Wednesday, October 6, 2010

While Waiting For Godot

We stood in the shadows watching the blue light from the helicopter illuminate the neighbor’s house. A police car blocked the street and dark figures moved in and out of the shadows cast by the streetlight. A uniformed policeman came out of a nearby backyard, went to the trunk of the car and removed what looked like an assault rifle. My neighbor, John, my wife, and I stepped back into the dark against a garage door and waited for what would happen next. Without warning, a police officer stood up from the grass less than twenty feet away from us, racked a round into the chamber of his pump-action shotgun and prepared to fire at the illuminated house. Two other officers came barreling around the corner, running for the protection of the police car, screaming at us to run. They kept saying over and over as they took cover that we needed to leave the area immediately because our lives were in danger.

I am a night owl, one of those people who, given his preference, could stay up all night and work right through to the dawn. What I am not is a morning person. So that is how I came to step out of the shower at 11:30 PM on a Wednesday night, looking forward to another two hours or more of quiet reading before I would be tired enough to fall asleep. No phones, no interruptions, just peace and calm to think and consider the ideas of whatever author’s brain I decided to pick.

As I dried off, I heard the helicopter, circling overhead, the noise rattling the medicine cabinet on the wall. Something was up. I dressed and went out into the backyard. The airship was almost directly overhead, shining its light at a house just a few doors away from mine. I went out to the street to get a better look. My wife came out to join me. “What’s going on?” she asked.

The helicopter focused its attention on the Plumber’s house. The man who lived there had two dogs that we loved. Him we could have done without. He was a plumber and depending on his level of intoxication, could be sullen or flat out mean. He had lived in the neighborhood for years, and most people loved the dogs but avoided him. No one was visible around the house; the blue light from the helicopter lit up one side and then the other, like a beam of nervous energy.

That was when I noticed the police car parked diagonally across the street, blocking all access. The more I stared at the area around the house, the more I began to see vague shapes materialize and float: police officers were crawling around the street, in front yards, behind trees, crouched behind vehicles. The darkness was alive.

John came out to see what the ruckus was all about. He, too owned a dog we loved, and he also worked from home, so he did not have to be at work early the next morning. We stood there in the warm night, talking about how the neighborhood was going downhill, and how we knew the Plumber would get himself into trouble some day.

We were joined quite suddenly by two boys, about seventeen years old, tall, with tee shirts and shorts. They smelled faintly of alcohol. “Dude, what’s going on?” one asked me.

“Something’s going on at the house up the street,” I said.

We stood there watching the helicopter light twirl around the house like a transparent tornado.

“I’m Danny,” the speaker announced. “This is Clem.” He gestured to his partner.

“Where you guys from?” I asked.

“Over that way,” Danny responded, pointing in the general direction of Nevada. I’d never seen them in the neighborhood before.

The helicopter killed its light but continued circling the house. Danny and Clem moved forward into the darkness to get a closer look. I followed them, and I heard my wife say, “Oh my God,” but when I turned to look, she and John were right behind me. We moved up to the police car and then up into a driveway against the garage door. Danny and Clem made it all the way to the corner directly across the street from the Plumber’s house. They nearly stepped on the cop lying on the lawn with the shotgun, and that was when all hell broke loose.

When we had all run back to my driveway, and the cops were behind their car, we broke into nervous laughter. “Dude, what’s the big deal?” Danny said. “Cops so over-react.”

“Dude,” answered Clem in a disapproving tone.

From literally every direction, we heard approaching sirens. “Here comes the cavalry,” I said.

A man materialized out of the shadows. “The fire department has an entire battalion parked next street over,” he said quietly. “They are waiting to go in.”

The man disappeared into the darkness again.

“Dude, who was that?” Danny asked.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Dude, he’s like Agent X,” Clem chortled. “Dude,” he added for good measure.

I ducked into my house and pulled up an internet scanner station on my computer. The police commander was assigning stations around the house and ordering evacuation of the surrounding residences. There was a lot of activity, but I decided to get back to the street so I could see what was going on.

My group had moved across the street for a better vantage point. I told them about the scanner traffic, and Danny and Clem whipped out their cell phones to look for the website. More sirens joined the night chorus. The helicopter flew away. “Dude, he has to refuel,” Clem offered. Both boys soon had the scanner up and running in stereo, although one phone had a slight delay. This worked out well for us; if we missed a transmission, it would broadcast from the other phone within a few seconds.

“Dude, I hope they have to take the guy out,” said Danny. “I would love to see SWAT in a shootout.”

“Dude,” Clem said in agreement.

Agent X was suddenly behind me. “Homeland Security and the FBI just arrived,” he announced. “They are being deployed from the command post next street over.”

“Dude, who are you?” Danny asked with a tinge of panic in his voice, but Agent X was gone into the night again.

“Dude, he creeps me out,” Clem said.

Before we could speculate from what planet Agent X originated, a car swung around the corner onto the street. We stared at it as it passed us: a Ford Crown Victoria, black, with all the windows tinted dark. We could not see the driver.

“Dude, what the…” Danny said.

Around the corner came another vehicle, same make and model, but this one was white with all the windows tinted. Then another black one.

Agent X came from the direction of the Plumber’s house. “The black ones are FBI,” he said as he passed us. “The white are Homeland Security.”

“You mean federal agencies color-code their vehicles?” I asked.

Agent X kept walking and only shrugged his shoulders. He disappeared into the shadows again.

“Dude, I wish he would stop doing that,” Clem said.

“Dude, if Homeland Security is involved,” Danny theorized, “someone must have bought a Koran last week.”

“Dude,” Clem responded with apprehension.

John laughed. “You think this is all about someone buying a Koran?”

