I tried again last night, and this time I got pretty close. The grip was cold in my hand, and oddly there was something reassuring about that. My heart was pounding, my breathing shallow and my mind was racing – considering the magnitude, the finality, of what I wanted to do. But the revolver didn’t care.

I shouldn’t be thinking about these things when I come on shift. Although, why not? It’s not like anyone could read my mind. I walk with my usual quiet confidence; I speak deeply and gently – as if I’m stroking their hair with my warm voice. And I smile. They don’t know, they can’t. They don’t follow me home, don’t sit at the empty table, don’t look at the off-duty revolver and the bullets lined up neatly. Most of them don’t know, and wouldn’t care, that my marriage was over.

Instead, I get the usual cop banter. The officious professionalism of the desk sergeant. The shift lieutenant’s trite management science platitudes. The sniggers and under breath utterances of a squad room full of uniforms, preparing for the midnight to eight shift – the real one – the one where the nightlife ends, the morning life begins, and the weirdos come out to prey or play in the ungodly morning hours.

I sit through the briefing, it’s all good, I have nothing to add, I take note of what I have to. You’d think I won’t care. But the truth is I don’t want to die on the street, offed by some junkie or some serial on probation. I want to die at my table, by myself, with some privacy, my way, by my own hand, with whatever fucking dignity I have left. It’s not that strange, really. I pay attention.

Then I grab the shotgun, with the bean bag rounds as well as the live ammo, and three new cartridges for the taser, and I head out to my squad car. A lot of guys ride solo in this city – the department could afford extra cars but not the extra cops. Which is ironic, considering just how expensive a fully outfitted black and white was, and just how little cops lives mattered these days.

I see the guy standing at the car. Short guy, small build, jeans, black shirt and blazer – muted tones, dressed for practical comfort. Why was I getting a ridealong? I vaguely remember being told about it a month or so ago, and I can’t remember just right now… Who usually does ridealongs? Thrill seekers who somehow manage to talk themselves into the department, journalists, writers, students or academics. This guy didn’t look like any of those. Did it matter? Whatever the pretext, a ridealong is always a pain in the ass. Something extra to worry about, another factor is a world where the smallest signals could determine whether you got home in one piece or whether some pimp knifes you in some motel parking lot. They can get in the way, under foot. Even if they do nothing wrong, they can potentially get hurt. Sure, they sign a waiver. But they are civilians. Civilians never have to have any accountability, even for things they sign in triplicate. Civilians can burn shit to the ground and then complain that they are being mistreated when you arrest them. And then other civilians will back them up, with faraway, conveniently timed cell phone footage filmed from one angle. Oh, he signed a waiver, did he? But he’s hurt. He was a civilian and he was under your care.

This one looks calm and contained, almost pensive. I shake his hand and we do our introductions. He doesn’t volunteer the info – he assumes I know. All I get is a name. Fine.

We get in the cruiser and roll. He isn’t very talkative, which suits me just fine. But it’s not a shy or a nervous silence. It’s comfortable. Like he’s done it before. What kind of freak is used to being a ridealong and is calm when he’s on the road with a cop.

Maybe he’s IA. Don’t like that thought. And he’s not a cop. I don’t think.

The shift always starts the same. Me driving around downtown. It’s just after midnight and there are some cars on the road – the nightlife going home. It’s always a pretty busy time – starting your shift with a nice helpful dose of adrenalin. Always a DUI or something.

And sure enough, I’m barely out of the main street when I notice an older car swerving more than I should. I turn casually to follow them, and I can see the driver and passenger shifting nervously. Lots of activity. Probably moving things beneath the seat.

“Here’s one,” I tell the ridealong. Then I call it in. “Desk, it’s Mike. 10-60 corner of Stevens and Fourteenth. Stand by for a 10-27 and a 10-44.”

