published in the Rockhurst Review
copyright@paul pekin 2001
table of contents
by Paul Pekin
It was hot that day, brilliant and decisive, a cloudless sky, a sun that showed no mercy. It was a day for air conditioners and drawn blinds, for shady trees, for ice cold drinks. It was a day for moving very very slow.
The ranger who pulled up on River Road was hardly moving at all. He was driving a battered Ford Bronco with open windows, and his uniform shirt was soaked from the collar on down. Hatless, he stepped out into the blazing heat and adjusted the snap-down sunglasses he wore over his prescription bifocals. The ranger was not a young man.
He was looking for a dead deer county radio had reported. There were too many deer in this area. They had gnawed their way through the sparse woods eating every green thing they could find and at night, when they grazed in herds by the side of the road, they were an undeniable hazard to passing motorists.
The ranger walked a quarter mile in one direction, returned, and walked a quarter mile in the other, stopping several times to wipe the sweat out of his eyes. He was feeling faint and dizzy and angry with the county officials who could have, had it not been for their false economies, provided him with an air conditioned vehicle.
The deer was already ripe when he found it, a big buck with a swollen gut, its antlers sawed off by some passing sportsman. It had been hit during the night and there were bits of plastic, glass, and chrome on the roadside.
A car pulled up. The driver, leaning across the empty passenger seat, rolled down his window and called:
"Officer! Can I help?"
The ranger shook his head. "No problem. Keep moving. Keep moving."
But he could see that this deer carcass, in plain view of passing traffic, was a problem, a unsightly distraction that should be dragged back into the bushes where it would be out of sight. For a minute he considered doing this himself. Then he got back into his Bronco and drove to the nearby forest preserve headquarters for help.
Because it was Sunday, there was only a skeleton crew on duty. When the ranger pulled into the empty yard, he saw a single yellow maintenance truck parked next to an old green Plymouth. There was a charcoal colored cat standing by the door meowing for entrance.
The ranger moved slowly, heartened by the roar of the noisy window air-conditioner. He had to bang on the door for several moments before he was heard. The cat meowed loudly. "Take it easy," the ranger told her. "I got to wake your buddies up."
At last a huge body appeared on the other side of the glass. It was Harry Garden, the weekend desk man. "Hey, hey," he said, turning the lock. "Let's get out of that heat, buddy.
"You got that right," the ranger said. The cool air inside rushed up to meet him. For a moment black spots danced before his eyes.
"Hey, you all right?" Harry asked.
"Yeah, yeah," the ranger said. He found a chair and fell into it. The office--it was a primitive working man's office with tools lying about--was dark and smelled of freshly fried peppers.
"How about this heat?" Harry said. Some people are fat, others are obese. Harry Garden was almost disfigured. Each of his stubby legs was fully as round as a normal man's waist, his arms were like hams, his stomach, covered by an oversized shirt, supported a pair of massive breasts that moved suggestively when he walked, and all the features of his face were lost in an pool of flesh. Even so, there was something nimble about him, and his eyes were young and cheerful.
"That sun is killing me," the ranger admitted. As he adjusted to the gloom, he recognized, not as individuals or faces but as a group, four men sitting quietly along the wall. They were petty lawbreakers sentenced to community service, on loan to the Forest Preserve. "My slaves," Harry joked. He had been put in charge of them.
The men eyed the ranger nervously. One of them was named Miguel; he had been here last week; the others were new faces. In all probability, like Miguel, they had been convicted of drunken driving. Now they would be picking up trash along the road, or sweeping out picnic pavilions, or simply hiding in the shade until their time was done.
"You know these guys?" Harry asked.
"That little Mexican looks familiar. Did I ever arrest you?"
Miguel displayed a huge white grin. "Ah, you never arrest nobody. You ain't like that."
"Oh yeah? Let me see any of you guys driving that pickup truck. Then see what I do."
"You know I wouldn't let them do that," Harry said. He eased himself back behind his desk where he had been eating his lunch--an enormous Italian beef sandwich with peppers, a bag of fries, and a milk shake.
"Jesus, man, it sure hot out there," Miguel said. He was about thirty, short and dark, and he too was eating a sandwich. The ranger had interrupted lunch hour.
"I should have got here sooner," he said. "I could have saved you guys some money. There's free meat down the road."
"What ya got?" Harry asked. "Another goddam deer?"
"A big buck. You should see. Some asshole already sawed off the horns."
"He's gonna stick them up on the wall for a trophy."
