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**CURRENT PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006.
**WEB: CONTAINERS Jonathan Messinger

Jonathan Messinger

Messinger's first book, the story collection Hiding Out, is due this October. He hits the road early, though, in September -- watch for his appearance at THE2NDHAND's Birmingham Art Walk reading 7 Sept 2007 on 1st Avenue N downtown. Messinger is the publisher behind Featherproof Books and books editor at Time Out Chicago.

Tonight's dead guy? Just another dead guy. Stabbed twice, once in the back, once in the front. It's not as unusual as it sounds, there were probably two assailants, the knife wounds are different sizes, so they tell me. Once all the boys are done putting up their yellow tape and guessing at what's what, I get into my crouch. I'm the youngest guy on the force, which is why I'm on this particular detail. I'm the only one who can squat without his belly buffing the pavement shiny and new. I take out my chalk, which has been used so many times it's almost as wide as it is long.

McGinnity, a wiseass older cop, yells out, "Hey Simons, nice chalk! Is that what your prick looks like, too?"

"That is my business," I tell him. And for some reason everyone laughs. When I'm chalking a dead guy, I think of it as putting him in a box. I'm containing all that pain inside these white walls, so it doesn't get out into the world, or so it doesn't follow whatever it is that leaves this guy's body to wherever it is that it goes. I don't know if any of it makes sense, but it gives me some purpose. Lets me leave work at work, and death with the dead.

I'm no artist. Far from it. It's just part of the job of being on homicide. Not many agencies bother chalking stiffs anymore, forensic science and digital photography being what they are. But we do things differently around here, old-school and antique. Our chief thinks Ptolemy was the man. We would find water with fallen tree branches if there were any trees left in this city.

DecomP Magazine

On the ride back to the station, my partner Henrich and I get into an argument about whether you can die in your own dreams. I say you can.

"Scientists have proven that you can't, it's not possible," says Henrich.

"Scientists have been wrong," I say. "I know. I've died."

I tell Henrich about first time it happened, I was in sixth grade. It was three months after a gym class when we all had to climb a rope attached to the ceiling. Aiko Tahara, the girl who had just slid a boomerang-shaped piece of paper into my locker, had climbed all the way to the top. I cheered her on I was so ecstatic with pride, and all the boys laughed because I couldn't hide how into Aiko I was. But I figured what's love without enthusiasm? On the way back down the rope, her harness slipped and so did Aiko, falling 30 feet onto her back. She landed the way non-living things hit, heavy and flat. The 20 kids, we all stared at her like it was a joke. Like something was going to change. All of the girls cried, and a few of the boys. I ran down the hall to fetch the nurse, and the old woman scurried behind me with her Ziploc bag of band-aids and alcohol rubs. She cried, too.

Three months later, Aiko came back to classes; the school installed wheelchair lifts all around so she could maneuver. It was humiliating for her, I could tell. We didn't talk when she first came back, and after a week I dreamt that I climbed that rope, lost my grip, and died. Not even the old wizened nurse cried.

"Man," Henrich says. "Why'd you have to tell me such a heavy story tonight?"

"Death is heavy," I tell him. "Even if it's your own."

We get an early call. It's still light outside as I throw down the emergency brake and Henrich checks his camera.

"Man," he says. "Why are we always responding to these things? Shouldn't we be preventing people from dying?"

"We are," I say. "Every time I trace a dead body someone else lives."

Henrich laughs like I'm joking. I'm not.

"Any other dreams where you die?" Henrich asks, skepticism curling his voice up in the end, like I was telling him Cincinnati is on the moon.

I tell him about this other dream, but it's a long one so I keep it short. Hit all the basics. I'm a teenager driving my car by my best friend's house when I pull over. There are trash barrels in the road so I right them in front of the house across the street. I can see a guy standing in front of a picture window shape-shifting. He's a dog, then a TV, then David Crosby. When he comes out to meet me, he looks like the MicroMachines guy, all hair on his upper lip none on his upper head. He asks to come to my house to tell my parents what a nice kid I am for fixing his trashcans and I let him. I invite him into my house. And then it turns out he's the devil and formerly dated my mother. He begins singing and wooing her and it's working. I step in to stop it and he fires a laser beam out of his eyes that projects a big medieval bearded head on the wall behind me and the two of them, the devil and this living sculpture, combine to prophecy my destruction, then they kill me. I float into the sky and watch as my house is ringed a golden light.

"What the fuck is that, man?" Henrich says. "That is the craziest thing I've heard."

"Yeah, but at least there aren't any ex-girlfriends in it," I say.

"Do a lot of your death dreams involve your exes?" he asks.

"That is my business," I say, and pull past the waving officers into the crime scene.

The guy on the ground is still wearing his hat and sunglasses, but who cares about that. He has a guitar strapped around his neck, his fingers still on the frets like the fella knew he was playing his last tune. A gunshot to his chest has spread blood all over his vest.

"Holy shit," Henrich says as he walks up, clicking photos. "You know who that is? It's Stevie Waters, you ever seen him play?"

I'm about to say, "Can't say that I have," when a woman's voice behind Henrich says, "He was my father," so I can't say anything.

"Ma'am, you'll have to stand back," says Henrich. He's right, we can't have family this close to something like this, but I don't say anything.

"I know," she says. "I just want to see him one last time."

We let her linger for a bit, and I soak her in. She's tall, brunette, face like I've seen her before. But there's something right about her. The way she carries herself, like she knows she has the goods but doesn't want to acknowledge it. I get nervous, so I do what I have to do. I get into my crouch.

