This story was written and published many years ago in a literary magazine of no consequence. It’s long since gone out of whatever limited print it was in. I feel pretty confident in saying the only copies that have survived are sitting on a shelf in my house. Maybe one or two other people’s houses. Effectively, this thing no longer existed. So I thought I’d revive it here.
They call Quinn “The IED.” Quinn oils his 9mm Glock and polishes each bullet like a mirror, gazing up dreamily at Pop’s picture on the wall. Only three weeks on the force and he already got a nickname—“because you never know when he’s going to go off on somebody,” they say. In the picture, Pop is in his sand- and camelshit-colored uniform, two loaded M-16s in his hands and a dagger in his bared teeth. Scrawled on his helmet is: SON OF A BITCH. There is a picture of Granny in the helmet band, the bitch in question. Hanging around Pop’s neck is his lucky Iraqi big toe. Quinn hadn’t gotten into the service. Fallen arches.
Quinn gives them one chance. On his first day in the auxiliary, a punk named Kramer pointed to the lucky big toe hanging around Quinn’s neck. It was in a baggie so it wouldn’t get wet in the shower. “The hell’s thatthing?” Kramer asked. “Jesus Christ—is that a goddam thumb or something?” Quinn squinted and made it clear that bad shit was coming down. Kramer quit the auxiliary the next week. Couldn’t fit the weekend shifts into his schedule.
Experience has taught Quinn to bag the toe, not to get it wet. Bad shit comes down. It gets puffy; the nail turns funny colors. Also, it begins to smell.
Quinn gives them one chance. July 4. All auxiliary officers called in to maintain civil order. Quinn is the only man standing between an orderly parade and a seething, lawless mob. Pop’s desert boots are not regulation footwear for auxiliary police officers, but the first one to bitch will get an ass full of United States Army-issue rubber and canvas. A clown on a unicycle is lurching toward Quinn’s post, arms out, flinging candy into the crowds of flag-waving young Americans. Quinn tightens his grip on his club, showing the clown a squint. Chance No. 1—butterscotch hitting a young boy’s glasses or a baby’s soft skull would be bad shit indeed. Soon will come the Shriners. The unicycling clown veers around a discarded plastic toot horn, with rattling snare drums in the distance beating a backbone for the high school marching band’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The clown’s arms flail to center his gravity and he cycles closer to the curb with the patriotic little Americans’ feet in Keds canvas footwear in the gutter—closer than the regulation 12 inches. Quinn is on him like a panther, butterscotches and peppermints making parabolae in the air. Quinn forces his knee expertly against the clown’s coccyx, his fist tangled in orange curls, pushing the clown face-first into the gutter. The nose toots. He has practiced this on Ma. Quinn cuffs him with a plastic tie and jerks him upright, saying, “On your feet, scumbag.” Greasepaint streaks like a slash on his uniform. He makes a mental note of the unicycle tire mark on the street. Evidence.
The Chief summons Quinn into his office. The Chief is a pompous ass. What kind of cop wears no uniform? “Goddammit, Quinn,” The Chief says. “Just what the devil did you think you were doing?” Quinn tolerates The Chief, but barely. “My job,” he says, squinting powder-burnt holes into the chief’s head. “Your job as an auxiliary police officer is to help lead parades and direct traffic and file paperwork and go for coffee for the real cops five hours on weekends, Quinn. Your job is not to tackle clowns. That clown had rights. The American Clown Laborers’ Union is calling for your shield.” “What about the rights of those young Americans sitting on the curb?” he says. Righteously venomous. “Who’s going to protect them, Chief? Are you going to take off that clip-on tie long enough to protect them?” “Keep talking—talk your way right into a suspension, wise guy. The mayor’s ready to cut throats. Clowns vote, Quinn.” Quinn says nothing. He folds his arms across his chest and notes the room’s points of egress. It is pointless to argue with this fucking pencil-pusher. How long has it been since he was out there, on the streets, with no desk to separate him from the slime-licking maggots that infest the city? The Chief rolls down his sleeves and mops his bald head with a handkerchief. “I’m taking you off the streets, Quinn.” For nearly a second, Quinn’s vision goes red. He leaps to his feet in a thrash, the chair tipping over behind him, goddam desk articles clattering to the floor. “Say, wait a sec you lousy—” “You’ll be back soon, never you worry.” Knock on the door. In walks Aardweg, top cop in the Traffic Division, swinging his whistle on a finger, white gloves tucked into his belt. “You wanted to see me, Chief?” says Aardweg. “Just in time. Quinn, meet your new partner.”
