Things That Sublimate in the Night

by Mike Peterson


I work the midnight shift as an emergency dispatcher in the basement of the superior courthouse—a two-story heap of beige brick and tinted windows squatting on ancient New England farmland on the outskirts of town—and there are times this suits me just fine, like on drizzly March nights when the phone doesn’t ring for six hours and I marathon my way through an entire season of Flight of the Conchords or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But there are other times, like tonight, at three in the morning, when I’m standing in the men’s room, squinting through the glare of fluorescent lights, wondering what went so horribly wrong with my life that now, late on a Wednesday night (or is it early Thursday morning?), I am locked three-doors deep in the Sheriff’s office contemplating why some urinal patties seem to last for months, and why some, like this one—a hot-pink hockey puck—begin to crumble the instant you start peeing on them.

I’m not a very good dispatcher. I’m competent, at best, but this is purely by choice. When you call me in a few minutes, between my trips to the bathroom, to tell me you want to die and you’ve taken all your roommate’s medication, I’ll forget to ask something important, like whether or not you have a weapon, and then I’ll hope the officers don’t ask me about it—but they will.

Have you ever tried to make small talk with a suicidal person? This is rural New England, so it might take a half hour for my officers to get there. Granted, you don’t live twelve miles up a winding, wooded road, on the other side of the lake, the last mile of which is mud; you live in an apartment near the university, so it should only take a few minutes. But I don’t know that yet. You won’t give me your address. You just want someone to know what you’ve done. But here’s the rub: I can’t hang up until you at least tell me where you are.

So we talk. I run through the standard questions and then there’s not much to say. My training manual, however, tells me to keep you talking since you’re less likely to harm yourself mid-sentence. “So, you got any dogs?”

I could be great. I think at one point I was, but that was ten years ago, at a different dispatch center, before I went back to college, before I had aspirations. I had applied for the job by mistake. The advertisement was for a clerk at the police substation on campus, but I filled out the application for 911 Operator. Regardless, I caught on quickly. I became an acting supervisor and a trainer, and I would walk around the dispatch center with a clipboard saying things like, “You need to take control of that call,” or “Stop eating your mike,” or, “Don’t say ‘Um’ on the radio.” And for years I took advantage of all the bragging rights my position could offer.  “If you ever have an emergency,” I would tell people I had just met, “give me a call.”

But I don’t want to be great anymore. Not because of the effort it would require, but because of what it would imply: pride in my job.

Directly above me, as I stand at the urinal, is an empty court room that I’ve never seen in person. I know there is a long, elevated desk lined with high-back office chairs, and I know they are slightly askew and silhouetted by the green glow of an EXIT sign. Judges and clerks and other professionals who are proud of their careers sit in these chairs and do the things we pay them so much to do, but this all happens during the normal daytime hours when folks are supposed to be at work. I never witness these scenes at the courthouse. My view of the courtroom only comes in the after-hours, in darkened and pixilated hues on the big-screen TV mounted on the dispatch-center wall. It flicks every five seconds between one of a dozen security cameras: the metal detectors at the front doors, the long hallway to the cafeteria, the rear stair well, the probation office.

But what I do see in living color before me tonight is a three-day old urinal patty which is already crumbling away, and I stop wondering where my life went wrong long enough to contemplate what went so wrong at the factory where this urinal cake was made. The previous urinal cake, which started out as neon red, is now the size of a cough drop and faded to the color of pink lemonade, and it will continue to dissolve, no doubt, until it either disappears or is small enough to flush down the drain. This process has taken how long? A month? Maybe two?  It’s common knowledge—or maybe it’s not—that urinal cakes don’t dissolve in water. They sublimate. It’s the air that eats them away—just sitting there, doing nothing, slowly breaking down—which is why a patty in a forsaken, never-used urinal will, in theory, actually dissolve faster than, say, a patty undergoing a constant barrage at Fenway Park.

But for some reason, this new patty in the basement of the courthouse can’t withstand the pressure of only a few days, and—assuredly—in a few more days, there will be nothing left to prove it was ever here.

Before you call 911 to tell me you’re ending it all, I take a moment for myself in the back hall by the men’s room where the wall is lined with chains and shackles and handcuffs. There is a row of lockers under a wooden shelf cluttered with hand-held radios and chargers and spare parts, and a tall, metal cabinet—always locked (I check it anyway)—which  might hold shields and rifles and pepper spray and tear gas, or it might hold broken computer equipment.

I stand, sipping chlorinated water from the old-fashioned water cooler, while somewhere you are swallowing handfuls of Tylenol. And as I read, for the hundredth time, a memo taped to the wall, yellowing and turned up at the corners, dated circa 2000, about the proper way to store prisoner restraints, you polish off your roommate’s Seroquel. There is no security camera in this hallway, and I know that neither of the other two dispatchers on duty, who are both convinced the courthouse is haunted, will venture back to this part of the office after dark. And later, to ensure my continuing privacy, I will tell them I’d heard footsteps again while sitting on the toilet.

