Remotely Controlled Cars
“Our black criminals were more sinister versions of myself. I pulled myself over. Shot at myself. I booked myself in to protect Milwaukee from me.”
Our radio spit out news of an armed robbery. We were the lone pair of cops kind of nearby. My partner slung our car into drive. We rushed north on I-43. I looked east at National Avenue to watch daylight’s red thumb push Lake Michigan aside and imagine that our suspect’s dyed-red fauxhawk matched the sunrise.
Milwaukee zipped under our feet at eighty miles an hour. I savored our siren’s ping. To my left, our computer hummed, ready to spit out the history of a name or license plate or stop a car. My partner’s best chill-out look said I should stop drumming my feet on the rug. I tapped away until I learned our suspect was black. More than half of our suspects were black. Milwaukee is black. Yet the same insistent undertow dragged me down every time the radio told us to track down another black guy.
We left the highway at Locust Avenue and turned east. The suspect drove a black Toyota Corolla. The act of eyeing all the black cars driving west gave me a fifteen-straight-cups-of-coffee level high. Another black car passed. Another black suspect blanketed all us law-abiding black people in the city with a touch of suspicion. Our black criminals were more sinister versions of myself: the me who didn’t finish art school and broke into people’s houses to punish them for my failure; the me who finished art school but took up drug dealing after a handful of blown job interviews; the me who sold a couple of paintings before my friends from back home convinced me I’d make more money in stolen guns. So I pulled myself over. Arrested myself. Handcuffed myself. Shot at myself. Hauled myself to the station, where I booked myself in to protect Milwaukee from me.
Milwaukee is a ten-mansion place. We drove up to number seven’s disappointingly Corolla-less driveway and stared at the house’s pillars, which belonged on a temple. The woman who stepped out on the front porch had silver hair cut into a helmet that looked just as hard as anything bikers wore. She handed us coffee and started the anti-tour. She walked around her house and pointed out what wasn’t there.
Every time we went on an anti-tour, the part of me that preferred the semester and a half I spent in art school to the rest of my life replaced the missing items in full color. Two ruby necklaces floated a half-inch above the woman’s bedroom dresser, red ropes I matched to the suspect’s dyed hair and the sunrise. I filled the hole in her living room with a flat black forty-six-inch screen television that sucked all the room’s light into itself when powered on, and the clashing brown wooden TV stand she forgot to throw out when she bought the new set. In the future we brought these things back to her and her face relaxed instead of resting somewhere between despondent and stony.
We finished our anti-tour. We put our coffee cups back on her kitchen counter.
“The suspect’s in Brookfield heading west,” my partner said into my ear. “Let’s go.”
“There’s still no one closer than us?” I said. “How are we going to get there in time?”
“We’ll gun it,” he said.
He trusted speed above all.
We crawled an inch a minute down Oakland, then Locust. My partner’s right foot hammered the gas and brake with a pattern just short of rhythm. The other cars resisted moving out of our way as long as they could. We bounced between them until we descended the I-43 entrance ramp to ride the shoulder.
“All we have to do is hit the radius,” my partner said, “and then we’ll stop the car.”
The laptop said our suspect passed exit 297 on I-94 going seventy miles an hour: a leisurely speed that said he thought he’d never be caught. The traffic cleared out. My partner accelerated to forty. Fifty. Sixty. Our car became a steel-and-rubber arrow darting through air to reach tailgating distance so I could type one line of code, hit enter, and bring a black Toyota Corolla to its heels. We passed blue cars, red ones, tan, green. I-43 became I-94. We drove west, past Marquette’s sandy stone towers and the botanical garden’s hovering sea-green inverted bowl. We passed a black car. A Camry. So rusted out that I craved the black and tan I drank to end my career as a drinker on the day I became a cop.
The city dissolved. We hit the first ring of suburbs at eighty-five miles an hour, a speed that turned everything alongside the car into horizontal sheets of color like those paintings five year olds do of where they live. Blue stripe of sky, tan stripe of house, green stripe of lawn. The houses faded out. Every couple miles we passed a strip mall that combined with the highway to surround us in flat gray. We passed a third black car. We hit ninety. I flew faster than our car into the quiet place I always visited minutes before we confronted a suspect, where I saw how it might go down.
“Three more miles,” my partner said.
We hit the last Pewaukee strip mall and plunged into the countryside.