“Dude,” Clem said, a hint of a warning in his voice.

The police helicopter came screaming over the trees, taking up a hovering position directly over the Plumber’s house. At that point, the boys’ cell phones cut off. “Dude,” Danny said, “shut down your phone and then power up again. That was only a trial version and it only lasts for ten minutes. If you reconnect you can get on again.” They both frantically worked their phones.

Up the street, I saw the Plumber’s porch light and house lights go out. The streetlight directly over his sidewalk went next. The house was now in total darkness. A large vehicle with glowing red lights took up a position on the street directly across from the house. Something was going down. The helicopter was at tree top level, and the vibrations resonated in our bones. The thing was loud.

“They’re using the helicopter to cover the noise of whatever they are doing, dude,” Danny shouted.

A battered Pontiac came down the street. The cops quickly surrounded it and forced the driver into a side street to park. A few minutes later, a young man wearing a jacket with “Security” stenciled across the back came out of the street and began walking right toward the Plumber’s house.

“Dude, that dude is going right for the house,” Danny yelled over the helicopter.

The helicopter lifted off the rooftops and flew away again. We watched Security Guy move down the street until we lost him in the darkness.

“Dude, how did he get in,” Clem said. “There are cops all around there.”

Almost as soon as he spoke, Security Guy came back at a trot, pushed along by a police officer. He came down the street and joined our group.

“Dude, what happened?” Danny asked him.

“I live across the street from that house,” he offered. “I got inside, but I forgot my cell phone in the car. When I went out to get it, they nabbed me. Now I cannot get back and my girlfriend is inside alone.”

“Dude,” Clem said with sympathy.

Since it was almost two in the morning and the helicopter was gone, the night settled in around us with an eerie quiet. “I wonder how long this will take,” Security Guy said.

The two boys reconnected with the scanner. The phones crackled to life. “Okay, all units,” the voice of authority announced over the phones. “Our suspect is a male, forty-six years of age, threatening to kill himself. He has been drinking and using cocaine, he has numerous weapons registered in his name, including…” The officer listed at least six major firearms, including handguns and rifles. He clicked off the microphone at the end of the list because his finger was probably tired.

“Continuing,” he announced, clicking back on. “He says he lost his mother recently, and his girlfriend. His house is in foreclosure, and he has lost his business.”

“Continuing,” he clicked back on. “He has previous convictions for manufacturing weapons and domestic violence. He is considered armed and extremely dangerous.”

We stood there in stunned silence. “Dude,” Clem said. “Who does coke these days? That is so 1980s.”

“Dude,” Danny responded. “May be that’s his problem. Dude has to update his stash and get into the twenty-first century.”

There was a series of six pops from the direction of the Plumber’s house. They were not heavy enough to be gunshots. The police were firing tear gas canisters through the windows. I hoped the dogs were not in the house.

Security Guy suddenly bent over and rested his hands on his kneecaps. “Oh my God!” he yelled.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Dude, I’m sure your girlfriend is okay,” Danny offered.

“I gotta pee so bad,” Security Guy shouted. “I wish this was over with.”

“I wish it was over with, too,” said a voice in the darkness. Then I saw the policeman in the bushes. They were everywhere.

“Can I please go home?” Security Guy asked the officer in the dark.

“Where do you live?”

“Up on the corner.”

“Too bad,” the police officer laughed.

I moved closer to Danny to hear the scanner better. “Don’t you guys have to go to school tomorrow?” I asked him.

“Dude, school!” he said in disgust.

“Where do you go?”

“I used to go to the Catholic school in Van Nuys.”

“I know somebody who teaches there.” I gave him the teacher’s name. Danny reacted with disgust.

“Dude, I hate that dude! He got me thrown out. In my senior year! I hate that dude.” He paused in his bitterness. “I hate school.”

Clem turned to me. “Dude, what do you do?”

“I’m a teacher,” I replied.

Clem looked at Danny. “Dude,” he scolded his friend.

“Dude,” Danny mumbled. “I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re a good teacher. Not like that other dude. I hate him.”

John drifted back into his house. Security Guy walked off to find a bathroom. The scanner sites cracked with a whispery voice. “We have visual of the backyard. There is some kind of camping trailer, lots of junk. We cannot see into the house.”

“Dude, I wish they would just shoot him already,” Danny whined.

“Dude,” Clem started. “If a dude is threatening to kill himself, and the cops break in, and he has a gun to his head, do they shoot him to keep him from shooting himself? I mean, that makes no sense to me, dude. Why not just let him shoot himself? What’s the point of shooting someone to keep him from shooting himself? That’s crazy, dude.”

I realized that this was the longest Clem had spoken in three hours.

“I don’t know, dude,” Danny replied, fatigue plain in his voice. “It’s almost three. I’m going home. I need to sleep, dude, or may be I’ll order another pizza.”

“Dude, no one delivers this late,” Clem said.

“Dude, I’m going home. They aren’t going to shoot this dude.” Danny walked off into the night.

My wife and I went back inside and locked all the doors and windows. Three-thirty in the morning is too late for even a night owl like me.

The Plumber gave himself up at five in the morning. His dogs were fine. We saw them the next day playing in the yard. We have not seen Clem, Danny, Agent X, or Security Guy again.


  1. That was a compellingly well written post. Couldn't stop reading from the first sentence. Well done. You should use it as an example of great storytelling for your students.

  2. Thank you for the comment, Michael. I really appreciate the praise coming from someone I admire so much. I have a reputation for storytelling with my students. Occasionally, we do get off track in English class with our own stories, mine and the students. But it is story that draws us together as a civilization. Where would we be without Homer reciting his epic battles of the Trojan war around the campfire. I love the story.

    Take care.


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