Charlie Crews was a cop

Charlie Crews was a cop. Green as grass and a pain in the ass, Bobby used to say. Charlie liked the rhythm of it. He repeated it to Jen, but she didn't laugh.

Bobby drove the squad car most of the time. Charlie played his "Learn Spanish Fast" tapes on the car's tape deck, gleefully repeating the staccato sounds until Bobby told him to shut up. He practiced on the job, talking to the Spanish-speaking women on their regular beat. They laughed at his freckled skin and pale eyes, touched his red hair and tried communicating in a strange hybrid of Spanish and English while Bobby stood by with a look of envy and disdain.

Charlie was a good cop; he loved his job and his wife and even his blustery partner, though he wouldn't say it to him except as a joke.

He turned in his wedding ring the day he entered prison--along with the watch his mother had given him after his first year on the force. Now his souvenirs are scars. Sometimes they itch. He counts the tiny lines from the stitches on each scar, or the pale dots left by the staples that had pulled the skin together. Repeated numbers, the sounds he makes as he utters them are like a mantra.

Sometimes he counts in French, but he can't count high enough anymore.

He's in solitary, the room filled with the smell of his own blood, his mouth with the taste of it, copper-salt. He doesn't make a sound because the guards feed on it; they prey on their prisoners and he tells himself that he won't talk. Instead he repeats inside his head: anger ruins joy, steals the goodness of my mind, forces my mouth to say terrible things. I want to kill them. Overcoming anger brings peace of mind, leads to a mind without regrets. I want to die, and I won't talk won't talk won't talk.

But he can't help it. There's no one else to hear but the guards, and if they hate him, he still exists.

He doesn't talk this time, though; he passes out and wakes up in the infirmary.

At first time crawled. One day of wrongful imprisonment... one week... Now time has no meaning other than one more day he's alive.

His body vibrates with the words he holds in, grasping the sentences no one will hear. He talks to the guards even though he pisses them off. An oubliette is a secret dungeon, he tells them. He studied French in high school. The pretty girls were all in that class. Katie Milligan sat in front of him, her ponytail swishing when she raised her hand, and if he concentrates hard enough, he can recreate the curve of her ear from behind, the freckles on the back of her neck.

J'ai oubliƩ mes devoirs, Madame. He'd grin at his teacher as he said it, hoping that she would forgive him for forgetting his homework yet again.

When he thinks about his job, when he was a cop, he wishes he'd studied Spanish instead. He can't believe sometimes that the rough-and-ready Spanish he'd learned on the job hasn't obliterated his French. He's learning more Spanish now, too, even as prison is obliterating other pieces of him--flying away, forgotten. He can't hold on to all of them if he wants to survive.

No one is truly prepared for prison, not even the ones who grew up in gangs. But Ted is even more unprepared than he was, with his panicked eyes and hunched posture. Charlie helps him. That's what he did before, help people, though the joy now was in a savage swing of the fist, glee in the carnage he helps create, and inevitably he's punished, brought down; but the others stop hurting Ted. He helps him, because that's what Charlie Crews does.

Connie came and suddenly time marched forward again--one more week until her next visit. One more month before he'd go back to court.

Today Connie is wearing high heels and a straight skirt. Her hair is pinned up, a smooth line from her neck to a swirling knot that probably has a fancy name.

He misses women.

She's going through the contents of an envelope, talking about rulings. He cares, he really does--but right now all he can think about is that Connie smells like flowers. The perfume is too sweet but that doesn't matter. He leans in and inhales--he's in a room with a beautiful woman who smells like a garden, and who says she believes in him. Be in the moment. Don't think about what's coming next.

When he opens his eyes, he sees her wedding ring flash on her hand as she turns the page.

Going back to his cell after her visit, he smells ammonia, fear and simmering rage. He stores away the memory of the moment and puts on his mask again.

Now she's wearing pink. She doesn't ask him about the newest scar. Instead she purses her lips and looks like she's trying not to cry.

"I'm sorry I haven't gotten you away from this."

"You do," he tells her.

Connie fences with words--French and Latin at first, the languages of the court. Then the word 'exonerate,' and he was freed. Now she uses phrases like settlement offer and compensatory damages.

It's his first time to see her office; there's fruit on her desk next to a half-empty champagne bottle. He's still feeling giddy; it's not just the champagne but the freedom, and the sense that he's almost there, almost able to take back something that was stolen from him.

Too many pieces are missing, though. Some he won't ever get back. A ring is just a ring; there's no wife. His watch can't turn back time and bring his mother to him.

Still he tells her, "If I get that piece back, maybe some of the others will fall into place."

Constance doesn't back away from him as he leans in. "They won't like it."

Charlie doesn't say anything in reply; he waits.

"They won't like you."


"I know." She looks away from him. "I know," she repeats, and lightly touches his hand with her fingertips. "I want to get that back for you."

It's the only piece left that makes sense of his life.

Charlie Crews is a cop.