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“Night at the Protest” by Ryan Voelker

Character: Police station clerk
Action: Tightening a knot
Setting: A meeting for a subversive group
Prop: Decorative songbirds made from vinyl records

***

Night at the Protest

by Ryan Voelker

When my book deal fell through and my girlfriend left me, a couple of signs from the universe telling me I should either be homeless or write country songs, I finally accepted my brother Kurt’s offer for a job at the police station. I guess I should feel lucky.

I’m already on my second week being a clerk. My brother Kurt has been here for almost eight years. Although he’s an actual cop, a lieutenant to be exact, so everyone around the station calls him sir. Since I’m just a clerk everyone calls me kid.

So here I am typing away, clerking it up, when in walks a stunning brunette with skin like snow and rouge lip stick that makes her lips pop. She has a hip way about her, but seems to avoid the air of a hipster.

“God damn it’s hot in here,” says the woman as she removes her leather jacket and leans on the counter. She looks at either side of the desk before finally noticing me. She towers over me like the fifty foot tall woman. I notice colorful artwork tattoos of several songbirds on the perfect canvass like skin of her arm.

“May I help you?” I ask and try to remain professional, keeping my eyes on hers and not on her plunging cleavage. It’s a tough job at times.

“That depends. Are you a cop?” I shake my head slowly and clear my throat.

“Sorry, I am not. I’m just a clerk.” She suddenly drops the tough girl act and her eyes become watery. She carefully wipes her finger tips at her eye’s edges to avoid smearing her black eyeliner. I reach over to a tissue box on my desk and hand it to her. “These are almost as course as sand paper, but feel free to take one.”

She laughs as she beams two rows of perfect white teeth. I find myself folding my lips over my teeth to hide how stained by coffee they’ve become.

“Thank you,” says the woman as she dabs the tissue at her eyes. She sniffs hard through her nose and tilts her head with a somber face. “My brother’s in jail here. He apparently tried to evade a police officer during a traffic stop.” She shakes her head and slowly closes her eyes like a disappointed mother.

“Why’d he do that?” I inquire. My job has so far been quite boring and she has definitely peaked my interest. This is better than reality television.

“He had weed in his car,” she says with a slight reluctance then looks to see who else may be around. When she sees the coast is clear she leans closer towards me, and I to her. “It was mine,” she says in a careful whisper. “I forgot it in his car when he dropped me off at work. My car is in the shop, long story… but anyways he can’t have another strike on his record. He’s been in trouble before but he’s really cleaned up his act.” She shakes her head with her mouth gaping and dabs at her eyes again. “I can’t let that happen. He’ll lose everything we’ve worked for.”

“I see.” My mind ventures off suddenly as I imagine that we are hanging out at my apartment listening to my vast record collection, smoking pot and staring at the glow in the dark stars on my ceiling. After a moment I snap back to reality. “Well, I think I may be able to help you.” I stand up and my pulse quickens as I feel a mixture of nervousness and excitement. I guess I feel alive.

“Really?” she asks with her eyebrows turned up and her eyes as big as a puppy’s. I nod my head, trying to play it cool.

“I know the lieutenant on duty right now,” I say and grab my pad of paper and a pen. “What’s your brother’s name?”

“Robbie Fisher. His proper name is Robert.” I make the notes, nodding my head and uttering mmm hmm.

“And what’s your name?” I ask.

“I’m Susana Fisher.” She eyes my name badge.  “James Oates?”

I extend my hand to hers with a nod of my head. “Well now we ain’t strangers no more,” I say with my best Forrest Gump impression to lighten the mood. She gives me a nervous smile. “Pleased to meet you,” I say, back to my professional tone, and gesture towards the chairs in the waiting area.

“Why don’t you take a seat while I talk to the lieutenant.” She flashes her smile again, I fold my lips.

As I walk to my brother’s office, I trip on my untied shoelaces, barely catching myself on the wall. It happens all the time. I have this problem with tying the knots of my shoe laces too tight. It makes me feel claustrophobic. I hunch down to tie my comfortably loose knot and carry on.

Kurt’s office door is halfway open, just like his room used to be at our house growing up. He’s reading a report, leaning back into his expensive leather chair with a look of consternation. I knock lightly on the door.

“What,” Kurt responds without looking up from his report.

“Hey Kurt,” I say with my ‘please do me a favor’ voice and carefully shut the door behind me. He is finally able to tear his eyes away from his report. A look of disappointment and annoyance settles upon his face when he sees it’s me.

