old habitsAlmost midnight at ToyJoy, a funky, noisy, toy store swathed in twinkly lights and geometric neon in Austin, Texas. Leila, Burke, and I wander the aisles, shuffling sideways past other late-night wanderers and finger glow-in-the-dark armadillos, hula girls with cowboy boots and tattoos, oversized spiders that hiss and spit.

Two men argue near the front door. Their clipped words grow in volume then shift to longer vowels. The words are less important than the tone, and I know the underlying tone well: violence is not far away. Something buried deep clicks on; my attitude, attention, body language alters. I drift toward the front, eye the men carefully.

They are in bantam cock position: chests puffed out inches from each other, chins up. A Hispanic: early-twenties, no facial hair, well built with a slight stomach, wearing jeans, tennis shoes, and a white t-shirt, maybe 5’9″. His hands are loose by his side, but the jiggling fingers give him away. And an Anglo: slender, freckles, mid-forties, short reddish-blonde hair, about 6′, wearing a button-down shirt, pleated linen pants, polished leather shoes with tassels. A too-thin woman stands behind him with a helpless look; her tightly permed hair trembles.

I move closer, assessing. The Anglo cocks a fist, yells obscenities, tucks his chin. And that’s when I brush between them, using my elbows to gain room for my body, facing the Hispanic, for he is the one most likely to listen to me; I don’t know why, I just know. Their body heat laps against my skin.

My hands press the air between us as I step forward, trying to move him back. I talk, rapidly and softly, but forcefully. “All right, step back, let’s take it outside, this isn’t the place.” I continue with similar soothing yet command-driven words. I am good at this, though I’ve been told that I talk too much on calls, that sometimes an arrest has to be made.

The Anglo presses against my back, reaches around my shoulder, shakes his fist. A crowd has gathered; someone says the cops are on the way.

Two Hispanic males enter the store and stand behind their friend. I twitch internally but continue to talk, mentally scrambling for the key to bring the situation under control. And that’s when it hits me: I don’t live in Texas, I don’t know Spanish, I know nothing about Austin’s criminal elements. And my friends don’t like guns, so mine is locked in my car. The calm part of me that assesses situations even in the most panic-stricken times notes with patient quietness that I am vulnerable, I am stupid, I am about to get my butt kicked.
The Anglo says something about being an assistant district attorney and how he’ll have the other guy’s ass in court.

I pivot, put both hands on his chest and shove hard. “I’m a cop, and I’m telling you you’re both going to jail if this goes any further.” I let my voice rise in volume and force, deepen in weight.

I pivot back to the Hispanic. “Listen,” I say. “You be the bigger man and walk away. WALK AWAY!” I see hesitation in his eyes, in the lines around his mouth. “He’s a jerk but he’s also an assistant DA, and he’s got some power in that. Don’t give him the satisfaction.”

In the distance, sirens. “Cops,” I say. “Go. Now.”

He stares at me without expression, then flicks his gaze at the Anglo, then back to me. His fingers stop jiggling. I tense, but he takes one step back, then another, slowly out the door with his buddies, profanities exchanged on both sides. The Anglo starts to follow, and I grab his arm. “Enough,” I say. “You should know better.”

“Bitch,” he mutters, but he allows the too-thin woman to pull him away.

“Uh-huh.” If I were in uniform, my thumbs would be tucked inside my gun belt, and I’d be rocking slightly on the balls of my feet. If I were in uniform, I’d be enjoying this. I tell the crowd to move on, flutter my hands at them. The tremble in my knee kicks in, as it always does afterwards, although I know I appear calm and in-charge.

“Oh my God, Laurie,” Leila says.

Burke shakes his head. “So not wise.”

He is right.

I’m not a cop anymore. I haven’t worn a badge and a gun in nearly five years. But some habits are hard to shake off; some lives refuse to die.

Laurie Lynn Drummond is the author of the award-winning short story collection Anything You Say Can And Will Be Used Against You.  Her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, and Brevity.  She is working on a memoir, Losing My Gun.

Photography by Paul Bilger