By Jane Hammons
“Is it dog or human?” the officer on the other end of the line asks.
“I didn’t look that closely,” I say. “What difference does it make?”
“Ma’am, if a dog from our canine unit did his business there, we’ll clean it up. But if it’s the suspect’s, well, it’s yours.”
“Why don’t you come over here and make that determination?” There is a fifty-fifty chance, after all, that it belongs to the police department.
“Ma’am,” he gives it one last try, “I don’t have any equipment here.”
“Equipment?” I imagine a complicated canine/human feces determination/removal machine.
He sighs. “Do you have a dustpan and a broom or some kind of shovel?”
“You bet,” I say. I am the mother of two boys and the ex-wife of an alcoholic drug-addict; I am well equipped to deal with shit.
The officer arrives in less than ten minutes. My children and I live only six blocks from the police station in Albany, California, a small town well known in the San Francisco Bay area for good schools and top-notch community services. A national newsmagazine once published an article commending the Albany Police Department’s community involvement. I appreciate this. I live here because I want to feel safe.
backtrack 4:00 p.m.
My neighborhood’s streets are named after presidents: Buchanan, Taylor, Jackson, Fillmore, and Polk. On my way home from work, I stop for groceries then drive down Buchanan Street past the police station. I notice that the entire street is lined with police officers. Police in cars. Police on foot. Dogs.
I turn onto Taylor Street. There are twice as many police officers on my street as on the others. Overhead two helicopters buzz. My usually quiet neighborhood looks like the President’s parade route.
Don’t let it be me, I pray, unable to put my fear into words. It isn’t that I expect to be busted like Sarah Jane Olson for a crime committed in a long ago life. What I imagine is worse. My ex-husband is in my house—he holds the children hostage, a gun at their heads—negotiating the terms of a life he longs for but can never have.
I don’t watch a single news report about some pissed-off, suicidal, drug-addicted, alcoholic father holding his kids hostage before he shoots them and then turns the gun on himself without thinking about my children and their father. In such scenes, SWAT teams gather, helicopters hover, police line the streets.
“Those people are not murderers at heart,” my children’s therapist told me just a few days earlier when I expressed my concerns about the children’s safety. I had confessed to clipping newspaper articles about fathers killing their children, and then cataloging the details: the list of prescription drugs these fathers took, abuses they suffered as children, recent antisocial behavior. In each category, I compared these men to my children’s father. “They are desperate men and in most cases truly believe that the only way to keep the family together is in death,” she explained. This was not meant to reassure me. And it doesn’t.
Not a single police officer approaches me. Each gives full attention to the house directly across the street. I don’t bother creating a mental image of whatever act of desperation might have occurred there. It can’t be worse than what I imagine possible in my own life. I’ll be much happier offering condolences than receiving them. I go into my house, put away my groceries, and leave again. I’m off to see my therapist, happy that it’s not me.
knock on the door: 8:00 p.m.
It’s only eight o’clock, but I have decided to slip into pajamas—a baggy tee-shirt and white cotton pants. When I got to answer the door, I’m not exactly in what anyone would recognize as pajamas. I’m just comfortable, relaxed in false security.
It’s a police officer. My sons, ages ten and eight, crowd into the doorway next to me. We’ve had occasion to call 911 when their father lived here. Passed out with cigarette in hand: couch on fire. Drug-induced trances: paralyzed on the toilet. Fires in the microwave. Car driven through the garage. They’ve seen the police arrive with paramedics and firemen. But never just the police.
“Good evening, ma’am. I’m here to let you know that there was an incident at your house this afternoon.”
“Earlier this afternoon a suspect in a burglary was apprehended in your basement.”
“Earlier this afternoon.” I am picturing the suspect in my basement while I happily put away my groceries. “When?”
“I’m not sure exactly what time, ma’am. I just came on duty. But there was some damage to the property.”
“Damage to the property.” My children looked worried. Not scared yet. On the reels that are spinning through their imaginations, they haven’t gotten to the frame that depicts a stranger lurking in our basement.
I’m not doing much better: incident, damage, this afternoon. All I can do is repeat phrases.