In one glittering version of the future only five minutes elapsed from the time we stopped the Corolla until the suspect confessed. We hauled him into the back of our car. We retraced our steps at sixty-five miles an hour. His knees bumped the back of my seat but he stayed quiet. My partner and I silently celebrated his presence and the ease with which we’d hacked into his car.
In my darkest dream he denied committing the robbery and presented a clean trunk and a feasible alibi. My partner and I asked him three versions of the same set of questions. He denied everything monosyllabically and then stopped talking to us. We hauled him in only to learn that the real thief was a similar-looking guy who drove an identical car a hundred miles further west in the hour we wasted.
We approached the Corolla. My partner flashed the lights and made a hand signal to give the driver the chance to stop himself before we took over, but he didn’t.
I typed in the code and hit enter.
The Corolla dropped to forty, thirty, twenty.
My partner and I high-fived. We’d hacked into our first car.
The clock in my head counted down the seconds until I had to leave the car. My mood plunged with it. I opened my door.
I prepared myself to be visually punched by the suspect’s red hair. The driver had brown hair that someone might call red if they squinted at him at sunset, which would have fit had the crime been committed then. It was shaved short on the sides but not long enough in the middle. I’d call it a too-narrow flat-top, not a fauxhawk. Our suspect was dark-skinned, and this guy was too light. I never looked at dark-skinned people and thought of peanut butter. He wore a black suit and a shirt with cufflinks that winked at me. His clothes screamed guy too rich to bother robbing a house. But, like the suspect, he drove a Corolla that would rust out in a year with a license plate that started with “E.” He rolled down his window. I shook off a neck twitch.
“License and registration,” I said.
He handed them over without a word, looked up, and gave me the nod. His chin floated halfway to his neck and back up. Suddenly we were in this together. Two black men who’d drifted beyond Milwaukee into a part of Wisconsin where we wouldn’t see anyone who looked like us for fifty miles. Before I could stop myself I nodded back. His face relaxed. Mine did too.
I went back to our car, documents in hand, ready for a spin through whatever results the computer threw at me. The passing cars clicked over the sort of gap in concrete they would have rolled over soundlessly if they were doing forty instead of seventy. A two-room bar aimed its broken Miller Lite sign at me. I was annoyed at myself for seeing cracks in a perfectly orderly scene.
“A lawyer, huh?” my partner said.
He turned away from the computer to google the car’s owner on his phone. He produced an office headshot of the guy in the car.
“You never know.”
“Yeah, but . . . ”
I looked back at our lawyer, who sat in his car, typing on a Blackberry I didn’t spot when I first looked through his window.
“She didn’t describe a lawyer,” my partner said.
“She described a person who at least kind of looks like that guy.”
“You really think it’s him?”
I let that question sit for a couple of minutes. I fingered the documents, puzzled as to how a plastic-coated card and a slip of paper could feel so warm against my hand.
After we confirmed that the lawyer entered his office at 4 that morning and left at 6:45 to visit a client in Watertown, I dismissed him with an apology.
“No problem,” he said. “Enjoy your day.”
Our suspect meandered past the cornfields between us and Madison, knowing it was unlikely that we’d find him since we hadn’t yet. He probably eyed his car radio clock as if it were a bomb for the first hour after he left her house. But by now he’d probably pounded a fist into his cup holder in triumph.
My stomach flickered.
My partner executed the world’s quickest three point U-turn. Before I took another conscious breath, he steered us back on the highway, where our eighty-five-mile-an-hour pace felt a million times more urgent than before. His whistle said we would still find the suspect in twenty minutes, half an hour. Before he hit Madison. There was heaviness between my eyes and another blink of pain shot through my head. I knew I should watch the cars, but for a second I could only close my eyes.
We accelerated until the silos disintegrated into white slashes and the grass into a flat green needle and everything outside the car blurred into nothing, and all the noise inside stabbed me: computer pings, radio growls, my partner’s incessant whistling.
“Three more miles,” my partner said.
The nothing outside the car cleaned my head: washed it, spun it, wrung it dry.
My partner flashed our car lights. He made the hand signal.
I typed a line of code and hit enter.
The Corolla slowed.
Our earlier mistake dirtied the pure joy I should have felt then, but my tapping right foot kicked a hair of fresh energy into the rest of me.
The Corolla stopped. We stopped.
