I recognized the car I had just pulled over. Red and blue pulses of light flooded the area around the rusted-out Hyundai. Stray snowflakes fluttered in the beam from my spotlight like frozen fireflies. The last time the driver and I had crossed paths I cited him for open container and seized a nice fat joint from him. Katie and I took care of the evidence that night when I got home.
Katie and I waited until we graduated to get married. We had talked about what it would be like if I joined the force. She told me she supported my decision. But you know how men can tell when a woman is giving you the business. Especially someone they'd been dating four years, all though high school. Her daddy was a preacher. He told me that I should spread the gospel if I really wanted to do the world some good. I told him that I could do the world plenty of good if I was on the police force. Besides, I thought the world was too big a place for one fellow to do any good, messed up as it is. Turns out I wouldn't have made a very good preacher after all.
The driver of the Hyundai was a twenty-two year-old local fellow. His daddy died over there in Saudi when he was just a boy. Randy, his daddy, was a good friend to me and Katie. Him and his wife, Olivia. Now it's just the boy and his mama.
With the insurance money, Olivia bought a pre-fabricated home. One of them houses that comes in three or four pieces and you just put it all together. She put it on a nice flat piece of ground right next to the VFW in town. There's no trees on the lot. Just the powder-blue home and a big old flagpole right out front. During the summer holidays, Olivia lines both sides of the gravel driveway with them little flags. "He was trying to good in the world," Olivia said. "Messed up as it is."
The boy's name was Randy just like his daddy. He's the same age now as when his daddy died over there in Saudi. "The best thing a man can do is to give his life for his country," Randy Jr. would say when he was a little fellow. (Personally, I thought the best thing you could do for your country would be to kill the other guy.) Olivia never really had control of little Randy. He left school when he was maybe in the ninth grade. He got himself in trouble with drinking a few times. He hung out with a bad crowd.
Katie and I never had any kids. Katie's not able. We didn't know that when got married. I always wanted me a little boy to raise and teach him how to be a man. Take him fishing and how to drive a car. How to treat a lady and such. When Katie came home from the doctor that day with the news, she was real broke up. I held her while she cried, stroked her hair. I let her beat my chest with her fists. I never told her how much it let me down too. This was her tragedy. I didn't want to take it from her. Besides, she was let down enough for the two of us.
After Randy died over in Saudi, Katie and I used to go over to Olivia's house and visit. We'd drink a few beers and eat a few burgers. Olivia was a real good friend to Katie like Randy was to me. They comforted each other during that time. In the beginning, they'd cry together and while I'd take the boy outside and throw the football around on that flat yard they had. Randy Jr. learned to cut the grass with the power mower that year. He figured out that if he cut it real short, he could go longer between cuttings. He cut it so short that the earth came through the lawn.
I took him over to Meadville a few times and taught him how to fish. He got out of hand one time, running off at the mouth and not minding me and such. I had to correct the boy. He told me that I'm not his daddy. He don't have to mind me.
The full moon was perched like a shiny coin in a black velvet sky. Other than the glow of that full moon, my flashing light bar was the only light. I got out of the car and put my hat on. The cold wind was like a slap in the face. I approached the beat-up Hyundai. Randy Jr. was behind the wheel. He'd gotten real skinny lately. He grew a beard and cut his hair real short. I say "grew a beard" but what I mean to say is that he gave up shaving. I didn't know the fellow in the passenger seat. I'd never laid eyes on him before. He was a skinny, light-skinned colored fellow. They both had their baseball caps on sideways. I went over to the window and tapped it with my MagLite. Randy Jr. slid the window down but kept his eyes straight ahead. The colored fellow started tapping Randy on the knee with the back of his left hand, also looking straight ahead. I said "Hello," one time, then again. I figured that by now, Randy had lost respect for me since he didn't respect his mama or even himself.
