Seeing Red




“MAYER!” Jack Carson’s voice sounds nearly as loud and angry over the phone as it does in person. If I close my eyes, which unfortunately I did, I can see his face reddening, and furious eyebrows plunging toward his nose. The purpose of this call, if I translated the bellowing correctly, was to point out that I was late to work. And I was, and I wasn’t, not technically. I was in the parking lot. I made a futile attempt to explain, sighed, terminated the call, and submitted myself to the full effect of an apoplectic and overly hostile boss.

I’d woke up early this morning, tucked far beneath the sheet and comforter, like a dime in the farthest, deepest corner pocket of a pair of jeans. Inaccessible. That’s exactly where I should have stayed.


But no. I got up, despite feeling the beginning of a migraine. I ignored it, along with the voice of reason, and got along with my day. I neglected to put a K-cup in the Keurig, and made myself a mugful of hot water. Ironically, as I discovered later, the shower had no hot water whatsoever. I poured a bowl of Cheerios, got the raspberries out of the refrigerator, and promptly dropped them. The plastic carton burst open and emptied itself upon impact with the tile. Surprisingly, raspberries roll remarkably well, and managed their way into nearly every corner of my small kitchen. I chased them down, stepped on a few, and soon the place looked something like a murder scene. I looked at the clock. It was blinking; evidently the power had gone out at some point. That explained why my alarm hadn’t alarmed me this morning. I sighed. I could always throw in the towel. Call off work. Go back to bed.


But no, again. I have a stubborn sense of duty, and I headed out the door. I do my job faithfully, not for any heroic reason, but because it’s my job. Apparently, my boss’s job today was to make me regret my decision to show up. Jack Carson is short, loud, and other than the job, we have exactly one thing in common. We both love his sister a lot. I do my best to keep the peace, and not take his bitter sarcasm personally. But, impolite personal criticisms? It’s nearly impossible not to take those personally. And Jack was full of them today. For example, my paperwork was sloppy. And, so was my work uniform, my desk, and apparently, my all-around personal appearance. Jack’s personal grooming, naturally, was above reproach, shirt and pants impeccably pressed. Not a hair out of place. Or, more accurately, every hair out of place; Jack Carson is as bald as a Washington apple. In obvious contrast, I was rumpled and cowlicked, and I hadn’t scraped my face with a razor. In my defense, it took precious minutes to clean up the aftermath of the raspberry bomb. Now, I had a full-on migraine, and neither Imitrex nor my boss’ tone was helping. Behind my eyelids was a pulsing ocean of red. I focused on a faraway point, and tried to ignore the blasthole drill boring deep into my aching skull. Jack’s the boss, I told myself, and I came to work today, so that’s on me. I rubbed the grit out of my eyes, the rougher stubble on my cheeks, and silently resolved to cope with a full shift of adversity.


 My future brother-in-law delivered on that count. He was relentless in his complaints against me. I was an ant, burning under the glare of a bully’s magnifying glass. Coworkers passed by, nodding sadly. Nothing deflected Jack’s attention for long. He always managed to get quickly back to his favorite subject. My shortcomings. I thought maybe he might yell himself out at some point. He was still going strong at noon, but I had a brief respite while I ate lunch. It didn’t last long.  “There you are, Mayer!” he barged in, yelling. “Hard at work, I see!” He had sarcasm layered on thick as the mayo on my turkey sandwich. It turned to rage, when he realized I was drinking his Cherry Coke from the fridge. “MAYER!” he roared, as if I’d snapped his suspenders. It was an innocent mistake, kind of. I’d grabbed a drink quickly to wash down the aspirin I’d pillaged from one of the first aid kits. The blowback from it left an even worse taste in my mouth. While Jack railed on, I closed my eyes, and again I saw red. This time, it was lipstick. Rhonda’s lips. The color of mercury bursting through the top of a thermometer. The thought warmed me. Rhonda is just perfect, an incendiary mix of brains and beauty, and she makes me feel every bit as good as her bossy brother makes me feel bad. And, those lips. After work, I was going to see her, before she started her shift at the hospital. Evening couldn’t come soon enough.


