Acop walks into a bar. Officer Johnny Royal of the [REDACTED] P.D., to be exact, still in powder blue with after-shift scruff, walks into Grady’s Droop.
Busy night at Grady’s. Neon signs for domestics glisten hot pink and ozone teal off the short-shorn patrolmen stuffed into the bucket booths. Stubbled detectives wipe nicotine-stained cuffs across the condensation on the copper-top bar. The blown-out jukebox blares and makes mud of the policemen’s bawl.
It’s hot, too. Deep summer. Inside Grady’s, slack-jawed humidity and steaming skin make a swamp. The poor air conditioner out back must be on its last gasp because the gold ribbon streamers tied to the vents wag like sick tongues before falling limp.
“Fucking dead,” someone yells.
Johnny stakes an elbow on the bar, badge on his beat-blues blinking like a tin heart’s beat. Raises one finger to Drea who’s working the taps like slots at the far end. She nods, weary, lip pouched to bogart an invisible smoke.
Drea tops a pint, backhands the head off, slaps it at a sergeant who hangs like a soaked sheet from the corner’s brass pole. Sarge coughs up some moist greenbacks and Drea stuffs them into her apron without counting. If you can’t trust the police, right?
Back to Johnny, Drea leans in close. Johnny smells her mash of Juicy Fruit and Nicorette. Sees crow’s feet cracks beneath her foundation’s plaster. When she smiles, her teeth are lipstick bloody.
“Harry said to send you back.” She jerks a chipped-polish thumb towards Grady’s recesses. Past the pool tables with their skid-marked felt and the hazmat bathroom. Back to where the steel door to the BACK-back looms like a tombstone.
Johnny’s about to push-off when Officer Andy Holder from the precinct, now in jeans and sweat-drenched tee, wedges in and pins Johnny to the bar.
“Drea!” Andy yells from six inches away. “AC’s fuckin’ dead a-fuckin’-gain!”
“Fuck you want me to do?” she yells back.
“Fix it!” Andy hollers. The sweltering crowd hoots in echo: “Fix it! Fix it!”
Drea raises her hands and retreats. She opens the fuse box panel on the wall behind the well bottles.
“What’s with you?” Andy slurs as his greasy fingers pluck at Johnny’s blue shirt. “Not hot enough for ya?”
Drea flips the breaker. A click like a hammer falling, and then the whole bar shudders as if being defibrillated. Everything dies for half a heartbeat, then roars back as the air conditioner hacks and sputters to life. The golden ribbons on the grates above flutter as the circulatory wheeze resumes. Wiping her hands on her apron like a back-alley surgeon, Drea returns.
“Harry’s waiting,” she says to Johnny. “Something for the road,” she squints at him, “or are you still working?” And just like that, the weight of the attention of the Boys-Not-in-Blue collapses onto Johnny’s uniformed shoulders
Why is Officer Johnny Royal here? they’re thinking. Why is he dressed like that? Does he think he’s one of the good ones?
Johnny also realizes he’s twisting his wedding ring in circles like a bolt that will never quite tighten. He thinks of Sam at home. Johnny asks himself the same thing: Why is he here?
“Whiskey,” he mutters. Holds up two fingers. “Double.”
Drea smiles wide enough for a gold canine to gleam. Officer Andy backslaps Johnny hard enough to sting before he melts into the crowded scene in the bar’s mirror. Over Johnny’s shoulder, the pressed bodies emit a visible fug. The stale air reeks of meat and cordite even as the resurrected air conditioner tries to stir the limp yellow ribbons in its thin stream. Beads of sweat beneath Johnny’s starched blue shirt make crescents under his arms like the laughing faces of Comedy Masks. Why is he here? Indeed.
The crack of rocks glasses against the copper-top bar snaps Johnny back. Two tumblers filled to sloshing with mud-colored spirits.
Drea winks, sweaty mascara gumming her lids. “Double.”
A cop walks into a backroom. Officer Johnny Royal, to be exact, carrying two glasses of rotgut that dribble down his wrists with every step. The BACK-back room of Grady’s Droop, too, which is the dimly lit loading dock of an adjoining business that dried up in the last recession. Rapid Response Officer Harrison “Harry” Crant is leaning on a wooden crate and tucking a pinch of tobacco in his lower lip. A green tarp hangs off the crate like a tablecloth. Another R2—Bushrod Jefferson—is pacing, his big beard frosted blue in his smart phone’s glow. Meaty thumbs tap out sausage codes on the glass.
