Chapter Three: The Drug Van
by Dr. Rocket with Ms. Gonzo
Last time, as you recall, beautiful young singer Suze Benson, recruited by the bass player in her band to drive a massive load of pot from Texas to L.A., encountered her obsessed former schoolmate Imants Hasselburger, son of a powerful FBI man. She little realized he was determined to stalk her as she went to pick up the drug van, an act that would place her in terrible danger.
Rob drove fast on the flat straight road that led to his family farm. The road was usually deserted at night, and he gunned the ’67 Olds up to 80.
“Time for a recent oldie, from early this year, number one across the USA.” Suze grinned as the radio blasted out “Pick Up the Pieces” by the Average White Band. She finished her coffee with a gulp, dropped the cup on the floor mat, and nodded her head to the music vigorously.
“Love it!” she shouted, over the catchy horn riff. Rob, still distracted by his own thoughts, nevertheless smiled. But the smile faded as he looked into his rear view mirror, and he suddenly let up on the gas and turned the radio down. “Headlights back there, comin’ up fast,” he said flatly in response to her look. “Cops don’t ride out here much, but…” Rob stopped talking, and watched his mirror.
Imants’ mania eased as he saw how fast he was catching up to the Delta 88. The speedometer read 105, he realized with a jolt. He was going to blow this surveillance! He took his foot off the gas and hit the brakes. When he had slowed, he pulled over at a wide dirt turnaround and cut the Monte Carlo’s lights.
“Ha, kids going to drink beer and make out,” Rob grunted, refocusing on the pavement ahead and turning the song back up in time for Suze to sing along with the refrain. Another minute brought them to the dirt road turnoff that led to a dimly-lit farmhouse and various structures.
Rob’s parents had left town under unpleasant circumstances concerning a problem with the IRS. He and his younger brother Billy were staying on what was once their grandparents’ family farm ten miles out of Garland. Both of the Carter boys hated farming and they had sold the animals and equipment and let the property go wild, except for the barn and farmhouse which they indifferently maintained.
Lightning again flickered on the horizon as the Olds pulled into the barn. Suze, still singing softly to herself, immediately noticed the white, late model Dodge van which had been backed inside. Her paying ride to the coast. “Good lookin’ van, Rob.”
“’74 Tradesman. Only 20k on it. Heavy duty shocks, new radial tires. Drive ‘er slow.”
“My ex had a van like this, ‘cept older.” That creep. Suze shook her head, then gave him the thumbs up sign. “I’ll be jus’ fine.”
Rob’s brother Billy came out from behind it, blonde hair mussed, clad only in jeans and tennis shoes. Damn. He’s all grown up. “Hiya Suze!” he exclaimed, his handsome face beaming.
She and Rob got out of his Olds as she replied “Hiya Billy.” He came up to hug her. Damn kid smells good. Uh oh. She grinned when he kept hugging.
He had always been in awe of her, and she had often gently teased him. But that was when he was a teenager. Though he was a couple years younger than her, he was 21 now.
He finally let go and she looked around. The old barn smelled of faintly of hay, and something else. Must be the pot, she suddenly realized, with a tingle of excitement. Billy watched her approvingly. “Hope your last gig kicked ass. Would have been there if I coulda.”
“Aw, I know. Yeah, pretty good swan song. I’m proud of my boys, they went out with a bang.” She glanced at Rob, who was looking out the barn door at the distant lightning.
If possible, Billy’s grin was even bigger. “So you’re gonna be our new safety driver. Great call! Our other gal up and vanished on us.”
“I can understand why. She probably had too much time to think about it.”
Rob, expressionless, ignored the talk and went around in back of the van. He examined the interior through the opened doors. He called out, “So this is it, all finished here?”
“Yep, cases are loaded ‘n’ strapped in tight. We could slam on the brakes if we have to, that old load ain’t shiftin’.” Rob carefully closed the rear doors tight, locked them and walked back with a satisfied look.
Suze pointed to the Olds. “Rob could you pop the trunk, I gotta get my suitcase so’s I can change and shower before we go. Also phone the airport, cancel my flight.” She had intended to use the 7-11 pay phone, but a rapid escape from Imants had come first in her priorities.
Rob nodded. “Sure, go in the side door to the kitchen and there’s a hall bathroom. Fresh towel hanging on the rack.”
Billy chuckled. “Kinda fresh, anyway.”
The brothers watched the voluptuous Suze saunter towards the farmhouse, suitcase in hand. They were silent a few moments. “She keeps getting hotter,” Billy finally said quietly, and shook his hand as if it was on fire.
Rob grimaced, “Do not get distracted on this run. We fuck this up… oh man. Our lives are on the line, and mom’s depending on us now.”
“Don’t lecture me, bro.”
Suddenly Rob grinned. “Oh yeah?” Suze looked over her shoulder at the sound of laughter and scuffling to see the brothers wrestling. She watched a moment. The sillies. Well, boys will be boys.
Billy occupied her thoughts, as she walked into the house. His voice got deeper in the last year. Always this cute, little puppy-dog following me around. Hmmmm. When did the puppy turn into this hunky dude?
The kitchen was clean but smelled just a bit moldy. If there was air conditioning, it wasn’t on. Suze picked up the yellow wall phone and called the airport, but they weren’t answering at this late hour. Oh well, money gone. No biggie.
Next, she called her sister, glad it was earlier out in L.A. Sally picked up, and they exchanged greetings and small talk. After a few minutes of chatting about her band’s last gig and her sister’s baby, Suze told her not to pick her up at LAX, and not to expect her for at least a week because she was driving to Los Angeles with friends. Sally went silent, and Suze continued “Mom okay?”
Sally sounded peevish. “Yes, just worried about you as usual. Why the sudden change in plans?” She could hear her mother’s voice in the background, questioning.
“Oh, well, these are some old friends of mine. Rob is the bass player in my band. Just seemed like a good opportunity to see that part of the country. You know…”
A sigh of resignation. “You be careful and call once in awhile, so we don’t worry. Love you.” Suze could hear her mom saying “love you” in the background. A fleeting moment of regret for changing her plans, but then she thought about the money. All that money. Dad didn’t leave mom a lot. I can help her, too.
“Love you both, too. See you soon.”
