Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Was This Trip Really Necessary?

 

Kidnapping at gunpoint seems like a poor strategy for resolving marital disputes, but that didn’t stop my buddy Gene from trying it. In his defense, he first explored more conventional methods, but his wife refused to cooperate. His gun wasn’t loaded, and he never intended to hurt anybody. Still, the police rightly frown on shotgun-as-counselor interventions, so for a time, Gene resided in the county jail. On the evening of his arrest, I accompanied his father to Hamburg, the seat of Ashley County, Arkansas. Gene passed us on the way to lockup, still running on the adrenaline that floods your system after the cops nearly gun you down. He yelled at us until they hauled him away

Gene’s wife, whom I’ll call Flo, was around fifteen years older than us. Recently divorced myself, I was dating Mary, whom I met at college. She was ten years my senior and fresh out of an abusive relationship. We were both English majors, so date night often meant reading on opposite ends of a couch, but more often, we got drunk. Mary loved the outdoors, so we usually filled an ice chest with beer and explored the backroads near our small Arkansas towns, blasting rock and roll with the windows down or parking somewhere and watching the stars.

Half the people I knew back then drank and drove—“DAMM,” or “Drunks Against Mad Mothers,” was a running joke—mostly on empty gravel roads, but sometimes on state highways, even freeways. We flew around curves, right tires hugging the shoulder, throwing empty bottles at speed-limit signs. We blew through intersections. We did donuts in people’s fields and sprayed rocks into their yards, the better to destroy their lawn mowers’ blades, and we did it all because we were young and destructive and mad at the world—in other words, assholes.

With Mary, though, I just drove, enjoying the music and the night air. We had long, philosophical talks with the stream-of-consciousness passion you can only achieve after you’ve both downed a six-pack—discussions about how life flew by, its seductive pleasures, its melancholy crevices. We talked about our past relationships, sex, the nature of love. Any English Romantic poet worth his or her salt would have been proud. Words like “soulmate” and phrases like “transparent eye-ball” were sprinkled liberally into the conversation without any trace of irony or self-consciousness.

Of course, all this soul-baring and all that alcohol led to some spectacular fights and more than one terrible decision, such as when Mary suggested that we drive to Hamburg and visit Gene. I hadn’t seen him since his arrest.

“Nah,” I said. “Let’s go to the lake.”

“I don’t wanna go to the lake,” Mary said. “Come on. He’s your best friend.”

“I detect some problems with this plan.”

“Like what?”

“For one thing, it’s nine PM. I don’t think the cops just let you drop in.”

She grinned. “I can talk our way in. You know me.”

It was true. Especially with heterosexual males, Mary almost always got her way. She was not the kind of traditional beauty that Hollywood might cast as a lead, but she had a great ass, a tan, fit legs, moist lips. When she wanted to, she oozed sexuality. She never bartered herself, but people overlooked that. With some justification, you could call her methods cynical and anti-feminist, but on the other hand, if the men she met tended to think with their genitals and transmogrify into brainless Jell-O because some woman batted her eyelashes and smiled, was that Mary’s fault?

“Okay,” I said. “There’s also the fact that I really have to pee.”

“We can stop at a gas station.”

“I’ll have to go later, too. Small bladder, remember?”

“They’ll have a bathroom.”

“Maybe for visiting hours. Not for us. Besides, I hate the goddam courthouse. Every time I’m there, the Child Support people try to screw me.”

That was true, too. I had paid child support since my separation, even before the state required it. I kept all my cancelled checks and pay stubs, proving I had never missed a single payment, but because my wages arrived on the last business day of the month and support came due on the first, the Office of Child Support Enforcement always marked me in arrears. Every time I walked into their office, they treated me like a criminal, even months and months after a pattern had been established. They knew the money would come; in fact, they took it out of my check themselves, an arrangement I had welcomed. Meanwhile, wanted posters festooned their walls—real deadbeats who owed tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes more. Knowing my pay schedule and that the support money bypassed me completely, not caring, those fine government representatives harangued me every month. Those shit fathers on the walls? To the best of my knowledge, they walked free and unmolested. It was enough to turn a guy bitter.

“We’re not going to the Child Support office,” Mary pointed out. “We’re going to jail.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“Ha, ha.”

“You realize we’re both plastered, right? Don’t you think the cops will want to know who drove a couple of drunks to the courthouse?”

“Psssh,” she said, and that was it. I had just killed my tenth or eleventh bottle of Miller Genuine Draft. Fog floated through my brain, settling just behind my eyes as we played Nirvana’s new—and, as it would turn out, final—album, In Utero on repeat, me performing a listless version of head-banging to “Scentless Apprentice,” Mary lecturing me on the potentially negative connotations and consequences of “Dumb” and “Rape Me.” By the time I realized where she had headed, I felt relaxed and invincible, so my arguments against going were mostly hypothetical, a let’s-bullshit-through-this-scenario passing of the time. Plus, back then, I hated cops. Most I had encountered were martinets, phonies who carried their guts in their guns and badges. I had outrun them, hid from them, disrespected their authority to their faces, but I had never interacted with them as human beings from whom I wanted something.

What might happen if I tried?

We parked near the courthouse and stumbled out of the car, giggling and shushing each other. Clouds covered the sky, or perhaps it was the new moon. The streetlights seemed greasy and wan. Composing ourselves, we strolled up the walk as if we belonged. No one else roamed the grounds. Few cars passed. It occurred to me that simply walking toward a courthouse after hours might count as suspicious behavior, and we were heading straight for the cops’ warren. It occurred to me that searching out the police swam against the tide of my life’s history. It occurred to me that we might be idiots.