Aardweg rubs his gloved hands together—a muted, cottony rasp. “They tell me you’re a tough nut to crack, Quinn. Let’s see your moves.” Quinn has no moves. “No moves?” Aardweg demonstrates “moves.” He claps, swings his arms like watch dials until they read 9:45, and bumps his hips to the right. Aardweg’s blue uniform fits him snugly, moving like fluid. Quinn squints in all directions. Other officers—the real ones, he thinks, miserably—are looking. “You must know how to duck walk. What am I saying—everybody knows how to duck walk.” Quinn shakes his head. “Mashed potato?” No sign of recognition. “Charleston? Lindy? The swim?” Quinn grimaces while Aardweg hikes his cap back on his pate and brushes his mustache. Bad shit. The whole precinct is watching. Quinn sees a smug son of a bitch who’s snickering. A smile creeps across Aardweg’s face, the cheeks punctuated with a dusting of rouge. “I have a great idea. You’ll come by the house this week. I have a lot to teach you, and we haven’t got a second to lose.”
Quinn has discovered over time that it’s best to wear Pop’s Iraqi toe under his shirt. It bulges, toe-sized, under his Poland Spring jumpsuit as he makes deliveries. He’s got the downtown route. Among other offices, he delivers to the police headquarters. Three bottles a week on Tuesdays. Somehow, the officers never notice that the water guy is also an auxiliary officer—not even The Chief. Quinn likes it that way.
There is a little Aardweg, and a Mrs. Aardweg. Quinn meets them with a tense grunt. Mrs. Aardweg is built like a loaf of bread and the boy, Junior, has the apple cheeks and, even at 12, the receding hairline of his old man. The interior of the house is warm and smolderingly lit, like the inside of a brick oven. Dance trophies in a glass case against the wall. First place, Providence Kiwanis Club Jitterbug Marathon, 1983. Rug-Cutters’ Tango Invitational, first place, 1996. Framed newspaper clippings: “Traffic cop trips the stop-lights fantastic.” “Highway hoofer.” Picture of Aardweg meeting President G.W. Bush. The great man towers a good foot above Aardweg’s hat. Observation is an art—Quinn is a goddam Picasso. “You boys going to practice a few steps in the basement?” Mrs. Aardweg asks, taking their coats. “Police business,” Quinn says. Aardweg takes the woman aside. “Chief asked me to teach him a few things, sweetie. We won’t make much noise.” Quinn notices Junior is staring up with a squint. He’s wearing an orange and purple sash that reads PATROL LEADER. “I bet you boys will be hungry—do you like meatloaf, Mr. Quinn? There’s a five-pound beauty in the oven right now with ketchup and bacon—” “Put it between bread, sweetie,” Aardweg says, leading Quinn to an unmarked door under the stairs. “You boys have fun—Sherm’s fixed it all up down there, Mr. Quinn, very professional. He did it all himself.” Quinn nods and observes something else in the trophy case, something he never expected to see: medals and framed photos of Aardweg in uniform—sandy beige and Arab brown camo with pith helmet, smiling and waving a white glove into the desert sun. Behind him is a banner for the USO. Quinn wonders if Pop and Aardweg ever met.
