She blew through the stop at about thirty, thirty-five miles an hour. Didn’t even slow down, just blasted through. Intersection of Courtland and Grovers Avenue. It’s a quiet stop. Sign as red as any other, familiar, octagonal. Big white letters: S T O P. It’s residential here—kids everywhere. I don’t know what anyone is thinking anymore when they drive.
Well, I was about a half-block down, waiting. I stepped out into the street, raised my arm. I felt the chafe of my brown polyester sleeve and reminded myself to do a hand wash in the sink, home, end of day. Giant SUV. I’ve done this so many times it’s hard not see the whole thing play out before it even happens. No respect for authority—rarely, occasionally they’ll treat you like you’re simply doing what you’re supposed to do. But mostly you get looked at like you’re an inconvenience. It wears on you. Most don’t even bother to brake. Some slow their vehicle enough to glance down the cross street and see if anyone’s watching—then they gas it. It used to be you heeded these signs. They weren’t guidelines, they were law. The rules had reasons.
Anyway, so I stood in the street and signaled for her to pull over: Black Escalade, late-model. And as this beast of privilege slowed to the curb I began sending authority sparklers through the power of mental conveyance, sparklers shooting that authority toward this shadowed figure behind the windshield, my brain thoughts atomized into a spray, passing through the glass, reconstituting into a single brain-thought inside the mind of this young woman. I heard some static. I thought possibly this static was coming from my own mind circuits, the inner-ear knowledge channels. That there had been a misfiring and my conveyed authority, it was just a lingering weevil gyrating in the smooth cold cockleshell of my earbrain. Then I recognized the voice pushing up from the static: and this voice was the voice of the shortwave radio in my Crown Vic a few yards away, and I thought, Christ, Sheila, give me a minute, I’m in the middle of a situation.
Well, it was the dispatcher Sheila—the nine-to-three. She’d just come on. I keep the window cracked so I can listen to her talking when I’m standing out on the street. With the added benefit of keeping the car a little cooler on hot mornings. She was in the middle of a dispatch—
—You can put that one-fourteen back on paper. I have a plate, Sally-Ted-9-Zed-Xray-John-Boy 2-5-6 . . . Two males—
So on and so forth. Out of range of my beat. Meanwhile this Escalade was touching up her makeup in the rearview. She made me wait a few seconds while she took care of herself, then the tinted glass of the driver’s side rolled down so that she could give me the look. Sizing me up. Operating the hi-fidelity stereo of her vanity engines, a presumed innocence weaving out of the speakers of her own brainwaves, fragmenting, recombining. Cockles. Ptuu Ptuu Ptuu. Well ma’am, I acknowledge the waves bubbling up from your sonic exhaust. I acknowledge the gray gas between your teeth, teeth already crested with a line of that expensive lipstick like some crazy pleasure potion slipped out of the sealed canister on some space picnic.
I raised my index finger and said: Good Morning. License and registration, Ma’am.
She had the license ready, handed it up to me. Current, no problems there. Her name was Ann Marie. Nice lilt. For a moment I saw her undressed. In my imagination—and I’m just talking about a couple of synapses here—she wore a flesh-tone body suit emblazoned with the line-drawing of a sleepy-eyed koala bear chewing on a Eucalyptus branch, which seemed to diminish stimulation. Ann Marie was wealthy, sure, but was she any more than that? From the looks of her undressed, yes, she was. But I had already sworn to a life of austerity.
—Registration? I repeated. She was already leaning over to the passenger side with her glove compartment door open, rifling—crushed box of tissues, coupon mailers curled in the humidity, a small cellophane package of oyster crackers. I saw the back of her shirt was wrinkled up around the base of her neck. I imagined it had pulled out of her slacks a little and would need a tucking eventually. None of my business, koala bear, I then noted. And then I noted that I’d noted this.
—New contact lenses, she said: I’m still adjusting—talking at her glove compartment. Such that I thought maybe there was a little person in her glove compartment, or an imaginary friend. Her driver’s license photograph was blown out. That unintentionally flattering fashion-glow from the DMV lamps. She kept unfolding maps, re-folding them, replacing crackers, tissues. So I took out my notepad and scribbled a few things down. Hair, brown, thick, shoulder length. Half pixie-tail arrangement. Possibly going to the gym this morning with the hair. That look. Elegant and casual.
—I see you live around here, I said.
—It’s right there on the license, isn’t it? she said. She had found a small package of artificial sweetener.
—That’s right ma’am, I said. I have the information right here. We were in a redundancy loop and I could see this branching off into the same question and answer exchange, with only a slight rephrasing each time, indefinitely. The ball was in her court now.
