This all started when my doppelgänger up and died. He wasn’t an absolute doppelgänger, but he was a near-near doppelgänger. My name is Ned Leaven. His name was Ned Leavan. We looked almost exactly the same, like two identical twins ripped from the same womb. Sandy hair, short, a thicket of back hair, chlorine eyes, small pupils, red in the face, tiny little corn kernel teeth, unhealthy amounts of gingivitis as a result of tiny contact points. I mean, the guy was my age, a couple months younger in fact.
What happened was this: broadsided on the Beltway sunny-blue-skied-day, middle of the afternoon. You’d think it was a drunk, some SUV Beemer, some rich guy texting his eighteen-year-old mistress. Nope. Pen pusher fell asleep at the wheel on his way home from work—allergy medicine or some such. Crash, boom, bam. Over for Mr. Ned Leavan. Father of two. Lived one point two six miles away. Just like me, minus the internal stuff (which nobody really cares about, let’s be honest).
So what did I do? I sent the usual—flowers and a consolation note, but what can you really do or say in such a situation? Nothing. I signed the card “Ned”—only “Ned”—so as to not dredge up reminders for the mourning family. I didn’t dare breathe a mention of the fact that I look exactly like Ned.
At the time I was unemployed—about eight or nine months of that poo-poo, actually. Received the pink slip (it wasn’t pink, and it wasn’t a slip) from the contractor. Kaput. Seventeen years and say-o-nora. My life was watching Judge Judy. Doing errands for wifey at one in the afternoon. It wasn’t emasculating exactly—it was just dull. I was bored out of my freaking gourd. And it was, probably, a wee bit emasculating, also. At forty-nine Einstein was Einstein. Ford was building cars and anti-Semitism. Disney was up to his elbows in Mickey Mouse money. I was pushing a squeaky cart through Food Lion in my Tivos, which incidentally smelled of old lake mud and fish scales.
But Ned Leavan. His death sent a crackly lightning bolt through my noggin. Here’s a guy who looked like me, lived like me. Was me. And then there he is feeding the grass at St. John’s Cemetery. We’d see each other at the ballgame or the summer lake concert or the big box stores and shake and nod and laugh about the names, the whole doppelganger thing. “When have you seen the milkman?” he’d go. He meant our secret father, though we knew this wasn’t possible. We hoped. Ned was a comfort, a reminder that we’re all just a fleck of dust. And then he was dust.
So I decided I needed to truly do something in honor of the doppelganger—something productive. I shaved my hair to the skull, purchased an old blue t-shirt, which I inscribed with “Enforcer” so as to not directly challenge the authority of the authorities—and affixed my mountain bike with a flashing light and siren I bought on E-bay. I camped out at Cumulus Drive and Stratocumulus Circle (the builders had a thing for clouds) with a jug of ice water, a clicker, a clipboard, a used speed gun (also purchased on E-bay) and a bag of PB&Js.
You might find this set-up inconceivable or over-the-top, but consider that our fine neighborhood was of the involved school. Neighborhood pictures, festivals, carol singing, block parties. In an era where supposedly nobody knows their neighbors, we knew them all-too-well Wifey and I. So when I began issuing “tickets”—though I referred to them as “issuances” (which perhaps smacked of something both formal and less threatening) peeps didn’t think anything of it. They went along. Some (okay, many) drivers even thanked me for my presence—said it helped “calm the traffic.” This in lieu of a sign saying, “Traffic Calming,” which wouldn’t pass muster for the neighborhood council.
Precisely the point—calming.
But then there were those who found, let’s just say, less to go along with. The speeders, the honkers, the players of loud abrasive music, the fail-to-signal-properly.
I had a template.
I had an eye narrowed on even the slightest infraction. Broken window theories and all.
So there I was, standing in the shade, barely visible, under the sweetgum. Waiting.
The first three days, not much happened. No issuances (which was for the best, since the form was a work-in-progress), only some “slow down” gesturing on my part. Most smiled and waved, waved and smiled. I got the finger from two teenagers, one of which you’ll get to know soon. Otherwise, I wondered if my efforts were productive at all.
Wifey wondered the same.
Eating sweet potatoes and sausage (I did the cooking) out on the deck, leafy shadows wriggling about overhead. Wifey looked beaten-down and haggard from her day’s work.
“Please remind me what you are trying to prove exactly,” she said, tilting her head. The slightest of shit eating grins—I knew that one.
“Nothing really. Just something to do to pass the time.”
I don’t get into doppelganger politics with Wifey—I know better.
“Why don’t you try another head hunter? Something more directly useful. Something else that, you know, pays.”
I didn’t want to get into that song and dance, either.
“I’m using the search engines….”
“But they have other methods.”
“I know, but if the first one didn’t work….”
