There hadn’t been a call for him over the radio since 4 o’clock. It was Powers, to tell him the Swans lost and weren’t making the finals. Powers was the worst policeman he knew. His wife was sleeping with the guy that owned the bottle shop and he wouldn’t have realised even if he had walked in on them crouched over the stack of XXXX cases. Powers was his second cousin or something, related through a drunk uncle that tried to butcher a pig on Christmas and shot his own leg off. It wasn’t important, though, that they were related. It was normal, around here. Parker told him to get off the radio. You shouldn’t be on the radio for shit like that.
Then, an old man stuck on the stairs, he heard as the falling sun cut through the treetops and under the sun visor. The radio operator tonight was new, she laughed at the idea of it as she relayed the address. It was out by the water tank, where all the old people lived. The streets were lined with jacarandas there and they had a $9 lunch special at the golf club mid-week. It was coming for Parker, this life; sneaking up behind him like the pain up his spine when he woke in the morning, he remembered. It smelt like brandy and dust and disappointment: like how he remembered his Grandparent’s house.
He was squinting to watch the cars pass by now. The radar did his job for him, he was a man sitting next to a machine, waiting on the beep, like a checkout kid at the supermarket, just that he got to sit down. They sat down at the checkout in Europe, someone told him once.
He looked for defective vehicles, broken headlights; but he really just wanted to see the cars and the blurred sides of people’s faces. They were all straining ahead like riding horseback and urging themselves forward to the post for applause and slaps on the back. He wondered if he could really sense misery and happiness and anxiety on those side faces, like he thought he could, as they flashed past him in the Camrys and Fords and Mazdas on the way home; to dinner, to break up and make up and fuck up. Everyone was a little bit of a fuck up, he knew that, but he still thought of these people in their blurred little blue and silver boxes as beautiful, innocent things. He wished he could really sense it, for the company of it, to be a part of a hundred passing lives an hour, for just a few seconds.
Powers called in again, he was going to check out the old man on the stairs and Parker could hear the ambulance tear past the highway overpass. He wanted to go, but he had his station and he would do his job. Powers would stand around at the man’s house and take photos on his phone to show at the bar, where he became ‘himself’, a huge bird-like version of himself with a two metre wingspan he swung around himself in theatrical production of his stories. He exhausted everything there, became a pensive boob the rest of the time and picked at his fingernails and twisted his beard into little clumps.
He could picture Powers there, straightening his ironed pants and always tucking in his shirt and sliding his belt back and forth across his waist while the rest of his life fell apart; loose and untucked and unhinged and with vague detail and no belt to hold it up.
Powers would get to the man’s place, make himself a tea and rub his face like had something to think about and the old man would be there with high blood pressure and with his legs still stuck in the balustrades wondering what had happened to people; it didn’t used to be like this.
Parker pulled in more tickets and arrests than anyone, they had his photo up on a poster in the coffee room. At the station they joked that the State Premier knew his name and had a handshake waiting for him. He hated those conversations, he tried to smile but they made him shut down inside like his chest had opened up and was swallowing the rest of his body like how a burning piece of paper curls and crisps into itself and disappears. Except that he never disappeared, even with all the wishing.
He thought about that handshake: sweaty and ill-deserved. There wasn’t anything heroic about doing what you were paid for.
He thought of the unlicensed drivers and drinkers and Capris running on two cylinders that everyone else let off with a warning because they were someone’s Godson or followed the same football team or something. In his head he saw them like red buzzing symbols on the map, like Pac-Man, always on his mind, his LED-lit foes, unnerving him and never ending.
They should all have had numbers like his, the other cops; a commendation from the Chief Constable. They only had to follow the rules, he thought. He didn’t know any other way.
A second ambulance went past. They were always more urgent than the cops; they could do something. They probably had no handshakes, just lives lost or saved and you could sleep at night or you couldn’t. It’d be simpler, but he needed the rules, to know he was right and that he could be faultless. He had to be, he had felt it his all life since he realised that everything was so wrong: he knew it when his mother changed, when his brother became unknowable and yet so obvious, like when you can pronounce a word in another language but you don’t know what it means. He had to be the constant line, or everyone else would become unhinged, he thought.
