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The Death Spiral – a short story by Michael Fine

by Michael Fine contributing writer, RINewsToday

©2020 by Michael Fine

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

As Jack Shandy-McCoy stood crowd duty at the Senator’s community dinner, he concluded that humankind had reached the end of its rope, that this was the end of the world as we know it.  These weren’t poor people. They weren’t angry black people, chanting that garbage about Black Lives Matter. These were rich people, doctors and lawyers and professors, all dressed up like it was the sixties, in jeans and down coats. The men wore bandannas, watch caps and baseball hats, and some of the women wore those stupid pink pussy hats, while others wore fine woolen coats, with brilliant yellow and green silk scarves, and beneath the scarves Jack was sure those women wore pearls.

 It wasn’t a huge crowd of people, but it was big enough to be ugly, and felt as ugly as any crowd Jack had ever managed, uglier than the crowds at the Dunk or McCoy or at Brown Stadium.  These people felt more rowdy, more restive than those rowdy drunken punks who hang around Lupo’s. This group was packed into the vestibule of a junior high school.  They banged on the doors and chanted slogans that didn’t make any sense.  Jack stood like a statute in uniform in front of the locked door, his hands behind his back, taller and bigger than most of the men, a symbol of something – what, of order, of civic might, of propriety, or even of command and control – a symbol of something that matters, something Jack couldn’t quite name.  A symbol, but at the same time Jack understood that he was completely invisible as a person. People in a crowd saw a statute when then saw him, a likeness of a cop but not a living human being. At times like this you become the uniform and the uniform becomes you. It’s useful cover. You can see without being seen, even though you are there, and hear without ever speaking.

            But though the crowd was rowdy and though Jack was there by himself, he felt no fear. The unit commander, five or six motorcycle cops and even a deputy chief were on scene on the other side of the locked glass doors, standing with the Senator’s people, shepherding people with tickets in and out of the community dinner and being a show of force inside the auditorium, which was packed full of people who themselves were pretty rowdy. Jack felt no fear because he wasn’t a guy who did fear. He was big, he was in uniform, and though he wasn’t completely in control, he had a whole force behind him, and though these people were acting up, Jack knew he could handle them, and that they would respect his authority should he choose to exert himself.  He was invisible to them now, but he knew exactly how to make himself seen when he wanted to be seen, and respected when he wanted to be respected.  The crowd was milling about, talking about strategy and tactics and how fucking angry they were about executive orders and cabinet appointments and about what the President did yesterday.

 A young woman in her twenties or thirties who was wearing hiking boots and a down coat and no makeup tried to catch Jack’s eye and say something lame, thanking him for his service and so forth. But Jack wanted to stay invisible, so he pretended he didn’t see or hear her.  You got to keep your focus. The rest of them acted like he was some kind of servant, a guard dog, who they could order to heel according to their ugly, arrogant mood.

            When a young guy with a double teardrop and whose neck and arms were covered in green and blue tattoos squirmed his way into the vestibule, Jack made him in a second and threw his shoulders back. He took a deep breath, making himself bigger, the human version of a puff adder, a stallion that stands at attention when a dog comes into the field where his harem of mares is grazing, raising his head, pointing his ears, flaring his nostrils, and inflating his chest to make himself bigger and broader, so the intruder knows who is in charge, and knows not to come any closer. The dude with the teardrop snaked through the crowd, hunched over, head down. He wore a worn olive cloth Army Surplus greatcoat that made him look more street. The kid had red eyes that made him look like he needed a fix and a runny nose that he kept wiping on the back on his hand. Jack was pretty sure that no one else in the crowd gave the kid a second thought. The kid slipped between the densely packed knots of people, finding little pockets where no one was standing and slipping between those pockets as if inserting himself into the spaces that were more theoretical than real, but finding those spaces and moving through them, nonetheless.

 That asshole wasn’t anybody from the East Side.  That asshole was trouble.

            The asshole made Jack about the same time Jack made him, and angled himself away from Jack, edging to Jack’s right as he wormed his way through the crowd, headed to the glass doors at the front. Quick list of scenarios – The kid was just a punk, here to pick the pockets of the rich. Possible, but who comes to a goddamn demonstration to pick pockets. The kid was a mass murderer and there was a sawn-off shotgun inside the cloth coat. Also possible, but quite a stretch. There’s no need to get yourself to the front of a crowd if you are a shooter. You can kill hundreds perfectly well by shooting them in the back. The kid looked like a homeboy junkie who had done time, not Al Qaida, but you can never tell.