My boss had scheduled me to ride for a few hours earlier in the evening with an officer from the college town nearby. The officers have complained that dispatchers don’t know where anything is. We get the fraternities mixed up and we dispatch officers to alleys that don’t exist. The complaints seem fair. Most dispatchers talk about the town and its inhabitants with nothing but disdain. In our minds, there are only two types of people there: drunken students and the residents who whine about them. Why would we ever go there of our own volition to learn the streets and haunts?

But, unlike the other dispatchers, I spend my days there teaching technical writing at the university, which I refer to as my real job, even though it only accounts for a few hours a week and a fraction of my income. While I don’t stroll around Greek houses or peruse the alleys behind the bars, I certainly have a feel for the layout. And I have also discovered this much about the students and residents there: they’re not that bad.

Despite my best rebuttal, after teaching my class, I locked my office, walked the mile to my car in the student lot, and instead of driving twenty miles northeast to have dinner at home with my wife and kids before coming into Dispatch, I drove a few blocks west to the police department, where I met Sergeant Weldon. He looked disappointed to see me, which I can understand. An officer once confessed to me that he hated having people ride with him in his cruiser: “I run out of things to say after five minutes and then spend the rest of the night trying not to fart.”

After a few minutes, the sergeant’s mood changed considerably when he pulled over a Subaru wagon riddled with faded and peeling bumper stickers. A broken taillight and expired Vermont tags were all it took to release some endorphins into the sergeant’s bloodstream. I sat in the driver’s seat, aware of the shotgun propped next to me, and wondered what I would do if this Vermont hippy suddenly turned on the sergeant. As the sergeant handed him a ticket I aimed an imaginary shotgun at the back of the driver’s head. “Ka-pow,” I whispered.

But, unfortunately, that was the last traffic stop—in fact, the last anything—we did, and I sat with my forehead pressed against the passenger window while the sergeant drove around in circles pointing out frat houses. They ranged from plantation-like estate houses to dilapidated apartment buildings—all with giant Greek letters bolted to the front. Four or five were clustered together, protected from the campus by a wall of trees, each separated by bushes and boulders and strips of terraced grass with a web of footpaths connecting them. Here, in these hidden places, the students stumble their way through the weekend nights, even in the bitterness of February, where the officers often find them, hours after the music and the yelling and the whooping has ended, half-frozen in the leafless hedges, coatless, covered in vomit.

The sergeant and I passed a group of students walking on the road. They stopped and stared at us—some did their best to look innocent; one of them, wearing a hoody and cradling a plastic bag, glared. I sunk in my seat and hoped to go unnoticed. Night had already settled in, and students all look the same to me even in the best of lighting, but I didn’t see anyone who resembled any of my students. I knew, however, that they were there. They were always out there, somewhere.

The previous semester, an officer had stopped one of my students for speeding—a lanky, acne-faced kid named Ellis who always carried a skateboard and who I had to ask several times to take out his headphones during class. When the officer gave me the name over the radio, I told him, jokingly, to go easy on him since he was one of my students.

The officer called in and said, “I was about to give him a ticket. Can you vouch for him?”

“Well, no,” I said. “He writes decent essays, but I have no idea what he’s like outside of class.”

“It’s up to you,” said the officer. “Ticket or no ticket?”

The next Monday, as the students were leaving class, I called Ellis over and told him what a favor I had done for him. He just nodded and then put in his headphones. At the end of the semester, he accidentally left his teacher evaluation on his desk. All I remember from it was the line, “Why don’t real professors teach this class?”

I regretted ever revealing to him that I worked for the police department. Something about telling this student I was also a dispatcher made me feel like less of a teacher—and not without reason. I recalled learning, as an undergraduate, that the instructor of my child-psychology class was a full-time probation officer, and how I no longer saw him as a real professor. Graduate fellows have such little professional validity to begin with, so keeping my life outside of the classroom as secret as possible seemed prudent. I had tried since then to maintain this illusion of being a “real professor” by separating my day-life as an instructor at the university from my night-life as a laborer in the bowels of the courthouse. But tonight, in the vinyl seat of the cruiser, those identities were being mushed together and put on display.

And I almost made it unnoticed, until a couple hours later, at the end of my ride along, when we stopped at a Dunkin Donuts. I peeled my head off the window and got out of the car. Four hours of sitting had resulted in a bad case of the jelly legs. I tried to walk to the front door, but stumbled in a large half-circle to the middle of the parking lot. As I stretched my sore muscles, a student of mine—a crew-cut football player in an ROTC sweatshirt—stood on the curb nearby and said, “Mr. P., shouldn’t you be home grading papers?”

“I’m doing research,” I said.  He seemed to buy it—or, more likely, he didn’t really care—and I looked at the cruiser, hoping the sergeant would corroborate my story, but he was already inside, slightly leaning over the display case, rubbing his hands together, considering the possibilities.




Despite it being a cold, uneventful weekday in April, there are three of us in the dispatch center for the remainder of the night: Amos, a balding father of five with another on the way (“You know what causes that?” I say, and he replies, “Beer.”), who suffers from sleep apnea and who spends his shift sipping room-temperature Mountain Dew from a Christmas mug, and Deidre, the middle-aged wife of a local police chief. She aspires to be great, but she will probably never even be mistaken for competent. We have all told her, some more kindly than others, that dispatch just isn’t for everyone, but she confides in me that everyone is out to get her, “and I’m not about to give them the satisfaction!”