The basement is tricked out. Full-length mirrors. Hardwood floors waxed and buffed like a prize Caddy. A wooden railing waist-high runs the perimeter of the room. Quinn forgets himself. “You built all this?” he asks, his growl reverberating against all the wood and glass. “You bet. This is where I come when I need to relax. When I need to get away from all the crazies out there in the city.” Aardweg strips off his pants. Underneath are glossy blue leotards. “Someday I’d like to open a studio. A private studio. I’d be the teacher and headmaster. Keep kids off the streets.” He bends down with a diaphragmatic exhalation and kicks so high his shin touches his nose. “It may happen pretty soon—I’m up for retirement in a month.”
Aardweg says he was once able to put his right leg behind his head as a younger man, but not his left. Quinn is unused to being limber. He feels soft. Too loose. He doubts he’d be able to pin a man down for very long. “Now try this,” Aardweg says, duck-walking across the floor while beckoning invisible traffic to proceed. Quinn squints; and somehow he moves forward, his fallen-arched feet moving by themselves—it’s really sort of a shuffle move, he thinks, and Aardweg says, “That’s the boy—give it a little more shazammy,” and momentarily dazzled by his reflection he collapses like a fallen bear.
By the time Quinn returns home, Ma is in bed and his fallen arches ache. Aardweg says the soles of his feet will conform to the new shoes and then he’ll be just fine. He drops into bed, kicks his shoes under the desk by Pop’s desert boots, and he drops off to sleep before he can remember that he forgot to kiss the Glock and put it to bed under his pillow.
For weeks, Quinn trains. He gives himself one chance. He twirls, he jives, he step-ball-changes. Aardweg is a stern taskmaster. He tells Quinn to firm up that robot. “Think metal—squeaky, rusty hinges,” he says. Aardweg barks at Quinn to keep which lane of traffic he’s directing straight up here. “Your moves have plenty of shazam, but that means nothing if you’re directing cars into a ten-vehicle pileup.” Quinn sometimes can’t take the abuse, and bad shit starts on its way down. Quinn knows 17 different ways to kill a man barehanded, and cycles through a few mentally as Aardweg rubs his white cotton hands over his eyes and says, “That swim was one of the worst I’ve ever seen. I felt nothing.”
You need to know the street, Aardweg says. Quinn feels foolish as Aardweg kneels in the gutter on Milhaus Ave., his ear to the tar. “If you don’t respect the street,” Aardweg says, “it won’t respect you.” He presses his hands to the cracked pavement and smells them. “Touch the street,” he instructs. Quinn catches sight of the Fire Department Station 4 across the street and bites his lip. Several firemen with identical red toothbrush mustaches are leaning back on lawn chairs outside the building, smoking, linking their hands behind their heads. The shortest one is trying to fit his helmet on a Dalmatian’s head. “My Pop,” he murmurs. “He—he was a volunteer fireman. Until…” Aardweg squeezes Quinn’s shoulder. “I know, son.” Then: “Touch the street.” Quinn stares at the road and then submits, pressing his cheek to the cold, wet tar. He hears the roaring of the earth.
They walk the downtown beat, listening to the city’s traffic hum. The kids love Aardweg. Boy Scouts in uniform, their sashes weighted down with medals and badges and American flags, ask Aardweg to do a quick twist. Quinn waits by silently, jealous. Aardweg ruffs their hair, autographs glossy black-and-whites of himself. “Stay off the drugs,” he says.
At home, Ma sits under thirty-six hot rollers and wonders where her boy goes so late. Police business, he says, top secret. The piles of sweat-stained legwarmers in his laundry only add to the mystery.
Aardweg Junior is watching in the basement when Quinn breaks through. Quinn stands in the center of the room, bare-chested, Iraqi toe hiding in a glistening thicket of chest hair. He’s covered with sweat as if with condensation, so much heat radiating off him it bends his vision. Running the latest routine in his head again, a no-left-turn funky chicken into a pedestrian crossing with a jitterbug tease. Aardweg, akimbo, eyes his pupil. Quinn is breathing from the diaphragm, a muscle he previously never knew he possessed but which now occupies nearly every waking moment. “I think you’re ready for real traffic, Quinn. I think you’re ready for the streets.” Tomorrow downtown, he says, noon to one. Quinn’s brow lifts with the thought of seeing real action, of being out there, in the thick of battle versus Old Man Injustice, and unsure of how to control himself he leaps into the air with a hoot and meets the earth in a perfect split. Junior whistles. “You are ready,” Aardweg says.