Imants had motored past the Carter farm and turned around, parked a quarter mile down the road. He had been watching the house with a pair of powerful binoculars that he had found in his father’s Gladstone Bag. Suze was dimly visible as she strode to the farmhouse, stopped, looked back towards the barn, then walked on.
Impatient, and with a sick feeling in his guts, he hastily exited the car and scaled an old barbed wire fence, managing to bloody his hand, and set off across the weed-grown fields towards the dim lights. Wait. Farm dogs? He almost turned around at the thought, but forced himself on. Protect me, Lord. I must do your work here.
In the barn Rob and Billy were dusting themselves off. Rob’s face became thoughtful, and he frowned.
“Now listen here, twerp. I’m serious, be cool. And don’t say a damn thing about extra stuff.”
Billy gave him a phony grin. “Suze? She’s your friend. Why the fucking paranoia?”
“It’s being cautious. Best she only know what she needs to know, right? Better for her, safer for us. This ain’t a damn game, we can get killed in this business and our boss is one hard core scary bastard. Got it?” Billy was silent. “I said, you got it!?”
“If you’re so worried, then why even bring Suze in on this?”
“I’m only worried if you lose focus. Someone’s gotta be the adult around here, twerp.” Rob playfully smacked the back of Billy’s head, and Billy grabbed his arm. They wrestled around a moment again as Imants snuck past in the darkness. He looked back from the deep shadows for a moment at the shiny white van and the figures next to it. Then he moved on.
Suze had peeked into the living room. Most of the furniture was gone, with just a couch and a TV console. The nearly empty house echoed with her footsteps. A bit spooky. She walked back, puzzled.
The bathroom wasn’t nearly as bad, clean and with a nice fluffy bath mat to stand on, and she showered in good spirits. The cool water was invigorating, refreshing, a trigger for Suze who wailed into the echo, “well, since my baby left me, ba-dump, I found a new place to dwell, ba-dump, it’s down at the end of lonely street, at Heartbreak Hotel. I’ll be, I’ll be, I’ll be leavin’, Texas, baby, I’ll be leavin’ Texas, so I don’t die.”
Revived with water and song, she pulled back the shower curtain and stepped carefully out of the claw foot tub, looking at her five-foot-nine body in the full length mirror on the door. As always, just a bit over-critical.
Her lips pursed impishly. Still need to lose ten pounds. But men don’t seem to mind. Their eyes were always on the blonde hair and the boobs. So silly. Handy onstage. I’m not gonna worry about the weight, she decided. Here’s who I am, world. Here I come, L.A. She turned and shook her butt playfully at the mirror.
Imants, still worried about possible farm dogs, slowly crept to the brilliantly lit window, shade down but not all the way, window frame raised open a couple inches. He cautiously peered in, and what he saw seared his brain. For an insane eternity he drank in the forbidden visual, then reeled backward, and stumbled clumsily over a garden hose. Lust. Oh God. Naked. Sinner, I am. Never dreamed… Sweet Lord. Did she hear me? Back to the car. Back. Hurry.
Suze, oblivious to the world outside the bathroom, critically examined the bathroom’s sole towel, which hung on a towel rack and was just a bit damp. Right, Billy must have used it. Rubbing his pheromones all over her. At least they are cute pheromones. Well.
She dried off briskly and put her hair in a bun, then pulled some clothing from the suitcase and dressed. The shorts were a bit provocative, the silk top a bit flimsy for not wearing a bra. Nipples still standing up from the cool water. Damn, the boys will think I’m a tease. But, so warm, must be 85 still. Screw it. Maybe a bit of lipstick…
Indeed, the boys liked what they saw, but choked back their natural reactions in the gravity of the occasion. She got her purse from the Olds as Rob took her suitcase and put it back in the car’s trunk. Suze held the purse wonderingly. My purse has… all that money in it. All that money.
Rob walked back to her, waved in the drug van’s direction. He spoke quietly and urgently.
“You have a full tank, fluids are topped off. I’ll be behind ya. Billy and I will be on the CB. Should be no problems. Billy will navigate. Stay just a couple miles above the limit. Cops think it’s suspicious when you’re doing double nickel exactly. But at least you don’t look like a mule, not at all.” Rob grinned. “Those are music cases, and you are headed for a gig.”
Suze nodded. “I can dig it.”
“Good. If you get sleepy, Billy takes the wheel. Prolly get a motel in a couple hours before dawn.” He paused, walked to the van, opened the front door. “Ever use a CB radio?”
She nodded again. “Yeah.”
“All right. Billy will use it mostly when you’re drivin’.”
She climbed in behind the wheel, then looked around curiously. The back of the windowless van was piled high to the roof with tightly strapped instrument and equipment cases. They looked a bit scuffed up and had various stenciled letters and numbers, giving a strongly plausible music band look. But they were packed with dope, she realized. She felt a sudden shock at the thought of what she was driving.
Billy, carrying a small backpack, had hopped in the passenger door, slammed it firmly, and gave her a huge grin. She observed that he had put on a sleeveless tee shirt that didn’t do much to hide his physique. Hmm.
She sniffed. “That talcum powder?”
He smiled in admiration at her question. “Hey, pretty good detecting. Yup. Powder eats up that ol’ pot smell.”
“Well, that’s mighty smart of ya’ll.” She eyed the load. “Jesus, Billy… How much is there?”
Billy shrugged. “Uhmmm… lots.” Rob’s right. Better not tell her. About a lot of stuff.
Rob was examining the van tires one last time. He approached her window, which was rolled down. He looked at her critically. “You ok?”
She nodded. He leaned in to kiss her cheek. Suze acknowledged his kiss with raised eyebrows, but smiled. He walked away towards the farmhouse mumbling, “All right, all right, off we go.”
Suze started the drug-filled van, put the automatic transmission into Drive and very slowly motored out and across the rutted farmyard to the gravel driveway. They van swayed, and the cases in back creaked and strained. She adjusted her seat a bit closer to the wheel.
Behind them the lights in the house, then the barn winked off.
“Here’s to an easy run to LA,” Billy said resonantly in the darkness. He chuckled. That deep voice. When did it get so deep? Kinda startling here in the dark. Sexy, actually.
Rob’s headlights appeared in her side mirror as the Olds caught up on the long gravel driveway. She took a deep breath. Then she felt a big smile come over her. “Onwards and upwards, Billy!”