A new Mustang ripped along and braked a second, putting the back out when they saw his patrol car parked. What we need is a dickhead fine, he pictures Powers saying at the pub the night before – last week, to the Constable, to the barman, to anyone with a badge or a uniform. He needed something new to talk about, he thought.
He pulled his cap over his head and wound the window up, it was getting cold and he had just a few hours left before he finished. He started the car and the air began to warm up, his eyes were heavy. He’d been watching cars on the highway for six hours now.
There had been two drink drivers that he took to the station, six speeding fines and an impound on an ‘82 Commodore that was dragging the rear fender in the overtaking lane, sending sparks all over the road. It was a new father and his meth eyes and the wife with a crying baby and no shoes on, the baby seat not fixed properly, and they were going for grocery shopping and a haircut.
He hated dropping them home, the mother spitting on the car as she got out and tearing up the ticket and the Father scratching his head the whole way back and then apologising and shaking Parker’s hand and calling him Brother Man and not really seeing him at all but looking up and down and at his big sweaty hands.
His Aunt had never been able to have kids, but the junkies were prolific at it, he thought, and then regretted. He remembered the way she watched them, nieces and nephews and godsons and goddaughters, swimming and running in the backyard with her sad, darting, squinting eyes. Maybe he looked like that now watching cars, he wondered.
Another call, a juvenile stabbed out the back of the Chinese restaurant where the kids skated and the roughies sold dope. He was almost asleep now and wondered if it was a dream and hoped it was and rolled himself against the door, his head on the cool glass. The radio was calling him, and then he knew he was awake. He slapped his face. Fuck Parker, he said, fuck. He hated falling asleep on the job.
He was right there, he would be there in a minute. It was just over the hill if he took the new estate. He put the car in gear and turned off the hot air and then his heart sank and his weight sank till his feet were stuck to the floor like they contained the entirety of him and were magnetised to the carpet and he couldn’t raise them to the pedals. He was holding his hands in fists, his nails cutting into his palms.
He had to rush, it was his duty, he knew that deeper and more soundly than he knew anything else, more than he knew himself, but he dreamt of going slow; looping around the rubbish tip and the old fire trail, or waiting in the car for the time it took them to call him again. He could fill up the gas, he needed to; and they’d call someone else.
He undid his hands, held the wheel, his arms beginning to shake.
He wished he possessed it in himself to give off his duty, but it was a fantasy more unreachable to him than anything else he imagined: leaving Burrell Creek; marrying Mel, the bargirl.
To not be there first would be a failure, it would destroy him more than his unnameable fear. But it would be safe. It could mean everything. He became aware of the sweat on the wheel, dripping down the plastic and onto his pants.
‘Parker, respond. Juvenile stabbed, Macquarie Street carpark,’ the radio repeated. He called in and started the car, shocked out of his haze and into mechanical action. He was heavy on the pedal and the car roared like he was a kid at the Maccas carpark on a Friday night, making him jump in his seat.
These calls meant standing around and clipboards and he’d have to sign a stack of things tomorrow. He could handle that. But he tore around the corners with the wheel in his hand like he needed it to live, his fingers curled back into his palms around it. He was committed now, he was taking the turns robotically, he would be there any second.
He’d only had two of these calls before. Not much happened in Burrell Creek. There was the kid that drowned in the river when his friends held him under too long. Him and the other cops stood around there all day talking and pointing at things, even though the kid wasn’t there and there was no evidence – nothing, no life and no sign of it, just some marks where the boys had wrestled on the dirt before they all jumped in. Eventually some of the other cops had a swim and play fought on each other’s shoulders. Powers did a backflip off the top of the rock and landed in a huge splash next to the others.
