On New Year’s Eve of the millennium, I realized that I would always feel ridiculous.
“Well, should we go to the party?” I ask my girlfriend Sally.
“I don’t know,” she replies, and looks fretful. Buster, her dog, looks up at us, ears flattened. He’s a basset/beagle mix, which is good, because he’s less absurd than a basset, and less boring than a beagle. He’s a recent addition to the relationship. If he could talk right now, he would tell us that we’re not leaving the house unless he’s invited. I open a can of cheap beer.
Sally strokes his head. When Buster flattens his ears, Sally’s heart cracks like porcelain. When Sally strokes Buster’s head, he flops on his back and displays the remainder of his genitals, which he now does. I observe this, remind myself to get a vasectomy when I’m flush, and drink beer. Buster is a source of nearly constant hilarity, which was my job. He’s my wake-up call. He has a face that always looks sad, but he rarely is. Mine always looks mad, and I often am. I see Sally’s angle. But, I have a height advantage.
Buster is a staunch and cheery dog, which one senses immediately. He’s cute. When women see him they squeal, laugh, and caress, which causes the minds of nearby men to warp like something seen through water, after which they give him thumps, smacks, and gruff words.
Sally having a dog that always looks sad, but never is, and a dog with as common a name as buster, when she is anything but, is as perfect as reality gets.
“Well, it’s 11:15, I guess we should decide,” she says. She stands still, gazing out the window, looking confidently unhappy. Outside, hanging from a pole, lit up by the white exterior light, is a whirligig Sally bought on Venice Beach, and brought back here to Idaho to brighten up our featureless sageland backed by distant mountains. On the beach, with its prevailing wind, the whirligig whirled well, its long, gay streamers flipping around wildly but in good order. But, it doesn’t work here in Idaho, because of the capricious and difficult winds: the tiny tornadoes that settle down, spin chaos, and depart with a bored sigh; the sudden, powerful gusts that make you cling to the ground with your will, while heftless things are flung out into the sage; or the steady phalanx of south wind that stops, wheels, and descends from the east with equal insistence. Here, the whirligig spins a couple times, tangles, and hangs.
Sally got into a battle of wills with the whirligig when it wouldn’t work properly. She moved it from place to place, trying to find a location where the wind would just stop already with her defiance, where the climate would agree that it’s no match for her, and lift the whirligig into his cheery spin. That didn’t work. So she shortened the string from which the streamers dangled, to lessen the chance from which the streamers dangled, to lessen the chance they’d get snarled. That didn’t work either; the streamers needed very little rope to hang themselves.
Now, the whirligig hangs tangled when the air is still, and when a fistful of winter wind comes out of the snow, it lurches away from the punch like a finished boxer.
I could hate Sally for such futility, for her stubborn insistence that the world cheer up. But I don’t, because if I didn’t have that quality of hers in my life, it would get darker than ever I could stand. So I mock her as gently as I can. And watching that punch drunk whirligig bobble around out there is pretty fucking funny after a couple beers remind me, with their cold sternness, that I’m an asshole, so buck up, chum, it’s only gonna get worse. Sometimes, it seems worrisome that alcohol talks to me. But sometimes, I feel lucky that something does.
I look at Sally. She’s pretty, I remind myself. She’s a bewildering mixture of cuteness and severity, softness and grimness, furious cheer.
Beyond the whirligig, the headlights on the highway go by. When I see a pair approach on the way from town, I think of the sound of Parisian sirens growing louder, and when the headlights reach the point where they disappear because the car is abreast of me, there is the crescendo and the fading away.
“Yes,” I say. “Well. I suppose we ought to go to the party. It is the millennium. And just because we’re stuck here in this nowhere town with a bunch of nobodies, while the rest of the world celebrates in a grand and interesting way, doesn’t mean we should lurk around here with a dog that looks sad all the time but isn’t. That would be too confusing for a night like this, a night that’s supposed to be seamless fun, fun, fun.” She looks startled.
“Don’t panic,” I say. “That won’t happen if I have anything to say about it.”
