I’m like a dog who can hear one of those silent whistles.
Val can hit a pitch that is virtually inaudible to normal human ears. If she’s really upset, or frightened, she can shatter Welch’s grape jelly glasses – though her usual method for doing so is a simple overarm throw after a full windup. At any rate, Vandy was getting yelled at by the chief on the phone when my spider sense kicked on an alarm. I could hear Val off in the distant reaches of the parking lot.
I sprinted over towards the school bus where we had parked and found her shaking, on her knees next to the Neon.
“You O.K., Val? What’s the matter?”
“That son-of-a-bitch.” She screamed again. My corneas vibrated.
“That cop.” She was having trouble catching her breath again after the last scream.
“You idiot. Redlands. The big cop. He drove by in his squad car. He stopped. He said that he knew all about me.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I told him to fuck off.. He pointed his gun at me.”
One of those big police nine-milimeter guns pointed straight at you could be upsetting. I held Val in a tight hug, hoping she’d stop trembling. “Don’t be scared. He’s gone now.”
“Scared?” She pushed me away. “I’m not scared. I’m pissed.”
“You’re pissed.” I should have spotted it, I guess. My only excuse is that I was in knight-in-shining-armor-rescuing-damsel mode. “Of course you’re pissed.”
“That creep made some dumb crack about the Planned Parenthood bumpersticker on my car.” Val turned and kicked the mini-van in the next parking slot. A little plastic fish emblem fell off the tailgate and broke on the pavement. “Stupid asshole.”
“So it was a political argument?” That explained a lot.
“Shut up and get in the car.” Val pushed me in through the driver’s door, and I clambered in as quick as I could. She lit up a cigarette and took a deep drag.
That’s when the security guard with the big dog showed up. He stepped around from the far side of the school bus. “Please put out the cigarette. No smoking allowed on church property.”
Val exploded. “Fuck off, you fascist.”
“Ma’m I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“Val, get in the car.”
“Tell me, Mr. Mussolini, do you love your dog?”
“Yes I do, ma’m. Now if you’ll just…”
“Who gets to be on top?”
“Val, get in the car.” I grabbed her waistband and tugged her hard. She bumped her head and the ashes from the burning cigarette in her hand showered all over my arm. “Damn.” I reached over her and slammed the door shut.
“Marty, you mother…” She was about to ask about my dog. I could see it in her eyes.
“Ma’am” The guy was bringing the dog around towards Val’s window.
“Just drive, Val. Let’s get out of here.”
She turned the key hard nearly enough to break it and let the engine starter grind. Then she slapped it into reverse and almost ran over that poor innocent dog. My keen hearing picked up a voice similar to Vandy’s yelling in the distance, “Tools! Tools!” I didn’t answer. The Neon’s bald tires squealed when Val put it into drive and stomped down with her dainty foot. By the time we hit the boulevard she had lit up another Marlboro.
My position on secondhand smoke is wildly inconsistent. Someone can sit next to me at a bar and chain smoke until their moustache turns yellow. They can hack up pieces of their broken lungs in time with the Jethro Tull song on the jukebox. Light up a right-wing cigar, a McIntosh pipe full of cherry-flavored tobacco barn sweepings, a spliff, a hookah, or start a damn campfire fueled by plastic trash, and so long as the drinks keep coming, I am very libertarian. But if the person I purportedly love pulls out a Marlboro Ultra-Lite, I go organic-health-and-clean-air righteous.
I only torture one person in the world over smoking – lovely Val. See, I have a very sensitive nose. Her apartment stinks. Her car stinks. Her clothes stink. She says she’ll quit to shut me up. I locked her in the bathroom one Saturday. I planned to de-tox her myself. By Monday I could send her off to work nicotine-free. The bathroom seemed perfect. She had a toilet to use, water to drink, and a place to sleep; the tub. Unfortunately, she also had a window. Another time I told her I wouldn’t have sex with her again until she quit. She just said, “O.K.” She didn’t seem concerned at all by my withholding of affection. I gave in a day later. She gave in after a month-and-a-half.
