Nietzsche’s cutting quote, “If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you,” is by now a redundancy. And so, when I became a San Francisco probation officer, I prepared myself to keep company with the abyss. But I had not quite realized how extensive the abyss was. I saw it in the eyes of the senior probation officers, so exhausted by massive caseloads that they were counting the months to retirement. I saw it in the faces of deputy jailors, disaffected shift workers who were all but deaf to the human clamor of the cell ranges. And, of course, I saw it in my clientele: hollow-cheeked crack heads, asocial gang bangers, vagrants with thousand mile stares. But at least the abyss could be mellow where probationers were concerned. It was mellow in the case of Joseph Shepherd, a middle-age drug peddler on probation for choking his girlfriend. Entering my office for his intake interview, he glanced at the tower of case files on my desk and chuckled. “I know you have it rough,” he remarked in a voice that could be poured over waffles. “So I plan to make it easy on you, sir.” He smiled with the insular charm of a sociopath then shook my hand with a python grip. He seemed to be a man of elemental strength—a brawn with a life of its own—yet his broad open face and puppy dog eyes set me completely at ease.
For a year, he was a model probationer. He was always on time for our weekly meetings, he attended his batterer’s program regularly, and he so liked to talk about books that I rarely hurried our meetings. After a year, his girlfriend phoned me to say he had choked her again. I quickly called his cell phone and invited him to my office. “You know what I have to do,” I confessed. “You must do your job, my friend,” he said, and he showed up at my office within the hour. He stood still as a statue as I cuffed him up and he asked me how my day was. He had honed that code of etiquette typical to old style criminals, the kind the gang members called original gangsters. And, of course, his girlfriend would probably recant—domestic violence victims usually did. When she appeared in the courtroom the following morning, a small dried-up woman with haunted eyes, she held out her hands like a beggar. “I lied, your honor,” she wept to the judge. “Please jail me instead cuz I lied.” Sitting at the defense table, Joseph looked at me as the judge threw out the charge. I apologize, his gaze seemed to say. Didn’t mean to cause you inconvenience.
An hour later, after getting out of jail, he dropped by my office unannounced. He sat for awhile in silence, but clearly he wanted to talk. Eventually, he rested his chin on his thumbs. “She won’t cut me loose,” he murmured. “I have given her every good reason to leave me. She just won’t cut me loose.” He shook his head theatrically and smiled his glacial smile. “Why won’t she cut me loose?” he said. He spoke as though reciting a mantra—he did not seem to want an answer. “Are you flattered?” I asked him. “You seem flattered.” He groaned and showed me a bruise on his arm. “She hits me all the time,” he said. “She gets off on the make-up sex.” It was classic male-pattern thinking, the type his program was supposed to challenge. Yet his program reports cited progress: he never missed a meeting, he excelled at group role play, and he had become a class leader. He chuckled profoundly, rose to his feet, and pumped my hand before leaving. “I believe I have taken enough of your time. Do give my regards to your wife.”
The next morning, when I bought the San Francisco Chronicle, I read about the body in the bay. It was the body of a woman, crammed into a suitcase that had floated to shore near North Beach. Her state of decomposition confirmed she had only been dead a few hours. I recognized her name—it was Joseph Shepherd’s girlfriend—and I felt a chilling relief. I could not be blamed for letting this happen—my paper trail was in place. I had hooked him up only two days ago; I had walked him down to the jail; and the woman had stupidly sealed her own fate when she came to court and recanted. I felt no empathy for her—only self-righteous contempt. The abyss, its numbing darkness, had settled within my soul.
Had he meant to kill her? —probably not. Probably, he had been choking her for the hundredth time during one of their arguments. But this time his hands had lingered too long; this time he squeezed with a bit too much pressure. And this time she didn’t recover when he relaxed his grip on her neck. No, he had not intended to kill her—he had panicked a little too much. According to the homicide report, which I acquired later that day, he had dragged a suitcase through the lobby of his hotel in full view of the security cameras.