“Phew. I knew I could count on you.”
“That’s right. No, I think we should go out, have fun, bring excitement with us wherever we go, just like we promised ourselves we would start doing someday. Monday we should start today.”
“Okay!” Sally says, with that coughing enthusiasm of hers that’s like a reliable vehicle that’s hard to get started, but gets you there if you can. I know that all it takes from me to get it started is words that aren’t grim and angry, so I don’t say them often. The stubbornness in this house is an airbag that won’t deflate.
“And, anyway,” she goes on, “we’re here to be nobodies, because it’s better than New York. New York makes you feel like you’re supposed to be somebody.”
“Ah yes, I’d forgotten that this was the plan.”
We take my old Ford pickup to the party.
I like this truck, even though it shits the bed a lot. Ford means: Fix Or Repair Daily. I fret about the acronym because “fix” and “repair” mean the same thing, so putting “or” between them isn’t proper. In fact, nothing about it works accept the rhythm and meaning, which I try to settle for. Few but me find that hard, I think.
Sally wants to take the truck because it has a great heater. She gets cold easily, making living here in the mountains a contrary move on her part. At least in the winter. Buster likes the truck because he’s a short dog, and my truck is one of the few places in life where he gets to have stature.
As I get in, I look at the side of the truck behind the driver’s door, where, in a fit of rage with it for breaking on me again, I kicked it so savagely and repeatedly that I dented in the whole side, while screaming at the top of my lungs. It’s not rare that I get that angry, but it’s rare that I display it that way anymore. Now I fester. It’s an improvement, which is hard to accept. Sally wasn’t around when I did that to the truck, a good thing. I would have scared the shit out of her. But, if she’d been around, I would have just stood there, anger galloping around inside of me like the Four Horsemen, waiting for them to get bored and go back to god.
Sally and I have kept an argument going for months now about the truck. We argue by making a pointed remark like a prairie dog’s yelp, then dropping back into out hole. The argument is this: She thinks I bought this truck out of vanity, not necessity. I think I bought it out of necessity, so that I could work on this house we’re living in. When I bark about the truck not working, for which she has little empathy, she yelps that I didn’t have to buy it.
Then there’s an interval that could last for six minutes, six months, or anything in between.
I point out that if I hadn’t bought the truck, doing the house would have been possible, but so annoying and difficult, it would have taken forever which we didn’t have. Winter was coming. The house had to be ready to be lived in. And then I point out that my vanity is too refined to be assuaged by this piece of shit vehicle with the peeling paint and noncommittal engine.
She points out that my vanity is exactly of the sort that is pleased by peeling paint and a noncommittal engine.
She has me. I like things that are shitty. I tell her that yes, my vanity is stroked, but that doesn’t mean the truck wasn’t necessary.
She admits that the truck might have been necessary, but she does it with grudging mockery in her voice. When I get her to make that admission without a tone of mockery in her voice, I will leap into my grave before the moment is ruined.
When I tried to bang the dent back out of the truck, it was way harder that I thought it would be. I was surprised I could swing my foot that hard. But it’s not my strength; it’s that when I dented it, it became stronger. Now, it’s creased and crumpled, a battered version of the old, scabby smoothness.
I pull out onto the two-lane highway that splits the valley, and head towards the party. I’m holding my beer in my crotch. I’m legally drunk. But, I’m not impaired, I’m rebellious, a trivial outlaw. I want to be the one to decide if I can drive well, or not. And I don’t understand the notion that as many ways to die as possible should be eliminated. That everyone should survive for a long time. That life is inherently valuable. That death is bad for everyone buy obvious criminals.
And I don’t like that they’re so zealous about persecuting people who drink and drive. They should require that people demonstrate their capacity for drunk driving, and making it a class on your license, like being checked out on motorcycles, or big trucks.
