Wilmington District was the smallest of all of the precincts in DC, so everyone knew everyone. Caplan and Rice looked up from their work to give their returning colleague a non-committal nod, before the men dug back into their case files. Rosen looked over his glasses for a moment then returned to reading as well.
Just eight desks, lined up in two rows of four, easily filled the room. A dry erase board. A cork board. One room filled with PC computers and file cabinets. The break room housed an antiquated automatic drip coffeemaker flanked by powdered creamer and three plastic cups stuffed with yellow and pink and blue packets of sweetener. Its six-foot folding linoleum table and three tiered, plastic lined chairs served as a make-shift interview room. And the lieutenant’s office, walled on two sides by glass, was sandwiched between the records and coffee-interrogation rooms.
Surreal. That is how it felt six years ago, as if he had stepped onto the set of an eighties Bochco series. Gritty. Modest. Real. He had carried a swell of pride for most of his first years. Glamour less as it was, Nelson loved the old station house. Nelson was never one for flash or overly sophisticated nuance. He never begrudged the old precinct for being exactly what it was: an old building where he and a dozen other officers would investigate, interrogate, and incarcerate. It was almost a comfort to be surrounded by such simplicity, when the rest of life became so complicated.
But in the past ten days, life’s complications had bled into his sacred ground here.
Four years ago, Jordan Baker, a friend and fellow cop had called him to come East to Washington DC, where the work was light but often important. ‘Come to the one place in this country where the economy is actually growing. Promote fast, retire early.’
Jordan, who had just made Sergeant after only two years, sounded like he might know what he was talking about for once. And knowing the goofball that Jordan was, Nelson was certain he would do even better if things were truly as Jordan said. A serious, ambitious officer like himself couldn’t help but thrive in an environment like that. As the most decorated officer in his Chicago precinct, succeeding in a small community like the District of Columbia seemed foolproof.
Best laid plans…
At the time, it seemed worth uprooting his family – his beautiful bride Debbie, pregnant with twins and two-year-old son Nelson Jr. – just to drag them half way across the country to the unlikely land of opportunity, our nation’s capital. He found a home at Wilmington Precinct and was immediately saddled with all nature of extra curricular responsibilities like coordinating community outreach events and reviving the PAL program. For a while it was great, he loved being useful, needed. He loved being of service to a community that needed and respected him.
Until the day his down low life was forced to the surface, exposed for all to see. Now everyone knew, or so Nelson thought. He felt their eyes on him everywhere. His partner, Erik Breckenridge who stood in the Lieutenant’s office this very moment knew; and his look of disgust broadcasted the contempt at knowing.
Nelson stepped to his desk and found it littered with pink and canary message slips; some with dates that were ten days prior. Apparently Breckenridge hadn’t bothered to address a single call since Nelson was put on administrative leave. Two weeks ago, they shared virtually everything: war stories about the rough patches in their marriages, an unreasonable love for the dill pickles at Vito’s deli on Ninth, and a violent disdain for Big Deuce, a nefarious drug lord in Southeast DC whose power and territory were growing at a dangerous clip. Quite often they were mistaken for brothers; a co-incidence they both found highly amusing. And White folks say we think they all look alike. Yes, all highly amusing…
Today, as Nelson watched Breckenridge through the glass of the Lieu’s office, standing before the senior officer railing anxiously, hostile, the partners barely shared a civil glance.
Lt. Oliver looked past Breckenridge and waved Nelson into the room. Without another sideways glance, Officer Breckenridge turned tail and brushed by Nelson with a faux urgency.
“Officer Manning, have a seat,” Oliver waved warmly.
It wasn’t until Nelson was in Oliver’s office that he saw the dirty blonde gentleman sitting in the corner chair against the wall. He was slim but not a slight man with boyish features, prematurely thinning hair, an easy elegance and a definitive intelligence. And something else. Nelson’s instincts were piqued from some reason, though he could not pinpoint why. The man’s suit was a small hint, but nothing more than a tease, designer business attire worn casually without a tie. Rimless silver glasses sat at attention on the man’s nose. Never one to ignore an intuition, he took a mental note and steeled himself for whatever bad news his commanding officer had for him.
“Sit,” Oliver repeated, gesturing to the chair before his desk.
“I’d rather stand Lieu,” Nelson answered evenly.