The 10 codes may be on their way out but this city couldn’t shake them yet. It was one of the good things about the department that the radio controller back at the station was called ‘Desk’ and you just used your first name. These days we are encouraged not to use the 10 codes – but I had a ridealong and I 1) wanted him to get the full experience he signed up for, for whatever reason and 2) not be in on everything I’m thinking and doing.

When you first pull up behind them, anything can happen. They can stop, or keep going, or take off at great speed. No matter what, you are in personal danger from the moment you drive behind them to the moment you disengage.

This one pulls over, turning into a parking lot.

I stop behind them, keeping my hand close to my holster but not on it. And I watch them. I’m alone, the ridealong hides in the car. I have two guys to watch, the driver and the passenger.

Here’s the thing with traffic stops – they aren’t random. You’re not trying to work harder than you have to. You’re not trying to make anyone else’s life harder. You pull them over for a reason. They speed. They swerve. They forget to indicate. They act suspiciously or are in a known drug area or something.

And indeed, as I get to the window, I can smell the weed.

That’s the other thing. It’s never just one thing. The stop you make for the broken taillight or the expired insurance or the swerving or the erratic behaviour or the failure to stop… well, it more often than not turns out to be more than a traffic stop. It’s a drug arrest too, or a guy with outstanding warrants. Or a gun. Or stolen goods. It’s never one thing – and that’s why you watch yourself, watch your ass.

Driver, white guy, early twenties, but an older face and mean eyes, like he’s had a hard life. He’s not wearing a shirt and he has tattoos. Passenger is a black guy. This one has a shirt on, but his eyes are red and even from the other side of the car I can see his pupils are dilated.

“Good evening gentlemen. Mind if I just check your license and registration, please?”

The kid remains expressionless. “Is there a problem officer?”

“I’ll explain in a minute. Just need to see your license and registration, please sir.”

The passenger seems to be patting himself down, a nervous gesture.

The kid hands me his license. A nineteen-year-old, stoned for sure, potentially drunk as well, driving a barely roadworthy vehicle at 00:17 in a city full of people. I look at his name and something about it rings a bell.

“The reason I stopped you is because you were swerving all over the road there. Can I ask you if you have any outstanding warrants or are on probation or anything.”

“No sir,” he says, but there is frustration in his voice. You can tell polite. Sense it, feel it. This is hate. This kid uses the right words but I can feel how much he hates me.

“Just stay right here for me for a second, okay?” I say and I go back to the cruiser.

I have his license in my hand so I decide to check that second. I call in the 10-44. Sure enough, the kid is on probation. That means he can be searched, and his car can be searched. I call in for backup and get back to the car.

“Do me a favour real quick. Step out of the car for me, please.” I lean down and tell the passenger: “You too please.”

“Am I under arrest?”

“You’re on probation, sir. You’re not under arrest right now… but I need you to step out of the car for me.”

Tommy shows up, parking his cruiser behind mine.

“Put your hands behind your back for me, please.”

“I didn’t do nothing!” They always say that. Sometimes they say it after you chased them for miles in the cruiser, or for blocks on foot. Sometimes they say it while they very much are doing something.

“You’re not under arrest, you’re just being detained,” I tell him. Tommy does the same routine with the passenger.

“Just tell me real quick, if I search you, are there any needles or guns or knives or anything that might hurt me?”

“I don’t have nothing and I didn’t do nothing.” His voice hardens and I can feel him tense up. Last thing I need now is a fight.

“Please don’t resist sir. I don’t want to tase you.”

The kid chilled out. With both detained, Tommy and I made quick work of searching the car. Weed in the compartment between the seats. Misdemeanour, although when you’re on probation, it counts as more than a warning. Beneath the seat – what looked like a case for sunglasses. Inside, a pipe. And white crystals. Meth. Both were arrested.

I got back in the cruiser.

The ridealong was freaking me out with his silence.

“You’re pretty quiet,” I said.

“Should I say something?”

“Most ridealongs have questions. Or opinions.”

He chuckled at that. “The rarest thing on this earth is a qualified opinion,” he said.