“For the tenth time it’s Lieutenant Oates at work, James.” He stacks his papers then puts them into a manilla folder. “What do you want?”

I clear my throat then take a seat in front of his desk, my notepad clutched in my right hand.

“Look, I have this friend, or friend of a friend actually. Well to be fair it’s a brother of an acquaintance…”

“James. Spit it the fuck out.”

I nod then look down at my pad of paper and draw a heart around Susana’s name. “Okay here it goes. Will you help me get someone out of jail and dismiss whatever charges they’ve acquired?”

Kurt stares blankly at me for a moment then laughs as he raises his brow. “You’re fucking kidding me right?” I shake my head. He exhales as he pulls open his desk drawer to retrieve an apple and takes a large bite. “Who is it and what the hell did they do?” he asks as he munches on it.

“The guy’s name is Robert Fisher. He, uh, tried to evade a cop during a traffic stop.” I scratch at the back of my head and cringe as he stops chewing.

“Evasion huh.” Kurt nods his head and takes another bite then throws the apple away. “What’d he do that for?” He starts typing furiously on his computer keyboard.

“Well, I guess he had a little marijuana in his car,” I say with a nervous laugh.

“So let me get this straight. You want me to let some punk off the hook for not only evading a cop but also possessing a God damned narcotic?”

“Uh, yes,” I say drawing out the word ‘yes’ with a long hiss.

Kurt shakes his head in disgust. “Why the fuck would I do that?”

I take a deep breath and wobble my head. “Because his sister asked me to help him. He apparently has been in trouble before and is trying to clean his life up. I’m sure you could appreciate that.” Kurt narrows his eyes, like a judge needing further evidence. “Plus she’s gorgeous and I’d like to get in good with her. You’re the one always saying I need to get my shit together. I think that maybe it would help me get my life back on track to start dating again. She might even be the one.”

“How long have you known this woman?”

I eye my wrist watch. “Almost half an hour.”

“Oh brother,” Kurt says with a roll of his eyes then gets up to yank his office door open. “I’ll look into it. But I make no promises. I’ll let you know by the end of the day.” He points his finger in my face. “But if you pester me about this his ass is staying in jail and I’ll make sure to recommend he gets the maximum sentence. Understand?” I nod my head. “Good. Now get back to your desk. It’s not going to man itself.”

“Thank you Kurt,” I say as I bow my head to him. He shoots me a glare. “I mean, Lieutenant Oates.” I step out to the hallway and I hear the door close behind me.

I return to the front of the station feeling vaguely triumphant and see Susana waiting in anticipation, twitching her crossed leg nervously up and down. I motion for her to come over to my desk.

“Good news?” she asks hopefully as she approaches. I quickly flip over my pad of paper with her heart encased name before she sees it.

“I think so,” I offer. “I’m having someone look into it. It just may take a while to process. Can I take down your number and give you call to let you know?”

“Of course,” Susana says then grabs the paper and pen from me. She scribbles a quick note and hands it back to me. “Thank you so much James. Anything you can do to help my brother, I’ll be forever grateful.” She backs out the door and waves like a punk rock beauty pageant contestant then exits the building. I look down at the paper. It has her number followed by SF with a heart around it.

“Score,” I whisper to myself then kiss the paper.

==================================================================

When Kurt said by the end of the day, he sure wasn’t kidding. I watch the clock tick closer and closer to five o’clock with no word received.

“Come on you dickhead,” I say under my breath for the dozenth time as my forehead grows moist with sweat. The clock ticks to 4:59pm when I feel a tap to my shoulder. I turn around to see Kurt standing over me, his arms crossed over his chest. He leans against the desk and displays his classic coy smile.

“So, what’s the verdict?” I ask.

Kurt clicks his tongue a few times to draw out the suspense. “You’re friend, Mr. Fisher, may leave. With a strong warning. But the impound is closed for the day so he’ll have to pick his car up tomorrow morning.”

“Oh man, thank you!” I get up to hug him but he holds his hand out to my chest to stop me.

“You’re just lucky that he didn’t evade further than three blocks and he only had half an ounce of pot. Otherwise I would not be letting this fly.” He heads back to his office, walking with the confidence of a man with real power. “Your man is out front waiting for his ride.”

“Thank you Kurt!” I call out.

“It’s Lieutenant Oates douche bag,” he yells back.

I pick up the phone and dial Susana’s number, feeling as giddy as a child on Christmas morning. It rings three times and my excitement wears off as panic sets in. Leaving messages, unless I have a written script, always ends horribly. My worry is so consuming I almost don’t hear Susana answer her phone.

“Hello?”

