Joe pushed the button for the lowest, cheapest octane. A bit of the gas splattered on his fingers. Couldn’t anything go right? At least the chills had stopped. Was it just another lull, or was he over the worst?
The owner of the taqueria next door chased off the last of his Mexican customers. Joe thought about asking one of them for a ride to his turn-off, but their laughing faces turned cold and expressionless once a new pair of headlights appeared from the frontage road. A white Jeep with a silver-on-black Wanapum County Sheriff logo pulled in front of the mini-mart window. Joe went and collected his change.
“Run out of gas?” the friendly voice asked from behind.
He turned to see the sheriff deputy standing behind him and pointing to his full gallon container. Joe’s heart raced. “Yes, sir. The gas gauge on my car is broken, so I was caught flat-footed tonight.”
“Where’s your car?”
Joe pointed away from the town lights of Moses Lake and toward the wildlife refuge.
“I’ll call the desk sergeant and see if he’ll let me take you. First I’ll need to see some I.D.” The wiry, tall officer, about thirty, acted low-key and smooth like it was just another quiet night on patrol. His uniform was crisp but his shoes and the tires on the sheriff SUV had the same sandy grit that Joe had just kicked-up for over an hour.
Joe had no intention of mentioning anything about Mary and Grace. Now that the baby was safely born, there was no pressing need to bring in the authorities. If Mary wanted to, she and the kid could go to urgent care back in The Dalles. A ride to the turn-off would be great though.
Before pulling his wallet out, Joe set down the plastic gas container while the cop bought a pop. Joe had been told that his juvie bust was wiped from his Oregon record on his eighteenth birthday, so he was pretty confident that nothing bad would show up. Somehow, miraculously, he’d managed never to get a moving violation, so there would be nothing there either. Besides, not showing the cop his license might trigger ugly suspicions.
When Joe’s wallet opened, a small slip of paper fluttered to the ground. The deputy reached down to pick it up. “Gunnar Larsson,” he read under the mini-mart marquee. “Local 509 number. Name sounds familiar.”
Joe traded the address slip for his Oregon driver’s license. “He’s my cousin.”
The light inside the SUV patrol Jeep reflected on the cop’s name tag. Joe was able to read, Deputy Zach Riggleman: Wanapum Co. Sheriff Dept. There was something about the cop’s easiness that made Joe uneasy.
“Too late to drop in on my cousin. Sleeping in the car made more sense.”
“Why not wait until morning to get gas?” the sheriff deputy asked with the same down-to-earth tone.
“My rig’s smack in the middle of the road, so I need to move it.” Joe wondered why he’d chosen the word ‘smack’? And why did his plans matter so flippin’ much to the deputy?
“You couldn’t call your cousin for an emergency like this?” the deputy asked in his gliding voice. Darkness hid the man’s eyes, so Joe had no idea if they were casual or harsh.
“I can’t exactly afford a Blackberry,” said Joe. Or any other of the new flip phones, he thought. Why had he told the cop that Gunnar was his cousin? Why hadn’t he stuffed the phone number and address deeper inside his wallet?
“The Dalles, Oregon. You’re a long way from home.” The cop examined his driver’s license.
“A three-hour drive is all.”
“And it takes just a bit more than a tank of gas,” said the cop.
Joe started to repeat that the gas gauge was broken, but noticed the deputy’s sly grin. “Yep. Just a tiny bit more.” Joe smiled as best he could.
He asked how long Joe was planning to stay in Moses Lake.
“Don’t know yet. Just up for a visit.”
The cop got into the driver’s seat and Joe tried to listen in, but the deputy closed the door of his vehicle and talked low, except for the light ringing of a cellphone, only a dull murmuring could be heard from inside the cop car.
After a few minutes, the deputy stepped from the sheriff Jeep and handed him his license. Joe felt better when the cop went to the rear of the SUV and opened the lift-gate. The cop made sure that Joe set the gas can inside a plastic trash bag before putting it in the back of the SUV. The cop gave him a Handy-Wipe to get rid of the smell on his fingers.
The deputy continued around the vehicle to open the front passenger door. Joe climbed in and tried to guess the function of all the electronic support inside the sheriff Jeep. The pain returning to his stomach made it hard to concentrate on anything except for trying not to puke again.