The two vehicles reached the paved road, turned right. The tail lights dwindled into the distance, lightning yet again flashing at several points to the north.
Down the road, Imants, still recovering from the heady stolen sight of his beloved Suze nude, was further stunned to see her walk from the farm house with her suitcase, and then when the van and car moved out. Suspicious, so suspicious. He started his father’s modified Chevy up, his thin lips pressed together tightly, and began pursuit.
(To be continued in Chapter Four: Night Drive)
by Karene Horst
Single yet again for another Valentine’s Day, my thoughts turn as usual to chocolate. No one sends me flowers. Cards kill trees unnecessarily. Instead, I’m baking myself and my co-workers a sugary concoction of chocolate, melted caramel, cream cheese frosting and more chocolate.
Valentine’s Day used to mean more to me than overdosing on fattening carbs and cacao. Romance. Love. Happily ever after. One Valentine’s Day eight years ago my lover and I even planned to get married.
It would have been a hastily tossed together affair. A friend of Michael’s claimed an affinity for baking cakes. Michael waited tables at a restaurant, so of course we’d have the reception there. Another one of his co-workers, a lay minister for the local Seventh-Day Adventists, said he could marry us if we read his version of “the Book.”
My teenage daughter and her best friend, hopelessly hooked on “Say Yes to the Dress” and a stream of sappy romantic comedies, squealed in excitement as they volunteered to serve as my bridesmaids.
Michael and I went to the courthouse and applied for the license.
I searched through my closet for something appropriate to wear. Nothing white of course. But I could certainly find a frock that would suffice.
My best friend whom I asked to stand up for me watched warily as I breathlessly rushed through the preparations.
“Really. I thought you swore you would never marry again.”
“I love him.”
“Really.” Wisely she didn’t press me further. She knew I already had plenty on my plate.
She was the only person who knew why I was really marrying Michael, throwing together a celebration in a matter of weeks, declaring my intentions to my bewildered parents.
She was my only friend who really knew about Michael.
You see, Michael was an illegal immigrant. He had snuck into the United States from Mexico in the belly of an empty oil tanker with a slew of other illegals years before. His “sponsor” owned a Mexican restaurant where the waiters worked six days a week ten to twelve hours a day for tips and leftovers: no salary, no health insurance, no sick days or paid vacation, no worker’s compensation, no legal protection. When I met Michael he lived in an overcrowded apartment procured by the restaurant owner for his undocumented kitchen staff and servers. Michael slept on a mattress shoved into the corner of the kitchen floor.
I invited him to move in with me after his living situation deteriorated even further.
He was a gifted artist and musician who dreamed of fame and fortune in America. He taught me to play guitar and he laughed hysterically along with my son to reruns of “The Office.”
Then one night in November 2008 state liquor control officers arrested him for unwittingly serving alcohol to a minor with a fake ID. He called me from the police station.
“They are going to deport me,” he whispered.
The next morning I found an incompetent lawyer advertising himself as an “immigration attorney” to represent Michael. That frigid Friday night I met the lawyer in his BMW parked outside the county jail. I had brought warm clothes for Michael, knowing how easily he caught cold. I imagined the cement floors and concrete walls chilling my sweetheart, sending him into uncontrollable shivering fits. The lawyer had encouraged me to bring along thick wool socks, flannel pants and a cotton hoodie; apparently he had no idea I would not be allowed a visit with Michael that night, nor could I provide him anything other than a non-returnable paperback book.
The lawyer did confer with his client behind bars, after I paid him half of his $1,000 retainer fee, cash only. My breath hung in the air while my toes grew numb as I squirmed on the passenger seat, studying the concertina wire topping the concrete barriers surrounding the county jail. After his visit, the lawyer returned smiling, assuring me Michael was “in good spirits,” warm and snug in his jail-issued black and white striped jumpsuit. Then he spelled out our options.
No bond. Michael was an undocumented alien. He would sit in jail until the various legal entities sorted things out. Could be weeks, months.
Shock, panic and fear washed over me as I huddled in the front seat of the lawyer’s car.
The lawyer looked me over and asked if Michael and I were intimate. I found his interest insulting but possibly understandable as Michael was a gorgeous young man and at that moment, I’m sure I could have doubled as a crazed zombie: hair disheveled, eyes red and puffy, skin pasty and drawn, clothes grubby. Would I marry Michael to keep him from being deported from the country? Of course. We could pull it off. Interviews with federal immigration officials, photos of the happy couple. No problem. I loved him. I didn’t want to get married, but what was a piece of paper to keep the US government from ripping him away from me.
And that’s exactly how I felt. My chest ached every time I thought of the possibility I would never see Michael again, never hold him again. They had locked that sweet, loving man up inside a cage. Once deported, Michael would remain only a distant memory. I couldn’t leave the US to be with him other than a brief trip now and again; I had young children.
I couldn’t sleep. I stumbled through my days in a stupor, calling on Michael’s community of illegals who offered spare cash to help pay for the lawyer and nervously mumbled words of support. It could have been one of them.
The lawyer did predict correctly that the state would drop the misdemeanor charge of serving alcohol to a minor and instead turn Michael over to US Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE, or as Michael breathlessly fretted over for years, “La Migra.”
Long before his arrest, I’d return home on many occasions to find him cringing on the couch in a fetal position with the curtains drawn.
“Why aren’t you at work?”
“La Migra,” he’d mutter. A rumor traveling from cell phone to cell phone routinely sent the Hispanic community of kitchen help and day laborers into a frenzy. La Migra had just hit a local restaurant during the lunch rush. I grew accustomed to these episodes and Michael’s tortured reaction, swearing he would kill himself before they’d send him back.
I never took his concerns seriously and grew irritated by his seemingly irrational fears and anxieties. Millions of undocumented workers across America proved me right. I imagined the comical scene at area Mexican eateries with the help fleeing through the emergency exits while dumbfounded white people waited for their enchiladas con carne as they slurped their margaritas.
Then it happened. Like a giant fist socking me right in the gut.
