Blue Light Blues by James Swansbrough
So I came home after shift last night, around eleven-fifteen, and just wanted to unwind with a beer and some SportsCenter. I’m the intellectual type. Becky was asleep as usual, but I took my beer into the bedroom and propped up on my side to watch ESPN on the small TV and see if she wouldn’t wake up feeling froggy. There was a time when she would roll right over and start on me hot and heavy like she’d been waiting for me. I don’t get that lucky anymore.
Last night she rolled over, my darling did, with her bloodshot eyes and dragon breath. Madder than a boiled owl.
“Turn that shit off or go in the den!” she said. My baby teaches fourth-graders up at the elementary school. She likes her sleep.
“Just wanted to be near you, sweetie.”
“Horseshit. Turn it off.” Kids love her.
On my way out the door I stopped and turned. She was wearing one of my old Training Academy shirts for a nightie, and her mouth was agape, her cheek mashed against the pillow. Her hair was pulled back with one of those scrunchies, and I could see bits of the skin cream she uses around her eyes and forehead.
“It was a great night, baby,” I said. “Four gunfights. I saved the bank and grocery from being robbed. They promoted me to Chief. Got shot twice, though.”
Her eyes rolled around under her lids and she closed her mouth, then just grumbled a cuss as she rolled over with her back to me. I went to the den and surfed the tube till I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore.
There was a time when my girl was fine enough to stop a clock. I first spoke to Becky in the fall of our junior year of high school, before she knew how beautiful she’d become. She smelled of lavender and had a smile that felt like sunrise. Just a sweet little girl growing into her long legs, blond hair, and big chest. She liked learning things and talking about her dreams. And she really loved making others happy—buying things for her friends, tutoring classmates, volunteering at the soup kitchen or wherever. In other words, she was everything I wasn’t. I remember telling her after one month of dating that she was the one for me.
I said, “I’m gonna love you so damn much that summer won’t end in Tennessee.”
“Travis, it’s October,” she giggled.
“Fall can go straight to hell for all I care.”
“You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”
And I didn’t, of course. Christ, I was just a boy—and dumber than a short-handled shovel. To this day I don’t know how I convinced her to wait on me to finish up my Criminal Justice at the community college before marrying. She was glad that I enjoyed school for once, and I guess she figured it’d help me rise up the ranks quicker. Class sure beat hell out of being a grease monkey at the Jiffy Lube, but that job paid my way through so I can’t complain. She’d been out of UT-Chattanooga downtown there for a year by the time I graduated, and was teaching on the mountain. Her dream was for us to live close to home and get to making babies. I was partial to moving elsewhere, but knew our folks would be a big help raising the kids. After we got hitched and I finished the Academy, I found this job up on the mountain and we thought that was just the cat’s meow.
We’ve both put on some weight and pain since then. We lost our son two years ago this April, and when we got around to trying again last year we were told she couldn’t conceive again. That she’d have to live with the agony and scar tissue where the love and child should have grown. I can barely pronounce en-doh-mee-tree-oh-sis, let alone spell it. Not even if I bought all the vowels in the world.
Becky, though, she’s tough. We got a dog last summer that keeps us entertained. And she makes out fine with her job and all. Hell, we got as much kiddie crap in our house now as most parents do—construction paper and nametags and stickers and shit. All of it so brightly colored it’s a wonder the kids don’t have seizures. And why do all the animals have to be grinning like idiots? I swear, if I see another sticker book of smiling rabbits, or monkeys, or what-the-fuck, I’ll mace my own damn eyes out. You ever seen a monkey for real? Ugly sumbitches. Yeah, the kid stuff is all over our house. Just no nursery, no crib.
Today she wakes me up early. The bats-are-still-flying kind of early. She’s all showered and dressed, and wants to pick up on last night’s “discussion.”
“I didn’t mean nothing by it, baby.”
“You know I hate you waking me up with the TV,” she said.
“You’re waking me up now and I’m not mad at you.”
“That’s not the same. It’s morning. People wake up in the morning.”
“Well, not everyone works late like me, baby.”
“And why do you have to be the one working late?”
“Because my boss tells me to.” Part of me still thinks I’m asleep.
“You’ve been doing what your boss says for three years now. Haven’t you worked that shift long enough? Can’t you request the first shift?”
