Summertime in Last Chance conjures images of longer days, the constant threat of dehydration, and our annual Dust Festival. Last Chance’s citizens are hardworking humble heroes and we never miss an opportunity to celebrate the community’s leadership in powdered grime production. Similarly, throughout the rainy winter and spring seasons, our mud industry thrives.
The world outside Hubert’s mobile home was the color of old straw. July had wedged itself into the atmospheric layer between pavement and the stratosphere; air weighed nearly twice as much as usual. Frenzied preparations for the upcoming Dust Festival placed a chokehold on the bowels of local authorities.
Constable Arlene dumped beans & franks into a saucepan set to simmer. The can opener’s whine had triggered dozens of cats, whose chorus climbed from teakettle pitch to ultrasonic. Arlene waded shin-deep into the living room, where soft-footed predators also swarmed her uncle’s floor, sofa, and coffee table. Feline breath displaced the alkaline air.
“So, how are you, sir?”
“Me?” said Hubert. “I get by. Better than some, probably.” He sipped his fifth or sixth cup of the day’s black coffee. “Better than your daddy, I expect.”
A light of violence flickered in Arlene’s eyes but she said nothing. Hubert didn’t notice; his attention pinballed itself to remote dates and locales.
“Could be worse. What about the time I kicked dirt over my third ex-wife?” he said, tight-faced. “Nice casket, nice service. She didn’t appreciate it, though. Kept hollering, wouldn’t shut up. Almost ruined her own funeral. Maybe I jumped the gun?”
Hubert shook and coughed. It wasn’t a seizure; he was laughing. After a minute the oldster’s features settled the way custard folds into a par-baked pie crust. He rubbed his tears.
“Never killed no perps when I was on the job,” he said. “Forty-nine years as constable without being shot. Stabbed, though. Just once. The guy yelled at me after because I was still alive.”
“I know, sir.”
Lucidity dealt Hubert a glancing blow. He pointed a finger the shape and color of uncooked breakfast sausage left out overnight.
“You has to stop dating them jailbirds! Aim higher. Make yourself less available. Quit doing kindnesses.”
Arlene’s cheeks burned. In her mind, and unbidden, floated brain-pictures of Dolly Everett’s arched eyebrows and pianist’s hands.
“Just because Councilman Everett’s wife sleeps in the lockup now and then,” said Arlene, “it don’t make her a criminal. She needs to be away from home sometimes…”
“Away from her husband and babies, you mean! Why do you fall for the bad ones, and her all married to the hilt? Pretty little filly such as yourself — some of them gals at Charlotte’s, them what say things, they say your prospects ought to be sky-high.”
“If the staff at Charlotte’s Salon & Barber wants to gab about my so-called behaviors, maybe I need to drop by and verify their licenses are in good order and up-to-date!”
“That’s my girl!” shouted Hubert. He beat the arms of his chair as if they were bongo drums. The cats, boiled by the commotion, resumed their mewling. “Get on out of here, Arlene Candace Nelson, and abuse your office a little bit. It’ll perk you up! Go make your uncle proud — and your famous daddy as well, wherever he is!”
Constable Arlene evacuated herself from the old man’s trailer and fired up her motor-scooter. Gravel ricocheted off sheet metal and pinged the living room window as she twisted the throttle and sped off. Last Chance’s best and only law enforcement officer rode in a cloud of dust, exhaust, and a dark mood. She’d concede one point to her uncle: there was no better tonic than writing a few tickets.
She parked her scooter in the Farm & Fleet’s loading zone; the building also housed Last Chance’s municipal offices ever since the Grange Hall got a termite fumigation tent. Next door, Carl’s Chicken Shack displayed a hand-written sign in its order window:
no public toilet
Bending to tie a bootlace, Arlene growled at the shimmer of cat hair wedded to her pressed uniform trousers. She licked her fingers and rubbed furiously at the stubborn fuzz until she heard an unfamiliar voice:
“I can make your problems disappear, officer!”