I thought about it. For a ridealong, this guy was okay. Whoever he was. “You know what, you’re right.”

He smiled. It was warm, genuine. I had the sudden impression that I knew him. As if we’d spent enough time together to be friends.

“What’s the deal? You looking for a story, experiences, ideas, what?”

“I’m just riding. Thank you, by the way. I want to know what you think – more than talk about myself.”

“So you can plaster it all over the internet? What I think? Think about what?”

“Being a cop. Life. Love. The world.”

I said nothing, but he kept looking at me. I suddenly felt like I wanted to talk to him. Tell him what he wanted to know, tell him what I never felt like sharing but now would. Who was this guy?

“What I think? About being a cop… well…”

Most of the cars were now home. The shift started to settle into the quiet part. 01:00 – 02:00 was mostly dead time. Anyone out was probably up to no good – but few folks were out. The streets were pretty much deserted.

“The thing is, most people think that cops protect the regular folks from criminals. Like every now and again a bad guy comes along. But it’s not like that. The truth is that most of the trouble come from the same people. Over and over again. We know the people we catch, more often than not, we’ve caught them a few times. It never goes away; it never goes anywhere. It’s just taxpayer money, every night, us out here… always dealing with people who get high or steal or get into drunken fights. It’s not that we protect the public from the odd predator that comes along. It’s more like we’re high school hall monitors. The regular folks are protected by us, I suppose, but always from the same losers. That’s being a cop.”

“And is it a thankless job?”

I had to be careful. Still couldn’t remember what and who this guy was. He has this weird vibe that makes me want to open up and talk to him. But he could be fishing for sound bites. I shoot my mouth off about anything I consider is unfair, next thing you know, I’m painted as some entitled brat in the press.

Thankless? People march and say defund the police. People spit on us and abuse us and call us racist and violent and terrible based on the actions of a few bad apples. Thanks? I don’t need thanks, and I don’t know any cop who needs thanks. Just don’t act as if we’re the bad guys.

And whenever we’re painted as the bad guys, it’s always by prissy little weaklings who would shit themselves going into one of the easiest, lightest shifts we experience as routine. Every day.

It drives us to drink and divorce and sitting at our empty, cold, lonely kitchen tables with revolvers stuck inside our mouths…

“The public has a right to a professional police force,” I said instead.

“But it must get to you, sometimes.”

Was he fishing? Trying to trap me, or trip me up? Or was he just curious? Did he want authentic cop shop talk? Or a philosophy of life? What?

“Everybody feels that they get it, from time to time. Sure. But I’d rather be here helping the good folks of this city rather than being an accountant in some cubicle somewhere.” That much, at least, was true.

I offered snacks, coffee, he said no.

We drove around and around.

It was a quiet night. Other than that first traffic stop (which turned out to be an arrest for felony possession, driving under the influence, possession of marijuana – nothing was happening. A quiet night, it happened every now and then.

The ridealong had to be so disappointed.

I was starting to think that the guy would really think nothing ever happens out there on the street when my radio crackled to life.

“Mike we’ve got a domestic disturbance at 415 Juniper Drive.”

“10-12,” I answered, telling the desk not to transmit sensitive information with my visitor present. “Responding.”

“10-4 on your 12, Mike.”

“Domestics. I hated domestics. And 415 Juniper? Repeat customers.

I made a U-turn and we moved to the address. I wasn’t using lights and sirens, nor was I racing. But I drove quickly.

Domestic violence could be a total waste of time, an irritating and emotional sideshow circus that sees one or both parties hurt – but not seriously. They can call you out to the trailer every time, and you go, and it ends up with someone spending a night in jail. Next day they are back. A same shit different day kind of thing – until it is not.

Then you get there and someone is seriously hurt.

Or dead.

And then it’s too late.

I never understood domestics that escalated like that. What’s the point? Jen left me, our marriage died down. A slow, quiet, bitter, lonely, drifting apart. Her getting over her initial attraction to the handsome boy scout as her friends’ husbands were promoted in well paying day jobs that got them bigger houses and nicer cars and holidays abroad.