“Just though you would want to know,” he says, backing away, relieved that this has been so easy. “Good evening, ma’am.” He retreats to his car.
“There was a burglar in our house?” my oldest son asks.
“No,” I say, trying to explain what I don’t understand. “In the basement.”
The eight-year-old is confused. He knows everything in the basement is worthless. “Did he steal the washing machine?” he asks, perhaps understanding its value to me.
“I don’t think so. I guess we’d better go down and see what the damage is.”
“What do you mean we, white man?” This is currently the ten-year-old’s favorite expression.
“I need to see what happened,” I say. “You can stay up here if you want.” A little nervous now, they both follow me outside. The basement has no inside entrance; it can only be entered from the backyard.
Over the door, on the inside of the basement, someone—police or suspect—
hung an old mildewed curtain. I recognize it from the shelf down here where previous tenants left some of their belongings. The panes of glass in the basement door are broken unnecessarily. I never lock the basement. I open the door and switch on the light. Most of the broken glass is inside the basement. I tell the children to wait outside. The dryer is pulled away from the wall. Perhaps it had been used to barricade the door. My children’s clothes from the laundry bun are scattered about the floor. Maybe the suspect hid in there. Maybe he tried to crawl up the laundry chute, the only way out of the basement except for the curtained door. How many burglars were there? How many were suspected of being in the neighborhood? The questions I should have asked the officer occur to me all in a rush. Exactly who was apprehended in my basement?
Then I step in it.
“Shit,” I say.
“You owe us a quarter.” My eight-year-old reminds me of the penalty for using bad words.
“No,” I protest. “There’s really shit—poop—on the floor.”
“Gross,” my boys say together.
“Back in the house.” I gag. They flee. I stop in the yard to hose off my sandal before I go inside and wash my hands and feet with antibacterial soap, put the clothes I wore to work back on, and then call the police.
I dial the seven-digit number of the police station down the street, using the yellowed list of emergency numbers tacked above the phone. I know from experience that 911 calls cost seventy-five dollars. Shit in the basement is not a 911.
I identify myself as the resident of the house where a suspect was apprehended.
“How can we help you, ma’am?” the officer asks.
“There’s broken glass and feces all over my basement floor.”
“Glass and what?”
“Feces,” I repeat.
“Feces,” I say again, remembering Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadana “Endangered Feces” segment from Saturday Night Live.
“Ma’am, I’m going to put you on hold while I get my supervisor. We’ll see what we can do for you.”
later that same evening: 8:45
“I have some good news, and I have some bad news,” the officer jokes as I open the door. “The good news is that it wasn’t your house the suspect was robbing. The bad news is that our dog didn’t do his business there.”
“You can only get to the basement from the backyard,” I say, refusing to just let him get back to the station. “The broom and dustpan are down there already.” I hope he will follow me. He’s going to use the equipment he’d asked for. No discussion.
I tell my kids that I’ll be in the basement with the police officer. (Translate: I’ll be safe.) Then I turn on Cartoon Network (Translate: they’ll be safe.) and show the policeman to the basement.
“Looks like one of the officers stepped in it,” he chuckles, seeing my footprint in the feces.
“Looks like it.” I don’t tell him that it is my footprint. I’m afraid he might interpret that as a claim of some sort. I stepped in it; therefore, it belongs to me. Dog or human.
We dance around the pile. Trying to figure out the best approach. The broom and dustpan are useless. The officer takes a quick inventory of the other equipment in the basement: trowel, hoe, shovel.
“Can we rip up this linoleum?” he asks, noting the damaged state of the linoleum strip that covers the cement floor between the washer and the dryer.
“You bet.” I get a garbage bag. We take up the linoleum and deposit the filthy load in the garbage can at the back of the house.
“Now you’re sure there’s nobody else in my basement?” I ask, only half joking, before the officer leaves.
He looks at me, uncertain if he wants to answer this question. “One suspect is still at large,” he says. “But, ma’am, there is no way he’s on your property. Our canine unit would have found him.”
“Check the laundry chute,” I say imagining a long snaky man stretched out in that space for house, waiting for the moment to make his escape.
