Outside the downtown dive from which she’d just been ejected, Enid danced alone. She bobbed and swayed and sweated, performing her signature sloppy bounce to a distant techno beat, while grinning in defiance at the big blank sky. No way would she let this latest humiliation ruin a reprieve from what Hank had called her wrong-way life.
Then a Metro cop rolled up and parked himself right in the middle of it.
“Afternoon, ma’am,” he said, not in a friendly way, after climbing out of his cruiser.
She watched him amble over to the news rack, which was stuffed with pornographic flyers. Here he struck a no-nonsense cop pose: legs spread, thumbs hooked to duty belt, pecs flexed. His dimples undermined him completely. He resembled the beefy stripper she’d hired to perform at her grandma’s bachelorette party. That guy had also shown up in uniform and aviators, with a badge and a nightstick.
“Buy me a drink,” Enid said, tilting her pelvis his way.
He gazed thoughtfully at a lamppost as the late-summer sun blasted down its disorienting rays. Fremont Street stood empty behind him. From a nearby alley came the sound of a garbage truck filling its hopper. From around the corner, the smell of chicken frying.
“Seems like you’ve had enough,” he said.
“Liar, liar, plants on fire,” she said.
“More than enough,” he said.
“We’ve all had more than enough!” She threw her arms open, as if to embrace the entire neighborhood, all of Las Vegas, the universe. Two homeless men squatting in the shade of the bus shelter shook their heads at her, soberly.
“Good point,” said the cop, whose face had begun to flush in the heat, and for a few seconds, Enid thought she had won.
“But you’re the only one taking off her pants.”
He pointed his sculpted chin at the neon Cocktails sign from which her jeggings hung. She’d tossed them there a while ago, underhanded, the way she might a horseshoe.
Now she made the mistake of assuming the fighting stance her dad had taught her long ago so she could defend herself against middle-school bullies. She squinted and puckered and twirled her fists at the cop, expecting him to take it as a joke. She stood barely five feet tall, after all, and wore giraffe-print panties. She’d recently dyed her spiky hair a nonthreatening lavender. But before she knew it, he’d grabbed her, cuffed her fists behind her back, and marched her to the cruiser.
He smelled so good, though, like campfires and cheesesteak. She asked him what he was wearing.
“Bulletproof vest,” he said. Then palmed her head and mashed her into the stifling backseat. On the way in, she caught a glimpse of his bronze nametag: J. Rufus Plyler.
Inside, her bare legs stuck to the rigid plastic seat. The cuffs pinched her wrists. She felt her spirits flag and a headache coming on. She’d intended to spend the day forgetting her troubles. Instead, she’d added another to the list.
She pictured a disapproving Mavis, her mom, scowling in her Phoenix apartment for singles over fifty.
Outside, the homeless men smirked. A gaggle of tourists in Hawaiian shirts sauntered into the bar. The indifferent world went on spinning.
An acrylic divider separated the cruiser’s front and rear seats. At its center, a sliding window that reminded Enid of the drive-thru at McDonald’s. The A/C was blasting, but not much cool air reached her in the backseat. She longed for gin with a splash of tonic.
“I’m real parched, Rufus,” she said.
“J. Rufus.” He hunted-and-pecked something into his dash-mounted computer. “But you can call me Officer.”
He shifted the cruiser into drive, made a slow-motion U-turn, and steered leisurely west toward the county jail. They rode past a group of truant schoolkids punching each other on the sidewalk. A woman holding a baby and a lit cigarette. A man in gym shorts with a pistol strapped to his hip. Each of them, it seemed to Enid, posing a greater threat to public safety than she did. Life was unfair, as Mavis loved reminding her.
Rufus idled at an empty crosswalk for what felt like an hour before slowly rolling through it.
“You drive like a grandma,” Enid muttered. (Though not like her grandma, who would have made a first-rate racecar driver, even if she did need a booster seat to see over the steering wheel.)
She now tried to slide her cuffed wrists from the back of her body to the front by way of her butt, which she once saw a chubby guy manage on Cops. It turned out to be way harder than it looked. Maybe because of her curvy caboose—one of the few things Hank used to appreciate about her. Or maybe because stubby T-rex arms ran in the family.
