Finalist for the 2003 Eating Mothballs Fiction Prize


The call came in around 10:45 p.m., a bit early for the really weird stuff, but this definitely fit that category. My partner and I had just cleared from a B&E call — that's breaking and entering — on Market Street that turned out just to be some idiot who'd locked himself out of his car. Guy had obviously been drinking, so we suggested rather strongly that he take a cab home. Thankfully, he wasn't a belligerent drunk and actually thanked us for the advice. The kid looked to be in his early 20s and was wearing this black silk shirt, black belt and black pants. He had a slim build and a head of dark hair that looked like he'd dipped it in olive oil. At one point, he even tried hitting on my partner, Robin, who is a pretty good looker if I do say so: long, dark hair, honey-colored eyes and a damn nice figure. If I weren't married and nearly twice her age, I'd be all over her in a second. Turns out she wasn't the least bit interested in the guy.

"No way Bill, I don't do Eurotrash," she chuckled as we headed south on Market.

That's when we heard the dispatcher's voice. "One-eleven at Winbush, cross street Market. An elderly man being abused, possibly assaulted. Caller says victim is being forced to eat mothballs."

Robin and I just looked at each other. It's a little-known secret that cops on overnight duty will often try to take the most bizarre calls that come in. It helps to break up the monotony and boredom that can come on a down night when there's not much action. So about three units tripped over each other giving a voice response to get the call. We were closest, so we got it.

When we got there, which was an old apartment building, there was a woman standing outside on the steps. She was wearing slippers and bed rollers in her hair. Her arms were folded across her bosom and her face looked tight, like she was having chest pains.

"Thank God you came. C'mon," she said, and started leading us up a winding staircase to the noise coming from a second-floor apartment whose door was wide open. My right hand moved to unhitch the lather loop that kept my service weapon strapped to its holster. After 20 years, it had become an automatic response to the unknown. But I wasn't prepared for this.

Sitting in the middle of the room was an old man clad only in what appeared to be an adult diaper. He was sitting with his legs and feet spread apart like a baby. In between his legs, which were chubby and creamy white, was a large glass jar filled with mothballs.

The old man, whose hair and scraggly beard were snow white, badly matted and in need of a trim, was taking them out of the bowl one by one and stuffing them down his throat as if they were pieces of candy. He seemed to be really enjoying himself and had a huge grin on his face, which revealed only a handful of teeth. This sight made his ability to crunch and break the smelly, oblong pills all the more impressive.

Sitting on a chair in the far corner of the room was a woman. She looked to be in her late 50s. She had a knife in her right hand and a sad, worn look on her face.

"She won't let me stop him," the woman in the curlers, who I pegged to be the woman's daughter from the resemblance they shared, said with an exasperated groan. "She's going to kill him."

The woman in the corner looked up at me sadly when I asked her what was the problem. When she finally opened her mouth, it was like she was talking past me to her daughter.

"He died a long time ago, honey," she said, still looking at me, the knife dangling at her side. "That's not your father, it's not the man I was married to all those years. God can't want him to stay like this."

A shock of fear came over me, and my whole body shook when I realized what she was hoping her husband would do. Looking at him, he didn't seem that much older than me. Not really. I found myself wandering if that was going to be me in a few years, defecating on myself and eating mothballs.

Robin had already taken up a position to the immediate left of the old woman and was looking at me for direction.

I motioned her off and started talking to the woman, whose name was Pam, about her husband, whose name was Walter. It took about 10 minutes to get her to put the knife down and let the EMTs, who had arrived by then, take Walter to the emergency room by ambulance to get his stomach pumped.

"I just don't know what else to do," Pam said, sobbing uncontrollably on my shoulder as Robin put the cuffs on her wrists. She did it as softly as possible and leaving them very loose. She also left her arms in front instead of behind her back so that she could be more comfortable.

"I just couldn't see him like that any more."

I put my hand against the center of her back and stroked it gently, then guided her head down into the squad car. The daughter was on her way to the hospital with her father, and we were on our way to the station with Pam crying in the backseat so hard that she fell asleep.

"Ten-three-one, clear," I said quietly into the radio, not wanting to wake her.