Welcome to Shadybrook, California, located not far from Needles in the part of the state that the Red Hot Chili Peppers never get around to writing songs about. My best friend Mickey, with his scruffy goatee, shaggy hair, and ill-fitting clothes, sits by my side in the driver’s seat of his tricked-out hearse, the Rory Mobile, which looks like Big Daddy Roth's take on the Mystery Machine and has "5 Second Rule Catering" poorly airbrushed on the side. We cruise down Route 66, which is the main drag through our small, dying town. "Ghost Town" by the Specials plays out of the one working speaker.
On the way to the police station, we pass boarded-up homes with big, empty porches and yards full of weeds, as well as a shuttered elementary school with old desks rusting on what used to be a baseball field. A billboard silently lectures us on the before and aftereffects of meth near a worker manually changing a gas station's price sign, switching it down to just under six bucks for a gallon of the cheap stuff. After leaving “The Heights,” as the locals call this relatively nice section of town, we see the remains of a recognizable fast-food restaurant that had transitioned into a head shop next to what used to be a supermarket. Tumbleweeds mingle with the few shopping carts that the local homeless population had not already commandeered. Next comes a liquor store, check-cashing place, and former methadone clinic. As we turn into “Beautiful and Historic Downtown Shadybrook,” as the radio commercials for the last surviving car dealership used to call it, we pass the long-closed Art Deco-style movie palace with “Happy Anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Callahan!” on the marquee.
Mickey pulls up to the Shadybrook Police Station, thrust in the middle of a historic building given up by the railroad and clumsily repurposed as a strip mall. Admiral Dollar is on one side and the retro Galaxy Diner, spelled out in neon, is on the other. There is plenty of parking. Mickey gets out of the vehicle, lets me out of my side (the door doesn’t open from the inside), and then pops the trunk. He puts on some used latex gloves, grabs an impossibly large sandwich, throws it over his shoulder, and walks in.
The smell of stale coffee hits with the same subtlety as the dated motivational posters that carpet the walls. Mickey plops the sandwich on a folding table that’s covered in a cheap plastic tablecloth. Stan Mendoza, the Chief of Police, looks like his usual approachable self, out of uniform in a business casual ensemble topped off with cowboy boots. Looking closer, he may work with the stylists from Undercover Boss, as his mustache seems like it’s peeling off.
“Chief Mendoza. What's shakin’?” Mickey asks. They shake hands, then Mendoza rubs whatever residue Mickey left onto his pant-leg.
“Not a whole lot, Mickey,” the Chief says.
Mickey quickly searches his pockets and pulls out a wadded-up invoice. “Here you are, sir,” he announces, and just as he tries to hand it to the chief, Mendoza pulls a flyer off the wall, places it on top of the document in Mickey’s hand.
“The police department folks were thinking—” he starts.
“Aren't you the only member of the Shadybrook PD?” Mickey responds.
“I convinced Lynda Callahan to volunteer once a week to help with paperwork. She and I were thinking that maybe you and the good folks at ‘Five Second Rule Catering’ might be interested in helping.”
Mickey grabs the flyer, leaving chocolate fingerprints on the mimeographed faded green paper that says, "Shadybrook Citizens Police Academy — Meets weekly on Fridays at 6PM — Free food and no background check required!"
I’m getting bored and also a little disappointed that Mendoza hasn’t acknowledged me yet, so I sneak over to grab a piece of the giant sandwich.
“The police department needs help from people like you for our new endeavor.”
“You think I'd be good?” Mickey asks.
“Well,” Mendoza hesitates. “I was actually going to ask if your company would just sponsor the food.”
“Yeah, I think I'll check that out,” Mickey says, staring at the flyer. “When does it start?”
“Tonight. At 8.”
Through one of those maneuvers that only really skinny, limber, nonathletic dudes can effortlessly pull, Mickey successfully hands the invoice back over to Mendoza while keeping the flyer.
