Traffic Stop

(Appeared in UMSL LitMag: Watermark, 1997.  Recited at The Way Out Club, Spring 1997)


A week after my old man’s funeral, it figures I’d get pulled over for these damned expired license plates, and here I sit on the side of the highway with Rick’s empty beer bottles in the car’s back seat, and who knows how many parking tickets on my record.  So windy outside that my car’s bouncing from the gusts, and leaves are still sticking to my windshield, leaves all red and orange and brown, damp from the morning’s rain.  Traffic rushing by me, jarring my thoughts, and I have to focus on something other than my clammy palms on the steering wheel.  Have to take my mind off the fact that my heart is pounding ferociously somewhere at the bottom of my throat, and my breathing is getting tight.

I never thought it’d be Dom Fischer’s face grinning down at me, elbows on my door, his butt leaning far into traffic just daring someone to sideswipe it — in other words, he’s still the same as when I knew him years ago.  It’s clear right away that my catch-all flirty act won’t get me out of the traffic ticket, and old affectionate friendship-like chit-chat isn’t going to do it, either.  We’re not friends.

He waves his hand in the direction of my back seat, asks me, “Your dad still hitting it hard the way he used to?”  It takes me a second to realize he’s talking about the empty beer bottles, and I tell him quietly that no, Dad just died of a heart attack and, yes, maybe it was from all his years of “hitting it hard.”  Dom’s looking at me with some kind of sympathetic expression, and I’m sure he’s wondering if maybe he’s heard my name in the police precinct once or twice, which wouldn’t be a big surprise, really.  It’s not like they don’t know me at the station.

Dom leaves me here to sit and stew for what seems a long time while he takes my license back to his unmarked patrol car, dashboard light still flashing, and calls it in over the police radio.  I can feel their looks, the rubbernecking drivers, and I’m wondering why people slow down on the highway even though the cop is already busy busting another driver.  Do they think he’d drop what he was doing to chase them?  Or maybe I’m the only one who likes to push my luck, and it’s a relief now finally to have it run out.  What’ll Rick be doing when I get my one phone call?  Putting a sausage-pepperoni pizza in the oven?  Clicking the remote control?  Feeding our big, ugly dog?  Submission, surrender, giving up all hope: it’s liberating, like a child’s confession in church, even when you had to make up sins to cover up real ones you didn’t want to tell.

It’s no surprise at all when Dom asks for the trunk key.  We stand there, between our cars, and he makes a loud wisecrack, louder than the rushing wind, about the time we went to the drive-in during high school when I was real sweet to him.  His memory is foggy.  I wasn’t sweet; I’d done all I could to keep his hands from searching my body.  He still told everyone just how friendly I supposedly was.  And they’d believed it, for certain, because who could you believe: the big jock whose dad was a sergeant, or the hillbilly girl who laughed too loudly and had a drunk for a dad?  I watch him open the trunk, my eyes transfixing on the three medium-sized, cardboard boxes inside sealed with silver duct tape, the boxes slightly damp, musty.  He scrunches his nose over the pungent mothball smell, gives me a funny look, cuts the boxes open with his Swiss knife, feels around the inside, pushing aside the contents. My eyes moisten as he starts tossing out bits of the clothing.  The first casualty is a tee shirt, next are black dress socks, and then a cardigan, and then others.  My arms go in the air, catching the clothes before the wind snatches them away.  My gaze turns toward the shirt blowing across traffic, light blue, worn thin, a man’s workshirt, as it slides across two car tops and tangles around the guard rail.

It’s my turn to yell above the roar of traffic and wind, to yell through my veil of tears that these are my father’s things, that he should stop throwing them, and so he does stop.  I am still scrambling around to gather the old garments, things that I took after the funeral: a tank undershirt stained with years of sweat, worn-out boxer shorts, brown polyester slacks, and I press them against my face to hide my tears from this man in a uniform who once made fun of my father and me.  I breathe in dad’s smell, the mothball smell from decades of my mother’s irrational fear of moths, his sweat smell from the years of high blood pressure without any air conditioning, the smell of beer, of wine, the smell of his hair and hands and body.  I breathe it in and want to disappear into the fabrics, even when Dom’s gentle hands guide me to the grass culvert on the side of the road’s shoulder, nudge me to sit down, to rest a moment, and I hear his apologetic words, years overdue, but just like they say, a dollar short.

Later, I circle around my block, in what they call an up-and-coming part of town, where my not-so-stylish apartment stands, driving until the red splotches on my cheeks fade away, until the veins in my swollen eyes shrink, until I can find a parking place to reapply my make-up so Rick doesn’t know I’ve been crying.  I want to describe for him the comfort of smells, of being buried in soft, worn clothing, about how bad people can turn out better, and good people can turn out bad, and lucky people can stay lucky.  I want to tell him it’s the last time I’ll go on one of his jobs, the last time I’ll do his dirty business.  I want to tell him it’s time he turned over a new leaf, and that he shouldn’t make wisecracks about my dad anymore, because if my dad wasn’t dead, and I wasn’t driving around with his things, that cop would have seen what was under the boxes there, in the trunk.  I have to make Rick see that it’s a mighty high price I paid for a second chance.



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