“You’re sure sweating a ton.”
“Ran most of the way.”
Riggleman climbed in the driver’s side and they headed along the lonely frontage road away from Moses Lake.
“Full Sail Ale,” the cop said, gesturing toward Joe’s t-shirt. “My uncle, Will Riggleman, is the brew master there. My cousin Billy, his son, is about your age.”
Joe tapped at his chest, recalling how he’d angrily ditched his long sleeve Chunichi Dragon’s jersey in favor of this tan tee-shirt. “Sorry, don’t know anyone named Riggleman. Hood River’s close, but not my town.” Joe scratched himself, hoping the cop wouldn’t see, but the cop seemed to notice. The deputy would glance from the road and back to Joe’s nervous fingers and probably at the discolored flesh on his bare arms.
Joe’s thoughts stayed with Mary and all the focus it took to hide his gut pain. In the distance, a pair of taillights disappeared over a slight rise in the frontage road and the cop surprised Joe by turning at the primitive road he needed.
“Thanks a lot for the ride,” said Joe, slapping at a mosquito buzzing his ear.
The deputy stopped the Jeep. “You’ve been walking plenty tonight if you’re staying down by the ponds.”
Joe spoke as pleasantly as he could, but tried to open the locked door. “Seriously, I can walk from here.”
“No worries,” the deputy told him when he paused at the unmarked intersection. “I even have permission from the desk sergeant.” He kicked into four-wheel-drive and edged onto the soft sand of the primitive road.
Joe couldn’t bring himself to thank him, smile, or even nod. He thought he’d be walking back to Mary on his own, to breathe better and plan what exactly he’d say to her. Instead, he had to think of the right thing to tell this cop. There’d be no hiding the messy reality of what the cop would see.
And there would be no hurrying over to the cedar tree stash with this cop in tow. “My girlfriend just had a baby,” Joe blurted.
The cop shot him a glance. “Then why are you out camping by yourself in this wasteland?”
“No. That’s why I’m getting gas now.” Joe pointed directly ahead of them. “My girlfriend is with me. We weren’t expecting her to have her baby in the back of her SUV out in this dust-bit place.”
The deputy wasted no time. He called dispatch, told them about the childbirth, then gave the directions. “Like I said in my last dispatch, I’m on my way there now with the father of the newborn.”
“I’m not the father,” Joe said once the cop put the mic back onto its bracket.
“Then what’s going on here?” Riggleman asked while trying to concentrate on keeping traction in the loose sand. This time his voice came off as anything but congenial. “Why would you leave her there? If me and my wife could have kids, I’d be holding her hand every minute, before and after. Your stupid gasoline should have waited until morning.”
Joe had no idea how to respond to Riggleman’s outburst. What an about-face in tone.
“Mr. Gardner, I’ve been working this job long enough to see the same sweating and that same jittery stare you’ve got going. Some of us cops aren’t blind. What else are you hiding? Is your girlfriend a druggie, too?”
Joe folded his arms and glared at the deputy. “You saying it’s a crime to jog for gas so I can hurry and take care of my girlfriend and the baby? Of course, I’m sweating. I ran all the way to where you picked me up.” If Riggleman only knew how hard Joe was working in his head to convince his turkey not to make him blow chunks again.
The cop took off his cap and tapped his temple to show Joe that he wasn’t stupid. “That was quite a few minutes ago when you got to the mini-mart, and you’re still sweating like a pig. Those forearms of yours are sporting obvious track marks, and you’re antsy as hell.”
When the words left the cop’s mouth, dispatch came across the radio. “Officer, do you have a more specific location and any information on the status of the mother and newborn?”
The cop stopped again and answered the call. Joe tried to open the passenger door again. The deputy gave him a cold expression after telling the dispatcher he hadn’t arrived yet to be in a position to respond any more accurately.
“Please let me out. And thanks for saddling us with a big ambulance bill we can’t afford.”
“There’s a newborn and mother,” he told Joe. “so this isn’t about you anymore.” The deputy turned on his flashers and swerved around stray stones. The deputy seemed to enjoy the opportunity to push the performance of his official SUV. Each fishtail had Joe clutching the elbow rest.
