| STORY |
By Peter Basson
The Montréal Review, March 2011
Officer Gary Harding shouted up the stairs at his son: "If you're not down here in two minutes, I swear, Bobby, I'll walk right out the door without you."
He crimped his lips, turned and looked back through the blinds at the rear of the house. A storm was on its way and he wanted to get to the beach while it was still decent. He saw Greta, the curtain-twitcher next door, staring at him from her back yard. He yanked the blinds wide open- plantation shutters, Sheila called them-and glared at the old bag. She turned away and scuttled back inside her house.
"If you're not down here in sixty seconds," he said. He glanced at his watch, the day frittering away. He'd worked graveyard to make time for a day out with Bobby, then he'd been called into the sergeant's office before he'd checked out only to be told he'd lost his cushy traffic detail and was being moved back to beat. This because of his "bad attitude". He'd be working with rooks, new-hires, answering calls from old geezers complaining about kids riding bikes on their lawns. He was dead tired, shot full of caffeine, and now he'd arrived at the house, Bobby wasn't even ready.
He wandered around the room, picking up various object, trying to remember their meaning. He'd let Sheila have everything when he'd moved out, but now he wondered if he shouldn't have bargained harder, not allowed her take advantage of his guilt. The Bose stereo, for instance, should be his. He imagined cranking it to maximum, blasting it at Sheila while she complained about his rudeness with the neighbors. He picked up a delicate blue and white Mayan vase he'd bought her on their honeymoon in Cancún and weighed it in his hand. He'd once told Sheila it'd be the first thing he'd save in a fire, but now it felt as if its only purpose was to remind him of what he'd thrown away. Then he saw a newly framed photograph of Sheila and Bobby and some smooth operator wearing khaki shorts and boat shoes who had his arms around both of them. He threw the vase at the wall, where it exploded with a pop. Bobby came rushing downstairs dressed in a gray PAL sweatshirt, his blond hair mussed, his cheeks flushed.
"What was that?" he said. "What happened?"
"An accident," Gary said. "I dropped a vase."
Bobby looked at the wall, where a clear impact mark was visible.
"How did it get over there?"
"Don't worry about it, it doesn't matter. It was an accident. Here, look, I've got something for you." He handed Bobby two baseball cards with pictures of cops on them. "Recognize those guys? That's sergeant Bellow and my old partner, Dick Maher. You probably only need a couple more for the set."
Bobby stared at the cards, then looked at Gary. "I need to get my shoes," he said.
Gary walked into the kitchen and grabbed a soda from the fridge. He drank half then flipped the can into the garbage. He thought about the last card he'd intended to give Bobby-officer Gary Harding, number fourteen in a set of twenty. The spots they'd used at the shoot had shone right through his bald patch. His smile looked mute and phony, and he looked a good 30lbs over the odds. The flip side gave his "stats", putting the gloss to his stunted law enforcement career, listing organizations he no longer belonged to, hobbies he'd long since given up. He felt the storm clouds rising around him. He flipped open his cell and called Sheila.
"Yeah, it's me, Gary. I'm at the house. Listen, I hate to drop this, Sheila but I can't take Bobby. You need to get over here ASAP. No, I cannot explain, just drop what you're doing and get here. Yes, I know I'm an asshole."
He cut the connection and opened the fridge again. This time he took two beers. He drank one straight down then went back to Bobby.
"Ready for action, son?"
Bobby looked at his feet. "We're going to the beach, right?"
"The Mustang's outside."
His cell rang as they walked out to the car-Sheila. He powered it off and put it in the glove compartment. Let her worry for a change.
Ten years of marriage had collapsed in a few seconds when he told her he'd fallen in love with another woman. Sheila had surprised him, though, the way she took it. She didn't raise her voice, just deadpanned, as if she didn't much care one way or another. He'd prepared himself for hysterics, even begging, so her eerie calm left him flustered and without a script .
"Who is she?" she'd asked.
"Nobody. Nobody you know."
"She's younger than me and what else?"
"Sheila, please, this isn't trivial. We're in love."
"You loved me once, remember that? And what about Bobby?" She nailed him with the accusation. "What about your son ?"
"I want to do what's right by him," he'd said. "I'm still Bobby's father. Leaving doesn't change that."
She stared right through him. "Pack your bags, Gary, and I'll see you in court."
He drove to the beach with the Mustang's top down, despite the late November chill, hoping the wind would carry off some of his heat. He opened the second beer, drank a bitter mouthful, then tossed the can out the car. Bobby sat with his eyes fixed ahead, watching the road twist its way over the dry yellow hills.
