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The Drive Home Tapes - Essay Series (3 of 4)


On the drives home, I had started making monologues, recorded self-conversations, thoughts on the night, the crazy shit and quiet. The bar closings that happened downtown before the fatal DUI crash — head-on into a utility pole — with power lines draped and dancing in sparks on the street. Then onto a motel domestic with an arrest and a hospital drug-detox. All in the first four hours, a night like no other, but still familiar like any one of my shifts. I could ever so slowly be losing my mind, but I would keep track making tapes, the annotated mention of scathing escapes and the hours on-end of tedium that would take me, nodding, into eye-fluttering exhaustion.


Sometimes, when it’s close to 4 a.m., I’m surprisingly awake and watching familiar cars slalom the side streets to deliver newspapers. Other times, I’m placating a prisoner who’s got Hep-C so she won’t spit or bite when I roll her fingerprints. Almost always, when I’m off duty and it’s close to 4 a.m., I’m surprisingly awake in my living room, alone, flipping through channels in the dark with the volume turned low. I’m awake and thinking about the night before because I can’t fight my midnight sleep pattern, even on nights off. Always, I find I’m one step off from a normal life. One step off becomes a pattern that repeats. It’s these times, sometimes, when I think I made a mistake.


What were the things Dad didn’t tell me? Maybe the long lingering thoughts on stepping into and out of the treacherous parts of other people’s lives. Recently, mine replay as a loop tape in my mind:


On one of my midnights, a passerby calls a man honey or sweetie or something nice sounding though she doesn’t know him at all. She holds his head and tries keeping him still. She assures him he’ll be all right, though she doesn’t know that at all. She holds his head up from the road’s dirt dusted shoulder, from the sharp and the hard, and she keeps his head still. Just lay still, honey. I know. Lay still. The ambulance is on the way.


“10-4.”

“69…arrived…”

“…It looks like it’s going to be on the Stratford side.”

“…Call AMR. It’s a bicyclist struck. Serious head injuries, among others.”

“69…call Stratford. It’s on the Stratford side.”

“Sir, what did you see?”

“69…A passerby states a silver Honda Civic rear ended the cyclist and drove off.”

“A bicyclist.”

“Sir, did he drive toward Stratford?”

“69…Into Stratford.”

“Whose car is this? If you didn’t see anything, please move your car, the ambulance is coming.”

“Is this your car? Pop the trunk. Let’s get out some cones.”

“Into this lane. Bring it through here.”

“Slow down. Slow it down.”

“How many cones do you have? We’ll catch up later.”

“69…all units are clear from the Stratford Bridge. Clear me 05.”


When my wife asks how my day was, I just say, OK. I don’t want to talk details, not just before bed. But these were my transmissions, questions and commands on a call on my midnight. They run through my head again and again.


I don’t know how to explain calls like this or how we shrug them off with nonchalance, then dig into our lunch bags and sip our coffees some more. I don’t know how to explain that an hour after the bridge cleared of ambulances and police that Stratford officers returned with lights, cameras and tape measures. I don’t know how to explain how I just nodded when I heard the injuries were worse than they looked and that the bicyclist wasn’t likely to live. I don’t know how to explain that we shrugged, hearing that Stratford was preparing for a fatal, readying their report, before he was dead, and we were glad it was across the town line, glad it wasn’t ours because of the paperwork, without regarding him. I don’t know how to explain that I saw him two hours before all this, peddling through the night, with his helmet and reflectors, when the bars were close to letting out on a Saturday night – what an odd time for exercise, for a ride in the night. This was police work and my midnight.


I try to sleep right after work, but sometimes it isn’t so easy. Daylight finds its way through the blinds. A leaf blower and lawn mower hum from next door. The dog barks and clicks its nails on the fake wood floor. And sometimes it’s last night’s call that runs though my head, again and again.


(Tune in next week at Prattlon.com for the final episode of this four-part series)


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Jason James, a native of East Lyme, Connecticut, is an award-winning essayist and journalist, focussing on experiential nonfiction. He previously served as a police officer and as a DEA Special Agent.


In off-hours, Jason studies Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai. He lives with his family in Southern California. Follow his work at TheGroncho.com and on prattlon.com.


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