The afternoon trudged forward, following the morning’s script. Jack Carson kept his focus on me, and his volume on high. He’s challenging to deal with, even when I don’t have a migraine. The blinding pain was trying to fade, and failing, for the most part. I wondered what it would take for me to catch a break. A messy outcall, maybe. Some sort of emergency. Any kind at all. Bomb threat? Hmm. Jack’s harsh voice and the paperwork he threw at me ended my daydream/prayer. “MAYER! Pay attention!” But my attention was elsewhere. I closed my eyes. And there she was. Stunning in her red satin dress, the night we met at the benefit for the children’s hospital. Rhonda absolutely dazzled me at first sight. Her curves are a sculptor’s dream, and that dress was hugging every one of them perfectly. I could clearly see her face, blushing adorably when I call her Beautiful. I began a mental countdown. One hundred twenty minutes. Carson kept himself worked up for the duration. A few times I eyeballed the emergency defibrillator on the wall, wondering if I’d have to use it on him. He had stamina, I’ll give him that. But, so do I, and I endured like a champion.  Try as he might, he never got to me. At six, I clocked out, and slid out. I may or may not have heard a parting shout at my back. “MAYER!” I kept walking. No point in being shouted at on my own time.


They say you shouldn’t take your work with you, and they’re right. I shouldn’t have. More specifically, I shouldn’t have taken the work vehicle. It’s against our department rules, and I knew, like everything else, that I’d hear about it for a long time to come. I might even get suspended a couple of days. At the time, I must admit, that option actually sounded pretty good to me. A few days without verbal abuse would be a welcome vacation. Maybe the boss had got to me, after all. Just a little. I shrugged it off, as I drove the truck out of the garage, and, with it, thoughts of Jack Carson out of my head.


The good feeling that I had when I finally left work multiplied exponentially when I saw Rhonda. She’s a fabulous cook, an excellent conversationalist, and, she doesn’t talk about her little brother Jack. I don’t kiss and tell, but if I did, I’d add that she’s a fantastic kisser. It was a perfect evening to offset the day. My migraine fled. The minutes flew. All too soon, it was time for her to scrub up for her surgical rotation at the OR. Reluctantly, I got back into the work truck. A few kids were gathered in the street near where I’d parked it. They stared at it, then up at me.  “Nice ride,” the bravest said finally. I told them a little bit about my “ride” before I left them there with their mouths open.


I headed in the direction of home. Frankie’s Cocktail Lounge is on the way. The night was young, and Rhonda had me feeling like a giddy teen. I decided to stop in and see the gang, maybe have a cocktail. Frankie was out tonight, as usual. She’s a local legend; left for her honeymoon years ago, and never came back. I’m certainly no legend, but I’m a decent storyteller, so I’m always welcome when I stop by.

The bartender tonight was new and had facial hair reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln, or perhaps Moses. I was tempted to tug on his beard to confirm it was real. Ken was his name (the bartender, not the beard.) He slapped a napkin on the fake mahogany in front of me, and I familiarized him with a little game some of the regulars and I do for fun. We make up our own cocktails. A new one immediately came to mind. So, I ordered an “Angry Boss,” and explained. It’s Fireball Whisky, fittingly mixed with Cherry Coke. I stared at the cherry that Ken had plunked in my drink, and saw Jack’s angry forehead.  One of the locals slipped in next to me, his girlfriend on my other side, and they each offered to buy me another drink. I bought them each one instead, one “Jack,” and one “Jill.” They wanted more than drinks, though, I knew. They wanted stories. So, I told a couple. The one about the softball game, and the one about the cat, those seem to be the favorites. A small group gathered around me, leaning in and listening closely, even though they’d heard them a few times already. I guess there’s a reason that the favorites are the favorites.


I took a bathroom break (“Gotta put a fire out,” I said to a chorus of giggles). Coming back, I smiled, seeing the crowd part so I could reseat myself. Storytelling makes me thirsty, so I waved Ken and Ken’s beard over. The fellow next to me tried to order me the drink they named for me a long time ago, the “Mayer-Ball.” It’s Fireball, mixed with more Fireball. It used to be my favorite, when I used to drink more. That was before Rhonda, and before the new job. I certainly could have handled a couple more drinks. I’m six-two, two hundred forty pounds. Muscular, if you’re looking for more by way of physical description. No etched abs, if that’s what you’re picturing; I enjoy Rhonda’s cooking too much. So, maybe I’m not quite a cologne model, but, hey, I’ll field offers if my phone ever rings. I’m kidding. My phone isn’t going to ring anytime soon. Just then, my phone rang. It wasn’t Calvin Klein. Not by a long shot. Jack Carson. Probably about the truck, but I didn’t answer. And, tempted as I was to down some more Fireball, I didn’t. Instead, I bought a round of drinks for the others, and sipped cherry cola. I don’t overindulge anymore; I worked hard to earn a good reputation and a Class A driver’s license, and I plan to keep them both.