But we never hit each other.

There were times I was so frustrated with her… but the thought of actually hitting her or hurting her, never even crossed my mind.

“You don’t like domestic calls,” my ridealong said. He must have seen me thinking, but the way he said it creeped me out a bit. Like he knew what exactly was in my head.

“I hate it. People who live together are supposed to love each other, and take care of each other. But you find some guy beating the hell out of his wife. Or some really nasty woman beat her guy. It happens a lot. It happens often. We always go back – and I wonder why they don’t just break up. Why stay? I don’t get it.”

“You’re divorced?”

“Separated.”

“It’s hard.”

I focused on the road. Yes, ridealong. It is hard. It’s so hard that when I think about it and talk about it, I start to cry. It’s the one good thing in my life gone, the one symbolic giant failure that says every choice I ever made was the wrong one.

So, leave that well enough alone and focus on 415 Juniper, where the alcoholic parents always start fighting after a few drinks, scaring the crap out of their six-year-old boy. 415 Juniper, where he was taken into custody twice and she was once. Where the kid always sat quietly and by himself in the corner, with a spaced-out expression, numb to the shit he was born into and had no way of escaping.

That’s being a cop.

Seeing every nasty thing and evil deed and terrible scenario and biblical tragedy, night after night, sometimes the same shit more than once, like God or the Universe wants to rub your face in it. There, look at the species you share! Just look!

I parked at 415 Juniper. Told the ridealong to stay put, although he didn’t seem to plan to do anything but.

The husband and the wife were both on the porch. He wasn’t wearing a shirt (what was it with that? Unless you were on a beach somewhere, why would you show your skin like that?). She wore a raggedy and oversized shirt.

They were both skinny, and they looked older than they were. Their eyes were swollen and their faces showed lines – hard lives.

“What’s going on tonight?” I asked.

The man said nothing, he just looked down.

She said nothing either, but she looked at me. And I didn’t like what I saw.

It wasn’t the tears. She’d been crying, that much was obvious. Or the bruise on the side of her face. There was something erratic in her eyes. A nervous energy that reminded me of a wild animal.

“I asked what’s going on folks?”

When no one responded, I looked around.

And I realized I didn’t see the kid.

“Where’s Dougie, Martha? Ben?”

They said nothing.

I opened the front door, and they didn’t protest. I walked into the living room. Empty beer bottles. Ashtrays overflowing. The place hasn’t been cleaned since before Obama took office, it looked like. I noticed rolling paper. If I searched, I knew I’d find weed. I might just take them both in for that and get child services to take Dougie. Give the kid a break. Was it good in the system? Who knew. Couldn’t be worse than watching his mom and dad slowly drink themselves to death and occasionally beating each other up.

“Dougie?”

He knew me.

Sometimes it felt like he wanted me to stay, or to come with me.

“Hey Dougie. It’s Officer Tyler.”

No answer.

I managed to glance out the front door. Neither Martha or Ben so much as twitched.

I went to the kid’s room. Posters from old Disney movies and hand me downs. No kid though.

This wasn’t good.

“Dougie!” I called.

I looked everywhere, and couldn’t find him.

I started to look again, in every room.

In the living room I checked behind the couch. In the kitchen I looked in the cupboards (not a lot of food, plenty of liquor, and, incidentally, I found the pot). In Dougie’s room I looked in the closet and under the bed. In the bathroom I pulled back the shower curtain, and the bath was filthy, and it had a broken doll in it…

It had to be. The limbs were twisted in ways they couldn’t be on a human being.

But then it caught me.

It was a human being.

It was a six-year-old boy named Douglas Lofland, and his legs and arms had been broken, and it was twisted behind him, and his neck was unnaturally to the side. He was lying in a pool of blood, and his horribly twisted body was stuffed into the tub at great haste. And the terror was frozen on his face.