“Try another one.”
“I need to be patient.”
I knew she wanted me to return to a gainful state of employment as much for her sanity as mine. Plus, our savings account was hemorrhaging like a third rate actor in some Tarantino sword fight.
“This is just to occupy myself,” I say.
“So it’s masturbation then.”
I ate my sausage. Sprinkled more salt and pepper on the sweet potato. It felt good to squish the potato meat with my fork.
On the fourth day I was actually needed. I arrived at seven thirty a.m.—I was out of the house before the wife was. At seven forty-seven (approximately) a red Buick Skylark clipped through the Stratocumulus stop sign and turns left directly toward me. I step out into the intersection immediately, my hand stretched out like Earl Campbell throwing a stiff arm. The Skylark slammed its brakes to avoid making me a permanent part of the pavement. The guy rolled down the window, threw up his hands and slammed them back down on the steering wheel.
“What the hell are you doing?” Spit jets from his mouth.
“Please don’t use profanity in the presence of a peacekeeping force,” I said. I wanted to use “officer,” but chose not to self-incriminate.
“Since when is ‘hell’ profanity? What is this, 1951? If you want me to use profanity, believe me, I can. And why are you standing in the middle of the freaking road? That’s my beef.”
But at that point I was already scribbling, checking boxes, and filling out license plate information. Just like they do. And to my surprise he offered up his registration.
Billy Forester, age twenty-one. Five ten, curly hair, bad skin. Sticker from the community college on his rear windshield. Smoking a cigarette. I hand him his registration back.
“This is an issuance—it’s a warning. Next time it goes directly to the county police. You need to make sure you come to a full stop at any and all neighborhood stop signs. Children live here. And please refrain from cursing—it’s unseemly.”
“It’s what? An issuance? So it’s fake?” “So,” she liked “so.”
“I report to the county police,” I said. A slight exaggeration, but not that far-fetched.
“So, you’re a rent-a-cop or something? Security staff hired by the home owner’s association?”
I ignored this comment. “Have a nice day.”
“Whatever, Mr. Enforcer man. I’m heading to a job interview.” He didn’t move. Perhaps it wasn’t not exactly of the highest order. Perhaps he wasn’t in a hurry.
“Well, good luck,” I said.
“It can’t be worse than the Pizza Shack. Those people treat you like slaves.”
“If you get the position,” I said.
“Thanks for the boost of confidence.” But he said this with such low affect that I wasn’t sure if it was sarcastic or straight. He nosed his jalopy off down the road. Not a bad kid, I thought. Just needed to learn a few things. He’d do better next time.
I was pleased by my trial run. Too pleased, I’m sure.
Squatted in the grass in the shade with my radar and my eye on the stop sign. Do enforcers have an innate personality? Is there a natural enforcer psychology that I just happened into by dumb luck? I never thought of myself as an enforcer, but at that point I was one—or at least trying to be. Do enforcers find inherent value in a bylaw? Does this excite them? I’ve always believed there is no inherent value; perhaps I was wrong about that. Perhaps, I thought, enforcing the law is just another way of finding meaning in meaninglessness. If I hand out an issuance does this establish a façade–logic to illogic? Perhaps.
Do what you’re thinking. Be in the moment. Fill in the cliché. I was there for Ned, I told myself.
This does give me meaning, I thought. I’m here doing good, helping society, one small agent of positivity in a world steeped in the opposite.
And just as I thought this I saw a red Chevy Suburban barreling down Cumulus at thirty-eight (speed limit is twenty). I threw up my hands, stepped out into the street—just like before. Sweat slavered down my back. “The Enforcer” now scrawled on my shirt, my speed gun in both hands. I yanked the clipboard out from behind my shorts and clicked my ballpoint, the point of it glinting in the sunshine.
I could’ve stayed there all day and all night, frankly, but my body eventually craved sustenance and I was charged with providing it.
At five thirty I packed it in, biked the half a mile back home.
Stood at the stove for forty minutes making a light pasta—a little shrimp and veggies. If I had my druthers I’d eat standing up, over the sink. Or pop a giant nutrient pill like they did on the Jetsons.
Wifey came home and we ate in front of the game—lest conversation ruin a good thing. Didn’t have to think with the sound blaring. She complimented my cooking during an AT&T commercial. I smiled and chewed, and it was pleasant. Atmosphere management works with forty somethings as well as toddlers.
After dinner we flipped through magazines and I half-watched the game. It was, as often is the case, as if we lived in a waiting room. We were biding time, waiting for something exciting to happen to our lives. Other than my layoff, nothing rarely did. And even the layoff was no big deal in the larger scheme of things. We were still eating. We could pay the bills.