It would have been a hollow victory, anyhow, she knew. She was screwed either way.
Rufus lowered his aviators to surveil her in the rearview mirror. “Stop squirming around back there,” he said. His dark naked eyes turned her on. She winked at him before remembering, with a pang, that her own eyes were still recovering from their latest bout of conjunctivitis.
“Where to?” she then asked, though she knew where to. This wasn’t her first involuntary rodeo.
“I mean, what’s the charge?”
Rufus raised a finger in the air. “Disorderly conduct,” he said.
He raised another finger. “Resisting arrest.”
This made no sense to Enid, and not because of all the alcohol she’d consumed today. In fact, her drunkenness had rapidly dissipated, in inverse proportion to her desperation.
The cruiser crawled past a dusty paid-parking lot, a low-rent apartment complex, and the old Western Hotel, where Mavis played bingo when she came to town.
Maybe, thought Enid, if she told J. Rufus her whole sorry story—minus a few key redactions—he’d change his mind. Pity being a powerful motivator.
“My dad recently died,” she said, though he’d drunk himself into the grave more than three years ago.
“And somebody stole my rent money,” she said, though she’d actually lost it in a single boozy hour at the blackjack table.
“Plus, my boss is cheating on me with Mindy, the bread girl.”
Hank would have quibbled with this last point, she knew. He’d actually broken up with Enid weeks ago, after she gave his friend Marco an accidental blowjob at the waterpark. It stung just the same. These days, Hank and Mindy spent whole afternoons sequestered together in the supply room, home to a sturdy couch and a mini-fridge full of wine coolers, while Enid tried not to cry at the cash register.
“Nobody buys bread at The Dollar Store, anyhow,” she said.
This somehow inspired J. Rufus to slam the brakes, crank the steering wheel, and screech the cruiser to the side of the road while nearly sideswiping a cab on its way to the El Cortez. He shoved the gearshift into park, whirled around in his seat, and whipped off his aviators. His eyes looked to Enid like broody roasted almonds. His dimples brought to mind fleshy miniature sinkholes. He was showering her with the kind of undivided attention she definitely wasn’t used to.
She belched uncertainly.
“This Mindy chick, she got big boobs?” He made the universal sign for them. “Gargoyle tattoo?” He pointed toward his crotch. “Delivers bread to the 7-Eleven on Bonanza?”
Enid could testify only to the boobs but nodded to be agreeable. “Pretty sure they’re fake.”
Rufus showed her his pretty teeth before gleefully slapping the seatback. He replaced his aviators, twisted back around, and tapped something into his cellphone.
“Where to?” Enid asked again because it seemed like plans had suddenly changed.
“To meet a guy at Circle Park,” J. Rufus said. “Quick detour.”
He switched on the lights and siren, made another U-turn, and then started driving like her grandma, racing the cruiser east, back toward Maryland Parkway. Enid braced herself as best she could as they passed the bar where her jeggings still hung like a flag honoring debauchery.
She hadn’t been to a city park since The Dollar Store’s employee picnic at which she’d sat alone, barfing into her own Styrofoam cooler.
Her stomach growled.
“Hope you brought hotdogs,” she said.
They arrived in thirty seconds. J. Rufus parked sideways next to a police motorcycle whose diminutive rider stood cradling his helmet beneath a droopy nearby tree. Officer No. 2’s face looked to Enid like a mismatched collection of face-parts. It included a scrunchie mouth, button-hole eyes, and a wispy porno mustache. He looked mean but relatively harmless, like an angry hamster. The park’s only other visitors were a leathery man and woman lying together on the lawn by the bathrooms, with four beat-up suitcases and a skinny calico cat.
“Stay put or I’ll tase you,” J. Rufus cheerfully intoned as he exited the cruiser. He took the keys and didn’t bother cracking a window. If she died of heatstroke, Enid figured, he probably wouldn’t even get demoted.