“Susana, it’s James at the police station,” I respond, just shy of a shout. “I was able to pull some strings and your brother is being released with just a warning!”

“Oh my God James I love you! Thank you so much!” My heart skips a beat. I actually find my hand clutched over my chest as I fight the urge to profess my love for her.

“You’re welcome,” I say cooly as I begin to feel short of breath from all the excitement. “He’ll need a ride from the station though. The impound is closed for the day and he’ll have to retrieve his car in the morning.” The thought of seeing her again makes staying at work late sound much more appetizing.

“Shit, my car is still in the shop. I guess I’ll take the bus or maybe call a cab…”

“I’ll bring him to you!” I blurt out. I clear my throat and work at better controlling the volume of my voice. “I mean, I’d be happy to give him a lift. I’ve got a car.”

“No, I can’t let you do that. You’ve already done so much for me,” Susana says.

“Really, please, I’d hate to see you waste money on a cab when I could easily give him a ride on my way home. I’m just about to leave for the day anyways.”

“Wow James, that would be so amazing of you,” says Susana and I feel as confident as my brother must feel on a daily basis. “Robbie knows the way to my house. He can give you directions.”

“Great, see you soon,” I say and hang up the phone. I clap my hands together and skip gleefully to the exit. I look to either side of the sidewalk and see a man to the left leaning against the front of the building smoking a cigarette.

“Are you Robbie?” I ask. He stares me down suspiciously.

“Yeah. Who the fuck are you?”

“I’m James, a friend of your sisters. I’ll be giving you a lift home,” I say like I’m working for a damned limousine service. Robbie eyes me carefully as he finishes his cigarette. He tosses the butt down with half a dozen others then stomps it out with the toe of his boot.

“Alright. Lets get the fuck out of here.”

==================================================================

Thirty minutes and one trip to Taco Bell later, we pull in front of Susana’s house. It’s a quaint little bungalow in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. I admire it for a moment, gathering more fuel for my growing infatuation.

“Thanks for the ride, bro,” Robbie says and gets out of the car. I turn the engine off as I watch him light a cigarette then head into the house. I wait for a moment, not knowing whether I should go inside or just take off.

Like a ray of sunshine Susana pokes her head out the door and calls my name, motioning for me to come inside. I happily comply and jog my way to the house.

“Thank you so much for your help today,” says Susana and embraces me in a warm hug. I take her into my arms and breathe in the intoxicating scent of her perfume.

“You’re welcome,” I say softly into her ear, hoping the hug will never stop.

Susana pulls away and grips me by the shoulders. “I’m sorry to be brief but I’m supposed to go to this meeting in an hour on the other side of town. Would you like something to drink before I have to go?” she asks as she walks to the kitchen. I admire the soft lighting and vintage furniture of the living room. I also immediately notice the lack of a television which blows my mind. Where a television would traditionally be is a large shelf full of books. My infatuation continues to grow.

“Just water would be great, thanks.” I listen to her clang the cupboards and run the faucet. She returns with a tall cup of the clear stuff. “Thanks,” I say and take a swig, even though I’m not that thirsty. “Could I give you a lift to your meeting? Since you don’t have your car and all?”

“James, really you’ve done too much,” Susana says then happens to look down at the ground and points to my shoes. “You’re laces are untied.” I lean down to tie them, peering quickly at her long, smooth legs before I ease back up to a stand.

“Really, I don’t mind.”

==================================================================

We get into my car and I already feel closer to Susana than I have felt to a woman for a long time.

“So where we headed?” I ask as I start the car.

Susana pulls the passenger mirror down and touches up her lipstick. “Gregory Heights Library on Sandy boulevard. You know the place?”

I shake my head as I type the address into my phone. “No. But my friend does.”

On the highway I keep the radio low as we just listen to the hum of the tires under us. I run through my mind of what to say, realizing I have little substance for conversation. I count the minutes of awkward silence like a definitive distance to the friend zone.

“So, Susana,” I say grasping at straws. “What do you do for a living?” Better than asking what her favorite color is I suppose, although that will likely be my next question

“A living?” she asks with a laugh. “Well to pay the bills, I have a little business I run from home selling my artwork.”

“Right on. I minored in business in college.” I nod and the silence begins to sting my ears again. “What kind of art do you make?”

“Um, well, you’re familiar with vinyl records right?”

I nod enthusiastically. “Yes I love vinyl records. I have a large collection at home actually.” From the corner of my eye I try to gage whether or not she’s impressed. “What about them?”

