Book: Ask the Right Question

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20

I woke up with fuzz in my face. Fuzz, fuzz everywhere, and not one with a peach’s blush. They were not delicate or sympathetic or brutal. They were just two big bullocks, one blond, one gray. But even they had a sense of the irony of the situation. Shows the higher class of cop the brutality stories are attracting these days.

The young one drove; Old Folk led the conversation.

Their big decision was whether they could book me as a Peeping Tom. I had been caught photographing another man’s pornography. Old Folk looked back into the cage and drooled, “I ain’t never had one just like you before, buddy. You do a lot of this sort of thing in my territory or you just started lately?”

“Go claim your pension,” I suggested.

“Tough guy,” he said, turning back to stare at the 11 p.m. traffic. “Tough guy. Wonder what he does for kicks.”

The booking sergeant was in a surly mood. His wife must have kicked him in the balls as he left home for the night shift.

Of course I wasn’t feeling any too pleasant myself. I was desperate for my film.

“You bastards are the scum of the earth,” said Numb Nuts, hissing after my captors had delivered me and described my offenses. While I stood by they held a cop conclave and decided on “breaking and entering” and “invasion of privacy” as offenses, and “you fucking pervert” as a description of the captive.

But Numb Nuts really cheered me up. “Wait till you hear my name,” I said, “then you’ll really like me.”

“What’s your name?” he growled.

“Donald Duck,” I said. “Honest. I was born in 1932 and my parents liked the alliteration.”

“The allewhat? Fuck. Lock the bastard up.”

“Hey, what about my call? I get a call.”

“Call some of the guys downstairs. They’re your kind.”

Things were getting a little out of hand. I half expected a night on the city, but I didn’t want to spend it with no machinery working for me. “Now look, I’m sorry if I offended you,” you big shit. “But if you lock me up without a call, these kind gentlemen who brought me in aren’t going to get their conviction. They can tell you. Or is Miller in? Jerry Miller. He can tell you my name. He’s on tonight, ain’t he?”

He squinted at me. “You know Miller? He knows you?” Spittle sploshed on floorboards behind the desk. “Figures. OK, you guys,” to my arresting officers, “take him down the hall to the nigra.”

Jerry Miller was a high school classmate of mine. He is also sergeant of police. I will never forgive him for showing no surprise at seeing me brought into his cubbyhole.

He was churning out some paperwork. They sat me down on a chair in front of him and flopped my file on his desk, and left. Jerry doodled a bit, then, without looking up again he picked up my file and skimmed it.

“Big bust like this,” he said. “Wish I was in on it.”

“This place smells,” I said.

“Would have been promotion for sure. Want a smoke?”

“Screw your smoke.” He knows I don’t smoke. “I want to get out of here. I have an appointment in half an hour.”

“Ah, we get them all here. Murderers, rapists, litter-bugs, trespassers.” He basked in it as we both remembered the hard times I have, on occasion, given him about being stuck for nine years as a sergeant. Think of it this way, he says, I’ve got more seniority than any other sergeant on the whole stinking force.

“Donald Duck, eh? No ID. I take it you expected to get caught.”

“Not expected. It’s a matter of protection, just in case. I’ve never been booked under my real name. Not since I was a kid. It helps out the license.”

“Not so sure about the license on this one. What the hell are you up to anyway?”

“I’m trying to find out some secrets.”

“Secrets of anatomy?”

“Secrets of the guy who rents that office. Very deep, very dark.”

“Sounds right up my line.”

We exchanged smiles. I was not in a bad mood considering my recent past and the prospects for my immediate future.

“Still on nights, I see.”

“Yeah. It beats a beat. But it’s not the easiest side of life. I get all the jobs that have filtered through everybody else and that nobody wants. Never any chance for anything big. I’m going to be here forever, unless I stumble onto something big by accident. Like, you know, drugs in a ski pole or something.”

“Or in a stool leg,” I said.

His face turned sharp. “What do you know about a stool?”

I sighed. “You don’t have that one, do you?”

He got up and went to a cupboard. And brought back a very familiar-looking stool. “Somebody left a calling card in a north-side doctor’s record room.”

“I’ve never seen that stool before in my life.”

