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The Hustle

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"Deja vu," Kima says as she spits into the dirt and wipes her mouth on the back of her hand. "I got some serious deja fucking vu right now."

 

"Oh, I beg to differ, my friend," Bunk says. He gestures with his right hand, spilling whiskey over Kima's shoulder. The smell is almost enough to make her puke again. "Déjà vu is the inexplicable feeling that you've done something before when it is in reality a new experience to you, and puking behind the Crazy Russian with a stripper's thong wrapped around your hand cannot in truth be said to be either inexplicable or a new fucking experience, for either one of us, actually, but right now you are the champion, you lead the league in this field. I bow to your commitment and dedication to the cause," and when he bows he spills whiskey again and Kima puts her hand over her mouth, then retches.

 

"Christ," she says, and pulls at the cheap red fake satin twisted around her wrist until she gets it off. She throws it over her shoulder without looking.

 

"Hey," the stripper says behind them, "I ain't a stripper. I'm an exotic dancer. There's a difference."

 

Kima laughs and Bunk turns and bows again. "Stop throwing that whiskey around and drink it already," Kima says, but Bunk isn't listening.

 

"My apologies, sweetheart, you are the most exotic of dancers," Bunk says. Kima leans on her hands and tips her head backwards while she watches the stripper flounce and hitch her top up. Somehow she feels less drunk upside down.

 

"So did you all want something out here, or are you just wasting my fucking time? I'll warn you right now, you better have some fucking money in your pockets, I ain't some fucking cheapass -"

 

"Honey, we're police," Kima says, and falls back on the ground laughing as the stripper lets out a piercing scream and swears. Bunk bends double with laughter and then says, still gasping,

 

"Madam, if you can't spot a police by now, you will not be a success in your chosen profession, I'm sorry to tell you."

 

"She don't look like no fucking police," the woman says bitterly, pointing at Kima.

 

"Get with the times, my darling," Bunk says. "Kima here is indeed the very picture of a modern member of our esteemed force. She is typical - indeed, so typical she is a stereotype, no, an archetype -"

 

"She a dyke," the stripper says flatly, and Kima bursts out laughing again.

 

"Do not be fooled by superficialities," Bunk says, waving a finger in her face. "She is laid out in the dirt, drunk on cheap beer behind one of the city's most notorious strip clubs, where she will remain until she crawls back to her empty apartment, to sleep it off until called into service by some outrage against the decency and quiet living of the good citizens of this fine burg. That is practically the job description of a Baltimore City police, and no one does it better than my friend Kima here. Of course, some do it just as well. Modesty prevents me from naming myself -"

 

"Learned everything I know from you," Kima says. "Bout drinking and strip clubs, at any rate."

 

"A lie, my friend, a lie, but a gallant one," Bunk says. He bows again, but this time he overbalances and falls forward onto his face. Kima howls with laughter and creeps over to rescue his drink. She props herself up again on her elbows and watches the stripper pick her way grumbling and bitching through the trash and rocks scattered over the empty lot. Bunk struggles, panting and clawing at the dirt until he's sitting up, his legs stretched out in front of him, his brown leather shoes untied. He reaches down with a grunt to tie them, then gives it up as a lost cause. They sit there in the dark for a while, passing the bottle between them.

 

Finally Kima says, "Déjà fucking vu," and Bunk sighs soddenly.

 

"I'm not going to explain it to you again."

 

"No, seriously," Kima says. She takes the bottle away from him but doesn't drink from it. "Listen, I have this feeling, like I've been here before, like this happened already -"

 

"Yes, two nights ago, out back of the Oasis," Bunk says. "Give me back that bottle."

 

"No, no, not that, I mean right here, this exact moment at this exact place, this happened, I know it did -" She snaps her fingers. "McNulty. I was here with fucking McNulty, except he was the one - I was here with him."

 

"Of course you were," Bunk says. "Who wasn't here with Jimmy fucking McNulty, back in the day when he was a man and a legend, before he abandoned us, abandoned us to live like a citizen -"

 

"He's still a police."

 

"If you want to call it that," Bunk says. He snatches the bottle from her and drinks deeply, then holds it high and lets the whiskey pour onto the ground between them. "To our lost comrade in arms."

 

"He ain't lost," Kima says. "I saw him two weeks ago. Fuck, so did you - we were there together."

 

"Ah, yes," Bunk says. "Dinner with the family, burgers on the grill, beer in a can, rugrats climbing all over him. Jimmy fucking McNulty, our poster boy for fucking domesticity. What happened to you, my friend?" and he upends the bottle again, first into his mouth and then into the dirt.