Mary walked straight for the jailhouse door. Perhaps she had visited before, or maybe she just plodded forward with the unerring confidence of the veteran inebriate.

Inside, we found whatever passes for a desk sergeant in a county jail. I cannot remember his name or what time we arrived, but I do remember thinking, Dude looks like a really ugly dog eating a lemon. He seemed neither surprised nor pleased to see us, just resigned, as if people walked in off the street every night and asked to see a prisoner. Perhaps they did.

I don’t recall his asking whether he could help us. He looked constipated.

Mary leaned on his desk and grinned. “Heeeeeeeeeyyyyyy,” she said, in what I assume was supposed to be a flirty voice.

I winced. My stomach flip-flopped. She sounded wasted, blotto, FUBAR, and if I could hear it after pickling my liver, then surely the cop could, too. And how could he not smell the beer on her breath? Bloody goddam hell, I thought. After avoiding the cops every time I did something illegal or destructive, I had let Mary lead me into their lair, with evidence of at least a misdemeanor in my very bloodstream. I had seen her flirt her way out of speeding tickets, into closed venues, through maddening bureaucratic situations, but alcohol had melted those skills and fused them into a kind of personality slagheap. She sounded like Otis on the Andy Griffith Show.

I kept my own mouth shut.

The cop said nothing. His face unscrewed, and he leaned back in his chair, watching Mary.

“Ahem,” I said, hoping Mary would take the hint.

She didn’t. “We’re here to see Gene,” she slurred.

The cop looked as if she had stolen his last donut. “No visitors after hours.”

“Couldn’t you just let us say hi?” Mary asked.

“No,” the cop said.

Mary batted her lashes. The cop frowned, as if wondering what had gotten stuck in her eye. I glanced at the door, weighing chivalry against self-preservation. The moments stretched out and out, the silence as uncomfortable and palpable as a pound of marijuana stuffed down my shorts. Every tick of the wall clock seemed to say “Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.”

Our eyes had to be bloodshot. We probably smelled like we had fallen in a cask of ale. How could the cop not ask which of us had driven?

Also, as predicted, I really had to pee—the kind of urgent, bladder-bursting throb that seems to dam just behind your external urethral orifice. You feel what the kid in the old story felt when he stuck his finger in the dike, only there is no dike, and it is highly unlikely that you could, or would want to, stick your finger in there. Every movement produces a corresponding slosh, which filters down to the barely restrained stream. In times like these, releasing that pressure is akin to orgasm. And I was getting there fast.

“Pretty please?” Mary said, her voice rising and stretching out the first syllable. She listed toward the cop, nearly toppling over and scattering his stacked forms and spilling his coffee onto his shirt. The scene flashed through my mind—Mary chest down on the desk, papers fluttering about; the scalded officer yanking her up and cuffing her for whatever charge he could think of and probably sending one of his buddies after me as I dashed for the car; Mary and I sitting in Ashley County’s drunk tank; the angry glares of whoever came to bail us out; court dates, DUIs, driving courses, community service.

I took Mary’s elbow and pulled. “Come on,” I said.

“But we’ll only be a few minutes,” she said, looking at me but talking to the cop.

“We’ll come back during the day,” I said.

The officer watched us go, not blinking, silent.

Once outside, we walked around the nearest corner, and I leaned against the building, willing my heartrate to slow. I took long, deep breaths. I tried to remember the location of the nearest gas station or fast-food joint, because I definitely could not make it far.

Mary sulked. “I could have gotten us in.”

“Yeah, in the bunk above Gene,” I said. “God, I’m about to burst.”

“So go,” Mary said.

It would not be my first public urination, or my last. I studied the scene. A minor miracle—still no traffic, no pedestrians or kids skateboarding on the walks.

But I didn’t use the wall. Instead, I found the OCSE doorway. Just to be sure, I tried to push it open, but it was locked. I looked around one last time. Still clear.

I unzipped my pants, pulled out my directional aiming equipment, and pissed all over the door, the handle, the lock, the glass. Mary laughed and egged me on. Afterward, we trotted to the car. Soon, we zoomed into the night, out of Hamburg, into the wooden interior of southeast Arkansas.

I never considered the implications for regular people who would come to that office the next morning—mothers whose children’s fathers’ pictures hung on those walls; other decent single dads like me who were doing their best to navigate a punitive, maddening system; the kids who wanted to open the door as a sign of their growth and independence; office workers who would never see or hear of my case.

Gene spent maybe ten minutes acting like a fool. I spent an entire evening doing everything but wrapping myself in a bow and writing “ARREST ME” on my forehead. We were both twenty-three, so young and so broken, searching in vain for balm in women and alcohol’s oblivion. In that era, Gene found an orange jumpsuit, card games with inmates, a clear sign of his life’s fragility. Who knows how much it changed him? And me—I rode away, stopping only to piss again, this time on the side of a gravel road where, afterward, I found Mary slumped over the wheel, half-asleep, dreaming of the world that almost was, wherein we sat with Gene in some visitor’s room, drinking vending-machine cola and laughing long into the night.

Pushcart-nominated Brett A. Riley is the author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press) and the feature-length screenplay Candy’s First Kiss, which won or placed in five contests. His short fiction has appeared in The Baltimore Review, Solstice, Folio, The Evansville Review, and many others. Riley’s nonfiction has appeared in Role Reboot, Rougarou, Wild Violet, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.