The Arizona Department of Public Safety oversees through its Highway Patrol lots of roads.  Then there’s the desert that —  lots of it, too.  Everything is in expanse.  Sage and cactus, as though it were growing bright and green in an odorlessly baked-on brown and jagged landscape.  A kind of silent screeching emanates from the ground that appears to tighten and harden everyday around 2:30 in the afternoon.  Then there’s the sun and its dark watery reflection of sunlight on the black tarmac of any paved road that stretches like licorice through a lumpy plain of calichi, broken rock, the occasional mesquite and orchards of sahuaro.  And a certain breed of patrol officer evolves: the stand-out kind that stretches and melts like licorice, too.  But that’s during the day. 
       At night the highway is not that much traveled, which is not to say that the roads are deserted; it’s only that at night there’s lots not to see, and so not many to try.  The expanse subsides.   The world gets smaller, that is, less recognizable.  A DPS officer on patrol at night experiences a cooler and fragrant desert, supposedly subdued and made friendly by the dark. 
       I recently rode along in the desert night with one of the DPS patrol officers.  Her name is Bitlieux “Betty” Wendt, a six-year veteran in her job and, as I learned, someone who not only patrols Arizona’s roads, but also someone who doesn’t take kindly to weirdness in the dark.  She drives herd, as she likes to say, for the DPS.  Now, I confess that I’m hard of hearing and she may have said drive hard, but what she meant, I‘m pretty sure, was that she patrols a part of the Arizona highways in her squad car, keeping the roads and their wayfarers safe from the hazards of all kinds of “dislikes and unexpectedness.”  She never spoke to me of dangers or threats, just weirdness.  I suspect she was giving me notice that any time I spent with her while she was on duty would be time completely dedicated to her duty.  Any weirdness on my part would be dealt with in a swift and appropriate manner.  In a word, she was business.  In two words: her business.
       When I met Betty, we immediately bonded.  It was like family, realizing simultaneously and instantly that, for an entire night’s worth of driving, we’d have to bond or else.  Betty always drove at night – liked to – had to – didn’t ever say why.  One particular night a few months ago, I was to be her civilian companion.  “Fresh meat,” she smiled.  Then wagging her head in the way a wrestler stretches a neck, added – no scolded – that there was going to be “nothing weird.”  Her warning sounded almost like a question: “Afeared?”  Sounded as though she was talking to family.
       Her beat, if that’s what it’s called, she called her girl. She, of course, pronounced it growl or corral with some kind of Western twang that didn’t sound real enough.  I thought as siblings do: “What’s with that?”  But I knew what she meant, so it was okay.  Other spots around the State were the boys to her – sounded kind of like buzz, though.   And she was singing these explanations.  I rolled my eyes, naturally – being that we had bonded like brother and sister, and looked around for someone like Mom or Dad to make her stop.  But like a member of the family, I was quickly getting used to Betty and knew that this singing was something she liked to do to help her through some of the tedium in the night and through some of the thoughts that were more than just ordinary ideas.  She told me she had lots of nights like this one and knew how to handle any ideas I might have – not that I had any ideas about my sister for the night (that would have been really weird).  So I nodded in the affirmative and we were off. 
       I was with her for a ride-along, which is as Betty would say, “that service patrols offer civilians bent on prying loose a glimpse of the public safety life.”  Although I had thought she said wife, I knew I was mistaken.  She was becoming more and more like a sister to me.
       Be that as it may, her stretch of highway included a strip along the Colorado River where Lake Havasu City grew up more than forty years ago and “acquired for itself,” Betty was proud to say in a way of pointing with her jaw when we drove by, “that Bridge.” 
     My sibling rivalry had just about fully kicked in when she started to sing about her routine encounters with weirdness:  “It occurs like a full moon , coming ‘bout lune after lune, never quite the same chances, and always under the strangest circum – stances.”         
She hyphenated that last word, singing the entire refrain to a tune I wasn’t sure about.  But it didn’t matter; we were Sibs by then.  That she wasn’t making any sense to me or that the tune sounded as if it came from a bad Clint Eastwood western was by this time perfectly understandable.  She’d got my attention and I listened all the more carefully for all kinds of sounds for the next 263 miles, which was as far as I rode that night.
At one point Betty stopped at the Bridge and asked me whether I’d like to hear a Bridge story; a 1066, she called it – something about lacking the proper receptacle.  “An old English law,” she laughed, then told me that she’d studied law before embarking on a career in law enforcement.  I nodded at everything she said and did.
Well, as the Bridge story goes, it seems she once came upon a gentleman in distress.   I know by now that you’re probably thinking she said this dress, but it only sounded that way.  He was running along the 95 northbound just outside Havasu and upon seeing her approach started flailing his arms in a panic to attract her.  Betty immediately flashed her lights and put her spot on him, which acted to jerk him into a kind of nervous statue.
       “Boy, he was frozen like a deer in those lights,” she said, clutching fast and stiffly the steering wheel while looking wide-eyed to mimic the man’s expression.  “His arms still in the air.  He could of  been a sahuaro cactus, spindly and straight up frozen.  As soon as I got to him he started stammering about meeting some bird on the London Bridge while he was sitting on his motorcycle having a smoke.  This bird had snuck up on him – had a beard or a beer or something that stuck out – and tells this sahuaro guy with the motorcycle that ‘zounds and sounds are different.’  Just says that right out.  Didn’t introduce himself or really say it to the biker. Then says ‘wounds and wounds are different, too’.  I asked the sahuaro guy if he’d like to put his arms down.  He says that other fellow took a pee right by his bike.  Spooked him so much he just ran. Well, the bike was right where he’d parked it on the Bridge. Had a puddle next to it. It weren‘t beer either.  So I cited ‘m.”
I puzzled over that, wanting to ask why she didn’t believe the sahuaro man and thinking for a moment that our little ride-along family was forming a rift of unexpectedness when it came to our true beliefs.  Betty must have anticipated me.  Looking straight ahead, but rolling her eyes in my direction and grinning, she started singing these words to “Clementine”:  “I’m not the judgment or begrudgement; I can only enforce the law; when I heard things that are weird things, I just write down what I saw.”
She didn’t heal the rift, but had delighted me with her rhyme.  About a hundred miles later occurred a true parting of our ways and the only reason I’m even mentioning Betty. 
