He settled himself in the doorway to the office, the one with “police” marked across the door in stick-on letters, and watched me for a minute, taking in my notebook, registering the day, the voices coming through closed doors.
“Who’re you with?” he asked. He had placed me as a reporter. His notebook, in one hand, was nearly identical to mine. Keys rattled whenever he shifted. Then, “executive session?”
Forty minutes and counting, and I sigh, because of all nights this was one I particularly hoped would be quick.
He doesn’t leave, standing still the doorway, shifting keys and notebook.
“Know what you should write about? And I’m not telling you this: you should look into what we’re paid around here.”
Oh I know already. Most of the towns and municipalities around here employ part-time officers at $10 to $14 an hour. But I also know they can’t do much better. Money is tight. Property isn’t worth much, residents just scraping by, everyone just scraping by.
I’m tired. I notice how the blue industrial carpet is fraying badly where it hits the hard plastic anti-slip surface of the steps; how it’s stained dark there at the window, where utility bills are passed through a gap in the glass, stained by years of feet tracking in the mud, and the salt, and the snow, and the dust; how the walls are dirty and scuffed and the corners are crumbling a little, kicked how many countless times.
“They’re mad at me these days, we’re in contract negotiations, and I just want what’s right.”
I look at him then. I wonder why he isn’t trying to go somewhere else, with a bigger budget. I wonder if he could catch up to criminal, who would win in a race. He’s heavy, and it has to slow him down.
I nod, showing empathy, but I’m too tired to really have any. How can you pinpoint “what’s right” in a contract when you, the one establishing the right, stand to reap the benefits?
“Well,” and he shifts again. “Have to go write up this body report.”
I wake up a bit. Body report?
“Anything I’ll hear about tomorrow? Was the coroner called?” I ask him, and he shrugs. Yes the coroner was called, but he doubts I’ll get a report. Overdose, probably. I realize too late he said “body report” just for my reaction.
If it’s a suicide I know he’s right, no report. We try to avoid publicizing suicides.
“Makes for a bad day,” I offer, wondering what he’s just left. Was the family there? Who found the body?
He puffs out his already expansive chest a bit. “Oh, I’ve been doing this for 25 years, I’m used to it,” he tells me. He’s an emergency responder too, part time in a different county.
What is it like to be used to death? But then I understand how you compartmentalize, push some things away. Four, five years in and I’m starting to get used to things too.
His phone starts up a horrible, jarring ringtone and he disappears finally into the back office. I hear locks turning, then it’s quiet.
There are cheaply-framed signs on the wall across from me; a certificate of “Recognition” – in quotes – for following the rules for water testing; a mission statement for the borough; a plastic-sheeted warning that absolutely no tax business will be done at this window, please see the tax collector.
The tax collector’s window is directly across the narrow hall, less than five feet apart.
Someone used clip-art to decorate a please-pay-your-utilities-bill-here sign.
A train passes so close, blaring its horn as it rattles the windows; the train, like dusty coal trucks slowing traffic up and down these hills, is the remnant of the a different era here. A black plaque on the wall speaks of the revitalization of the building, how it was turned from train station to offices.
In the council chambers they talked of the revitalization of the town, bringing businesses and consumer dollars in, cleaning and fixing and patching until it looks new again.
The executive session finally ends after an hour and a half, and I stand, head back in; five minutes later we’re adjourned.
I follow the dirty footsteps in the tired carpet out into the rain.