“I apologize, Mr. Gardner,” the cop turned and said on a smoother stretch of road. Under the big moon, they could see the pond in the distance with the Pathfinder sitting on the gray road like a dark hole. Beside the SUV, the marsh glistened like polished black granite.
“Apologize for what?” Joe asked. He just wanted out of the cop rig so he could talk to Mary.
“It’s just that my wife and I have been trying to have a baby for the last five years,” the cop answered, his eyes on the sandy path. “I’m sensitive to the subject of newborns. She’s Vietnamese, a culture where not being able to have babies is a stigma.” He turned to Joe. “Let’s get your girlfriend the care she needs. That’s all.”
“Let’s,” said Joe, his voice terse. There was nothing to say that he and Mary couldn’t have a kid or two of their own someday. That’s definitely what he would tell her rather than some blanket apology. He needed to stand, to breathe the night air, without this cop butting in.
But why didn’t Mary warn him that the kid might not be his? She had to know it was a possibility. “A definite effing possibility,” he muttered under his breath.
“Come back with that,” said the cop.
“You and your wife should keep on trying for that kid.” Joe said, twisting to glare harshly at the cop.
“I swear I heard you say the ‘f’’ word.”
“That’s what it’ll take,” said Joe, “but who am I to school you on the birds and the bees?”
Deputy Riggleman laughed, his easy manner restored. He pulled into the fisherman’s parking spot closest to the Pathfinder and turned off the engine. With ambulances on the way, a cop pitching him crap, and a newborn getting most of the attention, Joe wondered if he’d even have a chance to talk things through with Mary, let alone sneak over to the cedar tree. Joe’s saliva told him more vomit was coming.
Big wings swooped down to land in the back of the Pathfinder below Mary’s lift gate. The descent happened fast. When the deputy turned on his spotlight outside his door, Joe saw what was definitely a Great Horned Owl lifting something into the air, something dangling below its talons.
“Let me out,” Joe told the cop. No bird would have flown that close to Mary. Even through rolled-up windows, Joe could hear the night owl’s wings pounding to escape their arrival. It hooted in anger and flew straight above them. “That’s the bloody afterbirth,” he told the deputy. One glance showed a cop looking more annoyed than grossed out by the big splotch of bright blood splattered across the white hood of the Sheriff Jeep.
The deputy got out and stepped around to open Joe’s door.
“Mary?” Joe asked gently when he got out and followed Riggleman to the back of her SUV. The spotlight was to the side of the Pathfinder and didn’t offer much of a beam inside Mary’s vehicle.
It took the flashlight from the deputy’s service belt for them to tell what was inside the back. The owl had already hinted that the vinyl flooring would be empty of the people and the placenta. Towards the front seat, Joe could see a blob of glistening blood where the placenta stained the vinyl flooring of the Pathfinder. Where was the baby? Where was Mary?
“Mary!” His voice boomed through the night.
Joe turned back towards the deputy to see a Glock trained at his face. Riggleman steadied his service pistol. “Mr. Gardner, place your hands on top of your head.”
“Why?” Joe asked, but did as directed. Riggleman’s aim added a churning horror in his guts where a Howler monkey and ugly gobbler were playing tug-of-war with his intestines.
Scott MacFarlane lives in the Skagit River Valley of western Washington with his wonderfully supportive wife, Brenda, herself an artist and designer of the imaginative cover of the author’s novel, The Bone Shrine. MacFarlane earned his MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University, Los Angeles. His master’s thesis led to the publication of The Hippie Narrative: A Literary Perspective on the Counterculture (2007). The chapter on Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five was reprinted by the highly acclaimed literary critic, Harold Bloom. MacFarlane created the dioramation, “Seer and the Nymph,” which was shortlisted at the Swedenborg International Short Film Festival (London, 2010). He served as the founding executive director for the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles, Oregon which opened in 1997. For the last decade, his writing productivity has flourished from driving a transit bus in the Puget Sound area between Everett and Bellingham. The job can be left behind when going home, but his most colorful riders continually reveal the rolling quirks of life on a slant.
Categories: book excerpt