Now I’m less groggy. “Is that what this is about?”
“You haven’t even tried to switch to day shift.”
“I have tried, baby. It’s seniority, and I’m next in line. LT says at least one of those old farts is gonna retire soon and I’ll make sergeant. We’ll be good to go after that.”
“I heard ‘soon’ months ago. And you know I never cared about promotions. I cared about how I never saw you. You could’ve been demoted to janitor and I’d be happy if it got you working days.” She’s talking from the foot of the bed with her hand on one hip. I’ve got sleep in my eyes, an arm slung over my face to block the light, and my boxers wedged so far up my ass I’ll need a winch to recover them.
“I haven’t waited all this time and come this close to a promotion just to back off now. You know I wouldn’t be happy giving up like that.”
“And what about me being happy? I haven’t been happy for a long time. Hell, both of us are miserable right now. But I guess that doesn’t bother you.”
I say, “It does bother me, but I try not to get worked up over shit I can’t change.”
“Maybe you should get worked up, so some of this shit will change.”
“Can we talk about this later? I’m barely awake.”
“Later. Keep ignoring it. Maybe it’ll all go away—”
“Not ignoring it.”
“—and one day you’ll wake up wishing you’d done more and tried harder to change while the world makes plans without you and just passes you by.”
She made for the bathroom to change clothes and fume. I hollered to her back, “I’ve tried to switch, Becky! I’ve just got to be patient.” The door slammed shut. I tried to pass back out before she exploded from the bathroom with new curses and criticism on her tongue. I had enough time to get my boxers loose. She almost seemed calm when she opened the door, though she’d been fighting back tears.
“That’s been your problem for years. You’re always patient, thinking enough time will just sort out every issue you have. You never address a real problem when it’s staring you in the face.”
“Why are you wearing jeans? Is it casual dress day or something?”
“Exactly. You’re not even listening to me right now. Such a bastard.”
“Baby, I can’t just go on the warpath at the station. I got to work my shift just a little while longer ’til those old boys retire, and then—”
“I was sick of ‘little whiles’ a year ago, Travis! That’s when you promised to switch shifts. A whole year ago. Does that sound like a ‘little while’ to you? But you’re happy away from me on your stupid night shift—”
“That ain’t true and you know it.”
“—and I’m sick of it. All you seem to care about is sleeping or driving around. I can’t love that any more. I’ve tried.”
“Becky, look. I’ve spoken to LT, to the Chief—everyone. There’s nowhere for me to go right now. But that’ll change, okay? I’m sorry you’ve been waiting, but all I can do is keep asking. What more can I say?”
She sighed. Stared at her shoes. Looked back at me. “Nothing. There’s nothing more to say. You’ve tried to change.”
“I have. And it’ll happen soon, I’m sure. Okay?”
“I’ll track you down when you get out of class. I’m hardly awake right now.”
“Fine. Go back to sleep.” She made for the door.
“I’ll find you later, okay? We’ll talk.”
“This was a talk.” She emphasized one of those words, but I can’t remember which one. It didn’t seem important.
“Okay, goodnight,” I say. It’s morning, but it’s still dark and I’m still wanting to be asleep. “Love you.” She flips the switch. I watch the door close, then roll over.
I lazy awake around ten with a Lab snout in my face. I get up to let Ozzie out and grab a Coke from the fridge on my way. No coffee-and-donut crap for me; I don’t even eat breakfast. Never mind that it’s almost lunch. I let the dog back in and turn the TV on, then finish my Coke with a little of The Price Is Right. I love that Plinko, and Ozzie cocks his head like a mentally-challenged bird with every bounce of the disk off the pegs.
The hours before work are boring as usual. Feed and water the dog. The Coke helps me grease the skids for a good dump, and then I hop in the shower. Touch myself thinking of Barker’s Beauties, cut myself shaving. Worry how to make good with Becky. I fix a huge ham sandwich for lunch with some Doritos and hit the couch to watch some bad CMT videos. There’s too much girly country in Nashville nowadays, though the girls aren’t hard on the eyes. Hard on. Ha.