When I return from the bathroom, just before you decide to call 911 all overdosed with slurred speech, Amos is staring at the security monitor mounted above our desks, looking for any signs of paranormal activity: an unexplained shadow, a chair that has moved, or—as he claims he once saw—the reflection of a face in the elevator door. Some nights we tell ghost stories, and Amos will always tell about the insane asylum that burnt down across the street a hundred years ago and all the ghosts that still linger, but tonight, everyone seems a bit taciturn. I work on my homework. The phone rings occasionally, but nothing that requires more than a minute or two of work: an officer asking for an address, a citizen complaining about her neighbor’s dog, a wrong number from someone looking for the jail.

And then you call me to say it’s all over.

I’m not a monster. I don’t want you to kill yourself. But why, I wonder as I take off my glasses and pinch the bridge of my nose, are you calling me if you don’t want any help? Why would you call 911 and then refuse to give me your address? Do you realize how much paperwork will be involved if I try to get your address from your cell-phone provider?

My previous dispatch center was a chaotic call center with a dozen or so dispatchers on at a time, all clad in white and blue security-guard like uniforms with red shoulder patches and silver sheriff’s stars that looked more toy-like than anything official. Most of us were overweight and all of us perpetually perspired in our formfitting polyester pants, dutifully plugged into our telephones while the supervisor, an underpaid pit boss, would loom behind us. There was no sleeping or watching television or playing video games on duty. Of the sixty-plus employees, I was the only student. As the Sheriff had warned me in my interview, dispatch wasn’t a college job—it was a career, and no special privileges in scheduling would be afforded me if I chose to stay in school. But I continued my college courses anyway, and I took advantage of any slow moment to pull out a textbook or work on a paper.

Eight years and two degrees later I had obtained my golden ticket out of that miserable basement: a master’s degree and a graduate teaching fellowship in New England. I had once been proud of my position as an emergency dispatcher. It paid well for a job that required no college degree. But then I finished my bachelor’s degree, and when I demanded a raise, the Sheriff just smiled and assured me his hands were tied.  Two years later, he was equally unimpressed with my Master’s degree. In my final weeks there, my coworkers started calling me professor, and I took every opportunity to remind them I was moving on: I was heading to New England where I would spend my days teaching and my nights, well, not talking to you.

But along with forty pounds, I had gained in my time at dispatch four children and a lot of debt. Even on my last day, as I took my final call and said my goodbyes and turned in my headset and my tiny Sheriff’s star, I knew it wasn’t over. And less than a month later, I found myself twenty-seven hundred miles away, in the basement of the superior courthouse, putting on a Plantronics headset identical to the one I had used for the eight previous years.

There was no sense of pride when I took this job. And few people, other than my family and close friends, know I work here. And now, at three in the morning, you call me and refuse to give your address, and for fifteen minutes I try to keep you chatting. “Is he an indoor dog? What’s his name?” And finally, no thanks to you, the fax machine beeps and out rolls your address, care of Verizon.

The lights are off in the dispatch center. We work by the glow of the computer screens. For the remainder of the night, between my protracted trips to the back restroom, I work on my homework. Amos sits in his corner console and plays a war movie with the volume so loud it distorts the computer’s tiny speakers. But he doesn’t even look at the screen. His feet are propped up, and he plays a handheld video game, occasionally muttering to himself, quietly dropping the F-bomb. Deidre sits nearby with a game of solitaire pulled up on her screen. She is slumped forward with her hand on the mouse, softly snoring away. She wakes up and shakes her mouse every twenty minutes or so to get rid of the screen saver. “Jeez,” she says. “I think the clock stopped working,” and then goes back to sleep.

These are the people with whom I spend my evenings while my wife and four children eat dinner and play games and watch TV and get ready for bed. These are the people with whom I spend Christmas and New Years Eve and Super-bowl Sunday and any given Friday or Saturday night. These are the people, not the drunken students and not the whiny townspeople and, if you can believe it, not even you, from whom I tried to escape by earning a graduate degree.

At five a.m., I can no longer focus on the screen and give up on my paper. I look over to see that Amos’ movie has ended, and he is asleep too. He used to honk and snort while he slept, but he has recently had throat surgery in an attempt to cure his sleep apnea, and he now makes no more noise than the hum of the computer fans.

I have been awake for twenty hours, and soon I have to be back on campus, so I don’t fight it when I begin to nod off.  The paramedics have already dropped you off at the hospital and returned to their station. The radio is silent.

In a few hours, my wife will ask if anything interesting happened at work last night. I’ll have to think about it, but nothing will come to mind. I’ll tell her I went on a ride along, saw some fraternities, but that was about it.

It’ll be several months before you creep back into my thoughts. When I’m cracking an egg or tightening a bolt on my son’s bike or watching a Slap Chop commercial at three in the morning, I’ll think about you—for just a moment—and I’ll wonder if you’re still around town. I’ll wonder if your next roommate had a better stocked medicine cabinet.


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