            Not the time to be a statue though. Jack looped his thumbs over his belt so his hand was near his service revolver and pushed through the crowd himself so that he would be where the asshole was headed before the asshole arrived, but he did it slowly, so he could stay invisible. No plan. Just cop instinct, Gordy Howe style.  Don’t be where then puck is.  Be where the puck is going. Punk, in this instance. But the back of Jack’s mind was screaming, back-up, back-up. This was a plenty peaceful crowd, however rowdy. But just let a cop apprehend an offender in front of five hundred good-doers, just let Jack figure out that the pest had a knife or a gun and was up to trouble and push him against the wall to disarm him, and all those fuckin’ liberals would go bat-shit. In a crowd like this, anything could happen. And was probably about to, now that this little punk was in the mix.

            They met in front of a locked glass door. Through the door you could see the auditorium, filled, even overflowing with people.

Just then some idiot grabbed a doorhandle near Jack and started to shake the door while the crowd started to chant, “Come outside, come outside”, and “This is what democracy looks like”, all loud enough so as to drown out any speaking that might be going on the other side of those glass doors in the auditorium. If this is what democracy looks like, Jack found himself thinking, sign me up for something else. They have no idea how good they have it, Jack thought. Somebody needs to be in charge, and make America great again, because this sure ain’t even good. This is a fucking mess. How the hell am I going to do my job, and keep these goddamn people safe?

            Jack put his body between the punk and the doors, ready for anything.  There ain’t going to be no monkey business on my watch, Jack thought.

 But the kid didn’t back down or slink away like Jack expected. He stood up straighter himself. What do you know? There was something familiar about this kid.

            “Hey Officer Shandy-McCoy. Good to see you, man. These people are nuts. How are your kids?”

            “Who wants to know?” Jack said.

            “I’m Billy Santucci. Larry Santucci’s kid. I came up with Lucy. St. Rocco’s and then LaSalle.”

            “Billy Santucci. You look different, brother. How’s your mom?” Jack said.

            “Hanging in there. We all went through some changes after my dad died. But I’ve got my shit together now.”

            “Good to hear, Billy. I’m sorry for your loss and your trouble. What are you doing here?” Jack said, and he stepped it down a couple of notches, thinking, this is somebody I know. Billy’s father had been a cop in Pawtucket. Solid guy. Caught cancer and died a couple of years back. Kid got into drugs and dealing and ended up in the ACI. Sad story. Billy Santucci might be messed up now but he’s one of us. He’s my people. Which makes him safe.

 We’re good, Jack thought.

Jack exhaled, and let his chest shrink a little.

            “This is all out of control,” Billy said. “These people are crazy. Somebody needs to stand up. I came to tell the Senator to get with the program, to speak for all of us, for the regular people of America and not just the rich and famous.”

            “I think you’re outnumbered, Billy. These people are all inside speaking to themselves. Goddamn big circle jerk. But it doesn’t matter. The hall is filled. I can’t let you or anybody else in now. They say the Senator is coming out here in about a half hour, and that he’ll take questions then.”

            “I got to get into that hall, Jack. I got to stop this craziness. You ever hear Whitehouse talk? He don’t come from Rhode Island. He don’t know squat about me or you or the people we are or the lives we lead. All that bullshit about climate change and Obamacare. He’s the banks, man. He’s the oil companies and the cell phone companies and the goddamn EPA. That dude is the swamp.”

            All of a sudden the voice in the back of Jack’s brain started squawking. There was a crazy look in Billy Santucci’s eyes. Backup, the voice in Jack’s brain started to say again. Backup. Maybe we are not so good.

Jack hit the trouble button on the squawk-box with one hand, unsnapped his night-stick with the other and leaned in so his body was between Billy and the glass doors. Billy, backing away from Jack’s bulk, found himself pushed toward the green cinderblock wall on the side of the vestibule.

            “I got to get into that hall,” Billy said.

            “You got to get your shit together right now,” Jack said. He said it low and deep so as not to disturb the crowd, but the people milling next to him noticed anyway. They saw Billy and they saw Jack for the first time when they saw Jack stand up and they heard his voice. The people next to Billy and Jack turned their heads to watch and at the same time took a half step away, getting ready to run.

“Fuck you,” Billy said. “I’m going in.”

“You’ll go where I tell you to go and do what I tell you to do,” Jack said.

Jack didn’t really see the weapon, but he knew it was there. He turned and used his shoulder to slam Billy against the wall.  Then he grabbed both of Billy’s arms and bend them behind Billy’s back so the kid could only stand straight, the kid’s upper arms nearly popping out of his shoulder joints, and Jack in complete control of Billy’s torso. The gun clattered on the cold marble floor. Jack cuffed Billy’s hands behind his back as a flying wedge of three motorcycle cops wearing blue helmets burst through the glass doors as Jack was cuffing Billy, and they stood point around Jack.