I crunched through half the gravel between our squad car and the Corolla before another flare rose up between my eyebrows. The suspect’s hair was a flatter red than I’d pictured. The watered down red of a sweatshirt washed five hundred times. I closed my eyes and saw the same red cover everything. Another day, another black suspect, another couple of seconds to hate this guy as much as possible before I had to start talking to him. I opened my eyes. The driver’s side neck rest had a tomato red cover. The driver’s hair was gray and wavy. We’d pulled over a white guy. On cue my mind flashed white, then calculated how much farther west the real suspect had traveled while we drove in the wrong direction.
I looked at my partner and pointed to the driver. My partner’s eyes bugged out. The driver peered up at me with the supreme confidence of those who understand that the police have made a mistake before his face shifted into disdain. Something dark awakened in my chest. All the other people we pulled over in my three months on the job reacted normally. Their faces filled with nerves, anger, frustration. Not disdain. I was a cop. I couldn’t just be dismissed. I clenched my right fist as if I’d hit him or his car. But it was time to wave him away and rush west.
From my seat I eyed his car one last time. The trunk was angled oddly. Not quite shut. Hiked up a little on the right like a woman’s ill-fitting skirt. It didn’t matter. It was past time to go.
We floored it. Meanwhile, in our rearview, the driver waited a couple of minutes before pulling back onto the road in one smooth arc. In my mind, I shackled him. Threw him up against his car trunk. Punched him in the back. Erased that disdain.
We returned to a speed that turned the countryside into dashes of color, but I couldn’t recapture a speck of my former giddiness. Even grass looks suspicious when there’s a suspect driving past it somewhere. My partner barked at our radio and I told him off in my head for insisting we could catch the guy when we started out so far away. The entire debacle started to resemble a trip to the dentist’s office. Our siren turned into an amped-up version of the drill; the radio chaos tripped-out Muzak, our frantic dive west mimicked the descent of a sharp metal instrument from the tool tray to my mouth.
“We can still do this,” I said.
“Yes,” said my partner.
The radio emitted a steady stream of information about other crimes. I knew we were both thinking how inconvenient it would be if we had to chase the suspect off the highway into the country.
There are two Wisconsin countrysides and they lay atop each other like slices of sandwich bread. The first one is the advertised countryside, an idyllic place where lakes are calm, cherries picked, rivers kayaked, tents staked. The second is a labyrinth for a pair of cops tailing a suspect, an unholy mess of lettered country roads and unmarked rural ones two lanes wide. It’s easy to get stuck behind an industrial-sized tractor or lose your way because all the silos look the same. We could disappear there for hours without finding anything other than endless acres of cornfields. Alternatively we could find the suspect, which might tamp my fury. Or not. I wiped the disdain off that asshole’s face. I wiped the … I wiped …
I looked out the window, determined to find something to appreciate among the grass. My partner worked the radio. He snapped his fingers. I listened harder. The suspect left the highway at exit 275, Sullivan/Ixonia, to drive north at fifty miles an hour, a trajectory that started in the middle of nowhere and would take all three of us to the exact same place. My partner whistled the whistle which meant we hit ninety.
We left the highway and ditched two traffic lanes, turning the entire view cornfield green. I usually looked into green fields and imagined other pleasant green things: fresh spring grass, my favorite sweatshirt, the vines that crawled up the walls of the apartment building next to mine. But because we had no suspect in our backseat, black replaced the green: I saw the Corolla parked between the corn, on the road as a mirage that materialized and disappeared in front of us, in the parking lots of the bars we passed. The suspect’s black face replacing that disdainful white one. Me loathing both of them equally.
We passed a pickup with blue paint so worn it almost looked translucent. We passed a dark brown sedan with a motor that sounded like a buzzsaw. The black Corolla jumped from fingernail size to palm size in a blink. I tasted my last black and tan. I needed another.
Two black Camrys turned onto our road from the same gravel driveway. Five seconds earlier there was nothing between us and the Corolla other than a stretch of road we had to defeat. Now we had to get two other cars out of the way. We tailgated the first car. When the driver didn’t stop my partner looked over at me.
I entered a line of code.
I entered an identical line of code.
My partner flashed the car lights, then a hand signal. The driver didn’t stop.
We looked at each other with frozen faces, our minds busy estimating what it would take to get the driver to the side of the road. We eyed the line of Toyotas. Three in a row. Our suspect up front. All of us hustling north.
