When we get our first whiff of mortality, which typically happens in our sixties, we are inclined to take inventory of our lives. For the self-satisfied, this is an easy matter: one simply declares himself free of baggage and on an express track to heaven. But that is only true for God’s favorite children; the rest of us have a harder time of it. The bits of good we might have done fade like yesterday’s news. And sins long forgotten assail us like phantoms, leaving us as wary as thieves.
For Johnny Blunt, a wiry con with a sunken chest, there was no such dilemma. His criminal history spanned forty-five years and included eight stints in state prison. Robbery, burglary, theft, and assault were all represented on his expanding rap sheet. Even at the age of sixty, he had managed to catch a three-year grant of probation. The grant was for a domestic battery—he had brained his wife with a frozen chicken. When he sat in my office for his intake interview, he shouldered no blame whatsoever.
“I said, ‘Woman, cook me some fries,’” he groused. “She told me, ‘Go fuck yourself.’”
“And that’s when you hit her with the chicken?” I said.
“It left a small bump on her head, is all. And it taught her to be polite.”
“I’m glad it wasn’t Thanksgiving,” I joked.
He laughed. “You cool, Mr. Hemmings,” he said. “I’m gonna like having you for my probation officer. Even if you ain’t a foxy lady.” He looked at me with warm muddy eyes and leered like a feral fox. “Didja know I’m a player?” he added.
“Your wife good with that?”
“Fuck yeah,” he replied. “She don’t care who I screw. She just don’t like cookin’ me fries.”
The interview did not take long; there wasn’t that much to record. He was drawing a monthly disability pension and living in a subsidized tenement in San Francisco’s Western Addition. A weak heart, caused by decades of cocaine abuse, kept him homebound much of the time.
“Mostly, I watch TV,” he said. “Nothin’ but Westerns—I get the cowboy channel on Comcast.” He cracked his knuckles and chuckled. “Betcha I can name more Westerns ’n you.”
A one-time Western addict myself, I could not resist the challenge. “Bonanza,” I said.
“Branded,” he replied.
He patted his crotch. “The Rifleman.”
We named over forty Westerns before he began to flounder. “Give up?” I asked him.
“Naw, ya ain’t won yet. Ya still gotta name one more show.”
“Kung Fu,” I replied. My favorite program of all time.
“Fuck that,” he shouted. “That’s Chinaman stuff. I ain’t lettin’ you win on Kung Fu.”
“Death Valley Days. How about that?”
“Okay,” he snapped. “Ya won it fair ’n square. But all that proves is you’re sorrier ’n me.”
I wrote him a referral to a fifty-two week domestic violence program in the Tenderloin. He had forgotten that he had agreed to counseling as a condition of his probation. “Sheeiiit,” he said as I handed him the paper. “I gotta miss Bonanza for this?”
“Isn’t counseling what you agreed to?” I asked.
He folded up the referral and tucked it behind his belt. “Listen here, brother, we gotta talk. Now I got me a mean ol’ Cajun woman who needs slappin’ down now and then. Why ya gotta fuck that up?”
“I don’t have a choice.”
“There’s always a choice, my brother,” he said. “An’ you’re choosin’ to be a hard-ass.” He wagged his finger at me while glaring like a ghoul. “You trippin’ on power, bro.”
As he got up to leave, I handed him my card. “Call me anytime.”
“Call you?” he blurted. “Now why would I do that? It ain’t like I’m havin’ you over for tea.”
“Phone if you have any problems.” I said.
He chuckled like a parrot and tore up my card. “Mr. Hemmings,” he said. “Don’t wait up for no calls. My only problem is you.”
The following week, I dropped by his residence on a home visit. He lived in a single room apartment—an enclave so small that a queen size bed took up half the space. His wife, a soft massive woman, eyed me suspiciously from the kitchenette.
“Where’s the tea and cookies?” I said. “I expect that when I come to call.”
He was sitting in a ratty recliner, watching Have Gun will Travel on a flat screen TV. He turned down the volume and scowled. “You ain’t gettin’ no motherfuckin’ cookies. I don’t even serve those to my friends.”
“Your program called me. You haven’t reported.”
“Ain’t goin’ to no motherfuckin’ program.”
He gazed at the television and shook his head. The Richard Boone character, Paladin, was lecturing a desperado while holding him at gunpoint. “That dude is kinda like you, Mr. Hemmings. All the time preaching to fuckers and sticking his nose where it don’t belong.”
“Wash your hands of me then.”
“How’m I gonna do that?”
“Tell the judge you’re rejecting probation. Tell him you’d rather serve a few months in jail than put up with three years of me.”
He turned off the television, rose from the recliner, and shuffled into the kitchenette. “How ’bout a beer? I’ll give you a beer. Ya just ain’t gettin’ no tea.”
“I’m on duty,” I said. “A soda will do.”
“Sheeiitt,” he said. “Ain’t choo a cop? What kinda cop drinks soda?”
“A good one,” I answered.
“That’s jive talk,” he said. “The good cops are all alcoholics.”
He squeezed his way into the kitchenette and opened a compact refrigerator. After pouring himself a glass of Budweiser, he shouldered his way past his wife. “Move your fat ass, woman,” he said. “Can’tcha see we got company here?”
He sat back down in the recliner and slowly sipped his beer. “How much time I gotta serve if I reject this jive-ass probation?”
