It’s New Years Eve of the Milennium, and myself, my girlfriend Sally, and our dog Buster, are on our way to a party. It’s a small town in Idaho, and we’ve been stopped by the local police, because my headlight was out. It’s almost midnight.
“I’m going to have to check this out,” the policeman says, holding up my papers. I notice that, so far, he’s not bothered by my out-of-state license. Cops are an unpredictable bunch. He has a microphone hanging from his shoulder. It crackles. Kafka calling in orders, I think.
“Okay,” I reply. His voice does have a strange note to it, for a cop, as if he’s asking permission to check me out. Maybe he’s one of the local farmers who decided to be a policeman, because the only other option is to be a clerk at the Kum & Go, but they’d have to fire his mother to hire him.
He walks back to his cruiser. I’m irritated because he doesn’t turn the spotlight off, so Sally, Buster, and I sit there soaked in white light, with weird shadows being cast around the truck like angry thoughts. We don’t talk. I feel flat. Dull. We can see, a hundred yards away across the snow, the site of the party we’re trying to go to. It’s an airplane hangar, which sounds like it must be huge, which it is for a party, but not for airplanes. It’s a small hangar.
“What time is it?” I ask her. She looks at her watch, holding it up in the spotlight.
“Quarter of,” she says. Her hand drops back to her lap, and she looks silently out the window. I stare forward, and wonder how much she hates me. I think to ask her for my beer, so I can drink while I wait, but reject the idea. Time putters about.
After a few more minutes, another officer shows up. This one is a state trooper. I grow more fearful. Our local cop has called for backup. And the policeman that pulled me over and berated me for speeding last week was a trooper.
He stops at the other officer’s window and talks to him for a little while, as I watch him in my door rearview mirror. Then he comes to my window, and I look out at him with my entire regiment of innocence in formation on my face. It’s the trooper who caught me speeding. Sweet.
“Hello, Sir,” he says. He’s not acting like he recognizes me.
“Hi.” He’s got that angry, petulant, zealous look again.
“Did you know your headlight is out?”
“Uh, yes, the other officer told me. I didn’t know before though. They were fine yesterday.”
“Yeah, that’s what he said, did you know that it’s illegal in the state of Idaho to have your license plate in the rear window? It’s supposed to be mounted on your bumper where it can be seen properly.” I turn and look at the plate in the window.” I turn and look at the plate in the window.
“yes, or, well, no, mean, I knew it was supposed to be on the bumper, but I didn’t know it was, you know, like, illegal for it to be in the window I was going to put it on the bumper, I just, you know, didn’t really get around to it, and, I’ve been pretty busy…” I keep opening and closing my mouth for a few seconds, but I’ve run out of words. And I feel like the more my mouth is open the more beer that’s making it into the air to be smelled. And I don’t feel like going through the whole story again, and can’t imagine he wants me to. Also, there’s something totally unbelievable about claiming you’ve been very busy when you live in Idaho, and you’ve come from New York.
“uh-huh,” he says. He’s looking around the inside of the truck, which I keep clean and uncluttered; because that’s the way I like it. I wonder if he’s going to ask to see my pack of Marlboros to check for grass. I haven’t been smoking cigarettes through all this, because I’m afraid the cops will see that as an indication that I don’t take them seriously. Buster is sitting between myself and Sally, with so regal an expression on his sad face, I’m a little worried the cop will read it as contempt.
But he’s too cute. It seems like I hardly need Sally’s breasts. I’m loaded for bear on this one.
“It’s illegal to have a cracked windshield in the State of Idaho,” he says. He can’t say just “Idaho” evidently, as if I’d mistake it for a nation, like Texas. I look at my windshield and nod. I can’t think of anything to say that isn’t angry. In this part of the country, if your windshield isn’t cracked, it soon will be, because driving here is like going through a meteor shower. Stones clatter against the windshield regularly, kicked into the air by trucks, or by your own wheels, which is a phenomenon I’ve never understood. How can your own wheels throw a stone against your windshield? Not that stoning myself has never occurred to me as a good practice, it has, but actually doing it seemed impossible. I had to move to the West to discover that one can, in fact, stone oneself. And windshields are expensive, and I’m broke because of a house project. I don’t explain any of this to him.
He looks the outside of the truck over, bending backwards a little. “Front tires are pretty bad,” he says. This is true enough. I replaced the rear ones, but was tying to get some more mileage out of the others on account of the expense. It was a sad moment when I found out how much new tires cost for this truck.
I go to the tire store, called “OK Tires.” I’m not experienced at this. There’s a young, big, blond guy there with a constant, solemn expression, wire rimmed glasses, and nothing in his eyes but blue. I tell him I need tires for my truck. We’re standing in an office with a counter, a receipt pad, a big photograph of a wild moose passing in front of the tire store on his way somewhere, and a tire standing alone in a little cup on the floor.