The empty playground depressed her. At one end sat a graffiti-tagged water fountain. At the other, a rusty shopping cart. Out on Maryland, traffic was sparse. Where was everybody, midafternoon on a Tuesday? Or was it Wednesday? The cloudless sky felt like a betrayal. She envied J. Rufus his homely officer friend. Nobody would have agreed to meet Enid at the park, aside from maybe her grandma, if she had happened to live nearby.
She really related to her jeggings right now, hanging back there from the Cocktails sign, hollow and abandoned.
“Poetic,” she said. Nobody was around to argue.
Outside, J. Rufus pointed his sculpted chin at her while No. 2 stared at the ground, shaking his shrunken head. Enid couldn’t hear their conversation, but the context was clear because J. Rufus kept making the universal sign for big boobs. Eventually, No. 2’s face contorted in a way that made him even uglier. Then he hurled his helmet at a park bench, spun around like an enraged ballerina, and punched the tree.
Rufus gave him a couple of there, there slaps on the shoulder.
All of which Enid understood to mean Mindy the bread bitch got around.
This should have made her feel better. Instead, it reminded her how small a big town like Vegas could sometimes feel. As small as the no-stoplight Utah town she’d moved here to escape a couple years ago. Her claustrophobic hometown, full of horseshit and hypocrisy, where nobody ever forgot anybody’s humiliating history. (Too many calamitous nights, in Enid’s case, remorseful days, broken vows and bottles and bones. Enough associative shame to drive Mavis all the way to Phoenix.)
Enid had come to Vegas hoping to manifest a bright alternate future for herself, flush with potential and purpose, neon and gold. Only to discover, as had countless transplants before her, how hard it was to step out of your own shitty shadow.
No. 2 scooped up his helmet and tore off on his motorcycle. J. Rufus stayed under the tree a minute, adjusting his crotch, while sweat poured down Enid’s back. When he returned to the cruiser, his woodsy smell hit her afresh.
It reminded her of the last time she went camping with Dad and Grams, maybe five years ago, when Dad was still alive and Grams between husbands three and four. The woods that night had been dark and friendly. A cool breeze had caressed their skin as crickets serenaded them from afar. They drank—three generations of drunks—until Dad fell into the fire and singed his mustache. Grams had doused him with rum-and-Diet Pepsi, then hoisted herself onto a boulder to perform a modified Macarena, her Lucky Strike aloft, her wig askew, while Enid spotted her from the ground like a gymnastics coach. Dad had clapped along as best he could and then peed on the fire.
Quality family times like those would never come again, she thought.
“That felt fantastic.” J. Rufus said, pumping a fist. “That guy’s an absolute asshat.”
Enid exercised her right to remain silent.
What a brilliant question, she thought, while also doubting he actually cared. He couldn’t have related, anyway, having never been left cuffed and sweltering (she assumed) in the back of his own police car.
Now he deployed his dimples in the rearview mirror.
“Talk to me, Giraffes.”
This proved he’d taken a good look at her undies. Such attention flattered her more in theory. In reality, it leaned more to creepy.
When she didn’t respond, he shrugged and started the cruiser.
“I’m gonna need your address,” he said.
A jolt of panic shot through Enid. All the fantasies she’d recently entertained about him evaporated. Quick detour, she thought, dreading whatever brand of coercion he had planned for her place. She really missed her jeggings right now, not to mention her freedom.
“Let’s get this show on the road.” He adjusted his aviators and shifted the cruiser into drive. “Where do you live?”
Enid felt like throwing up. She wanted to disappear. The worst part about this sick situation was knowing she’d gotten herself into it through a series of questionable—OK, undeniably bad—choices. If only she’d signed up for that impulse-control class Mavis had repeatedly recommended.
Rufus cocked his head. “You know I’m going to drop you there, right?”
His gross handsome face turned her stomach. She looked out the window, at the leathery couple by the bathrooms, and wished their plans for the rest of the day included rescuing her. Where did they intend to go with all those suitcases, anyway? Far away from this cruel city, she hoped, for their sakes.
“Hello?” J. Rufus snapped his fingers in the open window between their seats. “You hear me? You’re getting a pardon.”