The Chief, finally stooping down to pet me, mutters, “Good girl, Rory.” When he reaches my level, he realizes I had sucked a good quarter of the sandwich into my gullet. That’s what he gets for ignoring and then misgendering me.
Mickey, oblivious to the sandwich situation, turns to leave, saying, “If you could get me the check for the sandwich at class tonight, that would be gnarly.”
Mickey had a few more deliveries to take care of, so he sent me off to bring a note to his second-best friend, Charlie, as both of them are currently “between phones” and their walkie talkies need new batteries. Charlie, an athletic-looking Native American in a lifeguard outfit of red shorts and wayfarer sunglasses, grasps one of those life-saving poles with a net on the end to pull a drowned rodent out of the Shadybrook Municipal Swimming Pool.
Several kids stand around the outside of the pool, watching. A little girl with pigtails, probably named something that rhymes with “Braxton,” kicks around a partially deflated ball. She wears light-up sneakers, although only one of them actually lights up. She sees me, yells “Doggy!” and Charlie eyes her as she gets dangerously close to the pool. I notice a slightly older boy in goggles awkwardly push up against one of the pool jets, looking around guiltily.
“Hey, Raw-Dog,” Charlie says, patting me on the head as he removes the note from under my collar. “Get your dick away from the water jet, Bodin! I don't want to have to tell you again. Everyone knows what you're doing.”
At that, he reads the note aloud since he knows I can’t read Mickey’s handwriting, although I can see the three large boxes drawn at the bottom of the page, labeled “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.”
“Dear Charlie—you know how you were just telling me you felt like a loser and wanted to do something with your life?” He stops and yells, “No!” to no one in particular before continuing. “Chief Mendoza is hosting a thing to train a posse or something. Starts tonight. I heard Billie will be there. If you wanna go, I'll pick you up.”
As he reads, I notice a well-dressed businessman over near the snack bar, talking into a phone using a nonspecific European accent. Could be a parent, except he seems a little too well-dressed to be a Shadybrooker.
“There are some regulations that make this a little complicated, but nothing that we can't get past,” he says before pausing. “If that's the way it will have to work, that's fine. Shadybrook is perfect. Everyone is underemployed and there is a glut of unused spaces of various sizes. We just need to keep things hushed until the big reveal.”
The little girl kicks the ball which has completely collapsed on itself and looks like a limp frisbee, close to the mysterious foreigner. As she gets closer, the man lowers his voice.
“And good news. We've isolated at least three of the basic factors,” is the last thing I hear from him as Charlie tucks the note back under my collar. When I look back, the man is gone.
The class is in progress and everyone looks up as Mickey, Charlie, and I enter the conference room. Mendoza stands in front of a whiteboard alongside Lynda Callahan, a tiny old bat with frizzy gray hair. A guy I know named Eric wears a threadbare sports coat with faded leather patches on the elbows and stands with his arms crossed and massive eyebrows cocked. Everyone in the room fans sweat off of themselves with whatever they have in hand. I just let my tongue dribble on the floor.
We take a seat in the back, behind Billie, one of those people that somehow looks like a Doonesbury character, but in a good way. She has dark, straight hair that stops just above her shoulders, a short-sleeved turtleneck, and giant glasses that seem either completely earnest or a hipster’s joke depending on the situation. In either scenario, she’s kind of adorable.
“Wow. Billie's here,” Mickey stage whispers to Charlie.
“What? You told me she'd be here,” he responds.
Billie turns around.
“Hi, Billie,” Mickey says, and she sort of smiles.
“Alright. You may now return to your regular seats,” Mendoza says to the class.
So quickly that it looks choreographed, everyone does as the chief asks, quickly congregating into four distinct groups:
· Aspiring law enforcement types who look like they work in security
· Bored housewives who probably enjoy true crime books and procedural TV shows a little too much
· Social justice activists who imagine themselves as somehow fighting "The Man" from the inside
· A motley crew of animals that belong to a few of the aforementioned individuals and wear bogus, homemade "Service Animal" vests
“What did we learn from breaking into groups? Anybody?” Mendoza asks.