Betty had earlier in the night received a call to be on the lookout for a white Toyota Corolla carrying several passengers.  The driver of this car was seen on the side of the road near Parker putting people in the vehicle’s trunk.   About twelve miles north of Havasu, Betty spotted a car answering the description and pulled it over.  As reported, the car was packed with people – 7 counting the driver.  Two were women.  They were in the front, the passenger holding a boy of about two on her lap.  Four more children of varying ages and alternating sexes were seated in the back.  But for the driver, no one was wearing seatbelts.  It all looked quite bad.  Betty asked the two women to get out of the car and to open the trunk, where sure enough two more children lay in make-shift bedding.  One was a boy of about 15 and a young girl who looked to be ten.  They both were asleep when the trunk was opened – had appeared dead until Betty shook them out of their slumber.  Betty was incensed, pulled her gun and instructed the two women to spread eagle across the hood of the car.  I stood dumbfounded, frozen I suppose like the sahuaro man of Betty’s Bridge story.  
       But Betty was in a multi-tasking mode of action.  She paced up and down at the rear of the car shouting to the women the rights they had being that they were under arrest.  Betty also instructed the two children in the trunk to climb out and find room for themselves in the car, which they did.   All seven kids were now crammed in the car and scared, some of them crying, some yelling and pushing at each other; all of them were wriggling for more room.  The two women were shouting something, but in Spanish.  As I said, I’m hard of hearing, so it was difficult to know to whom they were speaking, let alone what they were saying. 
Then Betty turned to me, turned her gun to me as I saw it, and insisted I too move into action and keep the kids quiet and calm while she call for backup.  My first reaction naturally was to duck, removing myself from the path of any bullets that might in the company of Betty’s instructions come flying out of that gun.  My next reaction was to begin laughing. 
There I was crouched over beside the squad car where I had just a little while ago frozen like Betty’s sahuaro man and was laughing, which for me meant I was bleating like a goat. That’s when I think Betty really did point the gun at me and demanded to know what the hell I was doing.  I couldn’t catch my breath. Everyone was staring – the children, the women, and Betty.  One of the women I believe muttered what sounded like “my goat” or “muy loco” – I’m not sure which.  The other woman nodded in agreement.  The kids just kept staring, first at me then at Betty.  I couldn’t explain, I was laughing too hard.  All I could manage between the bleating and gasping of air was the statement that “we had nine, too.”
I had calmed down by the time Betty and her backup team had gotten the children settled into the van that had arrived to transport them back to town.  The two women had already been cuffed and crammed into the back seat of Betty’s squad car.  Betty had asked one of her fellow officers to drive me back to headquarters; she didn’t think I should ride along with her while she processed her two prisoners.  “Besides,” I overheard her say, “the guy’s loopy.”  I know I heard that right.
And I knew then that Betty and I were no longer Sibs; the bonds of family had broken or, more accurately, had never existed.  She wasn’t going to be singing for me any time soon.  No more stories or reprimands about weirdness.  No more company on long tedious nights of driving.  My ride-along was over, and good riddens to bad rubbish as far as she must have been concerned. 
It took longer than I thought to get back to the station.  The officer driving me stopped for one of his own 1066s, then for a cup of coffee at a Jack’s along the highway.  Back at the station I was dropped off in the dimly lit lot across the street where ride-alongs were asked to park.
“Be careful driving home,” the officer said in a parting shot. 
I cracked a smile and nodded, having taken up that practice with him, too, then turned to walk to my car.  Before I took a step, I was suddenly frozen by a bright spot pointed right into my eyes.  It was Betty and, feeling now truly like her sahuaro man, I raised my hands.
“Put ‘em down!” she snapped, lowering her light.  “What’d you mean there were nine . . . and laughing that way like a complete loony?”       
       I lowered my hands, put them into my pockets and looked down at my feet.  It was a kind of aw-shucks moment and I started to laugh again, but seriously, no bleating this time.   Then I looked at Betty, who was not laughing, seriously or otherwise. 
“Oh, well . . . that family had nine people in that car.  I just thought it funny.  Nine people in a car.  I used to ride along that way with my family when I was growing up.  It reminded me of our car carrying nine people and all the ways we’d squeeze into it.”
I would have told her more, would have wrestled her to the ground to make her listen to the way it was for me when I was one of nine in a car, would have made her stop because she was pointing that light right in my eyes whenever she felt like it.  But I didn’t have the gun – or the flashlight.  I just stood there.
But, man, I wanted to tell her . . . would have told her that in the summer 1960 my mother sold our home in Oregon, and moved the whole family to Phoenix.  The move took us two days because we stopped overnight somewhere in Nevada.  We passed through Las Vegas and crossed over the Hoover Dam on into Arizona and went down to Wickenburg, not too far from Havasu.  We saw lots of magnificent sights along the way and were probably a bit of a wondrous sight ourselves – my mother and her eight kids, ages 1 to 10 years (just like a prison sentence) in a 1958 Plymouth Savoy.  The car was white with a green top, only you couldn’t much see the top for the rack and the government-surplus canvas-covered bundle packed onto it.  That rack was full and bulging.  The trunk was full, too, tied shut with ropes that doubled as surety against that rack falling off.  The car was crammed with as much as my mother could squeeze into it.  We were moving our whole lives.  If we’d had a mattress slung over the hood of the engine, we may have looked a little like the Joads in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  We probably should have had a mattress and strapped a couple of us to it so as to give us more room in the car.  But we didn’t.  This was before there were seatbelts, factory installed, that is. 
So sometimes three of us sat up front with Mom, five of us in back.  Sometimes there were only two of us up front, five on the bench in back with my younger sister or one of us alternating for a spot in the window behind the back seat.  It was hot, too, even with the window-mounted swamp cooler that looked more like an oversized soup can hanging onto the passenger-side door.  So the windows were usually down and whoever had a window seat got to put an arm or a head or both out – got to have a little more room that way.
       I would have told Betty all this – shouted it – had she not dropped that light from my eyes and begun bouncing it like a ball on the ground beside me.  She also began tapping the side of her holster and gradually transformed what looked a lot like lip biting into an unmistakably coy grin as though we were Sibs again, which was by that time making me a little nervous.