Whoa, thought Enid. Wait a minute. What was he saying? About granting her a pardon? Letting her go?
Could he even do that? Set her free, on her own recognizance, with no strings attached? When she’d allegedly disturbed the peace or whatever? When she’d supposedly resisted arrest?
He couldn’t—wouldn’t—do that. He had to be joking. Was he joking?
But she could tell, by the set of his chiseled jaw and the arch of his ample eyebrows, that he was not, in fact, joking.
Her heart leapt in her chest the way she might have leapt into the air if she hadn’t been cuffed and trapped in J. Rufus’s backseat. She felt suddenly lightheaded.
He was setting her free!
Which, now that she thought about it, made perfect sense. Hadn’t she provided the priceless intel that had enabled him to ruin his frenemy’s day? Hadn’t she earned the right to go on her unfettered way? Had the justice system worked, after all?
What an amazing turn of events, she thought. Out of nowhere, she’d landed the unlikeliest of get-out-of-jail-free cards. She’d overcome odds longer than those of winning a million bucks on a convenience-store slot machine. She’d become the hero of her own life, just as all the ladies’ magazines advised.
The sky outside looked even brighter somehow, the park less run down. Was that a bird she heard chirping?
She really regretted the paranoid thoughts she’d just been thinking about noble J. Rufus. Thank goodness she’d shared none of them out loud. Overall, though, this was her first big win in a long, long time—maybe ever. She couldn’t wait to tell anyone she could convince to listen.
“Where to?” J. Rufus said.
“The Sunflower,” she told him.
He frowned, and she didn’t blame him. Regular visitors to her complex included the health department and the SWAT team. Still, she’d made a few decent memories with Hank on the worn mattress in her windowless room.
Oh, Hank, she thought. They’d been so good together, for a while. He’d liked her enough to forgive the drinking, the no-shows, and the poor customer service she provided. She’d loved him enough to overlook his prematurely bald spot, his dead tooth, and the way he’d always agreed with Mavis. Their bodies had fit perfectly together those few nights he’d let her sleep over in the sweet suburban townhouse he shared with his mom.
Sure, in the beginning, she’d thought of him as little more than a pitstop on the road to unidentified better things. But losing him now felt like a major wrong turn. Like she’d lost all sight of the road. Like the guardrails had come off her wrong-way life.
These thoughts killed whatever remained of her buzz.
“What’s wrong?” J. Rufus asked again, and his voice sounded different this time. Enid almost didn’t recognize what sounded like actual compassion. It amazed her, the way he was squinting at her over his aviators in the rearview mirror, as if genuinely interested in what she, a screwup by any measure, might have to say. As if he somehow recognized her, even in handcuffs and panties, with her proclivity for pinkeye and self-sabotage, as a fellow human being worthy of consideration.
This inspired her to spontaneously start spilling everything—including much of the redacted stuff—because she felt like he just might understand. Like maybe he wouldn’t even judge her.
She told him the truth about her recent and distant pasts, her many previous infractions, Hank and the unfortunate incident at the waterpark. She apologized for lying about how she’d lost her rent money and when she’d lost her dad. And she admitted to being terrified of ending up like him, her dad, whom everybody ominously told her she took after.
She shouldn’t burden J. Rufus with all of this, she knew, not after everything he’d done for her. It wasn’t first-date material. And she worried it might destroy any chance that he’d accept the friend request she planned to send tomorrow, no pressure. But her mouth wouldn’t stop saying words. Her eyes were leaking all over the place. She got sentimental when she drank, and even more reckless. Maybe Mavis and Hank were right, she thought; maybe she did make her own problems. And maybe she should seriously consider this sometime, instead of always changing the subject or bolting.
She told J. Rufus all of this and more that day at Circle Park, while handcuffed and sniffling on his plastic backseat. And he just sat there and listened, even as the afternoon traffic began to thicken on Maryland and the leathery man and woman rose and stretched their arms overhead and slowly gathered their suitcases and their calico and left the park, a real family on its way to a new home someplace, she hoped. He just sat and listened, without taking his bedroom eyes off of her there in the mirror, except once, briefly, while shifting the cruiser back to park.