 

"Nah, don't be like that," Kima says. "He's happy, leave him be."

 

"Don't take me seriously," Bunk says. "He's happy, I'm happy for him, we're all happy. But tell me true now - you really believe he's happy? You understand it?"

 

Kima pauses for a moment, because this stage of drunkenness requires total honesty and that makes her admit that those are two different questions. She'd sat out on the stoop with McNulty that night, watching the kids play in the alley and listening to Bunk flirting elaborately and outrageously with Beadie in the kitchen. McNulty grinned at her, his sleeves rolled up over his shoulders, a beer half-full in his hand that he hadn't touched in ten minutes. "What're you looking at?" he said, his voice light and teasing, and Kima said, matching her voice to his,

 

"What happened to you?"

 

There was maybe something more serious in her voice than she intended, or else McNulty had been waiting for the question, because he stopped grinning and put his beer down on the step next to him. "I got smart, is what happened to me," McNulty said. "I got out of the fucking game. You never fucking win, unless you're a perp or a politician, but people like us, we never fucking win. It's no good for us, so I got while the getting was good."

 

"And you're good, this is good for you?" Kima said.

 

She knew the answer before he opened his mouth, just from the way he smiled like he couldn't help it, like the answer was so obvious it was funny and he wouldn't be rude by laughing but he couldn't keep the smile from escaping. "First time in years, I feel good and I am good. What the hell, oldest cliché in the world, but I got me a good woman and all I want is a good quiet life, her and the kids and a good job, work that does good in the world but doesn't fucking eat me alive."

 

"You took a few bites out of some yourself, I remember right," Kima said easily, but McNulty shook his head.

 

"Sure, I thought I did, thought I could, but you never do, not really. You never get your teeth in any of them so it matters. It was like - you remember that story, about Jonah in the whale? I know you do, Kima, good churchgoing girl like you must have been coming up," and Kima punched him on the shoulder. McNulty laughed and then said, "It's like that, being in the game, I was inside the fucking whale, thinking I was taking bites out of that bastard but he'd already swallowed me whole. Only thing to do was get out as soon as I saw some light, leave it for them who like living in the fucking dark."

 

"You don't miss it?" Kima said. "Honest now, you don't miss it at all?"

 

McNulty drank from his beer and then put it back down, tapping his fingers against the can while he watched the kids run around. Finally he said, "There aren't things you don't miss, things you gave up to stay in? You telling me you don't miss a minute of that, every once in a while?"

 

"What," Kima said, "crying baby, nagging wife, nothing ever good enough? Hate to break it to you, McNulty, but I didn't become a dyke so I could be some woman's henpecked husband." McNulty smiled a little but kept looking at her, his dark eyes serious but not angry with it, the way they'd always been before. He didn't look like anybody who'd ever crouched on his hands and knees puking in the back of a strip club, spitting in the dirt while Kima hauled him to his feet. He looked different.

 

Inside the kitchen Beadie said, "Oh, the way you talk," to Bunk, the way women always did, that half-scolding, half-beckoning way women did, the way Cheryl used to do, sometimes, when Kima came in on time and snuck into the kitchen and surprised her. One time Kima came in after a day off that she'd spent at the library, a day when she'd actually had time to study for once, to feel like she was learning something, like she could learn something that wasn't about ever more efficient ways to sling crack. Cheryl'd been carrying then, four months maybe, long enough to be over the puking stage but before she'd gotten big. She was so fucking hot then, aglow with what she had inside her, hot and so fucking hot for it, all the time. She'd shown Kima her baby book where it said it was normal when Kima laughed at her, but though she was laughing Kima wasn't complaining. It was like it was back in the beginning then, Kima pressing up behind Cheryl and whispering in her ear until Cheryl smacked her arm and said, "The way you talk, your mouth is criminal, sweet-talking an innocent girl like me."

 

"You'd look a lot more innocent without that belly," Kima said, and Cheryl had smacked her again but let Kima push her down into a chair, push her down and push her skirt up and get down on her knees in front of her, right there in the kitchen before they'd even put dinner on. They'd moved to the bed later, Cheryl wrapping herself around Kima, whispering in her ear, "your mouth is criminal," not scolding at all this time, just pulling Kima in like she'd never let go. Later she'd tried to talk Kima into going to find something for them to eat and Kima had almost agreed to go, half out of bed but leaning back to kiss Cheryl lazily, and then her beeper went off in her pants down on the floor.