Harry and Bushy are dressed in their civilian rags, which are, if anything, even more combat-ready than their Rapid Response gear. Steel-toe boots with horse teeth treads; pants with more pockets than Grady’s lopsided pool tables. Matching trucker caps bearing a bleach-white skull over Rambo knives instead of crossbones mark their membership in the same “social club”: the Happy Fellas.
Harry raises a hand to Officer Johnny Royal. “Cousin.” The word trickles out with the Kodiak chaw into his stained goatee. “How goes it?” Without waiting for an invitation, he takes one of Johnny’s whiskies. Wads the tobacco up inside one cheek, takes a long pull of booze from the other. Sighs; nods; farts.
“That’ll do me right,” Harry laughs. He smiles but holds it like a weapon.
Johnny knows what the R2s want to see. So, he takes a long drink of whisky, and he coughs, and Harry laughs while Bushy shakes his head, but that display sets them right. Even if Johnny is still dressed like a stickler, he must be one of the good ones.
“So,” Johnny says once he catches his breath. “What did you want to show me?”
Harry pushes up off the crate and pulls back the tarp to reveal a yellow logo stenciled across the weathered wood. It’s a rough harp shaped like a toothy grin, fluffy wings on the corners like smirking cheeks. In blocky caps: UNEEDA MUNITIONS SUPPLY. You need it … we got it!
“Know what this is?” Harry kicks the side with a steel-toe and Bushy flinches at the thunk.
Johnny shakes his head. “Looks old.”
“Shit’s been banned since ’Nam,” Bushy calls over like he was in the shit, although Johnny knows Bushy’s barely thirty.
“Real MK Ultra type shit,” Harry adds.
Johnny squats for a closer look. Crate’s old, maybe even Vietnam old. Also, what Johnny took for a harp and wings is actually a row of cartoon bullets bookended by mushroom clouds. Still shaped like a smile, though.
UNEEDA MUNITIONS. Sounds like a joke.
“Is it safe?” Johnny asks.
As if in answer, Bushy’s cellphone buzzes in his hand and he nods to Harry. Harry spits, says, “We’re gonna find out.”
Bushy heads to the rolling metal bay door and hoists the chain like a theater curtain. Right on cue, a black van with no lights rolls in and cuts the engine. The chain clanks again as Bushy lowers the gate, but Harry raises a hand to stop it short. Maybe a foot of space—enough for an errant breeze, maybe. Enough space that Johnny can hear the asthmatic air pump just outside struggling to keep the cops back in Grady’s Droop from wilting. It still sounds like its death is coming at any moment.
The black van disgorges two more R2s: Ram and Ted. Johnny knows their names, but Rapid Response are [REDACTED] P.D.’s cowboys and he’s just the tinhorn who happens to be married to Harry’s cousin, Sam. Johnny twists the band around his finger again, but there’s no resistance. It just spins as he watches Ram and Ted slip their Happy Fellas caps on and pull up bandannas over their noses and mouths. They throw the van’s sliding side door open.
“Any trouble scooping one up?” Harry asks as Ram and Ted drag some kid out of the back.
“Nah,” Ram grunts. “Blocks’re lousy with them.”
“Nobody’ll miss this one,” Ted adds.
Kid’s maybe twenty, tops. Thin with smooth cheeks, pink hair, wearing all black except for the yellow plastic zip ties pinning their hands behind their back. Their fingers are purple, two of them bent wrong. The kid kicks a little, but it’s clear most of the fight’s been wrung out. Ram cuts the cuffs loose so Ted can slap the kid into a folding chair, then they zip each wrist and ankle to the seat. The four R2s gather around to admire their handiwork before turning back to scope Johnny.
“You sure he’s cool?” Ted asks. Tucks his thumb behind the circlet of restraints at his hip like a golden lasso.
“My cousin’s frosty,” Harry says.
Bushy coughs. “Cousin-in-law.”
“We’re all in-law here,” Harry says and chuckles at his own joke. “Besides, if we aren’t in blood right now, we will be soon. Right, my man?”