“Breckenridge has asked to be reassigned,” Oliver began, stripping his glasses from his face.
Nelson felt the Lieutenant gauging his reaction, so he made a point not to have one. He needed to show that he had control of his emotions. It was important that he prove that to Oliver in particular. His superior officer was a model of integrity, a smart cop who was respected in the department and fair across the board.
“You don’t seem too upset about it,” Oliver continued when Nelson didn’t respond.
Nelson quickly thought of the many jeers he could answer with; then just as quickly remembered that Breckenridge still felt like his friend, his brother. “Not trusting your partner’s the same as not having one.”
Oliver sat back in his chair, causing a small hot spot to suddenly appear on his baldhead. “Are we talking about him or you?”
The man in the corner spoke for the first time.
Nelson hesitated. He didn’t like how interested both men seemed to be in the answer. “Does it matter, sir?”
“I guess not.” Oliver sat forward and closed the file open on his desk. “I’m promoting you to night watchman.”
Nelson’s heart sank. “That’s not a promotion sir.”
“Sure it is. Rosen has been jockeying for it for years.”
“Rosen’s the one who should be riding a desk-” Nelson argued, then caught himself, “Sir.”
“You’re probably right,” Oliver conceded frankly. “But I prefer that he earn it.”
“I do more good on my beat, Lieu.”
“It’s just until you can partner up again,” Oliver answered. Nelson watched as the Lieutenant dug through his desk drawer and placed his service revolver before him. “The department won’t have money for another couple bodies till the new budget in July. And anyway, you’re off the street until this probation of yours is up.”
Nelson refastened his gun to his belt, contemplating the three months that already felt like an eternity.
“This is Randall Sturdevant. The chief asked him to come talk to you.”
“The chief? I thought I was cleared of all-“
“You have been clear-“
“Then why do I need to talk to anymore people?”
Oliver shared a glance with the man in the chair and chuckled. “Believe it or not, I’m not allowed to know. How’s that for baked apples?”
The man in the corner forced a smile against his pressed lips. From the way he shook his head, Nelson could tell that he too appreciated the irony.
“Just talk to him, Manning. That’s an order, from me.”
Oliver grabbed a coffee mug from his desk as he stood. “If there’s no coffee made, this could take a while. Excuse me.”
Unlike his former partner, Lt. Oliver eased past Nelson. He never took the seat he was offered. He liked being on his feet; it was a useful habit he acquired from being a cop. It made him feel prepared, ready for anything that came at him. But at this moment, being on his feet did nothing to fortify him against the specter of what this mysterious man could represent.
“To be honest I’m not sure what I’m doing here either,” Randall Sturdevant said standing. “Except that there are some important people concerned about you.”
“Like who exactly?” Nelson asked, immediately regretting how eager he sounded.
“The chief of DC police. She and a doctor friend of mine, Van Sorrento, both got a call about you. Any idea why?”
“I don’t know a Doctor Sorrento,” Nelson answered calmly. “The chief… I met her once for a second between speeches.”
“Can you tell me what this probation is about?”
Nelson noticed the deliberate way the man stood and moved forward, carefully closing the distance between them. He stood a few inches taller but his frame clearly lacked heft. This is a man who uses his mind for a living. His suit heralded his wealth and good taste and his measured, steady tone told Nelson he was skilled at the art of negotiating, a mediator and a man of reason. Yet all these overt indicators of breeding and professionalism only served to make Nelson more uneasy.
And that something else, that thing Nelson could not put his finger on remained, stubbornly alluding Nelson’s full perception.
“Are you a lawyer?”
“What are you?”
“I know who my friends are.”
“Apparently, there are a few that you don’t know about. With all the folks that are trying to save you-“
“What folks are-“
“It seems like maybe you don’t want to be saved.”
“Save me from what?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
Nelson turned away. He didn’t like the way this guy talked in circles, as if he knew what the hell was happening. Then, to Nelson’s surprise, the man extended his hand.
“My name is Randy; I’m a doctor. I run Saint Agnes over in Wilmington District.”
Nelson stared at the man’s hand, then at the man’s face. He thought he finally figured out what the missing piece was to this circus. “Tony put you up to this, didn’t he?”
His hand still out-reached, Randy added “I don’t know anyone named-“
“Well you can tell him – stop trying to fix everything.”
