When I met him, he was a beat cop working in the toughest town. He worked alone. Alone, because no other cop wanted to ride with him. Getting shot was a frequent habit of Marlboro’s partners. Sergeant Philip Winston Marlboro rode the night shift, past the sleaziest bars, back alleys, and vacant lots of Baltimore. It was easy to find the crooks, backstabbers, and cheats. They were everywhere. They were everyone. Once he stopped his patrol car, the crackheads, pimps, and pickpockets would vanish into the damp mist blowing in off the Chesapeake.
If he wanted to make a few extra dollars, he could’ve taken their money. He never did. He was fair, though he didn’t make many arrests. Late at night, he chose his own form of justice. His nightstick served as judge and jury. Eventually, crime settled down when he was on the beat. Crime didn’t go away—it just sort of gave up—a case of give up or get beat up when Sergeant Marlboro was on patrol.
He wasn’t a tall guy, not short but tough. He was as hard as a nail hammered sideways into a two-by-four. He could outrun a meth addict and outbox the heaviest brawler. When I first met him, he didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, and he never uttered a foul or impolite word.
The beat, the crime, and the war would change all that. But the crimes he saw and the horrors he suffered later during the war wouldn’t change him half as much as she did.
Crime and the war didn’t break him, but she broke his heart.
It was a dark and stormy night. He met her on patrol. The rain was so heavy at times it felt like watching the thoroughbreds line up at the starting gate of the Preakness. Marlboro hated pulling Preakness duty. The Preakness was the second, shortest, dirtiest race of the Triple Crown. A dim agate of an aged jewel. Known for its rowdy infield of drunk Hopkins med students, the Preakness runs in the spring. It’s also run in the rain, always the rain. The only fun of the entire shift was watching the horses line up. The gates were cramped and full of flies. The jockeys, horses, and keepers were all hyped up on amphetamines and diuretics. So right before the big race, all the horses peed.
They pee in unison, a collective firehose of urine. They pee as hard and fast as the rain on a cold Baltimore night. They pee right there at the starting gate. I can’t say why Marlboro found this funny. The rain in Baltimore does strange things to your brain.
At night, on his patrols, it was always cold and always raining. Baltimore was like that. You got soaked when your shift started, and you got wetter as the night grew longer. No amount of coffee can cure the chill that starts to own your bones on a damp night in Baltimore. He was soaked, tired, and not in the mood for company.
Then she walked by.
Not a walk with a particular pace. Nor a walk with a particular place to be. But a walk that causes you to stop shivering and focus on the show in front of you. Coming closer, Marlboro could feel what was next. His nightstick was poised and at the ready, nerves braced. She had a way of pressing her entire body next to his as if two could become one. As she passed, he instinctively checked for his keys, wallet, mace, and that small backup radio which had a habit of going off when you didn’t want it to.
So, that’s how they met, first the walk, then the pressing of two bodies on a cold, wet Baltimore night. After that, they were inseparable.
A product of the streets, she knew how to survive. She could give love like it consumed her whole body and then turn on you in an instant. She could rip your heart out. Then she’d think nothing of it. She did what she had to do. She did what she was good at—surviving the cold and rain of Baltimore nights any way she could. She took to riding in the back of Marlboro’s patrol car. She’d curl up in the back and go to sleep. If Marlboro made an arrest, she didn’t move. She’d sleep with one eye trained on the creep. She was ready to rip his heart out if he made a move.
Occasionally he’d bring her home to his rat-infested apartment above the Trailways bus depot. She hated the noise. She hated the smell of urine left by the winos. For Marlboro, it was home, but it would never be hers. An apartment couldn’t keep her. She was born on the street. The streets were her home. Her hair was dirty and matted from a hundred nights plying her wares in Baltimore’s back alleys. Marlboro tried to wash it once, with limited luck. He cleaned enough to see that her hair wasn’t brown, not black, and certainly not red. Somehow, depending on the light, it was all three. Then in the shadows, it was neither one nor the other, or the other.
Eventually, Marlboro got around to naming her. I really can’t remember what he called her. But when I caught up to him years later during the war, Marlboro would say, “That was the best damn dame I ever knew.” He remembered her like that—just another female from Baltimore’s cold, wet streets.
When he left for the war, she couldn’t and wouldn’t go. She left him crying, turning up her cold, wet nose and just walking off. The kind of walk that lets you know that her moves will now be for someone else. You’re the history now. She left Sergeant Marlboro as quickly as she took him. He’d now be singing a song of loneliness on cold and rainy Baltimore nights.
He went off to war, but not before that damn cat broke his heart.