She glanced back at me from the glove compartment. She maintained the going attitude, which was an attitude of indignation. Didn’t matter that there was the slight possibility I might be representing the police department of Fragrant Park, IL. No, I was just an imposition. But already this morning it was pretty hot out and I was not enjoying this any more than she was. She at least had her air-conditioning, which I could savor for as long as I could keep her detained; Whereas, I had my brown 90/10 polyester weave, and a vehicle whose own A.C. went out years ago.
Well, I cut ahead of the usual script a bit and began reciting the names of the children—Mark, Amy, Jonathan, Chiara, Péle, Gideon, Hans. Terrence, Beverly, Gunter, Anna. Joey, Frangelica, Donny, Marie, Grinling—
—What? she said. I had her attention.
—Children, I said: who, through a miscalculation—likely yours just a moment ago, ma’am—might have been injured or killed at a small intersection not unlike this one. I pointed at the intersection behind us both.
—Wait, she said—suddenly I had her interest—Children killed. Here . . . Officer?
I heard the twist in her voice at officer, that slight rise of incredulity. And then I saw her searching eyes fall to my chrome-plastic badge, the brown polyester pocket behind it. I saw what was coming.
—Listen, I said, I am not God. These are just the names of children. What I’m trying to do here is bring home a broader point. Which is: Simple twist of fate, I’m saying, of mathematical odds. And then I reminded her that there were two hundred thirteen of these little tykes of elementary school age in this neighborhood alone. And that, Anne Marie? That is a demonstrable fact: you can check the math over at the public library’s county census section. Free of charge, just need a library card—
—Wait. Your badge. Are you like some federal agent? she said. Is that your car over there? With the little flags? I don’t—
—An entire life could change, just like that, I added.
—Are you even a—?
We were getting nowhere. I handed her back her license. I said:
—Skip the registration. Let’s call this a warning. You have a nice day, now.
And as I turned to leave, I heard her say, You’re not even a fucking cop, are you? You have got to be kidding me. Who the hell are you? You’re impersonating a—
I made it to my car and heard her pull off and yell something out her window in passing. Escalade, I thought. First rate class act. Next time I wouldn’t be so generous.
On the shortwave, Sheila’s voice again, dispatching some trouble at the mall with a few youngsters. Same piss and vinegar latchkey punks I find harassing people on my moonlight shifts at the Friendly’s. But for now it’s no concern of mine: I’m just enjoying the sound of Sheila’s silken voice on the Police Bandwidth. That voice like honey ladled over the shrieking and static that is our time spent together. Me in the Crown Vic, she passing through the distorted airwaves like magic. Her dispatches, professional, restrained—no other voice on the PB has that magic. I sure would like to meet her someday. Though honestly? I have no idea what I’d say. I believe I’d find myself speechless.
Just this morning I’d had to re-duct tape the shortwave under the dash—it had begun to hang loose, bobbing against the box of pepper spray canisters from the drug store. These summer months gum-up the duct tape adhesive and the radio starts leaning to the left: It can chafe my gas-knee, and then there’s the risk it will drop while I’m driving and jam the brake pedal. The amber wig-wag you can get at any decent hardware store—magnet on the bottom holds it to the roof, cord trails down into your cigarette lighter. But amber only: purely municipal, work crews, department of forestry, that sort of thing. You don’t get the red turret lights here in town legally unless you are, at the very least, a school bus. Otherwise those cherries are contraband on anything but your big boy squad cars, your fire and ambulatory. The small United States flags, one each rising from the four corners of the Crown Vic—standard issue Memorial Day fodder, any party supply discount bin off-season. Nice, patriotic touch. I’ve taped a few layers of clear packing tape over the flag cloth to weather proof and give them a starched and pressed effect. These flags are always stiff and clean, always at attention. And then, the DEPT. OF HOMELAND SAFETY badges on the sides? Magnetic. Fleischmann’s Trophy Supply, custom order. They aren’t cheap, but look at them and tell me with a straight face they aren’t worth every penny.
I showed up at my Friendly’s at 2:30—I’d been brought in several months back to handle an ongoing after-school problem management was having. The job clocks in at minimum wage, but I get a 5% cut in the tips, and a take-away dinner at the end of my shift. It’s often the only meal I allow myself because of the austerity plan. Though I won’t turn down a free piece of pie. Today, the Early Bird was coming to an end—I was about an hour away from getting my dinner and calling it a day. Jasmine was already up on the ladder outside, changing the lettering on the sign. There had been a ban on teenagers from two-thirty to six-thirty P.M. on account of the serial ketchup pranks, and then the string of freezer raids several months back. The banned youngsters were coming by less often, but sometimes we still went through our dance at the front door. Then you have the occasional dine-and-ditch and this is pretty steady. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I don’t mind.