A stranger grinned. He appeared stocky but fit, fleshy yet firm; a bell pepper in human form. Without waiting for Arlene’s permission he ran a tiny paint roller device up and down the furred fabric once, twice, thrice, and the mess was gone, transferred to the sticky rotating cylinder. Meanwhile, Arlene gripped her hefty flashlight in one hand and a citation book in the other.
She drew a lung-snapping deep breath and said, “Sir, you invaded my pants’ personal space. I am fixing to ring your bell but professional guidelines dictate I warn you first.”
The man and his smile both froze right there in the street. His eyes — gentle, lovely ones they seemed to Arlene — grew as big as hubcaps.
“My deepest and most profound apologies!” he said. “I encountered a beautiful woman experiencing garment distress and I could not suppress my urge to assist. Please, can you forgive my presumption?”
“If forgiveness and arresting go together, so do spareribs and soap,” replied the constable, her voice as flat and brittle as a saltine cracker. “Who are you, sir, and what brings you to Last Chance?”
“My name is Durwood Ott. I am a purveyor of essentials, gimcracks, and baubles; a sharpener of dull edges, a singer of songs.” He waved a copy of The Last Chance Gazette & Intelligencer. “News of your Dust Festival has traveled and I came here to ply my trade, or so I believed.”
Durwood removed the battered, wide-brimmed hat from his bald noggin. He extended a hand, which Arlene caught with her own firm grip (contrary to departmental procedure and her own regular instincts). A spark sizzled but no one recoiled. Might have been an electrical jolt of the static persuasion, maybe it was something else.
“Well, now,” said Durwood. “Aren’t you intriguing!”
“A tinker,” whispered Constable Arlene. Her hand felt jazzy. “You had to be a tinker.”
He smiled, mistaking her meaning. “I prefer to say the profession chose me, not the inverse. Perhaps we could take a coffee together? I would be delighted to share with you my life’s story.”
“No, thank you, my official counteroffer is for you to vacate town at once or spend a few days in jail.”
“I did not intend to upset you! How selfish of me…we could talk about your story instead?”
“Mr. Ott, you stand in violation of Last Chance civil ordinance 326-A-2001 Sections 1 through 5, to wit: no hobo, grifter, drifter, transient, tinker, or any other classification of vagabond shall be permitted temporary or permanent residency within Last Chance’s jurisdiction. In smaller words, I am bound to escort you to yon outskirts or invite you to be locked up a spell.”
“May I ask you this: If I am to be incarcerated, will you be my jailer?”
“Yes, sir, it is my swore duty.”
Durwood laughed; not the way people do when a scooter’s front wheel drops into a damn pothole and pitches a constable over the handlebars, but more in the manner of expressing joy. Arlene’s fingers, all on their own, tucked some loose dark curls back up under her cap. The tinker held out his wrists in an unmistakable gesture of Coming Along Quietly.
“You locked up my heart from the moment I saw you brush cat hair from your leg. I surrender myself to your custody!”
Mr. Ott probably had a few regrets during the first few days of his incarceration, maybe missed his freedom or whatnot. As the years turned to decades, however, his affection for Constable Arlene grew stronger. Not once did he petition for release, or attempt an escape, even on weeks she left the lockup door open.
Similarly, Arlene’s fondness for her prisoner stuck like roofing cement. She spent long, pleasant hours in her office chair, adjacent to Last Chance’s fantastically aged and persistently dozing clerk “Frisky” Clinchett, and listened to her caged songbird. Durwood the tinker warbled about traipsing to distant places and having adventures and meeting improbable outcomes head-on. The shoosh of an unseen ocean hovered behind every one of his melodies.
Folks tend to settle in Last Chance and seldom depart, except under cover of darkness or frog-marched by the authorities. Constable Arlene had never left and was certain to remain. Latches of affection slip between gear cogs from low speed to high and in between, a fact known also to Dolly Everett.
Arlene Nelson struggled to visualize the size and shape of her fugitive daddy’s probable prison cell (as if any such structure of stone and metal could contain a legend). She wondered what song former-Mayor Lowell “Fuzzy” Nelson would sing to his only daughter, and whether chain gang sledgehammers could break asunder a big heart.
Image via Pixabay