I told a few more stories, ignored a few more phone calls; night passed, and I was chasing the morning. When I found myself actually reaching out and tugging Ken’s beard (it’s real), I knew I was getting a little punchy. Time to head for home. Everyone tried to talk me into staying, everyone except Ken. I assured my pals that I’d be back, and left despite the flurry of tipsy protests. I was taking up a couple of parking spots anyways. I stepped outside, and the humid summer air hit me in the face like a wet blanket. Suddenly, I just wanted to get back under my balled-up sheet and sleep for a couple weeks. Thirty minutes more, and I could do that. Twenty-two if I pushed it. So, I pushed it.


Four blocks ahead, I knew there’d be a patrol car sitting in the parking lot of the 7/11 on the corner. Always is this time of night. I know the schedule, and I know the man. In fact, we had a bit of a history. Erik Berntsen. Self-proclaimed “Red-headed Viking hothead.” No doubt sitting there with a super-sized Slurpee, and a proportionally large bag of Combo’s. Berntsen’s a big guy with a big mustache, and a huge chip on his shoulder. And, as advertised, he’s quick-tempered and confrontational. That could explain why I hit the gas, and not the brake. Or, it might have been all the cherry cola I’d had to drink. I glanced over as I approached the convenience store. There was one car at the gas pump, and another parked in front. Yellow Volkswagen. Then I realized why the patrol car wasn’t in the parking lot. It was waiting just ahead, out in the median.


I mentioned that “Erik the Red” and I have a history. It’s one of the stories that the gang at Frankie’s likes to hear me tell. I’ll give you the condensed version, the one without the blood and the colorful quotations. It was a charity event. It was softball, for God’s sake. But you know how competitive some people get. Pine County’s own Officer Erik Berntsen is one of those people. The way he played, you’d have thought it was game 7 of the World Series. Which is why, in the 9th inning, as I rounded third headed home for the deciding run, and the ball was heading in from the outfield, Berntsen decided to block the plate. While I don’t like losing, a game is just a game. I wasn’t going to run over an officer of the law. Until he took two more steps in my direction. By that point, I couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t go around him. The ball arrived, there was a collision, and the umpire (who happened to be the mayor) called me out. I might have been. But on the ground in front of me, lay the catcher. He was definitely out. Sleeping like a baby. He came to in a minute, slapping my hand away when I tried to help him up. Then he started uttering curses you shouldn’t hear when you bring your family to a charity event. Ever since that day, Erik Berntsen’s had a grudge. And a limp. So it was pretty obvious that he was out to get me tonight. Apparently, he knows my schedule, too.


The vengeful lawman edged his vehicle into my lane as he hit his lights. Trying again to keep me from advancing to home. My right foot mashed the gas rather than the brake for the second time in a minute. I roared past, and Berntsen panicked, spinning his car out. He probably inhaled enough cherry slush to get serious brain freeze.


A couple of miles past the squad car, I took a left and headed north. Got in the left lane of the Bayway Bridge, watching the mirror. As expected, far behind me glared angry lights from the police car in pursuit.  I could only imagine the deep furrows in the median back where Berntsen spun out, and a half inch of vulcanized rubber when he hit the asphalt, determined to catch me. He probably got Combo’s up in the dash, too. The thought made me smile.


At that point, I should have pulled over, waited for him to catch up, and taken my lumps. Somewhere along the line, I guess I’d decided I’d taken enough for one day. And since I didn’t especially feel like stopping, I didn’t stop. The hazy sky behind me went ablaze with red and blue. It would have been pretty, but my eyes were bleary and bloodshot, and those lights are entirely too bright.


Berntsen had closed to maybe a mile behind me near the end of the bridge. He was really pushing his Dodge Charger. I could picture him biting his hairy lip in anticipation. I took the off-ramp at a precarious speed, and widened the gap between us. I was flying low across the causeway, in the direction of the airport. The truck was burning diesel, and a lot of it. Tonight, I told myself, I was no friend of the environment, or of the Pine County Police Department. Or Ken the Bartender. Had I really grabbed his beard?


Passing the airport, I looked ahead, and saw every traffic signal challenging me. Red after red after red. My foot hovered over the brake, and I willed each one to turn green. They bent to my demands, and I sped through. The interchange loomed ahead, and I still hadn’t decided to head north or south yet. Either way, I knew, when reached interstate, I’d leave my nemesis far behind. He might call ahead and try to round up some state troopers to pick up the pursuit. Good luck with that.


