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Monday, February 06, 2006

False Gods 12/16/04

The speedometer had barely gone past 65 mph when he first saw the flash of red lights. Sam released the pressure from the gas pedal. He steered the truck right and cut the ignition.

As the police officer approached the truck, Marissa peered behind her, past the suitcases and garbage bags piled into the back seat. In the passenger-side mirror, she stared down the khaki uniform until her reflection distracted her. At 25, the women lurking behind her mirrors often surprised Marissa. Today she was freckled and pig-tailed, squinting through windshield-filtered sunbeams. How this could be the same woman who had gazed at her with mascara-stained eyes, lids drooping, in Sam’s bathroom mirror that morning, she could not quite fathom.

She placed black sunglasses over her cool green eyes and furrowed her brows at Sam, whose worrisome words invaded her.

“I can’t believe this,” he said. “We’re barely even out of the city and now this. What does that guy want from me? I can’t sit back and let the rest of the cars pass me!”

The corners of Sam’s delicate mouth sharpened with tension, as his eyes remained a placid blue. His eyes possessed an incredible ability to sit still, clear, and chlorinated like the baby pool, despite the tidal waves that rose within him. Marissa trusted them, but she envied their stability.

“Hey there,” the officer said. “Do you know why I’ve stopped you today?”

Sam could not decide if his question had been rhetorical. He chewed on his lip before answering.

“I caught you going 65 in a 60-mph zone,” the officer said.

Marissa sat like a window between the two men, studying both from behind her dark glasses. The officer wore aviators; the golden rims shining like false gods. His chiclet grin spoke to Sam mockingly; middle-aged skin and graying, straw-thin hair revealing a wisdom Sam had yet to gain.

“We’re driving across the country,” Sam said. He reached into the glove compartment for his rental papers. “I guess I’m kind of in a hurry to get to New York.”

“How often have you driven in the past five years?” the officer asked, rustling the papers in his sun-speckled hands.

Like a human ping-pong ball, Marissa shot her head back to Sam’s side of the truck.

“I haven’t driven at all in the past three, actually,” Sam said. “I don’t own a car here in Seattle. This truck’s a rental, see?”

“That’s not true,” Marissa said. “You just drove two weeks ago at my parents’ house, remember?”

“Uh,” Sam said, his voice reaching for words. “Okay, yes, I did, but just that one time.”

His mouth tightened into a horizontal line.

“And where was this, your parents’ house?” the officer asked.

“Delaware,” Marissa said.

“Well, you really get around now, don’t you?” the police officer said, laughing to himself.

Marissa stared back at him, her voice reaching out for words now, too. She could not recover as quickly as Sam had.

“She doesn’t talk much, does she?” the officer asked.

“You’d be surprised,” Sam said, smiling.

Marissa sat back in dread. The familiar knowledge of having said the wrong thing flooded her. And so she relaxed for the moment. She had just that moment, and when the officer left and returned to his car, when Sam had managed to win the ping pong match, the dented ball could be fixed. It could be hammered out and prepared for the next serve.

“Okay, I’ll let you go on this one,” the officer said. “Just be careful once you hit Route 90.”

“I will, thanks,” Sam said.

As the light brown figure grew out of focus, Sam turned the key and inched his way back onto the highway. Marissa sat still, her moment over. She sat still and waited. Sam looked over at her and shook his head.

“Man,” he said.

I’m not a man, Marissa wanted to say. She impulsively always wanted to say this.

“Why did you have to say that?” Sam asked. “It doesn’t matter that I drove two weeks ago in Delaware.”

“I was just trying to help,” Marissa said.

“It just made me look bad,” Sam said.

His eyes were calm. His mouth was laughing. His mouth was laughing through vicious teeth.

The truck neared a dimly lit tunnel, and Marissa placed her sunglasses on top of her head. She turned her eyes away from Sam. They were no match for his. They dove into his blue pools unprotected, never knowing how deep the water might be.

In the dark, murky, cement-mixer walls of the never-ending tunnel, a little girl with pigtails stared sadly from a sideview mirror. Marissa watched her bob along. She watched her blank stare.

Such a familiar face, she thought. I think I might know her. If only I knew what her voice sounded like.

As the truck plowed out into blinding daylight, Marissa thought of the pigtailed, speechless girl she had been a year before. The rented red Buick Rendezvous glided down the pine tree-lined road and Sam broke the silence.

“Washington is the Evergreen State, you know,” he said.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” Marissa replied. Her soft voice lilted, her response automatic. She blinked at the window until her vision got foggy and meshed with the glass. In the back of her mind, Marissa felt her father’s forefinger and thumb pinching at her pigtail that day, as her feet stood planted, her eyes wet with tears.

“What are you doing?” Marissa had asked him. He walked behind her, picked up the other braid with his fat fingers. Lowering his head, he focused his narrow eyes on her ear.

“Just as I thought,” he said. “Goes in one ear and out the other.”

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