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Talk Talk 

New fiction by T.C. Boyle

Wednesday, May 31 2006

She was running late, always running late, a failing of hers, she knew it, but then she couldn’t find her purse and once she did manage to locate it (underneath her blue corduroy jacket on the coat tree in the front hall), she couldn’t find her keys. They should have been in her purse, but they weren’t, and so she’d made a circuit of the apartment — two circuits, three — before she thought to look through the pockets of the jeans she’d worn the day before, but where were they? No time for toast. Forget the toast, forget food. She was out of orange juice. Out of butter and cream cheese. The newspaper on the front mat was just another obstacle. Piss-warm — was that an acceptable term? Yes — piss-warm coffee in a stained mug, a quick check of lipstick and hair in the rearview mirror, and then she was putting the car in gear and backing out onto the street.

She may have been peripherally aware of a van flitting by in the opposite direction, the piebald dog sniffing at a stain on the edge of the pavement, someone’s lawn sprinkler holding the light in a shimmer of translucent beads, but the persistent beat of adrenaline — or nerves, or whatever it was — wouldn’t allow her to focus. Plus, the sun was in her eyes, and where were her sunglasses? She thought she remembered seeing them on the bureau, in a snarl of jewelry — or was it the kitchen table, next to the bananas, and she’d considered taking a banana with her, fast food, potassium, roughage, but then she figured she wouldn’t because with Dr. Stroud it was better to have nothing at all in your stomach. Air. Air alone would sustain her.

To rush, to hurry, to fret: Old English and Latinate roots, the same sad connotative stab of meaning. She wasn’t thinking clearly. She was stressed, stressed out, running late. And when she got to the four-way stop at the end of the block she felt momentarily blessed because there was no one there to stop for, yet even as she made a feint of slowing and shifted from neutral to second with a quick deft plunge of clutch and accelerator, she spotted the patrol car parked just up the street in the bruised shadow of an SUV.

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There was a moment of suspended time, the cop frozen at the wheel of his car, she giving him a helpless exculpatory look, and then she was past him and cursing herself as she watched him pull a lazy U-turn behind her and activate the flashing lights. All at once she saw the world complete, the palms with their pineapple trunks and peeling skirts, the armored spines of the yucca plants climbing the hill, yellow rock, red rock, a gunmetal pickup slowing to gape at her where she’d pulled over on a tan strip of dirt, and below her, a descending expanse of tiled rooftops and the distant blue wallop of the Pacific, no hurry now, no hurry at all. She watched the cop — the patrolman — in her side mirror as he sliced open the door, hitched up his belt (they all did that, as if the belt with its Mace and handcuffs and the hard black-handled revolver were all the badge they needed) and walked stiffly to her car.

She had her license and registration ready and held them out to him in offering, in supplication, but he didn’t take them, not yet. He was saying something, lips flapping as if he were chewing a wad of gristle, but what was it? It wasn’t License and registration, but what else could it be? Is that the sun in the sky? What’s the square root of a hundred forty-four? Do you know why I pulled you over? Yes. That was it. And she did know. She’d run a stop sign. Because she was in a hurry — a hurry to get to the dentist’s, of all places — and she was running late.

“I know,” she said, “I know, but . . . but I did shift down . . .”

He was young, this patrolman, no older than she, a coeval, a contemporary, somebody she might have danced alongside of — or with — at Velvet Jones or one of the other clubs on lower State. His eyes were too big for his head and they bulged out like a Boston terrier’s — and what was that called? Exophthalmia. The word came to her and she felt a quick glow of satisfaction despite the circumstances. But the cop, the patrolman. There was a softness to his jaw, that when combined with the eyes — liquid and weepy — gave him an unfinished look, as if he weren’t her age at all but an adolescent, a big-headed child all dressed up spick-and-span in his uniform and playing at authority. She saw his face change when she spoke, but she was used to that.

  • New fiction by T.C. Boyle

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