It is getting dark, and the road is long, and I have to get to Lake Far. My old pickup rattles. I swallow my fear that it will break down out here, where there is nothing but flatland from horizon to horizon. I have already been driving for hours, and I will be driving most of the night. I silently curse my life for leading me into a job like mine. But a child is being born in Lake Far, and they need a midwife, and that is what I do.
The twilight deepens. The drive becomes hypnotic, dreamlike. I talk aloud to no one, longing for the sound of a human voice. No radio stations reach this far, and there won’t be a town for hours. I think of the mother-to-be, hoping that her pain will not be too great. Hoping that all will go well for her and her baby. I wish I had some way to tell her I’m on my way. Then I think of my own home miles behind me. My grandmother and my child finishing supper. Let’s watch a horror movie, Gram will say. Since your Mom isn’t home. And Gertie will say Yes! Oh, yay! They know how much I hate frightening movies. The thought of them makes me smile.
At last, I see a sign ahead. Lake Far, it says, but bullet holes have damaged it too badly for me to see the miles. Men come out here at times, to shoot. And somewhere out in the desert are lonesome clusters of cabins, not quite towns. Desert people like the silence and the awesome vastness of this place, but it fills me with loneliness and longing for home.
I sing to myself to stave off my terror of being lost out here, or stranded.
And then there are lights. Red, blue, blinding, they flash in my rearview mirror. I flinch. Where could a police car have been hiding? There are no trees here, and I haven’t passed a boulder bigger than a doghouse for miles. I pull over, and the old fear of police, of what they’re capable of, settles in the center of my chest.
I roll my window down, and search for my drivers’ license in my messy bag.
“Good evening, officer.” I use my talking-to-a-cop voice, ultra polite and as affable as if greeting an old acquaintance. My stomach is knots. Out here, what could a police officer get away with? Anything, it seemed. He could do anything.
“Ma’am, do you know how fast you were driving?”
I do, but I say I don’t.
“I clocked you at 80. That’s 15 above the speed limit.” He is a handsome man, I think, his features chiseled. He is holding a black leather binder and has a star on his chest. He seems proud, as cops often are, of being a police officer.
“I guess I was worried,” I said. “A lady is giving birth up in Lake Far, and I’ve got to get there A.S.A.P.”
“You a doctor?”
“Important work. But you still can’t speed.”
“Yes. I realize that,” I say, trying to sound apologetic. Just write me the damn ticket, I think. Just do that and let me go. I wonder what the money will come out of. Rent? Groceries? Heat? A new pair of shoes for Gertie?
He looks off to the side, as if peering at an object in the distance, considering something. His silhouette against the twilit sky is perfect, like an old-fashioned cameo.
He says, “We have a thing we do here. It’s called a ride-along. Not a civilian riding along with the police, like you hear about, but an officer riding with a civilian. We check how the person’s driving, make sure they use their blinker, follow the rules of the road, that sort of thing. If they do, we let them off with a warning. How’s that sound? It’s a good way to avoid a $100 ticket.”
“I’ve never heard of that,” I say.
“It’s something we do here.”
I nod toward his car.
“What about that?”
“Someone at the precinct will come for it.”
I say all right then. I don’t want the man in my truck. I don’t want him in my world, observing, making notes in his black leather binder. But I don’t have the money to pay a ticket.
The officer just leaves his car parked on the side of the road. Where anyone with a grudge could burn it, I think. He climbs into my pickup with his black binder, and I take off, as cautiously as if I’m driving with a load of hair-trigger bombs.
“How far should I take you, officer?” I say accelerating oh-so-slowly.
“Up to the precinct.”
“Where would that be?”
“Just up a ways.”
I’ve been here before. There are no towns forever, and I’ve never seen a building. I frown at him, then remember I should be paying attention to my driving. He drums his fingers on his binder, maybe thinking of how many demerits I get for taking my eyes off the road.
We drive on in a silence that seems to get larger and larger.
“You got kids?” he asks out of the blue.
“One. A girl. Ten.”
“Where would that be?”
“Back in San Hugo.”
“San Hugo. Out by the salt flats.”
“By the salt flats, yes.”
Then we are silent again. Awhile later, he asks about my husband and I tell him he’s dead. Rengo isn’t dead, just dead to me, gone who-knows-where these nine years, but I don’t say that.