The people in the vestibule shrank back and then surged forward, both frightened and drawn to what was happening. They saw something happening, but they weren’t sure what it meant, and they were flummoxed between their need to run for cover, their morbid curiosity, and their endless irrational outrage.

The four cops all knew that their mission was to get the gun off the floor and get this offender back through the glass doors before more trouble started. They didn’t have much time.

“Hey,” some guy in the crowd shouted.

One of the blue helmeted cops flipped on a rubber glove, grabbed the gun and put it into a plastic bag.

“God damn it,” somebody else in the crowd yelled.  The crowd began to push forward as a uniform from inside the glass doors opened the doors. Jack pushed Billy toward the open door, but all of a sudden there were three young women in the way, their arms locked around one another’s waists.

“We will not be moved!” the shortest of the three women shouted, and then everyone in the whole goddamn vestibule started singing a goddamn protest song, so loud that Jack couldn’t hear himself think. The last thing Jack Shandy-McCoy needed right then was a goddamn protest movement or sit-down strike. This was Providence Rhode Island in 2017, not Selma Alabama in 1965 and all these goddamn people were rich white people, not poor black people who had been shat on for four hundred years.  There was a wise guy with a gun who was ready to shoot someone if Jack hadn’t stopped him.  Couldn’t these goddamn people tell the difference?

That was when the woman in the down coat and hiking shoes piped up.

“Mic check!” she yelled.

“Mic check!” five or six people close to her yelled back.

“Mic check!” the ten or fifteen people closest to the first five yelled, and then everyone close by in the vestibule started snapping their fingers.

And all of a sudden the crowd started to quiet, as its attention turned to the woman in the down coat and hiking boots.

Jack had no idea what the hell had just happened, or why, and he didn’t care one bit. The second that the three women whose arms were locked around one another’s waists turned to look at the woman in the down coat, Jack shoved Billy through the glass doors and the three motorcycle cops followed just a step behind them. They slammed the glass doors shut and locked the doors again. Then Jack pushed Billy out a side door to a waiting cruiser to take him downtown to be booked, with the motorcycle cop who had picked up the gun trailing half a step behind, on his way to forensics.

            It’s a miracle humankind has survived this long, Jack thought, as he turned the cruiser around on Summit to climb the hill on the way to the office. We are pretty fucked up.  People on one side wild and crazy like Billy.  People on the other side like lemmings, all looking and acting alike, and never questioning their assumptions.  Each heaping insult onto injury, so we’re getting to the point that we have nothing civil to say to one another, like we are two separate nations with nothing in common, on track to have a civil war, like the country is in a death spiral, plummeting through the clouds and unable to see where we are or who we are and not having any idea that the ground is rushing up to meet us.

But then you don’t know where salvation is going to come from. That young woman, Jack thought, she knew exactly what she was doing. I stopped this punk, sure, but she saved my ass. She paid attention, kept her wits about her, and pulled that rabbit out of a hat at exactly the right moment, as if she and I were talking together, working together, and were of one mind.

Maybe we can do this, Jack thought. Maybe, if enough people can think like humans and act like people when the chips are down, maybe we’ll survive this stupidity, this time when no one is thinking or listening, but only talking, only chanting slogans so loud that nobody can hear themselves think.

Billy was hunched in the back seat, cuffed to the car door. Poor kid, Jack thought. Poor stupid, stupid kid, suckered by one temptation or one hallucination after the next, and then sucker punched when his dad died. Judge is never going to let him out of the ACI. Repeat offender?  It’s going to be years. You don’t show up at an event like that with a loaded gun. And you sure as hell don’t do that on the East Side. The kid’s going to be in jail for fuckin’ ever, until his craziness burns itself out or he dies of old age. Which for a kid who had spent too much time on the streets is probably fifty. Live by the sword, die by the sword.  The gunslinger’s creed.  Or something like that.

“I’m on Boxes. Gonna need my meds,” Billy said, as Jack unhooked him from the back of the unit and stood him up.  “And a doctor. You goddamn brutalized me in that place.  I think you broke my goddamn shoulders.”

“March,” Jack said. “We’re gonna get you booked.  You know the drill.  Booked.  Holding cell overnight.  Then over to Intake in the morning with the rest of the overnight crew.  You can see the doctor there.”

