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The Hard Man

   The Hard Man.
    The man sat in an old, beat up armchair. His face was covered in the stubble of several days. Cigarette smoke curled slowly away from his mouth has he lowered his hand from a drag. A small lamp in the far corner dimly lighted the room and in it floated the haze of smoke. To his left was an end table that supported an overfull ashtray and a nearly empty bottle of that old Tennessee favorite. In his left hand he gripped a tall tumbler tightly, lightly swirling a small swallow of whiskey. This tumbler had seen a long day of duty; it was smudged where he put his lips when he drank. It was merely there for formality; it was empty more often than full. He was not drunk in the sense that a fraternity boy would be, he was slightly buzzed; he had been slowly draining the bottle for the last fourteen hours.
    He was not an old man, nor was he a young man. His body had the whipcord look of someone who is under constant stress. There was always stress here. He sat half-nude, clad only in his boxer shorts.
    It was near Christmas. It was snowing. It was so picturesque that it would have made Norman Rockwell sick. Lights were strung everywhere along the street, including his own house. Those lights floated into the room and added a surrealistic edge to the already dim light.
    This was Minnesota engaging in its traditional annual orgy of tackiness. He only engaged in it to keep up the pretense that behind the pretty exterior of his home all was well. In this town, it all was a pretense, and he knew that. Behind every fašade there were broken homes or homes that were slowly falling apart. Drunken abusive fathers housed in every third or fourth home, very often alongside drunken mothers. It was the Americana that no one ever really looks at. And he knew it.
    This town had one doctor, one post office, one school that rented a room as the town hall, and four bars. Every night at least two were full to capacity and the other two picked up the substantial remainder. On the weekends, well, if you didn't get there by six, you might as well head off for another town.
    The town was broken, and he knew it.
    He stubbed out the cigarette after it had burned to a stub. He took another from the pack and lit it, drawing the smoke deep.
    He let the smoke waft out with a slow exhale and stared forward out the window at the slow falling snow with intense blue eyes. Things were wrong here, and he was privy to all of it.
    To his right was a myriad collection of weapons that would get a civilian sent away for a long time. For him, they were just tools of the trade. Tools of a trade that had gone wrong in this place. Most he did not need, probably all but the shotgun and handgun. But he no longer cared about what was necessary; things had changed for him too. This town had become a sinkhole that dragged down anyone foolish enough to get close to it for more than a few moments. And it had begun to take him too. And he knew it.
    He was not from this town. He had grown up in the cities, where he had had a good life. He had a wife and they were planning a family. They had wanted a home away from the city, away from the crime and the problems. As much as politicians whitewash the situation, crime always happens in the city, it just doesn't always make it into the newspaper. So they had begun looking for homes in the suburbs. That was before he was shot four times, nearly taking his life. They then looked farther away, and she found a home, the perfect home in the perfect town. She showed him the pictures and the numbers; it was just perfect. They bought the home and as soon as he was well enough, they moved. He had arranged a job with the county seat to act as a permanently placed deputy. This was good; this life was good. Then the calls began to come in. Domestic abuse, alcohol poisoning, drunk driving, bar fights. The same calls, the same people cycled over and over again. He tried to hide these things from his wife, but eventually she found out; she was always more clever than he was.
    Then it happened. Everything came undone then. His wife had been out with family while he was out bringing a few of the more unruly drunks to the county seat to spend the night in the drunk-tank. He then swung by his sister-in-law's to pick up his wife. She was five months pregnant now, and she and the baby were as healthy as anyone could wish to be. As they made their way back along the dark country roads, it began to snow. This was Minnesota and it was winter, so it wasn't unexpected. But it was just another piece of what went wrong. About three miles from town, he noticed the headlights of an oncoming car. Nothing unusual about that either, but what began to bother him was that this was Friday night, and people had been drinking for nearly four hours. Then things went very wrong. Suddenly the car was right in front of him and he swerved. The other car swerved as well and it clipped his on its way by. This extra nudge sent the car spinning. His wife's scream and his curses split the air as he struggled for control and lost it when he hit the rut. Sir Isaac Newton carried his car over on its side where it kept sliding in the direction of the embankment. Newton then carried the car over the edge were it rolled three more time before crashing down hard on its roof at the bottom of the long slope. Sir Isaac had nothing against them; he was just doing his job.
    His next conscious thought was grabbing the microphone and radioing for help. After he completed that automatic act, he had to fight a wave of blackness as he desperately struggled to free himself to check on his wife. When the belt finally gave way, he crashed down hard, but before he could feel the searing pain in his leg from the break it sustained, he scrambled around to face his wife. There she hung, quietly, with a few tickles of blood running down her beautiful face. He cried out her name, stroked her face, anything to rouse her. In his panic, he forgot all that he had learned, and never checked for breathing, he just cradled her face to his and cried, mixing his tears with her blood. After another moment a wave of pain from his leg made everything go black.
    His next conscious thought was waking in the hospital, finding the room filled with his family and friends. His first thought was not of himself, but for his wife. He demanded that they tell him, but they wouldn't. Their strained looks, however, told the whole story. She was gone. Their child was gone. He later learned that she had died at some point in the roll down the embankment with a broken neck. Her seatbelt had been loosened to make her more comfortable and she probably had landed on her head. As the roll progressed, her belt had tightened as she went lax, and that was how he had found her after making the call. She was gone, and it was the town that had taken her, and he knew the drunk that had been driving the car.