But at that point I figured it was best if I didn’t mention the evils of tobacco. We were heading for St. Philomena’s, and Valerie was chain smoking. I needed to concentrate on the task at hand. I needed to go snoop around at Doug Hunter’s church. Everything pointed in that direction. I told Val to stop at my place. If I was going to cat burglar around, I needed dark clothing. My mind and the car were both wandering. Where’s Torey? Does Father Hunter know?
The sunny, unseasonable day had turned into a cold misty evening. As we headed south, the asphalt reflected all the sick yellow headlights of the cars on the road. Yes, the weather was underlining the change in mood as our quest entered a new stage. Rain is a great device. It could foreshadow change and menace. It did. The wet pavement on the edge of freezing hissed as Val’s bald tires spun across it. The menace was that we could spin into a tree trunk any second.
Valerie took a long drag of her hundredth cigarette of the day. She drove with the driver’s side window opened to vent the smoke away from me, even now, as the mist turned into a driving rain. Water sprayed in and coursed down into a puddle on the back seat floor. After a last long desperate pull, like Nosferatu sucking the last drop of blood from his virgin victim, she flicked the fag out the window. It blew back in her lap.
“Ah! Fuck! Fuck!’ She slapped at the glowing ash. It slipped deeper into her crotch. Her thighs flew apart. “Shit! Shit!”
Cigarettes burn at about fifteen hundred degrees. You could smelt iron at that temperature. Valerie’s head was full of images of big weeping blisters and permanent scars. My head was full of images of a car sliding out of control. It wasn’t a fantasy. What was in front of us was beside us, then behind. Wait, it was in front of us again.
What was in front of us was the trunk of a large cottonwood. The Neon hopped the curb. Wheel covers took off, spinning in opposite directions. A chain link fence between us, and the tree caught us like the wire carrier planes try to grab after a tough day in the “No Fly Zone.” It slowed us just enough. When we hit, the left headlight shattered, and the hood popped open. I thanked God I was alive. Then, I thanked Dodge the car had no air bags. I might have been killed by the explosive force of the unpredictable gas bladders.
I’d read the horror stories of people killed by safety devices in Reader’s Digest. The article was in the May ‘92 issue right after “Hello, I’m Joe’s Vagina” and “My Most Unforgettable Hat.” I love doctor’s waiting rooms. They are so educational.
Valerie was still clawing at her crotch as she jumped out of the car. Sparks were flying everywhere. I remember thinking, “Hope we didn’t puncture the gas tank.” We didn’t. Which pissed me off a bit. If Val had set fire to herself, maybe she would have quit that nasty habit. Like if I stained my shirt with Chianti, maybe I’d quit drinking. It’s nutty thinking, I know. I just can’t help myself. The damage was actually fairly minor. We were on Nineteenth, back in Vaporville.
I was about to give her a Mormon anti-smoking lecture I’d memorized from a brochure, when a cop car, sirens whooping, raced towards us. I didn’t know what his hurry was. We weren’t going anywhere.
The black and white Taurus was going so fast that when it tried to stop, the wet pavement covered with leaves compromised its braking ability. With red lights blinking, it hopped the curb and nudged the back of Val’s Dodge. The tinkling of glass announced a broken tail light. The spotlight on the driver’s side of the patrol unit snapped on, and the beam swung to frame Valerie.
There she stood in the spotlight, a beautiful woman with both hands madly rubbing the insides of her upper thigh. It may have given our visitor the wrong impression. His voice crackled out of the car’s P.A. system.
“Hold your hands…up?”
Valerie was squinting into the deer-killer light. Her hands were still moving frantically back and forth over and around her upper inseam and beyond. I was watching from behind a parked car about twenty-five feet away. I found it to be comically erotic. I hoped the cop couldn’t hear me giggling.
Now if you’re wondering why I was hiding, you haven’t gotten to know me as well as I hoped you would by now. When policemen arrive, I depart. Like a fragile Monarch butterfly whose magnetic cochlea have been stimulated by the tilting of the earth’s axis, I am driven to migrate. So I was in the shadows, close enough to Val to help if she needed it, but fairly certain she could handle this even if her jeans began to smolder from all the friction from her hands or the murderous cigarette.
“Please place your hands where I can see them, ma’am.” The cop was trying to go by the book. He got out of the patrol car still holding the microphone. My cochlea buzzed with electricity, a palpable sense of danger. I backed up a little further in the shadows.
