer that he was, he’d spotted me long ago. I don’t remember what the woman who was with him looked like. He sliced me open with a look, and as he weaved his way toward me I knew I’d made a mistake. This man was not my friend.

“What the fuck you doin’ here?” he said, and hitched me up, grabbing me under my arm.

“Let me go,” I said and tried to shake him off.

It’s not like in the movies. Beatings are silent things. The beater and the beaten are holding their breath. No one is crying out.

The first blow must have brought me to my knees, because in the next lucid moment, I was kneeling at his feet. He was pounding my face with blows. Dull thumps and a high-pitched scream in my ears from being hit in the head. I vaguely remember a tightness around my neck; he must have twisted my shirt to hold me there. My hands were grabbing him about the waist, the way I’d often done in the sea. I wasn’t thinking at all, not one thought, only panicked explosions firing off in my head. It was too late to run. I couldn’t pull myself up. He was punching me again and again. Somehow, in the fog of it, I remembered my training. On one of those early happy days on the beach, he’d once tried to teach me how to fight.

“If you can’t defend yourself,” he’d said, “Bite down, and don’t let go.”

“Aye aye, Constable.” I’d laughed and failed to graze him even with a mock blow.

So now, as the blows intensified, my lizard brain took over. I bit down on his leg, hard, and locked my jaw. I’d very nearly blacked out when I heard him cry out. He fell to the floor while I still held on by my teeth, like some animal of forgotten dignity. He tried to kick me off. My mind was blank, only the rush of blood pounding in my head. I thought I heard someone say, “It’s OK, it’s over, you can let go.” But it may have been my own internal voice. By then two bouncers had arrived to hold him back. And someone was trying to lift my limp body to its feet. I could taste blood in my mouth. But it may have been my own.

In the hospital, I don’t remember physical pain. Just the shock and shame that sparked points of heat and lightning all over my skin. He had made chaos of the proportions of my face. Most damning was the imprint of his police ring; it’s insignia inscribed in reverse on my forehead.

When I woke up again he’d sent one of his “boys,” an officer called Jones, I knew him well. Jones’ authority came from his sheer size, he was a giant. He had the primordial sluggishness of an animal confident it could eat you if it came to that. How he knew where I was I’d never know, and that was the point. The machinery of intimidation was well oiled. Dillon was handling this like a ‘Police.’

“I just came to see how you doin’,” Jones said with practiced calm. But he was nervous—the imprint of Dillon’s ring would be hard to deny—I imagine he’d thought that to himself. But anyway, I’d harbored no intent to report it. I knew there would be no point.

After Jones left, the nurse came in to tend to me. “Is a police do this to you?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Mm, mm, mm.” She shook her head and sagged her brow. “Them is monsters. Monsters.”

Everyone knows that.

How He Died

Constable Dillon Vincent Williams died in a car crash when his vehicle collided with a lamppost on Old Years Night. So read the headline, six years later. The memory of terrible deeds have the gift of longevity. You are unlikely to outlive them. So when I read the news I felt nothing. Except a sudden sharp pain in my chest. No tears came. The man who died there was a stranger. As was the girl that loved him once. I’d already mourned them both years ago. He died on the road that led to my family’s beach house. I’d heard over the years that he’d break into it from time to time. Dillon died on his way back to the beach.