After being treated like a criminal myself by the sheriff’s deputy, I finally got to see Michael during the weekly visitation hour at the county jail. I couldn’t stop crying. We talked via telephone separated by a plexiglass partition. We couldn’t even touch. He joked that his black and white striped outfit made him look like Michael Keaton’s character in Beetlejuice. After a steady diet of Hollywood’s frightening depictions of prison life, Michael had expected violence from his fellow inmates. Instead, he bunked with other illegals and non-violent inmates, sharing their histories and boredom while lunching on bologna sandwiches. I left behind a paperback of Eric Clapton’s autobiography for him to read and “donate” to the jail library.
Then the US government snatched him up in its legal maw and shipped him to a federal “holding facility” two hours away. Michael was officially on his way out of the country.
Several weeks later, he ended up in yet another federal jail near Kansas City for his court appearances. We managed a few very expensive conversations via telephone.
The lawyer started demanding more money. Then something amazing happened. The lawyer “discovered” a federal program for non-violent deportees where Michael could bond out for $500. I just had to drive to the ICE offices in Kansas City and deliver the bond payment, sign some papers, and I could bundle Michael out of jail and take him home while the legal proceedings sputtered along. I had to bring a money order. The lawyer provided me all the instructions. But he got them wrong.
I arrived at the federal building, passed through the metal detector, signed in and proffered the money order to the unsmiling, uniformed federal agent. He shook his head.
“We only take US Postal Service money orders. This one is from your bank. We can’t accept it.”
I became hysterical, crying and weeping, something you should never do in a government office with armed, uniformed government agents milling about.
But I did just what the lawyer told me to do! My boyfriend had spent almost a month in jail and he would continue to rot away there because of some insane bureaucratic distinction between a private bank’s money order and one from the local post office? I blubbered and wailed as the federal agent advised me to leave the premises immediately. A female security guard took pity on me and told me to take care as I limped away.
The bank closest to the federal office would not cash my money order so I could purchase the prerequisite money order at the local post office. The local post office would not accept my check or credit card to purchase another money order, only $500 in cash. The lawyer would not answer my frantic phone calls.
I drove home without my Michael.
Furious beyond rational words with the irrational legal system that had glommed onto my Michael, I spent the next day calling every number available on the internet to track down someone who could help. Then I received an amazing telephone call out of the blue.
A female attorney employed by a legal aid organization had visited Michael in federal detention and signed him up for a program that released non-violent deportees on their own recognizance as long as they met regularly with an official in Kansas City and stayed out of further legal trouble, a sort of pre-conviction parole arrangement, while their case slithered through the legal system. Appears the numbers of illegal aliens and deportation cases had swamped the judicial system, and the feds couldn’t afford to lock everyone up while they waited for due process and the inevitable trek home. The pro-bono lawyer thought Michael’s case might take a year or more to resolve.
I drove back to Kansas City the next day to another office and met Michael and his new “parole” officer. Chained and shackled hand and foot to four other dark-haired, brown-skinned men, Michael shuffled into the room. Once they unlocked the restraints and allowed Michael to approach me, we wrapped our arms around each other and cried.
Later on the drive home together, Michael hesitantly broached the subject. “So, are you ready to get married?”
Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2009, would fall on a Saturday. What perfect timing! No one, not even my distraught mother tried to talk me out of it. Of course none of my family or friends except for my bestie knew the real reason for my rush down the aisle. Michael’s friends and co-workers all thought he’d won the lottery; who knew when La Migra would hammer down over their heads.
Then a small glitch. The lay-minister who offered to perform our ceremony woke up one morning unable to get out of bed, paralyzed from the waist down from what turned out to be a cancerous tumor. We could have just gone with a justice of the peace, but for some strange reason, my latent religious sentiments called for a preacher. I made phone call after phone call until my mind exploded and forced me to hang up on the whole idea.
When God strikes down your minister weeks before the wedding, maybe that’s a sign. And besides, I really didn’t want to get married.
I wanted to help Michael stay in the country and not face deportation, but a sinking suspicion curdled my blood. Then I started making some more phone calls. To more lawyers.
Once upon a time, American citizens could marry undocumented aliens to keep them in the country. Some people did it for love, others for money. Even for me, a vociferous critic of the peculiar institution of marriage, wedding Michael to keep him safe was a no-brainer. If someone I treasured needed a kidney, certainly I would consider going under the knife. Donate blood or bone marrow. In that context, marriage with a man I cared so much about seemed relatively painless. Just a piece of paper.
We’d fired the idiot lawyer and tracked down one who gave us an honest and accurate legal opinion but bad news: my marrying Michael would not prevent his deportation.
Thanks to September 11 and other anti-immigration bias across the country, the laws had changed. I could go ahead and marry Michael. Then after the US legally kicked him back to Mexico, we could request permission for him to return, apply for visas, etc. It could take years. Possibly ten years even. Mounds of forms to fill out, documents to provide. More lawyers fees. Hours driving to court appearances, hearings, appeals. Meeting with more federal agents who would invariably ask personal, probing questions. Michael’s prior illegal entry into the US and his deportation would not help matters. The new lawyer suggested I might have to prove that I could not leave the US to be with Michael in Mexico. He suggested arguing that my mental health would deteriorate unless Michael could return to me.
“Have you ever taken anti-depressants? Considered suicide?”
The nightmarish experience that started with Michael’s phone call from jail came crashing down around me.
We left the lawyer’s office with me shaking my head.
“I’m sorry Michael. I can’t. I can’t do it.”
How far will we go to sacrifice our needs, our hopes and dreams for someone else. Take that leap into the chasm of human relations. To trust another for better or worse. Risk it all on love, or at least the illusion of it.
Isn’t that one version of Valentine’s Day? Unconditional, everlasting? Unbare ourselves, our emotions, our hearts to the arrows of another? It’s not just about a bouquet of pretty roses or a gushingly sentimental note on a crimson piece of cardstock.
One Valentine’s Day the hopeless romantic in me almost prevailed. But the rational, sane me regained control. From here on I’ll celebrate this special day with frosted fudge brownies still warm from the oven.
by Karene Horst
by Sylvia Hamilton
The Santa Ana’s can be horrible on the ridgelines; witheringly dry, hurricane strength and they notch the fire danger up to extremely high, putting everyone on edge. They were exceptionally strong this morning.
I called a girlfriend. We made plans to spend the day together. Hopefully the winds would die down by evening. I hopped into my little truck, and started driving down the mountain.