Twenty minutes later they were at a T-junction on the coastal road. Gary sat with his fingers clipped to the wheel, lost in his melancholy. Two lines of cars approached from the north and south. A blue minivan pulled up behind him. The minivan flashed its lights and Gary responded with a slowly raised finger. The gap between the approaching traffic narrowed. At the last minute he gunned the Mustang, skidding south, car horns bellowing behind him. "There's life in the old dog yet," He said. "They don't make cars like this anymore." He looked at Bobby. "You all right, son, you want an ice cream?"
Bobby shook his head, then looked sideways out of the car.
The clouds thickened, obscuring the sun, and Gary imagined the wet winter evenings ahead: an endless strings of micro-waved dinners, watching TV with an itchy finger on the remote, collapsing into a soiled bed. He hadn't told Sheila that Patricia had already thrown him out. Her cozy apartment, so sweet for assignations, had proven to be much smaller than either of them had imagined . Six months and he was out on his ass. He'd wanted to talk to Sheila about a reunion, but knew she'd turn him down flat, so he'd moved into a studio apartment instead, a place where he heard screams, laughter, and slamming doors late at night .
Today would help, he thought, a day out with his son. He tried to will himself from his funk. With luck, they'd have the beach to themselves; it would clear his head. But when he looked up he saw blue and red flashing lights, a cop car pulling him over.
"So what's up, officer?" he said as the cop approached.
"I could ask you the same thing," the cop said. "You were all over the place. Have you been drinking, sir?" The cop was tall and tan with cropped blond hair.
"Officer Gary Harding," Gary said, holding out a hand. "Work over in Oakwood." He handed the cop his ID. "In the city."
"So what's gong on, officer Harding? I saw you pulling out at the T."
"A day out with my boy. I guess I was in a hurry. Thought we'd try to hit the beach before the rain comes." He smiled, began to relax. "Too fast, eh?"
"So you haven't been drinking?"
"Mind if I get out of the car?" Gary said. "Stretch my legs."
"Sure," the blond cop said. "Just take it easy."
"You probably don't see much action over here. Nice little community. Nice and quiet. Must be sweet, all the respect without any of the problems."
"We have our moments."
"Sure you do. Hey, I've got my organizer in the trunk, I should write your number down for future reference. You never know." He moved toward the rear of the car.
"I don't think that's necessary," said the cop. "Just get back in the car."
"You're the boss," Gary said, holding up his hands. "It's your parish. So what's that you're wearing, a .45? The city supplies us with Berettas but my off-duty gun is a Glock 27. I love the way it feels. Low maintenance, accurate, and dependable."
"Look," the cop said. "You seem like a nice guy. Maybe you've had a couple of pops, but you seem lucid, so I'm gonna cut you a break. My suggestion is you drive right back to Oakwood and get some rest. Don't make me regret this, okay?"
"You know what, bro', you can put a damn breathalyzer on me anytime. Seriously, go right ahead, have me walk a line, whatever you want."
" Just go home," The cop said. He returned to his cruiser and spoke into his radio, keeping his eyes locked on Gary. Gary nodded, got back into his car, then pulled back onto the highway and continued south toward the beach.
"Just a cop doing his job," he told Bobby. "No problems."
A few minutes later he turned west onto an uneven gravel road. Dilapidated ranch houses were surrounded by fields of rotting pumpkins. Gary nursed the Mustang up to a cliff-side parking lot above the beach. A hard salty breeze met him when he got out. He went to the trunk and grabbed his badge, and, at the last second, his Glock. He loved that gun; it fit like a glove, an extension of his hand and pure muscle memory. He just could not get that from any other weapon. He held it in front of him and scanned. He should have gone to the range first, ripped off a few clips, burned some aggression before he came to pick up Bobby.
"Here, son, come here and feel the weight of this." He lined Bobby up and pressed the gun into his hand. "That's it, hold it out in front of you, nice and steady."
The gun jumped and a bullet shot off harmlessly into the air. Bobby started to shake. "Shit!" Gary said. He'd left the fucking safety off. That was really sloppy; he'd have to watch himself. "Don't worry, son," he said. "No harm done. I'll have to get you to the range when we get back. Teach you how to shoot straight so you can look after your mom now that she's on her own."
"Guns in the house are dangerous."
"Who told you that?"
"Jeff? Who the hell is Jeff?"
Bobby looked down at the ground. "He's mom's boyfriend."
"I'm sorry, son. I know I shouldn't swear in front of you, but this Jeff guy doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about. Probably some do-gooder."
A V-shaped chute, gouged into the sandstone by winter rain, zigzagged down to the beach a hundred feet below. Bobby ran toward it and disappeared, despite Gary's protestations to take it easy. After carefully picking his own way down the chute, he found Bobby waiting for him on the sand. The sky was flat, opaque and low. Relentless waves flopped over the wet sand and hissed up the slope to his feet. In the middle distance a fishing boat hung for a moment, then disappeared.
