It was two beers past noon when the phrase “bystanders were hit” caught his attention like a fishhook in the cheek. Bullets fired by cops, or at them, always ricocheted into the world of Karl Jommers, police psychologist. In Grayton, Ohio, a city law required every cop involved in a critical incident to get a head check, and Jommers was the designated guy who popped the hood and took a look. Bullets flying either way qualified as a critical incident, whether or not any lead hit the mark.
More often than not, such assessments were routine, like a dental checkup for a scrupulous flosser. But the news that bystanders had been shot shattered any prospect that the next few days would be routine.
The ominous words crackled out of an old tube television hanging crookedly from a ceiling bracket over in the left corner of the bar. Few ever paid much attention to the TV. It was only there to give a solitary drinker at the bar something to stare at besides the backsides of beer taps.
Larry, the ever-present owner-bartender, was struggling to handle a busy lunch crowd with only one helper. The patrons were focused on their food, drink, and small talk. And Jommers himself was engaged in his cherished practice of eavesdropping, which he believed provided more insight into the human condition than any textbook or drama ever could. The raw, unfiltered, unguarded output of ordinary conversation provided hot-wired, unauthorized access to the private places in the psyche.
Spreckels Tavern was a perfect spot for such reconnaissance, as it was one of the few remaining social neutral zones with a liquor license. It drew a motley crowd and was among the last of places where one might hear a litigation lawyer debating sports with a limestone hauler, or a certified boiler operator grousing about the state of popular music with a podiatric intern.
The TV was at the periphery of Jommers’s attention. Occupying his favorite barstool, he cocked his head slightly to aim a snooping ear and discreet glance toward the table where an office equipment sales rep was touting the benefits of a new automated letter opener, one whose exclusive tilt-and-tamp feature ensured that the top of the envelope was cleanly sliced without damaging the contents. It was the sales rep’s show going on the sales rep’s tab, but his performance was awkward, the banter slightly off. Tension in the voice. The forced chuckles. The tight face with occasional eye twitches. Jommers noted it all, even though the rep’s clients seemed not to.
The noon news had already delivered its upfront serious stuff and was now in its warm-and-fuzzy segment, something about a soccer-playing dog. So Jommers covertly stayed tuned in to the sales rep’s spiel about the tilt-and-tamp letter opener. But then soccer dog got interrupted, abruptly replaced by a live on-scene report about a police raid gone bad. Bystanders hit. Jommers jerked his head back to the TV and gave it his full attention.
Information at the moment was sketchy, and police were keeping reporters and everyone else at a distance from the scene. They had but the bare gist of it. SWAT had raided a meth lab on the East Side, and, as with war, the first casualty had been the plan. The TV reporter’s urgent voice and her spotty information suggested that the calamity was still unfolding.
A SWAT cop had once told Jommers that a raid can go wrong in all kinds of ways. Some you’ve seen. Some you’ve only heard about. Some you couldn’t even dream up. And sometimes it goes wrong in a way that can only be described using metaphors for flaming excremental deluge. Judging by the reporter’s comments, Jommers sensed this misadventure was falling into the last category.
“We’ve heard a report that some bystanders were hit by gunfire, but we haven’t been able to confirm that yet. The operation is ongoing. But . . . and this is strange . . . we’ve heard that the bystanders were not near the action. Which makes no sense. So it’s not clear how. Not clear how they were hit, that is. We can’t see much of anything from our position. We’re not sure exactly what’s happening. There’s a lot of confusion. We just don’t know. This is strange,” the reporter repeated. “Makes no sense.”
The words hung in the air like solid objects, and that was because, at some point, Jommers himself would have to make sense of it all. His interest was both professional and personal. Shots fired meant every member of SWAT would need to be interviewed separately within the coming days. His appointment calendar was suddenly fuller. But his personal concern was foremost on his mind at the moment. After performing the job for a number of years, he had seen all the SWAT guys before. They weren’t just faceless badges, they were real people. People he knew. People he liked. And now, these people that he knew and liked were in the middle of a major hell puke.