About a mile down the road I came around a bend and there, in the wide spot in the road in front of Greg’s place, were about ten cars stopped. I slowed, then pulled over. In the middle of the street was a huge brown bird; it was about five or six feet tall; almost as big as an ostrich. People were standing in a gaggle, staring.
I walked up to the flock of onlookers. A woman in spandex workout clothes was saying, “What the hell is that thing? It’s taller than I am.” She was yelling over the wind. When the Santa Ana’s howl it’s loud, sounds like waves crashing on rocks.
Turning toward her, I responded, “It’s an emu.” She looked at me with a blank expression. I barely concealed my disdain. We locals didn’t warm up to newcomers quickly and Yuppies were a new breed in the Gulch. We had been a strictly hippie-hillbilly crowd for decades.
This woman was alien to me. The purple leotard and pink leg warmers, headband and tights, well, the whole ensemble was too color coordinated, too Olivia Newton-John, for my tastes. Why spend time on an elaborate hairdo and makeup to go work out? She obviously had no consideration for the hole in the ozone layer, since she must’ve used at least half a bottle of AquaNet on that hair; it stood up, like a rooster’s comb, not a hair blown out of place. My hair, on the other hand, was whipping around, practically standing on end from the electricity in the static Santa Ana air.
I explained, trying not to sound condescending, “An emu is a large flightless bird from Australia.” I hesitated, wondering; Is it Australia? Or New Zealand?
A man in a linen suit, T-shirt, no socks, said, “Should we try to catch it?” I scanned the group, this crowd did not look like it had a lot of the emu rustling types. Since I was in a walking cast, I was not about to try catching it. I contemplated the bird; said, “I know that Ostriches have a reputation of packing a wallop with their kicks. I bet this bird could kick too.” With a grin I added, “I have some rope in the back of my truck if you want to try lassoing it.”
He shrugged, “Not my job.”
Miami Vice got back into his BMW, sat there with the window rolled down, watching the bird.
Greg ambled out from his house nearby. He was handsome, a surfer, slim, tall and tanned with dusky blond hair and a mischievous smile, we had a flirtation. He greeted me, “Hey, Shelby. How’s it going? Boy, the wind is howling today isn’t it?”
“Tell me about it!” I said, “You know that huge eucalyptus tree in my yard? It was bending over in the wind. The top was almost brushing the ground. I started to worry my place might disintegrate like the neighbors’ place did a few years back.”
“You know the Hildens? Their house blew down a few years ago in a wind storm like this. It was like the three little pigs.”
Greg gaped, “Wow! Was anyone hurt?”
“No,” I laughed, “Larry was in the middle of building their house for the second time after it burned down. First it fell down in the rains, then he had gotten three walls and the roof up. Left the wall facing north for last. Wind caught it just right. The house was smashed to smithereens. Nothing salvageable, just a huge pile like matchsticks in the morning.” I giggled as I continued, “He got it built, but if you look at it closely, it’s out of plumb.”
Greg snickered. Looking over my shoulder, he spied the bird in the street, “What is that?”
I turned, “I think it’s one of Jim Sunflower’s emus.”
Greg looked at me quizzically. “Emu?” His extraordinary good looks almost made up for the fact that he was not the sharpest tool in the shed.
“Emus are those large, flightless birds from Australia, or maybe it’s New Zealand.” I held my hair back to keep it from lashing my face. “I’d drive out and tell Jim his emu is here, but I have just enough gas to get down the hill; too bad your car’s in the shop.” I’d seen his VW surfer van parked with other cars to be worked on at the service station at the bottom of the hill the night before.
I turned towards my funky truck, “Well, this has been exciting. But I’m gonna keep going. I’m hanging out with my friend Debbie today and I really need a strong cup of coffee. I slept fitfully; the winds, you know. Like most of us, they set me on edge. Good to see you.” I gave him a peck on the cheek. “Oops, sorry for the electric zap. I hate these Santa Ana winds.”
“We just have a powerful connection.” Greg flashed his devilish grin at me, gave me a quick hug.
I hopped into my car, put it in gear. With a flirtatious wave, I drove off.
After leaving the Emu scene, I gassed up, then stopped at the Espress-Oh!. The lot was full, as usual. Luckily, my parking karma kicked in, a woman who lived near me, Elizabeth James, was just pulling out of a spot near the front.
Our local coffee shop sold lattes and cappuccinos long before there was a Starbucks on every corner. The Espress-Oh! was always busy, especially in the mornings. I parked and went inside. As I stood in line to order my latte, bleary from the lack of sleep, I overheard Jane, the serving woman, say to the uniformed man standing at the counter a couple of people ahead of me, “We don’t like Dog Catchers in these parts.” Sleep deprivation must’ve made me unobservant.
I perked up as the ramifications of what I’d overheard sank into my fuzzy brain. “Dog Catcher? That’s Animal Control, right? ”
The Officer paying for his coffee straightened up, turned, nodded smartly. After glancing around, his expression turned guarded. I was the only person in the room to voluntarily strike up a conversation. As I followed his gaze around the room, I realized that the rest of the coffee shop patrons were either staring at him malevolently or studiously avoiding eye contact.
Dogcatchers were seldom welcome in the Gulch. At best, laws were for lowlanders, not us. Licensing canines was considered by most of us as an unnecessary trouble and expense and we believed that those unlicensed dogs had a god-given right to run free. Therefore, Animal Control officers were threatened, even shot at, for trying to ticket owners of wayward dogs. By statute, the Gulch had to be patrolled at least once a year. Coincidentally, today was that day. The rest of the year, Dogcatchers only came when called.
I exclaimed, “What luck! We need Animal Control up the hill. There’s an emu running loose. You have any experience wrangling?”
The officer looked at me skeptically, “An emu?”
I nodded emphatically. “Yes sir, an emu. You know, the large flightless bird from Australia, or maybe it’s from New Zealand. Anyhow, you may need to call for backup. It could take two or more to catch it, and it’s too big to fit in the cubbies on the typical Dogcatcher truck.”
Luckily, I knew they had trailers. We’d had to bail our horse out of critter jail several times until we had introduced ourselves to the homeowner of the only lawn within five miles of our corral, now he called us instead of the Pound when our horse got a craving and busted loose.