"I'll race you to the tide-pools." Gary said. "Let's see how fast you are."
This was an old routine, Gary sprinting in front of Bobby until at the last moment when he'd let Bobby pass him by. "On your mark, get set-." He pushed off, tried to get a jump on his son, but the spear of pain through his groin was immediate and electric and pulled him up fast. "Hold up," he croaked, but Bobby wasn't falling for any of Gary's old tricks; he'd already shot ahead, headed straight for the rocky promontory where they'd planned to look for starfish. Gary limped after him, pain lancing up his thigh into his gut. He'd really fucking done it now. This was serious, he might be completely out of action, just what he didn't need with his job already in jeopardy.
Bobby had stopped at the base of the rocks and was looking down at something slumped on the beach, what looked from Gary's distance like a dead body.
"Don't touch it," Gary called, trying to ignore the flare in his groin.
A dead sea lion had been washed-up by the tide. Flies had already started to gather around it, bopping about the corpse as if on strings. The pinniped looked more like a sandbag than an animal. Scuffed orange fur covered its bloated body, while a yellow X had been spray-painted onto its side, as if in warning. But then it blinked. So it wasn't dead yet, Gary thought, but it wouldn't be long.
"It's still alive." Bobby shouted. "It's not dead."
"It's trying to get to that water." A teenage girl appeared above them on the rocks. Thick-hipped, dressed in low-cut jeans and a white T-shirt, she seemed oblivious to the cold wind. Her red hair flew about. She smiled and Gary scooped his own thin hair across his pate with his fingers. His paunch pressed urgently at the Glock tucked inside his waistband. The pain in his groin felt molten, venereal. "Hey there," he said. "What's cooking, sweetie?"
"I watched it earlier," she said, climbing down. "It's trying to get over there." She pointed at a tide-pool twenty feet away. The cool wind wrapped her coppery hair across her face and for a moment Gary imagined grabbing her, yanking her head back and kissing the soft white skin under her neck. The thought sickened him, his attraction to it.
"Maybe I can help?" said Bobby. "I'm going to get some water." Bobby collected a handful of seawater from the tide-pool and ferried it back to the sea lion. But his hands were comically inadequate, and what little water remained in them was whipped away by the wind as he threw it. He walked back to the pool, stooped down, then called Gary over. "Hey, dad, come look at this little blue fish."
Gary watched an electric blue fish darting back and forth in the pool as if bewildered by its newly limited surroundings.
"It'll be all right once the tide comes back in," he said.
"So what are you two doing out here, anyway?" the girl asked.
"Admiring the view," said Gary. "It's a pretty good one, too."
"Gosh," she said. "I probably shouldn't even be talking to you."
"Don't worry," he said. "I'm a cop."
The sea lion lifted itself up, forced itself forward onto its flippers and managed a lunge, flopping back down onto the sand with a phlegmy snort.
"It's moving towards the water," Bobby shouted. "It wants to live."
Gary looked at the sea-lion, then at the shallow pool. "Yeah," he sighed. "I guess it's still got a little life left in it yet."
"If it gets there, it'll be okay. Right, dad?"
Gary doubted the pool would offer anything more than a temporary reprieve, but he figured the animal might survive long enough for them to declare some kind of victory, and this seemed important. "You know what, son, I think you're right."
"Yay!" Bobby said. "I knew it."
"Careful, though," Gary said. "The yellow X probably means it's diseased."
"Come on you stupid old thing," Bobby said, "Don't give up."
Gary shifted his weight and grimaced. He saw the fishing boat again, further out now, still blinking in and out of view. "No school today, then?" he said to the girl.
"School? I'm eigh teen. I'm so done with that crap."
The sea lion rose up again, dragged itself a couple feet closer to the pool before collapsing once more. Crusty yellow mucus had caked at the corners of its mouth and eyes. Its breath sounded like a leaky bike pump. Gary felt a prickle of rain on the wind, he wondered if the storm would catch them on the beach. Then he heard a seagull cry. He looked out for the fishing boat but it'd disappeared into the swirling gray horizon.
"What about a boyfriend?" he said. "I expect you've got one of those."
"Oh, god, don't get me started on boys. I could write a book."
"Oh, yeah. And what would that book be called?"
She regarded him for a moment. "You ask a lot of questions, don't you?"
"I'm a cop," he said. "I get paid to ask questions."
"So you're the one stranger it's safe to talk to?"
"I wouldn't necessarily say that," he said, hoping his voice sounded friendly. "Depends if you're a good guy or a bad guy."
"And what about you," she said. " Are you a good guy ?"
