As a boy, I loved stories that wound about themselves and got so complicated you couldn’t say if the hero was a villain, your loyalties all turned on their head by the end; only in the last pages everything got straightened out. Hero broke through clean like you didn’t believe he would. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas was king of the fate twisters. There was a time there I thought life might be like that: everything coming out right when it was over. But one night when I was seventeen I began to learn different.
I had just dropped off my girl, still dizzy from the tingling taste of sweet plums from a goodnight kiss that lasted fifteen minutes. A couple six packs of beer. Ahead of me, a cop car was parked on the shoulder of Belt Line Road. I experienced that thrill of dread every boy feels driving his car past the fuzz at night: that guilty-for-being-innocent feeling.
But something was peculiar about this particular cruiser. Its spotlight was angled crazily into a field. For a second there it occurred to me the fuzz was poaching deer; that’s what we used spots for in Oregon. The idea made me laugh. City cop on the edge of town bagging an eight pointer with his service revolver. I passed slow. Teenage, like I said, your game usually poached by local cops. A second feeling took control of the first: straight fear. The cop’s face was stuck out the open window, chin slumped on elbow like he had fell asleep that way. I could see his gaze didn’t follow the path of the spot but stared blankly at me as I passed. Crazy shit-eating grin, and his eyes — I wouldn’t forget any time soon — like two egg yolks dropped in a bowl. I craned my head to look, thought I saw him move and nodded. Close enough to see his ears stuck out beneath the cap. His eyes didn’t follow me, just stared like those yolks peering up at the kitchen ceiling.
I panicked. Screeched over to the shoulder thinking I better find out what’s the matter. That’s my first instinct. Good suburban kid. My first mistake. Next instant, dread got its fingers down my throat. I never felt anything that strong. Not the time my old man caught me stealing a ten spot from his wallet, not the time Butch Nelson stuck my head into a storm sewer. Thought I would retch. Maybe it was just your regular seen-too-many-Texas-Chainsaw-Massacres paranoia, but this wasn’t any Dumas novel, this was real life. I wanted no part of it. I hit the accelerator and peeled off.
Didn’t occur to me till I was four-wheel drifting off the Belt Line onto
Country Club Road, kicking gravel against mail boxes, that any witness saw
me pass was sure to implicate me in that mess back there. But the few
windows I passed were dark, houses set back off the road behind juniper
hedges. I only passed one vehicle, van or pickup, couldn’t remember; not
likely he remembered me. That’s the one likely stopped and found him.
They pieced it together, papers full of it next day. Something like that didn’t happen in Oregon. Never had. They say he stopped a drifter (always a drifter, was a drifter would shoot Kennedy two months later). Cop called in a California tag to the station is how they knew: erratic driving, possible drunk. Then he must have went forward to the car, that spotlight making sun spots through the rear window. I know, I’ve had it on the back of my own neck once or twicet.
“Can I see your driver’s license?”
That’s their standard line. Some will rest a hand on the butt of the .45, standing back and behind, like they’re taught at Academy. Like the one pulled me over the other night: “I’ll tell you why I stopped you in a minute,” he said (like it’s the New World-gawdamned-Order and I got nothing better to do than sit and wait till he figured it out).
“What’s the problem, officer?” I asked again.
Couldn’t see him, only to assess he was young, moustache, sandy hair—rookie down to his black Oxfords. That beer bottle I had between my legs I made room for beneath the seat. Malty, brewy smell of it permeating the world. Wasn’t any snub nose .38 between my knees (like they claim it was): nickel plated copy of a Ruger on mail order from Guns and Ammo Magazine.
And I didn’t—like they said I did, in reply to his invasion of my protected rights—shove it out the window into the plate of his gut and squeeze off three shots before he could go down. I’m not that mean or hard up yet.
Point blank, they know that much. Frayed edges of shirt cloth and torn flesh dusted with sooty powder like what falls on train station window sills.
They know he was shot up ahead beside a parked vehicle, even though his corpus was located in the squad car. Not likely anyone could reach inside to plug a cop twicet in the belly. Even your freshest rookie would reach for his gun; they’d find him there with it in his hand instead of snapped down in the holster. Besides, there would be twin holes through the front seat and no bloodstain in gravel up ahead.
I admit it’s a mystery how he ever reached the squad car with three slugs in him. They say I dragged him. Now that’s straight bullshit. Why is anybody—kid, grown man, or drifter—going to stop his car and carry a dead cop back to set him behind the wheel of his cruiser? I don’t care he shot him or just stopped to learn why. My guess is he crawled back some way. Any sign of it obscured by skid marks and loose gravel fired back over the squad car hood, pitting the windshield. Your suspect’s shirt would be covered with blood. That’s a thing you would avoid, don’t matter how drunk you were.