Val stopped rubbing, but her hands remained in her crotch. “Can’t you see them where they are, you moron?” She was checking the folds, looking for damage.
“Please place your hands on the hood of the car.”
“You honestly think I’m going to pull a gun out of here?” She started rubbing the insides of her thighs again.
“Please place your hands on the hood of your cli… ah… the hood of the car.” The cop’s mind was wandering.
Val looked into the light, looked at her car hood tilted straight up by the impact, snorted, and shaking her head, put her hands on her hips.
The tall cop had noticed the red Neon’s hood sticking up by now. He realized he had made a ludicrous request. He keyed the mike again. “Place your hands on the trunk…”
He had done more damage to the Ford than was first apparent, because at that point a loud hissing cloud of steam issued from the grill of his car. Now Val looked like she was in some wet, green, overgrown disco. The rain was falling like thousands of crystals, scattering the bright spotlight beam that was highlighted by the fog produced by the Taurus’ radiator. Where were the Bee Gees when you needed them? I started humming “Stayin’ Alive” under my breath.
“Play…sah…han…n…unk…ease.” The radiator steam was shorting out his speakers.
The billowing steam almost produced a strobe effect with his emergency lights, red and blue flashing. Val shifted her weight and tilted her pelvis a tad. She looked good except for the bloody lip from the collision.
“Pl…ccc…kkk….sssss” He tossed the mike down in disgust and threw his door open. The spotlight mounted on the door shifted to an apartment window to the right of the lower cottonwood branches and reflected back on the cop. It was Officer James Redlands — in person and well-lit. Hell, the guy was everywhere. I wondered if he had followed us from the Chancellery.
A voice from above, “Shut off that fucking light! What the hell is going on?! I’m tryin’ to get some sleep up here!” There was a bald guy with big bare chubby man boobs yelling out the apartment window. The spotlight didn’t bring out his best features. Some people, like Cher, need a softer light to look their best. This guy sure had better tits than Sonny’s Ex. “Shut off the light! You dumb prick!”
“Sir, I will arrest you.” Redlands felt out-numbered now.
“Who’s going to pay for the damage to my car? You pushed me right into the tree!” Val was in fine form. Officer Redland’s head was on a swivel.
“Turn off the fucking light!” Man boobies bounced.
“What’s your badge number? I hope you know that I’m an attorney.” She rubbed her neck and winced.
“Shut off the fucking…”
“Feels like some nerve…”
“Ma’am, could you put your hands on the…ah…ah.” She couldn’t put them on the trunk of her car. The steam was jetting right across it. She couldn’t put her hands on the fence. It was down. The tree was out of the question. He was running out of “by the book” in his crew-cut brain. Suddenly his muse arrived and slapped him on the kisser.
He put one hand on his gun, pointed a big finger at her feet and said, “Please lie down on the ground.” Then firmer, “Get down on the ground! Do it. Now!”
“Are you fucking nuts? I’m an injured accident victim, and you are asking me to lie down in the cold mud. I could go into shock any moment.” She was in rare form.
“Get down on..the..grou…”
“It’s you.” Val was really pissed now. “That is you isn’t it? Officer Redlands?” She squinted into the bright spotlight. “You fucking pervert.”
“The word “pervert” seemed to frighten Mr. man boobies. Maybe he had a woman with boobs like his up there in his kitchen. Maybe she was talking dirty and throwing raw eggs at his half naked body to excite him. Maybe he could sense that things were going further south than even he cared to go. Whatever. Whether it was fear of exposure – a funny thought – or just, god-I-don’t-want to-be-subpoenaed, his window banged shut, and his light went out.
I think I was smiling. It was a funny situation – at least on my sliding “funny situation” scale. I was anticipating some of Val’s finest banter. There was the expectation of a truly comedic verbal beat-down in the air. Then the spotlight clicked off.
The mood changed in a heartbeat. I had worked my way back from the tree along a line of scraggly, untrimmed hedge until I was almost even with Redlands where he stood in the door of his squad car. I wasn’t more than five feet from him when he clicked off the spotlight. Then he reached into the car and killed the emergency flashers on the roof as well. It was suddenly dark — very dark under that tree.
walking towards Val.