Susana holds out her arm and traces her fingers along her tattoos. “As you can see I have an affinity for songbirds. I have ever since I was a little kid.” I juggle my gaze between the road and her arm, trying my best not to get us killed. “What I’ve been doing lately is making decorative songbirds out of old vinyl records.”

“Hmm,” I say as the image of my vinyl collection transformed into decorative songbirds  terrifies me. “Far out,” I utter in a sort of mumble. I’ve never used the phrase before in my life.

Susana smiles and nods her head. “Yeah people have been going crazy for them. I just sold my last one for almost five hundred dollars.”

“That’s terrific,” I say although the image of ruined vinyl is still quite unsettling. We pull up to the Gregory Heights library and I shut down the engine, listening to the slight rattling of the settling car. “So I guess this is it?”

Susana smiles before she leans forward to kiss me on the cheek.

“Thank you for everything James,” she says as I study her face for a moment. She has very slight dimples on her cheeks I hadn’t noticed before. I smile and nod my head.

“So what’s on tonight’s agenda?” Susana looks over at the library as people start to trickle in, then she turns back towards me with a raised eyebrow.

“Well we’re actually just assembling here and then going to occupy Glenhaven Park. We’re protesting the Romney administration,” she says as she nods her head.

“That sounds like fun. I’m not very fond of Romney myself.”

“Yeah well we’re a little more than ‘not fond’ of Romney. We fucking hate him,” says Susana with a dry laugh then pushes the car door open. Susana stops before she gets out and leans back towards me. “Do you want to come along?” She has that tone in her voice similar to kids daring each other to do something stupid.

“Won’t we get in trouble?” I ask in a shrieking whisper, already feeling like I’m guilty by association.

“Only if we do it right,” says Susana with a wink then heads towards the library. I linger for a moment, thinking about just starting the car to high tail it out of there. I bite at my lip until I taste iron then take in a deep breath.

“Fuck it,” I say to myself. I make sure the car is locked then run inside after her.

=================================================================

Inside the library is the echoing buzz of dozens of eager protestors. Some are wearing riot gear. Others are holding anti corporation signs, anti Romney signs. Anti pretty much anything from the government. I’m handed a pamphlet from a bearded man who looks like a Vietnam vet, but he’s much too young for that to be true. I examine the pamphlet. It gives tips on how to be peacefully arrested, as well as remedies for pepper spray and tear gas.

“Oh shit,” I say to myself, realizing I’m in way over my head. I think of Johnny Utah in Point Break when he’s forced to rob a bank with the Ex-Presidents. I feel a little more calm as I recall what a great movie that was.

“James,” Susana calls out pushing through the crowd to get to me. “Come with me.” She reaches out and takes my hand. I forgot how wonderful just holding hands can be. It’s the little things that often mean the most, yet are so easily overlooked.

Susana guides me to a seat while a man at a podium wearing an expensive looking blazer and a beatnik style beard flips through some flash cards.

“Everybody, please take a seat. We’ll be beginning our march and occupation of the Glenhaven Park shortly,” the man says, exuding authority. Everyone seems to comply and quiet down.

I lean over to Susana and see I’m still holding her hand. Upon that realization I quickly let go, not wanting to be a creeper.

“Who is this guy?” I whisper to her.

“That, is Professor Matthews. He’s the local authority on protest tactics and rights.” I nod my head and turn my attention to him like he’s about to preach a sermon.

“Alright everybody I first want to thank you for coming to support the cause tonight.” The professor is met with thunderous applause, like a rockstar playing the first notes of a hit song. He motions for everyone to quiet down, but the tight smile on his face seems to indicate he doesn’t mind. “I also want to go over a few things before we begin, make sure everybody is on the same page.”

The professor begins a slideshow of photos spanning from the revolutionary way to the civil rights. I feel strangely pumped being reminded how hard, people in our nation’s past, have fought to stick it to the man.

“This country was founded and developed by people who refused to be bullied by the higher powers. People who were brave enough to call out and stand against those holding all the cards. And let me tell you something folks.” The professor shakes his head and points around at the group. He briefly connects eyes with me and it sends a shiver down my spine. “All of you, standing together as one, carry that same spirit tonight.” Thunderous applause ensues, followed by his display of humility.

“Tonight will be a peaceful but strong toned sign that we will not idly stand by. Not while our country is crumbling, leading to an ever widening gap between the rich and the poor.” I have to admit, the man is good. He’s making a believer out of me.

