TALK TALK

She was running late, always running late, a failing of hers, she knew it, but then she couldn't find her purse and once she did manage to locate it (underneath her blue corduroy jacket on the coat tree in the front hall), she couldn't find her keys. They should have been in her purse, but they weren't, and so she'd made a circuit of the apartment — two circuits, three — before she thought to look through the pockets of the jeans she'd worn the day before, but where were they ? No time for toast. Forget the toast, forget food. She was out of orange juice. Out of butter and cream cheese. The newspaper on the front mat was just another obstacle. Piss-warm — was that an acceptable term? Yes — piss-warm coffee in a stained mug, a quick check of lipstick and hair in the rearview mirror, and then she was putting the car in gear and backing out onto the street.
She may have been peripherally aware of a van flitting by in the opposite direction, the piebald dog sniffing at a stain on the edge of the pavement, someone's lawn sprinkler holding the light in a shimmer of translucent beads, but the persistent beat of adrenaline — or nerves, or whatever it was — wouldn't allow her to focus. Plus, the sun was in her eyes, and where were her sunglasses? She thought she remembered seeing them on the bureau, in a snarl of jewelry — or was it the kitchen table, next to the bananas, and she'd considered taking a banana with her, fast food, potassium, roughage, but then she figured she wouldn't because with Dr. Stroud it was better to have nothing at all in your stomach. Air. Air alone would sustain her.
To rush , to hurry , to fret : Old English and Latinate roots, the same sad connotative stab of meaning. She wasn't thinking clearly. She was stressed, stressed out, running late. And when she got to the four-way stop at the end of the block she felt momentarily blessed because there was no one there to stop for, yet even as she made a feint of slowing and shifted from neutral to second with a quick deft plunge of clutch and accelerator, she spotted the patrol car parked just up the street in the bruised shadow of an SUV.
There was a moment of suspended time, the cop frozen at the wheel of his car, she giving him a helpless exculpatory look, and then she was past him and cursing herself as she watched him pull a lazy U-turn behind her and activate the flashing lights. All at once she saw the world complete, the palms with their pineapple trunks and peeling skirts, the armored spines of the yucca plants climbing the hill, yellow rock, red rock, a gunmetal pickup slowing to gape at her where she'd pulled over on a tan strip of dirt, and below her, a descending expanse of tiled rooftops and the distant blue wallop of the Pacific, no hurry now, no hurry at all. She watched the cop — the patrolman — in her side mirror as he sliced open the door, hitched up his belt (they all did that, as if the belt with its Mace and handcuffs and the hard black-handled revolver were all the badge they needed) and walked stiffly to her car.
She had her license and registration ready and held them out to him in offering, in supplication, but he didn't take them, not yet. He was saying something, lips flapping as if he were chewing a wad of gristle, but what was it? It wasn't License and registration , but what else could it be? Is that the sun in the sky? What's the square root of a hundred forty-four? Do you know why I pulled you over? Yes. That was it. And she did know. She'd run a stop sign. Because she was in a hurry — a hurry to get to the dentist's, of all places — and she was running late.
“I know,” she said, “I know, but... but I did shift down...”
He was young, this patrolman, no older than she, a coeval, a contemporary, somebody she might have danced alongside of — or with — at Velvet Jones or one of the other clubs on lower State. His eyes were too big for his head and they bulged out like a Boston terrier's — and what was that called? Exophthalmia . The word came to her and she felt a quick glow of satisfaction despite the circumstances. But the cop, the patrolman. There was a softness to his jaw, that when combined with the eyes — liquid and weepy — gave him an unfinished look, as if he weren't her age at all but an adolescent, a big-headed child all dressed up spick-and-span in his uniform and playing at authority. She saw his face change when she spoke, but she was used to that.
He said something then, and this time she read him correctly, handing him the laminated license and the thin wafer of the registration slip, and she couldn't help asking him what was the matter, though she knew her face would give her away. A question always flared her eyebrows as if she were being accusatory or angry, and she'd tried to work on that but with mixed success. He backed away from the car and said something further — probably that he was going to go back to his own vehicle and run a standard check on her license before writing out the standard ticket for running the standard stop sign — and this time she kept her mouth shut.
For the first few minutes she wasn't aware of the time passing. All she could think was what this was going to cost her, points on her license, the insurance — was it last year or the year before that she'd got her speeding ticket? — and that now she was definitely going to be late. For the dentist. All this for the dentist. And if she was late for the dentist and the procedure that was to take two hours minimum, as she'd been advised in writing to assure that there would be no misunderstanding, then she would be late for her class too and no one to cover for her. She thought of the problem of the telephone — she supposed she could use the dentist's receptionist as an intermediary, but what a hassle. Hassle . And what was the derivation of that? she wondered. She made a note to herself to look it up in her Dictionary of American Slang when she got home. But what was taking him so long? She had an urge to look over her shoulder, fix the glowing sun-blistered windshield with a withering stare, but she resisted the impulse and lowered her left shoulder to peer instead through the side mirror.
Nothing. There was a form there, the patrolman's form, a bulked-up shadow, head bent. She glanced at the clock on the dash. Ten minutes had passed since he'd left her. She wondered if he was a slow learner, dyslexic, the sort of person who would have trouble recollecting the particular statute of the motor vehicle code she stood in violation of, who would fumble with the nub of his pencil, pressing extra hard for the duplicate. A dope, a dummy, a half-wit. A Neanderthal . She tried out the word on her tongue, beating out the syllables — Ne-an-der-thal — and watched in the mirror as her lips pursed and drew back and pursed again.
She was thinking of her dentist, an inveterate talker, with eyebrows that seemed to crawl across his inverted face as he hung over her, oblivious to the fact that she couldn't respond except with grunts and deep-throated cries as the cotton wads throttled her tongue and the vacuum tube tugged at her lip, when the door of the police car caught the light as it swung open again and the patrolman emerged. Right away she could see that something was wrong. His body language was different, radically different, the stiffness gone out of his legs, his shoulders hunched forward and his feet stalking the gravel with exaggerated care. She watched till his face loomed up in the mirror — his mouth drawn tight, his eyes narrowed and deflated — and then turned to face him.
That was when she had her first shock.
He was standing three paces back from the driver's door and he had his weapon drawn and pointed at her and he was saying something about her hands — barking, his face discomposed, furious — and he had to repeat himself, more furious each time, until she understood: Put your hands where I can see them.

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