When it’s about that time, I begin to gear up. I grab my ten-pound vest and put on the navy-blue uniform. Way back when, I used to imagine myself like that scene in Batman when he puts on all the badass gadgets to go out and save Gotham. These days I just think of all the extra weight I’m carrying. It only took me three months on the job to weed out the mace and my asp—that mean-looking collapsible head-cracker—but what’s left on my belt is still cumbersome. In the cruiser that gear just becomes things to poke me and sitting there with the vest makes me feel like a no-neck turtle.
On the left I’ve got my radio and flashlight, with my two handcuff pouches in the back. My left shoulder has the radio mic, connected by wire to my hip. The lightning’s on my right side. Behind my extra magazines I’ve got the .45 caliber Springfield XD in its level-3 retention holster. I can rip out sixteen rounds of judgment from that pistol lickety-split. But I know there’s no one to shoot. I’ve hardly drawn that pistol in my three years, and never opened fire once. Nary a ghost haunts this man’s nights.
I’ve seen plenty of bodies, but only one gunshot death, come to think of it. Suicide, about five years back. Strange that it was a woman, but otherwise nothing spectacular. Popped her top with a .38. Standing around her living room full of cheap figurines and old TV Guides, the fellas knocked on her a little to break the mood. I remember Kelley requesting a glass of tea from her. Sprague farted and excused himself. Who says responsibility and immaturity don’t mix?
At one point, Sprague asked, “Excuse me, Miss, but is this your brain matter over here?” A velvet Elvis above her couch was spackled with gore.
I thought the LT would chew Sprague’s ass, but he just went, “No answer. She must be a mime.”
Those bastards are all Desert Storm vets, so I guess they’re used to talking up the dead. I later heard she did herself in because her husband left her and took the kids. Something senseless like that. Something typical.
It takes five minutes to get from my house to the station. Five minutes in a shitty, over-driven Corsica just to get into a shitty, over-driven Crown Vic. I’m serious. Cruisers are supposed to be retired after 80,000 miles, but the one I share with Gerber from first shift’s pushing 210,000. The only high-speed pursuit our gal can win is one over a cliff with gravity on her side.
And inside? Damn, that thing reeks. Gerber chain-smokes on duty with the windows up, but he’s got three pineapple air fresheners in there that make the car smell like a fucking ashtray colada. It’s strange to see him without a Winston in his mouth. He’s about as sharp as a baked potato, too; rumor around the station is he inhaled too much Iraqi nerve gas or something. He smokes so much partly to hide the fact he keeps forgetting to put his dentures in before starting the morning shift. The guy’s barely fifty and he has no teeth—no idea why, but that’s why we call him Gerber—though it doesn’t seem to bother him any. He’s the kind of guy that’s too dumb to hurt himself. Hell, I saw him fueling up one day a month or so back, and he was at the gas pump just puffing away.
I said, “Hey, Gerb, why you smokin’?”
He exhaled, said, “Hate the taste of clean air.”
“Naw, I mean, at a fuel pump. You wanna blow your ass up?”
He just looked around, eyed the pump, then glanced back at me. The cigarette bobbed at his lips.
“Ain’t no sign.”
Bastard had a point.
I spend that five-minute drive well, wondering how to speak to Becky, checking the sky for weather that means more work, and wishing I had a cooler of beer to bring onto shift. Eight hours of driving would sure go smoother with a sixer of tallboys riding shotgun. If any cop ever says differently, he’s a liar.
At the station I speak to no one, grab my keys and hit the road. Instead of tallboys there’s a book of crosswords riding beside me, half of them filled in with toilet humor. Apparently the five-letter word for milk products is not “dairy” but “boobs,” and “Douchebag” wrote The Grapes of Wrath. I had no idea that Gerber was such a scholar.
Today I’m covering 2-side, also known as the Palisades side. Our town is more or less split down the middle by James Boulevard. Generally there’s four of us on patrol, and that covers the mountain pretty good. Both sides have plenty of rich houses to gawk at, with more going up every day. My folks used to live back in Shackleford Ridge, where it was scattered and private, but they sold out when the new high school started getting zoned and moved down to Red Bank where it’s cheaper to sit around all day. I like to drive by the fancy digs on the brow and fantasize about laying Becky in a big brass bed overlooking the valley.
It was disgusting how in love we were, even before we’d married. The mountain job opened up right before I graduated from the Academy, so Becky read that as a sign. She found us a perfect two-bedroom house, got to decorating, and we got to living. I had to start off on third shift, but even with those terrible hours I got to see her at night and in the morning before she left for work.