I don’t know how much time has passed when a shape emerges in the road ahead. I swerve, my heart pounding, nearly go off the road, but manage to stay on the pavement, and pull over to the side, my truck fishtailing. The shape turns out to be a woman wearing a thin dress with no shoes, walking slowly in the middle of the road, as if unaware of her surroundings.
“What the hell,” I say. “What is she doing walking alone out here.?
The officer shakes his head. “It’s the desert people. They wander. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen them moving about like they’re in some sort of trance.”
He gets out of the truck. In my rearview mirror, I see his flashlight go on. He shines it at the woman, who is now standing at the side of the road. From where I sit in the cab of my pickup, she is just a black form. Then I think of the officer’s binder. I’ve been wondering what he has in there. I glance over my shoulder and see him talking to the woman, so I slide the binder toward me and open it.
There are maybe fifty loose-leaf pages in it. Each one has the name of a person, along with a date, but nothing else. Next to each name, a picture is stapled, a glossy polaroid-type photo, like ones that were popular years in the 70s. But the pictures are all blank, just milky white squares. I turn one page then the next, and all the photos are the same. I read the names. They are all women’s names, I notice. I thumb through several to see a Bob or a Jim, but don’t find a single male.
I hear a pop like a gunshot, and jump. I look over my shoulder to see the officer walking back toward the pickup. I close the binder and slide it back where he left it.
The officer opens the door and climbs in.
“What was that?” I say. “It sounded like gunfire.”
“It was the desert, is all,” he says. “It does that sometimes. Makes noises. If you spend much time out here, you get used to it.” But I have never heard sound like that before, not in the desert or anywhere else, that wasn’t gunshot.
I keep driving on and on, but now the road seems wrong somehow. It seems unfamiliar, as if I’ve never been on it before. I have, though, haven’t I? I’ve been on this road before I say to myself, but I can’t remember. When was I here? What could have brought me this way?
It is fully dark now, and the stars are coming out, so many of them, filling the desert sky with their cold light.
“Why are you going to Lake Far?” the officer asks me.
I look at him, not caring that I’m taking my eyes of the road.
“I don’t remember,” I say. “I had a reason. I must have.” I remember a sense of urgency, but even that memory fades as I think about it.
“It’s all right,” the officer says. “It’s the way it works out here in the desert sometimes. Reasons vanish. Memories get tangled.”
I think to myself that I have to keep going, but I don’t know why. What would stop me from turning around and heading back where I came from. Wherever that was.
“You have kids?” the officer says.
“No,” I say. “I dreamed I had one once, but when I woke up, the dream was gone.”
The police officer nods. “Good then. Good.”
Hours or maybe minutes later, a building appears by the side of the road, a small cube of adobe with yellow light pouring from the windows.
“The precinct,” the officer says.
“I’ve never seen this building before,” I say.
“You don’t always notice things if you’re not looking for them. Now come with me, please.”
I ask him why and he says, “Paperwork.”
In the precinct, there are twenty or so officers. They are sitting behind desks, stamping papers. They are standing at counters. They are walking with black leather binders. They are all handsome, I think. They all look remarkably like the officer who rode with me. Then I realize they all look exactly like him.
I turned to him. “What is this place?”
“I told you. The precinct.” He smiles at me with his even teeth, but his eyes are emotionless.
“I’m going to go now,” I say. “I’ve got to get out of here.” A memory flickers. Something is waiting for me at Lake Far. Something urgent. I look around, and my head clears. This place is wrong. These men are wrong. Police officers don’t ride with civilians. They don’t leave their patrol cars on the side of roads in the desert. I back away from the officer, who is still smiling. I leap at him, grab his binder, and run. The officers surround me. They are all smiling the identical smile. I manage to open the black binder to the pages with the women’s names and dates and the blank photos. They do not stop me. As I turn the pages, I noticed the photos are changing. Images begin to emerge like photographs soaking in developing solution. A woman lying dead on the ground, eyes open and sightless, looking slightly surprised as if she never expected death, not that moment, not that way. Next a woman lying on a table. Another on a tile floor. Another on a patch of grass. Another on the steps of a school. All dead.
“What is this?” I scream, waving the binder in the air. “What are you?”
They don’t answer. They don’t move. I lean back against the wall. I rip through the pages, one after the other. When I come to the last, I find my name and, below it, a blank photo waiting to be developed.
Jill Jepson is the author of two books, Writing as a Sacred Path (Ten Speed Press) and Women’s Concerns (Peter Lang) and 65 essays, articles, and short stories. Her work has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Porter House Review, The Writing Disorder, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Aloha Magazine, among other publications.