Johnny just stammers: “I, I don’t know what you mean.”
Harry winks. “You will.” He elbows Bushy, gestures to the crate. “Let’s set up.”
As they pry the lid off the Uneeda Munitions box, the scene is crystal clear even if the significance is not. Officer Johnny Royal, still holding half a whisky, stands alone. Rookie; in-law; bystander. Audience to the show the Rapid Response Happy Fellas are putting on with the pink-haired kid strapped to a chair in the loading dock behind Grady’s Droop where every [REDACTED] cop who isn’t swinging a truncheon downtown is getting sloppy.
To Johnny’s left, Bushy tosses handfuls of mildewed straw from the Uneeda crate and Harry pulls out a metal canister that’s been spray-painted the color of goldenrod. To Johnny’s right, Ram and Ted lean on their sobbing hostage. Behind the metal door back inside, the barroom is a murky roar. Out past the half-rolled gate, the ancient AC struggles to do its one job.
Then the pump sputters, hacks. Dies. A low booing reverberates from inside Grady’s, then even out here the lights flicker when Drea flips the breakers inside. The AC gasps as it’s jerked back into its life of never-ending service, but a muted cheer erupts from behind the door.
Beyond the roll gate, a siren wails in the distance. Crying, maybe, but it could be tears of laughter.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but a cop walked up to a bar. Well, future cop. Johnny Royal, [REDACTED] P.D. cadet, to be exact, and the bar was City Hall’s railing.
He raised his hand. Swore to serve and protect. Officer Johnny Royal’s heart swelled three sizes as they pinned on the badge. Might as well have read: Johnny Good Apple.
And Johnny has a family: father, mother, younger brother. A husband, Sam, whose cousin is also a cop—one of the wild bunch in the Rapid Response. But [REDACTED] isn’t a backwards place; it’s progressive. When Johnny and Sam are out together, the only dirty looks are from people who know Johnny’s a cop.
And that burns him, just a bit, if he’s just being honest. Because sure, America’s police have their problems. And yes, in [REDACTED], too. But overall, they’re good. They’re good to Johnny and Johnny is a good one, too. Most people could see that, it seemed. At least, before this summer.
Because this summer has been hell. Every night downtown [REDACTED] is filled with anarchists in black, throwing brickbats and firecrackers. Hiding behind the other screaming protesters who are breaking curfew, too. Umbrellas, milk jugs, cans of soup; everything is a weapon once you look at it right. Stay on the streets long enough and you’ll see all the broken windows.
Still, Officer Johnny Royal of the [REDACTED] PD holds the line, even while his younger brother calls him a pig, as if this were the 70s. While on the TV, half the city calls for his job. They want to ruin him, after all he’s done to keep them safe.
The last time Johnny’s brother spoke to him was at a family dinner that, charitably speaking, did not end well. “How do you live with yourself?” he asked.
“It’s my job,” Johnny said.
A bitter laugh from his brother. “If my job required me to gas innocent people, I’d find a new job.”
Sam, sitting beside Johnny, squeezed his knee under the table.
What Johnny wanted to say, maybe, was: It’s complicated. Or, that the alternative is worse. Or, who was he to question the hard decisions others made to keep the peace?
That it hurts him, too. That in the early dawn he crawls into his husband’s arms and he can’t even speak, but what else is he supposed to do? It’s not just him; it’s not just [REDACTED]. It’s something so much bigger that he can’t even begin to get his arms around it, and it scares the living fuck out of him, but what is there to do but press on?
What Johnny really wants, in his heart of hearts, is to say that he’s one of the good ones. If Johnny’s doing it, then it isn’t really bad? And if Johnny quits, then what’s left?
Instead, what Officer Johnny Royal of the [REDACTED] P.D. said to his brother was: “If they’re out there, they aren’t that innocent.”
When the outside world is against you, where is there to go but deeper inside? Officer Johnny Royal puts in for a transfer to join cousin-in-law Harry in the Rapid Response.
A cop walks into a moral conundrum. Officer Johnny Royal of the [REDACTED] P.D. out back of Grady’s Droop watches through a full-face gas mask’s fogging goggles as four other cops, all R2s wearing similar masks and Happy Fellas hats, stand around a pink-haired kid zip-tied to a chair. ...