 

"Don't answer it," Cheryl had said, and for once it wasn't an order. It sounded like a question, like she wasn't just busting Kima's chops but like she thought maybe Kima could do it, just this once, like she'd had hope. Kima had put her pants on and taken out the beeper and looked at the number, like she always did, like she was always going to do. "I gotta get this, baby," she'd said, and Cheryl didn't look like she had hope anymore.

 

"No," Kima said to McNulty then, and she wasn't drunk enough to have to be honest but it wasn't a lie anyway. She didn't miss watching that look go away. She didn't miss it at all.

 

McNulty looked at her for a minute more, then stood up and stretched. "What the hell, what do I know anyway, right? I just met the right woman and she fixed me up, and now I'm stretching a whole story out to fit over us. That's what we Irish are famous for, you gotta watch out for that, Kima," and Kima had stood up next to him and they'd gone to rescue Beadie from Bunk in the kitchen.

 

Now Kima takes the bottle from Bunk and drinks, then hands it back. "Sure, I believe he's happy. And what's so hard to understand? He finally found the right woman, nothing complicated about that."

 

"The right woman, huh?" Bunk looks at her with his hand on the bottle, but doesn't take a drink. "Now, no offence meant to Beadie, she's a nice lady, but you know what's different about her, different from all the rest of Jimmy's women?"

 

"No," Kima says. "What's different about her?"

 

Bunk spits on the ground. "Absolutely nothing," Bunk says. "Absolutely fucking nothing, in everything that matters she's exactly the same as every other woman Jimmy's fucked more than once. She's not different. You know what's different? He's different."

 

Kima sits up suddenly. Bunk holds out the bottle but she pushes it away. She's got that weird feeling again, déjà vu, and then she remembers why this feels familiar. She heard somebody say that same thing once, a guy at a training class Daniels had sent her to, back when she'd still thought it was worth her time to show her face at shit like that. She'd never kissed ass but she thought it was worth at least showing up, once upon a time. The classes were a joke, a bunch of bleeding hearts explaining addicts to all of them, like anybody knew more about addicts than a bunch of Baltimore city police. One guy, though, had been different. He was an ex-junkie, Kima spotted that even before he told them, he might have left heroin behind but he still had a junkie's nervous twitch and fast endless talk. He told them all he'd been clean for eight years and after they clapped for him he said,

 

"Flunked out of fifteen programs before I got clean, either used right there in rehab or got out and went straight to my dealer to get my hustle on. Flunked out of fifteen programs before I got clean, and you know what was different about the sixteenth program?" Kima'd leaned in, actually interested to hear his answer for once. "Absolutely fucking nothing," he said. "The last program was the same as the first one. You know what was different? I was different."

 

"You ain't gonna save anybody," he said, pacing the front of the room like he couldn't stand to sit still, even after eight years. "I hate to tell you but it's true. Nothing you can do to make anybody leave the game. Nobody ever gave up their hustle except for one reason: it started hurting worse to stay in than it did to get out, and nothing you can do to get them to that point. Send them to jail? I went to jail more times than I can count, I knew jail, I wasn't scared of going to jail. Lose my family, lose my friends? I lost them all, lost them and lived without them, I wasn't scared of that. Ain't nothing you can think of that would hurt me more than what I shot into myself every single fucking day, shot up and then came back begging for more. Every fucking day since I was sixteen years old - you think there's anything you can do will fuck a junkie up worse than his own self?"

 

"So how'd you get clean?" one of the guys in the class had asked, clean-cut Irish boy, a striver. "Why did it start hurting worse to stay in than to get out?"

 

"One day I changed," the guy said. "Some people will tell you they got God, others will say they just got tired, but I'm here to tell you none of us know why. We put names on it because we have to, because we have to feel like we understand it, like we can control it, but none of us know. One day I woke up and I was different, and I'm not saying that made it easy to get clean, no fucking way. It just made it possible. One day I changed, and one day some of those folks you see out on the street maybe might change, but until then, ain't nothing you can do to get them to leave their hustle behind. Not a thing you can do, until they're different."

 

Now Kima drinks from Bunk's bottle until it's empty, then hands it back to him. The two of them lie on their backs in the dirty lot, arms behind their heads, looking up at the night sky smudged with smog and the faint faraway light of a few lost stars. They don't say anything as the night slips away from them, dawn nudging over the broken skyline. Kima's beeper goes off in her pocket and she stands up and brushes herself off without even looking at it. She doesn't have to. She already knows she'll answer it. Bunk salutes her with one lazy hand as she makes her way carefully through the trash and molehills in the vacant lot, heading back to headquarters to get her hustle on.