These dine and ditches are problematic in many ways. You can’t always tell until it’s too late. And often, a seventy-four-year-old man such as myself, well, you’re dealing with certain physical disadvantages trying to chase after them. Today’s was an unusual candidate, looked more like a trucker, impressively slight of hindquarter while being extraordinary of belly. What is colloquially referred to as trucker butt. You don’t expect this kind of thing from the trucker. Murder, road rage, domestic abuse, sure. But these people usually pay their tabs, and I’ll just add that they generally tip well. There are pockets of honor within the rococo weave of their roaming lives.
But this one here: Tanya dropped the check, and this fellow he got up and went into the bathroom. Minute later I watched him come out. He glanced back at the table, and then at me sitting there. Then he went straight for the door, calm, easy, slow walking it like nothing doing. Tanya passed by his table and then I saw her go over to Terri and point at the door. Terri looked over at me and nodded. It was a go. Showtime.
Okay, I said to myself. Looks like you’re gonna earn that dinner tonight. Through the window I could see him walking untroubled across the lot. So I went out, caught up with him and said, Excuse me, sir. There’s the matter of the check—
I was hoping for a friendly resolution. I was using a friendly tone, a manner. I could feel the polyester burning my neck raw.
—Excuse me, I said: I think we’ve forgotten to settle our check in there?
And still, he kept walking like he hadn’t heard me.
—Simple misunderstanding, I’m sure, I said, and I reached out to touch his shoulder. Which, later, I realized had been pretty much a singular mistake. Did I see his wind up? Yes. His fist lifting? Yep, did. His hand shooting out, the cold-cock, the sudden white-blindness. No, that seemed to get erased from the retrospect tapes. There was only a sensation, a swift rocket-like surge in my body. And I heard myself say:
—Come to me baby, come to me. The ground below, all the little toy people, the bonfires and drag races. The smell of burned sugar and wheel grease. The tinkling of a calliope. Here now, what was I doing standing in the open air atop a roller coaster, The Widow Maker? Standing above the seat, in fact, unrestrained from the safety bar, or any protective strapping apparatus, standing, unbound, on the ledge of the last car? The wheels frozen teetering on the rails high above all the little tiny small people? Jammed, for the moment, high above them all, hundreds of feet in the sky. The thin air, the foreign, cool moisture of this altitude, all the colored twinkling lights below, the booths and rides.
Sheila. There she was: looking back at me, wild of eye, her crazy windblown hair that seemed to hold in its shape all the potential of a spellbound moment. Sheila, at the front of the car, just out of reach, her eyes feral, like her hair. She was standing too, as if poised. A breeze picked up, and the rollercoaster car we stood atop creaked, giving a bit on its rails against the wind.
But my goodness she was a wild girl! You didn’t get that sense of proportion from her dispatches on the police band. Sure, the lungs, you heard the lungs of this woman, but I had no idea. I exercised caution, approached her a little at a time and a cloud brushed my arm and then, for a moment, this cloud engulfed us. I’ll admit I’m not a great fan of heights or roller coasters, or being stuck on one high high above in the middle of a hallucination. Or even clouds.
Then the mist cleared. Her hair was thick and red, her lipstick bright, the rouge, the eyeliner. Dressed to the nines.
—Lookit Sheila, I said: I am here for you. I can’t say I understand just why we’re suddenly both trapped up here right now, but we’ve got our entire lives to figure that out. This is no time for despair. I can tell you this much—
Despair? she said. And then she laughed, a cackling kind of laughter. Jubilant? Mocking? I didn’t really have the luxury of sorting that out: She began to dance and the teetering car shook, a danger dance, I thought—a dance I might add that only emphasized that lovely girth of hers. A slacks-on-fire kind of dance. Our car at the apex of the roller coaster’s lousy track jerking and tugging in the wind, the pulsing of her body with my slighter frame suspended so high above. Lord, she was an aggressive dancer. The car creaked and shook a little more.
—Wild child! I shouted, laughing kind of, letting her hootchie-cootchie all over the plastic seats, and then I felt her arms engulf me, taking in the constriction of her manic flesh, the lavender jiggle of blouse and hair. Her pants of an exaggerated bell bottom I hadn’t seen since the seventies. Was I terrified? Yes, I was, but tell me you wouldn’t be too. And then, right there, three hundred feet above the distant surface of the earth, this new scraping of metal and rust-blistered paint, a new popping now, the broken tooth of a cog or pulley or fundamental armature of cast iron giving into a last, long despairing groan.