“Ya want that’un?” he says, and points the back of his pen at the solitary tire. I turn my head and look at it, then look around the rest of the empty office.
“I guess so,” he nods, and starts writing on the pad.
“How much is it?” I say, stomach tight.
“Ninety—eight.” He stops writing.
“Nouh. We put it on and balance it fer ninety-eight. Plus tax.”
“I see. Is there another tire available?”
“Welp. There’s the XTerra four.”
“How much is that one?”
“Bout eighty, eighty-five.”
“Ah-hah. Well, can I have that one? It’s cheaper.”
“Don’t have any. Haveta order it.”
“oh. How long will that take?”
“Welp. Might be a week. ‘Pends if we gotta go to the falls or not. Might be two. Hard tellin’.”
I look at him. “That one looks good,” I say, gesturing at it. He resumes writing.
The cop is looking around, brow furrowed. The spotlight gives his face a good/evil split.
“I could take you in for any of these violations, did you know that? I could give you summons for every single one of them. Your driver’s license is from New York, how long you been driving in Idaho?”
“Ah,” I say, “well about a couple months.” I can’t lie, but I can’t tell the truth either, so I split the difference. He gives his head an annoyed shake.
“If you live in the State of Idaho for more than thirty days, you’re required to get an Idaho driver’s license. Did you know that?”
“Well, I… yes, i… just haven’t done it yet.”
I raise my hands in a What-can-i-tell-you? way. I’m getting glum. He makes a gesture with his head that means he knew it all along, and people are unbelievably irresponsible.
He says: “No registration, out-of-state license, cracked windshield, unlawfully mounted license plate, bad tires, broken headlight…” he’s looking at me sternly, ticking things off with his fingers. Behind his head I can see little fireworks going off with weak pops.
I look at him. I know that my part of the ritual is to be apologetic, to cower and beg without actually saying “don’t hurt me, please.” But, I’m indignant about all the abuse my truck is taking from him. And I’ve never been the slightest bit apologetic to a police officer, and want to keep my record intact. Though I have shown gratitude on the occasions when that’s been called for.
I nod and mumble and try to look chastened, which for me is the same expression I get when I dig a splinter out of my finger.
“This one’s on me, next one’s on you, hear me?”
“Thanks,” I say. He turns away.
“Put your seatbelt on,” he orders over his shoulder. I notice that he stops and talks with the other officer briefly, gets in his car, and drives away.
We sit there a while longer. Over at the party, there are still fireworks going off with isolated pops. We say nothing.
The first officer comes back, and hands me all my paperwork. He then repeats everything the trooper told me about how illegal my truck is, and how he really should take me in. instead, he gives me a piece of paper with a list of everything that’s wrong with my vehicle. He says that I have a week to fix it al, and take it to the police station and show it to someone, or else I’ll get tickets for everything.
“Happy New Year,” he says.
“You too,” I reply, and he gets into his cruiser, shuts down the spotlight, and drives off. We sit there in the dark for a minute. It’s twelve-fifteen.
‘Well. Are you still in the mood for a party?” I say.
“Am I,” Sally replies. “We might as well go. It’s right there.” she makes a weary gesture at the hangar, I look over.
“do you think we can make it that far without being arrested?” I say.
“I doubt it, it’s like traveling with someone in a prison uniform with you.”
“and you think that’s a negative thing?”
“yes. Buster does too.”
“Buster, do you think traveling with me is a negative thing?” He looks at me like someone who has been king too long.
“Looks like we’ve got consensus,” I say. “Fuck you, Buster. I’m driving anyway. If they get me between here and there, they can throw away the fucking key. If they don’t lose it first.”
I pull into the airport parking lot next to the compound of cavernous metal hangers. Bright, white lights beam down from the tall poles onto the glittering snow. Chain link glints.
I see that there are three adults, and a few teenagers, lighting sparklers, bottle rockets, and cracklers. I go over to this group. There’s one guy there that I know. He’s very stoned and drunk, and he’s laughing and blithering, but seems truly happy, rather than desperately faking it. This is the man who, when I arrived in the West from New York, said, with disturbing glee: “I love it when you guys show up fresh from the East, and you still have your mind, you’re still thinking, you’re still quick. Then, after a while, you get dumber and dumber, and slower and slower, until you’re like me, and you can’t leave. You’re brain dead. It’s over.” And when I protested that I was not intending to stay in the West all the time, or at least not enough to flatline, he replied: “Oh no! Too late! You’re here now! You aren’t going anywhere.” I’ve always been uneasy around this guy because of that exchange.