My partner swerved into the empty southbound lane and roared forward. Our car engine let out a growl, then a whine. I held my breath. The two Camrys traveled together, within tailgating distance of each other and the Corolla. My partner and I were six year olds with joysticks playing a virus-laden game of Frogger, forcing us to send the frog careening into traffic at unnatural, curved angles. My partner turned his joystick right so the nose of our car cut in between the second Camry and the Corolla just before a semi-trailer truck rose into view in our lane maybe two minutes away.
The Corolla sped up. The second Camry slowed, but not enough. The semi in our lane let out a foghorn honk.
My partner winked at me. He sideswiped the second Camry. Our cars pressed against each other until he executed one final scrape in front of the semi’s nose and came flying up in front of the Camry, missing the semi by a couple of feet. Our tangle with the Camry sent my side of the car rushing up to meet me. My first instinct was to scream but police officers don’t scream and I wasn’t going to be called a wimp for the rest of my career. I entered a line of code to stop the Camrys. Nothing.
The Camry behind us finally braked. Its wheels sounded dense in their slide across concrete.
Our car stopped. The red-haired suspect disappeared over the hills. Our car hood smoked. I left the car to find a tree. A sickly one I could destroy.
In my head I wasn’t punching a dying maple tree; I laid into the suspect’s car trunk until the center caved in like a smile. I cracked his driver side window and reached in through the broken glass and punched his face until it looked just like his car trunk and his arms and legs went still. Before I became a cop, I promised myself that I would never be one of those cops that hit anyone. I was no longer sure that was true. Every single encounter we had with a suspect was like jumping off a diving board, realizing your form had come unglued in mid-air and not knowing how you’d land. Even if violence wasn’t warranted, all the uncertainty involved in confronting the armed and dangerous meant it felt tolerable. And my fists ached for blood, craved it, drew it out of the maple tree’s flying splinters and worthless hide.
I came back to earth, where I was punching a tree instead of killing a guy. Earth wobbled on an axis that lay directly underneath my feet. My partner shot me the same look he used for people who were crazy. My stomach heaved, resettled.
We couldn’t re-enter our car because its hood still kicked out smoke, so we walked down the road to call the station and have someone pick us up.
“We fucked up anyway,” my partner said.
“What do you mean we fucked up?”
“That wasn’t the guy.”
“Who the fuck else has hair that color?”
“The woman at the house lied. The guy who stole all her stuff was a white guy, wavy gray hair, little on the thick side, also driving a black Corolla.”
“The second guy.”
My partner allowed a complicit silence to fill the air.
“How do we know she lied?”
“She started crying on the phone during her second call to the station.”
“Jesus, man. People cry. Big fucking deal.”
The second, correct Corolla drove under my closed eyelids. My temples sparked with pain.
“When people aren’t telling the truth they usually don’t give us that much detail about their divorce.”
I saw myself stepping up to the driver’s side window of the second black Corolla again, less than a foot from the white guy. I cuffed him. I dragged him into the backseat of our car. His mouth crumpled when we presented him with the evidence: the TV stand, worn and brown, jammed into his trunk at the sort of impossible angle that popped it back open. I smiled the second that disdain left his face. And then I stopped smiling, because our quest no longer made any sense. We couldn’t have possibly chased two random guys all over Wisconsin for an inside job.
“You fucking serious?” I said.
“Where is he?”
“West of Madison. We’re never going to get there, but. . .”
“We’re the closest pair to him.”
Nothing felt real anymore: not the smoke that still rose from our car trunk, nor the wrecked maple tree on my right, or the idea that she couldn’t just tell us her ex did it to begin with.
I was the asshole who demonized all the black guys in Milwaukee as if everything terrible that ever happened should come down on their heads. I was the idiot that didn’t ask disdain man what he had in his trunk. His ex-wife sat at home with her helmet hair and the same fake concerned frown she had on when she lied to us. He approached Minnesota. I was a black cop who destroyed trees.
If I was going to be one of those cops I could have a drink when I got home. A black and tan. Two of them. Three.
We drove west. My partner accelerated himself back into glee. My mouth tasted like cardboard. We had fifty miles to go. The prairie stepped aside for our car. We stormed past its green passivity. The computer stayed as active as my mind. Both of us calculated numbers and distances and possibilities and so many types of color.