The Shield

By

I’ve just come home from visiting my family to an empty apartment and the sharp musk of old air that fills it. The apartment had been sitting too long. The air had been too still. I sweep the floors even though they don’t need to be swept and sit quietly in the light that’s left of dusk. There is nothing for me to do. There is no one I want to see. I turn on the computer, or what I call the TV. I decide to watch The Shield because an ad for it has popped on to the screen. It’s a show about corrupt policemen that ended several years ago. I watch three episodes before going to bed.

 

The Shield’s main character is a detective named Vic Mackey. Vic is a short, white bald man, who dresses casually: mostly in jeans and sweatshirts, and always in a hoodie that stays unzipped— blowing in the wind of his determination. He runs a specialty team of men he has hand-selected. They are a team, but mostly they act like brothers, playing a game of cops and robbers. Sometimes they are the cops.

 

In the fall of 2010 I watched the entire series, Lost. It took me four weeks to watch every episode. I would watch the show after work, during my lunch break, and on the weekends. I didn’t do anything else. I didn’t leave the apartment other than to go to the grocery store or work. When at home I would move from one room to another, dragging Lost with me. I would eat like I believed the character Hurley was eating—secretly, quickly, while standing in the kitchen or lying in bed.

 

 

After a night of heavy drinking I wake up to the roll of vomit in my throat. The vomit is a half digested sandwich, mostly bread eaten before passing out to prevent the vomiting from happening. Head in the toilet, I remember throwing up on my floor before eating the bread. I look to see if anything is there, on the floor, but see nothing. The wood either soaks or hides.

 

It is so much easier to be wrapped in the lives of characters instead of your own. Sometimes I need moments of stillness, a lack of movement. I started watching Lost the day after my apartment was entered into, an ex boyfriend pushing entry and slamming me on the floor, telling me how I should really start answering the phone. He had stolen my spare key several weeks before. It was like a movie on Lifetime TV. We sat in that apartment for hours, pretending, but watching a television show alone would have been better.

 

Television can be better than most things, always.

I am curled up in a comforter at 9:23 in the evening when Vic Mackey kicks in the door of a drug dealer. He wears black tennis shoes, the kind that are non-descript. He doesn’t care about labels. He is a man of action and his action is holding a young black man’s face down by the neck. His partners stand around him. They watch as information pours out of the now disable man’s lips. Action works. The man sort-of cries. Vic Mackey doesn’t care. Vic Mackey makes his own justice.

 

Some of my earliest memories are of watching TV. I remember watching the opening credits of China Beach while my mom was in the kitchen. There was something dramatic and beautiful about the sunset in the credits at the beginning of the show that was hard not to recognize as a four-year-old. Diana Ross’ Reflections playing as the background music had nothing to do with it. It was all Dana Delany and that sun, that golden sun. I wanted to be hard and beautiful like she was, like that sun was. Like Delany, I wanted to be taken seriously like a man. I also wanted to end my nights in a shitty bar with a glass of whiskey. I thought I saw strength there. I didn’t realize how flawed that glass of whiskey was, and I never looked back to see the woman in my kitchen working. That wasn’t interesting to me; she had a domestic softness I wasn’t interested in.

I found myself in a similar admiration toward Glenn Close when she joined the cast The Shield to play Captain Monica Rawling. She was like Delany: hard and strong. She had the look of a woman who refused to be hurt.

 

The night my ex broke into my apartment he asked me to make him dinner. The only things I had in the fridge were a tilapia filet and some limes. I made the piece of fish with the lime and threw a cup of rice on the stove. When it was done, I apologized for the lack of color on the plate. I apologized for the blandness of the meal and he commented on how we should go to the store tomorrow while placing a hand on the sallow green colored skin of my bruised leg.

 

I don’t remember when he left that night, but I do remember his threat of taking me to the grocery store, of him coming back. He never did, though. It was all for show, to stick.

 

Vic Mackey is one of those family men who protect when there needs to be protecting (rarely ever) and provides when there needs to be money provided (some of the time) but he doesn’t do more than that. He isn’t about emotional support; he is a man of blanketing support, the kind that covers everything up, presses everything down, to a controllable understandable state. But this is the kind of support that rarely helps, and when you suffocate under the pressure of it, he blames you for not being good enough to accept it.