Katie and I were setting in the backyard over at Olivia's blue house last summer. She has one of them redwood picnic tables on her patio slab out back. The grass was no longer short. In fact, it could've used a good mowing. We wore the sun on our shoulders and ate burgers under a bright blue sky. After lunch we smoked a little of mother nature's bounty and drank a couple beers. Olivia and Katie chatted it up. I pulled the visor of my cap over my eyes and laid my head back. The sun was like one of them massages on my face. Randy Jr. scratched his Hyundai to a stop in the gravel drive and walked around the house to the back. He was wearing one of them tight-fitting undershirts what some folks call "wife-beaters". I noticed that the boy went and got himself a tattoo. I recognized it as the mark of a gang from the city called "The Knights". The word "Knights" was scripted on his back between his shoulder blades. It was an obvious basement job. The letter "g" was disproportionately large. The left side rose up higher than the right. Even the underscoring was crooked. I stood and faced him the way I thought his father would have.
"What would you go and do something like that, Randy?" I asked. I turned him around by the shoulders to get a better look at the tat. "You're not going to do the world any good joining a gang."
"Why not?" He threw his elbows out and turned out of my grip, which wasn't tight at all. "You did. You joined a gang."
I crossed my arms over my chest and tilted my head forward a degree or two.
"Yeah, you did. The police are a gang," he snipped. "You got your own colors. You got guns. You all got each other's back. But my gang makes more money than yours." He snapped his fingers a few times and sauntered away with a crooked smile.
The moon beamed against the fence posts on the opposite side of the road, making shadows that looked like ghostly fingers reaching out to us across the road. Red and blue strobed against the blackness in all directions. I knew the boy wasn't going to return my "hello", so I asked him what he was up to. No response. The passenger was tapping Randy's knee as a "hurry up" gesture. I clicked the button on my MagLite. A shaft of white pierced through the blackness into the front seat. I was looking for another open beer or maybe another joint. I didn't see anything in the front. I took a step back and aimed the beam through the back side window. A terrible mess of food wrappers, cigarette packs and dirty clothes littered the seat and floor. It was then that I noticed a familiar odor. I took a few more steps back and moved into the red glow of the tail lights. I stood behind the car, looking into the back window. I met his eyes in the rear view mirror, stained with the flashed of red and blue from the light bar. I tapped on the deck lid with the MagLite. I asked him to pop the trunk. He hit a button inside and the lid popped. I lifted the lid and saw old cardboard boxes, empty grocery bags and a flat spare tire. I also saw two black duffel bags. I unzipped one and the familiar scent drifted to my nose. I pulled out one of the many bundles inside the duffel. It was one of them zipper baggies packed full of marijuana. There were at least twenty bundles in each duffel. I took one to the window. In the darkness of that evening, Randy Jr. looked like his daddy used to, except for the scruffy beard and sideways baseball cap. I held the bundle with one hand and leaned down to the window to his level.
"What would your daddy say if he saw you will all this stuff, boy?" I said.
"He wouldn't say nothing. My daddy's dead."
I saw the other fellow tap Randy Jr.'s knee again only harder. His eyes looked as if he were at the peak of a rollercoaster about to go over the top. I saw Randy Jr.'s right arm begin coming from between the center console and the driver seat. He was holding something. I looked Randy Jr. in the face. He no longer looked like his daddy. I saw his hand come around his body. He was holding a thirty-eight. His daddy's thirty-eight. I stood up and tried to move back. I heard the shot, saw the bright flash and felt the earth hit me in the back. I was lying toward the rear of the car about two feet away from the trunk. He put the gun in his left hand so he could reach it out the window. He fired two more shots. The first one sank into my right thigh. The second one hit the road and ricocheted off somewhere.
"GO! GO! GO!" Came from the passenger. The engine revved and buzzed like a lawn trimmer. The front wheels spun in the soft shoulder. I sat up and faced the rear of the car. I felt the welt rising on my chest where my Kevlar vest stopped the slug. The taillights looked like a demon staring at me through the blackness. The flattened thirty-eight slug slid off my chest. It looked like a dull coin on a hellish sky against the frozen asphalt. From a seated position facing the escaping Hyundai, I fired a shot that shattered the read window. I placed another shot in the same place. The buzzing engine stopped. The horn blared.
The passenger jumped out of the car and rolled onto road, holding his bleeding shoulder. I ran to the driver's window. I saw Randy Jr.'s face striped with blood. The right side of his head was gone. His face was frozen in youthful wonder, staring out at the world. Messed up as it is.