“Desk I need backup now…” I breathed, and steadied myself outside the bathroom so that I didn’t retch.

I went outside, said nothing. I cuffed them both. They said nothing either, and that was probably the best thing. As more units showed up, I looked at my cruiser. I could see the ridealong sitting in the passenger seat. No more than a dark outline really. A shape. Lucky, to be that in the dark. To not have to see what I see, know what I know.

Turns out Martha started a fight, that Ben walked away from. Except then Dougie did something to annoy his father. Dad chased the boy to the backyard, where he kicked him to death. Martha called the cops. Ben stuffed his son in the tub.

That’s being a cop. You make an arrest. You might even hear down the line that a conviction resulted. But there’s never any happy endings. It’s just walking out, being vomited on by all the bad things in the world, rinsing and repeating. Happy endings? Shit, who needed that? What about erasing? Forgetting what happened? I’d settle for that. God I’d welcome that!

Martha started crying, heaving, shaking, and some medics attended to her. The detectives also talked to her. They asked if she had a safe place to go to for the night. They were – in short – treating her like she was a victim. I didn’t buy it – but they did. How many times did I come out here?

I’m not kidding myself. I was at the end of the road. I knew that. Once you start sucking on a barrel night after night, just waiting for the right night to come by, where you’d have the courage to pull the trigger… it’s hard to pull back from there. But there might have been a chance. Maybe an intervention. A new girlfriend. A puppy. Fucking something. Anything.

But how do you turn it around… how do you recover… how do you walk it back, when you had the twisted body of Dougie Lofland frozen in your mind?

Not much of a shot.

It was six thirty by the time I got back to the cruiser. The ridealong would have been bored (imagine that – bored – like a true civilian – when you’ve got all kinds of shit going down you don’t even know about mere yards away).

“Sorry,” I said.

“Not at all. You were working.”

I said nothing. I didn’t want to speak. I wanted to drive back to the station, drop of the ridealong, and go to my house. I wanted to go into my kitchen. Open a beer. Drink it. Put some Ella Fitzgerald on, load my revolver, and join Dougie.

“Rough call?”

“Look, I just want to… I think it’s best if you do your ridealong some other time, okay? I just had enough tonight.”

“You knew the kid?”

“How did you know…”

“I heard the other cops talk.”

I closed my eyes. I felt dirty. Not the kind of dirty that a shower could fix.

“Yeah. I knew the kid. Couldn’t help him, though.”

“You’re right. You couldn’t.”

I looked back at the ridealong, and what I saw freaked me out. He was familiar. I knew him, I knew him well, and still, I couldn’t place him.

“I became a cop to make a difference. I ended up making no difference. It didn’t matter how many times I busted the repeat offenders, they were always back out as soon as I turned around. And the one time it wasn’t a grey area – when my cause was absolutely just – I arrived after the fact.”

“I’m glad you didn’t kill yourself.”

I felt nauseas, and my head was spinning. Like I was high or something.

“What do you mean.”

“I let you ride with me, the same night, thirty times Mike. I could not let you take your own life. You were a good man.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I know you tried to kill yourself. I don’t usually intervene, but I couldn’t let that happen.”

I looked at the ridealong – and couldn’t make out his features. He was just an outline, a black shape, looking as he did when I was far away, except he was close to me. So close I could touch him.

“Who are you?”

The black shape didn’t answer.

He wasn’t scary, or ominous, or terrifying. Instead, all I sensed from him was a profound sadness. And something else. A gentle kind of… care?

I got out of the cruiser.

I walked back to the porch. Forensics and the dicks were still there.

They didn’t even look at me. They were all staring at the floor.

I looked down and saw myself – a gaping gunshot wound in my chest. I was dead.

As dead as Dougie Lofland.

The ridealong was right next to me, suddenly, and it all came back. This night, this shift, this ridealong. This happened many, many times.

“That was your last ride with me, Mike. You can go now. You didn’t kill yourself. And you tried to save Dougie. You can go now. Rest in peace.”