PAROLE OFFICER PETE | Peter Clarke
I have a friend who used to be a cop. He would sometimes tell stories from back in the day. He once said, Have you ever met a really bad guy? He paused, let his words bury their toes in the silence. I mean, like, a really, really bad guy?
I caught his drift. There’s bad, and then there’s bad. There aren’t enough italics and underlines and ink in the world to convey just how bad this bad truly is.
There are different levels of badness. You have your good people who do bad things, the category where most of us find ourselves. Then you have your sort-of good people who habitually do bad things. Then you have Bad People.
Others might call them sociopaths–the inherently destructive, the antisocial.
Which brings us to “Parole Officer Pete.” One of the big questions from this ingenious little flash fiction is: what kind of bad is our protagonist? Not what kind of bad does Pete think he is, but on a deep-down level, what kind of person is he?
Peter Clarke has packed a whole lot of moral complexity into this very short piece; in spare, to-the-point narration, his antihero Pete explains why he’s such a, you know, criminal.
I’m just wired different.
Okay, with the very first line, our protagonist has established himself as different, unique. This is the “Call me Ishmael” moment of this story, since it sets the terms of our relationship with the narrator. Just as Call Me Ishmael implies a level of distrust, mystery, etc., “I’m just wired different” communicates things like passivity (I didn’t ASK to be this way, it’s how I was wired!). other-ness/marginalization, excuse-making, and so forth.
We then learn, of course, that criminal Pete (who reports to parole officer Pete) is someone who thinks the rules of society and morality do not apply to him, and he consequently breaks these rules habitually. This could mean he’s a colossal narcissist who believes he is above the constraints of social and legal norms–and there’s evidence for that narcissism in the text:
Standing outside his church, I looked at all the young girls walking by in their dresses and skirts. It started to make sense that I was just like God—just watching and waiting.
Could Pete’s legal problems and work with parole officer Pete have something to do with these young girls? Since all the other references to Pete’s transgressions remain theoretical, just fantasies, the salient reference to the young girls (which sort of comes out of nowhere) is the closest hint we get of Pete’s criminal past. Kudos to the author for the incredibly subtle implication, which keeps the story from getting icky but also gently suggests Pete’s dark history.
Then again, the girls could be simply emblematic of Pete’s distance from anything remotely resembling innocence, a sign of Pete’s outsider status, etc. The literal and figurative interpretations of the young girls outside the church work equally well.
It’s sort of apropos that I bring up Nabokov’s Lolita (Pale Fire would work well to, in comparison). In Lolita, our protagonist Humbert Humbert is an incredible narcissist and sociopath who objectifies everyone around him, an objectification that lets him do all sorts of horrible things without feeling bad thanks to his innate self-interest/self-obsession.
It seems that criminal Pete in today’s story shares those traits, but has a bit more restraint (which he skillfully mis-attributes to lack of opportunity rather than prudence or moral discernment).
Walking down the street, I waited for myself to pick up a rock and throw it at the windshield of a passing car. … But no cars passed and they must have recently cleaned the sidewalk because there weren’t any rocks to throw.
“I waited for myself” is a construction loaded with passivity, but in this case we sense (since it’s his own potential actions he’s talking about) that it’s a false passivity, a facade he projects as much to himself as to his parole officer.
The story creates an incredible tension between the possible interpretations of Pete’s identity: he’s either all id but lacks opportunity to act on his primal drives, or he’s got something of a conscience (or at the very least pragmatic restraint) to prevent him from doing bad things.
He’s either a decent person who does bad things, or he’s a Really Bad Guy.
No, we’re never quite clear on which he is, but I’m pretty certain that he’s lying to himself via his narration, attempting bury his sense of responsibility. He’s a complex dude–and he may not be wired so differently at all.