Ma presses Quinn’s auxiliary police uniform. The creases in his pants are sharp enough to carve a roast. Jervik, Quinn’s boss at the Poland Spring delivery service, is puzzled. “The hell’s that getup?” He wears a Poland Spring jumpsuit, but the fucking phony never goes out on deliveries, out there amongst the filth and slime in the city. Jervik peers, his lips slack like strips of liver. “Are you wearing blush?” Quinn doesn’t bother to answer—just tells Jervik he needs the day off. “Well then who the hell else can I find to take over your rounds?” says Jervik, flushed and strangled around his cigar. “That’s your problem, chief,” Quinn says, and plucks Jervik’s cigar from his mouth. He drops it into Jervik’s paper cup of Poland Spring with a gasp. “These things’ll kill you,” he says, and walks out.
Drives downtown in his white Crown Vic. Parks, strides among the citizens on their lunch breaks to the intersection of Kennedy and Columbia avenues, where Aardweg is tooting his whistle and doing a bouzouki dance. Quinn has told Ma to drive by in her own Crown Vic, also white. No questions—just drive down Kennedy at 12:30 p.m. and keep your eyes peeled. Looking at the four lanes of traffic rushing by Aardweg and the four others held at bay by his steady hand, Quinn wonders with a grunt whether he should have tried it once before Ma gets a look at him. Ma will get teary-eyed and start mentioning Pop and the accident at the Hostess factory. She will want to visit the memorial at the fire station where Pop’s name is set in bas relief: Jack Quinn, Volunteer Fire Department, 1951-2005—Hero. Ma can’t eat a cupcake without getting hysterical. But Aardweg’s ease in changing lanes, the smooth Swan Lake-inspired transition from north-/southbound to east-/westbound, bolsters Quinn’s confidence. To be the master of this chaos. Giver of order. Aardweg spots him, paused on tiptoe, and waves. His cheeks are limned with rouge. His mustache is curled just so.
Neither of them sees the ice-cream wagon, beckoned on by the waving white glove—the out-of-control ice-cream truck which slams into Aardweg, carries him like a bug on the grille for several feet, and deposits him under the left wheels. Rubber shrieks. Horns in all keys cry out inharmoniously. Above it all Quinn hears himself wail, “No!” and women are in tears with their hands folded over their open mouths and children who come to watch Aardweg have dropped their Popsicles, children now scarred for life—if not by the initial impact then by the crunching spurts as the ice-cream wagon’s left front wheel digs in for traction in Aardweg’s torso. Quinn sprints, dodges stalled traffic. Looks the ice-cream driver square in the eye. White uniform and hat. Good Humor. Blond hair. Still twenty yards away but mentally filling out a citation book with every detail of the bewildered driver’s face, even as the driver floors it and speeds down Kennedy, exceeding the speed limit. Quinn thinks: Good Humor man, I am going to get you. Quinn reaches Aardweg, a blue and red smudge at the end of a chunky streak across the tar, and cradles what until recently had been his partner in his arms. Listens as Aardweg with a voice like an overfilled teakettle, boiling and sputtering, calls Quinn by his first name. Aardweg strips off his white gloves. They are miraculously untouched by the gore that seems to be everywhere else. He presses them into Quinn’s palm and says: “Junior.” Quinn nods, all eight lanes of traffic frozen, a TV camera crew at the sidewalk shocked at this turn of events but unwilling to look away. Quinn thinks: Good Humor man, I am going to get you. Says: “Don’t die on me partner—you’re gonna be OK,” even as he knows Aardweg is completely dead. He looks up into the sky and says: “Good Humor man I am going to get you,” as loud as he can, every cell in his body vibrating with the force of his voice. He lays Aardweg down on the street only when he hears approaching ambulance sirens, which he directs toward the scene of the crime with a perfect frug.¶