    He knew everything that happened here. He had picked up that drunk more times than he could remember, but the state kept saying that he was rehabilitated and kept letting him loose. Sure, he had no license, but when has that ever stopped someone bound and determined to get behind the wheel. He was given no murder charge, nor was he given a manslaughter charge. He had gone to prison all right, but tomorrow the state was going to release him again. It was now his task to watch the drunk so he was going to go and get him. His intention was to make sure that this drunk never touched a drop again.
    This town was broken, and he knew it. He was going to fix a small part of it.
    The next day he brought the drunk back along the same road his wife had been killed on. Without warning, he threw on the brakes, slamming the car to a halt and the drunk into the mesh between the front and backseat. He sat for a moment, looking intensely out the windshield. He then threw the car into park and got out roughly. He stalked back to the back door and whipped it open. The drunk was still cuffed, a request the guards at the prison looked at oddly but shrugged off. He grabbed the drunk hard by the collar of his jacket, dragging him out while he yelled in protest.
    "Shut your damn hole," he said with ice-cold venom.
    The tone and the words stopped the drunk cold.
    "Now get up."
    The drunk complied. He then slammed the backdoor shut and walked back to the driver's door. He reached up and disengaged the shotgun from its rack. He had already loaded it before leaving that morning, no sense in being unprepared. As he stepped back from the door, shotgun in hand, the drunk began to whimper in fear. This time, he had no more responses. He cuffed the drunk hard alongside the face, knocking him down and silencing all protests. He roughly grabbed the drunk and half-raised half-dragged him to the embankment.
    "This is where we went over," he said, and paused for a moment.
    The drunk began to issue weak pleas to not hurt him. He ignored this and then roughly dragged him up to look over the edge. There was a guardrail now, too little too late.
    "Do you see that drop you fucking pile of shit? Three times, then the hard stop at the bottom. She broke her neck in one of the rolls. She was pregnant, or were you too gone to notice that for the five months leading up to it?"
    The drunk just continued to whimper.
    "Quit your damned sniveling you fucking shit-wad. How long were you drunk before that night? That day? Two days? A week? A month? How long, fucker?"
    At this he roughly shook the drunk and cuffed him hard again to stop the sniveling.
    "The road was still decent that night. I was driving nice and safe. We were five minutes from home. You just decided to take that car. Lets see if you can feel what its like you pathetic piece of human filth."
    He hoisted the drunk up hard and then shoved him hard at the guardrail. He then gave him a swift kick, which sent the over-balanced drunk tumbling over the edge and spinning wildly down the embankment. As the drunk went wildly down the hill, he calmly stepped over the barrier and half-slid half-walked after the drunk, the deep snow filling his pants at the cuffs where it began to soak through his long underwear.
    At the bottom, the drunk lay on his back breathing hard. The drunk began to struggle as he approached, but he was helpless in the deep snow on his back with his hands cuffed. He stood over the drunk and squatted down close to his face.
    "We stopped right about here. I'm not sure how long I had blacked out before I radioed for help. But she was already gone. She was beautiful. I always said she was too beautiful for this place, too beautiful for me. She was even more beautiful when she was pregnant."
    He stopped for a moment and spat to the side. He then turned back and stared hard at the drunk. He rose to a standing position and pumped the shotgun. He then swung the barrel down and pointed it squarely at the drunk's forehead.
    "You could have stopped. The state and this town gave you chance after chance to take control and stop. But you didn't. You killed her, you fucking piece of shit. Your pathetic drunk ass got behind the wheel and sent us off the road and killed her. The state might not find you guilty of murder, but I sure as hell do. I should splatter your brains all over the snow right now and just leave you here to cool. I should just fucking pull this goddamned trigger and send the fucking shot through your goddamned alcohol soaked skull you fucking mongrel piece of shit. YOU KILLED MY WIFE!"
    Then he pulled the trigger, and the report echoed across the barren fields. The shot smoked from little holes next to the drunk's head. He was mostly unharmed, although his ears would ring for days from the blast inches from his head.
    He then kneeled down on the other side of the drunk's head and put his lips right next to his ear. He wanted the mongrel to hear him well.
    "This is your final chance. If I even hear a rumor that you touched a drop, I will not hesitate to kill you. I can't bring her back, but I can keep you from taking someone else in your sick stupor. And don't think of reporting me: my record as a cop is cleaner than that field of snow. It's my word against a habitual drunk's. Think about it. I've seen a lot, and I know how to make it look like an ordinary accident."
    He paused for a moment and scanned the horizon. The land was deserted, it was Monday morning and the residents of the town were off at their jobs nursing massive hangovers.
    "Now I'm going to pick you up and we're going back up that hill. I'm then going to take you to Benny's for a burger. Then Pastor Bill will pick you up and take you to the apartment over his garage. Then from now on, you'll work in the backroom of Benny's like before. You'll go straight from Bill's to Benny's and you will stop nowhere in between. Bill will feed you so don't worry about that. I'm going to give you random blood alcohol tests and if there is more than the trace from cough syrup, I'll make sure you don't live out the season. Tell this to anyone, and I'll make sure you don't live out the season. Understand?"
    This got a quick emphatic nod.
    The man sat in the armchair again, with the room filled smoke. The drunk had been good for over a year now, and it looked as if he might not have to go through with the deed. This pleased him and displeased him at the same time. He wanted revenge, but he also knew that his wife would never forgive him for that.
    This town was broken, and he knew it.

I really have no analysis of this one. Just needed to get out of sci-fi for a while and write something different, something dark and hard.

Copyright 2003 James P. Hansen