I’m pretty sure the Dogcatcher thought I was trying to divert him from ticketing the Gulch’s dogs, which was just an added bonus. I gestured up the hill, continued, “It was causing a traffic jam. It might get hit by a car or injured by some yahoo trying to catch it, or someone without training in animal capture could get hurt trying to catch it. Do you wanna follow me? Let me just get a latte and I’ll meet you in the parking lot,” The Dog Catcher stood by the door for the few moments it took for me to doctor my coffee. My story did sound a little far-fetched, probably he thought I was flirting with him.
After I had stirred and taken a few swigs of my coffee, I cocked my head towards the parking lot, the Animal Control Officer walked out with me. “Since when do you pay three dollars for a cup of coffee?” he asked.
“After your first sip you’ll be hooked.” I responded. “The Espress-Oh! has the best coffee in L.A.”
He sipped tentatively. His eyebrows rose, “That is pretty good.”
“Told you. There’s a reason they have a line out the door. Now about that emu…” I stopped dead in my tracks. “How did I drive right past your truck? I’m parked right here.” I opened my door and got in, rolled down the window. “Are you ready to go? It’s about four miles up the hill, although I gotta warn you, it’ll feel more like ten.”
He was looking hesitant. Perhaps he thought I was luring him into the boondocks, for who knows what. Just then, about five cars pulled into the parking lot. They’d seen the Official truck. The drivers piled out and all rushed the Dogcatcher, jabbering like a bunch of geese.
The Olivia Newton John wannabe exclaimed, “Officer, officer, there’s a huge bird loose up Fernwood.”
The Dogcatcher looked back at me. I shrugged, smiled, “I’ve been trying to tell you! It’s an EMU, a large flightless bird from Australia, or maybe New Zealand. If you’ll just follow me, I’ll show you.”
The officer said, “Okay, okay. Lead the way.”
He got in his truck, started it, revved the engine a couple of times. I started my engine, motored back to where I’d last seen the emu. The errant bird had not wandered. It was pecking at the ground on the side of the road by Greg’s fence. There was still a crowd of onlookers standing at a safe distance.
Elizabeth James, garbed in her typical tie-dyed shirt, peasant skirt swirling around her in the wind, brown hair in a long loose braid, exclaimed in her theatrical voice as she rushed over. “Thank God you brought Animal Control Shelby. We had no idea what to do with this thing. It must be terrified by all this commotion.”
I eyed the bird. The emu did not appear to notice or care about the attention it was garnering. It was pecking at a clump of grass, then moved a few steps, investigated a bush. It was acting as if we humans weren’t even there. In my judgement, Elizabeth was being her usual theatrical self.
I walked over to the Animal Control truck. The officer was sitting behind the wheel looking in stunned silence at the spectacle in front of him.
I said, “I still think you might need assistance.”
The Dogcatcher scrutinized the emu, picked up his radio. “Headquarters, Officer Wiggins here with a sit rep.”
The response squawked over the airways. “Go ahead, Wiggins.”
He keyed the mike again, ” I have a loose…” He hesitated, looked over at me.
“It’s an emu,” I said.
“A loose emu, sir,” Officer Wiggins said into the mike.
There was a noticeable hesitation, then, “A what?”
Officer Wiggins eyed me, “A large flightless bird from Australia, sir.”
I mouthed, “Maybe New Zealand.”
“It’s a very large bird sir, about seven feet tall, maybe two hundred pounds. I’m going to need a trailer.”
There was a lengthy pause then a response: “10-4. State your position.”
He looked at me in query. I responded, “You’re at the intersection of Medley Lane and Fernwood Road in the Gulch.”
“I’m at the intersection of Melody Lane and Firwood Road in the Gulch.”
“Uh, Officer? It’s MeDley and FERNwood.” I corrected.
“Correction, it’s Melly and Forward.”
“MEDley! FERNwood!” I wanted to believe the loud winds made it hard for him to hear.
“Stand by headquarters,” Wiggins looked at me; pulled a notepad out of his shirt pocket, handed it over. “Write down the streets please.” I complied, writing all in capital letters so it was legible. After correcting his location, he got the reply that backup was on the way. He cradled the microphone.
The dogcatcher was still sitting in the cab of his truck, staring at the bird in disbelief. I said, “You know that your backup is at least an hour out, right?”
Officer Wiggins seemed to come to, nodded officiously. “I’ll just secure the creature. Then I’ll wait for the truck to transport it.”
He walked to the back of his truck, opened a door, pulled out a stick with a noose on the end. Officer Wiggins adjusted his regulation tool belt, straightened his uniform tie, tucked in his immaculately pressed shirt, then sauntered over to the bird. He slipped the noose over the emu’s head and snapped it tight. The bird started and balked at the sudden restriction. Officer Wiggins dug his regulation uniform rubber heels in but still got dragged down the street by the frightened emu. Suddenly, the bird stopped and kicked, nailing Officer Wiggins square in the nuts. The Officer doubled over, clutching his genitals, his eyes bulging. The emu moved just out of range for capture then stopped, watching the Dogcatcher warily.
I rushed over to the stricken man, “Oh my God! Are you okay? You look kinda green.”
The Animal Control Officer gasped, “I’m fine. Just need to catch my breath.” He hobbled over to a nearby guardrail, leaned gingerly against it.
The emu, with no one holding onto him, and no one chasing him returned to meandering to the next particularly interesting clump of vegetation, the Dogcatcher’s stick bumping alongside.
Just then, a white stretch limo covered in hand painted flower power designs came careening down the hill, brakes squealing as it jerked to a stop then flipped a u-turn. Jim Sunflower got out of the driver’s seat, dressed in his customary bell bottoms and a fringed leather vest. “There you are.” He held out a small bucket to the bird. The emu went over, started pecking at the food in the bucket. Jim patted the bird, loosened the Dogcatcher’s noose, slid it gently over the animal’s head, dropped the stick on the ground. The bird barely stopped eating. Then Jim put his own rope on the bird.
Greg, on a dirt bike, pulled up alongside, put the kickstand down and dismounted. Jim handed Greg the rope and bucket, “Stay right there. Hand these to me in a minute.” He opened the nearest back door of the limo, moved around to the other side of the limousine, opened the other door. He then went back to Greg, took the bucket and rope, crawled through the limousine, leaving the bucket, closed the far passenger door, then he tugged gently on the rope through the open window. The emu stretched his head into the limo, ate some more, then stepped in and settled down. Jim closed the door the emu had entered, got into the drivers seat and drove off, the emu’s head, between mouthfuls, periodically sticking out the moon roof.
