The Scintilla Project. Day Eleven. Prompt Two: Tell a story that you haven’t told yet. Give it a different ending than the one that really happened. Don’t tell us where you start changing things. Just go.
“Oh Christ, what does this asshole want?”
I pulled over to the shoulder of the road. The cop pulled over behind me. The four lane highway was a major artery during the day, but at 10pm the road was deserted. The cop’s red and blue bubblegum lights were blindingly bright in the darkness.
The cop took his time getting out of the patrolcar. I had my seltbeat on – the law requiring seatbelts for front seat passengers became law around the time I got my license, so using my seatbelt was a well ingrained habit. My driver’s license was in my wallet, which was in the front pocket of my West German surplus army jacket. The car registration and insurance card were in the glove compartment of the massive 1974 Chevy Impala I was driving. I was going to have to wait for the cop to come to the driver’s side window before retrieving that documentation. I took my license out of my pocket while I was waiting.
Suddenly the front seat of the car was flooded with white light. I heard the cop speak before I could see him.
“License, registration and insurance.”
“I have my license right here,” I said as I offered the laminated card to the cop. “The registration and insurance are in the glove compartment.” I made an exaggerated gesture to remove my seatbelt. “I wanted to wait until you got here so you would know what I was looking for.”
The cop took a step away from the car and positioned himself behind my left shoulder. The flashlight beam illuminated the door of the glove compartment.
“Move slow and keep your hands where I can see them.”
“OK,” I said as I rummaged in the opened gloved compartment under a half finished carton of Marlboro Menthols. I pulled out several expired insurance cards and some receipts from earlier car repairs. Among the pile of crap, I found the current documents, sat upright and offered the credentials to the cop.
“Stay in the car,” he said as he walked back to his vehicle.
I was majorly fucked. About a year earlier I had gotten stopped for speeding. It was a huge fine in itself – I was doing 55mph in a 30mph zone – but I was a habitual speeder. With that last ticket came points against my license and surcharges to the state and on my insurance. The state of New Jersey had demanded $500 last September. I had ignored the request. Six weeks after the due date of that missed surcharge payment my license was suspended. I knew the cop was going to come back with that lovely little piece of information.
It seemed like it took forever for the cop to return from his car.
“This license was suspended in October?” It was sort of a question.
“Was it?” I responded. “I remember getting the notice to pay the surcharge, but I thought I paid it. I was leaving for school when it came. I must have thought I took care of it and forgot about it.”
“Could you step out of the car, please.” This time it wasn’t a question.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered.
“Step out of the car, please.”
I got out of the car.
“Put your hands on the hood of the car, please.”
The cop continued to speak in a crisp, monotonous tone, but I couldn’t really hear what he said. He pulled my arms behind me as he applied one handcuff and then the other. As he led me to his vehicle, I tried to adopt what I thought was a vaguely defiant posture. All I could think about was the nearby Vincentown Diner that was about two miles up the road and how glad I was that no one – not even complete strangers – could see that I was being arrested.
The municipal building of Lumberton Township was a utilitarian brick block. Inside the building the cinder block hallways were painted green from waist level down and yellow from where the green ended to the ceiling. Even the posters that encouraged citizens to stop for school buses, to give anonymous crime tips to the Town Watch, and to seek counseling if they were pregnant and on drugs seemed drab. The patrolman who brought me in walked me past a police dispatcher’s room and into a second room with a holding cell. He removed the handcuffs and asked me to step inside the cell.
“Have a good night, miss,” the cop said with an automatic tone as he closed the door. He probably said those words at the end of every routine traffic stop.
As I sat alone in that small cell I thought about what would happen next. The reason I didn’t pay the surcharge in the first place was because I couldn’t afford it. Now with, what? Court costs? Lawyer’s fees? Maybe additional penalties? I didn’t know what I was going to do. My mom didn’t have any money. If I couldn’t go to work, I wouldn’t have any money either.
After what seemed like an eternity of tripping over nightmare scenarios that would result in me being incarcerated for the rest of my life because of – because of a burnt out headlight. That’s why I was pulled over in the first place – the dispatcher came into the room and told me she was going to take me to the pay phone in the hallway. She asked if I had any change for the phone.
“Uh, no,” I said as I made a show of patting down my jacket. “I must have left all my money in the car.” I actually didn’t have any cash at all that night.
“Are you going to make a local call?” The dispatcher asked.
“No. My parents live in Gloucester City. In Camden County. I’ll have to call down there.”
The dispatcher opened the cell and led me to the phone. She gave me three quarters.
“You can talk until this runs out,” she said as she moved down the hallway between me and the exit door.
It must have been midnight. Maybe one in the morning. My mom wasn’t going to hear the phone in the kitchen ring from the upstairs bedroom. After four rings the answering machine picked up.
“Mom?” I said after the beep. My voice cracked. All attempts to look cool flew out the window as the tears started to roll down my face. “Mom, I’m in jail in Lumberton Township…”