Which was why Jommers got annoyed when the office equipment sales rep shuffled up close and distracted him. The sales rep had come up to the bar to pay his check, but it was clear by his proximity that he wanted to say something.
“Oh, hey, aren’t you that psychologist guy?”
Jommers didn’t wear a sign on his back indicating his occupation, but he was not surprised at the question, knowing how the bar’s owner talked him up. In Larry’s mind, having a psychologist as a regular was like a seal of approval that the place had good vibes, or at least nontoxic vibes. So Larry was fond of muttering about the honor to customers whenever Jommers was present. “See that guy over there? You know what he does?”
Customers given the scoop by Larry then turned their heads slightly and gave Jommers the once-over. What they saw was a burly guy with a casual, self-assured posture, a guy whose chevron mustache crowned but did not conceal a slight, knowing smile.
On this day, that psychologist guy was wearing navy-blue twill slacks and a light blue tattersall oxford-cloth shirt with a narrow blue tie. His simple attire varied little from day to day, and constant aspects included wearing the tie loose, with shirt open at the neck and rolled-up sleeves. It was the look of a down-to-earth guy who’s willing to offer a nod to formality, but not a bow.
It wasn’t only his bar look. Patients arriving in his office found him dressed much the same way, standing with feet apart and hands on hips, waiting to deliver a bearish handshake. The image conveyed seriousness without stuffiness, like a bowling team at a funeral.
On most occasions the affable psychologist was more than happy to chat with a casual inquirer, given that any one of them was potentially a future patient. He usually gave them two business cards, along with the suggestion that the second one be given to the acquaintance most likely to need it.
Though Jommers was only forty-seven, the deep timbre and slow cadence of his voice carried a tone of gently shared wisdom, like an old-timer telling an apprentice how things are done.
On this occasion, however, the sales rep did not receive the normal warm welcome. Jommers answered the man without looking at him, eyes locked on the TV.
“You’re not depressed, my friend. You’re just miserable. There’s a difference.”
“Couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, and I picked up on a few things beyond the features of your really cool letter opener. You didn’t saunter up to this spot at the bar by chance. There’s a discontent in your life, and you were wondering if I might be the guy to explain it. So here you go. You’re miffed about the things you’re forced to do to pay the bills and put food on the table, which puts you in company with billions of other people on the planet and most of the souls that ever walked it. Like almost everybody today, you think you’re special, that you shouldn’t have to endure the daily misery of an ordinary life. And when the world fails to recognize your specialness, you get all glum and pissy. You don’t need a psychologist, friend. You need the ghost of an ancestor to teach you humility and gratitude. Gratitude that you have a job. A job that doesn’t burn your flesh, break your fingers, or wrench your back. A job you can do in the shade, as they used to say in the country. You take your shower before work, while hardworking men take theirs after. That’s the real divider in life. Be happy with the side you’re on.”
The sales rep was both surprised and irked by the instant analysis, but was too unnerved to dispute it. Without uttering a word, he paid his bill and walked away from the bar without giving Jommers another glance.
Jommers hadn’t intended to sound so uncaring, and the rebuke he’d delivered was completely contrary to his normal response. But the TV news report about the shootout had upset him, and the sketchy details had a premonitory quality that briefly knocked him off his game. He didn’t believe in omens, yet he sensed that the impact of the shots being fired on the other side of town would somehow rumble into his life in a bad way. It was a feeling he couldn’t explain, though he understood that the subconscious sometimes forges ahead with calculations that the conscious mind has deferred. Whatever beast had been unleashed was not simply the product of this day, but the sum of many.
Feeling a bit guilty, and hoping to amend his comments, Jommers swiveled around to look for the sales rep, but the man was already gone. Jommers left some money on the bar, then strode briskly out the door, at a pace several notches above his usual gait, which lay somewhere between an amble and a trudge.
“Hey, buddy,” Jommers called out.
The sales rep stopped and looked at Jommers warily. Jommers smiled, stuck his hands partly in his front pockets, and casually strolled over.
“You know you pronounced the name of that pitcher wrong.”