“Ma’am,” he protests. “It’s really unlikely.”
“Its unlikely that a burglar would hide in my basement and shit on my floor,” I snap.
“The three of them split up, went in different directions.” Resentful now that I am not simply grateful for the help he has given me, he takes the shovel and runs it up the laundry chute “He’d have to be pretty thin to fit up there,” he says.
“That’s true,” I say. “Do you have a description of the suspect who remains at large?”
“No,” he grunts.
“I want you to check my house.” I turn away from him. I don’t want to see his reaction. Maybe he thinks me a fool. Maybe he’s angry. But I don’t back off. My children are upstairs, alone, watching Scooby Doo.
“Ma’am,” he protests. “Our canine unit . . . “
“Was in the basement.” I finish his sentence, not knowing, really, whether or not a dog could have sensed a person on the level above him. Not caring, either.
Dutifully, the police officer takes out a large flashlight and together we go through the house, opening closets, shining large beams of light under the beds. No monsters there.
Though I was tired earlier, I am too anxious to sleep now. I sit on my new couch watching Court TV reruns of Homicide: Life on the Streets, a program I am addicted to. Suddenly there is rapping at the window behind my head. My heart races as I imagine that the suspect has returned, perhaps for stolen goods or drugs hidden in my basement. I’m frozen in place as an entire scene plays out in my head: me bound and gagged, my children kidnapped, our house occupied by thieves and murderers. Now it’s the doorbell. The loud, repeated dingdong gets me to my feet. It also wakes my sons.
“Who’s here?” the younger one screams from the hallway.
The older one runs to the kitchen to call 911. I squint through the peephole of the front door. “It’s your father,” I call from the living room. “You can go back to bed.”
“He’s not supposed to be here,” my older son yells angrily as his father continues to ring the doorbell. Schooled in the regulations of restraining orders, my son wants them followed to the letter.
“Can I have Cocoa Puffs?” the younger one whines.
“Just a minute,” I yell at the door while my sons each choose a box of cereal to take back to bed with them. When they have closed their bedroom door, I open the front door slightly, leaving the chain lock in place.
“My god,” my ex-husband weeps hysterically. “I’ve been afraid something like this would happen.” Earlier in the evening when he made his nightly call, the boys told him about the policeman’s visit. I spoke to him briefly to assure him that the police had taken care of everything. “I’m moving into the basement,” he cries. “To protect you.”
“Good night,” I say politely, having learned in therapy not to engage in the insanity. I close the door and turn out the porch light, wondering if it’s scarier when the monster under the bed is a stranger or someone you know.
Though it’s late, I call my mother for the second time this evening. She has heard the details of the break-in already, but I need to tell her about my ex’s offer of protection. She bursts out laughing. “Well,” she says, “at least you’d know what kind of shit was down there.”
Author’s Note: You won’t find the write-up of the incident in my basement in The San Francisco Chronicle or The Oakland Tribune. But in The Journal, a weekly newspaper devoted to events in our small community, I read the account of the crime committed that day. The canine unit sent into my basement was one dog named Grando. Automatic weapons were found in the car the burglars abandoned. The suspect arrested on Fillmore Street, one block west of Taylor, has a record of armed robbery and assault. One suspect remains at large.
In the Journal article, my home was described as “unoccupied.” Not exactly an inaccurate word choice but neither is it entirely true. In the dining room, the canary sang. In the basement, the suspect hung curtains.
I continue to fight the compulsion to collect Father-Shoots-Children-Then-Self news stories searching for clues that will help me avoid a future I sometimes still fear. I do what I can to be safe.
I buy a padlock for the basement door.
Brain, Child (Fall 2004)
Jane Hammons teaches writing at UC Berkeley. Her writing appears in several anthologies including Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer (W. W. Norton); The Maternal is Political (Seal Press); and California Prose Directory: New Writing from the Golden State (Outpost 19). A collection of short stories was recently short listed for The Scott Prize by Salt Publishing. She has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of magazines and journals, such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia Journalism Review, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Southwestern American Literature and Word Riot. For Bloom, she writes about writers whose first significant work was published after age 40.
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