A few hands pop up, and Lynda interjects, “I learned that there are grapes that taste just like cotton candy. I can't believe it!”
Agatha, part of the homemaker contingent who does something involving the city government and is the school board’s head book-burner, holds up a baggie full of plump green grapes, smiles, and winks at her.
Eric, the guy who dresses like Mr. Community College Professor but is really Mickey’s colleague in the catering game, pipes in. “I learned that policing is not what it looks like in videos that the so-called media shows out of context.”
He looks to Mendoza for affirmation but doesn’t get any.
Mendoza himself chimes in. “Did we learn that it's important to get out of our artificial comfort zones from time to time?” He looks around at his audience. “No? Okay. Congratulations, everyone. You've made it through the first class of the Shadybrook Citizens Police Academy. I promise it will get better when we get out in the field. Remember, the program will culminate in a massive graduation banquet.”
I can’t help but lick my lips and I see Mickey does, too.
“But before that, activities will include working with the medical examiners at the morgue,” Mendoza adds, and the bored housewives look at one another with excited guilty expressions. “We’ll tour the city jail,” cut to the social justice advocates’ eyes getting wider.
Lynda pitches in, not to let the Chief have all the glory. “We'll check out the pound.” The dubious service animals cower. “Do a ride-along.” The security dudes look like they might all ejaculate. “Hit the shooting range.” One of the security guys does in fact bust a nut in his jean shorts. “And have lots of fun panel discussions.” Everyone grumbles, then the room gets quiet.
“Class dismissed,” Eric says, slapping his hands together. Mendoza looks over, as if thinking, "Who put you in charge?" and everyone in the rooms packs up their stuff.
Lynda pipes in. “Hold your horses, boys. We haven't even mentioned the Route 66 Apeman yet. That's gotta be why most of these people are here.”
Mendoza interjects over some nervous giggles. “Lynda, you know that's a crock. This whole endeavor is to help us make a dent in the crime problem in this town. Maybe after we tackle Shadybrook's drug and poverty issues, we can talk about the Loch Ness Monster or El Chupacabra.”
“Why not consider the quote-unquote ‘real world stuff’ alongside the supernatural? They're not mutually exclusive,” Billie says.
“We would if we had time, just to ease people's minds, since plenty of reputable citizens seem to take that crap seriously. However, I am the entire Shadybrook Police Department at the moment, so that answers that.”
Eric adds, “That reminds me — I know it's a hard habit to get into, but you all should start locking your cars and your homes. I know it seems contrary to the way we've always done things in Shadybrook, but it's becoming necessary.”
“Alright, alright. See you next week,” Mendoza says. “Same time — same place.”
“That was it?” Charlie says to Mickey. We all look at the flyer taped to the wall. It states that the start time is 6 p.m. “It started at 6 o'clock, you dick. You said eight!”
Meanwhile, Billie stands and goes to chat up Eric. Charlie watches, silently fuming, just as a stranger walks in the door and Mickey and catches a look at her. She looks how I imagine Jennifer Lopez might if she had dropped out of show biz after In Living Color ended and got a retail job somewhere in middle America. In other words, she is naturally smokin’ hot in an unaffected way. Time seems to stand still for Mickey.
“Am I late? Uh! Not again,” the woman states to herself as Mickey stares.
Meanwhile, Mendoza approaches Charlie with an awkward man-hug.
“Charlie! I was going to invite you to check out the academy, but — you know? Wasn't sure if it was too soon. Anyway, I'm glad you're here. This was your father's idea.”
“Thanks, Chief. I'm glad I made it, too,” Charlie responds. “It feels good to be back at the station.”
Mendoza pats him on the back while Eric ushers everyone out of the room. Mickey’s still staring at the newcomer.
“Alright. Please clear out. We have a BCA meeting starting in here in five,” Eric says. “That's Biker Crank Anonymous,” he clarifies after no one asks.