“Easy to do if you just read it, since it sounds different from how it’s spelled. But if you were a real sports fan, you would have heard it pronounced on the radio or TV. But if you’re not a sports fan, how would you know it at all? You hate sports, but you know your clients are going to talk about it at lunch, so you give the sports section of the paper a quick skim so you can toss something into the ring without sounding like an idiot.”
“It’s part of the game.”
“Right, but it’s a game you can’t stand anymore, not that you ever could. Your forced laughs, tense voice, and strained efforts at small talk tell me that you are not a gregarious person by nature. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except when you have a job that demands it, like sales. You despise these client lunch things. You get a knot in your stomach before each one.”
“Yeah, I do, but like you said, we have to do what we have to do. No free lunch and all that.”
“True enough. But sometimes we can shift the load around, move it this way or that, make it easier to carry. I’ve got some tests I can give you that can nail down your personality traits. Then I’ve got some resources that help identify a job where those particular traits would be a plus instead of a minus. If you’re willing to go through the process, and willing to consider a career change, I think we can find a way to make it easier for you to get up in the morning.” Jommers handed the man one of his cards. “Give it some thought. Then give me a call.”
As Jommers headed back toward his wheels, he noticed a bad taste in his mouth. Part of it was his uncharacteristic snotty behavior, and part of it was from the half-finished walleye sandwich that had been slathered in a tartar sauce gone slightly south. Larry was a terrific bartender, but a lousy food service operator. He saw expiration dates as mere suggestions and put way too much faith in the reputed antimicrobial properties of hops.
Contributing to the sensory assault was Lake Erie’s late-summer breath, which silently belched ashore about a half mile away, reeking of rotted algae. Erie was the shallowest of the Great Lakes, making it the warmest in summer. That distinction endowed its waters with more fish than the rest, but also more of the green glop. The temperature-dependent algae bloom visited predictably in late August, but a long heat wave had made it worse than usual, souring the city’s tap water. When Erie got the fever, the city’s water got sick.
As Jommers plodded onward, he grimaced and held his arms slightly away from his body, trying to cool his swampy pits. It was a futile effort, as the air was almost as thick as the viscous puddles of gum gobs melting on the griddle-hot sidewalk.
He knew he was acting wimpy about it, but like most Great Lakers accustomed to moderate summers, he did not well abide the siege of a Southern-style swelter that had audaciously slithered north. The blistering weather that a Southerner bears without much fuss wears on a Northerner like a hair shirt with matching hair underwear. During those rare occasions, a cicada-like whine arose throughout the region as if some great injustice had been inflicted. People proudly displayed their indignant torment and, unbidden, shared tales of brown lawns and withering plants. In a contentious society, the perceived offense of uncomfortable weather remained one of the few things that people could rally around.
Jommers walked over to his ’97 Ford Taurus, whose sun-faded royal-blue paint job was further dulled by accumulated road dust. He slid inside and found everything he touched was close to grilling temperature, even though he’d left the windows open. The A/C had tanked a few years back and he was still waiting for a better cash flow position to invest in its repair. But it didn’t matter, as it was only a short drive back to the office, which, like Spreckels, was down in the Bends. In fact, most of his trips were short these days, as he had unintentionally evolved into a creature of the Bends, where he lived, worked, and played.
That unofficial tag—the Bends—described the flat, low-lying strips of land that abutted the navigation channel of the lower Claybank River as it snaked its way to Lake Erie minus a snake’s elegance. On a map, the large, uneven loops of the river’s final stretch looked more like unraveled entrails. The area’s moniker stemmed from the colorful names ascribed to some of the meanders—Fish Head Bend, Armory Bend, Bootlegger Bend, Grist Mill Bend, and Tangle Bend, which was so named because its once-narrow passage caused the riggings of passing sailing ships to become entangled.
That section of the river, the navigation channel, loosely demarcated the length of the Bends area, while the width of the flatland tract was determined by the short hills hemming it in on both sides. Grayton’s business district gazed down from the east elevation. Peering down from the west was the Old Town neighborhood, the site of the original settlement, and a place where repeated efforts at gentrification had achieved only spotty results.