"Outline his guitar, would you?" his daughter asks. "And the hat. Would you do that for me?"

"Of course," I say. As if I'd do it any other way.

Night off. I go down to Gilrein's to hear some shitty blues. But there's no band, which is fine. I just sit at the bar and let the toothless fat barmaid serve me the cheap beer they have on tap. Someone is playing the same record over and over again on the jukebox, but it's the third time through before I recognize any of the songs, fourth time before I get annoyed, fifth before I get curious. I turn to see who it is and it's Stevie Waters's kid, and she's playing the only Stevie Waters record I imagine is in existence. I turn and stare at her, crying by the jukebox, like it's my business. Why is it that I'm attracted to crying women? And I don't just mean that I am intrigued by this woman. What I mean to say is that my fallen tree branch is looking for her water.

She and I talk for what could be two hours, could be 15 minutes. She tells me that her dad was an alcoholic, but a sweet man inside. A lot of blues singers are mean bastards, but her dad always took out his anger on his guitar, nearly twisting it into a spiral every night he played.

"I can understand a man like that," I say. "A man whose work means more to him than people could possibly know."

"I knew," she says.

Last call for alcohol arrives in literally no time. There's no way of knowing how long we've been talking.

Her name is Sarah, and Sarah wants me to drive her home, but I can't drive so I hail us a cab. In the back seat, we're at opposite ends of the seat bench.

"Tell me again why you like chalking dead bodies," Sarah says to me, looking at me through the prettiest half-asleep eyes I've ever seen. Who knew you could find eyelids appealing?

"Because," I say, then search for something new to say about it all. "Because it's a last respect. It's a way to mark that someone was there, even if it washes away the next day."

She's not buying it, and neither am I.

"I do it because it's my job," I say. "And I'm good at it."

The cab driver lets Sarah off at her place, and I stay in for the four-minute ride to mine.

It's all over the newspapers: Wiseacre cop traces guitar legend-corpse with guitar in hand. The press thinks I made a mockery of Mr. Waters, as if I did it as a joke. Nothing could be further from the truth. I kept Mr. Waters' pain at bay so that he could escape, and so it wouldn't spread. But I must have done a shitty job. His pain is now mine.

"I know you didn't mean anything by it, we all do," Henrich says in the locker room. "Man, reporters don't know anything."

The chief is talking about suspending me, just for p.r. purposes. He won't do it. He'll talk about internal disciplinary hearings, and I'll never see a conference room in my life. But for now I can't leave the station during the day, only at night when the true cop reporters are working. I'm mostly worried about what Sarah thinks. She asked me to do it, but now maybe she's buying the hype? I tell Henrich all of it, even though it's none of his business.

"You're really obsessing over this girl," he says. "That's not healthy."

"Well what the fuck?" I say. "Isn't that the whole point? Aren't you supposed to care so much you're driven crazy?"

"You need to take it easy," Henrich says. "Man, you used take it so easy."

So I do. I take it easy. Even though that's the exact goddamn problem with the whole goddamned world.

That night I dream everyone tells me not to jump off a cliff and I do it 1,000 times and die 1,000 deaths and I never once survive. But it never feels wrong.

I call Sarah, but she doesn't answer. Doesn't return my messages. I have the day off again. It's a media circus, as they say, at the police station. A few reporters with cameras are staked out on the sidewalk in front of my apartment building. I wish I had empathy for celebrities back in the day, because it's hard to know how to feel about myself, trapped in a box like this. I understand now why Michael Jackson grabbed one of his kids and hoisted him over the balcony railing. I feel like Michael Jackson. In the worst way.

Another dead body pale in the dull colors of the early morning. Henrich is clicking away with his camera, but I'm not ready to get into my crouch. I take out my chalk and twirl it in my palm like I'm opening a jar. McGinnity sees me and says, "Hey Simons, you having a little performance anxiety?"

"Not at all," I say, "I'm like Michael Jackson." And for some reason no one laughs. I get into the crouch and chalk the dead guy like it doesn't matter. Because it doesn't.

Henrich and I have a few in the front seat of the cruiser, parked on the side of a road like we're a speed trap. There's no solace tonight in friendship or booze. I open the door and step out to catch a cab home. I flip Henrich the chalk and tell him to trace my assprint on the driver's seat. He giggles and I know he's doing it as I step in to the yellow taxi.

When I get home, Sarah's waiting for me. Just Sarah, no reporters at this time of night. She's standing there on my steps like it makes sense, like she's always known where I live, like I'd invited her over for a 3am bowl of soup. I walk up the steps and she doesn't move away.

"Want some soup?" I ask. She says "sure." I heat up some chicken noodle.

After we silently eat, she climbs into bed with me, and we're naked and ugly together. I may be young on the force, but my muscles have waned and there are more parts of me that droop than there are that flex. She has the same problem, but for us it's not a problem. We lay there, together, my one arm over the loose nest of her stomach and I think that we'd be odd looking, even in a painting. But it's been a long time since I've thought about being in a painting with a girl, so I don't mind. She falls asleep on her back and I can hear a soft snore coming from behind her nose, like ladybug wings.

I take out some invisible chalk, and trace the roundness of her left shoulder and down her arm, to the slight bulge of her hip and curves around her butt, down around her legs and between them just to her knees, and then around the other side. I box her as best I can. And then I sit and trace my hips, the strange flatness of my body on bed, around my feet and up to my junk and back down the other side. I get all the imperfections. I lay down and finish the job, close off my torso and head. Sarah and I, we are two containers to keep something in or out, I'm not sure. And I think that dying tonight wouldn't be so bad, so long as it's in my dreams.