 

Sometimes I will spend months sleeping in my living room, watching television. There is a type of punishment in it, as though I don’t deserve to sleep in a bed. It is good to wake up feeling the soreness from an uncomfortable position. It is good to work my day while in that soreness: a cramp in my back, or a tightness in my neck. After sleeping on my sofa for a couple of days, my bedroom becomes foreign, a place that works against me, a place that speaks a different language: one of comfort or normalness that I cannot allow.

 

I chat sporadically online with a man I met at a bar only a few months before. His name is Ben. At the time we met, he was visiting his family while on leave from the service and I enjoyed the temporary nature of his stay. I thought he looked safe. I thought, I can do this for a few days. When he left the weekend after we met, he asked to stay in touch and I agreed. Now this man is the only human contact I enjoy on most days, and I am not sure it even matters who he is.

 

 

 

I think, by law, Los Angeles is only allowed to hold someone for 12 hours for questioning. Some of the actors in The Shield’s holding cells have been there for eight years. I’ve been alone in my apartment for three days.

 

It doesn’t take long before I get tired of the opening credits. The music is made for men, men who want to watch other men who do things their own way, just like how Vic Mackey does things his own way. But he looks like a fool, and the screaming men and guitars in the opening sequence sound like fools, I don’t even have to see them.

 

Between finding a new apartment, changing my phone number, and beginning my tenure with Lost, I spent several days at my mother’s. When she asked me what was wrong, I told her I couldn’t sleep. I told her that I was working on getting the right sleep medication down. I said, these things are complicated, you know? In the evening she would serve me a glass of melatonin after dinner and then I would take a Xanax followed by two Ambien. I would sometimes be able to sleep after that, but mostly I would lay half-awake in some other state.

 

One of the uniformed officers is sleeping with Mackey. I don’t understand her attraction to him physically, but I understand how she sees him as a protector. She doesn’t see his corruption. She only sees him as a man of courage, of strength. She sees his compassion toward some of the prostitutes and his need to provide for his wife. But I don’t understand why she lets him into her home. I understand why she doesn’t want anyone to see. I understand that he has something, something like anger that he has fashioned into something to respect. I understand that she thinks he is a good man but good can be as thin as a blanket.

 

I start to think that I am attracted to Detective Wagenbach. This is mostly because he is the least threatening character on the show. He is smart and romantically pursues people who do not like him. He also makes one slack-jawed face he that I, frankly, would like to hit. I think detective Wagenbach would let me take a lot hits before he said no. He looks safe like this. I think about punching him in the face several times and squeeze my legs together before forcing myself out of bed.

 

When my ex began taking art classes at the school where I worked, I had to finally tell my boss what was going on. When she tells me there is nothing she can do, when she says we cannot deny students for any reason, I begin to think that she is not on my side. I go back to my desk angry that she never put the pieces together: how I recently changed my phone number and address, how I would come into work with my arms and legs covered in bruises. I suspect and know she doesn’t respect me. Then I suspect that she never cared enough to pay attention in the first place, as she is very busy and mostly cares about getting home to her two kids. I force myself into feeling a little better. When I go home that evening I bolt my doors and drink a glass of wine before taking my pills to go to bed.

 

When Ben comes to visit again, I am surprised at how well our time together goes. We meet for drinks the first night he is in town and go to my place after. By the second day I am eating dinner with his parents but I am ready for him to leave. My apartment feels louder with someone else in it. On the third morning, I draw a bath and soak in it while he is still asleep. I set my laptop on the toilet and watch The Shield with the volume set to low.

 

I am in the bathtub when Mackey’s first captain, Aceveda, is forced to take another man’s penis in his mouth. Aceveda is not so much a good man, but a man who we can see weakness in. He is weak in the shadow of Mackey, and now he is on his knees, crying, with his mouth full. I turn to the side of the tub, my back to the wall, my shoulder exposed to the cold air. Ben is sleeping in my room. He stirs and comes into the bathroom just as the perpetrator on the screen takes a photo of his cock in another man’s mouth.

 

To accept Ben’s touch I have to fight instinct. I have to force my neck not to pull; I have to stay still, cold, marble, and waiting. I cannot trust my reflex, whether I should lean in to his touch, or accept his kindness for genuine. I tell myself this will change, eventually, but until then I have to lie when he asks what is wrong. Until then, I sort through my feelings through the characters on my TV.

 

 

There is a reason why a man like Aceveda is mouth raped but not Mackey; it is because Mackey is pure masculinity. He is unwavering in his control, and the show’s plot cannot handle the weight of its main character being hurt, violated, broken. The show isn’t ready for this, yet. So the man who is just ok in his character, the man who tries to do good but falls victim to the easiness of Mackey’s strategies is used instead, and we watch because we too are in that place: that place somewhere in the middle of complacent and self-righteousness. We watch, sitting in our homes waiting for something to move us in one direction or the other.

