Monday, February 5, 2018

Texas Hot Flash, by Michael Bracken

Sunshine McCall--Sunshine Petunia McCall--stared hard at 40, at the crow’s feet collecting in the corners of her weary blue eyes, at the strawberry blonde hair that was now more Clairol than natural, and at the dewlap that had begun to soften the once-firm line of her jaw. Forty looked exactly like 39, but felt a decade older.

She grabbed two tampons from the box under the sink and stuffed them in her pocket. Then she strapped on her holster, checked her weapon, and headed outside to her year-old Maxima.

The drive across town barely outlasted a Tuesday two-fer from Tommy James and the Shondells on her favorite oldies station, and McCall pulled into the employee parking lot just as the local weather report began. She listened to predictions of triple digit heat by mid-afternoon before climbing out of her car and walking inside.

She found a sign taped to her locker, a bad photocopy of her photograph from thirteen years earlier when she’d joined the force fresh from the police academy. Someone with a shaky hand had written “Lordy, Lordy, look who’s 40!” above the photograph. The sign looked like the work of the civilian receptionist, a blue-haired woman who had worked at the station since Heck was a pup. McCall tore the paper down, wadded it into a ball, and threw it toward the trashcan.

She missed.

After she clocked in and picked up the keys to her cruiser, McCall spent a moment chewing the fat with the patrol sergeant, a crew-cut Vietnam vet who had killed more men in the line of duty than he had killed during his brief tour in country.

“Any special plans for tonight?” he asked.

“I’m going to slap a T-bone on the grill, microwave a potato, and wash everything down with a six-pack of Lone Star,” McCall said.

“Beats the hell out of my fortieth,” the patrol sergeant said. “My old lady took me out for Mexican food. Over sopapillas, she said she was leaving me for my son’s third grade teacher. I haven’t looked at Mex food the same since.”

“Women,” McCall said. “Go figure.”

The patrol sergeant’s laugh let her know that he appreciated the sentiment, so she joined him.

Later, alone in her patrol car tagging motorists with her radar gun as they crested the hill near Wal-Mart, McCall glanced at her reflection in the rearview mirror and pondered her need to denigrate other women when surrounded by police officers. She cut her thoughts short when a minivan crested the hill at seventeen miles over the posted speed limit. McCall pulled onto the road behind it and flipped on her lights.

Half a block later, in front of Lowe’s on the other side of the Franklin Avenue intersection, the driver pulled her vehicle to the shoulder. After McCall keyed the license plate into her computer and discovered the plate number was clean, she stepped out of her cruiser. As she approached the minivan, the driver’s door opened and a pudgy brunette swung her leg out.
Stay in the car, ma’am!” McCall instructed.

The driver hesitated, and then drew her leg back inside and pulled the door closed. She was rolling her window down when McCall reached the door.

“I’m sorry,” the driver said. “I didn’t realize--”

McCall cut her off. “License,” she said. “Proof of insurance.”

“Sure. Yes. I have those,” the woman said as she dug through a suitcase-sized purse. McCall watched the woman closely, her hand on the butt of her sidearm, prepared to draw if anything unexpected came out of the purse.

In the back seat, a baby of indeterminate gender began to fuss, sounding as if it was working itself up for a serious wail. The driver stopped fishing through her purse and handed a wad of things through the open window.

McCall took the woman’s driver’s license and proof of insurance, carried them to the cruiser, and keyed the information into her computer. The driver had no wants or warrants, so McCall wrote a ticket and carried it back to the driver. By then the backseat baby was at full volume and the woman was anxiously shaking a stuffed rabbit in its face.

“Sign here,” McCall said over the baby’s screams.

The woman turned, hastily scribbled her name at the bottom of the ticket, and took her copy from McCall’s hand a moment later.

McCall returned to her cruiser, drove to a small diner where she knew the restrooms were kept clean, and called in to say she would be out of pocket for a few minutes. Inside the restroom, a one-seater with a secure door, McCall stripped off her holster and used the facilities. Then she changed her tampon. Her flow had started the day before, six days later than usual, and she would have worried about pregnancy if there had been a man in her life. Instead, she attributed her increasingly erratic cycle to the same source as the midnight sweats and the mid-afternoon hot flashes.

As she pulled from the diner’s parking lot, McCall spotted a faculty parking sticker on the rear window of the Lexus in front of her and wondered what subject the driver taught at the local university.