Officer Wiggins watched the whole interaction from his perch on the guardrail, gasping like a fish out of water, still slightly off color. He waved weakly to get Jim’s attention. But Jim just barreled off in a dust cloud leaving behind a whiff of patchouli and marijuana.
The onlookers scattered once the bird had been taken away.
Greg walked over to me standing beside the stricken dogcatcher; a questioning expression on his face, “You came back.”
“Animal Control is patrolling the Gulch today.” I responded. “I figured a dogcatcher was the most logical person to deal with the bird. Unfortunately the officer took quite a kick to the groin,” I said.
“Good thing I didn’t know about that kicking thing before I held that rope.” Greg said.
I laughed, “Don’t make me cackle,” turning back to Officer Wiggins, I said, “Could Greg could get you something,” I pointed towards his driveway. “He lives right there. Maybe some ice would help.”
Officer Wiggins waved off the proffered assistance, “I’ll be okay, ” he croaked. Shaking his head as if to clear cobwebs, he unsteadily straightened up, then fell back onto the guardrail. “Where did they go? That owner should be fined for allowing a dangerous animal to run free.”
Greg, barely concealing a grin, replied to the officer’s statement, “Oh, Jim’s got a place about three miles as the crow flies, that way,” He gestured in the general direction of the nearest ridge-line.
The officer looked at me, I nodded, “It’s more like five miles by dirt road. And it’s pretty hard to find.” Greg nodded vehemently in agreement.
“Here, let us help you.” Greg said. We each took an arm, assisting the Animal Control officer to his feet.
Officer Wiggins limped back to his truck, leaned against the tail gate. I refrained from drawing attention to the distinct large bird footprint on the crotch of his uniform pants. Surely the man was embarrassed already.
After another few minutes, Officer Wiggins hobbled to the cab of the truck, reached in for the radio mike. “Headquarters, Wiggins here.”
The radio squawked, “Go ahead, Wiggins.”
“The owner showed up, claimed the bird. Tell the backup unit to turn back.”
I went and picked up the dogcatcher’s noose from where Jim had dropped it, took it to the truck.
“10-4.” Came the radio response.
I turned to Greg. “I didn’t know you had a motorcycle.”
Greg nodded, “It’s not street legal. Besides, you wouldn’t ride it.” He gestured at my cast, the result of a recent motorcycle accident. He was right.
“Well, that was a good call, getting Jim,” I said.
“When I got to Sunflower Temple, Jim was running around trying to fix pens with baling wire and rope. Seems they all blew apart to some degree last night in the winds. He hadn’t even noticed that he’d lost an emu in the confusion. Of course, he has two others.” He grinned that sexy smile, “There were deer, llamas, sheep, goats tied up all over, basically anything large enough had an animal attached to it. The kids were scrambling to round up peacocks, ducks and chickens. It was quite a sight.”
Officer Wiggins was leaning against the driver’s seat, door open, staring into space. He finally reached for his cup of coffee, took a sip. Grimaced, it must’ve been cold by now. He kept drinking.
I wandered back over. “Are you feeling any better?”
He looked at me in a daze, “I’ll have to file a report.” He got the notepad out of his breast pocket, clicked his pen.
“What kind of bird was that again?”
By Sylvia Hamilton
I was twelve the summer Mother decided to buy a cow. I overheard her and my stepfather, Earl, discussing the purchase one evening. He grumbled about the expense, but since I knew he thought all pets were worthless, I interpreted these statements as more of the same from him.
We always had a menagerie at our mountaintop home, most of them I knew Earl considered a waste of space, time and money. His opinion was seldom taken into account. Mother’s was the final word.
I loved animals. I kept a small collection of Continue reading
By Dr. Rocket with Ms. Gonzo
*Last time, as you recall, a beautiful young singer was unexpectedly offered a great deal of money to drive a van filled with pot from Texas to L.A.*
Suze slowly realized just how tightly she clutched the cash-stuffed envelope as she stared out the front window of Rob’s big Delta 88. She fought the urge to count the bills.
Come on, even if it’s not exactly seven thousand five, it’s more money than you ever had in your life. Plus another payment like it in L.A.!
“Whooo,” she sighed, the sound masked by the engine. Put the stuff away, now, let’s show some dignity.
She tucked the precious mass into her big purse and refocused on her now-former bassist and new boss, who hunched silently behind the wheel, his grim expression dimly visible by the glow of the dashboard. This is a switch, gonna be takin’ orders from ol’ Robbie. Gotta get used to that, I guess.
“Well, what’s next, chief?” She put just enough of a funny inflection in her voice to make Rob’s lips twist upwards a bit.
“Out to the farmhouse to get us the van, and Billy. We are pretty much ready, or should be, if my bro’s on it. He wanted to make the gig, but I told him he hadda finish packing the load.” Rob fell silent a moment, thinking about the music.
“By the way…”
“You really sang great tonight.”
“Thanks.” I’m gonna miss the compliments, ain’t I.
“What a night. I didn’t think we could do better than that first set. Was I wrong. After the break we tore the roof off.”
“It’s called warming up.” She stopped. Remember, he’s the boss now. Gotta not forget.
“Maybe if you put a band together out in California…” he mumbled, and ground to a halt. How cute, he cares. She was hit by a sudden thought.
“Coffee!” Suze exclaimed. “If we’re drivin’ tonight, I gotta have coffee.”
Rob nodded and pulled into a brightly-lit 7-11. She realized where they were, and opened her mouth to stop him, but it was too late. She looked around the parking lot anxiously. Well maybe he’s not here, that last time was enough, Lord.
One of the main reasons Suze was determined to give up her band and leave Garland was an exceptionally strange and obnoxious former schoolmate named Imants Haselberger. He was obsessed with her, as well as what he called “fighting crime.”
In recent months he often hung out at this very convenience store at night, writing down the license plates of late evening patrons he thought were suspicious. What he did with the plate numbers, no one knew. Suze had run into him here a few weeks back, and it had been an awkward mess.
She’d known him from seventh grade on, and he had been emotionally fixated on her for most of that period. She dreaded seeing him at any time, but under the current circumstances it would be unbearable.