The West used to be a place where personal responsibility, individual freedom, counted for more than social mores, and social responsibility. If you wrapped yourself around a tree, or stood in the way of a bullet fired in rapture, you were luckless, or too stupid to live, so good riddance in either case. Who needs an idiot or a bane? If you killed somebody by accident, you lived the rest of your life in a hell of guilt, or you got over it, or you were killed by another interested party. It sounds like life was a little rocky in those days, but you didn’t feel like the world was filled with mommies with pistols and patrol cars. But all that as before my time, and to hear the locals tell it, it ended just seconds before I arrived.
Now, everyone who drinks is terrified when they drive, no matter if they’ve had one beer or many. They drive in a state of panic: gripping the wheel tightly, white knuckles glowing in the dash light, eyes darting from mirror to road, until they hit someone because all the can think about is getting pulled over and having their life ruined. My truck is a true S.U.V.
Sally knows why I shouldn’t drink and drive, however. It’s very simple, so I would never have thought of it on my own: It’s because if I killed someone and lived, I wouldn’t survive it.
I toodle along. There’s no weaving, because I’m skilled, and cautious. The police treat you badly in this town. A friend of mine was caught and left in a cell, uncharged, over a long weekend without food and water, because it was hunting season and the cops forgot about her. They also like to bust people for something, then go their house and clean it out, so the criminal has compensated society for his bad ways. Social debts are squared up nicely as a policeman makes pop tarts with his new toaster.
I’m also cautious because I’m past the point where risking my life in traffic seems interesting. That lost its allure almost right away.
Right on the other side of town, I’m pulled over by the police.
“Fuck me,” I saw wearily. “What the fuck is his problem? Hold onto this will you?” Sally looks surprised that I have the beer, calls me a fucking idiot in her mind, and hides it. I had been wondering if she knew I had it. I never know how much of her attention I take up, how much she notices what I do. In a way, I’m always trying to find out. I imagine asking her:
“Hey Sal, how much of your attention do I use up, anyway?”
“Too fucking much.”
“I don’t know what his problem is,” she says. I accept her rebuke.
“Good evening, folks.” the officer says as he stands outside my window. He’s a big, white guy without a lot of obvious malignance to him. I have shut the engine off, and lowered my window. Cold air blows into the cab with his words. His cruiser is behind me, lights flashing. A spotlight is shining into the cab, reflecting out of my rearview mirror blindingly. I flip the button on it to redirect the light, noticing again the way the mirror’s new angle seems to cast a layer of shady reality over the same view.
I have pulled into the driveway of a business, to get off the highway. When a cop pulls me over I’m always nervous for the guy standing there as traffic zips by him. It makes it hard for me to concentrate on the problem at hand. I want to reach out and pull him to safety. They’re making the world more dangerous for everyone else as well. Much more dangerous that if they had let the person go, and called them later to say that they had been speeding, and to take it easy next time. Or maybe they could call them up, tell them they’d been speeding, and it’s the second or third time, so a speeding ticket will be sent along, which they should pay, and if they don’t, someone with a gun will have to come out to their house and ask them what’s wrong. That method would likely take a lot of the thrill out of being a policeman. And they have to figure that someone doing a little bad thing, is also someone who has done big bad things.
“Hello,” I say to the officer in as pleasant a voice as I can. This isn’t easy at all. In this case, I do quite well, because I’m mature. The last time I got pulled over for drinking and driving by a small town cop was years ago. When he told me to touch my nose with my finger, I did it perfectly with my middle one. I was immature, and not impaired. And when he put me in his car to take me in, I sat back there and berated him. Told him he was a fucking scumbag, and asked him if he had nothing better to do than hassle me, if there were no criminals left to catch. He was a small, oily man named Rollie. Everyone in the town, when hearing his name, looked repulsed and said:
“That fucking scumbag.” That’s how I knew he was one.
He called for backup because of my attitude, which backup turned out to be another decrepit, roundly-hated person with a pistol. They stood around in their one room station house and pretended I was dangerous, which didn’t please me. It was disappointing to find out that being thought dangerous was not satisfying. I think it’s because I knew I wasn’t.
I’m thinking Rollie and this cop are similar, because both pulled me over because they’re hoping I’m drunk, not because I did something wrong.