After a few more minutes of standing in the cold watching this man laugh and set off small fireworks, I decide to go into the hangar and start celebrating.
This party is being given by two women, who have taken it upon themselves to arrange the whole thing. The idea was that the party be given for the whole community, rather than just a few friends, that’s why they are using an airplane hangar. My boots, enormous things, squeak in the snow. It’s very cold.
I open the gray, metal door, and go inside.
I first notice a deep silence. As I walk across the concrete floor towards a small know of people, I note the ranks of unoccupied tables with paper covering them. Murmuring floats through the gloom, like someone is being informed that they’ve been left out of a will. The roof is far above, and dangles streamers from the naked trusses, which makes me think of a gallows. I think to mention that image to Sally, before remembering that she’ll hate me for it.
A group of children races around, their screams echoing. Their excitement is infectious, like cholera. At the other end of the space, I can make out, even with the naked eye, an empty stage with rock and roll instruments arranged on it. Some children stand before the stage with an air of people waiting for something, though they’ve been told by a reliable source that it will never come. They just haven’t decided what else they should do.
The small group of adults is clustered around the bar table. They’re not sobbing. I pour vodka into a clear plastic cup.
“Happy Milennium,” I say to Melinda, one of the women who’s giving the party. I have learned that it’s best to talk to the hostess early on in the festivities, in case I get whisked away into the crowd and forget to thank her.
“Happy Milennium,” she replies, without an embarrassing degree of cheer. There is an askance look in her eye. At this point I realize that there;s been no tragedy, it’s just that no one came, or that is the tragedy.
“Nice party,” I say. “Thanks.”
“That’s okay. Did you have a good Christmas?”
“No. Not at all.” Christmas was the day I was found dead on the seat of my truck at three in the morning with a bottle of whiskey after polyurathaning the floors of our house all night. I smile at her and pour my drink into my mouth like an antidote. I remind myself that somewhere in the world, someone is dying horribly.
“When does the band start?” I ask. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen them for a while.” Her face has a very determined look on it, I see. She looks around.
“Well,” I say. “I’m going to grab some food, you know…” I stop. My line about getting food before it’s all gone, which I use to escape a conversation that’s flopped out of my control, seems inappropriate.
“Yeah,” she says, “Help yourself. There’s plenty.” I glance at her. She hasn’t gotten to the some-day-we’ll-all-look-back-on-this-and-laugh stage yet, so irony zips by like an occupied taxi. I say a prayer that this moment comes to an end soon. I try to think of same way to help, but can’t. I wonder if I should bravely talk about the lack of people, just to get it out into the open. Beat it with exposure. I decide against it. this just seems like something they’ll have to endure forever no matter what I do or say. I feel grateful that it wasn’t me who gave this party, as I would sooner be icepicked in the spine than give a party to which nobody comes but me.
I look for Sally. She’s talking animatedly with another woman, as if at a party. I get a surge of envy, because she has that ability to ignore it when a dollop of horror has been squeezed onto her. I look at the ranks of unopened liquor bottles. I decide that, for a change, I’ll get smashed until I don’t know where I am. Then I remember that I have to make it back through the police cordon, and bag that idea. I think maybe I’ll just play with the children. But they’re too old for my taste. They’ve all reached that age when they’ll be almost pure annoyance for the next twenty years. And I don’t feel like running around.
I summon all the energy I’ve got and have a five minute conversation with someone before I’m standing there stunned into silence. This is not a situation where you wait and everyone comes later. I look over at Sally. Even she’s foundering a little. I go over.
“Listen,” I say “any more social excitement and I’m gonna burst. I can’t take it.”
“It’s a tough one, Buster’s having fun.” He’s been running around with the other dogs, or, more accurately, he has irritated them all into chasing him, his preferred way of socializing.
“Well, Buster’s much more talented at that than me.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Did you eat?”
“No. We should. The food looks good.”
“Probably is.” Silence.
“Or,” I say, “we could just go home, eat the garlic soup I made, eat ice cream, watch a video, and call it good.”
“Call it the millennium!”
A week later I go to the police station. I waited until the last day. Sally said:
“Did you fix your truck and show it to the cops?”
“Why not? Why wouldn’t you?”
Right. So I’ve fixed my headlight, mounted the license plate properly, put the registration card in the glove compartment. I’ve ignored the tires and the windshield.
I go into the tiny office and talk to the same cop that gave me the driver’s test that I flunked. He doesn’t behave as though he recognizes me. What good is small town life? He looks at the piece of paper and seems puzzled, but he comes out to the parking lot.
“I didn’t change the windshield, yet,” I say. “But, I changed the headlight and the license plate.” He looks at the piece of paper.
“you’re alright,” he says, and walks away.