“They don’t have no goddamn doctors at Intake.  At least not right away.  All they got is nurses for the first couple of hours, and I’ll be sick by then.”

“Maybe you should have thought of that before you pulled your little stunt,” Jack said, and almost added, you little weasel, but he thought the better of it and kept his mouth shut.  You don’t profit by rubbing it in, Jack thought.  The kid is likely down for the rest of his life.

Little weasel, though, was exactly what Billy was.  The kid was a little weasel, a little varmint, darting from place to place, looking for a little carrion here, a slow mouse or chipmunk there, or for half a sandwich somebody had thrown away and put out in the trash.  A little weasel with no self control.

But at the same time, this is Larry Santucci’s kid.  Came up with Lucy.  He could have been Jack’s kid just as easily; Jack’s own son.  You just don’t know how it’s all going to turn out.

They came through security and into the dimly lit hallway that leads to the holding cells.  There was an officer at the desk.  Jack would turn over custody, and then spend two fuckin’ hours writing the whole thing up.

“Mic check, “Billy yelled.

“Knock it off,” Jack said.  “There’s nobody to fall for that bullshit here.”

We are always just an inch away from disaster, Jack thought. The differences between us are meaningless.  The death spiral is always sucking at our feet.  The same words had saved Jack’s ass maybe thirty minutes ago.  Here those words were bullshit, just the whining of a little junkie, hungry for a fix. Though you are supposed to say “person with substance use disorder” now.  Junkie communicates stigma, and stigma is bad in this crazy new world, where up is down, down is up, and you never get to say what you really think.

That woman saved my ass, Jack said.  Maybe down is up, Jack thought.  Maybe I’m wrong, and we will all start savings each other’s ass, and maybe we really are on a highway to the sky.

“Thank you for not totally busting my ass,” Billy said, as one of the inside guys took custody and started to lead him away. “My old man was right. You are a stand-up guy.”

Jack got into the elevator and turned around in time to see the inside guy leading Billy away. Then the elevator doors closed, right in front of his face.

All of Michael Fine’s stories and books are available on MichaelFineMD.com or by clicking here.         

_____

Dr. Michael Fine

Michael Fine, MD is currently Health Policy Advisor to Mayor James Diossa of Central Falls, Rhode Island and Senior Population Health and Clinical Services Officer at Blackstone Valley Health Care, Inc. He is facilitating a partnership between the City and Blackstone to create the Central Falls Neighborhood Health Station, the US first attempt to build a population based primary care and public health collaboration that serves the entire population of a place.

He has also recently been named Health Liaison to the City of Pawtucket. Dr. Fine served in the Cabinet of Governor Lincoln Chafee as Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health from February of 2011 until March of 2015, overseeing a broad range of public health programs and services, overseeing 450 public health professionals and managing a budget of $110 million a year.

Dr. Fine’s career as both a family physician and manager in the field of healthcare has been devoted to healthcare reform and the care of under-served populations. Before his confirmation as Director of Health, Dr. Fine was the Medical Program Director at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, overseeing a healthcare unit servicing nearly 20,000 people a year, with a staff of over 85 physicians, psychiatrists, mental health workers, nurses, and other health professionals.

He was a founder and Managing Director of HealthAccessRI, the nation’s first statewide organization making prepaid, reduced fee-for-service primary care available to people without employer-provided health insurance. Dr. Fine practiced for 16 years in urban Pawtucket, Rhode Island and rural Scituate, Rhode Island. He is the former Physician Operating Officer of Hillside Avenue Family and Community Medicine, the largest family practice in Rhode Island, and the former Physician-in-Chief of the Rhode Island and Miriam Hospitals’ Departments of Family and Community Medicine. He was co-chair of the Allied Advocacy Group for Integrated Primary Care.

He convened and facilitated the Primary Care Leadership Council, a statewide organization that represented 75 percent of Rhode Island’s primary care physicians and practices. He currently serves on the Boards of Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s largest service organization for the homeless, the Lown Institute, the George Wiley Center, and RICARES. Dr. Fine founded the Scituate Health Alliance, a community-based, population-focused non-profit organization, which made Scituate the first community in the United States to provide primary medical and dental care to all town residents.

Dr. Fine is a past President of the Rhode Island Academy of Family Physicians and was an Open Society Institute/George Soros Fellow in Medicine as a Profession from 2000 to2002. He has served on a number of legislative committees for the Rhode Island General Assembly, has chaired the Primary Care Advisory Committee for the Rhode Island Department of Health, and sat on both the Urban Family Medicine Task Force of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the National Advisory Council to the National Health Services Corps.