As a longtime dweller of the area, Jommers was well-versed in its history. He knew that nature continually reshapes meanders over time, but that once the river banks were lined with bulkheads, first of stone blocks, then later of steel, the river’s course was locked in. The interruption of the natural process was necessitated by the arrival of industry, which required stable banks for its infrastructure and a deep channel for ships.
He also knew that, due to the clay subsoil in the region, the waters of the lower Claybank had been murky long before humans had arrived and started dumping crap into it. Farming had increased the soil erosion and the muddiness, making the river waters look like liquid earth, but it was industrial pollution that had transformed the waters from merely turbid into toxic, quashing aquatic life.
The Bends had once been the bustling heart of Grayton’s industry, back in the days when cities wore smoky skies as a badge of honor, a smudgy proof of progress and prosperity, when the word pollution had not been in anyone’s vocabulary or thoughts. So back then, no one had cared much about spillage of chemicals, sewage, or oil into the river. It would all wash out somehow.
Eventually, environmental laws and deindustrialization reduced industrial gunk, but the antiquated sewer systems of older inner-ring suburbs still allowed storms to wash raw sewage into the river’s tributaries, along with a lot of other natural debris and garbage. So even though the river was a lot cleaner than in the past, its fetid odor still pervaded the air, and its brown frothy water remained grotty—a strange cocoa whose foam was topped with crud instead of marshmallows.
Ore boats still snaked their way up to the last remaining steel operation, but overall, the area had been ravaged by industry consolidation, increased global competition, and migration of factories to the suburbs. The smoke had cleared out, but so had the vitality.
But the zone wasn’t dead by any means. The ball-bearing factory still cranked out gazillions of them. The construction supply company still produced mountains of concrete. The asphalt company still churned out an unending stream of it. And the manufacturer of rope and chain still rolled out miles of both.
In addition, a gradual influx of new, nontraditional players had been drawn to the Bends, infusing new life into the interstices. They included a recreational boat storage facility, a jet-ski rental operation, a rowing club, a craft shop devoted to custom iron work, and an artist who specialized in designing and fabricating novel neon signs. Also arriving were a variety of upscale boutiques and galleries that exploited the aesthetic charms of century-old brick architecture with its segmented arched windows. With a good sandblasting, some upgraded lighting and new windows, an old brick hulk could be transformed into a quaint little place oozing with antique allure.
So the Bends was an odd, patchwork quilt—clusters of vibrant commerce scattered amidst pockets of ruin. A thriving business might find itself lodged between vacant crumbling properties with broken windows and walls covered with weedy vines. And those ubiquitous green creepers were the markers that signified the quick and the dead. In some places they were so rampant, you could imagine having discovered a lost Incan city in the Ecuadoran rainforest.
The local infrastructure exhibited a similar patchiness, especially the roads, whose holes and craters conspired to transform ordinary driving into a slalom course. The regulars had learned where to zig and zag by muscle memory without thinking, but a first-timer had to approach the roads with trepidation, like an explorer on hazardous terrain, so a vehicle’s speed quickly distinguished natives from wayfarers.
So the Bends was an odd place to launch a therapy practice, a healing mission ensconced in ailing environs. But for Jommers, it made perfect sense. The setting stood as a testament to tenacity. The ubiquitous grit that crunched underfoot wherever one walked in the Bends evoked the other kind of grit, that of character. It was a tough place. The people who had built it and had worked there were strong and resolute. They had a steely doggedness to survive and better their lives in the face of obstacles and harsh conditions. They had resilience. And if you’re a clinical psychologist, that’s the one big thing you wish you could instill into all your patients. Resilience. You wish you could dispense it, the way the blast furnaces dispensed salt pills to sweating workers. But you can’t. For those who have lost it, or never had it, the trait must be taught, like touch-typing, tango, or ju-jitsu. And some people won’t ever get it, just as some people won’t ever master driving a stick shift. Their gears will always grind. But you have to try. Do your best to teach them. And where better to instill grit than a place where it abounds all around you?