“No drugs taken, nothing stolen. No fingerprints. We tell him to try and relax. Oh, I get all the trespassing cases.”

“I’ve never seen that stool before in my life,” I said. “But I could use one, when it gets unclaimed. Keep me in mind.”

He sat down and shook his head. More for himself than for me. He propped up my booking sheet. “So what are we going to do about this? You going to tell me anything true so I can make like I beat it out of you and raise my standing around here?”

“Who rents the office?”

“Guy called Ames, according to the night watchman. That the guy you’re working on?”

“Guess so. Give them my real name, and get me a phone call.”

“That all you want me to do?” I was made the object of the bitter blade of irony. I spat it back; I thrive on irony.

“No. I want information. I want the Army records of a Leander Crystal and any Ames, Iowa, police record he has. You got that name?”

“I got it. You’re sure I can’t do anything else for you?” I sensed sarcasm but ignored it.

“If you can’t get me out now, call my mother and ask her to bail me out tomorrow morning.”

If it hadn’t been his own office, he would have spat at my foot. Miller is a good spitter. “Now think carefully,” he said. “Sure there’s nothing else I can do for you?”

So I sat back and thought. “Also Army Records of Windom, Sellman and Joshua Graham.” I wanted to see if Crystal really was in the same outfit as Joshua. “Let me write those names down for you.” I wrote them down. He waited patiently. On reflection I think he was interested.

“Care to tell me what’s going on?”

“No.”

“Care to tell me what I’m going to get out of this? You know I can’t just walk in and order Army records without some sort of reason.”

“I may get you a fraud. And anything I do get will be yours.”

“Such great temptations you offer.” He sighed. “Still, it’ll be interesting to see if anybody does notice what I’m asking for.”

“I also need that film I took tonight.”

“I figured that. You can’t have it.”

“I’ve got to have it.”

“I’ll see what I can do. But don’t count on it.”

I left quietly. For my night’s rest.

By 1 a.m. I was making my one call. Privilege finally granted by Numb Nuts, the desk sergeant. I was getting pretty annoyed. Miller had identified me for them but his shift finished a little after midnight. I hadn’t been caught doing violence. I thought they could let me go on my own recognizance. Numb Nuts wasn’t buying any.

In return for his avowed failure to trust me—despite Miller vouching for me—Numbie decided that with one phone call I could hardly do a lasting damage to the community. So he gave me his phone. It was hard for him, I’ll say that. He didn’t want to see me go.

Which was handing me a problem. I could count on bail in the morning, but I could hardly expect my mother to come running down to the pokey in the middle of the night. When a kid is thirty-seven a mother’s affection will only carry her so far.

I could call my lawyer, but I didn’t have anything to say that couldn’t wait.

So I resigned myself to a night courtesy of the city. I don’t like bail bondsmen’s breaths, or their 10 percent fee, which I didn’t have on me, anyway.

Which left me with my phone call, which I damn well wasn’t going to waste. I decided to use it on my next most pressing need—nights are pretty long in jail.

“Do you have a phone book?” I asked my cheerful bobby.

“Shit,” he said, “you mean a bird like you don’t know his mouthpiece’s phone number by heart?”

I shuddered as he handed me the book. There was something about his turn of phrase. An old movie word like “mouthpiece” put so close to a touching first-grade notion like “by heart.”

I opened the book. The police department and the jail across the street are in my territory. They’re walking distance from home. I know the area. I looked up my local all-night Chuck-a-Chunk-a-Chicken, dialed the number and took a breath.

“Would you please deliver a whole chicken and an order of french fries to the City Jail, please. The name is Duck, D. Duck.

It blew Numbie’s mind. He clobbered me with the back of his paw, he gave me the look reserved for people who defile his phone.

I laughed inside, all the way across the street.

Jail is not exactly a homey place, but if you know what to expect and have a degree of emotional reserve a night or two isn’t that disorienting. I do recommend that you sleep as much as you can. It’s without doubt the fastest way to pass time.

It’s not exactly the first time I’d been in the Indianapolis jail. But I hadn’t been there recently. It hadn’t changed a bit. They still needed to arrest a decorator.

I never got my chicken.

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