Sheila! I screamed. The car lurched. The car snapped free.
Later I was sitting at the Donut Express with a hot coffee. I only half-recalled driving there from the parking lot at the Friendly’s. Terri had let me go a half hour early. They had found me there in the lot, on the asphalt, brushing off the stones and the wrapper of an ice cream sandwich embedded in the knee of my uniform. The dine and ditch situation, it was over. The man was gone.
—Who’s Sheila? Terri said.
—Oh, I said.
—Well, anyway, you get that outfit steam cleaned, Terri said: On the house. And she handed me a ten and touched my shoulder. Was there pity in her eyes, or was it admiration?
Now, I sat in the donut shop, holding my coffee under my chin, letting the vapors settle on the abrasions. I would be forgiven for not shaving for a couple of days. My own armchair understanding of the bones of the face would likely identify two new ones that had never been committed to the books. Sharp, bandy, angular, extraordinarily supple in flex and swift of motility, they would have eluded the established literature. Outside, through the glass wall, night had settled over the parking lot in a phosphorescent mist. The entire spectacle of Route 8 lay beyond: the McDonald’s, Wendy’s, both Burger Kings, gas station after gas station after gas station. Perhaps it was the endorphins, but in a strange way I felt at peace, happy even. It had been a difficult day, but just another day. And I’d live again to see yet another, God willing. An alarm on my wristwatch went off, and the liquid display began blinking. I had no idea: I still didn’t understand much about programming this watch. It seemed to make these little tinkling sounds, or like some national anthem of the country of its manufacture. At the early-retirement party we all got these watches, these nice black digital ones, very slim against our wrists. They lit up aquamarine in the dark and had twenty-five different alarm tones you could designate for different alarming purposes. You could program these watches in all sorts of ways to alarm you, though despite making out what I could of the little fold out user manual, re-reading several times, much of my watch remained a mystery. We had our cake there in the canteen, some orange juice, coffee. There was a toast, a big round of applause for us all. It was nice, no complaints. I was sixty-four-and-a-half then, so unfortunately I got the significantly reduced pension package. I was, basically? half-set for life, I joked and we all laughed. But it was certainly true, so long as I kept habits in check, tried to stay healthy, shaved down my carb intake a bit. I needed to just age gracefully. Put a premium on self-discipline, a daily rigor.
Two years later, the company filed for bankruptcy, the union folded. The whole enterprise reappeared far away in some rehabbed fishing village in a country named Indochina back when I was a young man. Pensions dissolved across the board. So I learned how you could draw the most out of your food by simply trying to remind yourself there were people far worse off—electricity, heating, it was all about daylight, the occasional votive candle, layering in the colder months, the dollar store for the darndest things. The soup kitchen on Sundays, and then, eventually, Saturdays too. It was about attitude, developing a mental conveyance, projecting the things that were important to you into your life. Self-determination. Prayer.
And then, somewhere between the pension crash and my seventy-fourth birthday, I saw, as they say, the light. The country was going to hell. We had only ourselves to blame. It was as if I’d been living in a dream until then. The light in my head, boy was it blinking: I saw these patrols as my own way, if only a small way, to give something back to society.
Tonight a police cruiser pulled into the lot and parked beside my vehicle. I saw their lights, admired the rack riding atop their vehicle. I saw my amber utility light resting on my dash. Did it look lessened, paltry even, by comparison? Yes, it did. But such is life. I saw only then that I’d left my parking lights on. And then I realized I had no idea how long I had been sitting here, didn’t even recall ordering the coffee in my hand. My parking lights seemed a little dimmer than they should’ve been. I thought to get up. I wanted to, but these two police officers outside were now circling my vehicle. I saw them grinning at first, and then laughing. I saw them mouth the lettering on the sides of the car: DEPT. OF HOMELAND SAFETY. Then one of them reached inside the driver’s side window. Lights off. Atta boy. You keep your chin up, I thought. Protect and Serve. Then the officer pointed inside, at the dash, the other came around. Funny, they both began laughing again.
And in fact, my chin was burning from the coffee, which I’d dipped into the cup absently as I watched the officers take another stroll around my car. They just couldn’t get enough of my vehicle. Even as they came into the coffee shop where I sat they were still laughing.
Well. I felt duty bound to thank them, and so I said aloud: Officers, I said. I raised my coffee in the air. A toast.
These police glanced over, a blank regard, then turned back to the woman behind the counter.
I lowered my toast and they placed their order.
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