Officer Berntsen must have sensed he had limited time to try to catch me, because he maxed out the Charger Pursuit engine. It was silly and futile, and we both knew it. It did get him close enough that I could catch a glimpse of him. His face was a comical combination of fury and determination. The vein on the side of his profusely sweating head was bulging. He wanted me, and he wanted me bad. But horsepower was on my side. Five-hundred plus, no lie. I wouldn’t be caught unless I wanted to be. Or unless something happened.


Something happened. Half of a mile ahead of me, a white pickup drifted from its lane and pushed a smaller, torch-red Corvette off the road. I slowed my truck, and watched it all happen, in slow motion. There was a sickening crunch as the car hit the concrete barrier, spun around, and almost instantly, caught fire. I was literally seconds away when I flicked my lights on. Mine are far brighter than Officer Berntsen’s.


All my training kicked in, as I slowed smoothly and effortlessly. I was at the bashed-in driver’s side door of the burning car before I knew it. A single occupant was trapped inside. A teenaged boy, with unruly red hair and a ghostly pale countenance. He was in obvious shock, sitting paralyzed and silently staring. The kid wouldn’t open the door, so I’d have to. The handle was white-hot, and wouldn’t budge. Filled with adrenaline, I ripped the door completely off. I threw it aside, and for a moment, I was a bit in shock myself. “Come on,” I said needlessly, pulling the youth out and dragging him to safety. Another burst of flame belched from the wreck. “The ‘Vette!” he cried. “Is it your parents’?” I asked him. His head slumped as he nodded confirmation. “I’m afraid you’re grounded, Son,” I told him, as I helped him find a safe seat in the median.


Officer Berntsen arrived on scene at that point, siren blaring. He jumped from the squad car and headed quickly to the young man sitting in the median, head in hands. The policeman had his radio to his mouth, but no words were coming out. Seemed like everyone was in a bit of shock tonight. While he was sorting things out, I rushed back to my truck, grabbed the crosslay hose from above the pump panel, and slung it over my left shoulder. I had the nozzle on full blast as I reached the wreck, and a minute later, I’d dumped ninety-five gallons of water on the grounded kid’s ride. I could hear “Erik the Red” shouting to me, so I took plenty of time loading the hose back on the truck.


When I turned back around, it appeared that Berntsen was waiting, in an uncharacteristically patient manner, to get the kid’s statement. The teen was on his phone, presumably with his parents. I walked across the highway, as an unnecessary ambulance joined the party. The news wouldn’t be far behind. “Looks like you got your hands full here, Officer,” I said hopefully, “Think I’ll just call it a night.” I figured it was worth a try. The policeman didn’t blow up as expected, just put a hand up to stop me, as the young man finished his call. Then he embraced him, the kid’s arms pinned to his side, an appropriately mortified look on his face. “Everything’s alright, Rusty,” I heard Erik Berntsen say, and then I started to understand.

So, the policeman’s kid was off the hook about the wrecked ‘Vette, apparently. By my calculations, that left just one person in hot water. The muscular, six-foot two guy, the one who’ll never be a cologne model. The idiot that had taken the truck after his shift, and led police on a high-speed chase. I felt my world spinning off kilter. My migraine started a painful comeback. On cue, the Channel Ten Action News van arrived. It wasn’t looking good for me at all. Berntsen would be expected to give them a story. Maybe, just maybe, he could leave out some of the unflattering details, the ones that would certainly cost me my job. I looked him in the eyes, pleading, unable to read him. I offered an alternate story. “I got here as soon as I heard the call,” I said, half statement, half question. We both knew the impossibility of it. Still, the story would get us some good press. I saw that realization in the officer’s eyes. Maybe a glint of hope for me. I’d just need my boss to vouch for me. He’d do that. Wouldn’t he?


As if to answer the question, my cell phone rang once again. Jack Carson, to end my day as it began. Loudly. Against my better judgement, I took the call. “MAYER!” I felt the phone slip from my hand. Before I could catch it, the long arm of the law did. “Hey, Rory,” the officer said, in a warm, nearly unrecognizable voice. “Looks like our reporter wants to hear from the man of the hour.” I must have looked confused, so he clarified. “The heroic fireman. You, Rory. Don’t keep her waiting.” I looked at Erik Bernsten, and, to my shock, he was smiling. Sincerely. He waved me away, raising my phone to his chin. “Why don’t you let me handle Jack?” Best idea I’d heard all day. My world tilted back onto its axis. I looked toward the reporter, set up smartly in front of my ride, Engine Number Nine. The lights were still on, bathing the night in red. My favorite color.