I drove to the hotel with a SWAT team, but of course he was not there. So, I went to court, picked up a warrant, then faxed his mugshot to several local precincts. Hopefully, a police patrol would nab him and save me the strain of busting him. And when the story about the body made the evening news, I turned the television off. I had no good reason to dwell on the matter—not until our dragnet picked him up.
A week later, I was in our conference room attending some mandatory training. The course was Interpersonal Skills, which struck me as rather untimely. Joseph Shepherd, after all, was a master of interpersonal skills. And so, I was already distracted when a front desk clerk burst into the conference room. “He’s here!” she whispered into my ear. “Mister Shepherd is here! He is waiting for you in the reception room!”
Had he come to turn himself in? Or had he come to cover his tracks? Since the media had made no mention of him, he may not have known he was in trouble. So I felt I was being uncivil when I asked another officer to help me with the bust. But the officer, Jerry Ferrari, was eager enough for the task. “Right behind ya, Tom,” he chirped, and I told him to wait in my office. I reminded him to go fetch his handcuffs, which took him nearly five minutes.
I forgave my hands for shaking as I walked to the reception room. I was about to arrest a murderer, after all. But he was sitting quietly in one of the chairs, much like a commuter at a train station.
He seemed relieved to see me. “Good morning,” he said, rising from the chair. “I think we are due for some rain.” Did he feel the tremor in my palm as he warmly shook my hand? If so, he was too polite to mention it. Obediently, as though keeping in step, he accompanied me to my office.
Closing the door behind us, I nodded to Jerry Ferrari. He was adjusting the settings on his handcuffs, clicking the bars into place. But he was having trouble aligning the teeth and the bars kept swinging free.
Putting his hands behind his back, Joseph rolled his eyes. “Do you really need backup to bust me?” he goaded. “I thought we were beyond that, sir?” I felt like an ingrate as we double cuffed him then set the safety locks.
“Relax,” he said as he sat on a chair. “My friend, whenever you want me in jail you just have to call and tell me.”
“So why did you come?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Don’t I see you every week?”
He looked at me with welcoming eyes—eyes that carried no blame. But I did not want his friendship so much as I wanted him in jail. So, the reticence was mine—not his. Somewhere, in the vast aridity of his soul, something green was growing.
As I waited for the detectives to fetch him, I mentioned his girlfriend’s body. I did not read him his rights though he might have been close to confessing. A spontaneous admission, after all, could be legally included in my arrest report. But he quickly clammed up as a pair of detectives burst into the office. One of them was waiving his badge like amulet. “Homicide,” he barked. “We got questions.” The detectives flung him through the door as though he were a sack of laundry.
As the detectives marched him away, Jerry Ferrari looked at me proudly. He was an athletic kid with a collegiate aura—the untempered zeal of a fraternity rush chairman. “Tom,” he said to me after awhile. “That was one fine bust.”
The following morning, another article appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle. The article was about Jerry Ferrari; he was taking credit for the arrest. Probation Officer Nabs Murder Suspect the headline boldly declared. The photo featured Jerry Ferrari with a Glock holstered at his hip. He looked like a marshall in a spaghetti western. “I’m like a bloodhound,” the quotation read. “When I’m on the scent, I don’t quit.”
That afternoon, I interviewed Joseph to finish my arrest report. The interview took place in the Glamor Slammer, a state-of-the art jail on Seventh Street where we met in one of the attorney rooms. He had heard about the article in The Chronicle and he seemed to be rather amused. “You should have cuffed me up by yourself,” he teased. “Have I ever let you down?”
“I had nothing to do with that bullshit,” I said.
He laughed. “Let the kid have his fun, my friend. It must be a slow news day.”
On advice of his public defender, he did not want to talk about his case. But we chatted for several more minutes before I left his cell pod. “She was a crack head, a thief, and a hooker,” he sighed, his voice as heavy as lead. “Even so, I did not do her justice.”
“None of us did,” I said as I slowly shook his hand.
I started scanning The Chronicle daily, hoping for more information. A quote from her mother, perhaps, or maybe her personal history. But no more stories appeared about the body in the bay.
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