“Some of you may get arrested. That’s the price we pay sometimes to be heard. But remember that the pain is only temporary. You’re voices will carry on much longer.” The professor holds out his fingers, like he’s counting items for a grocery list. “Remember, don’t be intimidated. Stay close to your group leaders in case of an emergency. And most important, do not respond with violence.” He looks around at everyone with a proud smile, like a general before his army. “Alright, lets make our stand!”

The professor leads the way and everyone files out of the library to head for the park, chanting anti government slogans along the way. I march with Susana by my side, debating whether or not reaching out to grab her hand would be too bold.

==================================================================

The night is growing cold as we approach the park and there are already many people occupying it. I’m not sure if they’re protestors or if they’re just a bunch of drunks looking for a place to hang out. It’s a fine line really.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” I say to Susana as I shake my head.

“I think it’s so cool that someone who works at a fucking police station is protesting.” She grabs my arm and surprises me with a kiss. Her lips are as soft as clouds and tast vaguely like cinnamon. I’m half dazed when she pulls away and stare into her eyes for few blissful moments.

“Well let’s do some protesting,” I say, now completely un-phased by the threat of getting pepper sprayed or even arrested. I feel untouchable. That is until I see a couple cop cars pull up next to the park. I watch them cautiously and my stomach drops as I watch who steps out. My brother. He stands tall and folds his arms across his bullet proof vest as he examines the crowd.

“Oh shit,” I say as I hunch down to the ground, putting my knees into the muddy park grass.

“What is it?” asks Susana as she leans down with me.

I try to catch my breath as my heart starts beating out of my chest. “See that police officer by the cop car?” Susana stands up and peers over, then nods her head as she looks back down at me. “That’s my fucking brother. He’ll kill me if he sees me here.”

“Wait, your brother is a cop?” Susana asks shocked and her eyes go wide. I nod my head.

“Yeah. He’s the one who helped me get your brother out of jail.” I’m speaking quietly and frantically looking for my best route for exit as the effects of the professor’s rousing speech wear off completely. “I gotta get the hell out of here.”

I stand up and peer over my shoulder at Kurt. It just so happens he’s looking right in my direction and I watch as slow recognition ripples across his face. I feel horror ripple through mine.

“James?” Kurt yells and starts marching towards me.

Without much thought I bolt for the sidewalk, trying to put as much distance between myself and this protest shit. I figure if I get caught I can just claim I was an innocent bystander and got spooked.

I make my way to the sidewalk and I shoot a quick glance over my shoulder. That’s when my feet come out from under me and I slam head first into the concrete with a crack and a white flash. I roll over to my back and stare up at the night sky, somehow still conscious. With half opened eyes I see several people with fuzzy faces standing over me. As my eyes learn to focus again, I’m pleased to see a worried looking Susana. I’m a little less pleased to also see Kurt hunched down at my other side. I hear him speak into his shoulder radio but everything starts to sound like I’ve got tin cans for ear drums.

My eye lids become drawn together and my head grows far too heavy to hold up. The last thing I see is my untied shoe lace before I finally drop my head back and sink into a black hole.

==========================================

I come to, with one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had, in a hospital bed and my head wrapped in gauze. The bright daylight through the window feels like shards of glass in my eyes.

“Fuck,” I utter with a raspy whine as I let my eyes close again, hoping to fall back into my coma.

“Good morning,” a familiar voice says from the corner. I pry my eyes open and spot Kurt sitting in a chair in the corner. “How you feeling buddy?” I’m too delirious to tell if he’s genuinely concerned or just mocking me. By the look of his ruffled clothes and stubble, he’s been here as long as I have.

“Well, I feel like shit Lieutenant Oates,” I say and bat my lips together trying to moisten my severely dry mouth. He stands up and pats me on the shoulder. Maybe he really is concerned about me.

“We’re not at work anymore little brother,” Kurt says then returns to the chair. “You may call me, Mr. Oates.” He chuckles and I join in, even though laughing makes me feel like I’m receiving the business end of a sledgehammer to my skull.

“Is Susana okay?” I ask, scanning the room for any sign of her.

“Yes she’s fine. She was here all night but had to leave a little bit ago.” Kurt points to the bedside table. “She left that weird bird thing for you.”

I turn my head see its one of her vinyl songbirds. I never thought a destroyed record could be so beautiful. I reach over to pick it up and see a note tucked under it. It reads: Hope your head’s okay. Call me when you’re feeling better. I’ll teach you how to tie your shoes ❤ Susana

© 2012 Ryan Voelker

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3 Responses

  1. Great Story!

  2. “This Ryan Voelker kid is going places.”

    -An Iraq veteran, so you know he’s not f-ing around

  3. Very good!

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