The Dexters pull off the interstate highway about eleven. They have been on the road together all day and have not eaten since early afternoon, and even so Mrs. Dexter is remarkably friendly, meaning she is not looking around for something pointed to stab Dexter in the lap. They have been married a long time, the Dexters, and by now he knows when she is in the mood to wound. This is one of the benefits that comes with sticking it out with patience and maturity: Marital happiness on the road.
And while there is not space enough here to explain all the nuances of marital happiness on the road, Dexter offers this one pointer to get you started: separate vehicles. She is driving the fancy car, Dexter is driving what they call the new piece of shit. There is also an old piece of shit, which Dexter prefers, but the new piece of shit is a minivan and Mrs. Dexter is always thinking she may need it to haul lumber.
Thirty-odd years of marriage and the first stick of lumber has yet to be hauled.
In any case you are now with the Dexters early in the annual migration from the deserts of Arizona to the Puget Sound. Not that this isn’t still desert. A whole town the color of dust. It is June 4, 2013, an hour before midnight and it’s still 90 degrees.
Forty-five minutes later, Dexter is idling at a red light not far from the motel. With him in the front seat is a sack full of hamburgers for the dogs and another sack with two southwest chicken salads for people. The dogs and the cat and Mrs. Dexter are back at the motel waiting to eat. Mrs. Dexter’s mood notwithstanding, Dexter will have to be careful not to be bitten when he brings the sacks of food into the room, as everybody in the party gets a little frenzied when they haven’t been fed.
Anyway, as Dexter waits in the new piece of shit to turn left, an automobile bearing the seal of the City of Blythe pulls to a stop at the intersection from the opposite direction, and for half a minute the two vehicles wait out the light. Stoplights take a long time to change in Blythe, especially at night when there is no traffic.
Presently Dexter is flashed a green arrow and turns left, heading slowly up the street, as the motel entrance is only two or three hundred feet. The car showing the City of Blythe emblem pulls out behind him, and follows him—at 15 or 20 miles an hour—to the motel driveway and then into the parking lot. It is a busy night for sleeping in Blythe and the parking lot is full except for the space Dexter vacated 20 minutes earlier. He pulls in, turns off his engine and starts to get out. This is when the officer turns on the lights on top.
As Dexter emerges from the piece of shit, the officer of the law begins to yell—strangely angry, if you can judge these things in the dark. He says get back in the car.
“Sir, get back in the car.”
Dexter turns to get back in the car. It takes a little while, though—he has been behind the wheel all day and very few of his moving parts are smoothly working. This further provokes the officer, whose voice takes on a vague hysteria, which, when added to the anger, has a sudden, familiar feel, and it occurs to Dexter that if he’d come out of the vehicle holding the sacks from McDonald's, he might very well be remembered forever as a man who brought McDonald's southwest chicken salad to a gunfight—that is to say Dexter has been seriously injured several times in his life due to underestimating people’s animus. Lights are going on now in the motel rooms.
Dexter gets back in the car. Time slows, five minutes, ten minutes. He looks in the rear view mirror and sees the policeman is on his radio. Presently the officer emerges from the shadows and approaches the piece of shit. Which isn’t actually a piece of shit per se but in comparison to Mrs. Dexter’s fancy's car it is. It is in fact a Toyota minivan, packed to the gills with books and manuscripts and clothes, plus everything too dear for Mrs. Dexter to leave in Arizona for the summer.
The officer who has followed Dexter into the motel parking lot has a vaguely lopsided forehead and an unnatural-looking muscularity, which, together with his breath and the sudden, unreasonable yelling, suggests steroids, at least to Dexter. The officer takes his license, registration and proof of insurance, and heads back to the patrol car. Time passes. Luckily the dogs don’t mind eating cold hamburgers.
The officer of suspicious muscularity reappears and begins a conversation with the observation that it took Dexter a long time to pull over. Dexter begins his end of the conversation with the observation that the officer hadn’t put on his lights until Dexter was already parked. The officer pauses, then, clearly not sure if he did or didn’t, and begins to improvise. “I had my lights on. I only dimmed them when I came into. . .”
He changes the subject: what are you doing around here? Just passing through? The van, as mentioned, is a piece of shit, but it’s a piece of shit with up-to-date Washington state license plates, sitting in a parking place in a motel. Is he expected to confess?
“You know why I pulled you over?” the officer says. Now Dexter admits he’s stumped. “You’re driving around with your brights on,” the officer says. “Blinding everybody.”