 

My insomnia in 2010 wasn’t caused by fear. I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t turn my mind off. Every evening I would sit in front of my television trying to be dull and failing that, I would try to escape into more dramatic story telling/problem solving. The problems of Lost were much richer than my own. Lost contained mysteries that I knew would soon be uncovered. The story telling of Lost was biblical in its moral. My own thoughts had no solution. I could not solve why I had not left my ex sooner. I could not correct when I should have said no. I could not go into the past and pull away from a man who would eventually force his way into my home to take away my normal. I could find no moral in what had happened in real life.

 

On Sundays a group of women join me in my apartment to watch a television show called Girls. We watch the program, while eating snacks I’ve made. Sometimes we talk about our work, but mostly we just watch or talk about the lead character’s always-exposed puffy nipples. We talk about this with our own nipples firmly protected by various forms of clothing. When the program is over, the women leave and I move to my bed to watch The Shield.

 

I’ve been alone in my home for 47 hours, wearing leggings and a deep v-neck that when askew causes me to fall out, exposed to nothing, to no one. There is a book on the bed next to me. I tell myself I should be reading it. Instead, my computer is open and season six of The Shield plays. I don’t even know when season five ended. I look at Mackey’s baldhead. The camera changes and another character, Claudette, looks back at me. She looks like a friend of mine. I haven’t moved from the bed since the last time I had to pee. I don’t remember when that was.

 

When the week begins, I spend my time at work wishing I were home watching TV, or chatting on the computer with people that live in cities far from my own. I sit at my desk, moving from work to conversations with people in digital windows. A coworker walks down the hall past my office and says, hello. I raise my head and smile, distracted by the blinking on the screen.

 

There is a scene late one afternoon where Vic is having sex with a woman who has a boyfriend. They are on a bed in a hotel room. He is on his knees sitting upright and she is on top of his lap. Vic looks extremely short but we are supposed to see past this. He is a ladies man. He is a protector. We are supposed to see him as a man who women are undeniably drawn to, but he looks like a character from Dragon Ball Z: short, bald, and muscular. The camera moves from his thighs to her thighs and then her back to his back and then it ends at his stocky neck. He is red from exertion. He is always red from exertion. He looks like violence.

 

I wake up in the middle of the night and check the Internet to see if Ben is online. He is not. He is ten hours away in a place that I keep forgetting the name of. It’s probably cold there. I switch windows on the screen to watch The Shield. I watch for thirty minutes before getting up to go to the bathroom. The floor there is cold and because of the cold I can feel a hunk of grit under my foot more clearly than if the apartment was warm. I finish peeing, go back to the bedroom, and listen to The Shield as I stare at the ceiling.

 

I started watching The Shield after visiting my family during the holidays. I had not seen them after moving away for a new job six months before. I could not stay in the town I was in, mostly because of the incident but also because I needed to find some other space that was normal, one that I could manipulate my own kind of safety/power in.

 

It’s 4:37 am when Captain Monica Rawling walks on to the screen and into my heart. Rawling is the new captain of the police station. She says she is going to make changes. She is going to stop all of Mackey’s violence and corruption. She looks serious. I want to believe her. She wears the type of pantsuit a woman wears when she knows she can be feminine in some other way, which is to say, her suits were styled in the way of a man’s but more flattering to a woman’s figure. I am amazed her balance of power and softness.

 

Ben comes to visit once more and again we play house. He tells me how excited he is that we met. He says hat he wishes he were not in the service. He says, If only I didn’t have two more years. I agree with him but secretly enjoy that he has that time left. I know that if I have a little more time I can feel normal.

 

When Detective Wagenbach kills a stray cat that keeps him up at night, I find it difficult to watch. He kills the cat to see if it ignites some kind of feeling within him: a feeling he learns about through the interrogation of a serial killer. The killer tells him about power and about the feeling when you see fear, then life leave a person’s eyes. I watch Wagenbach kill the cat. The animal’s body is a stiff prop made of fur like fabric, glass eyes, and whiskers. Wagenbach drops the prop on to the driveway when he is done; when he discovers that the feeling isn’t there, that he couldn’t find power like that. Watching him try to obtain this power and failing doesn’t make me like him, but it makes me see myself in him.