“It doesn’t matter to me that you sleep all day,” she’d say. “As long as one of us is here when the other comes home. We’re making it work.”
“Yeah, but for how long? It’s not too late for me to look for something with regular hours.”
“Babe, it’s fine! They can’t keep you on third shift forever, anyway. That’s for the single guys without any college.”
“But second shift will still be tough.”
“I’m a big girl. I can handle it. We love it up here, so shut up and get to enjoying it.”
And I did, right up until our small tragedy altered everything.
Both sides also have some trash homes where the turds live. The mountain’s mostly covered with well-off folks who don’t cause trouble, or who know well enough to keep their trouble private. The turds hide themselves pretty good, till their meth lab catches fire or the drunk driving ends at the neighbor’s mailbox instead of their own garage. I spend plenty of time just driving around, not looking for trouble. Trouble is work.
I’ve made my way down Taft Highway and turned left at the new pharmacy when the waving starts. Old folks walking, yardmen mowing, women with kids—they all throw a hand up in Howdy like I’d shoot them if they didn’t. It gets tiresome damn quick, driving through every neighborhood and waving back like I’m Barney Fife’s fatter brother. After a while I stop acknowledging them. I don’t care what they think, because I know half of them would curse everything I stand for if I pulled them over. Most of them act like entitled buttholes when they interact with cops. Me, I’m only a jerk when provoked. You wouldn’t believe the cocky crap I hear:
“Do you know who I am?”
“You don’t have anything better to do?”
“You know I pay your salary, right?”
“Sorry to wake you, Officer.”
Seldom do the people I pull over just sit respectfully. Only ones I can count on for manners are the old folks, but I reckon they know I’m not going to ticket them, harmless as they are. I mostly let the quiet ones off with a warning, because in the end it’s just more paperwork for me. But the attitude always gets rewarded in kind. If some guy’s a dick to me, I can find a way to search every square inch of his car while his neighbors drive by gawking.
And if they aren’t respectful or aren’t assholes, then they get to crying on me. Crying over a ticket is about as cool as a sandpaper handjob, in my opinion. Some folks act like it’s the end of their world. It’s always the end of someone’s goddamn world, and I get to hear their sob story like I’m part shrink too. Just yesterday I had one of them, a woman with a face like cracked pavement who was speeding and driving without a license. She was unloading the tears before I reached her window, and I don’t know if she breathed once while she whined out her tale of misspent life like I had half a shit to give her.
Something nearly made me laugh in her face. She stood there just blubbering while I waited on her record from dispatch. And all the while people eased by, gawking. I could practically hear them thinking, Oh, that poor woman. And me just some ornery fascist cracker asshole. People ought to realize I have to do my job. They know the laws up here. Nothing’s changed since I was a teenager. It’s the same one-light town with the same speed limits and the same cop hideouts. Nothing changes.
Lately Becky just hasn’t been in much of a mood to see me after she gets done teaching. I think they’ve got her stressed out with some new program. I don’t know. I realize I should know that, and start wishing I can have a decent sit-down with her for once.
It’s nearly four when I pull out of the Palisades neighborhoods and head toward Thrasher Elementary. I sometimes catch Becky when school’s letting out, but mostly the place is too hectic with soccer moms rampaging about in their shiny SUVs and grocery-getters. I really want to find her after the scene this morning, but the chaos sends me cutting the other way down James. Lately Becky just hasn’t been in much of a mood to see me after she gets done teaching. I think they’ve got her stressed out with some new program. I don’t know. I realize I should know that, and start wishing I can have a decent sit-down with her for once. The doctors’ news is still difficult for me to digest, so I can only imagine how well it’s sitting with her. Working with kids probably isn’t as helpful and relieving as I think, either. But I’ve just been so afraid of not knowing what to say, that I’ve avoided saying anything about it at all anymore.
I make my way down James, past the new cluster-home subdivision and the golf course. Even though I’m not assigned 1-side today where our house is, I take a right on Timberlinks and see if Becky’s home. With her being asleep when I get off, and me being asleep when she gets up, I understand how tough it is on her. I should stay on patrol, but I plan to keep the radio on me and know I can cook ass out of there if I get a call.