He had left to tell the child’s parents and then sat in his car in the darkness of the shopping centre carpark until morning, blank and his head ringing like when SBS stops broadcasting and there’s just endless buzz and just like that, he didn’t know when it would be back on again until he suddenly started the car and he was alive again and drove home and went to bed and was living again.
There was the guy that killed his wife; the other call. But no one spoke about that anymore.
It would just be all paperwork, he told himself – standing around and paperwork and maybe a late night and he would miss the takeout shop. He thought about finishing at nine, on schedule, and pictured himself on the lounge with the lights off, hoping his mother and brother were asleep, just sitting and not thinking, his face lit by the blue haze of the LED on the DVD player; the two of them on standby.
It could be paperwork or it could be more. The kid could even be dead. But it was probably two stoners and a butter knife, fighting over who’d sprayed some wall. He prayed, to no one particular.
He was the first one there. He sat in the car for a few seconds when he arrived, his heart seeming to bounce its way into every corner of his body like he was a pinball machine and his hands were clenched on his knees like he was holding the bumpers. He called in on the radio that he had arrived and the caller started to respond, asking if there was blood, her voice rising at the end like she was excited about it, and then he stepped out with a deep breath and squinting under the lights of the carpark.
A tiny goth girl with black eyeliner and fishnets swarmed at the car and told him he was late and that he didn’t care, why didn’t he care? ‘You pig’, she said. ‘Barrett was stabbed! You pig!’.
He pushed her away and walked towards the kid sitting against the wall. He’d taken off his shirt and was holding it to his arm. A group of kids were standing around him, reenacting and pointing and giddy at the drama.
By the skate ramp two older kids were sitting on a guy, his arms outstretched like Jesus Christ, a circle of younger kids around them watching the boy’s unmoving crying face against the asphalt and taking turns to step up and insult him, or the guys sitting on him, and then pushing each other around and then starting again.
Some kids just kept on skating, dodging around the audience like they were just part of the setup. The ones sitting on the boy were solemn and dutiful, watching no one.
Someone’s mum was walking around in circles hysterical, screaming at the kids for everything – wagging school, consorting, not going to church, sending the cinema broke. She stopped when she saw Parker, stood up straight, became more conscious of his mature presence than the skaters were. She started to come over and called to him but he ignored her and she stopped, shocked.
‘We need direct response. We can’t have this violence here!’ she called to him from a distance.
‘Who does this guy think he is?’ he heard her say and then he turned to see her pointing to him. She was talking to a man in a black hoodie that was already walking away with his hands in his pockets. ‘No one wants to know anything about this!’ she screamed again and the guy in the hoodie started off, faster.
He started with the injured juvenile. The injured first; it was wrong, technically, but he didn’t see danger in the kid on his stomach on the asphalt. Define and remove the risk, protect the injured, and then clean up later, he listed it in his head like the old training VHS at the academy. He’d sat at the front, always finished the exercises first. Find the knife, he thought.
An old asian man was watching from behind the fly screen at the back of the Chinese joint and shut the door when he started walking over.
The kid with the cut, Barrett, was watching Parker as he came over and offered up the knife from behind his back, first by the blade and then Parker reached for his gun instinctively, even though he’d never drawn it in his five years in the force, and the kid swung it around in his hands and gave it up butt first, his own blood on his fingers and the blade.
‘The Year 12 guys got it off him and gave it to me,’ said Barrett. ‘He got me just a bit, I’m OK. I think the guy’s arm is broken though. Are the ambos coming?’
Parker went to school with a Barrett. A good kid, he won the Cross Country every year. It was his son, no doubt, that’s how it was in this town. He had always meant to leave, but there he was holding a bloody knife at a skater fight.
Barrett’s Father would be someone great now, he was sure. He almost wanted to ask.
Barrett Sr, Joey, had dated the girl with the strawberry blonde hair that always smelt of expensive shampoo and laughed at everything and was always, in every moment and memory Barrett could collect of her, beautiful; on the basketball court, braiding her friends’ hair and playing doubles handball with the boys.