Nelson watched Randy put his outreached hand back in his pocket. He met the man’s defeated expression with indifference. “How much have you had to drink today?”
Nelson’s heart leap n his chest. “Who are you?”
“Someone who knows a thing or two about addiction. I can smell it.”
“No you can’t! I didn’t touch a drop today!”
Nelson felt cornered. The few feet between them suddenly wasn’t enough and Nelson took a few steps, struggling to get his bearings in this interaction, though he had less and less idea where it was all headed. “Is that what this is? I’m going to the damned meetings OK? Who ever you are and whoever sent you, HR, whatever, I’m doing the program so you can back off.”
“Alright Nelson,” Randy said plainly. “I know that today is the day you were reinstated after being on administrative leave. I know you beat a guy to a bloody pulp two weeks ago and he will probably walk with a limp for the rest of his life. I know that guy had a gun. And I know the gun’s not the reason why you beat the crap out of him, but it is the reason you still have your badge.”
Nelson listened to Randy rattle off his recent cluster of chaos like an inconsequential to-do list and found himself fighting back the shame all over again. “Well, there you go. You know everything there is to know.”
“Including the part where your wife left you two weeks ago?”
Nelson’s heart leapt again. “Are we done?”
“Was that the trigger?”
“Are we done?”
“Nelson, I’m not that kind of doctor. That can’t be why they called me.”
“Are we finished?” Nelson asked forcefully.
Dr. Sturdevant took a step backwards, relenting. “Yeah, we’re done.”
He knew about Debbie. Who was he? How the hell did he know about Debbie? If Tony hadn’t sent him, than who? Who would know? What else did he know?
Nelson tried to steel himself against thought. He closed his eyes, praying to the divinity that kept that man from saying his wife’s name. That kept Dr. Sturdevant from speaking the names of his children, for if he had, Nelson surely would have lost it.
Devon. Tigh. Jack. His boys. His babies.
The constant ache Nelson felt for his sons suddenly intensified. He felt a knotted sob rise in his thoughts and his knees slowly turning to jelly. Just when he thought his legs would no longer support him, the majestic church bells rang out from across the street.
Nelson straightened up and stood at his full height. He wiped away the tears welling in his soft brown eyes and made his way across the street.
When Nelson first discovered that an AA meeting happened regularly just across the street from the station house, he was devastated. Anyone of his fellow officers could see him entering of leaving a meeting and his alcoholism would be exposed. Two weeks later, he had found that, in the eyes of some, namely his partner, there were sins far more wretched than booze. And tonight, he was grateful for a place of refuge.
The small sanctuary was lined with wooden pews that seated about fifty. The room was half full and the dying microphone at the podium struggled to reach the furthest most seat which Nelson occupied. He hadn’t made any friends, hadn’t found a sponsor. In fact, he did little more than what was required, which at this stage was to show up.
Oblivious to the speakers that rotated to and from the stage with all shades of testimonials, Nelson flipped open his wallet and stared miserably at the beautiful round brown faces of his boys. All pushed together in a pile, all three grinning from ear to ear. Nelson’s joy. His life. Opposite the kids in his wallet was his wedding photo. He and Debbie smiled while standing cheek to cheek. His bride, his wedding day, both perfect memories, smashed to dust with his simple confession more than two weeks ago.
“I’m new in town so I’m still finding my way around. But I heard that this meeting was pretty solid so I figured I would start here. My name is Randy…”
Nelson’s attention whipped forward to see the doctor at the podium.
“…and I’m a sex addict.”
The sonofabitch followed me!
“You can laugh, it’s fucking funny,” Randy continued. Unlike his demeanor in the Lieutenant’s office, this Randy was loose and warm, comfortable in front of the audience of strangers. He wore an effortless, welcoming smile. “It’s like my parents knew when they were naming me. Like I said, I’m a sex addict, still learning my way around this town. But I figured one group of addicts desperately trying to abstain was as good as the next.”
A wave of nervous chuckling floated across the sanctuary. Randy seemed fueled by it.
“Forget the fact that I’m gay, if there was a hole, I tried to drill it. I was committed: drill baby drill! I had worked my way halfway through Detroit, which is why I needed to move. There were no upright homo sapiens of consenting age left for me to sleep with. Seriously. I needed to bail before I started dipping into other categories. No ladies, I am not bi, but again, where there’s a hole… And I don’t do children, but you may want to hide your Chihuahuas if I’m invited to the dinner party.”