Because on top of everything else, Imants’ father was a high-ranking FBI man.
Imants was earnest but strange-looking, with very thin lips, a narrow face, ears that stuck out and bulging eyes, an appearance not unlike that of the pulp horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. Due to his father’s rigid upbringing, he was aggressively ultra-conservative politically, and a religious zealot.
Suze had done everything possible to discourage Imants’ constant efforts to be around her, but somehow he often found and cornered her. His persistent ability to pop up in her life at random was uncanny.
As she poured her coffee at the self-service bar, a familiar sinking feeling came over Suze as Imants strode in and hurried down an aisle towards the rear of the store. How the hell does he always find me? She paid, hoping to get out before he noticed her, but Imants unerringly approached. She took a deep breath and tossed her blonde hair. One last time, she would try to be polite.
“Imants, what a surprise.”
He blinked at her, still in her low-cut stage dress from the gig. She knew he thought her music was the Devil’s work, and her provocative clothing an outrage. “Suze, I’m so glad to see you,” he finally blurted. “Your phone was shut off and when I went by your apartment they said you had moved.”
Suze, her smile perilously close to a grimace at the thought of Imants questioning her former landlord, spread her hands out palms up. This was going to require outright prevarication, she realized. “Yes, stayin’ with friends until my new place is ready.”
The young Asian clerk handed her the change with a wide grin for his buxom blonde customer. The clerk’s eyes flicked over to Imants, dismissed him, and snapped back to Suze. “Thank you, please come again,” he said, nodding vigorously.
Imants, averting his eyes in ongoing embarrassment from her stimulating décolletage, struggled to speak. “Friends. Ah, I see. May, uh, I have your friend’s number? I want to discuss the church picnic next Saturday. You haven’t been to church since your father died and I am worried…”
Suze hastily interrupted. “Imants, please understand. My personal spiritual beliefs are really none of your business. I believe God loves me whether I go to that church or not.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, but your father…”
“My father is none of your business, either, bless his soul. I won’t… I don’t want to talk about him.”
Imants was numbed by this assertion. Suze had changed. Why? Maybe the shock of her father dying last year had triggered some madness. If Suze doesn’t go to church, she’ll be condemned to hell for all of eternity. I won’t let that happen. I owe it to her father. I do.
“Can we talk about this later? How do I reach you?”
“I, I don’t have the number with me. Maybe I’ll give you a call, been real busy. Hey, gotta go, see ya!” She walked rapidly out into the warm Texas night, trying to remember the last time she had called Imants. Five years, back when she felt sorry for him?
A couple of teenaged boys standing outside gawked at her as she walked quickly towards Rob’s Olds, grateful Imants hadn’t thrust some damn book at her. He was always trying to get Suze to read various tracts and texts including, memorably, a book by J. Edgar Hoover. Suze, who loved books, glanced at a few pages, cursed, and threw away the dog-eared paperback in disgust. “Masters of Deception,” bah. What she knew of the FBI, just from the recent news reports, horrified her.
Undeterred, Imants quickly followed her out the door and right up to Rob’s Olds. He stammered questions about where her friend lived and where she was going at the moment. Suze waved him off, miffed at his annoying creepiness, and hastily but firmly said “Goodnight, goodnight, see you soon,” opened the door to a blast of music, hopped in the front seat, and firmly closed it.
Imants’ bulging eyes stared at Suze, then over to Rob through the window for a moment. A wave of sadness mixed with anger overcame him, and he frowned at Rob, who was listening to a James Brown tune on the radio.
Rob noticed him, as he turned to face Suze. Frowning in turn, Rob stared back at the figure standing outside. Imants turned away, and his groan of despair was lost in the funky bass, blaring horns and thumping drums on Rob’s’ stereo.
Suze settled into her seat and exhaled sharply, shaking her head. Rob grunted, turning the music down. “Who the fuck was that? He looks familiar.”
She glanced over at him. No way I can explain Imants, and if I mention the FBI dad, Rob will bust a gut. Anyway, I’ll never see Imants again! That was an amazing thought, and she beamed, feeling liberated. “A final ghost of my old life.”
‘Yessir.” Her voice shifted down a half octave. “Let’s blow this town, baby. Crank that music back up!”
Rob did so, his attempts to figure out the bass pattern forgotten, just in time for James Brown to yell “Hit me!” Rob nodded at her exuberant dance movement to the music, while seated. Somehow, he noticed, she managed to not spill the coffee in her hand as they motored out of the lot. “Poppa don’t take no mess,” sang The Godfather of Soul, and Suze sang along cheerily.
He slowly smiled. This might be the best run ever.
Imants watched from the brightly lit and buggy store entrance as the Olds drove off, his pale face now expressionless, brain racing. Carter, that guy was, Rob Carter. Played evil music in the group Suze sang in. Imants searched his memory. From the high school, right, Carter’s class was two years older. Dad in jail for tax evasion.
That long hair was a clue, some kind of hippie. Devil spawn driving away with Suze, his love.
A passenger jet roared overhead, and Imants shivered. Hate planes, hate flying. One of the teenagers at the edge of the 7-11 lot laughed loudly at something being said, then yelled “Hey Eee-monz, ain’tcha gonna write down that plate number?”
He stared blankly at the kid, and felt something shift in his soul.
Heart beating faster, he walked quickly back to his father’s new ’75 Chevy Monte Carlo sedan. Driving the car, specially modified by the Bureau, always made him feel larger than life.
As he got in he reached over and put his hand on his father’s classic dark leather Gladstone Bag on the passenger seat, and felt a strange surge of confidence. The bag, which had belonged originally to his father’s German father, somehow always gave him a mild jolt when he came in contact with it. He clenched his fist. I gotta do this, gotta save her.
He cranked the starter, shoved the automatic transmission into drive, and raced out of the lot, burning rubber down the road after the Oldsmobile. The teens stared in astonished silence.
Imants steered with one hand as he wiped the sweat from his forehead, still accelerating, his eyes searching the darkness ahead. There, those tail lights way up there. He jammed the gas pedal to the floor.
Enough was enough. Time to figure out exactly what that freak Rob Carter was up to with his, well yes, his future wife Suze Benson.
(To be continued in Chapter Three: The Drug Van)