Driving around town I sometimes fantasied that something tragic would happen to us—anything to break up the ruthless monotony. My fantasy extravaganza usually landed on house fire—a blazing cauldron, everything up in smoke. She’d blame me; I’d blame her—we’d have a reason to go our separate ways.
Boredom is not inconsequential.
Vacations are the worst: relationship building, long slow passages of time, extensive magazine flipping. It’s boredom layered on boredom—a ennui layer cake.
Sally Carruthers became a frequent nemesis all-too-soon (I referred to her as Sally Struthers). Mauve mini-van, little stick figure decal family on the rear window, perky blonde dye do. And Sally drove like a race car driver.
The first time she drove so fast I couldn’t stop her—she was by me before I could even step to the curb much less off it. She must’ve been doing forty-five, fifty. The next time I saw her coming I threw up my hands early and the speed gun. And lunged out into the street. She slammed on her brakes, popped her window open.
“What do you want?” She toyed with her hair seductively, beneath the coating of nervousness. Her hands gesticulated as if she imbibed one too many lattes.
“I think you know. You were speeding, ma’am.”
“And who are you? I am in a rush and I have to move.” The edge of flirtation ceased entirely.
“I’m the enforcer. I’m a representative of the law.”
She rolled her eyes. “You don’t represent squat. Just a guy.”
I wrote quickly and didn’t look up, as to expedite the proceedings before she ran over my feet.
“And why are you in such a hurry?” I flicked my eyes into the foreground for a half a second. Her car looked as though somebody lived in it, which in a sense they did.
“That’s none of your business.”
I handed her the issuance.
“Gotta be kidding me. This looks like it was made by a third grader.”
I shrugged. She was right about that.
“Please slow down before you hurt someone. You’re going twice the speed limit. May land you in prison. Is that what you want?”
She shrugged back. Her tires did a little mini-squeal as she took off.
I don’t for the life of me understand why people simply cannot follow the law. That’s why it’s called “the law.” It rules, not you. When you are dead like Ned, it will continue. What’s right is, after all, what’s right. You can question it all you want, but you have to ultimately live with it, embrace it. The law has been decided for you; your job is to follow it.
On my issuance, I had a rational application of the real law, a warning system which, if adhered to would result in greater compliance. I attempted to convey this to the district station, but their responses were thin and far between. I understood—they had other more important fish to fry. Sizzle, sizzle. They were professional enforcers out doing their enforcing thing and I was just a peon. But.
When I’m on the road, I thought, I abide. I’m possibly one of the only few who does. Everyone around me is going fifteen miles an hour faster, no signaling, abusing their horns, their headlights. Ignoring yields. If I could I would’ve handed each one of them an issuance (I even went so far as to fantasize a scenario whereby I could text an issuance to each offender—someday, I’ll zap those jerks someday).
Nobody respects the law.
I know why this is: we think we can do without it. That is until you need it—until that moment when we are victimized and want justice. Then we embrace it, except for the looters and the roustabouts who continue to abuse the law to their own advantage.
Speeding is no different to me than rape or murder. If a law is broken, a law is broken.
That night an e-mail from dispatch: “please stop sending your reports. We are overwhelmed.” “Overwhelmed” will not stop me.
Then there was Eduard Gomez and William Wallace—or maybe it was Wallace William (I forget): These guys didn’t speed; they stopped and yielded—but they drove so far under the speed limit, their vehicles were all-but-stopped. Backing up traffic. Causing a nuisance. They were the twin sloths of the neighborhood and any time I saw either one of them galumphing down Cumulus I sighed. It was as if they were leading a funeral procession of their own making. And it meant a gravy train of pissed drivers behind them—kneading steering wheels, flashing lights, complaining, yelling “what is this shit?”
Each received an issuance, politely, slowly, and without particular remorse.
It wasn’t until later I realized they were doppelgangers themselves, of a sort—and that they might not even know of each other’s existence.
“Do you consider yourself a hero or something?”
This was Fran, the retired second grade teacher. She was lucky to be five feet, squat and wrinkled. She walked with a limp and wore mirrored sunglasses so dark and reflective I could see myself in her eyes from yards away.
“No, just helping out,” I said.
“Am I what?” It was hot and I dripped with thick sweat even in the shade.
“Are you really helping out? Do I have to do all the work around here?”
I told her about Ned and his tragic fate. I told her about unemployment checks and the relentless grimace on wifey’s mug. I told her about the need to Enforce, the whole Enforcer personality thing.
Hands on arthritic hips, she listened—or pretended to. No nodding or verbal cues, just eyeball-to-eyeball—Gunsmoke listening.
“All that is well and good,” she said. “But you’re not the police.”
I had heard this before.
“That is true,” I said. “I am the man before you get to them. I’m the Enforcer. That’s what—”
“Your warnings—they don’t have any teeth, see what I mean? So what’s the point?”