He felt an incredible heat building in his head, a heat that made him dizzy. He felt himself short of breath, sweat broke out on his brow.
"Are you okay?" the girl asked. "You look really pale."
"I'm just a little-" And he felt it sloshing around in his stomach like bad food: a mixture of regret, longing and self-loathing. "I've hurt myself," he said. "But I'll hang in there." He tried a smile. "What else am I gonna do?"
She tilted her head and regarded him. "A cop. That's interesting."
Gary thought of some typical beat incidents: two kids smoking a joint, a keyed car, a broken window. "It definitely has its moments." He gathered himself, took a breath, felt his dizziness retreat. "It's mostly routine but once in a while-"
The sea lion rose up, scooted, then fell down, flopping down inches from the pool. Bobby sank to his knees, his jeans wicking up water. "Harder," he said. "Don't give up."
Amazingly, the creature seemed to respond to Bobby's harangue: it pushed itself up, lunged, and hit the water with a splash, its pointy head dunking into the pool.
"Good job," The girl said. She held her hands upraised and whooped, then climbed up onto the rocks and did a little victory dance. "Woo-hoo!" she shouted. Bobby beamed and just for a moment Gary's own spirits lifted. He even fancied the clouds might part, the sun gild the scene in glorious late-afternoon sunlight.
But the sea lion had fallen into a trap. Its muzzle was underwater, but it was too weak to raise its head to breathe. The three of them watched in silent horror as bubbles frothed around its mouth and it began to drown.
"Oh-my-god," said the girl. "This is horrible." She began to cry. "I don't believe it. This is the worst thing ever. Can't we do something? Can you do something?"
A lather of bubbles collected at the sea lion's snout.
"I'm not touching it," Gary said. "It's got who knows what diseases."
"Daddy, do something."
The girl turned on him. "You're going to watch it suffer and die in agony ?"
"What do you expect me to do, sweetheart? It's a tough life."
"Daddy! Please do something."
"You're a goddamn cop," she said "You're supposed to help." Tears streaked down her face. "What kind of cop watches an animal suffer?"
He looked at her then shook his head at Bobby, but he felt the same accusation in Bobby's eyes-you're a cop and you did nothing. He looked at the dying animal, in its death throes now, then he pulled out his Glock, released the safety, and fired twice into its head.
The girl screamed, while Bobby looked at him ashen-faced. The girl tried to climb down from the rocks, perhaps better to regale him, but she slipped and fell, her head hitting the jagged rocks with a resounding crack. For a moment Gary thought she might be dead, but when he checked he could hear her raspy breathing. She began to moan. Blood oozed into her red hair. Gary checked his pockets, remembered he'd left his cell in the car. He considered his options, decided his best bet was to carry her back to the top.
"Run ahead," he told Bobby. "Here, take my keys. The cell's in the glove box. Call 911 and get an ambulance here ASAP, tell them it's an emergency."
He breathed open-mouthed with his burden, every step sending a spear of pain up his leg. The girl's blood was all over him, his clothes covered. Yet as he staggered up the gravel chute, the pain in his groin like a brand, he felt renewed by a quest. He was a cop and he was doing what cops do. The idea warmed him, he felt a flicker of hope in his heart for the first time in months. Maybe he would talk to Sheila, make promises, try to get his life back in order? Maybe this day, as crazy and fucked up as it had been, was the first step toward something more hopeful?
When he got to the top, Sheila and Jeff from the framed photograph were sitting with Bobby inside a cop car. The blond cop who'd pulled him over, and two others, were waiting . When they saw Gary, they drew their weapons.
"She's hurt," Gary said. "She slipped and fell on the rocks. Call a paramedic."
"Drop the girl, put your hands on your head, and get down on your knees."
It grew suddenly dark, as if someone were turning down the light with a dimmer. "She needs help now," Gary said. "She'll bleed to death."
"Put your hands on your head," said the blond cop. "You know the drill."
"Call a fucking ambulance."
"Drop the girl, put your hands on top of your head and get on you knees."
Gary put the girl down then held out his bloody hands. "You've got it all wrong," he said. "All of you."
"One more time, put your goddamn hands on your head."
The first plump drops of rain splattered against his face-it felt like winter had arrived. He put his hands on his head, but despite the rain, despite the pain, despite the blood on his hands, he felt a curious exhilaration then, as if something had torn through his endless black moods and illuminated a way out. He tipped his head to the dark sky, then fell forward onto his stomach. And when he felt the cop's boot in his back, cold steel at his temple, and the handcuffs rattling behind him, he felt better than he had in years.
Peter Basson work has appeared Verdad Magazine, The Houston Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, El Ojo del Lago, Evening Street, Epiphany, and The Wisconsin Review.