This is not true. First of all, the McDonald’s is only two or three blocks from the motel, and the cruiser was the only car Dexter met on the way back. Second, Dexter turns the engine back on and shows him the lights are still low beams. He blinks them against the motel wall. Bright, dim. Third, if the cop had blinked his own lights at the intersection, Dexter, who is not entirely stupid, would have blinked back. Still trying to be reasonable, Dexter offers the suggestion that the extra weight in back is casting his beams to cast at a higher angle.
The officer says, “Sir, extra weight doesn’t make you turn on your bright lights.”
Dexter says, “They do too.”
And the cop says, “No they don’t. Your lights were on bright.”
And Dexter says, “They were not.”
“Were not . . .”
The ticket was $238.
In order to plead not guilty Dexter has to pay the fine. This he does. He pays the fine, he pleads not guilty, he files a complaint with the police department.
As it happens, this is the week that the Riverside County courthouse quits answering its telephones. A budget move, apparently. All communication with the court now has to be accomplished through the Internet or the U. S. Postal Service. Believing as he does that the Internet and e-mail and Facebook are the end of human grace, and maybe the race, Dexter writes letters. There is also the matter that he does not know Facebook from shit-faced.
So Dexter sits down at his desk and writes a detailed complaint about the officer. He writes three requests to the court for a change of trial date due to his distance from the jurisdiction—which he is entitled to under California law—two letters requesting an exemption to the regular rules regarding proper court attire, along with an offer to provide medical diagnosis of a shingles-like condition that affects his legs when he wears grown-up pants. None of the letters are ever specifically acknowledged.
About the same time, however, Dexter receives a letter from the Superior Court of Riverside County setting a new trial date. October 11, the very date Dexter requested in his letters.
It is 1,481 miles from Dexter’s Puget Sound front door to the Riverside County Courthouse. A day before Dexter begins the drive he writes another letter—his sixth—to the court, announcing his intention to appear at trial, and sends it overnight Federal-Express to the court. The letter includes a cell phone number where Dexter can be reached on the road if there are any problems.
This letter is ignored for ten days, then stamped REJECTED and sent back to Dexter at home. By then, of course, he has driven to Blythe, where he is informed that he is not on the court docket, and cannot come into the courtroom in shorts. Even though they are his best Ralph Lauren Polo shorts and cost eighty dollars, which is enough to pay for one third of the trip from the hotel to McDonalds. What to do?
He spots a deputy clerk who claims to be the highest authority in the building. She looks at the letter from the court indicating the trial date and asks if Dexter “made that up” himself. The letter, as mentioned, is on Superior Court stationery, but is not signed by a judge. Dexter asks to speak with the judge and the deputy clerk says, “Nobody talks to the judge.”
Dexter asks the deputy clerk for the judge’s name so that he can properly address a letter of complaint, and she says, “You don’t need that information.”
“I need to call her something,” he says.
“You can call her ‘The Honorable,’” she says.
The Police station is a block or two from the courthouse. Before Dexter and the sergeant who handles complaints can talk, the sergeant wants Dexter to watch a tape. The video shows a black man who is pulled over beside a two-lane road. The man gets out of his car, walks toward the police car and starts shooting.
The sergeant asks if Dexter still wants to make a complaint.
Still believing there is some middle ground between a $238 chicken salad and cold-blooded murder, Dexter says he would like to continue the conversation. He also asks if the officer himself might be in attendance, a request that is rejected on the spot. Against procedure. The sergeant and Dexter talk informally a few minutes before the sergeant starts the tape recorder, and in this conversation the sergeant seems to be making the case that police are human beings too. Dexter’s letter apparently hurt the officer’s feelings. Because of the letter, at least, the officer involved doesn’t want to make traffic stops anymore.
The sergeant also mentions that Dexter had called the officer “a melon-head or something.” But this is not quite true. What Dexter referred to was the officer’s “exaggerated musculature . . . the melon-like, welted forehead and bitter distinctive breath.” All characteristics of chronic steroid use, along with sudden, often unprovoked temper tantrums, which are common enough to have their own name: roid rages.
It turns out it was all a waste of time. According to the police, unless the officer had attacked Dexter physically, or insulted his race, sexuality or age—crossed the line on a specific ism—there was no basis for complaint. Rudeness, bullying, shouting carries no weight, nor does the correctness of the charge.
A few months later Dexter was officially notified that the police investigation of the police had found the police blameless. A long, detailed letter to the judge was never answered. And this is how it ends.
Meeting with Dexter, the sergeant betrayed a certain annoyance with the waste of his time, while but at the same time seemed to find a certain beauty in the system.
“If you disagree with the officer,” he says, “you can always go to court.”