I didn’t have an answer for that. I stood and stared blankly at the stop sign, at the curb.
“Just helping out,” I said.
“I’m Mrs. Straight,” she said. She pointed. “I live over there. My eye is on you.” As if she only had one.
And so it went. All day I was “out at the corner,” as Wifey said. It was true, not dismissive exactly. I wasn’t a pimp. I wasn’t selling little baggies of oregano or crushed aspirin. I was attempting to instill order, to straighten out.
“And what about the job situation? I mean, I don’t mind—it’s just…”
I ignored questions of this sort.
I know she wanted to say: “We’re losing money every month. You realize that, don’t you? Savings only goes so far. And then what?”
But she didn’t. She offered up a modicum of restraint. I loved her at that moment.
The back of my mind processed the rest. I wanted to curse, but didn’t.
“Honey biscuit,” I said.
Out on the Cloud intersection I had my usual array of debutants, pumpkin heads and flakes. And it was searing and sticky, which had me chasing the shade.
Then, at four in the afternoon, just before I was going to call it quits there, suddenly, was Fran with her toady personality and Eagle eyes.
“I have put a call in,” she said. She stood in the pool of sun, just at the lip of the shoulder, as if that would intimidate me.
“Uh-huh,” I said, wiping my brow. My water was warm; I itched from the weeds and gnats and dandelion spores.
“The police dontcha know. They are very curious as to what it is you are doing here making claims about being a policeman.”
“One. I never claimed to be a policeman. And two, we’re in regular contact,” I said. “It’s a matter of fact.”
“The officer I spoke to had never heard of you or your project.”
“Well, they’re busy, aren’t they? I’m sure it is a lot for them to keep track of. You know how it goes.”
She limped from the sun, closer to me into a small oval of shade drooping down from the birch tree.
“Let me be frank,” she said. “I don’t think you are in full possession of your marbles. Sitting out here all day bossing people around—that is not your job. And nobody asked for it. Nobody wants your help.”
I waved her off. I wanted to tell her that I’m addressing an obvious need—hasn’t she seen the way people drive these days? Hasn’t she opened her eyes? But you can’t teach an imbecile the history of the French Revolution.
“And furthermore,” she continued. The vein in her neck popped and her face looked mottled and bloodshot. “You strike me as someone who suffers from a complex. You’re trying to overcome something here by telling my neighbors what to do. Take up a hobby or something, will you? It’s not our fault.”
What I wanted to say but didn’t was that they were my neighbors too—that’s the whole point. I wanted to tell Fran about my dead doppelganger and duty and how I may be floundering but the whole complex thing is a projection, an invention. Plus, she’s no high bastion of society, I wanted to say. Clearly.
But I said nothing. I decided the high road was best for all concerned—otherwise I’d have to throw her into the lake.
“Thank you for your feedback,” I said, waving to her.
This was the beginning of the end though: I could tell. She had a thread and I was the sweater.
Two days later Officer Statton was introducing himself and issuing me a ticket (a real ticket) for impersonating a police officer. Tall man with shoulders as wide as the doorway, hair cut skull-tight.
“But how am I impersonating you? I wasn’t wearing a uniform. The forms are different. My shirt clearly says ‘Enforcer,” not ‘Police.’” I didn’t want to argue, but I was hoping to find some way to continue the progress I had made.
His face was a bland, uninterested prairie. “That’s what we are, sir,” the officer said. “We enforce.”
I had to remove myself from the corner and the neighborhood in general in terms of staking my claim to any sort of ticketing or traffic stoppages. I could only return without my gear as a “normal civilian.”
Such is life, I knew even then.
I’m not going to offer some grand denouement which spins everything just mentioned into some kind of meaningful, tidy little package so you can feel better about yourself and your own pathetic insights and judgments. I’m not going to lie to you.
My wife left me a few months after my enforcing stint ended and I was forced to sell the house, as a result of my lack of employment. Luckily I got just under one hundred K from the proceeds, which was more than enough to pay the rent on a shabby little one bedroom for a while (I sleep on a blow-up mattress on the floor). It bought beer, also. My wife won’t talk to me; she says I’m bad juju. She wishes I would just roll over and croak.
As for a job, I hear the pizza shack is hiring dishwashers, and I may even apply. There are worse things. I always was good with my hands and it might be healing in some way (though the thought of wet, gnawed-upon food bits floating in the water near my arms makes me quasi-nauseous).
Sometimes I head back into the old neighborhood and sit at my old corner. I bring a counter and just count the cars go by with a single click of my thumb. No issuances, no pretenses of anything other than watching. Nobody notices me and now that its fall I stand to keep the blood flowing. The grass is stiff with frost during the mornings. It will be winter soon, and then spring again. Next year can only be better, can’t it?