The Shooting Star and the Fatal Funnel
Quiet breaths. Calm.
Slow my heart, which is trying to recreate a scene from Alien.
This isn't that movie, or any other, but you've seen the story on celluloid time and again. A trope, it's called. Pistols toted by cop and criminal. No shield shining on my chest, so I'm playing the latter.
We're both playing, really.
The echo up the hall—that projected "command voice" police use to sound bigger, and to make me afraid—isn't coming from a real 5-0. He's just a recruit. This is just a police academy. And I'm getting paid just $50 for a whole day's work.
But it feels all too real. Crouching in the dark behind a file cabinet, 9 mm in hand is a sequel of sorts, with the bit player elevated to lead antagonist. With a key difference: there will be no blood today. I won't take my last gasp and gurgle like my little cousin did.
As for justice, that wasn't there to begin with. Apologies to Ginsberg, but I saw the best minds of my generation dragged through negro streets, streaked red at dawn by the machinery of the state.
Now I'm serving that machine, helping them better oppress. Promoted from the field to the house, but still making damn near nothing for it. In performing arts school, this wasn't what I pictured for myself post-graduation. But there are no small parts, I recall being quoted—by the same prof who asked if acting was my way of "getting out of the 'hood". Well intentioned but tone-deaf, like so many who grew up on manicured lawns. You feel for me and "my struggle"? Then get me in front of a casting director.
That voice again. Booming. Closer. He's doing it right, being thorough.
My grip slips. I switch hands, wipe my palm on my jeans.
Dark quiet. Silent breathing: so soft I don't know that I'm getting enough air. But a whiff of musty papers and metal comes every few seconds, so I'm still in the fight.
Footsteps on concrete. Walkie-talkie chatter.
I click the safety: on, then off again. I don't want to be fumbling.
In situations like these, cops call the doorway "the fatal funnel."
"In situations like these..." as if I'm some expert.
But I know of popo. My mother's rules: Turn on the dome light, hands on the steering wheel. Talk politely, but say nothing. Do as you're told: no fight, no flight. I do it all, every time. It goes against every evolutionary principle to comply with the person screaming about blowing your head off. But give into autonomics and become another statistic. Another news story, another hashtag, maybe. Until the next one.
That's the best part of this gig: acting against type. Two weeks ago, my scenario was loitering: innocent bystander and mistaken identity. Blue starts asking me questions. I ask, "What's shakin' bacon?" and offer recommendations for the donut shop down the way. Next I know I'm eating asphalt as he goes full Vic Mackey, grinding the cuffs down with malice. Left bruise rings on my wrists for days.
Cops are so sensitive. Even pretend ones.
I've got no sympathy, no respect for what they do. Even the so-called "good ones." If you're so good, why go silent when violators wear the same uniform? Why whine about your pay? In a month's time, each one of these baby blues will be making twice what I've made in my best year—plus all the fried bread they want. Thankfully, I don't have to respect them to play my part on this stage. And my direction is simple: if he clears the room right, and spots me before my piece is leveled, then I back down. But if I get the drop, I cry havoc, and let slip the blanks of training.
Part of me wishes for live ammo.
Footfalls enter. The light comes on, command voice "POLICE!" But it's different than I expected. Thinner. I peer around the office surplus and see a woman behind the badge. Looks to be mid-20s, same as me.
No matter. She's clearing the room wrong: she's not seeing anything, not saying anything. She'd leave and be none the wiser.
But that's not in my script.
I jump up and out, lining my sights. In the movies, this plays in super slo-mo. Here, it happens twice as fast, yet it's HD clear. She's in the funnel, with nowhere to go.
"Say hello to my little friend!" Pop-Pop-Pop. Smoke tendrils waft from my barrel. Acrid burning powder reeks.
Our eyes lock: I see fear. She's frozen, unable to return fire.
"Stop Scenario" is called. What could have been sinks in. The training sergeant plays therapist and coach, but I doubt she hears. I've seen this glazed stare before. She's thinking, "that happens after graduation, and I'm not coming home." Fade to black.
I'm thinking of my cousin. I wonder what he thought as the muzzle flashed, notice of the .40 caliber rounds on their way to ripping through his chest. I wonder what he saw in the peace officer's eyes. I wonder who was protected and served that night: who was endangered by a 14-year-old packing a semi-automatic weed pipe?
I step through the funnel, patting her arm as I pass. She says a fragile "Oh, sorry." Wonder where that command voice went. I sign for my check and scrutinize the schedule. Next week they're paying extra to act in some nighttime scenarios. Pass on that: last thing I need is to be driving by Babylon after dark.
So now I return to my "hood": currently a three-bedroom up as many stair flights, shared with two couples and a cat. I've got a 35-minute drive to pray my gas gauge stays off E, and to consider the lies I'll tell. There's no respect to be had for the work I'm doing, even (especially) among the waiter-actors I live with.
About the Author:
Jamie Culp is an author living in Durham, North Carolina. He holds a master's degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Most recently, his writing was workshopped at the Squire Writer Residency at Eastern Carolina University.