"Oh, no," Miguel said. "You grind them up. They make, like, you know, medicine. The chinamen they take that stuff. They think it make them horny."
"Ah, you're full of shit," Harry said. "You ever see any chinamen around here? The only chinaman I know is the one who got me this job. Hey! Ain't that right, Bob!"
The ranger smiled quietly. It was a well known fact that everyone in his department owed his job to a political appointment. It was a fact of life, if you worked for the county.
The other men relaxed when they saw how it was going to be. "What I tell you?" Miguel said. "This guy an okay cop. These guys okay by me. I get done with this community service stuff, I'm gonna get a job out here."
"You better know a chinaman," Harry said. He took a huge bite out of his sandwich. Juice ran down his chin. Tears filled his eyes. For a moment he seemed about to strangle. Then, swallowing mightily, he caught his breath. "God damn! Miguel! You had them put hot peppers in this!"
"Hey, them peppers good for you! They flush out your system. You eat them peppers, you know, and you ain't gonna be so fat."
"I'd eat a bushel of them if I thought that was true." Harry tore off another enormous mouthful, chewed, swallowed, and washed it down with three painful gulps from his milk shake. Then he remembered the ranger. "Hey, Bob! You want some? What's the matter with me? I forgot all about you. I got another sandwich, come on, take it, I'll just eat it if you don't."
The ranger shook his head. The smell of greasy fries and overcooked beef was turning his stomach.
"Go on, take it," Miguel cried. "He don't need it! Look at him! You know, he could starve for a month and never know it."
"I'd know it," Harry said. "That's the problem. I'd know it."
The ranger lifted his two-way radio to his ear. He could hear the crackling voices of officers working on the other end of the county. Somebody was on an ambulance call. It was the heat. People were dropping over. He'd be lucky if he didn't drop over himself. Suddenly the room began to tilt.
"Hey," Harry said. "You don't look good."
"It's the sun. I think it's got to me."
"Goddam shame they don't give you guys air conditioned cars."
The ranger got up, staggered into the washroom which was at the end of the hall, ran cold water and splashed it on his face. He stood over the toilet bowl and tried to retch. When the world finally righted itself he returned to the office where Harry was wiping the last of the grease from his face.
"Hey, man. You all right?"
"It's just the sun."
"You better stay here and cool off. Me and my slaves will take care of that deer."
Miguel clapped his hands together. "Harry, he gonna eat that deer for you! He eat anything, you know."
"Shut up about the eating," Harry said. "Just for that I'm gonna leave you pick up the ass end. Maybe you get a faceful of deer shit."
"Oh, no, no, no. I ain't picking up no fucking deer. Them things, you know, might have disease."
"You do what you got to do," Harry said, rising from behind his desk. "I'll just put it into his report. 'Refused orders.' That's what I'll put in."
"Nah, you won't. You too cool to do that. Don't you worry. We get Demetrious to pick up your deer."
Which of the three new men sitting along the wall was Demetrious, the ranger could not guess. Probably not the black one, but nowadays, you never knew. It was too much to think about when your head was spinning like a top.
"Hey, Bob, Bob?" Harry came up to the ranger and touched him on the shoulder. "Bob? You stay here and catch the phone for me, huh? Me and my slaves, we'll take care of your deer."
"Yeah, yeah," the ranger muttered. "It's on River. About a quarter mile north of the turnaround." He leaned back, closed his eyes, and stretched out his legs. He could hear the others filing out the door, arguing good naturedly. Then the pickup truck starting with a roar that rattled the windows. Christ, you'd think county would buy a muffler for that thing.
Then he was alone with his radio, wondering what he would do if he got a call. Probably go on it and leave this place open. He hoped that wouldn't happen. You didn't want to do anything that would get a nice kid like Harry in trouble. And he was a nice kid, even if he did weigh five hundred pounds. What the hell, no one weighed five hundred pounds because he wanted to. Harry Garden. A nice kid.
Police activity on the radio was sparse. Even the mopes stayed home on a day like this. Listening to the usual chatter, the ranger drifted into that state that lies between sleep and wakefulness. Dreams edged up and presented themselves, enticing dreams of comfort and peace. Several times he deliberately opened his eyes to drive them away. Some guys could sleep on duty and still hear their call number. He didn't want to bet that he was one.
Finally he heard the pickup truck roaring back into the yard. Judging by the squeal, it must have taken the corner on two wheels. A nice kid, Harry, but he drove like all the rest.
It was Miguel, standing in the door, letting the cool air escape.
The ranger leaned forward, rubbing his eyes.
"You gotta come with me! Harry says you gotta come."