More and more people realized that Randy was performing for them and felt free to laugh out loud. Still confused, Nelson sat quietly in the back, listening.
“I’ve been in recovery for two years now,” Randy continued, pacing with the mike. Everyday is an exercise in moderation and self-control. Or as I like to call it, famine and torture. One day at a time, right. They didn’t give out chips in SAA in Detroit. I guess the fact that no kids popped up was the reward and the proof. But then again, being gay, I felt a little gypped. What am I supposed to be proud of? That there are no butt babies running around? I mean come on.
“It’s OK. You can laugh. I mean, it’s either ridiculous or tragic. I choose the former. If it’s tragic that means I should slit my wrists. Ridiculous just means I get to introduce the men of DC to Little John. In moderation of course. Yes, Little John. Face it, there’s not a man in this room who hasn’t named his cock at one point or another. Show of hands…”
Randy raises his right hand and waits. No one follows suit.
“Oh come on! Your secret’s safe with us, show of hands…” Slowly, eight hands rise, followed by a flood of laughter. “That’s right, that’s right! Thank You!”
Randy takes the opportunity to sit on the edge of the stage while the laughter subsides. “Gotta say though, the gay complicated things.”
Nelson could hear the change in his tone; could see that Randy saw him in the dimness of the sanctuary’s last pews.
“Forget about people who automatically equate homos with sexual predators. It’s tough sometimes to explain that I’m struggling with an addiction, it’s not a default of my sexual orientation. Forget about Randy, they should have named me Irony. But we all have complications that magnify the challenges of managing our addiction. But that’s the beauty of being human. We don’t just slit our wrists. We find a way to get through it. There’s not always a way around it, but there’s always a way through.”
The sanctuary emptied quickly in the direction of the lobby and the smell of fresh coffee. Nelson watched Randy closely, shaking hands, laughing with anyone who approached him. In just thirty minutes, this man had participated more in the AA meeting than Nelson’s entire two weeks of attending. His admiration for this man was growing, despite his initial response back in the office at the precinct.
Gradually, Nelson watched Randy work his way to the back pews and into the seat beside him. Nelson couldn’t look at him, didn’t know what to say, how to feel.
“This is a safe place Nelson. A sanctuary.”
“I really am your friend, Nelson. If you’ll let me be.”
Nelson nodded; it was all he could do.
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
A new wave of sadness washed over Nelson. He still couldn’t bring himself to face the man. He clutched anew his open wallet.
“That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?” Randy asked gently. “How long have you been out?”
Nelson swallowed hard, grateful that he didn’t have to say the words. “Two weeks, four days, twelve hours.”
“Not long at all.”
“Long enough to lose my partner and my family. My kids…” Nelson fixed his gaze on the photo in his wallet, rubbed his thumb against the picture of his boys, trying to remember how it felt to hold them in his arms. “I love my wife man. I never stopped loving her. I’ll always love her. She’s the mother of my kids.”
“Being gay doesn’t make you incapable of loving a woman. It just means that a woman isn’t capable of making you feel complete. No matter how much both of you might want that. You shouldn’t have to choose,” Randy finished quietly.
“That’s what he said.”
“The one you came out for?”
“He was so sure,” Nelson added regretfully. “He kept saying I have to be honest. I have to tell the truth.”
“In your time, not his.”
“Too late for that now.”
Nelson forgot his anxiety and looked up for the first time. He was met by Randy’s attentive, sympathetic face. It was comforting.
“Who is this bone-headed twink?”
“Twink? What’s a…”
“Nevermind,” Randy shook his head, as if he had forgotten his audience. “He’s probably one of those fags whose mother thinks it’s progressive to have a gay son. Probably finds him dates too.”
“Who’s Sylvia? No, she is a royal…pain,” Nelson finished, as if remembering he was still in a house of God. “Tony turned out great considering. I just can’t see him anymore.”
The men sat in silence for a moment. Nelson considered the doctor beside him, what he was offering. Friendship. He didn’t have Tony anymore. He could use a gay friend right now.
With a last glance down, Nelson closed his wallet decisively. He sat up straight in his seat and turned to face Randy. “So, mister, Doctor Sturdevant-”
“Call me Randy.”
Nelson nodded. “Randy, they told me I have to find a sponsor.”
2012 © Better Half LLC