I remember that awful feeling in my gut when I screeched through turns on my way round Robin Hood’s barn home, thinking I heard sirens like mosquitoes swarming back behind in the distance (newspapers said the night delivery man driving William’s Bakery van stopped and found the body and called the fuzz). Anybody might think I had reason to run, where, in fact, it was only something I just learned. Nobody is innocent as he’d like to be. Everyone is responsible for somebody’s death, even if it’s only neglect. There is a nasty truth down inside the world The Count of Monte Cristo pretends to forget. If life is a game, it’s not golf—half manners, other half rules. Indian soccer, originally played with the head of their enemy, more like.
I shot past the public golf course along Oakway Road, wondering what I would tell them when they asked why I didn’t stop, or call to report it when I got home, or tell my old man. Because I knew I wouldn’t. I might have saved that cop’s bleeding life. Innocence is safety. Wasn’t nothing to be afraid of. They’ll tell you, but isn’t no one believes it. Besides, the old man worked nights since we moved up from California.
What I did was rubbed my lips over and over against coarse cloth of my shirt until I’d got rid of that plum taste of my girl’s lipstick. Guessing right then there’s venomous alchemy used in your cosmetic industry. Snake poison. As the headlights flipped past oaks along the golf course, I knew how I hated the polyester bastards you’d see out there, riding the hills in electric carts. Doctors dentists lawyers. Goody goods and rule makers. I wouldn’t tell no one a thing. What did I see, really? One less grinning fuzz.
The Count would play it around itself, spend years in prison plotting revenge. But it wasn’t revenge interested me. Only going where I wanted to go any hour of the day or night without official harassment. My basic citizenship rights.
Soon afterwards, I got an opportunity to interview that dead cop’s wife and son for the school paper. Pimple-faced kid who I recognized from school, eyes the frothy blue surfers kick up behind their boards down in Malibu, mouth a small angry hole. His mother spoke of tragedy and widowhood. The kid’s eyes said kill kill kill. Occurred to me he was angry at his old man for not shooting first. I sympathize with that.
“Who would imagine a thing like that,” his mother said. “Here in Oregon. Who would imagine a police officer could approach a car and be shot in cold blood before he said a word?” I asked how did she know what he said, was she present at the scene? Maybe her husband said the wrong thing. She looked at me like I was something needed stepping on. I watched the tears roll down and leave little clots of makeup at her lip corners. She admitted her husband told her it was his greatest fear, being shot to death like that on some lonesome stretch of highway.
Now after all these years, the widow’s memory still comes back strong. And there’s the colored delivery man, who claimed all along he saw a white boy’s face in a approaching windshield on Country Club Road—not the bean-picking migrant they laid it on (though I don’t know how he saw, with my high beams blinding him). Now they are accusing me.
Circumstances are similar, I admit up front...And lots different. I was on my way home from work, two a.m. “Is it a crime to work late?” I asked the officer. “’Cause if it is we’re both criminals. Somebody’s got to work nights to get the world ready for morning.”
I watched his thumbnail trace over small print on my license. “This your correct address? Registration says Cloverdale.”
“I move some.”
“You have ten days to notify Motor Vehicles of a change of address.”
I shrugged. “You could write me up for being born if you wanted to. What a lot of people don’t realize is we got a Russian police state right here in our own backyard.”
“I’ve heard about enough.”
“It’s a thing I got, I want to know why you stopped me.”
“We’ve had some break-ins in the neighborhood.”
“I live in the neighborhood, chief. Couldn’t say about you.”
Later, they claimed he saw it glistening beneath the seat—something glistening (beer bottle?...Nickel-plated Ruger .38?). He called it in back to his squad car. Me a sitting duck with two DWI charges to my name already, open beer bottle in the vehicle. Third charge meant hard time. But what I am saying: they will always find a motive. What they’re claiming now is I saw the cruiser and panicked. Just a kid — with a loaded pistol under the seat. If there’s a gun around, somebody’s going to shoot. It’s a argument they have used for years against the NRA. But we’re a hunting family, we embrace the constitution of the land.
I admit the beer. Damned rig smelt like a fucking brewery. I could see he smelt it, his fingers skittered over the gun handle.
“What it is, see, I tend bar. Gets into your clothes. But you don’t drink if you want to keep a job.”
“Would you step out of the vehicle.”