1-side’s preferable duty for me. Aside from allowing me to drop by and see Becky on occasion, there just seems to be more life there, though not so much around my house anymore. In the way back of Old Town is the Point, a park that overlooks the river and Chattanooga Valley. That’s generally where teenagers park after dusk to try their hanky-panky. Of a morning you can see the remnants of hasty love: cigarette butts, cheap beer cans, condoms. Nasty business, youth. I can’t count on a dozen hands the number of couples I’ve had to spotlight out of that park after dark. The gate gets closed at six, but those young boys with sweaty palms and antsy peckers just hop the curb in their trucks and push over the saplings and brush. You’d think they’d have the sense to avoid a dead-end with a gated exit. But hell, that’s nothing new.
On the way down Timberlinks, I pass the Baptist Church. Sign out front says, “JESUS SAVES. DETAILS INSIDE.” Pastor Sherwood is a goofy bastard. Last month the sign said, “GET RIGHT OR GET LEFT.” It used to be our church, but I guess me and Becky have “got left” since then. In the first couple months after we lost our boy, we both looked to God for strength and answers. Everyone else was real supportive, with all the women bringing meals and comforting Becky while I was at work. In the weeks and months following, I prayed long and hard for a new child—Becky too. Not a single prayer He answered, and I tried all kinds.
After we went to the doctor and learned what was wrong, I hit my knees that night and cussed Him out. When He still didn’t answer, I gave up on His house. Becky tried for a while. She had Pastor Sherwood come by to speak scripture at me, but I thanked him kindly and sent him away. Becky quit going to church a few months after me. I think she thought God would pull a Job on her and bless her after the test, but she gave that up.
A 479 call comes over the radio just as I get near my driveway, so I have to flip a U and go back Sprague up. I see her silver Taurus in the carport, and I bleep the siren to let her know I at least came by before I hit the flashers and gun it—my favorite part of the job. Sprague has pulled a busted-looking Nissan pickup over at the grocery parking lot, and when I get there he’s waiting on me with a grin.
“Got me three Chexicans.”
That’s what we call the few Hispanics in our town, short for Chattanooga-Mexicans. I look through the back window of the truck cab, where two of them sit in turned ballcaps and one wears a bandana.
“Gang?” I ask.
“Dunno yet. Aside from the Colorado plate, Scooter there was sportin’ some felon hands while Skeeter rubber-necked the whole way by.”
The out-of-state plates are odd, but the behavior is a giveaway that something’s up. If the driver sits too perfect—in this case with the hands at 10-and-2 and face forward—while the passenger looks back to see if the cop’s coming, it’s a telltale of criminal possession. They call that shit interdiction, and I’ve busted a few pot-smokers because I saw too many Phish and Grateful Dead stickers, or because their hippie-mobiles had five air fresheners hanging from the rearview. Call it profiling all you want, but LT says, “Walks like a duck, talks like a duck.”
I watch the passengers from the side while Sprague questions the driver in broken Spanish and frisks him. When he’s cuffed and in the car for having no ID or registration I get the other ball hat out and frisk him. After searching the truck we eventually figure they’re just construction workers at the high school going up back of the mountain, but none of them have ID. Forty-five minutes later, Sprague takes the driver in for booking. We let the other two walk since they aren’t gang and we aren’t INS. I don’t know if they have anywhere to go, but they can’t take the truck.
Sprague leaves me to tell them, which is a treat because I don’t know Spanish worth a damn.
“Dar un walk,” I say.
They look at me, say “Qué?” and then follow that with language that sounds like fast-forward. I try to tell them to collect their things and go. Their wallets, hats, and cigarettes are sitting on the truck tailgate. I can’t remember the word for “things.”
“Estas libertad. Dar su…mierda. Hasta la vista.”
Thank God for Terminator 2. The Chexicans get the hint and skedaddle right as the sky opens up. I watch them from the cruiser as they shuffle over to the gas station to figure out a new way through the world, then I put it in gear.