       At last she clicked the flashlight off and tucked it into its sleeve on her belt. “You’re a nut,” she muttered – sounded kind of like butt.

       “What?” I gulped.
Betty had turned and was walking away. 
       I became defensive, annoyed.  It was as though she had heard the whole story and had decided not to believe, at least not to believe me. “Where’s your sense of humor?” I shouted. “Your mother ever put you in the trunk?”
She stopped.  “Yeah.  I was eleven.”  I couldn’t see her face – imagined it was taut with righteousness.  “I wanted to know what would happen when the trunk was closed; wanted to see the light go out.  Only, when I was in there the lock stuck and Mom couldn’t get it opened.  She drove me to a gas station where the guy broke open the lock with a crowbar.  He was laughing the same as you.  A real butt just like you.” This she managed in one breath, then giggled and turned to face me again. 

       “I was so scared I wet myself.  Luckily, I was wearing a dress and not too much of it showed.  We had to leave the trunk open for the rest of the day to let things air out, and had to tie it shut until Mom finally got around to getting the lock fixed.  Yeah, I been in the trunk.  It was only slightly funny.”
She was once more shining her flashlight in my face.  Out of reflex or embarrassment, I raised my hand to shield my eyes.  I thought of the family Betty arrested.  I thought of Betty and me, our ride together, our moms.  I tried to recall whether either of the two in the trunk tonight had wet their pants – wondered did anyone check.  And, as if to remind Betty in the way remembrance can console, I shrugged.  I conceded that she was one up on me:

       “I never got to ride in the trunk.”


One Response to “Story 001 – Trunk Travails”

  1. Margaret Says:

    I love this story, the way it goes back and forth in time and relationship. I’m also jealous: we had nine and no car, so I never even got to ride on the seats.
    Looking forward to the rest of this saga; thanks for giving me Betty.

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