The two-story, twelve-room motel was perched on a hill about a half-mile from the Interstate. It was 2 in the morning. You could hear the whoosh of a semi-truck passing by now and then.
It was kind of a nice sound, this guy thought, as he laid on his bed in the corner of the room. Nice to hear people out there doing something, going on their way. Nice to be in here, dry and warm with nobody bothering you, in the middle of the night.
His brother and sister were sleeping in the next room, she got pregnant. They would all take care of each other, doing whatever, “this and that, you know.”
That’s what he would say to people if they asked what he did. This and that, you know. It was not an evasion, as if he was thinking of something and trying to hide it. He could work. He would work. For a while he worked, a while back. His brother had disability because he was shot during a burglary and couldn’t work anymore. His brother broke into this old farmer’s house one night when he was 17 and was looking around when the old guy shot him. He was lucky. He lived. It depends on your idea of luck but he was very positive about the outcome. He would tell you he felt lucky. And after he got out of jail he got on disability because he never could walk right after that shooting. That was in another state. Now the three of them lived the kind of life that would not work without disability payments, but they had it so they were okay.
He was drifting off to sleep, looking out at the clouds when he heard a tapping at the motel room door. Maybe it was next door. The knocking kept up. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap. It wasn’t next door. He took the 14” bowie knife from under his pillow, held it tight against his thigh, and with the chain in place he opened the door an inch.
He recognized the guy out there in the pink light, right away. He was here yesterday too. He was a skinny haunted looking guy in glasses standing there, wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt, looking in through the crack in the door like he had a good reason to be there, like he was the plumber or something. He was intent, polite, and just below the skin, kind of worked up.
The smell from inside the room flowed out to him: old laundry, indoor cats, and weed. He said: “Can you help me out?”
The guy inside, in his underwear and T-shirt, with tired eyes and his Bowie knife thought, “This fool is showing up here in the middle of the night attracting attention.” He said, “What do you need?”
The guy outside pulled three ten-dollar bills from his shirt pocket, pinned them between two fingers and handed them in through the door. The guy inside handed a little bag to the guy outside. And slid the door closed. Click.
The haunted guy in glasses was rejoicing. He didn’t look happy. He didn’t show anything. Just calm composure. Or that’s what he felt like he looked like. Inside he was roaring out of control. Ready to scream. Ready to soar. But he would wait. He had control. He would not eat one. He would get home, cook up and find a good vein.
The door of his little truck was rusted along the frame and it squealed and clunked as he closed it. The truck runs just fine, just fine. He started it up. With a throaty little roar he headed slowly out of the motel lot and onto the main road home. Lights off. Not speeding, not breaking any laws, not attracting any attention.
Except for our attention. We saw the deal at the door.
We knew the place. Sat there watching. Just another car in the parking lot, out in the shadows. We pulled behind him and followed his little rusted truck for a while in our old dark unmarked car. He glanced in his rear-view mirror and checked his speed and to himself he said “shit.” We checked his plate and confirmed that, yes, we knew him. We moved in closer and switched on the blue lights as he said to himself “fuck.”
He thought about how he wasn’t doing anything. Nothing. Especially compared to what he knew was going on out there.
We had him stopped on the side of the road near the bridge over the interstate. He had a license on him but it was an old one, he said he just didn’t have time to renew it yet.
We asked him to step out of the car. Where he was coming from. He told us. What he was doing there. Visiting some friends. He wasn’t sure what their names were. Why didn’t he know his friends’ names? Why was he visiting those friends for ten seconds and not going inside? He said he didn’t mind if we took a look around inside the vehicle. He said he had nothing to hide.
He thought: he should be sitting inside his car. He should be sitting inside his house. He should not be under this dead-eyed monster sky at two in the morning, standing still with the traffic flying by on the interstate at 70 miles an hour, on their way, free to go, as if nothing was happening. He should be heading home. He was literally ten minutes from happiness. If that.
Just a few more questions. We had his dope. We had him in handcuffs. He was under arrest. He said, “This should not be illegal. I have my own money. I have the right to enjoy myself in the privacy of my own home. It’s my body and my life and my right to do what I want. This is bullshit. People have no freedom.”
I am standing at the side of the road talking to him. I am thinking about the limits of freedom. While he was sliding along his downward arc he abandoned his education, his rehab, his job placement, his family’s care, his body that they or someone looked after, while he was burning time, burning money, burning the people who trusted him, trading his dignity for small change, stealing and cheating wherever he could and turning over whatever he had to people who cared nothing for him, people who will do whatever it takes, people who let him know what can happen to people. Time flew by.
He sees his choices as a matter of personal freedom.
He really did know many people doing way worse things than he was doing that night. He was sincere about that. And he would not share that information with us. Even if he could protect innocent people from violation and violence. He didn’t withhold the information out of loyalty to the predators and thieves, or out of respect for them or fear of them. He hated us for standing in the way of his pleasure.
We returned to the little hilltop motel later that morning and went back to the door where we saw him. We knocked. We let them know we had a search warrant and were going to come in. A search warrant is not a permission to search. It’s an order – from a judge– to search. The warrant, on paper, tells the occupant that the court has probable cause to believe that crime is going on or that there is evidence of a crime inside, and has decided that the public interest in finding out about that outweighs their right to privacy at this time and place.
We knocked on the door, identified ourselves and waited. The sky was dark and the bulb was gone from the light by the door. The guy inside broke under a siege of paranoia. I believe that this was the case, because it is unlikely, given his experience, that he would have burst through the door with that Bowie knife in his hand had he known it was us. A thief, a rival, a creditor, maybe. But not us. Wouldn’t get a good result. And he knew that. He changed his mind. The knife dropped to the concrete walkway and made a little click clack as it landed.
You wouldn’t think about it then and there but looking back you have to think someone maybe loved that guy at one time. When he was little, and he was cute. Maybe his granny if his mom was too busy. Someone took care of him, gave him food to eat and bought him clothes. Someone taught him to walk and talk and made sure he got to school. Must have.
Then things happened. Or you might say, he did things.
You want to blame the cartels, the pharmaceutical companies, the poison factories which take advantage of people like that boy. They may be guilty.
But they can’t make you buy their poison, watch their poison, or join them in the extraction of the wealth and freedom of a whole world. Not even if they put a gun to your head.
If you buy it then don’t blame them. If you buy it they won without fighting. We decide what we want. Those choices will be our life.
Audio read by Jeff Brooks.