“Your buddy home sick tonight?” I asked. Spot panned off my rear view, blinding, so’s I couldn’t hardly see the cop. I heard his mouth open, a wet sound.
“Big crime, drive a van two in the morning, your rear door a little banged up. Wouldn’t surprise me it’s my sticker. Cops harassing the NRA. Like they got a exclusive on carrying guns.”
I saw his fingers fumble at the gun strap. “I want to see your hands on the wheel. Now!”
“Why’d you stop me? That’s all I got to know.”
“You crossed the double line. Four times.”
“Maybe did, maybe not. It’s a narrow road.”
“Sir! Step out of the car.”
“That’s going to be a procedure, chief, what with my hands planted.”
Like a gentleman, he opened the door. Even a school kid can tell you that would be your opportunity. I admit I was maybe a little paranoid about that third DWI; I need to work like anybody else. I admit he would’ve been better off to have his sidekick with him that night. Admit I hit the accelerator. Pissed bird shot gravel back over cop and squad car. For some reason he didn’t shoot or pursue me like I expected he would. I admit I left my driver’s license in his hand and that was a shit stupid thing to do. But sometimes you got too much present on your hands to worry about future.
The rest is like a dream, nothing but powder-burnt edges. The rest is Monte Cristo. Neighbors heard shots. They identified my van moving slowly past. Say I stopped and stooped over the body, dragged it back to the patrol car, while they watched scared behind curtain cracks. Isn’t anybody dumb enough to do a thing like that, I contend. My lawyer agrees.
I was out of there, listening to the police channel over my scanner. Didn’t hear word one until after I passed back by on my way to Nevada. I thought it was peculiar I hadn’t.
What I think is this: Just as I shot away around a curve, another van come at me across center line, appeared out of nowhere, sprung up like heavy metal ground fog rolling hard on four wheels. Missed by inches. Chevy — from what I saw — 200 series long bed like my own, three-quarter ton pickup frame with a van body. I saw a colored man’s surprised face in the windshield, right up close, round eyes and mouth open. Heard his brakes squeal as I hit on, my head full of garbage. Could’ve been a kid again, guilty of being innocent. Maybe the cop flagged him down and something started. Or he recognized him as the van connected with neighborhood robberies and exchanged fire with his service revolver (found there on the side of the road). Maybe the colored driver saw the fuzz hit in the eye with flying gravel and stopped to assist. Then again, why assist the man you were going to murder?
If you ask me, there’s always more what can’t be explained than what can. There’s your whole trouble with our legal system. A cop was found dead in his patrol car. We know that much. His gun ahead on the road, one hand clutching the radio mike, my driver’s license in the other. That don’t make sense at all. If I was stupid enough to drag him back to the car, why didn’t I take it? We might conclude that he stopped me, which I admit he did (aren’t too many going to believe he picked my pocket for that license). I admit I got my chance and took off. Sorry. Real sorry about that.
So here I am caught between circumstance and real life. Not understanding any more of how or why that rookie was shot than that his time had come. Not understanding—like they asked over and over—why I passed back that way unless it was to see how much mess I’d made of him. Wishing I hadn’t. Wishing some one would step forward like they do in the Middle East and claim the victim for himself. Like they now wish me to do for that cop on the Belt Line road twenty years ago. They flew a fat D.A. in a three-piece suit down to tell me, “We’d like to know.” His forehead all broke out in kindly generosity. “We’d like you to clear it up for us.” Now wouldn’t that be real nice of me?
Not knowing any more than they do what happened to the gun. Nor why, when I arrived back on the scene of a crime originally perpetrated upon me—being stopped for no reason—I would lug a dead man’s body back to his patrol car. Arranging it careful, taking my time, while lights and sirens veered in from everywhere. Men with loaded guns, semi-automatics and shotguns, approaching inch by inch. Screaming they’d blow my fucking head off if I moved.
Why, I asked right off, if he stopped me, if I killed him, was my car headed back in the opposite direction? They took presence and fury from the blood spattered like a Rorschach test over my shirt, slamming me into metal sills of the squad car, ramming knees in my groin, grinding Remington barrels in my stomach, wondering how much of me would turn to shit if they pulled the trigger. I didn’t much want them to find out.
Brutality, I’m thinking. Unnecessary. Your best adventure stories get by without it. But this is real life. The difference between me and MonteCristo is he planned it out every step of the way, but I got caught in bad circumstance and misfortune, a plot I wouldn’t never have entered if there was any way to avoid it.
Copyright © 2004 William Luvaas. All Rights Reserved.