I take another slow loop through Palisades while the weather hits. It rains like piss poured from a boot for nearly an hour. I keep the radio volume up just waiting for the calls to come in, but I get lucky. The idiot drivers are going to leave me dry for once, it seems. I listen to the hard rain plinking off my roof and wish I could be home. Me and Becky used to mute the TV when a storm hit and just hug on each other through the water and thunder. We never felt more comfortable together, more in love. Sometimes I fell asleep, though, so over the last few months she’d busy herself in the kitchen when the storm hit, fetching candles and flashlights or making a meal while there was power.
After we lost our son, I gave her everything I had. I poured myself into her: trying to keep her encouraged, making the meals, doing the laundry, the dishes. But there were just some mornings that she didn’t want to get up for. There wasn’t shit I could say to her. How do you rally a woman who’s given birth to blood instead of baby? Wasn’t shit I could say. But I said everything anyhow, dumb and unhelpful, just widening the gap between us like a drawbridge.
I told her one night how much I still loved her.
“But you don’t even pray anymore,” she said. “It’s like you’ve given up too.”
“I haven’t given up on us. My prayers ain’t nothing but whispers and air, but if you want ‘em, you got ‘em.”
“Listen to you, Travis. That’s blasphemous, forsaking God like that.”
I stared straight into those painful blue eyes. “I would forsake every god for you.”
“That’s not what I want.”
“Well, I want you to know I’m still with you.” It sounded right. It’s what I thought she needed to hear.
“Thanks” was all she said.
“Are you still with me?”
I was content to hear that, believed she meant it. I didn’t want her to leave, didn’t want us to end. We survived those rocks, but for months now I’ve wondered if love can just pass on like that, like a squirrel under the tires. I still wonder if I’m driving through life with a fogged-up windshield, straining and just not quite seeing everything I should.
Just as I fear, the storm brings the mist. I pull back into the grocery lot, waiting for the first wreck. It’s so quiet you could hear a rat pissing on cotton. Cars creep out of the fog on occasion, but just look like a pair of lanterns in the mist. I don’t have to wait long.
About a quarter mile from the traffic light some little blue sedan trying to get off the mountain has parked itself nose first in a ditch. It’s a treacherous three-foot drop there from the narrow shoulder, and the recent storm sends a stream of water over the sedan’s front bumper. No one is injured, but the family is shaken up a fair bit.
LT’s on the scene when I arrive, and a fire truck is en route so more grown men can stand around with nothing to do till the wrecker gets there. I busy myself putting on some reflective gear, because I know I’ll be directing what traffic there is when the hosses pull up to secure the family and retrieve the vehicle.
I pause for a moment between the two cruisers, watch LT begin taking down his report from the driver. The driver’s wife is bouncing their knee-high daughter on her hip and trying to be brave. Glittering all about their feet are the thousand shards of safety glass from previous wrecks. They’re at my feet too, glass and fractured pieces of headlights and taillights. Remnants of wrecks I stood around weeks or months or years ago. I toe the shards with the tip of my boot, kick a few fragments into the ditch and watch them disappear in the blue-lit torrent. Nothing changes.
Time comes for me to back the cruiser into the off-mountain lane so the fire truck and wrecker can do their work. That still leaves two lanes of up-mountain road for drivers to maneuver, but the fog keeps me watchful. I wear the neon vest and brandish my glow wand, but I doubt my visibility. Most folks are traveling off the mountain at that hour, though, driving plenty slow when they see the flashers in their lane and have to veer around.
It’s pretty light duty, so I wave my wand at headlights with only half interest. The wrecker arrives and stands idling a good ten minutes before it figures on backing in to yank out the car with screech and crunch. I begin wondering if Becky will have leftovers for me when I get home. She hasn’t made me dinner at all in the last month, and this morning’s spat is a good indicator that nothing will be different tonight. But that doesn’t stop me from fantasizing. I get to watering my mouth over a prime rib and potato. If I nuke them just right they’ll hardly taste reheated.
It’s almost nine-thirty when a speeding car sends me jumping out of my skin. The headlights zip out of the flashers’ glow. Two swordpoints of light pierce me straight through before I step aside for fear of getting hit. That car has a mission, somewhere other than here to be, and I don’t want to be a hood ornament for the ride. I reach for my flashlight and holler in a weak gesture to let that driver know I’m pissed, but I see nothing through the rear window. The make looks like Ford, maybe white or silver. The taillights disappear like falling stars, and I’m left wishing I were home safe with instead of wading through this soup.