 

I begin to chat everyday with Ben after he is deployed to another country. When I am at work, it is nighttime where he is. At work I filter through my emails prioritizing which ones to get to first before signing on to tell him hello. I think I miss him, but I know I only miss the idea of him. He is safer at this distance and I consider that it’s the safe feeling of that distance that I like the most.

 

When Vic Mackey kills a man, he does so in a method so swift that there is no time to doubt himself. The writers on the show may attempt to lead us to believe that this is a man who plans what he does, but he doesn’t. Everything is reaction, reaction, and reaction. He reacts and takes, and then builds schemas to justify what he has done.

 

During her short stay as Mackey’s commander, Rawling keeps referring to the short leash she has him on. He looks at her smiling whenever they are in her office and makes promises that she doesn’t give a shit about. She is smarter than him but she will not win against him. Rawling will not be able to stop his perverted method of chivalry and justice. But as she tries, she treats him like a dog and he stands there, panting with a dumb look on his face. It gives me pleasure to see Mackey look so stupid but I know it cannot last for long. A man like that can chew through a leash like it’s the flesh of his own leg.

 

I begin to wonder if I am keeping Ben on a leash. I wonder how long it will be until he chews through it, or if he is even that type.

 

When I get dressed in the morning I push through a large section of dresses and choose from a series of slacks and blouses. The dresses hang there like forgotten desires—things purchased with the hopes that I’d someday feel comfortable wearing them. Some of the skirts look like ones my mother would wear, others are more bohemian, none of them are a consistent style, because you have to wear something before it is yours, before it is a style.

 

Eventually one member of Mackey’s special team begins to internalize Vic’s violence. He internalizes each narrative escalation like I internalize my own stress—in the stomach. He hides his vomiting from his partners but can’t manage to hide it from Internal Affairs. Internal Affairs is that good. This character vomits blood, he vomits it everywhere but the team just can’t see. When I was sixteen I also would vomit blood. I had four ulcers the size of quarters. They lasted eight months before becoming something less physical. This character doesn’t last that long.

 

It’s 1:42 pm when Mackey starts to look like a human sized walking penis. His face is red and he just kicked in a door to a drug den. Someone yells, “WHO ARE THE SHOT-CALLERS?” and a man on the floor gives up all of the shot-callers. Mackey’s remaining team members stand over the perp as he drools and spits information. I turn to the cat that is resting next to me, ignoring the light of my laptop with half-closed eyes, and ask him where the shot-callers are. He doesn’t say anything. I am alone.

 

Captain Rawling never had a chance. When she leaves, when she is left sitting in her new home, we are not surprised. This is not a show that can allow anyone but Mackey to have anything. This is a show about how futile it is to control anything, to grasp for power. Rawling is a woman who is unwavering to fault and masculine in her demeanor but only the passive women in this show end up in a position of favor. Everyone else: Aceveda, Claudette, and Detective Wagenbach have to settle with a quiet dissatisfaction.

 

I wake up and turn my alarm off. I wake up and reach outside of the blankets. Everything is cold. I can hear the cat in the litter box taking a shit in the other room. I don’t want to get up because I never want to get up. I squirm in the bed, I feel my calves pressed together, I squeeze everything tighter. I put my hand between my legs and hold it there, not moving. I close my eyes and pretend to sleep.

 

When I wake up in the mornings I do not leave the bed for a while. Days are best entered subtly, which is why I do not close my curtains at night. It is best when the daylight filters through the mini-blinds: the day creeping in politely. Mini-blinds are good for this. You can adjust them in a way that the light filters in without anyone being able to see you’re home. Sometimes when I wake up, it’s to the sound of the trash collector. Other times I wake to the sound of my alarm, but this isn’t as pleasurable.

 

It’s 3:47 in the morning when The Shield ends. Everyone on the show has died or is dying. Vic is confined to a cubicle (the ultimate punishment) and his wife is given a home, a home away from him. She wins, or something. I dream about the ending for days after. In my dreams, Wagenbach swaggers into the police station with a posse of his own special team. He wears a do-rag, a wife beater, and white basketball shorts. I have no idea why he looks like this but I am more repulsed by him than ever. I watch him from my dream space, trying to manage his power, trying to manipulate it into something other people fear, something others don’t want to challenge but it doesn’t work. Some people just cant handle what they take and others have to retreat without taking at all.

***

Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.


Kirby Johnson is the editor of Black Warrior Review and the founding editor of NANO Fiction. She lives in Alabama. More from this author →