Bible In A Bag
Dante Bryce Johns
Break

The media gave it play for two days, which is just about par for cop-involved shootings nowadays. This time the victim was Damien Robinson, an eighteen-year-old with the mind of a ten-year-old. What Damien reached for in his little brown paper bag was a bible, not the handgun that police officer Brandon Whitfield claimed to have perceived in the tricky shadows of that night. For the first time in his eleven-year cop career, Officer Whitfield fired his weapon in the line of duty. Damien bled out in about seven minutes, all the while clutching the bible to his chest.

Late one night he came into the bar where I worked and ordered a shot with a beer back. Even though he was out of uniform, I recognized him immediately because he lived in the same neighborhood where I'd lived for over three years. It was a normally slow Wednesday night, and he was my only customer.

"How's a bartender afford a $300,000 house?" he asked when I brought him his drinks. We'd never talked to each other during the three years we'd been sort of neighbors—which is not unusual in the suburbs of Southern California—yet his off-the-wall question didn't surprise me.

"My mother went to Europe after my father died, and hasn't returned yet. I'm house sitting."

He poured the whiskey down his throat then pushed the empty glass towards me for a refill. "Goodie for your mother," he said.

I lifted the whiskey bottle from the well and refilled his shot glass. "Haven't seen you in here before," I said.

"I don't sleep good," he said. "I took a walk."

"Job stress?"

"Not any more. No more streets. They gave me a desk job."

"Is that a good thing?"

"They think I fucked up. What's your opinion?"

"My opinion?"

"Yeah. Everybody's made me the bad guy of the month. What's your opinion?"

A friend once told me that because 'mixology' rhymes with 'psychology' is the reason drinkers get the two professions confused. I argued that probably nobody has ever asked a psychologist to serve up a Tequila Sunrise.

"I wasn't there," I said.

He nodded. "Damn right you weren't there. Nobody was. Just me and that kid."

"You did what you did. I got no opinions on that."

"Goodie for you," he said, then downed the fresh whiskey and quickly drank the glass of beer. I thought he'd be on the way out then and I could watch the eleven o'clock news. Instead, he slid the empty glasses towards me and told me to fill 'em up. I set him up again. It was apparent he wanted to talk some more. I hoped for a different topic of conversation.

"I got two boys," he said. "One of them's retarded."

"What?"

"I know it's not right to use that word anymore, but what the fuck. My son's learning-challenged, just like that boy I shot."

I think of myself as a good bartender. A professional. I can talk up the local teams. I know the stats, the players. You want to talk Padres or Chargers? I'm your man. C'mon Whitfield, let's talk football.

"I'm sorry to hear that, man. It's gotta be tough," I said.

"You got a kid like that, life ain't normal. Your marriage ain't normal. It's a whole different ball game."

"You do what you gotta do."

"Yeah."

He carefully poured the whiskey from the shot glass into his glass of beer, then swirled it around to mix things up, giving the process some quiet consideration. I took advantage of the idle moments to grab a bar rag and wipe down the bartop, moving away from him a bit. I'm cautious around bummed-out drinkers. My instinct is to give them space.

"It's those last few seconds that haunt me," he said, almost to himself.

"What's that?"

He took a couple of healthy swallows from the glass, then set it on the bartop with both hands wrapped tight around it. His head was down.

"What do they call it? An epiphany?"

"I don't know what you—"

"What scares the shit out of me is that I may have understood what that kid was all about just moments before I pulled the trigger."

"Don't dwell on it," I said. "Whatever happened, happened. Life goes on."

He looked directly at me then. "It must have been in his eyes— No way I wouldn't recognize it. I've lived with it for years."

"You'd never have pulled the trigger then. You'd have seen the bible, not a gun."

Looking startled, he stood up. "Why am I talking to you?" he said, too loudly. "You don't know shit."

After he walked out, I poured myself a little glass of scotch with a couple of rocks. I understood the tack his mind was taking, even tried for a moment to imagine the hell he was talking himself into, but I'm not a priest, I don't do demons. I'm just a bartender.

Dante Bryce Johns is a mixologist living in and around the Orange County area of Southern California. Between gigs he writes haiku and paints delicate watercolor renderings of copulating sea birds.