Fifteen minutes later the wrecker’s loaded and off. I’ve been standing around for over an hour. We cut our flashers ten minutes after that and retreat to patrol, and just a little while later the fog starts clearing. Typical. It’s ten o’clock—one more hour of duty—but I have Becky and prime rib on the brain, so I steer back onto Timberlinks. The fog has lifted, and the sky is dotted with stars. If not for the occasional puddle, you wouldn’t’ve known a storm hit at all.
No porch light burns at home. I think maybe she’s forgotten to leave it on, or maybe the bulb is dead. But the carport’s empty. I kill the engine, listening to stale motor oil dripping down through the manifolds. Some part of me starts lying, telling me she’s gone to the store, that it wasn’t her I felt more than saw burn past me, but I know better. When I stand from the cruiser my knees pop, and I grunt with effort like I’ve had a rough day, but even that’s a lie.
I cut the carport light on and see an empty box by the door. I exhale. The knob turns without a key. A couple more boxes are folded up just inside. The note is on the kitchen counter.
There is no prime rib in sight.
I feel a bit shaky and can’t move directly to the note. I find Ozzie in our bedroom closet wondering what the hell happened. I have no answers. I can’t tell if he’s eaten. A bowlful of chow with warm water doused over it clears that up. I watch him feast. I start to pant. I pat his fat head to reassure us both. I return to the note.
I know what it will say, but don’t know how to react. What do men like me do? Get piss drunk. Buy her flowers. Call her Mama. Maybe shoot something.
I’ve never once seen her write me anything that begins “Dear Travis,” so this seems fake. It seems comic. I read and wonder if she cried writing it. If she wept fat tears full of skin cream and sorrow. If she wanted to sound like a bad country song.
I don’t know how to react. I’m the crust at the bottom of an unstirred stovepot. I feel like a cop too old for this shit.
There’s a stray sheet of stickers by the kitchen table, and I flatten a big grinning monkey face at the top of the note. With the pen she’s left, hand shaking, I scrawl a fat “F” next to the sticker and retrace it a few times. Then I stagger to the sink and puke. I splash some water on my face, heave again, then wipe my mouth.
“God A’mighty.” My voice carries farther than I expect. I’m still panting. What should I do? Break down into fits of self-pity and self-hatred. Wait by the phone for her call. Caress what she left behind.
On the fridge are a few Christmas cards and baby announcements from friends, happy families with smiling children in festive outfits and newborns in smocks cradled by loving arms. I pull off some magnets and let the cards flutter to the floor, then stick Becky’s note to the fridge and thunder out the door. I leave the lights burning.
When I slide back into my seat, there isn’t much time left. I fire up the engine and reverse the driveway, then peel out. I have my foot on the floor, and with my right hand I flick the flashers on. She’d be off the mountain somewhere, warm and dry and car-packed, crying with a friend or into a glass of wine. I know we can work through these rocks too. I’ll fly to her. I’ll find her somehow. We’ve been through worse, I tell myself.
“What’s your twenty, Mountain-Seventeen?”
I start, staring at the radio. My hand is numb on the receiver.
Two miles south of Misery. Officer down at the corner of Rejection and Shock. In a high-speed pursuit of Denial. Requesting Hopefulness. And a prime rib, over.
“James Boulevard turn-around, Dispatch.”
“Mountain-Thirteen has responded to a four-seventy-nine at Ridgeway and Ault. Multiple suspects in vehicle. Code One, respond.”
Respond, she says. To the same damn 479 I ran this afternoon. I’m suddenly unsure what duty is. There’s no protocol for this. The lines aren’t clearly marked.
This is Mountain-Seventeen. Kindly fuck off, Dispatch. I’m Code Six crazy, burning down a mountain after my love-lost spouse.
Or: Unable to respond, Dispatch. Code 30, Officer needs assistance intercepting wife fleeing the crime scene. Be advised, may be his crime scene.
But instead: “Affirm. En route.”
My foot has never felt heavier than when I lift it off that accelerator. My hands are knuckled white on the wheel as I coast the cruiser to a safe turn speed. Tires chirp. Slight skid. Engine revs again. Nothing changes. The night strobes with blue, and I flick on the siren. A wail rises through the night as I bolt up the wrong road, looking for more worlds to end.