"Where the hell is he?"
"You gotta come! Something bad's happen, and you know, he says I gotta get you."
Now the ranger was awake and on his feet. "He let you drive that truck?"
"Come on, man! You gotta!"
The ranger stopped by the door and tried to clear his head. "He by that deer?"
"Yeah, man. Let's go!"
It took the ranger a moment to decide. Then he said:
"You stay here and get that phone if anyone calls. And listen, Miguel. Don't you steal anything."
"Hey, man! What you talking about? Just go!"
It's something bad, the ranger thought. They found a body. A real body. He sprinted out the door and into his squad. The leather seats were hot as fire and the engine, as if to protest the weather, refused to start. The old Bronco always had been a balky vehicle and now it flooded.
Miguel was outside, screaming. "Take the truck! Just go!"
Sure, and explain that to the bosses. Why weren't you in your squad? The ranger tried again and this time the engine caught, slowly at first, but suddenly roaring to life and expelling a great cloud of black smoke out the exhaust. Fucking cheap county!
As soon as he turned out on River Road he saw them ahead, waving their arms, the three new men, but not Harry, Harry was nowhere in sight. Something cold suddenly took shape in the pit of his stomach. He threw on his overheads, floored the pedal, and was with them within seconds.
"Hey, it's the fat guy," one of the men cried. "I don't know. He's got some kind of a stroke!"
Harry was on his back, several yard from the deer, and already his face was turning purple.
"I don't think he's breathing!" one of the men said.
Heart attack, the ranger thought, searching for a pulse, but how could you find one through all that fat? He lowered his cheek to the fallen man's mouth and tried to feel his breath. There was nothing.
Twice the ranger had been through CPR training but he had never once attempted the practice on a real live human being. Now the instructions swam in his head. You were supposed to clear the victim's mouth, you were supposed to tilt back his head and open the breathing tube, whatever they called it, you were supposed to cover the victim's mouth with your own and blow gently, what was it, once, twice, three times? You were supposed to locate the funny little bone or cartilage or whatever it is in the center of the chest and you were supposed to double your fists and press down just above it, what was it, five, ten, fifteen times? Had he actually passed a test on this stuff? But that had been with a dummy and the dummy was the size of a normal human being and you tasted plastic when you blew into the dummy and you tasted fried peppers and beef when you blew into Harry and there was no way of telling if the air was going into him or not or if the heart was starting up again or not or . . .
The ranger worked desperately. He looked up at the three community service workers and said:
"Which one of you is Demetrious?"
"That's me," the black one said. He was a little man in his early twenties with wild braided hair that stuck out in all directions.
"Go in the squad and get my radio. Hurry!"
Blowing into Harry Garden's mouth, tasting the peppers and the onions and the garlic and the french fried potatoes, the ranger wondered if Demetrious would be able to release the radio from its charger; there was a special button you had to push; some people were too stupid to figure that out.
A moment later Demetrious was back and he had the radio. I picked the right guy, the ranger thought.
Later on, when the report was written, it was officially noted that the ambulance took two minutes and fifteen seconds to arrive. If you want to know how long two minutes and fifteen seconds is, get down on you hands and knees in the broiling hot sun and try to revive a friend who is, as it turns out, already dead.
At the hospital they kept working on Harry for another hour but it was all for show. They had him on a machine and kept him going until his parents arrived. Meanwhile the ranger, who had followed the ambulance in his squad, sat vigil in the emergency room, shivering in the frigid air-conditioning. He was joined first by Harry's superintendent who had been called from the golf course, and his own watch commander, an anorexic young woman with powerful political connections who had once worked in a hospital herself. "There's nothing they can do for him," she loudly declared several times. "He was a walking time bomb, and he knew it."
She was more sympathetic to the ranger, insisting that one of the residents check him out. "He's had too much sun," she insisted. "What do they expect when they're too cheap to get us air-conditioned squads?"
The ranger had never met Harry Garden's parents, but he recognized them the moment they entered the emergency room. While neither was as heavy as the son, both were obese waddling creatures, the mother in a shapeless flowered dress, the father wearing his shirt loose and over his trousers, exactly as Harry had.
But they could weep like normal people. Embracing each other, they heard the doctors final words, and they wept. "Oh why," the mother sobbed, "Why, dear God, why did this happen?"
"A really nice kid," the ranger said, consoling them. "A really nice kid."
And for the rest of the afternoon he could taste the peppers and the french fries and the beef, as well as the vomit that might have been Harry Garden's, and might have been his own.