“Did you know you have a headlight out?” the policeman says. I’m surprised by the question. I check the functions of my truck regularly, since they break often, so I know that if my headlight is out, it just went out today. And it must be out only on the dimmer setting, because while on the highway, the brights were fine. However, while in town, with the dimmers on as they should be, I couldn’t tell a light was out, because the streetlamps cause too much ambient light. He picked me up, and followed me, in town.
“No,” I say. “I didn’t know that. It must have just happened. They were fine yesterday, I’m sure of it.”
“Well, I’m gonna have to look at your license and registration.”
“Okay,” I say. Looking at my license and registration naturally follows from my headlight breaking. Malfunction is suspect.
This is going to get awkward. I have an out-of-state license, which usually upsets the police. My license is legal in Idaho for thirty days, only. I usually stay longer than that, but not much longer, then I leave, and after thirty days in New York, I’m illegal again.
So I tried to get an Idaho license, but they require that I give up my New York one. I could have claimed I didn’t have any license at all, and had for each state. But, then they make you take a full-blown driving test, which I didn’t want to do. And I figured they would find out that I already had a license, because the computer would catch that by my social security number. So, I went to surrender my New York license, because it makes me nervous to be illegal, but they made me take a written test, which I failed by one question. In Idaho, if you hit a cow on the road, it’s your fault no matter what. Even if the cow jumps out of the bushes throws herself in front of your car, which they seem to enjoy, it’s still your fault, and you have to pay the farmer damages. I didn’t know that, among other things on the test. I thought it was a trick question, like they thought that I would think that they’re thinking that I’m going to surmise that the most absurd answer is the one they want me to go for, while the most sensible answer is the right one. I was way off. The most absurd answer was the correct one.
After failing the test, I asked for my New York license back, got in my truck, drove away, and never went back. I figured, given the way I live, I simply could never be a truly legal person, without surrendering licenses and taking tests two or three times a year. I try to compensate for this by being cautious. Although, I remain galled that if you want to be the tiniest bit different than the norm, your life gets ridiculously more difficult.
I give the cop my license, but then I remember that my registration isn’t in the truck. The registration from the previous owner is still in it. It now becomes clear to me that I’m in no end of trouble. Sally and I had, five days earlier, finished renovating our house and moved in, after month of stress, and long, punishing days of work. It was winter, and we had no place to live until we finished the house. It was all I could do to keep this truck running at all after I brought it, and made it legal. What I hadn’t done is follow up on all the details, like remembering to put the new registration in the truck. Or, more accurately, I remember to do it, and forgot to, the same number of times.
I hand the officer the old registration, and explain the problem in an even tone. I suppose too even, because Sally steps in, and starts explaining about the house difficulties, and how hard our lives had been recently, and that’s why some of these little details hadn’t been worked out yet. She’s trying to take the point, fearing that in a minute I’ll snap and flood the area with attitude, and fuck us good. I appreciate that, because, although, I don’t feel like I’m going to be a prick, that could change on a dime. And Sally talked us out of a jam like this one other time; she has great persuasive skills, and a bosom large enough to breastfeed a village. Cops respond very well to her.
When Sally takes a break, I tell him that the truck is registered and insured properly. I do have the insurance card. I notice that he listens to all this, or seems to. I also notice that, luckily, this is not the same officer that pulled me over for speeding a couple weeks before. Then, I had just entered a low-speed area, but hadn’t actually slowed down to the right speed yet, when the officer stopped me. He didn’t give me a ticket, but he seemed just furious with me, the kind of fury that I would reserve for loved ones. He settled for trying to make me feel ashamed of being a menace, but succeeded only in irritating me, and scaring me, because his reaction seemed so excessive. He was so outraged, like he’d caught me driving around with a naked 13-year-old girl he coveted.
I think that it’s also a good thing I didn’t involve the police a couple days ago, when some guy slid on the ice and smashed into my truck with his S.U.V: It’s never good to have a lot of contact with the police in a short span of time. Guilt rains out of the sky like grogs if you do. But I’m clearly at that disturbing point in small town life where cops figure out who you are.
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