Her brother Moonbeam Able McCall--M. Able McCall on his academic papers, Dr. McCall to his students, and Abe to his friends--taught medieval literature at a liberal arts college in Wisconsin. They hadn’t spoken since their parents’ funeral following their death in an automobile accident. Their parents had been returning from a WTO protest in Seattle when an intoxicated high school student T-boned their Volkswagen Vanagon at a poorly lit intersection.

After the funeral, after everyone had returned home and she was left with her brother in the only building that remained at the commune where they had been raised, he called her a “sell-out.”

They had stood toe-to-toe while he accused her of perpetuating the growing police state, of violating the civil liberties of the innocent and underprivileged, and of betraying their parents’ ideals. After the first two minutes, McCall imagined seven different ways she could put her brother facedown on the floor without breaking a sweat. Then she smiled and walked to her room, packed her suitcase, and carried it to the rental car. Moonbeam followed her like a yapping Chihuahua until she opened the car door and turned to face him.

“Bite my ass,” she told her brother before climbing into the car and driving away.

The first time she’d left the commune--a patch of land on the northern California coast halfway between Mendocino and Ft. Bragg--McCall had been squeezed in the backseat of Ford Pinto, unaware of its flammability. A long, circuitous route took her from the commune, through the coffee shops of San Francisco, to performing as the lead singer in a Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead cover band that toured the U.S. for a year before collapsing under its own pretentiousness following a Saturday evening gig at a Holiday Inn just north of San Antonio.

She bounced from job to job until a one-night-stand’s off-hand comment about her conservative opinions led her to the police academy.

Since then, she’d spent more than her share of time in redneck bars where overly familiar men called her “Sunny” and invited her to ride their moustaches. Sunny? She’d never been Sunny, not even as a round-faced hippie child attending the small-town school where the commune sent its children in their peasant dresses and hemp sandals.

That life had been long ago and far away, a time when her parents’ generation believed they could change the world by wearing blue jeans and love beads. Except for a few holdouts, those same people were now worried about Social Security and Medicare Part B. Instead of protesting against the pigs, they were demanding better police protection from departments straining under the weight of increased need and decreased budgets.

Sweat rolled from McCall’s armpits and stained the elastic of her bra. Her hair clung to her forehead and she pushed it away before reaching for the controls on the cruiser’s air conditioning. She pushed the fan to its highest setting. The air conditioning in the car hadn’t been designed to combat central Texas’s triple digit summer heat, and the fan did little more than shift tepid air from one part of the cruiser to another.

An hour after leaving the diner, McCall responded to a domestic dispute and was the first officer on the scene. She pulled her cruiser to the curb and stepped out. As she pushed the door closed, a large man burst from the house. He had shoulder-length hair, glassy eyes, and a fat roll that obscured his belt. He stood on the porch waving an automatic nearly engulfed by his meaty fist.

McCall pulled her sidearm and dropped behind her cruiser. She rested her forearms on the fender as she drew down on the man. The metal seared her bare forearm but she didn’t flinch.

“Put the gun down!” she commanded. “Put the God-damned gun down!”

The man stared at her as if he didn’t understand what she was telling him.

A woman with a baby on her hip stepped onto the porch behind him. McCall no longer had a clean shot.

“Put the gun down, Harry,” the woman implored. Her voice sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard.

A second police cruiser slid to a halt behind McCall’s and the patrol sergeant slipped from it.

“Put the gun down!” McCall shouted again.

Harry raised his hand and the sergeant shot him in the forearm. When he dropped the gun and collapsed on the porch, his wife ran to him.

“Nice shot,” McCall told the sergeant.

He glared at her. “I missed. I was aiming at his chest.”

McCall radioed for an ambulance as the sergeant approached the wounded man, kicked away the automatic, and suffered the verbal abuse of the man’s wife.

After the ambulance had taken the fat man away and the scene had been secured, McCall returned to the station to prepare an incident report.

The bluehaired civilian receptionist gave her a chocolate cupcake with a single burning candle and sang “Happy Birthday” in a warbly voice.

McCall thanked her, blew out the candle without making a wish, ate the cupcake, and sat at her desk until she completed the paperwork required following any officer-involved shooting. She never mentioned the sergeant’s comment that he’d missed.

After she completed the paperwork, she stepped into the institutional gray women’s restroom, changed her tampon, and returned to the streets.

Nothing much happened the next few hours and McCall returned home after the end of her shift, slapped an inch-thick steak on the grill, and sat on the back porch killing her first Lone Star while the steak sizzled. She could hear children playing in the next yard, heavy metal music from down the street, and dogs barking somewhere in the distance. What she couldn’t hear were her own thoughts.

Forty was better that way.

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