In the balance of who we are and what we do, the weight of history is immeasurable.
When I was thirteen years old, my father, who was sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota, was killed in the line of duty. Five years later, at the height of the Vietnam War, I graduated from high school. In the first draft lottery since 1942, the number I drew was well above 300, high enough to ensure that I would never be called up. But I saw my friends entering military service, by choice or not, and although I had my doubts about that conflict, its legitimacy and its ultimate goal, I felt I should do my part. My widowed mother begged her only child not to go. We argued, sometimes bitterly. In the end, I agreed to a compromise. I would not go to war; instead, I would go into law enforcement, as my father had. In that way, wearing a little metal shield, I would fight the battles I believed were important.
The weight of history.
I completed an associate’s degree in criminal justice at the community college in my hometown of Aurora, Minnesota, then applied for and was accepted to the Chicago Police Training Academy. Why Chicago? It was where my father had been born and had trained and had been a cop before marrying my mother and moving to Tamarack County.
The weight of history.
The morning I headed off, just before I stepped onto the Greyhound bus idling blue exhaust in front Pflugleman’s Rexall Drugs, my mother kissed me good-bye. She put her hand on my chest over my heart. The last thing she said to me, this woman who’d been trained as a teacher and had been inordinately fond of gothic romances, was this wonderfully melodramatic parting: “Wherever you are, there I am also.”
A week before I completed my academy training, I received word that my mother had died unexpectedly, felled by an aneurysm, a burst vessel in her brain. I missed the graduation ceremony, returning home instead to bury her in the O’Connor family plot next to my father. Into the granite marker above her grave, I had chiseled her final words to me: “Wherever you are, there I am also.”
I served eight years with CPD, working mostly the South Side, before I met and married Nancy Jo McKenzie, a smart woman attending the University of Chicago Law School. When our first child was born, I brought my family back to Aurora, deep in the beautiful North Country of Minnesota, and took a job as a Tamarack County deputy. In a few years, I was elected sheriff and wore the badge my father had worn.
The weight of history.
I lost my wife in the same way I’d lost my father, to mindless violence. I used to blame myself for these tragedies, though they were events I could never have foreseen and could not have prevented. I’ve let go of this blame and others, not an easy thing, but I’ve had help, mostly from my second wife, a lovely woman named Rainy. She’s Native, full-blood Lac Courte Oreilles Anishinaabe, member of the Grand Medicine Society, a Mide, a healer. When we married, she kept her family name, Bisonette, because it has been hers for nearly half a century and is part of the way in which she thinks of herself.
Again, the weight of history.
I haven’t worn a badge or uniform in the last ten years, yet I still often find myself in the middle of situations in which my law enforcement experience and training have proven invaluable. The story I’m about to tell you is one of these. Like many of the stories from my history, stories that have so shaped my life, it begins with murder.
* * *
Rainy wears her hair long, often in a single braid that sways across the middle of her back as she walks. Her skin is light tan, but deepens in the summer. Her eyes are dark jewels, like brown topaz, and even in dim light they sparkle. She smiles often, and her laugh is exactly the sound my heart needs to hear.
Naked, as she was that evening in our bed, she was all I needed to know of heaven. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand. “Almost time for the fireworks to begin.”
I kissed her shoulder, wet and salty from our lovemaking. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve already seen them. In spades.”
She laughed, nestled against me, and I felt her heart still beating fast and strong. “We promised the kids we would join them in Grant Park. Waaboo’s looking forward to his grandfather being there. He’ll be awfully disappointed if you don’t show.”
“Duty,” I said.
“Duty,” she echoed.
The cell phone in her purse, which lay atop the dresser, began to ring. She tried to get up but I held her to me.
“Cork,” she said laughing, “I have to answer it.”
“You don’t have to do anything but give me five more minutes.”
“Cork.” Her tone made it clear our time together, at least for the moment, was at an end.
I let her go, but the cell phone had stopped ringing by then. Rainy got up, pulled the phone from her purse, and checked the display.
“It was Peter,” she said, speaking of her son. “He left a voice message.”
Peter was living in Arizona, where he’d completed a drug rehabilitation program that had worked wonders for him. He’d become a substance abuse counselor himself and was now employed in the rehab center where he’d got clean, located in a town called Cadiz, south of Tucson. I’d met him only once, the previous April, when he’d come to Aurora for our wedding. I liked him, liked him a lot. A young man who’d been through the wringer, he’d come out straightened and determined, and I thought he had a great deal to offer those in need of his kind of help.
Rainy listened to the message, and I saw her face darken. She lowered the phone and stared at it, as if it were a snake in her hand, a snake about to strike.
“What is it, Rainy?”
She lifted her eyes to me. “He killed someone, Cork.”
I swung my legs off the bed and was up and beside her in an instant. “Killed who?”
“I couldn’t hear very well. The connection was terrible. Someone named Rodriguez, I think.”
“I don’t know.”
“Where is he now?”
“He didn’t say.” She was punching in his number, her hands trembling.
“Tell him to get himself a lawyer, stat.”
“He can’t afford a lawyer.” She put the phone to her ear.
“We can. And even if we couldn’t, he needs legal counsel and he needs it now.”
She looked at the ceiling while she waited, as if praying, then looked at me. “He’s not answering.” She waited another few seconds. “Peter, it’s your mother. Call me back. Now.”
I held out my hand for the phone. “Let me listen to his message.”
She was right. It was scratchy and broken, but the name Rodriguez and the words “killed him” and “they’ll be looking for me” were all discernible.
“Okay if I try him?”
I called him back. On his end, the phone rang and rang and then went to voice mail.
“Peter, it’s Cork. Your message was garbled, so I don’t know exactly what’s happened. It sounds like someone’s been killed. Rodriguez maybe, whoever that is. And it sounds like you believe you’re responsible. You also said they’ll be looking for you. That much came through. I don’t know who’s looking for you, but if it’s the police, get a lawyer and get one now. We’ll be there just as soon as we can.”
Rainy signaled for the phone back. She took a deep breath and said, “It’s Mom, Peter. I love you. I believe in you. Whatever is going to happen, I’ll be there for you.”
She ended the call and stood staring at me, stunned. For a moment, there was not a sound in our bedroom, in our house, in our whole world. Then the first explosion of the Fourth of July fireworks in Grant Park made us both flinch.
“You’ll go with me?” she said. Some women might have been crying. All I saw in Rainy was an iron resolve.
I took her in my arms and we stood together, naked, and I felt once again the weight of history settle on my shoulders.
“Wherever you are,” I told her, “there I am also.”