I was parked at the old train depot in one of our small towns. Watching for speeders and drunks, listening for whatever might come along, generally chilling out.
Working nights is sometimes quite exciting (such as the car crash I had recently but won’t be able to write about for a while yet) but sometimes nights are impossible to navigate. When everyone is behaving, when the weather works against people going outside and carrying on, when the economy keeps drinkers at home rather than in the bars or on the road to and from bars, nights become interminable.
During summer weekends, the night shift can be over before you realize it. Arrests and fights and car crashes and all manner of humanity behaving badly. But during the week, it can seem like the entire world stops dead, frozen in its tracks by the very heat it seeks to escape.
It is actually much worse in the winter, when snow and ice coat everything and the wind howls down to zero or lower. No one moves, no one drives, people hardly dare to breathe. Those nights, when the sun is already down when I sign on and has yet to come up when I sign off, are horrifying in their emptiness.
This particular night was fairly quiet. It was warm and the lack of calls wasn’t bothering me too badly. (It is a perverse truism in law enforcement that my good nights, my really good, fun nights, are – by definition – bad for someone else.)
While I sat, while I thumbed through law enforcement magazines, while I listened for kids squealing tires on the bottom road, or big trucks tearing through someone’s back pasture, or sedans driving too slowly through town (which usually means a drunk concentrating on not speeding), I realize I saw movement.
In the far corner of my eye, barely visible, something waved.
An old man, on his front porch. In one of those Hover Round wheelchair contraptions.
Waving at me. Not like, “Hey, how’s it going, cop-dude?” but more like, “Hey, cop-dude, get your taxpayer-funded ass over here.”
I watched for a second, to get a sense of the landscape, and he started whistling for me.
Which set me on a slow burn. Yes, I was on duty, in a marked car, and am a public servant, but too often there are people who have a sense of entitlement when it comes to public servants. We are public servants, therefore it is our job to eat their shit and then do their bidding…which often includes telling their kid to do their homework, or giving them a ride from one town to another.
So I headed to him and when I pulled up in front of his house, he said, in a weak and quiet voice, “Can you take me to the hospital?”
Okay, well, hit me with a big stick. Repeatedly. Suddenly I felt like an ass for getting all up in this old dude’s grill (figuratively) ’cause he was obviously hurt or sick or maybe dying.
“What’s the problem?” I asked, trying to make a decision between rushing his ass to the hospital myself or getting some EMTs on scene.
He stared at me, face completely blank. “Huh?”
“Sir? You okay? Do I need to call an ambulance?”
Again, that blank stare. It was absolutely endless, like he wasn’t seeing me at all, but maybe something 50 or 60 years ago. I assumed Alzheimer’s and that he was lost within himself.
“An ambulance? For what?” he asked.
“I don’t know. You asked me to take you to the hospital.”
He shook his head and confusion was ripe on his face. “My cat’s not at the hospital. My cat’s dead.” Then he looked at me. “So’s my wife.”
“And she was talking to me.”
Then, suddenly, his face cleared. “Officer, I’m so sorry. I don’t need to go anywhere. I’m fine.”
He’d been dreaming, he said. And in the dream his wife came to him and said they needed to go to the hospital and retrieve their cat. He lost both of them in the last few months and his head was playing with him, he said. In the dream, she told him there was a police officer coming to give him a ride to the hospital.
Then he woke up and through his open window, he saw my car sitting across the street from him.
“It was all so real.”
I stood in his living room and he sat in his little contraption. He ran his hand through his thinning hair. The place was covered in pictures of his wife…and cat…and children and grandchildren. He kept offering me coffee, apologetically offering, actually.
“She told me you would be there and then I saw you. Didn’t really know what to think.” He looked at me. “I’m not crazy. At least I don’t think so.”
He wasn’t, he was just lonely and dreaming of when life was more fun. When it was filled with someone who shared everything, with a cat, with kids who visited more often, with grandkids who weren’t put off by the hospital bed dominating his living room.
I think, from where he was that night, he could see the end. Maybe it wasn’t coming quickly, but it was coming. And during that dream, it was further away and had to look harder to find him. So why not let that dream slide into reality if he had the chance?
Hell, I’d have done the same thing.
Just never would have had a cat. Yuck.