“Six months—maybe five,” I said. “Talk to your public defender. Ask what she can do for you.”
He sipped his beer thoughtfully, belched like a cannon, then turned the TV back on. Paladin, having shot up the bad guy, was riding off into the hills. “Punk-ass motherfucker,” he said. “Someone oughta cap his ass.”
“Maybe just four months. It’s only a misdemeanor.”
“Sheeiit,” he said. He glanced at his wife. “Ya hear that, woman? A misdemeanor. It wasn’t no big deal.”
He nodded profoundly and stroked his chin. “I’ll see my lawyer tomorrow. I’ll tell her, ‘Bitch, make me a deal.’ But three goddamn months is all I’ll serve—not one hour more.”
“I doubt you’ll get off that cheap,” I said.
“Ya think not,” he said. “Hell, time ain’t so cheap when your heart is acting the fool.”
The theme to Maverick was playing and he turned the volume up. “Mr. Hemmings,” he said, “I’m done speakin’ to you. Haul your preachin’ ass outta my home.”
“Well, good luck in jail.”
He burped. “Jail ain’t shit. But at least they got cable in there.”
The next morning, I returned to arrest him. His wife had moved into La Casa de Las Madres, a battered women’s shelter on Mission Street. According to her social worker, she had duked it out with Johnny after I left the apartment. “They have another disputa,” the social worker said over the phone. “He smacked her eye, she broke his jaw. She’s afraid if she goes back home, she will also wring his neck.”
My partner, Ron Rosso, a former bond runner, laughed as I rapped on the door to the flat. “Ya don’t gotta worry ’bout Johnny,” he said. “I’ve arrested him six or eight times. He never gives you trouble.”
As we entered the flat, Johnny nodded to us. He was slumped in his threadbare recliner and holding an icepack to the side of his face. His jaw had swollen to the size of a cantaloupe. “Pac-Man,” he cried, using Rosso’s street name. “I thought I was rid of your ass.”
“Gotta back up my road dog,” said Rosso.
Johnny put down the icepack, massaged his jaw, and glared. “Mr. Hemmings,” he said. “You happy now? This is what happens when I go easy on the bitch.”
“I still have to take you in,” I said. “You put your hands on her.”
“Well, wait ’til the show is over,” he snapped.
He was watching Kung Fu, one of my favorite episodes. Kwai Chang Caine, the show’s outcast hero, was trapped in a pit of poisonous snakes. I waited until Caine had crawled out of the pit before setting the teeth on my handcuffs.
“That Chinaman don’t mess with women,” said Johnny as I clipped the cuffs over his wrists. “The dude likes to stay on the run.”
A group of youths in loose-fitting garb was hanging about on Turk Street. One of them gave Johnny a gang salute as we marched him out of the building. “How come Pac-Man got you?” he said; the rest of them broke into laughter.
“How come you don’t mind your own business?” said Johnny.
“Pops,” said another. “It’s time you retired.”
Their laughter floated like butterflies as I eased Johnny into the squad car. “Young and dumb,” he muttered while we crept through city traffic.
He was sweating when we cleared the sally port and parked at the jail entrance. I unhooked him quickly, walked him to the booking counter, and sat him at the nurse’s station. His skin was grayer than slate.
The nurse looked startled, as though we had brought in a specter. “You okay, Johnny?” she asked.
He snorted. “Woman, keep your pants on. If I felt any better, I’d be X-rated.”
He clenched his fists, breathing raggedly. The nurse mopped his forehead with a towel.
“The jail ain’t gonna take him,” said Rosso.
The nurse felt his pulse, all the time shaking her head. “He needs to be in San Francisco General,” she said. “We can’t help him here.”
“C’mon,” Johnny said. “Let’s get out of this place.”
I called 911 on my cell phone while we ushered him out the back gate. We sat him in a breezeway and waited for the paramedics to arrive. His forehead was beaded with sweat.
“Look at it this way,” he muttered. “I’m cheating the jail outta time.”
“There’s other ways to beat time,” I said.
“What choo mean by that?”
“You might retire instead,” I said “It isn’t too late for that.”
“Sheeiit,” he laughed “Just do your damn job. Quit lying to save my soul.” He blotted his brow with a handkerchief and drew a shallow breath. “Ya gotta stop readin’ my rap sheet, bro.”
“I gave up after thirty pages,” I said. “Hell, I bet you’d steal from a grave.”
“I know that,” he said. “And don’t nothing feel better than cheating the jail outta time.”
When the paramedics arrived, he patted me on the wrist. He then scooted himself onto the gurney and watched me with heavy eyes. “Jive-ass motherfucker,” he said.
His wife came to see me the following afternoon. She wore a black dress and her hair was disheveled. A dab of rouge covered a paunchy bruise that lay under one of her eyes.
I offered her a chair; she carefully sat down as though easing into a bathtub. She smelled of strong perfume and booze. “Hon,” she said, her voice soft as down, “he asked me to give you a message.”
“So when did he die?”
“Last night in the hospital. After they brought his supper.” She rubbed her eyes and rouge reddened her fingers. She removed a Kleenex from her purse. “S’pose I oughta be grateful,” she murmured. “Now I won’t have to break his neck.”
“What was the message?”
She wiped her fingers. “He said, ‘It don’t mean shit.’”
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